Category Archives: Italian Internees

What have you done with your beautiful beard?

Guido Motolese was a surgeon serving on the Romolo in 1940. From June 1940 until November 1946, Motolese was interned as a prisoner of war in Australia.

In October 1949, Dr Motolese was now working on the Italian liner Toscana and returned to Australia.

The newspaper article from Age reports the meeting of the former prisoner of war and major from Loveday and Myrtleford POW Camps with the former army captain and paymaster of Loveday Internment Camp.

Mr Gallasch welcomed Dr Motolese with the words, “What have you done with your beautiful beard?”

What have you done with your beautiful beard?

Myrtleford, Australia. 5 November 1943. Group of Italian officer prisoners of war (POW) interned at No. 5 POW Camp. Back row, left to right: Gregorio Castigli; Bruno Grazioli; Vittoria (aka Antonio) Vagnini; Crita; Renzo Conti; Vittorio Poggioli. Front row: Lino Gardenghi; Broge; Guido Motolese; Vittorio De Nicola; Alberto Ferrari; Aldo Smeraldi. (AWM Image 030152/03 Photographer Geoffrey McInnes)

Dedication to All

Monsignor Giovanni Panico’s work was essential to both Australian and Italian families.  As Australasia’s Apostolic Delegate he coordinated requests to find Australian soldiers held in prisoner of war camps in Italy and south east Asia. He also was the intermediary to help to locate Italian soldiers held in Australia’s prisoner of war camps as well as sending messages to families in Italy.

From the Prisoner of War Bureau at North Sydney, Dr Panico, the Delegation secretaries, six women and one man were employed to liaise between families and prisoners of war to locate missing Australian, New Zealand and Italian troops.

From “Il Cardinale Panico e la sua terra”- Congedo editore – Galatina 1995.

In November 1935, Dr Panico was appointed as the new Apostolic Delegate for Australasia.  He came with a wealth of experience from his previous postings to Bavaria, Prague, Czechoslovakia. He was reported to be an authority on canon law and could speak all the modern languages.

With Italy’s declaration of war on France and Britain in June 1940, it was made clear that Dr Panico was a citizen of the Vatican and that he held a Vatican passport. On the 20th June 1940, Dr Panico made wartime radio history with a broadcast directly with the Vatican radio station.  In this inaugural broadcast, Dr Panico received from Vatican City Radio the names of 26 member of the A.I.F. (Australian troops) with messages for their families.  He asked Australian families looking for information about sons or husbands, missing in action, to advise of the location eg Libya, Greece, Crete. This service was offered to Australians regardless of religion.

Dr Panico worked tirelessly throughout the war years.

Australia’s Attorney General and Foreign Minister HV Evatt wrote to the Holy See on 1st June 1946:

To His Holiness

Great gratitude from myself and Government for patient, untiring and invaluable assistance given throughout the war by Mons. Panico in noble work or relieving the lot of prisoners of war and anxieties of their relatives specially in connection with Australian prisoners of war in Japanese and German hands.

The workload of this service increased dramatically.  June 1940 saw the arrests and internment of Australian resident Italians in internment camps with families in Italy looking for information on their Australian relatives.  In May 1941, the first Italian prisoners of war from Egypt arrived and the service was extended to assist Italian POWs to send messages home to Italy as well as receiving messages from Italy for the whereabouts of ‘missing’ Italian troops.

By April 1944, it was reported that over 300,000 messages had been received.  The service expanded to a one-hour broadcast six days a week.  The transmissions included lists of prisoners of war and messages from them for their families in New Zealand and Australia.  For Italian prisoners of war held in Australian camps, Dr Panico would arrange requests from Australia via air or surface mail of telegram.

Visitation to prisoners of war and internees was also an important role played by Dr Panico.  He made journeys across Australia to report on the conditions in camps and to offer spiritual solace.  He distributed thousands of books, purchased musical instruments and donated money on behalf of the Vatican to the camps.

Distribution of Books at Yanco Camp December 1942.

From “Il Cardinale Panico e la sua terra”- Congedo editore – Galatina 1995.

Once Italian prisoners of war were placed on farms, Dr Panico visited farms to speak with farmers and the Italians. He was impressed by his experiences: “After such an intimate experience of the conditions of the prisoners and internees in Australia, it is highly commendatory to hear the Apostolic Delegate say that in no country could these men and women be treated better than they have been and are being treated in Australia.” He was concerned about ensuring that Italian prisoners of war had opportunities to attend mass once a week.  To this end, Dr Panico disclosed, in secret, to the Vatican, that he was granted by the Australian government, 1600 litres of oil [fuel] per month to allow the transport of prisoners to Mass or for parish priests to visit the prisoners. As part of his ministry, a special mass and celebration in Gympie Queensland for the district’s prisoners of war was organised by Dr Panico.

In May 1944, Dr Panico reported to the Vatican on his visits to farms. The following was conveyed, “Egli rimase veramente commosso dell’accoglienza a lui fatta anche da proprietari non cattolici, e della maniera con cui essi trattavano i prigionieri. Con molta soddisfazione vide che in alcune case coloniche i prigionieri erano considerati come membri della famiglia, dormendo nella stessa casa dei proprietari, prendendo insieme ad essi il cibo e ricreandosi insieme dopo il lavoro. Il Delegato Apostolico intese con non minor soddisfazione, gli elogi che i proprietari delle fattorie facevano dei prigionieri, i quali, salvo pochissime eccezioni, hanno contribuito e contribuiscono non solo a mantenere alta la tradizione dei lavoratori italiani, ma anche a distruggere molti pregiudizi che i protestanti d’Australia avevano verso il cattolicesimo. Inoltre, l’affezione dimostrata dagli stessi prigionieri verso i bambini delle famiglie presso le quali lavorano, ha portato qualche volta a scene tenerissime.” (Collectanea Archivi Vaticani 52)

Spiritual welfare for prisoners of war was a priority for Dr Panico which he administered in many ways. Dr Panico visited Italian prisoners of war in POW camp and Australian military hospitals. He gave the Last Rites to Cesare Sottocorno at the 113 Australian General Hospital Concord Sydney and ensured that a gravestone was erected on his grave. Dr Panico provided the photo at the left and details of Cesare’s death which was then sent to Cesare’s family via the Vatican.  The following photo shows his visit to the infirmary at Cowra Prisoner of War Camp.

Grave of Cesare Sottocorno (photo courtesy of Cesare Sottocorno)

L’Amico del Prigioniero was published by Dr Panico in May 1943, another example of his care and concern for the prisoners. In the preface he wrote, “L’intento del libro è già chiaramente delineato nel itiolo con ciuamammo chiarmarlo.” This liturgical work was taken home to Italy by many of the prisoners of war.

From “Il Cardinale Panico e la sua terra”- Congedo editore – Galatina 1995.

Newspaper articles attest to Dr Panico’s farewell to the Italian prisoners of war.  In an unofficial capacity he was at a Sydney wharf to farewell Italian prisoners of war on the repatriation ship Moreton Bay in July 1946.  In November 1946, he was at a Fremantle wharf to say goodbye to those men boarding the SS Katoomba. The photograph records his conversation with one SS Katoomba prisoner of war.

A group photo of Dr Panico onboard an unnamed repatriation ship in 1946 reinforces his dedication to the welfare of the Italian prisoners of war.

From “Il Cardinale Panico e la sua terra”- Congedo editore – Galatina 1995.

Dr Panico’s work did not finish with the end of war or once Italian prisoners of war were repatriated. He set up the Relief Committee, the Relief to Italy from Australia, which arranged for 50 tons of clothing to be sent to Europe.

In October 1948, after 13 years’ service in Australia, Dr Panico was appointed papal nuncio to Peru.

A special thank you to Rocco Severino De Micheli who has shared the photos of Dr Panico included in this article. Rocco relates that one of Dr Panico’s important and lasting legacies is the Ospedale Cardinale Giovanni Panico de Tricase (Lecce).

Statue of Giovanni Panico in Tricase (Lecce) (photo courtesy of Rocco Severino de Micheli)

Two Strangers

Lamberto Yonna, a civilian internee was medically evacuated to the 113 Australian General Hospital (AGH) Concord Sydney in September 1941. Lamberto Yonna was a prominent Sydney businessman when he was arrested on 11th June 1940, a day after Mussolini’s declaration of war.

During his time in internment camps from June 1940 to January 1944 he recorded life behind barbed wire through art.  He is well known for his cartoons both humourous and poignant.

Yonna acting as interpreter, sat with a young Italian prisoner of war Cesare Sottocorno in the 113 AGH. Sottocorno died on 22nd January 1942 while Yonna held his hand. In 1942 he painted Pax in terra hominibus bonae voluntatis.

Pax in terra hominibus bonae voluntatis

[Peace on earth, goodwill towards men]

A landscape featuring a tidy path lined by cypress trees on both sides leads towards a solitary cross in the distance, which is silhouetted against a vivid sunset. Painted by Lamberto Yonna, 1942 South Australia (AWM ART27808)

In November 1947, Yonna wrote to Cesare’s family. He had experienced difficulty in obtaining an address for the family and apologised for the delay in writing. He wrote about Cesare’s illness, operation, medical care and death.

Yonna reflected, “Questa morte ful il capitolo piu triste della mia tristissima vita di queglie anni…” His words were full of sadness but echos his philosophy: peace on earth, goodwill towards men.

Cesare Sottocorno was buried in the Rockwood Cemetery in Sydney.

Grave of Cesare Sottocorno (photo courtesy of Cesare Sottocorno)

In September 1961, Cesare Sottocorno was laid to rest for a second time inside the Ossario at Murchison.

Crypt inside the Ossario Murchison Victoria

(photo from www.greatershepparton.com.au)

In February1942 Professor Lamberto Yonna was transferred from NSW to South Australia. It was another two years before he was released from internment at Loveday Camp South Australia in February 1944.

Before the war, Yonna taught languages at Yonnas School of Languages Sydney as well as being secretary for the Italian Chamber of Commerce Sydney. During internment in Loveday Camp he held art classes.  After the war, he operated an import-export business Yonnas Agencies George Street Sydney.

1952 ‘Advertising’, The Daily Telegraph (Sydney, NSW : 1931 – 1954), 17 March, p. 10. , viewed 03 Jun 2021, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article248749965

In 1952 Yonna was mentioned by the newspapers as: ‘a professor of languages, is an artist of distinction and had exhibited in Sydney and overseas’. 

Ironically, while he had been arrested as a security threat in 1940, in 1952 he became a Commissioner of the Peace for the state of New South Wales.

1941 Liverpool Lamberto Yonna: Camp Cartoon self-portrait of the artist who is in turn sitting for his portrait to be painted by two younger, serious artists. In the background, the three figures are depicted again, with the two younger men shown as being centaurs (half men, half horses) shooting arrows at their sitter, shown as a fleeing faun. (AWM ART27788)

Arrested in Townsville

On the 18th June 1940 114 Italian crew from the Romolo were arrested in Townsville under a Warrant dated 18th June 1940, to be interned at Interment Camp, Gaythorne. Three women who were part of the crew were not arrested: Maria Cebin and Guilia Panzeletti worked as stewardesses, Elena Giovenale worked as a nurse.

Elena Giovenale: Nurse on the Romolo

(NAA: BP313/1, Giovenale E)

The Romolo an Italian merchant ship was berthed in Brisbane on 30th May 1940. On the 31st May 1940, the captain was ready to depart the Romolo at 21 hours but was delayed by Australian officials claiming a directive from Canberra: an inspection of the ship was required.

Between 31st May and 6th June 1940, the Romolo was delayed on claims for the need for ongoing inspections and searches.  Eventually on 5th June 1940, the Captain Ettore Gavino was notified that authorities were searching for “a package which the Allies did not wish to reach Germany.”

Captain of the Romolo: Ettore Gavino

(NAA: BP242/1, Q28607)

Captain Ettore Gavino chronicled the events:

Thursday 6th June 1940

At 1940 hours we received orders from Trieste to seek refuge in neutral waters, In consequence I called the Royal Commissioner, Chief Engineer and 1st Officer to a conference. We decided to alter our course.  We did this as soon as possible at 21hr.  We sailed without light.

Friday 7th June 1940

About dawn we sighted forward to the east a ship without lights, sailing in a convergent direction. … we discovered that the other ship was an auxiliary patrol cruiser, which was evidently detailed to watch us…

At 0900 hours I gather the crew and informed them of the decision agreed upon.  I recommended calmness, courage, economy of water, light, fuel and rations, and stressed that importance for each one to do his duty with the maximum of discipline, efficiency and conscience… I entreated them to show the pilot [an Australian] and the foreign woman passenger [Aida Senac] a correct and generous hospitality.  I reminded them of the duty of every good Italian to be ready to give all for the greatness of the Motherland.  We broke up cheering H.M. The King Emperor, and our Duce, the founder of the Empire.

Saturday 8th June 1940

We are still followed by the Auxiliary cruiser “Manoora” (carrying a hydroplane) sailing about two miles on our right and coming closer during the night.

Sunday 9th June 1940

This morning I signed Capt. R Lloyd Harry’s (the Torres Straits pilot) book…

At 1415 hours the auxiliary cruiser “Manoora” signalled us to disembark the Torres Strait Pilot…

We practiced ‘Abandon Ship” using the regulation siren and allotted the passengers their place in the life boats. Carried out trials with the wireless in the life boats.

Monday 10th June 1940

Rehearsed closure of water-tight doors.

In the morning I gave orders to the crew to paint the ship inside and outside so as to make her less visible…

Tuesday 11th June 1940

We are at war with France and England. We are sailing without lights. The crew is working and painting the ship to render her less visible.

Wednesday 12th June 1940

A few minutes before midday a ship is sighted on the S.W. horizon,… We identify her as the “Manoora”…. I give full instructions for the abandoning and sinking of the ship.  It is about 1215 hours. The “Manoora”… sends me the following radiogram : “Stop immediately or I fire at you.” Consequently, I stop the ship, hoist the Italian flag and send out an S.O.S.

I receive a second message from the “Manoora”. “Do not abandon your ship because I will not pick you up.” I give the order to abandon ship and have the eight launches, which for some days days been swinging from the davits, and ready for use, lowered to the water. This operation being carried out with the greatest of calm and punctuality.

I take every precaution to ensure that the ship will not be captured by the enemy. At about 1300 hours the ship is abandoned…

PACIFIC OCEAN, 1940-06-12. THE ITALIAN MOTOR-SHIP ROMOLO BEING SHELLED BY AN AUSTRALIAN ARMED MERCHANT CRUISER, HMAS MANOORA, IN THE PACIFIC SHORTLY AFTER ITALY ENTERED THE WAR. (AWM Image P00279.003)

The sails are hoisted in the various boats which are driven by the wind towards the “Manoora” – now stationary… lowered her gangways and signalled for us to approach.

Italian prisoners coming from the Italian motor vessel Romolo in life boats. The Romolo was set on fire and scuttled by its crew after being pursued from Brisbane by HMAS Manoora and finally intercepted, 220 miles south west of the island of Nauru.

Shortly before 1500 hours the passengers and crew of the “Romolo” were safe and sound on board the “Manoora”, who had salvaged seven of our launches. 

Italian prisoners from the Italian Motor Vessel Romolo in the bows of HMAS Manoora. The Romolo was set on fire and scuttled by its crew after being pursued from Brisbane by HMAS Manoora. Shells for the ship’s six inch guns are visible on the hatch way.

I, who was the last to climb aboard, was taken to Commander Spurgeon of the “Manoora”.

At about 1600 hours seven shells were fired along the “Romolo’s” waterline.. At 1815 hours my ship with the water up to her batteries, appeared to be breaking amidships.  Rapidly she listed to starboard, the tricolour flying from h er mast.

At 1820 hours only the railings, illuminated by the “Manoora’s” searchlight, were visible above water.

At 1825 hours the “Romolo” disappeared…

Unlike her sister ship the Remo, Romolo would not be seized as a war prize.

(NAA: MP1103/2 Cereseto, Giuseppe)

Under a Warrant, the Romolo crew was transferred from Townsville Jail to Gaythorne Internment Camp on 22nd June 1940. One hundred and thirteen crew were then transferred to Hay Internment Camp on 6th November 1940.

Pasquale Bottigliero, seaman, arrived in Gaythorne Camp on 22nd June 1940 but was directly transferred to General Hospital Brisbane. On 2nd July 1940 he was transferred to Goodna Hospital where he stayed until his death on 11th January 1941. 

From Hay Internment Camp the Romolo crew was transferred to Loveday Internment Camp on 11th June 1941. One document records that on 15th April 1942 the status of this group of men were changed from ‘internees’ to ‘prisoners of war’.

 On 5th May 1942 the crew was transferred to Murchison Prisoner of War Camp. Other documents identify the 22nd June 1942 as the ‘official’ date of status change.

Officers were sent to Myrtleford Officers’ Camp Victoria.  First Officer Tullio Tami is standing third from the left in the photo below taken at Myrtleford.

Myrtleford, Australia. 5 November 1943. Group of Italian officer prisoners of war (POW) interned at No. 5 POW Camp. Back row, left to right: Bonifazio; Voltolini; Tami; Staiano; Donato; Rea. Front row: Migliore; Massimino; Talamanca; Maiolino; Bobbio; Bosi. (AWM Image 030152/05 Photographer Geoffrey McInnes)

Natale Amendolia, one of the Romolo’s cooks was employed in Camp B at Myrtleford Camp. Other crew members were sent from Murchison Camp to farm placement in Victoria and Tasmania.

MYRTLEFORD, VIC. C. 1943-11-06. THE PRISONERS’ KITCHEN IN “B” COMPOUND, 51ST AUSTRALIAN GARRISON COMPANY, PRISONER OF WAR CAMP. SHOWN ARE:- PWI.47727 G. SEMINARA (1); PWI.7133 N. AMENDOLIA, SHIP’S COOK MV ROMOLO (2); PWI.47795 P. VITULLI (3); PWI.47664 G. ROMANO (4). (AWM Image 059303 Photographer Geoffrey McInnes)

Francesco Lubrano was also a cook on the Romolo.  He was sent to work on the farm of Wilfred James Stuart at North Morton Tasmania.  He was remembered by Valerie Stuart for his cooking, particularly introducing the family to pasta. Read more about Francesco Lubrano on page 6 of the document following…

Go to page 90 of the following document to read more about the female crew: Maria Cebin, Guilia Panzeletti and Elena Giovenale.

Internment Cost a Wife

The cargo ship Felce was seized by Britain in Haifa Palestine on 11th June 1940.  The 19 crew onboard the Felce were interned in Palestine and arrived in Sydney Australia on the Queen Elizabeth 23.8.41. Italian and their families who were resident in Palestine and subsequently interned were also on the Queen Elizabeth.

The ship was renamed Empire Defender, her original name, and used by the British Ministry of War Transport. She was put in service across the Atlantic. On 14th November 1941 she was torpedoed and sunk by aircraft off Galite Island north of Tunisia.

On 22nd June 1942, the crew of the Felce were reassigned as prisoners of war.

With the exception of Costantino Bergonzo, all crew were repatriated to Italy. Costantino was ‘released to Melbourne’ and in 1947 married Antonina Maggiore. In 1961, Certificates of Naturalisation were issued to Costantino and Antonina. They settled in Melbourne.

Salvatore D’Esposito was originally ‘released to Melbourne’ but within eleven months he was repatriated to Italy on the General Heintzelman which also repatriated Italian internees to Palestine.

Another crew member of the Felce, Federico Calosso visited Brisbane in October 1950 onboard the Iris. His comment, “internment cost a wife” would resonate with many Italians who were interned during WW2. He continued working as a wireless operator and in two and a half years had only had ten days in Italy.

1950 ‘INTERNMENT “COST” A WIFE’, Brisbane Telegraph (Qld. : 1948 – 1954), 1 November, p. 23. (LAST RACE), viewed 05 Jun 2021, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article217273094

War Prize

The Italian motorship Remo was in Fremantle harbour on 10th June 1940, the day of Mussolini’s declaration of war.

The ship was seized on 11th June 1940 under international rules. The 229 passengers were a diverse mix of nationalities: Italians, Hungarians, Poles, Greeks, Bulgarians Jugoslavs, Estonians and Finns. Italian women and children together with those of other nationalities were transferred to Melbourne.  The Italian men were interned together with merchant seaman onboard.

Remo was loaded with cargo for several Australia ports including new machinery for a factory in Newcastle and technical equipment for Postmaster’s General Department. The ship was awarded to the Crown as Allied prize after the matter was heard in the Prize Court. By early July 1940, the Australian flag was flown from the Remo.

1940 ‘Australian Defence: Parachute Patrol: Britain’s Food Supply:’, Chronicle (Adelaide, SA: 1895 – 1954), 4 July, p. 25., viewed 04 Jun 2021, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article92396089

The crew of the Remo presented an interesting situation for Australian authorities. Were they prisoners of war or internees? In the first instant they were processed on 11.6.40 as ‘internees’. Officers were transferred to Fremantle Prison while the crew were transferred to an internment camp on Rottnest Island.  On 24 and 25th September 1940, officers and crew were transferred to Harvey Internment Camp.

The internment camp in Harvey where up to 1,000 Italians were detained during WWII. (Source: Harvey Historical Society)

In transit to Victoria, officers and crew were then sent from Harvey Camp 2nd April 1942 to Parkeston Transit Internment Camp.  This camp was situated 2 km north-east of Kalgoorlie on the Trans Australian railway line. It is recorded that the camp had accommodation for 20 internees in small cells.

The next stage of the journey was from Parkeston WA to Murchison Camp Victoria. One document records that these ‘internees’ were reassigned as ‘prisoners of war’ on 15th April 1942 as they departed for Murchison Camp. Other documents give the date 22nd June 1942 as the date of reassignment to POW.

The men arrived in Murchison on 18th April 1942.  The officers and their batmen from the Remo were sent to an officers’ camp at Myrtleford and the crew joined Italian soldiers at Murchison and other work placements in Victoria and Tasmania.

Cosmo Valente was an oiler on the Danish tanker Anglo Maersk when it docked in Fremantle Harbour. He was 60 years old when he was ‘arrested’ on 25.6.40 and sent to Rottnest Island Internment Camp.  As a lone Italian on the Anglo Maersk, he travelled with the group from the Remo.

The Remo was renamed the Reynella. It was used to transport foodstuffs and war materials from Australia to Great Britain. Some of the items on a 1940 run were jams, canned fruits, flour, wheat, tallow, hides and lead. In February 1949, the Reynella was no longer suitable for Australian services and the Federal Government offered the ship for sale to the Italian government for £1,875,000.

(1949).  Passenger-cargo ship Reynella anchored in Newcastle Harbour, New South Wales, 12 November 1949

By November 1949, newspapers report the ship had been sold to an Italian company and had returned to its original name Remo.

Storia di un soldato

In Memoriam- Cesare Sottocorno

(photo courtesy of Cesare Sottocorno)

Quelli che sono nati dopo la fine del secondo conflitto mondiale hanno vissuto e ancora vivono in un periodo di pace, il più lungo, dicono gli storici, che abbia attraversato il vecchio continente. Il merito, sostengono sempre gli studiosi, è anche di quel documento noto come il Manifesto di Ventotene, Per un’Europa libera e unita, scritto da Ernesto Rossi, Altiero Spinelli, Ursula Hirschmann ed Eugenio Colorni, al confino sull’isola dove scontavano la condanna perché socialmente pericolosi. Non è questa la sede per ripercorrere le vicende che hanno portato alla creazione dell’Unione Europea una realtà politica da tenere cara nonostante le difficoltà sorte tra i diversi stati e in situazioni come nel caso della recente pandemia.

WW2 Memorial Rivolta d’Adda (photo courtesy of Cesare Sottocorno)

Non possiamo dire che nel nostro Paese quella pace abbia significato tranquillità e che gli anni passati siano stati sereni. Ricordiamo i contrasti sociali, il terrorismo, le vittime delle mafie, le   povertà vecchie e nuove, le convivenze difficili e problematiche con le diversità di lingua, di cultura, di religione o di genere. Problemi che esigerebbero lunghe analisi, ma pur sempre lontani dalle distruzioni, dalla fame, dalle migliaia di morti che ogni guerra porta con sé.

Occorre peraltro affermare con forza che, insieme agli intellettuali illuminati e a quelli fra i politici che hanno garantito la pace e un sostanziale benessere, tantissimi  cittadini, come ha affermato il presidente Mattarella, si sono dimostrati, nel tempo, consapevoli di appartenere a una comunità capace di risollevarsi dalle avversità e di rinnovarsi nello spirito della democrazia: donne e uomini, contadini e operai, casalinghe, infermiere, medici,  insegnanti, giudici, operatori del commercio, impiegati… e tutti ne abbiamo conosciuti.

Se per fortuna la guerra è lontana, non possiamo dimenticarla. Non possiamo dimenticare i soldati che hanno lasciato le loro vite in battaglia, tra le trincee, nei campi di concentramento e nelle gelide steppe di un’Europa in fiamme, per ordini assurdi di politici aggressivi e di comandanti inetti, oppure sulle montagne a difesa della libertà.

I loro nomi sono scritti sul marmo, in ogni località, sulle vie e sulle piazze, perché non siano dimenticati. Li hanno letti, per tanti anni, a voce alta quelli del nostro paese, e li ho letti anch’io, da solo, dopo la messa dell’aurora, qualche mattina fa, il 25 aprile, l’anniversario della liberazione che vogliamo continuare a ricordare, inizio e simbolo della riconquistata libertà.

WW2 Memorial Rivolta d’Adda (photo courtesy of Cesare Sottocorno)

Tra questi un nome mi è familiare perché è stato dato anche a me. Soldato di leva, della classe 1920. Data di nascita, come è nel mio caso, incerta: il 31 maggio o il 1° giugno.  Arruolato in anticipo e chiamato alle armi il 5 febbraio 1940 a Livorno. Sul foglio distrettuale è annotato: contadino, di religione cattolica, abitante a Rivolta d’Adda in via Paladino n. 44, occhi castani e così anche i capelli dalla forma ondulata, mento diritto, colorito roseo, dentatura sana e una doppia cicatrice, una al labbro superiore e una alla fronte. Sapeva leggere e scrivere, aveva frequentato le scuole fino alla quarta elementare e non era ammogliato.

Allo scoppio delle ostilità, il 10 giugno 1940, è partito, con il 7° Reggimento Artiglieria, per la Libia, territorio allora italiano dichiarato in stato di guerra.  Sei mesi più tardi, il 5 gennaio 1941, secondo le fonti italiane, è stato considerato disperso durante le operazioni militari in Cirenaica. Lo stesso giorno, dicono i documenti inglesi, è stato catturato a Bardia e dichiarato prigioniero di guerra.

In una valigia di cartone ho trovato le sue lettere. Il giovane soldato racconta ai genitori il suo viaggio di otto giorni con il mare in burrasca. Dice a suo padre d’essere in compagnia con altri cinque di Rivolta e che la terra che lui ha conquistato è poco di bello, è tutta sabbia, la gente è mezza nuda, ci sono bestie che non conosce, non si capisce niente, dorme sulla paglia, di giorno fa molto caldo e di notte molto freddo. Come tutti i militari viene vaccinato e la febbre a quaranta lo costringe a letto. Mangia pane e cipolle perché il ghibli, il vento del deserto, solleva la sabbia che finisce nella minestra. Scrive alla mamma che essere malato sotto le armi è una vita da martire perché lei è lontana: per la cura e per tutto il resto bisogna fare da solo. La informa d’essere guarito, di aver dovuto tagliare i capelli perché nella sua tenda c’erano i pidocchi, ma anche di fare l’allenamento e di andare ogni festa a giocare a calcio in città. Aspetta con ansia le loro lettere e quando non arrivano si rattrista e piange.

Trova conforto nell’amicizia e smentisce chi ha detto che sono in pericolo dal momento che sono al sicuro. Non nasconde la sua felicità  a suo fratello che un giorno si è trovato con undici militari di Rivolta e che si sono messi tutti a piangere come bambini. Il suo paese è sempre nei suoi pensieri. Ride dopo aver saputo da suo fratello di una recita all’oratorio in cui il protagonista rimane in mutande e la sera di Sant’Alberto, guardando il cielo, gli è sembrato di vedere, anche nel deserto, i fuochi artificiali. Per far passare la malinconia si rivolge al nonno e gli dice che è un ortolano da poco perché raccoglie solo le zucche e le cornette e gli domanda se la sua bicicletta è ancora appesa al soffitto.

I libri di Storia narrano che dal dicembre 1940 al gennaio 1941 le truppe del generale Geroge J. O’Connor sferrarono un’offensiva di sorpresa e il giorno 5 conquistarono la guarnigione di Bardia, costituita da 45.000 soldati. Le truppe italiane si arresero e il generale Annibale Bergonzoli che aveva affermato: a Bardia siamo e ci resteremo, fuggì e raggiunse a piedi Tobruk che distava 120 chilometri.

Il  nostro soldato fa sapere alla mamma che ora si trova prigioniero e che sta bene e le chiede di dire qualche Ave Maria alla Madonna di farlo stare sano.

Il 13 ottobre 1941 viene trasferito a Sydney in Australia e internato a Cowra. Ricoverato all’ospedale militare del campo di concentramento, muore il 22 gennaio 1942, alle undici di sera, per un ascesso al polmone destro.

In una lettera della Segreteria di Stato del Vaticano indirizzata alla Pregiatissima Signora  ***

si precisava che il *** morì di dissenteria ed è stato sepolto nel cimitero cattolico di Sidney e la lapide porta l’iscrizione alla memoria di *** il primo prigioniero italiano morto in Australia all’età di 21 anni.

Grave of Cesare Sottocorno in Rockwood Cemetery New South Wales Australia

(photo courtesy of Cesare Sottocorno)

Il fratello, al quale spesso raccontava le difficoltà della vita militare e che, come alpino del reparto sanità, stava per partire per la Russia, ottiene, grazie anche al parroco, un anno di licenza per stare vicino ai genitori.

A guerra finita, il 27 novembre 1947, il professor Lambert Yonna, medico dell’Ospedale Militare racconta che il caro e simpatico giovane venne operato il 13 gennaio, dopo aver sentito il parere di Sir Charles Blackburn, un rinomato specialista per tali malattie. Il soldato, invece di reagire per il meglio cominciò a declinare e, ricevuti gli onori militari e i Sacramenti, rese la sua giovane anima a Dio, mentre mi serrava la mano e cercava di parlarmi.

                                                                                    Cesare Sottocorno

Red Clothing Creates Confusion in Lismore

All internees and prisoners of war were issued with uniforms coloured burgundy as part of the clothing kit. The same colour uniform was distributed regardless of nationality: Italians, Germans, Formosans, Japanese, Chinese, Austrian.

BALMAIN, NSW. 1946-03-02. THIS JAPANESE INTERNEE IS HAVING A BIT OF TROUBLE WITH HIS LARGE AMOUNT OF LUGGAGE AS HE STEPS DOWN FROM THE TRAIN THAT HAS BROUGHT HIM FROM HAY TO NO. 1 WHARF AT BALMAIN. HE IS ONE OF THE MANY JAPANESE ABOUT TO EMBARK ON THE JAPANESE REPATRIATION SHIP DAIKAI MARU OSAKU. THE POW ARE DRESSED IN AUSTRALIAN UNIFORMS.

The Big Picture

It is sometimes easy to see this history in small unrelated segments: to think that only civilian internees were forced to wear this colour; or that this uniform was to be worn every day; or that this indignation was reserved for only Italian prisoners of war. The ‘big picture’ is important.

The magenta uniform was to be worn when leaving a camp, a hostel or a farm placement; anytime the internees or prisoners of war were outside of their facility.

Its purpose was as obvious as its colour.

Photographs document that there was an Australian army salvage unit at Fishermen’s Bend in Victoria and another salvage unit at Loveday Internment Camp South Australia.

Loveday, Australia. 11 March 1943. Clothes which have been dyed a burgundy shade by internees at No. 9 Camp, Loveday Internment Group, hanging out to dry. The clothes are discarded Australian uniforms which have been cleaned, repaired and now dyed for issue to internees.

Confusion in Lismore

An interesting situation arose in the Lismore district of New South Wales in 1944.  Lismore had a resident population of 700 – 800 Italians. Another 200 Italian prisoners of war were employed in the district to work on farms.

The newspapers reported farmers who breached rules of their employment contract for Italian prisoners of war.  Some of the complaints and offences: alleged that Italian prisoners of war had been seen at the pictures, drinking in the pub, walking hand in hand with an Aussie girl, seen at the horse trotting races, talking excitedly in their own tongue with 12 civilian Italians and that two were left to run the farm while the boss lived 20 miles away in town.

As to how many of these allegations proved to be true is unknown. 

What is known, is that Lieutenant Chester Snow, the Australian officer in charge of the Italian prisoners of war in the district, had been notified 12 times during August 1944, that prisoners of war were ‘at large’ in the town.

When Lieut. Snow or his control centre staff ‘hurried’ to various parts of town to make arrests, they found that the ‘alleged’ prisoners were [Italian] civilians.

While the prisoner of war uniform was a burgundy colour, it was reported that red clothes, including trousers and slacks were a popular form of dress amongst the Lismore civilians. In fact, many retail stores displayed red clothes in their windows.

I am sure that the Italian prisoners of war who read such newspaper reports could see a little humour in this situation.

A little more about the colour red:

In 2013, an Italian prisoner of war blanket was returned to Cowra: https://www.cowraguardian.com.au/story/1273202/a-warm-return-for-pow-artefact/

In 2014, the Cowra Breakout Association reported Sir Tony Robinson being shown a Cowra Camp relic: a Japanese prisoner of war uniform worn at the time of the Cowra breakout in August 1944.

Sir Tony Robinson is shown a uniform worn by a Japanese prisoner of war at Cowra Camp.

(https://www.facebook.com/CowraBreakoutAssociation/photos/a.454760087988982/454761241322200)

Dr Georges Morel

Georges Morel was a Swiss Doctor of Economics who was appointed to Australia as the officially accredited representative of the International Committee for the Red Cross, Geneva in February 1941.

Dr Georges Morel [1941 ‘HAS KEY TO CAMPS OF INTERNEES’, The Sun (Sydney, NSW : 1910 – 1954), 1 March, p. 2. (LAST RACE ALL DETAILS), viewed 07 Feb 2021, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article231204582]

He was responsible for visiting internees and prisoners of war held in camps in Australia and to ensure that the conditions of the Geneva Convention regarding prisoners of war were upheld.

With an understanding of ten languages, Dr Morel was free to enter any camp at will, reside in a camp if so desired and leave without permission. Internees and prisoners of war were at liberty to speak freely with Dr Morel and communicate any complaints.

His comprehensive reports were shared with the Australian Government via the Minister of State for External Affairs. All reports were written in French, the language of the ICRC.

Copies of Dr Morel’s reports are archived in the National Archives of Australia and three files covering the period 1942-1944 are available for viewing: search terms to use – Red Cross Dr Morel.

In May 1944 on a visit to Western Australia, he was reported as saying, “My main task is to visit the camps whether the POWs are Germans or Italians…in addition I must keep in permanent touch with Australian Government departments, the Army and various branches of the Red Cross. However the first task is to see that the convention is being strictly applied and from my observations elsewhere [in Australia]I can say quite frankly that the conditions in Australian camps are very good. The treatment, food and clothing are in fact, excellent. Australian officers and guards have tried to help in many minor matters as well as in more important subjects, and I have received 100 per cent co-operation at Army Headquarters, Melbourne and from the Government.

Naturally there are complaints at every camp and these are quite minor matters. The complains have been rectified. Australia actually applies the International convention very generously in regard to POWs and internees, and in all my reports to the International Red Cross Committee I have stressed that conditions in Australia are good.” [1944 ‘VISIT TO P.O.W. CAMPS’, The West Australian (Perth, WA : 1879 – 1954), 19 May, p. 6. , viewed 07 Feb 2021, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article44809894%5D

Hand in hand with the written reports are the photographic records of Dr Morel’s visits. These photos can be found at : Archives of the ICRC . You will need to register as a user but this process is easy.

Guerre 1939-1945. Nouvelle-Galles du sud, camp de Cowra. Camp A, Série B. Groupe 24 avec le délégué CICR. War 1939-1945. New South Wales, camp of Cowra, camp A, serie B. Group 24 with the ICRC delegate.

Cowra Camp A September 1942 Dr Morel seated centre with officials of the camp including Padre Lenti (ICRC V-P-HIST-01881-02)

Dr Morel died in October 1945 and his wife Eugenia continued his work temporarily until the arrival of Dr Pierre Descoeudres in May 1946.

It is with thanks to the Red Cross and the work of their delegates like Dr Morel that there is a comprehensive and neutral record of the internee and prisoner of war camps in Australia.

Milestone, Miracles and Magic

Today it is 4 years since I launched this website/blog. It is an important milestone.

With 207 posts and 12 pages, Footprints of Italian Prisoners of War in Australia is the most comprehensive documentation of this chapter in Australia’s history.

We are an international research project with Australians and Italians in 14 countries contributing a diverse range of items, insights and memories. We have built a community where information is share freely. We are unique because of the diversity of perspectives portrayed.

There are moments of sadness; moments of elation and moments of quiet reflection.

It is important that we try to place ourselves in the boots of the soldier and prisoner of war and walk through this history.

Four years ago, I had no knowledge of website building and blogging. Four years ago, I did not think that “Google Translate” would become my best friend. Four years ago I did not know the history of Bardia or Matapan nor did I know the geographic location of many of the regional Australian farming communities in this history.

Nino Amante from Catania accidentally found a photo of his father on the internet and wrote to me about the “Miracolo di Internet”.

I also believe that your individual passionate searches for your father or grandfather’s ‘lost years’ is part of this ‘magic‘.

Families cannot always find specific personal information about and connections to Australia families for their father or grandfathers. But in the sharing of information, there is the possibility to reconstruct the journey for your loved ones.

My family wonder when I will stop!

My answer is ‘I don’t know’.

Regardless of when I run out of energy, this website serves as a ‘virtual’ museum: a museum which can add items to its collection at any time.

I patiently await the next donation to this museum.

Ciao

Joanne

NB New donations coming soon: Geneifa Eggito and Yol India