Category Archives: Italian Prisoners of War India

A Chance Find

And a journey of discovery begins…

I received an email from Giulia Musini recently. Giulia wrote,

“Today I found this fabric napkin embroidered from a soldier prisoner in India. This little historical treasure was in an op shop in Western Australia. I was hoping to find the family of Antonio Fracasso, the soldier that embroidered this. Maybe through your page I can reach some experts or people related to Bangalore prisoners.”

Fracasso. Embroidery A XIX EF

Embroidery by Antonio Fracasso

(Photo courtesy of Giulia Musini)

Giulia had visited a second-hand charity shop in Witchcliffe Western Australia. “I was digging in the op shop and I saw the Savoia flag and the Italian writing … it was so touching I couldn’t leave it there forgotten in a pile of other stuff,” Giulia wrote.

After a little digging and emails to and fro, Antonio’s story emerges.

There were two Italian prisoners of war named Antonio Fracasso. Both were from Lecce region in Italy and both had spent time in prisoner of war camps in India.  One Antonio worked on farms in New South Wales while Giulia’s Antonio worked on farms in Western Australia. The first piece of the puzzle emerged.

The next part of the puzzle was how did Antonio’s embroidery end up in an op shop at Witchcliffe!

Captured at Bardia on 6th January 1941, 24 year old Antonio Fracasso was sent to India until his arrival in Melbourne onboard Mount Vernon 27th April 1944. The date on the embroidery, June 1941, indicates that his time in prisoner of war camps in Egypt was brief.

From Melbourne, Antonio was sent to Murchison Victoria for processing before being sent to Marrinup Western Australia on 14th June 1944.

Antonio Fracasso’s Service and Casualty Form highlights that he worked on farms in the district of W11 Prisoner of War Control Centre (PWCC) Kellerberrin (29th July 1944 to 8th December 1944) and W8 Margaret River (21st January 1945 to 14th November 1945).

And here is another piece of the puzzle, the proximity of Witchcliffe to Margaret River: 7 – 8 kms.  We know from other farming families, that the Italians gifted hand-crafted objects to members of the farming families as a gesture of gratitude.  Probably, 73 years ago, Antonio gave this napkin/handkerchief to his W8 Margaret River farming family.  Subsequent generations of the family did not realise the historical importance of the embroidery and its connection to the family and along with other linen, donated it to charity.

The significance of Giulia’s chance find is more poignant as Antonio Fracasso was never to return home to Italy.  Antonio died on 20th December 1945 while swimming in a dam on a farm at Corrigin.

Fracasso nla.news-page000003772085-nla.news-article44836696-L3-411333eda8c04fd18bd70e831559d833-0001

“DROWNED IN DAM.” The West Australian (Perth, WA : 1879 – 1954) 26 December 1945: 7. Web. 1 Jun 2019 <http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article44836696&gt;.

Giulia is now trying to locate a family member of Antonio.  A stumbling block is the places recorded as his residence in Italy: Canaleuco Lecce and Casalano Lecce.  Unable to find either places on a map, Casarano Lecce might be the town.  Giulia has already made contact with the shire office of Casarano and surprisingly her email reached a gentleman named… Antonio Fracasso.

Giulia is hopeful she will find her Antonio’s family as she says, “I wish to bring this piece of Antonio home. We are moving there soon in Puglia, so close to where he was born. I feel he can finally, some how, go back home.”

Antonio’s embroidery was meant to be ‘rescued’ by Giulia. Her passion for history, Antonio’s story and Giulia’s return to Italy and the region of Antonio’s birth means that this chance find couldn’t be in safer hands.

Further information….

  1. A missing piece in the puzzle is what was Antonio doing on a farm at Corrigin, when his record has his last known whereabouts as Marrinup POW Camp. While there was no prisoner of war control centre at Corrigin, there were centres at W17 Kondinin and W15 Yearlering. It is likely that the farm of Mr WJ Keays was in one of these centres, where Antonio was transferred to work but he died before his record card could be updated.
  2. The newspaper article has Antonio’s surname as Saldato. Soldato = soldier. Someone only had half the story or was misinformed.
  3. Antonio Fracasso rests in The Ossario at Murchison Victoria.
  4. Givgno 1941 A XIX EF = Anno 29 Era Fascista. The Fascist Calendar began on 29 October 1922 and is written with Roman numerals.
  5. eta piu bella; giorni piu tristi = most beautiful age;  most sad days

Journey Through Photos

Luigi Iacopini’s journey as a soldier and prisoner of war is told through the photos he kept.  His photos are like a diary recording major events in his early adult life.

Born 24.5.16  in Ponzano Di Fermo Ascoli Piceno, Luigi’s occupation was a barber.

In Italy

A reminder of his military service in the infantry is a photo of a young Luigi in full dress uniform.

Foto Luigi Iacopini AUS__003 (1)

Luigi Iacopini

(courtesy of Raffaele Iacopini)

Craig Douglas from Regio Esercito History Group Australia  recognised the uniform and writes, “it looks like he belonged to the 115 Infantry Regiment, 62nd Infantry Division Marmarica. Destroyed 5 January 1941 at Bardia.”  And yes, Luigi was captured at Bardia on 3rd January 1941.

In Libya

Luigi and other young soldiers in Derna Libya. Derna is on the coast between Benghazi and Tobruk.  It was taken on 25.?.38. Luigi was 22 years old.

Foto Luigi Iacopini AUS__001 (3) - Copy

Italian Soliders in Derna 1938

(courtesy of Raffaele Iacopini)

In India

The rattan matting, the socks and sandals, the shorts and trousers with a distinctive stripe down the sides are common to photos in the POW Camps in India. Luigi was 25-27 years old.

Foto Luigi Iacopini AUS__001 (2) - Copy

A group of Italian prisoners of war in a POW Camp in India

(courtesy of Raffaele Iacopini)

In Australia

A group of Italian prisoners of war at a Gympie farm.  The photo was possibly on a Amamoor farm and taken on the day of departure from the farms in the first week of January 1946. Luigi was 29 years old.

Luigi Iacopini, Giovanni Meconi and Fortunato Gobbi went to the farm of JJ Parr at Amamoor on 5th August 1944.

Other Italian POWs who worked on the farm of JJ Parr were Vincenzo Licocci, Francesco Bevilacqua. Alessandro Di Placido, Costanzo Melino and Pasquale Di Donato.

Foto Luigi Iacopini

Italian Prisoners of War at a Gympie Farm

Alessandro Di Placido (?) first on left, Fortunato Gobbi second on left, Luigi Iacopini centre

(courtesy of Anna Eusebi)

 

Luigi was repatriated on the Alcantara on 23rd  December 1946.

1946 Dec Daily Advertiser

1946 ‘BACK TO ITALY’, Daily Advertiser (Wagga Wagga, NSW : 1911 – 1954), 25 December, p. 1. , viewed 07 Aug 2018, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article145125911

Sebastiano from Ortona a Mare Chieti

With a handful of photos, Paolo Zulli is looking for information regarding his uncle, Sebastiano Di Campli, prisoner of war in Australia. Sebastiano was sent to work on farm/farms in the N13 Moss Vale district in New South Wales from 10.4.44 to 30.3.45. The government records indicate that some 110 Italian prisoners of war worked on farms in this area from March 1944 to November 1945.

Italian prisoners of war assigned to farm work, were issued with a ‘Bag, kit universal’ which was supposed to be withdrawn when rural workers returned to camp.  Not so for Sebastiano whose bag is still coloured with the red used to dye clothing and other items issued to prisoners of war and internees. Sebastiano’s kit bag still bears his Australian prisoner of war number: 57181.

Di Campli (2)

Kit Bag: Sebastiano Di Campli

(photo courtesy of Paolo Zilli)

Sebastiano’s photos tell more of his journey as a soldier and prisoner of war. Sebastiano was serving with the 44 Regiment Artiglieri Division Marmarica when he was captured on 3rd January 1941. A group photo taken in Libya was one of the treasured mementoes which returned to Italy with him.

Di Campli (1)

Libya: Sebastiano Di Campli and friends

(photo courtesy of Paolo Zilli)

From their capture at Bardia, Sebastiano and a friend Nicola Costantino (also from Ortona a Mare), were together when they were processed at Geneifa Egypt. How is this known: Sebastiano’s M/E prisoner of war number is 71770 while Nicola’s M/E number is 71768. Special bonds of friendship are confirmed by a family story that Nicola saved Sebastiano’s life in Libya.

From Egypt they were both sent to camps in India. On the reverse of Nicola’s photo is inscribed: 26.4.1942 Ricordo di Costantino Nicola. In 1943, they arrived in Australia, within two months of each other, then Nicola was sent to South Australia while Sebastiano stayed in New South Wales.

India: Sebastiano Di Campli and Nicola Costantino

(photo courtesy of Paolo Zilli)

Two months before being sent to Moss Vale and farm work, Sebastiano Di Campli was captured by the lens of Geoffrey McInnes at Cowra POW Camp on 6th February 1944.  He is standing third from the right and was immediately recognised by his nephew Paolo.

AWM 3899063

 Cowra, NSW. 6 February 1944. Group of Italian prisoners of war (POWs) interned at No. 12 POW Group. Back row, left to right: 57040 G. Angelozzi; 57413 G. Palladinetti; 57422 D. Pasquini; 57168 D. Del Romano; 57181 S. Di Campli; 57277 R. Iacobucci; 57448 V. Pizzica. Front row: 57235 L. Fresco; 57195 M. Di Prato; 57224 G. Flacco; 57420 A. Paolucci; 49872 P. Morelli. Note: The number is an assigned POW number.

(AWM Image 030173/16, Photographer: McInnes, Geoffrey)

Glimpses of information about N13 Prisoner of War Control Centre Moss Vale can be found in the newspapers of the day. An article in the Picton Post on 11 May 1944 mentioned, “Sixty four prisoners of war employed on farms in Moss Vale district are said to be rendering excellent service.” Another article mentions Mr C McInnes owner of New South Wale’s largest piggery- “The Yedman”, which had 1400 pigs. The piggery was run by Mr McInnes, one employee and two prisoners of war and there was concern as to how to staff his piggery with the Italians being recalled in November 1945.

A reporter for the Sun newspaper visited five Italian prisoners of war at a farmhouse in the Moss Vale district. This is their story: N13 Moss Vale Antonio, Mario, Giuseppe, Pietro and Domenico

Another article mentions the strong affinity between a Moss Vale farmer and his family and ‘the men in their prisoner garb’, as well as the ongoing communication between farmer and an Italian post-war: An Italian Ex-P.O.W. Who Died from Grief

Along with his photos and kit bag, Sebastiano returned to Italy with a holy card for Maria S.S. della Libera. The picture of Holy Mary was kept with him while in Libya, Egypt, India and Australia, a source of comfort and a tangible and personal link to his home in Ortona a Mare Chieti.

Di Campli (4)

Holy Card belonging to Sebastiano Di Campli

(photo courtesy of Paolo Zilli)

Paolo knows that his wish to find Sebastiano’s farming families in and around Moss Vale is unlikely to happen, but he would at least like to know a little more about this district and primary industries in those times.

 

In their spare time…

What isn’t written into the records is how the Italian prisoners of war kept themselves occupied during their many hours of idleness.  It just wasn’t the hours spent on board the transport ships to India and Australia that needed filling, but also the Sundays on farms and the days and nights in Cowra, Hay and Murchison.

Snippets of information from newspapers, oral histories and letters, when combined with images from photos deliver an insight into the pastimes of our Italian POWs.

CARDS and BOARD GAMES My nonno taught me how to play card games.  I have always thought that this is how he wiled away his spare hours during the ‘slack’ in the cane cutting communities of north Queensland during the 1920s and 1930s.  Briscola and scopa are two Italian card games which no doubt the Italian POWs played while in Australia.  A newspaper photographer captured two Italians playing cards onboard the train taking them to Hay.  A pack of cards is portable and cheap.

Mention is made in a newspaper article of an ‘improvised draughts board’ carried by an Italian POW when he landed in Sydney. The draught pieces had been cut from broom handles. Official photos taken at Hay and Cowra, had Italian POWs playing chess and making chess sets (from lathes constructed by the POWs).

Italian POWs Playing Cards

(The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW: 1842-1954) Thursday 16th October 1941, page 10)

EDUCATION and LANGUAGE CLASSES Costanzo Melino wrote that whilst in India, he attended Italian and English classes.  Having minimal formal education in Italy, he seized opportunities to undertake classes in Italian and English. It was considered imperative that POWs occupied their leisure time usefully and the policy was to provide opportunities for POWs to further their studies.  Libraries in the camps were established and canteen profits used to purchase additional text books relevant to courses undertaken. Books from overseas were allowed in the areas of banking and financial, medical, scientific, art, economics, music, agriculture, religion, trade and commerce as well as periodicals of a general literary nature.

METAL WORK CLASSES Rosemary Watt (Bury) is caretaker of a carved artefact made in Cowra by Angelo Capone.  Most like mass produced in a mould, the Italians then finished the carving with adornments of their choosing.  Interestingly, the Australia War Memorial has a similar arefact in their collection and one is left to ponder “how many other carved arefacts are their in homes in Australia and Italy?”

LEATHER WORK  Australian children recall the shoes and sandals made by their Italian POWs.  The leather would be produced from hides and crafted into practical items such as coin pouches, belts and footwear.  In POW group photos taken at Cowra, Hay and Murchison, many Italians can be seen wearing sandals, which were certainly not standard issue.

EMBROIDERY The origins of the elegant sewing prowess of Italian POWs is hard to locate.  Personal memories are that the Italian POWs had learnt the skill in India and embroideries completed by Italian POWs in India can be found from time to time on EBay. Two beautifully embroidered works are keepsakes of Colleen Lindley (a gift from Domenico Petruzzi to her mother Ruby Robinson of Gayndah) and Ian Harsant (a gift from Francesco Pintabona to the Harsant family of Boonah). An interesting interpretation of the word ’embroidery’ is offered by Alan Fitzgerald in his book ‘The Italian Farming Soldiers’. Used in letters written by Italian POWs,  the word ’embroidery’ was code  for ‘fascist propaganda’.

ART and MUSIC and PLAYS Musical performances and stage plays were performed in the camps.  The wigs of theatre as illustrated below were captured on film at Cowra.
V-P-HIST-01882-02.JPG

Cowra 12D 2 7.43 Wigs of Theatre V-P-HIST-01882-02

(International Committee for the Red Cross)

Instruments and art supplies were provided to Italian prisoners of war. The photo below shows a wall of the barracks at Hay which had been decorated as well as the musical instruments acquired for use by the Italians.  Furthermore, Queenslanders remember the mandolins, guitars and banjos that were played on the farms and Nino Cipolla has the music for songs his father Francesco notated while in Q6 Home Hill and Cowra PW & I Camp.

Hay.Art.Music

HAY, AUSTRALIA, 1943-09-09. GROUP OF ITALIAN PRISONERS OF WAR INTERNED AT NO.6. P.O.W. GROUP, WHO HAVE FORMED THEMSELVES INTO THE CAMP ORHESTRA.

(Australian War Memorial Image 030142/02)

Cowra Council have an interpretive display on a number of themes at various points around the precinct.  The Italians is once such display and under the title Members of the Family, the following is recorded: “Their great love of music, food and art endeared them to the community.  They formed bands and produced musical events which would attract local people to sit outside the camp and listen to their beautiful singing”.

FOOTBALL, TENNIS and BOXING

It is not surprising that just as football is a passion for Italians today, it was also a passion back in the 1940’s.  Group photos of Italian prisoners of war were taken in 1944, among them photos of the Football Teams.

Murchison.Football Team

MURCHISON, VICTORIA, AUSTRALIA. 1944-05-20. SOCCER TEAM OF ITALIAN PRISONERS OF WAR OF NO. 13A COMPOUND, MURCHISON PRISONER OF WAR GROUP.

(Australian War Memorial: Image 066766)

Hay.Football

Yanco, NSW. 1944-01-31. Soccer teams from No. 15 Prisoner of War (POW) Camp lined up on the ground before commencement of play. All Italians, some have recently transferred from Hay. The match was played in temperatures over 109 degrees F.

(Australian War Memorial: Image 063921 Geoffrey McInnes)

Official photos in the Australian War Memorial collection also show the Italians playing tennis at Hay and boxing competitions at Cowra.

GARDENS and STATUES and FOUNTAINS  One would be hard put to find a piazza in Italy that doesn’t have a statue or fountain. Group photos taken at Cowra have the Italians seated in front of this prominent fountain.

V-P-HIST-01881-01.JPGo

Guerre 1939-1945 Nouvelle – Galls du Sud. Camp du Cowra Fontaine.

(International Red Cross V-P-HIST-01881-01)

Reflecting their history and culture, the Italians keenly constructed statues like the replica Colosseum  at Hay and just to the right of the photo is a tank atop a plinth. Italian POWs grew their own vegetables as is evident by the photo below. Between the barracks at Hay, gardens were dug and crops grown.   Ham Kelly told his grandson that the Italian POWs at Q6 Home Hill Hostel grew the most amazing vegetables outside their barracks.

Hay.Gardens.Statues

HAY, NSW. 1944-01-16. THE CRAFTSMANSHIP OF THE ITALIAN PRISONERS OF WAR IS ILLUSTRATED BY THIS GARDEN AT THE 16TH GARRISON BATTALION PRISONER OF WAR DETENTION CAMP. NOTE THE MODEL OF THE COLISEUM IN THE FOREGROUND.

(Australian War Memorial Image 063365)

LETTER and JOURNAL WRITING

For the Italian POWs, there were two main regulations regarding the sending of mail:

Prisoners were not to send letters other than through official channels.

Prisoners were allowed to send two letters or two postcards or one letter and one postcard every week on approved Service of Prisoners of War Notelopes and postcards.

Unfortunately, postal services to and from Italy were unreliable. Italians became despondent at not receiving mail from family.  In a letter written by Giuliano Pecchioli, he writes on 12/1/45 that he was in receipt of his sister’s letter dated 3/6/1943.  Communication with family was difficult.  Before Christmas, POWs were given cards with Australian scenes to send home to Italy. Below is a page of a booklet of scenes produced for Christmas 1941.

Card 1941 Xmas

Di sotto la “cartolina” dell’YMCA distribuita per il Natale del 1941

(From the collection of Enrico Dalla Morra)

A number of journals survive, written by Italian soliders and prisoners of war.  For some Italians, it was a way of recording the events of the lives, over which they had little control.  From Tobruk to Clare  is the story of Luigi Bortolotti as recorded in his diary. The “Libbretta” of “Corporal Cofrancesco Umberto” is the basis for “Umberto’s War” . Recorded are details of his journey as a soldier and prisoner of war which took him to Australia.  Another journal “Diario di Guerra” by Francesco D’Urbano was found in  the sands of north Africa by an Australia soldier.  In time, the soldier asked the assistance of CO.AS.IT to trace D’Urbano.  Laura Mecca researched the Italian archives and found that he had spent time in India before returning to Italy.  A copy of the diary was presented to his wife.

CRAFT

While this photo is of Italian POWs in an Egyptian camp, it illustrates the type of craft work POWs engaged in and similar projects would have been undertaken in Australian camps.

NZ Italian Prisoners of War Craft Work

Italian prisoners of war with items of their carved handiwork at Helwan POW Camp, Egypt. One prisoner shown chiselling portrait features of a roundel. Taken 1940-1943 by an official photographer.

John Oxley Library from the collection of New Zealand Department of Internal Affairs Image DA-00736-F

The Big Picture: 1943

A question often raised is: ‘Why were Italian prisoners of war sent to Australia?’

Statistics aid in an understanding of the global situation in May 1943: Italian casualties numbered 400,000. ‘And the figures for the North African campaign were not completed yet.’

nla.news-page000011440715-nla.news-article106048757-L3-21559ca028125615b50f212a9df2d8b8-0001

1943 ‘EMPIRE CASUALTIES.’, The Port Macquarie News and Hastings River Advocate (NSW : 1882 – 1950), 22 May, p. 2. , viewed 08 Aug 2019, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article106048757

The question becomes then, ‘What do the Allies do with these Italian prisoners of war?’  accommodation, food, water, sanitation, clothing, interpreters, guards, short term strategies and long term strategies….

In a SECRET War Cabinet Agendum 10th September 1943, titled, Prisoners of War. Responsibility and Accommodation, the situation is presented:

  • By 1st January 1944, America will have accommodation for 250,00 prisoners.  By 1st July 1944, the figure will be increased by 100,000.
  • Approximate nubmers of prisoners held various, particularly Empire:-

United Kingdom 76,700; Canada 23,500; Australia 7,100; New Zealand 800; South Africa 49,000; India 67,000; Middle East 71,000; East Africa  60,000; West Africa  600; Persia/Iraq  1,200; Jamaica  600; Caribbean  600.

Yol India

A beautiful spot at the foot of the Himalayas; the best position of all the world’s war prisoners…

V-P-HIST-03471-02 (1).jpeg

Yol Group V Italian Prisoners of War in India V-P-HIST-03471-02

Very interesting that General Berganzoli “Electric Whiskers” was one of the POW residents of Yol Camp…

Yol Escapes.jpg

1943 ‘ITALIAN PRISONERS ARE ALWAYS ESCAPING.’, Victor Harbour Times (SA : 1932 – 1986), 25 June, p. 2. , viewed 21 Dec 2019, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article161099018

India: Camp at Yol

Yol Prisoner of War Camp was situated at the base of the Himalaya Mountains.  It housed Italian prisoners of war in four camps: Group V – YOL: Camps 25 to 28. It had its own currency.

V-P-HIST-03471-01.JPG

Yol Italian Prisoner of War Landscape Group V

Details of the camps are in the following article: Yol: Once a haven for prisoners of war

Lido Saltamartini was a resident of Yol Camp.  He made a camera and took photos of the camp which are featured in his book: 10,000 in Himalaya 1941-1947

Further information on Yol can be read at:

La storia dei diecimila soldati italiani prigionieri in India(take the time to read the comments at the bottom of the article)

and in Angela Giannitrapani’s book: Quando Cadra La Neve a Yol:

Cosa può mai spingere due uomini anziani a lasciare l’Italia per raggiungere un villaggio remoto alle falde dell’Himalaya? “Quando cadrà la neve a Yol”, nell’eco di una predizione, lo rivela. Racconta del viaggio che porta sulle orme che gli stessi protagonisti lasciarono cinquant’anni prima e che ora, ultra settantenni, ripercorrono. È un viaggio del tutto differente da quello del passato quando, prigionieri degli inglesi durante la Seconda Guerra Mondiale, attraversarono quasi tutta l’India da sud a nord per raggiungere il campo di prigionia al quale erano stati destinati. Ora lo fanno da uomini liberi, ma devono ancora affrontare conti in sospeso e incontrare fantasmi sepolti nella memoria.

Quando Cadra La Neve a yol

As a tribute to the Italian prisoners who had been held captive at Yol, is this beautiful memorial:

Yol Monument 2Yol Monument

Yol Memorial to Italian Prisoners of War

(photos from Twitter: hpatil@himan127)

 

A list of Italian Prisoners of War who were sent to Yol can be found in an article by Giovanni Marizza: ALCUNI PRIGIONIERI ITALIANI IN INDIA

Further articles by Marizza: 2a Parte and 3a Parte