Jennifer Ellis stumbled across a portrait of a lady and so began her journey to understand the history behind the portrait and painter…
Jennifer writes, “It was purchased in a second hand shop in Smythesdale Victoria for the sum of two dollars. It’s not framed . On canvas . On back is branded 1943 on the canvas. In red writing it has Riccardo del.bo Parma Italy. The front is signed like the picture in [your Del Bo] article and dated 1946. Pow . The detail is beautiful.”
Signature of Riccardo Del Bo 1944 and 1946
(photos courtesy of Janette Ratcliffe (Jones) and Jennifer Ellis)
It is with thanks to Janette Ratcliffe (Jones) that we know a little about Del Bo and his time on the Jones farm at Severnlea via Stanthorpe. Riccardo Del Bo was from the Parma region in Italy and had been captured in Greece on 24th January 1941. He arrived in Australian on ‘Queen Mary’ 13th October 1941 and was sent to Cowra PW & I Camp until his transfer to Stanthorpe via Gaythorne PW & I Camp in Mid October 1943.
On 7th February 1945 he was transferred to Murchison PW & I Camp in Victoria until his repatriation to Italy on the ‘Otranto’ on 10th January 1947.
It would appear that Jennifer’s ‘Del Bo’ was painted while he was in Murchison PW & I Camp. The answers to the questions: who is the lady in the painting? how did the painting get from a prisoner of war camp to a second hand shop? what is this painting’s story? Did Del Bo continue painting? will probably never be known. Shortly after Del Bo’s arrival at Murchison, he was photographed: he is the last man standing on the right.
Jennifer’s keen eye and interest in the history of her second hand bargain, means that another small part of the history of Italian prisoners of war in Australia has been pieced together.
Jennifer reflects, ” I am also happy that I have found some history of this picture. The man I purchased it from can’t remember where he got it from as its been hidden away… When I told him about the history he was amazed. He is an antique/junk seller, and when I mentioned the pow under the signature he was surprised that he missed it. As I said it’s still probably only worth two dollars- but worth more in the history of it. I don’t think it has ever been framed. I’d say perhaps he [Del Bo] made it as a gift for someone and they kept it in a draw rolled up. It would be great to see if he continued his art. “
Robert Perna from Detroit Michigan writes, “Many years ago my grandfather told me about his time as a POW from Italy. He surrendered in North Africa and was first shipped to Iraq. Then he was shipped to Australia and worked on a cattle farm. He told me it would take weeks to walk the fence and repair it. He said the owner owned a territory.
I’m looking for any way to find out who he lived with. He passed many years ago, but his memory of his time there was always very clear. He did end up going back to Italy because that’s where his family was.”
And so the journey begins for a grandson to meld a grandfather’s stories with historical fact.
Using the guide Finding Nonno, Robert found with ease his grandfather’s Australian records which confirmed a few details: his nonno Arcangelo was captured in North Africa: Amba Alagi on 5.5.1941; he was sent to India (not Iraq); he was shipped to Australia: onboard the SS Uruguay in 1943 which docked at Sydney; and he was assigned to farm work: in the N11 Prisoner of War Control Centre Glen Innes.
Robert recounts the details of Arcangelo’s conscription and war service, “My grandfather went to Rome to go pay the taxes on his property. While there, they recruited him off the streets* and sent him to Africa. He could not say goodbye to his family.
From there he was sent to Northern Africa where he was in charge of a platoon. They found out they were being attacked at dawn. So they hunkered into a hill waiting for the African army to attack. Once they ran out of bullets, everyone surrendered, so no one would get killed.”
The piecing of history continues giving credence to Arcangelo’s memories of the day he was captured 5th May 1941:
1 May 1941 Viceroy of Italian East Africa Duke of Aosta and 7,000 troops were trapped at Amba Alagi, Abyssinia by Indian 5th Indivision to the north and South African 1st Brigade in the south.
3 May 1941 Allied and Italian troops engaged in heavy fighting at Amba Alagi, Abyssinia.
4 May 1941 29th Brigade of the Indian 5th Division launched another attack at Amba Alagi, Abyssinia, capturing 3 hills between 0415 and 0730 hours.
5 May 1941 3/2nd Punjab Battalion advanced toward the Italian stronghold at Amba Alagi, Abyssinia at 0415 hours. They were pinned down by 12 Italian machine guns for the most of the day. The attack was called off at dusk.
British Pathe footage captured the Italians after the surrender of Amba Alagi. Another detail from this battle comes from Craig Douglas at Regio Esercito History Group in Brisbane: “When the Italian troops surrendered at Amba Alagi, the British commander allowed them to surrender with the full honours of war. In tribute to their tenacious defence right to the end.”
The battle for Amba Alagi, the last Italian stronghold in Eritrea. Italians who surrendered Fort Toselli seen marching down the road from the fort. c. June 1941
(AWM Image 007945, Photographer: Unknown British Official Photographer)
From Amba Alagi, Arcangelo would have been sent to POW camps in Egypt to be processed and assigned a M/E number: 289564 [Middle East]. From Suez he would have been transported to India.
Critical Past footage gives a window into the past; the arrival of Italian prisoners of war in Bombay India.
The next stage of Arcangelo’s journey is his arrival in Australia which was reported in the newspapers. Two ships from India arrived together in Sydney 4th October 1943 with 507 Italian POWs on each ship (one medical officer, 5 medical other ranks and 501 other ranks: MV Brazil and SS Uruguay.
Arcangelo Perna’s arrival is documented on the Nominal Rolls Cowra 12 (c) POW Camp arrival from overseas 5th October 1943. He is assigned his Australian POW number : PWI 55833. Notice that his rank is Corporal though his other documents have his rank as Italian and Private; somethings are lost in translation.
Nominal Rolls of Italian Prisoners of War to Cowra
(NAA: SP196/1, 12 PART 2, 1943-1944 Sydney)
Within two months of his arrival in Australia, Arcangelo is assigned to farm work N11 C.C. Glen Innes.
Robert has a clear memory of his nonno’s recollections of Australia, “ He told me he worked on a cattle farm there. First thing he had to do was mend the fence with the owner. So they packed up the cart and took off. It took over 3 weeks to walk the fence. After that he worked there for a few years. Once it was time to go, the owner begged him to come back and live there. My grandfather said no, he had a farm in Italy. He never said anything bad about being there in Australia. He said they were a nice family who treated him wonderfully.”
Arcangelo’s Service and Casualty Form provides the details of his time between leaving the Glen Innes farm and his repatriation. A documented four day stay in the Glen Innes hospital and his transfer from the farm to Murchison suggests ongoing medical concerns. Those Italian who were medically unfit were sent to Murchison. And it is while Arcangelo was at Murchison, official group photos of the Italians were taken.
(AWM Image 030229/13, Photographer: Stewart, Ronald Leslie)
Arcangelo was repatriated on Chitral from Sydney on 24th September 1946. These early repatriations were for special consideration, medical or compassionate reasons. This was one of the early repatriation ships which boarded 300 POWs in Sydney and another 2900 in Fremantle Western Australia. The majority of Italian POWs held at Northam Camp WA were repatriated on Chitral.
Robert continues, “When he came home, my grandmother wasn’t even home when he got there! One of my aunts were born while he was away. Plus, my dad was born about 9 months after he came home.”
“These memories [of my nonno] have been a part of my life since he’s told me the story. It has been told hundreds of times. Now I have proof, pictures and info to back up my story,” Robert reflects.
On 2nd and 3rd October 1944, a military court was convened at the Home Hill Court House to try Private Bartolomeo Fiorentino, Private Luigi Tesoro and Private Sante Testa on the charge with a breach of the National Security (Prisoner of War) Regulations, that is to say: Army Act Section 9 (2) ‘committing a military offence, that is to say, disobeying a lawful command given by his superior officer.’
In attendance were:
Major E Mullins – President
Capt RN Shannon and Capt RJ Hatch – Members
Capt AD Barnard – Waiting Member
Capt KR Townley – Judge Advocate
Capt NH Wallman – Prosecutor
Lieut KG Wybrow – Defence
Sgt Samuel Casella – Interpreter
Sgt Concetta Zappala Interpreter Q6 PWCH Home Hill
Lieut Reginald James Hamilton 2/i/c Q6 PWC Hostel Home Hill
Sante Testa and Luigi Tesoro to undergo detention for one hundred and twenty (120) days.
Bartolomeo Fiorentino was found not guilty.
Reading between the lines:
Tesoro, Testa and Fiorentino had on 3.6.44 been awarded 4 days detention for disobeying a lawful command and failure to appear at parade. Tesoro and Testa on or around 28-29.7.44 were awarded 7 days for disobeying a lawful command. During this second period of detention, it was claimed that they were approached by Zappala as Interpreter and Hamilton as office in charge to return to which. The contentious point was whether they were ordered to return to work without pay. Testa and Tesoro wanted to clarify whether they would be paid if they returned to work. Hamilton said that whether they were paid was not his concern, his concern was the order to return to work, which they refused to do. There was conflicting information as to what Hamilton said, what Zappala interpreted and said and what Testa and Tesoro said. Regardless, the judge ruled that regardless of whether they were to be paid or not, they had disobeyed a lawful command which is a military offence.
What happened then:
Fiorentino was transferred to Gaythorne then Cowra. While at Cowra he was awarded 14 days detention for refusing to work. He was then transferred to Murchison.
Murchison, Australia. 2 March 1945. Group of Italian prisoners of war (POWs) interned in D2 Compound, No. 13 POW Group. Back row, left to right: 47595 A. Manzo; 45685 B. Fiorentino; 48416 B. Criscuolo; 63457 E. Savarino; Unidentified; 63927 G. Chiavozzi. Front row: Unidentified; 57724 P. Di Battista; 45924 G. Giuffreda; 64066 A. Del Pozzo; 47757 A. Terribile. Note: The number is an assigned POW number. Photo documentation suggests that names are listed, back row, front row, left to right. (AWM 030229/14 Photographer Ronald Leslie Stewart)
Tesoro and Testa were transferred to Gaythorne then Hay for 120 days detention. While at Hay, they were both given 3 days No. 1 Diet for giving a letter w/o permission to a POW. They were then transferred to Muchison.
Murchison, Australia. 2 March 1945. Group of Italian prisoners of war (POWs) interned in D2 Compound, No. 13 POW Group. Back row, left to right: 47848 F. Arancio; 57724 S. Di Battista; 56639 S. Gabriele; 46885 S. Testa; 48694 L. Testa; 49700 S. Mascaro. Front row: 47836 G. Quaranta; 48287 G. Picardi; 46838 L. Tesoro; 45479 S. Deledda; 48026 S. Dinardo. Note: The number is an assigned POW number. Photo documentation suggests that names are listed, back row, front row, left to right. (AWM 030230/02 Photographer Ronald Leslie Stewart)
The Australian War Memorial has an extensive collection of photos featuring Italian prisoners of war. They show the men at work in camp workshops, in the fields and at sport. There are also group photos which the Italians were allowed to purchase to send home to families. But there are some complications with searches which I include below.
Murchison, Australia. 2 March 1945. Group of Italian prisoners of war (POWs) interned in C Compound, No. 13 POW Group. Shown here are: 65915 F. Pieri; 65987 C. Rossi; 65209 G. Baffa; 65710 V. La Rocca; 65370 F. Carone; 65230 E. Baruzzi; 65197 A. Armeni; 65237 F. Battisti; 65300 L. Bruno; 65602 G. Furioli; 65398 S. Cavillin; 65864 A. Pacini. Note: The number is an assigned POW number. (AWM Image 030231/14 Photographer: Ronald Leslie Stewart)
Sometimes you get Lucky
I was searching the Murchison group photos for random photos of silver rings. Silver rings are another story but as I was looking through the photos I found a face I knew. What are the chances! This photo did not list the names of the men. But I was sure I knew him. I had been introduced to Liborio Bonadonna in 2017 by his grandson Liborio Mauro. And I was pretty sure the man seated at the far right was Nonno Liborio.
Murchison, Australia. 2 March 1945. Group of Italian prisoners of war (POWs) interned in D2 Compound, No. 13 POW Group. (AWM Image 030229/10 Photographer Ronald Leslie Stewart)
I have been introduced to a number of Italian prisoners of war over the last three years and I know that sometimes, one man will appear in two or three photos, taken on the same day. And I know several of the men below. Another story.
Description Murchison, Australia. 2 March 1945. Group of Italian prisoners of war (POWs) interned in D2 Compound, No. 13 POW Group. Back row, left to right: 64837 A. Porcaro; 49904 S. Russo; 57220 G. Fino; Unidentified; 45531 V. Di Pietro; 61074 G. De Luca. Front row: 45685 B. Fiorentino; Unidentified; 46171 G. Massaro (holding a piano accordion); 46603 V. Massaro; 55168 L. Buonadonne. Note: The number is an assigned POW number. Photo documentation suggests that names are listed, back row, front row, left to right. (AWM 020229/02 Photographer Ronald Leslie Stewart)
Taken seven photos apart, Liboria Bonadonna is seated far right in both photos. In 549 he is wearing casual clothes but in 557 he is wearing his uniform. As his name was spelt incorrectly in 549, the photo was found with a search of his number 55168.
Alessandra’s Diligence Paid Off
Alessandra Nicoletti is researching her grandfather’s journey as a prisoner of war: Ermanno Nicoletti. A search revealed this photo from Hay PW Camp. Note the words: In this photo are known to be…
Nonno Ermanno is standing first left. And Alessandra also found the face of Agostino Marazzi a family friend.
Hay, NSW. 9 September 1943. Group of Italian prisoners of war (POW) interned at No. 6 POW Group. In this group are known to be: 45513 Francesco Del Viscio; 46331 Ermanno Nicoletti; 45852 Italo Gramiccia; 46320 Natale Nunziati; 46207 Valerio Mezzani 45498 Giovanni Di Pinto; 45496 Giuseppe Di Pilla; 46199 Agostino Marazzi; 46511 Alfonso Patrizi and 48922 Sergio Galazzi. Note: The number is an assigned POW number. (AWM Image 030143/26 Photographer Lewecki)
I am not sure how many photos Alessandra looked at, but she then found Nonno Ermanno is this photo. He is seated to the left of the man with the piano accordian. He is holding a guitar. And at that stage in her search, she did not know he performed in operas and plays in the camp.
Hay, NSW. 9 September 1943. A large group of Italian prisoners of war (POW) interned at No. 6 POW Group. Some of the men are holding musical instruments. (AWM Image 030145/33 Photographer Lewecki)
Serendipity… Chance… Fluke…Fate
Many times in this research, things happen randomly. I often tell people “your nonno tapped you on the shoulder and helped you with your search” or ” your nonno made you find this research” as so many outcomes have been totally random. Unfortunately for some families, their questions are still left unanswered.
There is also a randomness in which army documents are archived. Why do WA Italian prisoners of war have a comprehensive and additional folio of documents while Queensland Italian POWs do not? Often, we have to be satisfied that one knows more now than they did when a particular search began.
Some of the Hurdles
You can search by name or by prisoner of war number but sometimes the names are mispelt or numbers incorrect by a digit.
As well, while the Hay PW Camp photos give the names for the men in the group photos, the position of men is not known.
Additionally, many of the group photos are without names. So if you are looking for someone, and their name does not come up with a search, you might have to check every photo. To reduce the number of photos to search, do a check of the dates on the Service Card with the dates of the group photos.
Unfortunately, Italian prisoners of war coming to Australia in 1944 and 1945 missed the group photo sessions in Hay and Cowra, so unless they spent time in Murchison in 1945, there might not be a photographic record for them.
Cowra Group Photos 16th September 1943 and 6th February 1944
Hay Group Photos 9th September 1943.
Murchison Group Photos 2nd May 1944 and 2nd and 4th March 1945.
The Ossario, located in a quiet corner of the Murchison Cemetery was completed in 1961 and is a beautifully crafted Mediterranean style building. It contains the remains of Italian Prisoners of War and Internees who died on Australian soil during World War 2.
Every year, on the second Sunday in November, hundreds of people gather to remember the 129 men and one woman for whom the Ossario is their last resting place.
On Sunday 11th November this year, a warm sunny day with a lovely clear blue sky, the occasion was again well attended by over 300 people. Mostly of Italian descent, they travel from Melbourne, interstate, overseas and across Victoria and are joined by locals who appreciate this special occasion. The ceremony is moving, suitably reverent and also colourful with many Italian Military Service uniforms, banners, flags, floral wreaths and bouquets in abundance.
It is thanks to Costanzo Melino that I know about L’Amico del Prigioniero. His daughter Rosa wrote Anzaro: The Home of my Ancestors which included her father’s memoirs of his time as a prisoner of war.
Costanzo said, “In 1943, Italy surrendered but we had to go to Australia [from India] to work on the farms. We boarded an English ship which took us to Melbourne and then eventually by train to Cowra and Hay. At that time we had an Apostolic Delegate who was from Lecce, also Pugliese, and he gave all the prisoners a book that I still have called the ‘Amico del Prigioniero’ (‘Friend of the Prisoner’’).”
The Apostolic Delegate was Monseigneur Giovanni Panicio and he published this book through Pellegrini, Sydney, 1943. 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.
The book being written in Italian and Latin is significant. As mass was said in Latin until Second Vatican 1965, ensuring that the Italian prisoners of war had a prayer book in Italian was a significant show of concern for their spiritual welfare.
Also, while the Italians had access to books in Italian in the libraries of Hay and Cowra, when they were on the farm, a book in Italian was an important gesture on behalf of Giovanni Panico.
There are six copies of L’Amico del Prigioniero are held in museums and libraries in Australia. I spent a morning in the Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW and felt honoured to view this special relic pertaining to Italian prisoners of war and internees.
To understand the importance of this prayer book in Latin and Italian, a little background is necessary, “…the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council (also called Vatican II) to discuss how the Catholic Church would face the modern world. Until 1965, all Catholic Mass was said in Latin, and the Church realized that may alienate parishioners who spoke Latin only in church. So the Church had to translate the Catholic Mass into a variety of different languages. from http://www.dictionary.com/e/catholic/
Liborio Bonadonna was a private in the Italian Army, serving with the 231 Legion Militia when he was captured at Buq Buq on 11th December 1940. The Battle of Sidi Barrani was the opening battle of Operation Compass and 38,300 Italians were captured at Sidi Barrani and Buq Buq from 10 – 11 December 1940.
(NAA: A7919 C101539 Buonadonna, Librio)
A young farmer from Gela Caltanissetta, Liborio was living in Tripoli along with his wife and his parents when he joined Mussolini’s war. His father, desperate for his son’s safety, fell prey to unscrupulous agents who, for a sum of money, promised the repatriation of their family members who were prisoners of war.
In a letter sent to Liborio, his father Carmelo Bonadonna wrote on 21st December 1943:
Dear son, here it was said that prisoners who are sons of farmers, were to be repatriated on the payment of six thousand lire, and I, for the great affection I bear you, was one of the first to pay; in fact they asked us for one of your letters in order to have your address. Up to the present, we have seen nothing. Imagine, dear son, how happy we all in the family were for just then I did not know what I could do for the love of you.
Liborio had spent almost three years in camps in India and would not arrive in Italy for another three years. The actions of his father however highlight how anxious the family were to ensure a safe and early return of Liborio.
From Cowra, Liborio was assigned to work on farms at N8 PWCC Orange and N24 PWCC Lismore. Suffering on-going health issues, he was sent to local and military hospitals and was eventually transferred to Murchison for consideration for early repatriation on the basis of medical grounds.
Such was his health, he was on the list to embark on the Andes which left Australia on 3rd August 1945. Unfortunately, on 16th July 1945 he was sent to 28 Australian Camp Hospital at Tatura which was part of the Murchison POW complex. He missed early repatriation and was to stay in hospital for two and a half months.
28th Australian Camp Hospital Tatura
(AWM Image 052452)
The irony of his situation was that while he was approved for early medical repatriation he was too unwell to travel. His medical condition had deemed him ‘medically’ unfit to work and gave him priority for repatriation on medical grounds. During 1946, several transports for special circumstance cases, left Australia for Naples but Liborio was overlooked.
While he considered himself to be well enough to travel, he was identified as having need for specialist medical attention during the voyage to Italy. He could only be repatriated once as specially fitted out ship became available.
On 10th September 1946, in a letter to the Camp C.O. he presented his case:
Just at the time when the repatriation of the sick was to take place I was in the Waranga military hospital whence I was discharged early in September…
The present repatriation lists from which I have been exclude because repatriation is to be effect by ordinary means (i.e. in ships not especially adapted for transport of the sick) include nearly all the sick who, like me, were then considered as needing attention during the voyage.
Today I will to inform you that, notwithstanding a year’s stay in camp without any special treatment, my condition is such as to enable me to stand the possible discomforts of the trip home; I therefore request to be reinscribed on the above mentioned list, taking upon myself the full and complete responsibility in the event of any possible deterioration of my health.
My family live in Tripolitania and it is my urgent wish to rejoin it in the shortest possible time. To the above I can only add the prayer that you will kindly consider my request.
The Empire Clyde* returned Liborio to Italy. It was a Royal Navy Hospital Ship which departed Sydney for Naples on 12th December 1946. There were 226 Italian prisoners of war on board who had embarked at Sydney, Melbourne and Fremantle.
But Liborio’s return to his family in Tripoli was further delayed. Once he arrived in Naples, he required an operation. Fighting bureaucracy, he tried to gain permission several times to reach Libya and his wife and parents.
Liborio’s grandson, Liborio Mauro says that “He told her [my grandmother] if I’m not able to join you, I would like to go back in Australia. After 3 times, he finally joined my grandmother in Libya where my father Carmelo was born in Tripoli in 1949.”
Tracing Liborio’s journey as a prisoner of war has not been an easy on. His grandson explains that his records have his name spelt incorrectly: BUONADONNA instead of BONADONNA, LIBRIO instead of LIBORIO.
But passion and determination on the part of grandson Liborio has ensured that Liborio Bonadonna’s story is told and his records and photographs of his time as a prisoner of war in Australia are with the family.
Liborio Mauro says, “All my family are happy and my father is crying for happiness. My grandfather was the most important person in my family. He was a true gentleman, well-educated and everyone fell in love with him. He was a strong and simple man.”
*The Empire Clyde was a British Navy war prize from the Abyssinian campaign. It was formerly an Italian passenger liner Leonardo da Vinci.
Liborio Bonadonna with his family c 1979, grandson Liborio Mauro on his grandfather’s lap