Category Archives: New South Wales Italian POWS

Waiting to Go Home

With the war over, Italian prisoners of war were withdrawn from farms at the end of 1945 – beginning of 1946. With a sense of hope, they believed that they would be home in Italy within one or two months.  Many letters written to Queensland farmers from their ex POW workers talk of going home soon.

Reality was, that the majority of Italian prisoners of war were not repatriated until end of December 1946 – January 1947. Recalling 13,500 Italian prisoners of war into the POW and Interment camps came with logistical problems.  However, a number of Italian POWs were sent to army ordinance sites and training sites for a range of duties from ordinance maintenance, maintenance and improvements of camps, salvage work, vehicle maintenance.

N33 Hostel Nobby’s Road was one such site. Alan St John spoke with a number of Italians working there…

NOBBYS ITALIANS ARE NOT SO HAPPY

By Alan St. John

Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate (NSW: 1876-1954), Saturday 28 September 1946, page 5

A TRUCKLOAD of red-uniformed Italians prisoners-of-war rolls westwards up Hunter Street.  They look interesting.  They smile, reveal flashing white teeth.  Their long, dark hair flicks with the wind and they seem carefree, even irresponsible.

To chat with the 36 Italians behind barb wire, I went to their camp at Nobbys this week.  They turned out to be interesting, but don’t let those happy smiles fool you.  They are not irresponsible.  These sallow-skinned Latins are worried men with a sterile past and a cloudy future.  About Christmas time they are due to go home.  They have to search for their people, to eat, to work and to seek stability in a country still heaving after the convulsions of war.

Corporal-major (an n.c.o. rank) Mario Dominelli has a thin face and steady, serious, dark eyes. He told me with emphasis: “We have nothing to be happy about.  We are penniless.  We have lost all our youth.  We will soon return to a strange home with 30 years and more on our shoulders to start with.”

Dominelli, 30, son of Milanese master carrier was impressed into the Italian Army three and a half years before the war.

There was no option about Dominelli’s becoming a soldier. Failure to attend the call-up would have resulted in a visit from a burly gendarme and possibly, in rough treatment.  The period of service was meant to be 18 months, but when war hove in sight, young men just were not released.

Dominelli served as a motor mechanic with tanks in Libya and was ‘caught’ by the Australian Desert Rats in 1941.  About two and a half years of his imprisonment he spent in India, but when Italy surrendered prisoners of war there were released on parole.  He had charge of 60 men.  When he came to Australia, he went behind barbed wire again.  He can not understand why, though it is all over now, he is still behind the wire.

“Australia is a fine country,” he said. “But I should be let out to see it.”

The serious Dominelli became graver at mention of his family. “My people – I have not heard of them for three years.”

ENGLISH LOOKING

A contrast to his fellows is Carlo Narboni, whose tall, straight figure, blonde hair, blue eyes and ruddy complexion could cause him to be taken for an Englishman.  A native of Tripoli, he was in the Italian army two years before the war, as an artilleryman.  He was one of thousands the Australians captured at Tobruk.

Narboni has seen something of Australia during his five years here, much of his time being spent on a farm at Coonabarabran.  Carlo is useful with his hands and, at Nobbys, has turned out an excellent carpenter.

Though his father and brother in Italy are trying to rehabilitate their big rope works in Padua, 27 – year-old Erminio Navarin, a Venetian who has been in uniform since 1938, wants to stay in Australia.  But arrangements to allow prisoners of war to remain here are still in the ‘talking’ stage, he has been told.  When he turned 18, Navarin failed to report for army service.  The breach cost his father a fine of about £7.

LITTLE MAN, BIG TRUCK

Another Nobbys prisoner attracted to Australian farming life is Gaetano Cavallaro, a 25-year-old native of Rovigo, near the ancient Italian city of Padua.  He has worked on farms at Murwillumbah and Tamworth.  Cavallaro, who was 18 when he joined the army, is only 5ft. 2 in tall and the camp dwarf.  He was driving a 35-ton Isooto Frashini army truck when he was cut off from his unit in Bardia.  He, too, was taken in charge by the Aussies.  He is keen to see his parents, four sisters and a brother, in  the town which he says is ‘something like Newcastle.’

At 46, Lorenzo Strambi, grey-haired and sombre, who entertains his Nobbys camp-mates with his guitar is a victim of circumstance.  Out of work, he left his native Genoa for Africa and became a quarry-worker in Addis Ababa.  War came; there was no transport to take him home so he was pushed into the army.  He has not seen his wife and 21 year old son for eight years, and this week he received a letter from his wife for the first time in four years.

GONDOLIER, TENOR

Nobbys other musical Italian is Crescenzio Catuogno who was a real Neapolitani gondolier.  His civilian job was to punt tourists around Naples Harbour in his gondola and, as an added attraction, entertain them with his fine tenor voice.

Nobbys Catuogno 3918936

Gondola Tenor: Crescenzio Catuogno standing at far right

Cowra, NSW. 16 September 1943. Group of Italian prisoners of war (POW) interned at No. 12 POW Group. Back row, left to right: 49305 E. Allunni; 46486 F. Palladino; 48249 G. Olivares; 46433 G. Polise; 49690 A. Rea; 45169 C. Catuogno. Front row: 49310 A. Argento; 49566 A. Di Pala; 49670 G. Joime; 45256 A. Ciancio. Note: The number is an assigned POW number. (AWM Image 030148/10)

Marshalo (Warrant-Officer) Florentino left Nobbys recently with a nervous breakdown. [Domenico] Florentino was highly intellectual – a Bachelor of Economics, a chartered accountant, and holder of a first-class steamship master’s ticket.  The confinement of camp life got the better of his highly strung temperament, and he was sent south for special treatment.

Florentino failed to adapt himself to the life, as his comrades, who have worked out their own forms of expression. Some study trades, some read, and some make trinkets.  To finish off his cement garden ornaments, Angelo Fumagalli, even makes his own paint-oil mixed with soil, brick dust and pulverised Nobbys rock.  One of his creations is a model six-story building.

The prisoners go to Mass at Tighe Hill every Sunday.

Their food is good, and they make their own excellent macaroni.  In addition to a free ration of cigarettes (from a special fund), the Italians may buy six ounces of tobacco and three packets of papers a month.  They have their own currency: half pennies and pennies with their centres punched out, rated at 2/ and 5/. Pay for non-commissioned ranks is 1/3 a day.

But the prisoner of Nobbys are far from happy.  I don’t blame them. Carlo Narboni, the English-looking fellow, shrugs and explains: “Eat ees good here, and the capitani he is a gentleman.  But if you have been a soldier, you will understand: we have been away from home a too long time.”

Nobbys Florentino 3872124

Domenico Florentino: Happier Times at Liverpool Camp before he was transferred to Nobbys Camp

LIVERPOOL PRISONER OF WAR AND INTERNMENT CAMP, NSW 1945-11-21. DOMINIC FLORENTINO (LEFT), THE CAMP LEADER, AND FORTUNATO PALLADINO, THE SECOND IN CHARGE OF THE ITALIAN PRISONERS OF WAR. LIVERPOOL PRISONER OF WAR AND INTERNMENT CAMP, NSW 1945-11-21. DOMINIC FLORENTINO (LEFT), THE CAMP LEADER, AND FORTUNATO PALLADINO, THE SECOND IN CHARGE OF THE ITALIAN PRISONERS OF WAR.

(PHOTOGRAPHER L. CPL E. MCQUILLAN; AWM)

A Travesty…

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One of the questions often asked, is ‘why were the Italian POWs taken off farms to then sit idle in Prisoner of War and Internment Camps for over 12 months?’

Another often asked question is ‘how valuable was the contribution of the Italian POWs to agricultural production?’

The following ‘Letter to the Editor’ addresses both of these questions…

Italian P.O.W.

To the Editor

Sir- some of us can raise a lot of sympathy for those of the Indonesians who have co-operated with the Japanese but what of that poor underdog, the Italian POW? Six months ago two POW (Sicilians) assisted by an old man harvested, without tractor, 140 tons of hay, besides routine jobs of milking, tending sheep &c. One of these men was so outstanding that I left him in charge of my farm and took an extended rest in Melbourne.  On my return everything was in order – house painted, winter’s wood supply split and stacked, &c. On March 13 most POW were again barbed in, a precaution recognised as necessary before repatriation: but the call-up was because of AWU pressure.  Many are married and my two have families not seen for over six years.  Their greatest worry is the dreariness of the dragging days of enforced idleness after the free busy life on a farm.  War against Italy ceased 18 months ago, so maintenance of torture to men’s souls at this stage is a travesty of British justice. In spite of the AWU attitude, farm labor in the Naracoorte district is unavailable, through either the RSL and stock firms, and I am being forced off the land.  My neighbor has been without help since his POW was taken away, and was so run down that his doctor insisted on his going to the seaside with his wife and three children, leaving over 1,000 ewes uncared for in the midst of lambing.

I am, Sir, &c.

H.S. Naylor

Kybybolite S.E.

from Advertiser (Adelaide, SA: 1931-1954), Thursday 27 June 1946, page 8

For Queensland farmers, withdrawing Italian POWs from farms resulted in an acute shortage of workers for the summer harvest….

Disbandment Queensland

 

“FARMS HIT BY P.O.W. TRANSFER” The Courier-Mail (Brisbane, Qld. : 1933 – 1954) 12 November 1945: 3. Web. 21 Oct 2018 <http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article50269952&gt;.

Bomb Blast kills 5

I was working with the granddaughter of Nicola Capitummino to trace the journey of her grandfather in Australia when I read about the bomb blast at N33 Bathurst Hostel in June 1946.

There were a number of POW hostels set up at Australian military complexes in 1946.  The role of the Italian prisoners of war was to assist with ‘general duties at AMF
Camps and Schools, clearing and maintenance of ammunition depots etc.’

One such hostel was at Bathurst where 3 Australians and 2 Italians were killed by a bomb blast.  Adelmo Rondinini’s legs were severed above the knees and he also lost his left eye in the explosion.

In reference to the burial of Sapper Michael Freeman in Bathurst,  the following was written:

The Italian prisoners of war from the Bathurst Army Camp on Limekilns Road made a large V-shaped wreath of greenery which was placed at the Military Cemetery. Their card read: “Michael Freeman from your Italian friends. For the kindness and understanding shown to us”…There was a single cortege for both the soldiers and the Italian prisoners.

 

Bathurst

Solemn: Sapper Michael Freeman’s Funeral passes onto Steward Street from Keppel Street on June 5, 1946.

(www.westernadvocate.com.au/story/4004852/yesterday-today-alan-mcrae/)

5 Die in Bathurst Camp Explosion

Bathurst, Monday. – Three Australian soldiers and two Italian prisoners of war were killed in the Bathurst military camp today when a fragmentary mortar bomb exploded amongst a working party of Australians and Italians.

At Bathurst Hospital to-night doctors were battling to save the life of a third Italian who lost both legs and has little chance of survival.

The victims of the explosion were: –

Sgt. Thomas Dickenson, AIF

Sapper Arthur Murray, AIF

Sapper Michael Joseph Freeman, AIF

Pietro Monfredi, POW

Stefano Mola, POW

The injured man is Adelmo Rondinini a POW.

Sgt. Dickenson, Freeman and Stefano Mola were killed instantly while Murray and Monfredi died in hospital hours later.  Ronlinini’s legs were severed above the knees and he was rushed in a critical condition to hospital, where blood transfusions were given him throughout the day and to-night in an effort to save his life.

Luck favoured Cecil Snudden, of Bathurst, who was standing about 10 yards from the working party when the explosion occurred.  Fragments of metal passed between his legs, carrying away portions of his trousers near the knees, but he was not injured.

Bathurst police investigating the tragedy have been told the explosion occurred at 10.30 a.m. while the six victims were working on the site of an ash dump at the camp. 

The bomb, it is believed, lay hidden under some ashes and according to one report the explosion resulted when an Italian cutting wood struck the bomb with his axe.

“5 DIE IN BATHURST CAMP EXPLOSION” Northern Star (Lismore, NSW : 1876 – 1954) 4 June 1946: 1. Web. 11 Oct 2018 <http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article99118261&gt;.

 

Gift to Farmer

Angelo Capone’s gift to his employer and friend George Bury was an ornament he carved while in Cowra Prisoner of War & Internment Camp. It is a treasured Bury family memento from the time Italian prisoners of war lived on their Beerwah farm 1944-1945.

Rosemary Watt, daughter of George Bury has always wanted to know more about her dad’s eagle and the ringed insignia at the bottom. Angelo said that the ornament had been carved with a six inch nail as were the words: Cowra 21-4-42 Australia.

It wasn’t until Rosemary found a similar object in the Australian War Memorial that a more complete history of such objects was revealed.  The AWM relic is more expertly crafted as the pictures below attest, but the description reveals, ” The eagle is made from thin sheet lead or alloy taken from used toothpaste tubes.”

The Italian prisoners of war were resourceful and were known to repurpose and recyle items in the most unusual ways.  The cellophane belts made from the cellophane wraps from cigarette packets is another example of their resourceful abilities.

Fascist Eagle Desk Ornament

(Australian War Memorial Relic 33406)

Click on the link to read the description of the above Eagle from the Australian War Memorial

The Italian POWs left a number of reminders and/or political statements in the camps in Australia.  Italians made many statues at Hay PW Camp which included  the Colosseum, the she wolf with twins Romulus and Remus, an army tank and a fascist eagle sitting atop a plinth.

V-P-HIST-01881-16B.JPG

Statue of Fascist Eagle at Hay Prisoner of War Camp

Memories of My Father

Paola Zagonara has shared with me, two items relating to her father Adriano Zagonara.

With the assistance of the Cowra-Italy Friendship Association, Paola is now in contact with John and Robert Davidson from the farming family where Adriano lived and worked near Canowindra.  A water tank constructed by Adriano still bears the plaque he made to ensure his time as a POW was not forgotten.  Read more about Adriano’s POW journey here

Water Tank at Davidson Farm

(photo courtesy of Paola Zagonara)

Adriano Zagonara was captured during the Battle of Bardia on 5th January 1941.  From Egypt he was sent to a prisoner of war camp in India.  In April 1944, he travelled by ship ‘Mariposa’ to Melbourne. He arrived in Melbourne on 26th April 1944.

On 27th April 1944 he arrived at Cowra Prisoner of War Camp.  He stayed in Cowra until 20th April 1945.  He was transferred to Liverpool Camp.

He was then sent to work on a farm in the   N5 Prisoner of War Control Centre: Canowindra in New South Wales.

He returned to Cowra Camp on 4th December 1945.

On 23rd December 1946, Adriano boarded the ship ‘Alcantara’ which took the Italians to Naples.

Adriano’s kit bag went home with him and the lettering is a reminder of his POW number and his time as a POW in Australia.

Wonderful keepsakes for his family.

Zagonara Kit Bag

Kit Bag for Adriano Zagonara

(Photo courtesy of Paola Zagonara)

V-P-HIST-00993-04.JPG

Italian POWs boarding Moreton Bay 4th August 1946

(ICRC Archives)

 

Permission to Marry

While there are number of documented cases of Italian prisoners of war marrying Australian women, the official stance was framed around the British Government’s policy, that being : REFUSAL FOR PERMISSION FOR CO-OPERATORS TO MARRY BRITISH WOMEN.

Buried deep in the National Archives is the story of one family who sought permission for an Italian POW to marry a young Australian woman.  EJ was a Land Army Girl and AM was a POW. They met at Goolagong while EJ was picking tomatoes with the Land Army.

An honourable man, AM wanted to marry EJ and support her and their son. As the extracts from letters highlight:  AM had sought and obtained permission from his family in Italy, the catholic priest at Cowra had baptised the baby and HA, EJ’s mother had arranged work for AM.

“My darling, after so much waiting I got a letter from you. It gave me so much happiness. My dearest, you said that mum rang up the officer at Cowra, well they did not yet call me to ask me anything about it however when they want me, I’m always ready to tell them the truth and I’ll tell them that I want to be free and marry you straight away.  I’m glad that you will send your photo to my mother, she will be happy to get it.” AM 15 May 1945

“I have had his baby baptised at the Catholic Church here in Cowra and told Father the priest all about my trouble and he is preparing me for our marriage… at the Church here I would keep it secret” EJ 7 June 1945

“My daughter is very anxious to marry an Italian prisoner of war… he [the baby] is very sick now has a very bad chest and took convulsions last night… the prisoner is also anxious to marry my daughter he is a good man and we can get him work in the back country trapping with my son  who has all the outfit and is willing to do something to help them when they get married.” HA (mother of EJ) 20 June 1945

Unfortunately, the government response was : “Although there appears to be no law in existence which would affect the validity of such marriages if performed it was decided that they would not be permitted.” So while the government would not sanction marriages or give couples permission to marry, there was little authorities could do, should an Australian woman and an Italian POW marry. Unfortunately, EJ and AM did not see this ‘loophole’.

AM and EJ did however seem to have spent 4 to 6 weeks together in early 1946 after AM escaped from custody.  He returned willingly to camp and surrendered himself to the guards. On 10th January 1947, AM was repatriated to Italy and there is no record of his return to Australia.

EJ and AM made one mistake, and that was to ask permission to marry from the authorities.  Had they married, their story might have had a happier ending.

The relationship between Italian POW FN and  HM, was dealt with the full force of the law.  On 20th April 1945, FN was sent to Detention Barracks at Hay (NSW) for 12 months by order of a Military Court.  FN was charged with “conduct prejudicial to good order and discipline among PW (Between Dec 43 and Feb 44 having sexual intercourse with a female).”  A harsh penalty considering other similar cases were dealt with differently and with more compassion. FN wanted to marry HM and HM said that she was prepared to marry him. Their liaison had resulted in the birth of a son.  FN served his 12 months detention but never returned to the state of his placement nor to Australia after the war.

A softening of the official directive regarding marriage of Australian women to Italian prisoners of war, is however highlighted by this notation from 18 December 1946:

Approval by the Minister has been given in principle to marriages between Italian prisoners of war and Australian Women. ( War Diary AWM52 1/1/14/15 July to December 1946)

One wonders if Italian POWs AM and FN were notified of this change in policy regarding marriages between Italian POWs and Australian women and given the opportunity to marry EJ and HM and be reunited with their sons.

Two stories with happier endings can be found at: Colleen and Mick and Francesco and June 

Records reveal the following statement on POW marriages:

It became apparent that 2 PW had been married to Australian women whilst escapees in Australia, and 4 others, 3 of whom had been escapees, desired to contract marriages; the remaining PW had been for a long period in rural employment.  The bona fides of the applications of these latter 4 PW were given full consideration and approval was finally given for their marriages, and where necessary leave was granted to them to enable marriages to be effected. (NAA: A7711)

And another happy ending is that of Mr and Mrs Auciello.  Nicola Auciello was photographed before he boarded the Alcantara to return to Italy. The attached report states: “Nicola Auciello, Italian sailor, became a prisoner in the Mediterranean Sea when the Sydney sank his cruiser Bartolomeo Colleoni, said he was engaged to an Australian girl who lived at Orange and wanted to get back Australia to marry her.  Asked if any other Italians had become engaged Auciello smiled and said, “Plenty.”

Nicola

1946, The Sun (Sydney, NSW : 1910 – 1954), 23 December, p. 3. (LATE FINAL EXTRA), viewed 13 Apr 2018, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-page24562456

He was repatriated to Italy and then his fiancee made the journey to Italy to marry before returning to Australia.

POW Marry 1

The Sun (Sydney, NSW: 1910-1954) Friday 3 December 1948

Piccola Guida

31 March 1945
Davide Dander was researching his grandfather’s footprints as an Italian prisoner of war in Australia. Grandfather Antonio Arici had kept a number of items from his time in Australia which had all but been forgotten about.  This cache includes several books and private librettos.
Antonio Arici Piccola Guida per gli Italiani in Australia

(Photo courtesy of Davide Dander)

Davide via his mother, sent me a photo of the cover and a page of one such book.  But this Piccola guida was a puzzle to me.
Here was a book telling the POWs about Australia: the climate, the major ports, information about the economy, banking and postal services. Surely the authorities did not want the POWs to know about how to set up a bank account in Australia, which is one section in the book.
The POWs were not allowed to have maps or Australian currency or post letters privately.   Yet the type of information contained in this book would  assist if the POWs wanted to escape!
As is normal for my research journey, one thing leads to another.  With a bit more digging around I found the following information about this book.
Piccola Guida per Gli Italiani in Australia was written by Padre Ugo Modotti December 1944.  He worked closely with the Italian migrant community in Melbourne from 1938 to 1946.  He wrote this booklet for the Italian migrants.
On 9 March 1945, the Directorate of Prisoners of War was aware of this booklet  and on 31 March 1945 approval was granted to distribute Picolla Guidi per Gli Italiani to the Italian prisoners of war in Australia.
By 1945, there was a relaxation in how the Italian POWs were viewed.  While they were still POWs, they were not considered a high security risk.  It was also a time when the Italians were thinking about life in Australia after the war and requesting permission through their farmers to stay in Australia and not be repatriated.
A guide for Italian migrants to Australia, this book gave the Italian POWs information to prepare for the time when they would return to Australia as migrants and free men.