Nella maggior parte dei libri di storia le migliaia di uomini catturati e fatti prigionieri durante i due conflitti mondiali che hanno segnato il Secolo breve figurano solo come numeri, una perdita inevitabile nell’economia di guerra. Eppure, si tratta di una parte non trascurabile del nostro passato: ogni uomo partito al fronte vi ha portato parte di sé, una storia nella Storia che non possiamo permetterci di dimenticare. Per questa ragione voglio raccontare la prigionia di mio zio Vincenzo, un modesto contadino cremonese che si è trovato a coltivare le immense distese australiane.
Vincenzo Ambrogio: Uncle of Elena Fortini (photo courtesy of Elena Fortini)
Vincenzo Ambrogi nasce il 5 settembre 1917 a Soncino, un piccolo borgo medievale in provincia di Cremona. Primo di 7 figli tra cui mia nonna Rosa, detta Carla, il 2 settembre 1938 viene chiamato alle armi in qualità di caporale nel 45° Reggimento Artiglieria Divisionale “Cirene”. Dopo un breve passaggio a Bari, l’11 settembre a Napoli si imbarca per la Libia; due giorni dopo sarà a Bengasi.
A seguito dell’ingresso dell’Italia nel secondo conflitto mondiale, il 10 giugno 1940 il territorio libico è dichiarato in Stato di guerra. A settembre la Divisione partecipa alla prima offensiva italiana in Egitto, ma la controffensiva britannica non si fa attendere: dopo una serie di attacchi che provocano importanti perdite, a dicembre la Divisione è costretta a ripiegare entro la cinta fortificata di Bardia, vera roccaforte italiana in Libia. L’esercito italiano non resisterà a lungo: il 5 gennaio 1941 Vincenzo è catturato, insieme a migliaia di altri soldati, dall’esercito inglese, in quella che è passata alla storia come la catastrofica sconfitta di Bardia.
6th January 1941 BARDIA. A GROUP OF ITALIAN PRISONERS BEING BROUGHT IN BY THE A.I.F. DURING THE MOPPING UP OPERATIONS IN THE SURROUNDING HOLES. (AWM Image 004904 NEGATIVE BY F. HURLEY).
Da qui, dopo chilometri e chilometri percorsi a piedi nel deserto nordafricano, raggiunge il campo di concentramento 309, in Egitto, e successivamente il campo 308, entrambi nell’area di Alessandria. Da alcune relazioni stilate da inviati della Croce Rossa Internazionale si evince che la situazione dei prigionieri non era delle più terribili: tolto che la maggior parte dormiva per terra, direttamente sulla sabbia, a causa della scarsità di tende a fronte dell’arrivo massiccio di uomini (successivamente verranno costruite delle baracche dai prigionieri stessi), a ciascuno venivano date in dotazione due coperte per proteggersi dal freddo; i prigionieri indossavano la propria divisa e venivano consegnate scarpe nuove a chiunque ne avesse bisogno. Il cibo, preparato dagli italiani stessi, era razionato in quantità sufficienti, e durante le lunghe giornate d’attesa sono documentate persino partite di calcio. Sul campo era presente un cappellano militare per l’assistenza religiosa, mancavano però libri da leggere e i prigionieri lamentavano di non ricevere notizie per posta dai propri famigliari.
La prossima tappa del viaggio di Vincenzo sarà Suez, il vero polo di smistamento: qui i prigionieri saranno divisi e inviati nelle più svariate colonie inglesi; è il vero inizio della traversata che porterà mio zio all’altro capo del mondo. Ogni prigioniero segue sorti diverse: c’è chi viene inviato nel Regno Unito, chi nel Medio Oriente, chi ancora in Sudafrica. Il 30 novembre 1941 Vincenzo si imbarca per l’India. Arriverà a Bombay il 16 dicembre e sarà internato nei campi 9 e 12, entrambi nell’area di Bhopal, nell’India nord-occidentale. In una cartolina compilata per la Croce Rossa Internazionale scrive di essere stato catturato illeso e di stare bene.
Il 20 aprile 1942 scrive la seguente lettera indirizzata alla famiglia e mai giunta a destinazione:
“Carissimi genitori, dopo lunga assenza di vostre notizie, non sapendo il perché di tutto questo mentre invece ho ricevuto notizie da Alberto, il cugino della cascina Fornace, alla cui cara lettera tuttavia non posso rispondere, la quale mi ha molto rallegrato sentendo le sue parole di giovane militare, e il rientro di Giulio, mio fratello, in patria dalla sua prigionia. Miei cari voi, sapete che non posso rispondere a tutti coloro che mi scrivono, perciò lascio a voi i miei più graditi saluti con una stretta di mano di vero cugino affettuoso. Ma appena potrò […] a tutti darò un mio saluto e un invito di arrivederci presto. Miei cari, da che mi trovo nelle Indie ho ricevuto 4 lettere, una del cugino e tre di Gina [la maggiore delle sorelle]. Desidero notizie dai dintorni e dai cugini. Non pensate male che tutto passa e ringraziamo sempre Iddio che tenga sempre la salute e un dì ci rivedremo. Termino rilasciandovi i miei più sinceri saluti a tutta l’intera famiglia, e un bacio all’ultimo piccolino e Babbo e Mamma. Saluti parenti e riconoscenti da sempre, Vincenzo”
Camp 9 India: General View of Camp, Italians packed up ready to move to another camp, models of planes made by the Italians (ICRC VP-HIST-03470-07, VP-HIST- 03470-12, VP-HIST- 03470-30A)
Sappiamo però che il periodo in India è stato probabilmente il più difficile dell’intera prigionia: il clima duro, la scarsità di cibo e le disastrose condizioni igieniche dei campi indiani, unitamente al pericolo causato dagli insetti portatori di malaria, facevano sì che molti prigionieri si ammalassero, anche gravemente. In particolare, i campi dell’area lagunare di Bhopal, dove si trovava mio zio, erano noti per l’aria estremamente malsana. Lo stesso Vincenzo trascorse più di due mesi nell’ospedale del campo, e subì un’operazione. La situazione precaria e la persistente incertezza sul futuro spingevano molti a tentare il gesto estremo.
Ma la storia di Vincenzo è diversa. Nel gennaio 1944 lascia infatti il subcontinente indiano e viene imbarcato sulla nave Mariposa: direzione Melbourne, Australia.
1944-03-28. AERIAL PORT BOW VIEW OF THE AMERICAN TRANSPORT SS MARIPOSA WHICH MADE FIVE TROOP CARRYING VOYAGES TO AUSTRALIA BETWEEN 1942 AND 1944. (NAVAL HISTORICAL COLLECTION) (AWM Image 303592)
Andrea Favatella had c. 3 years in India. As many families have found, information on these ‘India’ years is difficult to locate.
For some Italians sent to Australia, depending upon the version of A.A. Form A111, that is used, the From whom received section will provide the details of the previous camp the Italian prisoner of war was at: Andrea’s last India Camp is No. 5 (Bangalore).
Favatella Andrea (NAA: MP1103/2)
The ICRC audio-visual resources offers a glimpse of Bangalore Camp 5 as seen below:
1943 View between the barracks of a wing in Camp 5 Bangalore (ICRC V-P-HIST-03469-36)
Amongst Andrea’s collection of books he returned to Italy with, is a copy of Breve Raccolta di Preghiere per I Prigionieri di guerra italiani in India. A special thank you to Nino Favatella for sharing a photograph of his father’s prayer book.
Religion was important to the Italian prisoners as is highlighted by the art work produced with religious images, the prayer cards the Italians kept, and the prayer and mass books prepared specifically for Italian prisoners of war in Egypt and Palestine, India and Australia.
Andrea Favatella’s Prayer Book from India
(photo courtesy of Nino Favatella)
Religious devotion is also illustrated with the chapels constructed within the prisoner of war camps. The chapel below was built at Camp 5 Bangalore.
Exterior of the Chapel at Bangalore Camp 5 1943 (ICRC V-P-HIST-E-0420-7)
Connecting Italian families to this history is difficult after the passing of 75 years.
William Shakespeare wrote: “There is a history in all men’s lives.”
Equally important: there is a history in every item your grandfathers and fathers brought home to Italy.
Settimio Ceppitelli was with the 201 Reggimento Artiglierei Division 23 MARZO when he was captured 11th December 1940 near Bardia.
Crociani and Batistelli record in The Italian Blackshirt 1935-1945, “Blackshirt divisions at Sidi Barrani in December 1940; 3 Gennairo (disbanded on 10 December) was destroyed, while remnants of the ‘28 Ottobre’ withdrew to Sollum and those of the ‘23 Marzo’ to Bardia, where both were mauled and disbanded on 5 January 1941.”
A glimpse into Italian artillery soldiers can be gleaned by photos held in the Australian War Memorial. Italian troops were equipped with modern guns yet at the same time they used old German guns made in 1916 together with 149 mm calibre guns introduced into the Italian army in 1910.
1st March 1941 NEAR BARDIA. THESE ARE THE MOST MODERN GUNS USED BY THE ITALIANS AND PROBABLY AS GOOD OR BETTER THAN ANY OTHER SIMILAR GUN IN USE IN THE CAMPAIGN. (NEGATIVE BY F. HURLEY).
5th January 1941 NEAR BARDIA – AN ITALIAN GUN USED IN THE DEFENCE OF BARDIA. CAPTAIN HOWARD (HISTORICAL RECORDS) INSPECTS THE WEAPON WITH R. MASLYN WILLIAMS. THE ITALIANS HAD A CURIOUS ASSORTMENT OF ANCIENT & MODERN WEAPONS – THIS BEING AN OLD GERMAN GUN MADE IN 1916. (NEGATIVE BY F. HURLEY).
13th December 1940 SIDI BARRANI – AMONG THE THOUSANDS OF TONS OF STORES & ARMAMENTS ABANDONED BY THE ITALIANS WAS THIS GREAT NAVAL GUN IN THE COURTYARD OF THE BARRACKS AT BARRANI. (AWM Image 004439, PHOTOGRAPHED BY F. HURLEY).
Transferred to India, Settimio embroidered Santa Lucia. Noticeable are his initials C. and S. stitched into the work and the colours of the Italian flag at the top and bottom of the pillars.
Santa Lucia is the patron saint of the blind. Santa Lucia appears to have been a popular saint as she was embroidered or painted by several Italian prisoners of war in Bangalore India as is shown in the photo below.
Immagine Santa Lucia (photo courtesy of Bruno Ceppitelli)
Objects of Art crafted by Italian prisoners of war at Bangalore India
Settimio’s other embroidery is of the Madonna del Prigioniero. It bears a striking resemblence to the statue of the Madonna del Prigioniero in Bangalore Camp Group 1.
Madonna del Prigioniero Bangalore Camp Group 1, India
The Madonna is standing on the world with a snake at her feet, her head is adorned with a crown, an Italian prisoner kneels at her side praying and wearing beige clothing with a black stripe, two vases of flowers sit upon the pedestal.
Madonna del Prigioniero India 1942 (photo courtesy of Bruno Ceppitelli)
Settimio arrived in Australia on 26th April 1944 onboard the Mariposa. Tranferred from Melbourne to Cowra Camp New South Wales by train, Settimio was to spend the next 2 years and 8 months at Cowra Camp.
Settimio’s nephew Bruno provides the following details: As an assistant to an officer, Settimio remained in Cowra Camp. He returned home to Italy with a handmade banjo; he had learnt to play music by ear.
Possibly Lieut. Mario Conti from the 233 Legion CCNN Division 23 MARZO, who was also on the Mariposa, was the officer Settimio was assigned to.
No doubt Settimio prayed in the Cowra Chapel with the beautifully painted altar panels and sat in the audience of the June 1946 performance of L’Antenato [The Ancestor] a Commedia in 3 Atti by Carlo Veneziani.
Settimio returned to Italy on the Alcantara and to farming in his hometown of Soccorso Magione Perugia. His embroideries from India are now framed, a memory of those tumultuous and ‘lost’ years when young men spent their youth as prisoners of war.
Settimio Ceppitelli with his wife, Soccorso Magione Perugia
Brothers Marino and Mario Casadei arrived from India into Melbourne Australia on the General William Mitchell 13th February 1945.
Marino and Mario Casadei in a prisoner of war camp India (photo courtesy of Matteo Casadio)
The group of 2076 Italian prisoners of war on the General William Mitchell were the last group to be transported from India to Australia. The men were sent in all directions for farm work; as far away as Queensland and Western Australia.
From the group, 875 were sent to Cowra Camp. An unknown number did not go to farms but remained at Cowra Camp. Among the Cowra group were Marino and Mario Casadei, agriculturalists from Ravenna and Carlo Gulminelli, a clerk from Mezzano [ Ravenna].
About ten years ago Graham Apthorpe from Cowra sent the photo below of Carlo in his artist’s workspace at Cowra Camp to Matteo Casadio.
Carlo Gulminelli painted a portrait of Matteo’s grandfather Marino Casadei in September 1946. Marino’s portrait is sitting on the table, second from the left. Marino took home his portrait: an original by Gulminelli.
Carlo Gulminelli Cowra 1946 (photo courtesy of Matteo Casadio)
Matteo explains that the family name is Casadio but the surname was registered as CASADEI for Mario and Marino in the Australian records.
Portrait of Marino Casadei painted by Gulminelli (photo courtesy of Matteo Casadio)
Marino’s grandson Matteo has recently made contact with Carlo’s son. Carlo Gulminelli continued to paint in Italy all his life. Carlo Gulminelli has become an important painter, his paintings are well rated and appreciated in artistic circles. Please clink on the following line for more information about Carlo Gulminelli : Patrimimonio Culturale dell’Emilia Romagna
BUT questions remain:
Who are the other men that Carlo painted?
Does your family have a portrait painted by Gulminelli?
One type of prisoner of war uniform is the light-coloured shirt with the black diamond patch on the back and the light-coloured trousers with black stripes down the outside leg. This uniform can be found in the photographic records:
Camp 306 Geneifa Egypt ICRC V-P-HIST-00849-01
Zonderwater South Africa:
Inauguration of Post Office Zonderwater ICRC V-P-HIST-03363-19A
Bangalore Camp 2 India:
Bangalore Camp 2 ICRC V-P-HIST-03474-19A
Cowra, NSW. 1944-02-03. Italian prisoners-of-war from No. 12 Prisoner-of-War Camp using a heavy duty pulley block and tackle to pull down a large tree in a paddock near the camp. (AWM Image 064137, photographer Geoffrey McInnes)
one uniform has survived the passing of time. The uniform was saved from a bonfire of disposal prisoner of war uniforms by a camp guard. It is now in the hands of Anthony who has graciously shared photos.
Prisoner of War Uniform: Trousers (photo courtesy of AC)
Prisoner of War Uniform: Jacket (photo courtesy of AC)
Anthony has also shared photographs of Prisoner of War Capture Tags. Printed by the US Government February 1942, they raise the question: Was a similar tag used for those Italian prisoners of war captured 1940 and 1941? Looking through archived photos of Italians captured at Sidi el Barrani, Bardia, Tobruk and on the move in Palestine, no capture tags are seen. Did the British forces in Libya, Eritrea and Ethiopia use capture tags?
It would be interesting to know if any Italians wrote about the capture tags in their journals or memoirs.
Sometimes it is the little items which catch my eye.
Prisoner of war uniforms has left me quite perplexed.
For a few years now, I had noticed the black stripe down the side of trousers. This however only seemed to be for Italian POWs who had time in India.
This was confirmed by Domenico Ferulli’s recollections:
Ad Ismailia, località al centro del canale di Suez, sono cinque giorni chiusi un un recinto nel deserto. Sono spossati fisicamente e con il morale a terra. La notte è talmente freddo che molti sono costretti a bruciare la giacca o le scarpe per riscaldarsi. Per cucinare si usa la paglia. Fatti spogliare e fare una doccia tutto il vestiario è ritirato e bruciato in alcuni forni. Periscono incenerite anche le migliaia di pidocchi, che da mesi hanno tenuto fastidiosa compagnia! Assegnano a ciascun prigioniero: una giacca leggera color cenere con una toppa di stoffa nero quadrata cucito dietro le spalle, pantaloni lunghi con banda nero, scarpe nuove, sapone per la pulizia e persino dentifricio con spazzolino da denti.
Italians Taking Communion in a British Camp in India 1943
Suddenly, everywhere I looked, I saw the black diamond sitting squarely between the shoulders of a light colour jacket and shirt, as well as the black stripe down the leg of shorts and trousers.
Many of the clothing items the Italian soldiers brought into the camps in Egypt were infested with lice or fleas. It makes sense that these uniforms were burnt and new ones issued.
In May 1943 it was reported that Italian casualties (deaths, missing and prisoners of war) were 400,000.
Logistically, how did the Allied Forces procure 400,000 replacement clothing and find staff to sew on patches.
And what did these patches represent! Was there a code relating to intended destinations for the prisoners? Or was the allocation of uniforms random?
Prisoners of war in England wore a dark coloured uniform with either a pale coloured circle shaped patch sewn on the right leg or a diamond patch on the right leg.
Emilio Clemente is standing on the right of the photo
Prisoner of War Uniforms with patch on right trouser leg
English Prisoner of War Camp courtesy of Mimosa Clemente
Then I noticed an Italian prisoner of war in November 1941 at Cowra camp wearing a black diamond shaped patch on the backside of light coloured trousers.
The Italians who arrived in Australia during 1941, was transferred directly from Egypt to Australia. Did they receive these pants in Australia or Egypt? Answer: Egypt, because once in Australia, the Italians were issued with their Australia POW uniform.
The strap is taken from a uniform jacket issued to enemy prisoners of war and civilian internees held in Australian camps during the Second World War. (AMW Relic 32594)
The official Australian prisoner of war uniform was disposal Australian Army khaki uniforms which had been dyed burgundy as is illustrated in the above photograph. The men were allowed to keep other clothing to be worn only inside camp or for farm work, this included their national uniforms.
Canteen at Cowra Camp November 1941
(ICRC V-P-HIST-01879-32B 1941)
At Campo 306 Geneifa Egypt prisoners of war were photographed wearing the black diamond pants with dark shirts and there are groups of Italians wearing the black stripe pants and black diamond shirts. A pattern seems to emerge: prisoners once processed in Egypt were given clothing: 1. pale coloured pants with a black stripe and pale coloured shirt with a black diamond OR 2. dark coloured shirt and pale coloured pants with a black diamond on the backside of the pants.
The Kitchen at Geneifa Camp 360 Egypt (ICRC VP-HIST-00851-25)
The photo below was taken in 1943, Italian prisoners of war in Melbourne after arriving from India….black stripe on pant!
(1943). Italian Prisoners of War – Italian prisoners of war on their way to a prisoner-of-war camp, following their arrival in Australia.
(National Archives of Australia)
Cowra, NSW. 1944-02-03. Italian prisoners-of-war from No. 12 Prisoner-of-War Camp using a heavy duty pulley block and tackle to pull down a large tree in a paddock near the camp. (AWM Image 064137, Photographer Geoffrey McInnes)
Was the allocation of clothing random?
Was the use of stripes and diamonds random?
Did your father or grandfather mention the POW uniforms?
Has anyone else noticed these uniforms with patches or stripes?
Have a look at photos taken of nonno or papa in the camps of India?
The USA appear to have adopted a completely different approach as is indicated by the P.W. stamped on both shorts and shirts of these German prisoners of war.
German Prisoner of War Uniforms
(from Military Law and Vigilante Justice
in Prisoner of War Camps during World War II
Mark M. Hull, PhD, JD, FRHistS January-February 2020 MILITARY REVIEW)
George Purves at Yol (photo courtesy of James Purves)
George Fraser PURVES served as an anaesthetist with the British Army at Yol Prisoner of War Camp in India. His son James from Georgia USA has contributed a number of photos taken by his father and three drawings painted by Capitano Luigi Socci.
The photos offer up a glimpse of the British Army Camp: its buildings and its staff; the landscape and geography of the Kangra Valley.
Yol Hospital Staff: George Purves top row centre (photo courtesy of James Purves)
It is invaluable to have this history viewed from different perspectives: the anaesthetist and the prisoner of war.
Thank you James for allowing these memories and items to be shared in our ‘virtual’ museum.
George Fraser PURVES studied medicine at Trinity Hall Cambridge. His photos date him at Yol in 1943. He left Yol in July 1944 and served on a hospital ship HMHS Karapara, then Kuala Lumpur Malaya, Bandoeng Java and IBGH Bareilly India.
George was married before he left England and was initially posted to Scotland to await his journey to India. While in his accommodation awaiting his orders, American war ships which had escorted a convoy across the Atlantic arrived into harbour. The American officers were billeted at the same accommodation as George. James recounts this war time story: “they [Americans] went inside and asked why there was no heat, as the place was so cold. On being told that all coal went toward the war effort, they said that they would fix the problem and left. They returned with a large truck half filled with coal from their ship as well as two boiler stokers. The front room windows were opened, the truck was backed up and the coal was shovelled onto the living room floor. Both alcohol and ‘real’ food was produced. Father said they all slept on the floor of that warm room, the flames from the open fireplace lighting and dancing around the ceiling and walls.”
Soon enough George was on a ship and on his way to India. James recounts, “Sometimes during the voyage the Captain called him [George] to the bridge. There was a telegram for him. In short, a question was put to him, “Is Dr Purves able and willing to join a parachute division as a Doctor?” The Captain apparently told father that there was no rush to make a decision, but father told him he would answer immediately. The wireless officer took down the reply… “Dr Purves is able but not willing.” It was a brilliant answer as father was frightened of heights.”
And so it was that Dr Purves did not spend the war jumping out of aeroplanes, but instead resided at Yol as an anaesthetist operating on Italian prisoners of war and British staff.
Swimming and Fishing: George Purves and friends Yol (photo courtesy of James Purves)
As with all prisoner of war camps, the British Command Staff lived separately from the prisoner of war camp. George’s contact with Italian prisoners of war was from hospitalisation for operations and post operative care.
British Camp Staff, Yol (photo courtesy of James Purves)
While in India and south-east Asia, George suffered heat stroke and malaria. He returned to England fatigued and gaunt. George’s wife walked past him on the railway platform, she barely recognised her husband.
George Purves (standing left) at Yol (photo courtesy of James Purves)
An amateur photographer, George Purves took many walks into the countryside of the Kangra Valley, taking photos of the mountains, the rivers and the valley. A glimpse into the past is the photo below of George in his room.
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.
NB New donations coming soon: Geneifa Eggito and Yol India
Today I wish to share a few images of Italians in the British Camps in India. It is a way to highlight the archives of the International Committee for the Red Cross.
Many families are already applying for personal documents from the Red Cross for their family members. There is also an extensive audio-visual collection available for viewing.
The ICRC’s historical archives comprise 6,700 linear metres of textual records and a collection of photographs, films and other audio archives. Tens of thousands of documents are available in digital format on the ICRC audiovisual archives portal.
While it is improbable that you will find a photo of your father, you will however view photos which will highlight aspects of the daily life and routine of Italian prisoners of war.
The inspiration for this article began with a photo of the Cowra Chapel. After some research, I realised that this topic was much more complex. Prayers, Priests and Chapels begins with the patron saints of villages and is a journey of the Italian soldier and prisoners of war through their faith.
There might have been exceptions but it was reported that all Italian prisoners of war were Catholic. Evidence of their religious faith starts with the prayer cards they were given of the patron saint of their village. These prayer cards were taken with them to the battlefields, to the prisoner of war camps, to Australia and then finally returned with the men to Italy.
Domenico Feruilli’s Prayer Card (photo courtesy of Rossana Ferulli)
In Libya Roman Catholic Churches were built by the Italians before the outbreak of war. Did the Italian soldiers get an opportunity to visit these churches and pray? Did they light a candle for their safety in battle? Or maybe they made the sign of the cross as they passed by these churches on the way to battle?
Biagio di Ferdinando wrote, “During my travels from Tobruck to Bengasi, after Derna and Barce there were many beautiful villas, towns, schools, churches, all new.” (Odyssey by Biagio di Ferdinando)
1st March 1941 BENGHAZI. EXTERIOR OF THE CATHEDRAL OF THE SACRED NAME OF JESUS. SMALL BOMBS HAVE FALLEN IN THE COURTYARD BEFORE THE CATHEDRAL AND THE BLAST FROM HEAVY GERMAN BOMBS HAS SHATTERED MOST OF THE WINDOWS. (AWM Image 006539, Photographer Hurley, James Francis (Frank)
In 1941, the Apostolic Delegate for Egypt and Palestine had ‘Libro di Preghiere’ published in Palestine, with the permission of G.H.Q. Middle East. It was a prayer book distributed to Italian prisoners of war.
It included Preghiera Del Prigioniero as well as part of a prayer for the prisoners by Pope Pius XII. For many, this would have been their only book but it was a book to give the men spiritual guidance and comfort.
Libro di Preghiere(photo courtesy of Daniel Reginato)
In India, the men were given materials to paint and sew with. The men drew inspiration from their faith. Filippo Granatelli’s ‘Last Supper’ is one example.
Filippo Granatelli 16.11.42 (photo courtesy of Veniero Granatelli)
Many of the embroideries are religious in nature: the patron saint of a village, Jesus, The Sacred Heart, Immaculate Heart of Mary.
Giuseppe Polito: Rappresenta la Madonna degli Angeli, protettrice di Sacco (SA) il suo paese. (photo courtesy of Silvio Masullo)
Carved Wooden Statue of Madonna made by Isidoro Del Piccolo in Yol Camp India (photo courtesy of Ermanno Scrazzolo)
The Italians brought a little of Italy to the chapels in the British camps in India with elaborate decorations: paintings, statues, frescos and altars.
Camp No 23 Bangalore Altar (ICRC V-P-HIST-03474-16A)
Worthy of note are the details of Our Lady of the Prisoner. The hat, the shirt with a black diamond patch, the shorts with the black strip; items which identified the men as prisoners of war have been meticuoulsy represented.
Our Lady of the Prisoner Bangalore Group I 12.12.1941(ICRC V-P-HIST=03474-05A)
Bangalore Camp 2 View of the Altar in the Chapel (ICRC V-P-HIST-03474-20A)
Australia: In the Camps
The first group of Italian prisoners of war arrived at Hay Camp New South Wales in May 1941. A 1943 report and a 1944 photo records information about how the spiritual needs of the Italians were catered for at Hay Camps 7 and 8:
The prisoners of war of these two camps are all Catholics. Camp 8 has a chapel adorned with a beautiful altar carved in wood and having a harmonium. The chapel of Camp 7 is located in one of the refectories; it also has a beautiful sculpted altar and a harmonium. Each camp has a prisoner of war priest who provides regular worship.
Camp priest, Virgilio Iacobelli featured below arrived in Australia on 27th May 1941 with the first group of Italian prisoners of war. He served at both Hay and Cowra camps.
HAY, NSW. 1944-01-16. 45005 LIEUTENANT PADRE I. VIRGILIO IACOBELLI AN ITALIAN ROMAN CATHOLIC PRIEST, AT THE ALTAR IN THE CHAPEL OF NO. 7 COMPOUND, 16TH GARRISON BATTALION PRISONER OF WAR DETENTION CAMP. ALL THE CRAFT WORK IN THE CHAPEL WAS DONE BY THE PRISONERS. PLAYING THE ORGAN IS 45192 SERGEANT MAJOR VINCENZO COMMARATA. (AWM Image 063360, Photographer McInnes, Geoffrey)
To make way for new arrivals of Italian prisoners of war to Australia, Italians were transferred from the established camps at Hay to the tented camps of Cowra. Cowra Prisoner of War Camps for the Italians were under construction. In November 1941, photos and reports record the temporary chapel and arrangements for church services:
Each section has a large tent serving as a chapel, containing a pretty altar built for prisoners. The sacred candles, bread and wine are provided once a week by the local priest of Cowra. Religious duties are carried out by three prisoner of war priests. Recently, Cowra had a visit from the Archbishop of Sydney, representing the Apostolic Delegate in Australia.
Cowra Camp No 12 Section D Altar under Construction 12.11.41(ICRC V-P-HIST-E-00216)
Giuseppe Raimondi from Amaroni (Catanzaro) served as priest at Cowra Special Camp 12 D before being sent to Victoria: V28 Attwoods, Myrtleford Camp, Puckapunyal and V22 Rowville. Raimondi was called as a witness to an inquiry into Captain JM Waterson and the fatal shooting of Rodolfo Bartoli at V22 Rowville.
Cowra Camp No 12 Section D The Chapel 12.11.41(ICRC V-P-HIST-E-00215)
Cowra Camp A Altar in the Dining room 3.9.42 (ICRC V_P-HIST-E-00218)
Faustino Lenti from Milano had been a Missionary Father in India and served at Cowra Camps. Lenti was a charismatic and colourful character and by April 1944, it was reported: It is alleged that he controls a ‘basher gang’ composed of PoW… and that he employs a personal bodyguard for his protection. The latest information about him is that he fears an attempt will be made on his life. (NAA: SP196/2 443/1/5280)
Reports were conflicting.
Cowra Prisoner of War Camp Information Board(photo courtesy of David Ackers)
The Apostolic Delegate for Australia, Monseigneur Giovanni Panicio published ‘L’Amico del Prigioniero’ in1943. It is a prayer book written in Latin and Italian containing the service of the mass, important prayers, Catholic Calendar of Holy Days from 1943 to 1951 and hymns.
Having the book written in Italian and Latin is significant. Mass was said in Latin until the Second Vatican 1965. This book ensured that the Italian prisoners of war had a prayer book in Italian. This gesture was a significant show of concern for the spiritual welfare of the Italian prisoners of war in Australia.
Ermanno Nicoletti carved a piece of wood and turned it into a profile of his mother, while praying. Granddaughter Alessandra contemplates, “News of prisoners of war were scarce and at some point my grandmother almost lost faith that her son was still alive.” On the other side of the world in Australia, Ermanno ‘knew’ that his mother was praying for him and carved his thoughts in wood.
Wood Carving by Ermanno Nicoletti (photo courtesy of Alessandra Nicoletti)
Australia: Life on the farm
By the middle of 1943, the first Italian prisoners of war were sent to farm placements in the Hamilton district of Victoria and Coonabarabran district of New South Wales. This trial was successful and was implemented throughout Australia: Prisoner of War Control Centres: Without Guards [PWCC]. In the Notice to Employers of Prisoners-of-War given to the farmers as part of the employment contract there is this statement:
5. You will be required to see that the following rules are obeyed:-
(a) P.W. must not leave your property except-
(i) to attend religious services, for which special arrangements will be made by the Military Authorities; (NAA: D2380)
There are many memories of the Italians attending local churches. All manner of transport was used to get the men to church; bikes, horse and sulky, truck, car, on foot. It was remembered the Italians would go to church with the Catholic family on the neighbouring farm, as the host family were not Catholic. Children of the time remember the Italians walking to church in their ‘red pyjamas’ a reference to the burgundy coloured uniform the men wore. Some Australians remember with shame that the Italian POWs had to stand at the back or sides of the church and had to leave the mass before its conclusion. Others recall the beautiful singing voices of the Italians during mass.
Italians in the Boonah district of Queensland attended a Mission Church because they learned that the pastor, Dr Dwyer spoke Italian. The Italians would enjoy conversations with Dr Dwyer after service. Members of the congregation knew this was against the ‘rules’ and wondered if they would get arrested for their compassion. Father Steele from Beaudesert Queensland, assisted and nominated Paul Raffa with his application process to return to Australia. It was Father Steele who welcomed Raffa when he disembarked from the ‘Napoli’ at Brisbane in May 1949.
In June 1944, a special event was reported in the Gympie news: His Excellency the Apostolic Delegate, Most Rev. John Panico, has recently been visiting prisoners of war employed in various centres on the North Coast of Queensland. At Gympie he met a large number of them at St. Patrick’s Church, where he celebrated Mass. At 10 o’clock his Excellency addressed the people, speaking in Italian to the prisoners of war and tendering them excellent advice. The services of these men are greatly valued by their employers because of their good habits and their knowledge of rural industries. (1944 ‘Of General Interest’, Advocate (Melbourne, Vic. : 1868 – 1954), 7 June, p. 4. , viewed 12 Jan 2021, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article172213489)
However this event drew the ire of Smith’s Weekly whose headline was: Fascist “Guard of Honor” and made mention of ‘dago prisoners of war’.
Also criticized was a decision by Commonwealth Authorities to give a petrol allowance [petrol was rationed in Australia during WW 2] to farmers to take Italian prisoners to church. The question was asked as to ‘why such benevolent treatment was accorded “these dagoes”.’
A kindly gentleman, Cyril Blacket of Pinery South Australia met an Italian prisoner of war at his local church. With good intentions, Cyril tried to communicate with the Italian farm worker, via the Pidgin English for Italian Prisoners of Warbooklet the Italian had, but with little success. Blacket applied to the Department of Army for a copy of the booklet, only to be warned: PW are not allowed to fraternise with members of the public, PW Camp Order No. 13 Sec 68 (c). (NAA: D2380)
1946 Cowra Camp
In 1946, the Italian prisoners of war were withdrawn from farm placements and brought into the camps to await repatriation. It was during this time that two altar panels for the chapel were painted by Cowra Italian POWs.
Cowra Chapel 1946(courtesy of Francesca Maffietti)
Back to Italy
Ippolito Moscatelli from Ospitaletto di Cormano (Milano) returned to Italy with photos of the Cowra Chapel. It is with special thanks to his granddaughter Francesca Maffietti that there is a record of the Cowra Chapel in 1946.
The altar panels survived. However they deserve a more detailed article.
How many other copies of this photo returned to Italy?
Have you seen this photo in your nonno’s collection?
Maybe you thought this photo was of a church in Italy?
Life as a soldier and as a prisoner of war was difficult. Some Italians were absent from their families for ten years. Those years saw the men always on the move. Life was a continual cycle of change.
One aspect of the men’s lives that did no change was their religious faith.