A common question asked by families is: why did it take so long for our loved ones to return to Italy?
I have heard one suggestion: that the Australian government wanted to use Italian prisoners of war as ‘slave’ labour for an extra year. This is incorrect. *
A ‘big picture’ approach must be taken to this complex issue.
559,000 held in captivity by the Allied Forces
650,000 held in German prisoner of war camps
60,000 held in Russian prisoner of war camps
TOTAL: 1,260,000 Italian prisoners of war to be repatriated to Italy
How does the Italian government and Italian military receive and process these numbers.
Each man repatriated had to be processed at the point of entry into Italy. For the Italians in Australia, this was Naples. Each man had to present himself to the Accommodation Centre (referred to as San Martino in Naples) for the processing of his documentation and his arrival. Financial settlement of accounts. Two months leave with pay was granted and documented and these individual files would need to be lodged centrally and also forwarded to the closest military centre for each man.
How will these men be transported and what are the logistics in returning 559,000 from the corners of the world by boat; 710,000 by road or rail.
The Australian Situation:
The arrangement of shipping suitable to transport several thousand Italian prisoners of war at a time, together with an Australian Armed Forces Guard was not a simple process.
Shipping passages had been heavily mined during the war. Mine clearance was slow and tedious.
Australia was at the end of the line. One would think that shipping c. 18,000 was a simple task compared with shipping several hundred thousand from USA.
*Australian Authorities wanted ‘slave labour’? NO.
At the end of 1945 and beginning of 1946, Italian prisoners of war were withdrawn from farm work. There were two reasons: to have the Italians ready for repatriation AND to free up jobs for returned Australian soldiers.
Farmers in some districts asked for a delay in the removal of the Italian farm workers until after the summer harvest. This was the case in the Stanthorpe district of Queensland.
The Australian authorities had an accommodation problem. Capacity for Cowra Camp 4000; Hay Camp 3000; Murchison Camp 4000; Marrinup Camp 1500; Sandy Creek Camp 600. Loveday Internment Camp SA was re-opened in 1946 for prisoner of war and Northam Army Camp WA was used as a prisoner of war camp.
The Australian authorities did establish small hostels at Australian Military sites which served two purposes: additional housing of Italians outside of the barbed wire camps AND utilisation of labour on camp maintenance. Psychological and physically this situation was more favourable than sitting in Cowra Camp or Murchison Camp…. WAITING….
Additionally, those families whose loved ones returned to Italy in February 1947 are probably unaware of the previous repatriations: 30.7.46 Moreton Bay, 24.9.46 Chitral, 6.10.46 SS Katoomba, 8.11.46 Strathmore, 30.11.46 Rangitata, 12.12.46 Empire Clyde, 14.12.46 Moreton Bay, 23.12.46 Alcantara, 31.12.46 Ormonde. The 1947 repatriations: 10.1.47 Otranto and 21.1.47 Orontes.
The following newspaper article provides an insight into the situation.
Lack of Ships Holds Up Italian P.O.Ws
NONE REPATRIATED BEFORE 1946
Repatriation of 13,000 Italian P.O.W.s from Australia is expected to begin early next year if shipping is available.
A start is to be made within a few weeks on the return of 150,000 Italians from Britain but Australia will be slower because of transport difficulties.
Withdrawal of the 1800 prisoners on Victorian farms will begin within the next 10 days but will not be completed until March. First to be withdrawn will be those who have been employed by the Department of commerce and have lived in hostels in vegetable growing areas. Next will be those who have been living on the farms in which they are employed. All the 13,000 when withdrawn will be returned to internment until they can sail. Their withdrawal was ordered by the Commonwealth because of fears that their continued employment might prejudice Australians, particularly servicemen, seeking work. [Herald (Melbourne, Vic.: 1981-1954), Saturday 10 November 1945, page 5.]
The Complexity of Repatriation
In December 1946, Commander Alfredo MORONE of the Italy Navy was sent to Australia by the Italian Government.
In a prepared statement Commander Morone outlines the administrative and financial aspects pertaining to repatriation. His statement is comprehensive: Ufficio di Collegamente: Per I Prigionieri di Guerra Italiani in Australia.
The documents are in Italian and English and obtained from National Archives of Australia: NAAMP742/1, 255/18/591.