Category Archives: Prigionieri di guerra italiani in Australia

Il calzolaio di Grottaferrata

Somewhere in the vicinity of Sidi el Barrani, Agostino Marazzi abandoned his machine gun at the suggestion of a lieutenant. He was captured by the British on 11th December 1940. He had served with an infantry unit for 17 months.

On 24th March 1940, Agostino was photographed with a friend at Martuba Libya. Martuba was an important Italian airbase but also had numerous staging camps for newly arrived Italian soldiers.

Agostino Marazzi and friend Martuba Libya 24.3.1940 (photo courtesy of Amedeo Marazzi)

Agostino’s next stop was Tobruk which is 150 km south west of Martuba.His son Amedeo recalls that the two photos of his father with a machine gun were taken at Tobruk.

Agostino Marazzi at Tobruk (photo courtesy of Amedeo Marazzi)

Commander-in-Chief of the Italian army, Rodolfo Graziani had advanced Italian troops from the Libyan-Egyptian border to Sidi el Barrani from 13-16th September.  Field Marshal Wavell’s offensive to reclaim Egyptian territory began on 9th December 1940.

Along the fifty-miles-wide battlefield and astride the road leading west lay a fantastic litter of abandoned trucks, guns and tanks, piles of abandoned arms and ammunition, of food stores and clothing, and of the paper which a modern army spends so profusely. It was some days before all the enemy dead had been found and buried. Long columns of dejected prisoners in drab olive-green and khaki streamed eastwards. In the whole battle 38,300 prisoners, 237 guns and 73 tanks were captured . Four generals were taken: Gallina of the Group of Libyan Divisions, Chario of the 1st Libyan Division, Piscatori of the 2nd Libyan, Merzari of the 4th Blackshirt.

12 December 1940 SOME OF LATEST BATCH OF 4000 PRISONERS FROM AREA BETWEEN BARRANI AND Buq Buq. ALL ITALIAN TROOPS WERE WELL-CLOTHED & ARMED & IN GOOD PHYSICAL CONDITION BUT SEEMED IN NO MOOD FOR FIGHTING AFTER THE FIRST FEW HOURS OF THE ENCOUNTER. (PHOTOGRAPHED BY F. HURLEY).

The Italian prisoners’ journey begins: Sidi Barrani to Mersa Matruh to Alexandria. Some were taken to Palestine while others were taken to camps along the Bitter Lakes/Suez area.

Agostino Marazzi boards the Queen Mary bound for Sydney Australia. The ship leaves Suez on 7th May and arrives at Trinomalee (Ceylon) 14th May. She departs Trinomalee on 15th May and arrives in Fremantle Australia 21st May.  Queen Mary departs Fremantle on 21st May and arrives in Sydney on 25th May 1941

The Queen Mary had been in service as a troopship since May 1940 after she had been fitted out to accommodate 5000 troops. Towards the end of the war, Queen Mary was carrying 15,000 American troops in a voyage.

Amedeo Marazzi remembers his father’s story about the Queen Mary: “The Queen Mary was the largest ship in the world at the time and had 3 swimming pools, a theatre and a cinema. My father said that when they passed the equator at night, it was so hot some men jumped into the water of the pools for relief but the temperature in the pool was worse in than out.”

The Australian army identity photo was taken on 4th November 19411. Amedeo reflects, “To see the young face of my father was a unique wonderful emotion.”

Marazzi, Agostino NAA: A367, C85443

Agostino’s brother sent him a picture postcard of his mother, Celeste Vinciguerra, on 16th December 1942.  Mention is made of Sergio Galazzi, a radio mechanic from Rome. 

Sergio had arrived at Hay Camp 26th March 1942.  News must have reached the Marazzi and Galazzi families that Agostino and Sergio were now in the same camp.

Ecco la foto di mamma che tanto desideri. L’abbiamo fatta in questi giorni. Ti saluta e ti bacia. Tanti saluti dalla mamma di Galazzi Sergio. Tanti saluti da noi.

Elide Arturo

Celeste Vinciguerra (photo courtesy of Amedeo Marazzi)

Amedeo reminisces, “My father and his friends once they arrived in Australia  realized that this was a wonderful place. He settled immediately and became a labourer on a farm. He would talk about breakfast where he could have coffee or milk, honey, fruit, bread, butter and jam.  He has never felt like a prisoner of war.”

My father had good memories of Australia. He always told us that if he won the lottery, he would take us all on a holiday to Australia,” reflects Amedeo.

Carnivale 1950s Adele, Rossella, Amedeo, Agostino (photo courtesy of Amedeo Marazzi)

Recently Amedeo obtained a copy of his father’s extra Australian file. 

Little details emerge from this file: Agostino was captured at Buq Buq, west of Sidi Barrani; while in Hay Camp he worked as a bootmaker; in Hay Camp he was awarded 24 hours detention for possession of a prohibited article but this was not officially recorded.

Other documents record that he worked on the farm of Mr LE Peacock at Oakbank together with Sebastiano Aiello.

Upon return to Italy, life returned quickly to a familiar routine surrounded by family.

Adele and Agostino Marazzi (photo courtesy of Amedeo Marazzi)

Young men full of hope and dreams..

By the time Filippo Granatelli arrived in Australia in February 1945, he had already served 6 years in the Italian army, had been captured in Asmara  Eritrea on 6th May 1941 and spent close to 4 years in POW camps in India.

Granatelli Asmara 28 December 1939 lower left - Copy

Filippo (standing front row left and friends) December 28 1939

(photo courtesy of Veniero Granatelli)

On  20.2.45, an Australian War Diary communicates, “350 Italians to SA for onward movement to WA.”  The date is significant: it was Filippo’s 30th birthday.  He had arrived in Melbourne on 13.2.45. This was his first birthday in Australia.

The die is cast,  Filippo Granatelli is to travel from Melbourne Victoria to Western Australia via South Australia. He was one of 155 Italian prisoners of war who arrived in Western Australia on 24.2.45.

In Western Australia he is sent to the Karrakatta Hostel, the Bunbury Hostel (State Forestry  firewood cutting and Department of Agriculture, hay harvesting, potato digging) before working on a farm in the Moora district (W25).

Movement Orders for PWIX GWM 20.2.45

from AWM52 1/1/14 Headquarters Units January to April 1945

 

But what of the young men like Filippo who fought Mussolini’s war in Eritrea?

Filippo kept a small number of photos from this time which gives us an insight into these young men and a very special thank you to his son Veniero for sharing these photos.

Granatelli right in helmet - Copy

Filippo Granatelli seated right 

(photo courtesy of Veniero Granatelli)

Granatelli Dicembre 1939 first on right - Copy

Asmara December 1939 Filippo Granatelli seated right 

(photo courtesy of Veniero Granatelli)

 

Young men enjoying their adventure

1st photo: Filippo right and 2nd photo Filippo standing Cappadocia July 1937

(photo courtesy of Veniero Granatelli)

Cappadocia was one of the training camps for Filippo during his compulsory military service.  The above photo and the certificate below, reminders of  22 year old Filippo’s youth.

War and imprisonment were to shape many young men’s futures.

Cappadocia 1937

Diploma for Filippo Granatelli 4.8.37 Cappadocia

(photo courtesy of Veniero Granatelli)

 

Watch this film on Eritrea : Eritrea’s Last Stand

 

When did it start?

10th June 1940 was the official Italian declaration of war.

But for some Italians, the battles started in Eritrea and Ethiopia (1935), Spain (1936), Albania (1939).

For other recruits, it started with training before 1940.

From 10th June 1940, the Mediterranean Sea was a battlefield for the navy and the airforce; on 3rd August 1940 British Somaliland was taken, by 13th September 1940 the Italian forces had arrived at Sidi Barrani on the Libyan-Egyptian border and on 28th October 1940 the invasion of Greece began.

Benghazi… Tripoli… Bardia… Tobruk…Derna…Martuba…Acroma…Barca… Jarabub… desert forts…oases strongholds…

A special thank you to the families of these men for sharing the following photos: Antioco Pinna, Annibale Arangeli, Fioravante Blasioli, Tullio Brutti, Marino Casadio, Emidio Di Benedictis, Filippo Granatelli and Sebastiano di Campli

When and where did the war begin for your father?

For Biagio di Ferdinando life as a soldier started March 1938 when he was called up for military service. The following extract is from his book Odyssey

I was called up for military service during the month of February 1938. The postcard came from the military district of Teramo asking to present myself for military service. I left home the morning of 5 March 1938.  I farewelled my family and left together with a friend of the same age.  We arrived at the military barracks in good time. After a little while and a medical check up I was assigned to the 116th infantry regiment based in Chieti, a town inland from Pescara and south of my hometown. 

All the recruits from the district of Chieti of my class were assigned to the 116th infantry regiment in Libya.  The following days they gave us the green-gray uniforms.  Before that time the Italian soldiers in Africa wore the khaki colonial uniforms. 

… I wrote a letter to my family to let them know that I was assigned to the infantry in Tobruck, Libya.

We left Chieti on 13 March 1938.  We took the train to Naples and when we arrived we went to the harbour where we embarked on a ship that would carry us to Libya.

When the ship departed and we heard the siren it was a blow to the heart.. Nearly all us recruits had tears to our eyes, for the first time away from home and going so far away.  During the trip the sea was very rough and nearly all suffered sea sickness. 

When the ship arrived at Derna on 17 March 1938 it anchored far away from the land because there was no port.  Several boats came to take us to shore.  That morning the sea was very rough and the waves were breaking over the ship and as a result they could not use the ladders in order to board the boats. To disembark they put us in the nets used to unload goods, lifted us with the crane and lowered us into the boats, when over the boat we had to wait for the waves and the boat to be level in order to jump from the net into the boat. In the boats, to help us exit from the bag, were some Arabs. We approached them with fear, in the way they were dressed with those turbans on their head.   

In every net that came down were ten soldiers. When the net was lowered we had to wait in order to jump into the boat, had to be quick to get out of the bag to avoid falling into the sea.  In fact while the net was being withdrawn one soldier was nearly thrown overboard because one leg was caught in it….

Before leaving for Tobruck we stayed for the evening in the barracks of the 115th infantry in Derna.  We slept in bunk beds…

On 18 March 1938 we left Derna for Tobruck, one column of approximately 170 trucks. There were 170km from Derna to Tobruck and we arrived on 19 March 1938. The barracks in which we were billetted were brand new.  We, the new regiment of the 116 Marmarica infantry, were the first to wear the grey green uniform in Tobruck. I was allocated to the second company.  My serial number was:  8404… 

In Tobruck, and in all of Libya, blows a wind called ‘ghibli’, very hot and the sand is driven like a fog…and the flies were as thick as bees, like large swarms. 

 Drinking water was carried by tanker from Taranto in the south of Italy. The water that we had in Tobruck was not suitable to drink because it was salty.  With that water we only washed the clothes. 

In the first few months we were training every day.  We were the soldiers of the King and because we were the first gray-green uniforms in the Italian colonies, after a few months the King, Victor Emmanuel III, came to inaugurate all the new barracks in which we lived.  Our Colonel of the 116th Regiment Marmarica infantry presented all of us soldiers in the great square, with one beautiful new road around the barracks. 

The King arrived in an open carriage with General Balbo, the commander of all the Italian troops in Libya.  Behind the General was the King, he was small with a large helmet as protection from the sun, he remained seated and we could hardly see him. We filed past [marching] with the Roman step.  The King drove around the barracks and left.

Biagio returned home on leave four times. On the 1st June 1940 Biago returned to Libya.

He served at Sidi Barrani and Sollum, withdrew to Bardia on foot, was deployed inland to Jarabub and was captured 3rd January 1941 at Bardia.

On Christmas day 1940 for lunch they gave us about eight bucatini, strands of spaghetti, cooked with water.  In those last days of 1940 we were very badly situated.  We were full of fleas, unwashed and had almost nothing to eat.

Giovanni Palermo’s journey can be found in Noi Prigionieri Africa 1941-1947

Benghazi, Derna and Giarabub in Libya

Cowra Chess Set

Artefacts made by Italian Prisoners of War are rare. While there are many memories of the gifts made by the POWs such as rings, engravings and wooden objects, there are few items still in existence.

So an email from David Stahel in Brisbane was very exciting. David owns a boxed chess set made by Italian POWs in Cowra.  It is not only beautiful but it is special because of the story behind the board.

Cowra Chess (1).jpeg

Badge on Chess Set

( from the photographic collection of David Stahel)

The Italian prisoners of war were making chess sets in 1944, when Geoffrey McInnes captured them on film.  And quite possibly David’s chess set was one such set made by the Italian POWs. The photo below shows five Italian POWs working on a lathe built from salvaged timber and metal to produce chess pieces. The sets were sold for 35/- to Army Amenities Section.

Cowra Chess AWM 4134226

(AWM Image 064356 Photo by McInnes, Geoffrey Cowra, NSW. 1944-02-07)

David’s chess sets adds detail to the history of the chess sets being made by Italian POWs at Cowra.  “My father had a chess board that he told me he bought from an Italian POW for some packs of cigarettes.  I grew up with this board and learnt to play draught and chess on it with my father… the painted watercolour scene (unsigned) is very reminiscent of the Italian countryside.  The workmanship of the board and pieces are of a very high standard. Inside is quilted with a satin like fabric. Pawns, rooks, bishops, kings, queens, draught have been turned on a lathe which the knights are carved from a turned base… My father was a lieutenant in the artillery, specifically in the anti aircraft arena,” writes David Stahel.

Boxed Chess Set

( from the photographic collection of David Stahel)

The concept of Italian POWs selling boxed chess sets for 35/- raises a few questions.  POWs were not allowed to have in their possession Australian currency, so what happened to the proceeds of sales.  Quite possibly funds were deposited into the canteen fund.  Profits from the canteen were used by POWs to purchase books for the camp library. Prisoners of war were allowed access to books and music to further their studies and libraries were established in camps. Additionally, access to books and music was a way for POWs to usefully occupy their leisure time.

Tobruk (Libia) 21 gennaio 1941 Part 3

Feature photo above:

Above Featured Photo: Gianni Senici Durante il servizio militare in Libia (1936-1938) Lui è quello coi calzoni bianchi. Era addetto alla mensa ufficiali (photo courtesy of Fabrizio Senici)

Below is an extract from the book P.O.W. No. 48664 Prisoner of War written by Fabrizio Senici. Disponible su / Available on: AMAZON  and IBS LIBRI

Part 3…

Guerre1939-1945. Prisonniers de guerre italiens conduits à Tobrouk par une escorte anglaise. War 1939-1945. Italians prisonners of war conducted to Tobrouk by British escort. Les prisonniers secouent des mouchoirs blancs. L’escorte anglaise préfère marcher à reculons afin de mieux surveiller les prisonniers.

Usciamo in fila indiana con le mani sopra la testa e gli occhi accecati dal sole.

Tengo lo sguardo basso e ancora una volta mi viene da ghignare per quei miei calzoni bianchi che abbagliano nel sole di mezzogiorno.

Non facciamo che pochi passi. Di fronte ci troviamo i fucili automatici dei soldati australiani. Tengo bassa la testa, ma alzo lo sguardo per vedere che cosa succede. Il sergente si fa avanti per primo tenendo le mani bene alzate sopra la testa e dichiara la volontà di arrendersi. Parla in italiano, ma lo capiscono ugualmente, come lui capisce i gesti che gli fa il suo parigrado. Il sottufficiale australiano tiene il suo fucile ad altezza d’uomo e con quello indica la via.

Il sergente si incammina per primo e ci parla a bassa voce: «State calmi e non fate monate» ma un colpo nel costato gli fa capire che deve stare zitto. Per un piccoletto tutto scuro di carnagione le parole del sergente non servono: esce dalla fila e inizia a scappare. Ci giriamo tutti giusto in tempo per vedere un australiano che prende la mira e lo centra in testa. Credo che morirò anch’io. Anzi ne sono sicuro. Mi vengono in mente le parole del colonnello: “Pensa a portare a casa la pelle, giovanotto, che qui siamo tutti come morti che camminano” e in effetti sembriamo una fila di morti viventi.

Ci spingono con le canne dei fucili verso un primo concentramento, in uno slargo dove mi rendo conto che siamo migliaia. Non ho mai visto tanta gente insieme così sporca e cenciosa, stremata, e soprattutto triste. Intorno a me ci sono feriti leggeri e gravi. Tutti abbiamo lo sguardo perso nel niente, incapaci di reazione. Ma quello che mi fa ancora più paura è non capire una parola di quello che dicono. Gli australiani non parlano, non ordinano. Urlano.

Mi metto in coda al sergente e dietro di me si mette il bresciano. «Come ti chiami?» riesco a dirgli a quello dietro, e poi ancora: «Sèt de Brésa?».[sei di Brescia?]

«Mi chiamo Rossetti Angelo» mi risponde lui «bresciano di Castelmella».

Mi vien da piangere dalla gioia. Poi tiro la giacca al sergente: «Sergente, come vi chiamate?» gli do del voi per rispetto al grado. Lui si gira appena un po’: «Bortolotti Luigi* e sono friulano, e tu?».

«Senici Giovanni della sessantasettesima, ma voi mi potete chiamare Gianni».

Allora anche lui mi dice: «E tu chiamami Luigi e smettila di darmi del voi. Da adesso in poi siamo tutti uguali».

23rd January 1941 TOBRUK – ITALIAN PRISONERS LEAVING THE TOWN ON FOOT. (AWM Image 005604 NEGATIVE BY F. HURLEY).

*Fabrizio uses the name of Luigi Bortolotti as he also was captured at Tobruk 21 January 1941. Fabrizio would like to think that Luigi and Giovanni’s paths crossed during the chaos of Tobruk. Click below to read the experiences of Luigi Bortolotti: From Tobruk to Clare.

Tobruk (Libia) 21 gennaio 1941 Part 2

Feature Photo Above: Gianni Senici, Durante il servizio militare in Libia (1936-1938) (photo courtesy of Fabrizio Senici)

Below is an extract from the book P.O.W. No. 48664 Prisoner of War written by Fabrizio Senici. Disponible su / Available on: AMAZON  and IBS LIBRI

Part 2…

Italian Prisoners of War at Tobruk (AWM Image P10989.002 Photographer: Cartledge, Bryan Hammersley)

Siamo dentro, al riparo. Buio, paura e silenzio: penso a come devono essere spessi questi muri per chiudere fuori tutto quel casino.

Paura, buio, silenzio: nessuno di noi ha il coraggio di parlare. Anche il sergente sta zitto. Qualche colpo di tosse, qualcuno tira su con il naso, ognuno ascolta solo il bum-bum del suo cuore. Silenzio, paura e buio: piano piano i miei occhi si abituano alla poca luce che filtra dalle feritoie.

Faccio la conta di quanti siamo, cerco qualcuno che conosco, ma non conosco proprio nessuno. Solo che mi è sembrato che uno parlasse bresciano e almeno questo mi fa sentire meno solo.

Il sergente sa che tutti ci aspettiamo da lui una decisione. Siamo tagliati fuori da qualsiasi contatto e spetta a lui decidere della nostra sorte. Mi guardo intorno mentre la polvere gioca e balla nei fasci di luce delle feritoie e nella nostra puzza di paura. Il mio sguardo incontra gli occhi del sergente che sembrano non vedermi, mi passano oltre. Ostia. Siamo tutti gnari [ragazzi] di poco più di vent’anni, spauriti, gente che fino all’anno prima faceva il contadino, l’operaio, il magüt [il carpentiere] e ora è solo carne da macello. Quando inizia a parlare capisco che il sergente è un uomo buono.

«Ragazzi, qui è finita, non c’è più niente da fare» dice e la sua voce mi fa capire tutta la sua stanchezza.

«Che cosa facciamo, sergente?» chiede una voce.

«Non lo so, sacramento, non lo so proprio» risponde il sergente. E poi continuando: «In quanti siamo qui dentro? Dài fioi, contiamoci».

Allora mi faccio forza e inizio io: «Uno» dico, e poi altre voci: «due, tre, quattro, cinque, sei, sette. Dov’è il bambino? Dov’è Mario?» chiede

qualcuno in veneto. Non so chi sia questo “bambino”, questo Mario, ma posso immaginare che sia il più giovane di quel gruppo.

«Non l’ho più visto da un po’» dice un altro veneto, da questo capisco che sono tre che si conoscono, magari dei compaesani.

«Allora in quanti semo?» continua il sergente.

«In sette, sergente, qui dentro siamo in sette» risponde pronto il caporale.

«Chi cazzo è che sta piangendo?» la voce del sergente adesso non è più così buona: «Dài che siamo uomini del Duce, ostia!».

Sono stanco morto. Da tre giorni scappo come un topo da un rifugio all’altro e mangiare non se ne parla, figurarsi il bere. Mi lascio scivolare

lungo il muro e quando il mio sedere tocca terra mi sento come un sacco svuotato e penso che potrei anche morire così.

Guardo il sergente. Tutti guardiamo il sergente. C’è più luce adesso che gli occhi si sono abituati. Lui si toglie l’elmetto, si asciuga il sudore con il dorso della mano lasciandosi una striscia nera sulla fronte. Ci squadra a uno a uno. Poi parla. Con voce forte e chiara, an che lui è veneto, o trentino: «Ascoltatemi bene tutti, qui non c’è più un cazzo da fare. Da ieri gli ufficiali non rispondono e secondo me se la sono già svignata perciò se non vogliamo crepare, e io non vi voglio sulla coscienza, non ci resta che arrenderci».

Silenzio.

«Però, quando usciamo da qui, che nessuno si metta in testa di fare l’eroe».

«Che cosa dobbiamo fare sergente?» chiede il bresciano.

«Usciamo da qui con le mani sopra la testa. Lasciate qui le armi» risponde lui.

«Qualcuno sa l’inglese?» chiede una voce.

«Che cosa ci faranno, sergente?» chiede un’altra.

Adesso tutti prendiamo il coraggio di parlare e sembra un pollaio.

«State zitti tutti» urla il sergente, ma poi si calma.

«Non lo so» dice sconsolato «non lo so!».

Detto questo, si fa largo nello spazio angusto del bunker, mette mano alla pesante maniglia in ferro e si decide a uscire.

«Dài andiamo fora dai cojon, stiamo uniti, proviamo a stare tutti insieme».

«Padre nostro che sei nei cieli…» qualcuno sta pregando a mezza voce.

«Chi cazzo è che prega, ostia, non è il momento di pregare» urla di nuovo il sergente e aggiunge: «Dài fuori di qui. FUORI!».

23rd January 1941 TOBRUK – THE DEFENCE POSITION ON THE ROAD APPROACHING TOBRUK. NOTE WIRE, CONCRETE PILLBOX & THE ANTI TANK GUN THAT WAS RESPONSIBLE FOR THE DESTRUCTION OF THE Y.M.C.A. CAR. (NEGATIVE BY F. HURLEY).

Tobruk (Libia) 21 gennaio 1941 Part 1

Above Featured Photo: Gianni Senici 1985. Aged 69 years.

It is a privilege to honour the journey of Giovanni Senici, as recreated by his son Fabrizio Senici in his book P.O.W. No. 48664 Prisoner of War. Fabrizio has researched extensively his father’s story which included a visit to Australia in 2017, to walk in his father’s footsteps. Disponible su / Available on: AMAZON  and IBS LIBRI

Part 1…

Non riesco a credere che sono ancora vivo. Mi appoggio al muro, chiudo gli occhi e cerco con la mano la mia piastrina di riconoscimento. Mi dà sicurezza quel pezzo di ferro con su il mio nome. Se dovessi morire, penso, almeno sanno chi sono.

Sì, perché qui si aspetta solo di morire. Certo, se mi avessero detto che la guerra era questa, mica sarei partito fischiettando da Concesio quando mi hanno richiamato il 1° maggio.

Ho in mente questa cosa da stamattina, quando per un momento le bombe hanno smesso di fischiarmi sopra la testa. È stata dura perché sono due notti che ci bombardano. Da terra, dal mare e dal cielo. Sembra la grandinata del 1936. Una grandine così a Brescia non l’avevano mai vista. I chicchi erano grossi come uova e hanno spaccato su tutto: tetti, carri, le automobili, i vetri delle case. Ecco, le bombe degli inglesi oggi hanno fatto quella stessa roba lì, solo che i buchi sono molto più grandi.

Sono due giorni che me ne sto rintanato nella mensa ufficiali. E chi ha più avuto il coraggio di mettere fuori il naso! Sono un cameriere io, mica uno che spara. E per fortuna che non mi sono più mosso da qui, se no addio Gianni, e chissà perché rido mentre sento gli areoplani che volano bassi su Tobruk. Sarà la paura.

È mattino presto, quasi l’alba. Spio fuori dai sacchi che abbiamo messo da dieci giorni fuori dalle finestre della sala mensa. I caporioni lo sapevano da un bel po’ che saremmo stati attaccati, ma si sono guardati bene dal dircelo.

E gli ufficiali allora? Ah, quelli poi sono tutti impazziti. Qui non si capisce più niente di chi comanda e di chi non comanda. Prima ti danno un ordine, poi te ne danno un altro e intanto giù bombe. Non ho ancora finito di pensare a questa cosa che entra di corsa un alto ufficiale. Riconosco che è un colonnello dalla torretta con le tre stelle d’oro che porta sulla divisa. È tutto impolverato e perde sangue da un braccio.

Sono da solo qui dentro, e non ci dovrei stare. Che faccio? Lo saluto o non lo saluto? Poi scatto sull’attenti: «Soldato semplice addetto alla mensa ufficiali Senici Giovanni, 67a divisione Sirte» dico, e resto lì aspettando un ordine di “riposo”, ma quello passa fuori che sembra non vedermi nemmeno, allora mi rilasso e gli dico: «Sta bene, signor colonnello?».

Lui si gira, si tocca il braccio e sorridendo senza guardarmi mi dice: «Stavo meglio prima. Comunque non è niente, soldato. Grazie».

Ostia! Mi sorprende di più quel “grazie” che non trovare un po’ di acqua qui a Tobruk, e allora gli rispondo: «Prego, signor colonnello» ma in verità avrei voluto chiedergli «Che facciamo?».

E lui fa una cosa che non dimenticherò. Mi mette il braccio sano sulla spalla e mi dice: «Pensa a portare a casa la pelle, giovanotto, che qui siamo tutti come morti che camminano» e così dicendo se ne va: apre la porta delle cucine ed esce come se niente fosse, aggiustandosi l’elmetto sulla testa.

Volevo dirgli di stare attento, ma mi rimetto dietro i sacchi e lo vedo, testa alta e petto in fuori, attraversare la piazza dove ancora resiste il monumento di Mussolini con la scritta VINCERE.

Guardo quel colonnello gentile che mi ha detto “grazie” e un momento dopo non c’è più. Una granata li ha disintegrati insieme, lui e il monumento di Mussolini.

D’istinto mi tiro indietro. Ho le orecchie che fischiano per il gran botto e il cuore che batte forte in gola. Mi viene da piangere tanta è la paura. Me lo diceva sempre mio padre che noi soldati siamo solo carne da macello e che i governi sono i macellai. Non gli volevo credere, l’era semper cioc. [era sempre unbriaco]

Mi siedo su una seggiola e accendo una Milit. Tiro lunghe boccate che sentono proprio di merda e bruciano la gola e mi ricordo che ho sete.

Acqua dai rubinetti non ne viene, gli inglesi hanno bombardato per prima cosa i nostri pozzi. Allora mi attacco a una bottiglia di vino spumante mezza vuota, lì da chissà quanto.  

Adesso qui dentro, in questa cucina, è tutto calmo. Fuori c’è la guerra: scoppi, boati, urla, i cingolati che fanno un fracasso della madonna, ma qui dentro c’è una pace che si sta quasi bene. Mi fumo la mia sigaretta fino a scottarmi le dita e finalmente mi decido ad alzare il culo dalla seggiola.

Dài, forza, mi dico che l’ultima sigaretta l’ho fumata e poi penso che morirò come quel colonnello. Torno a guardare fuori dai sacchi e vedo un gruppo che corre rasente il muro del palazzo ad angolo e allora vado: mi affaccio fuori dalle cucine e prendo tutto il coraggio che ho per uscire fuori allo scoperto.

Davanti a tutti c’è un sergente che grida forte per farsi sentire sopra gli scoppi, la polvere e la gran confusione. Corro con loro con le mie braghe bianche da cameriere. Capisco che faccio anche un po’ ridere.

Tutti gridano tutto:

«Corri, corri!».

«Non fermarti!».

«Caporale, raduna i tuoi!».

«Dài, dài veloci, veloci, madonna!».

«Tenete giù la testa, tenete giù la testa!».

«Oh sergente, sono da tutte le parti questi inglesi di merda!».

Ci fermiamo un momento. Al riparo di una casa sventrata. Giro lo sguardo sui miei compagni, ma non ne conosco nessuno. Per forza mi dico, a Tobruk saremo in ventimila.

«Telefonista, chiama il comando, chiedi rinforzi!».

«Comando, comando, qui è la sessantasettesima… comando, comando… non rispondono, sergente!».

«Ma dov’è il 6° con i 50 millimetri, dove cazzo sono?».

«Dài, via di qui, non c’è più niente da fare!».

«Dài via di lì, venite via!».

«State giù, state giù!».

«Dài tutti dentro qui, al riparo, al riparo!».

Sapevo che la città era piena di bunker che sarebbero serviti proprio in caso di ultima, estrema difesa. Quelli davanti aprono con fatica la pesante porta in metallo che non vuole saperne di cedere sotto le spallate disperate dei primi della fila. Finalmente entriamo. C’è puzza di cantina ammuffita.

«Sergente, non si vede una madonna qui dentro».

«Caporale mettiti allo spioncino».

«Oh sergente fuori è pieno di inglesi».

«Caporale, non sono inglesi sono australiani».

«Peggio ancora, al corso ci hanno spiegato che questi sono come delle bestie!».

23rd January 1941 TOBRUK – LOOKING ALONG THE PIAZZA BENITO MUSSOLINI, AFTER THE ENTRANCE OF THE BRITISH FORCES. (AWM Image 005416 NEGATIVE BY F. HURLEY).

More than a photo frame

Memories can be easily forgotten. Tangible items are long lasting.

The Italian prisoners of war used paint, handkerchiefs, board, thread, wood and metal to create tangible items as a way of recording their time as a prisoner of war.

Anselmo Franchi from Tesogno (Parma) crafted his memories in wood.

At first glance you will see the obvious: a photo frame in the shape of Australia.

But this is more than a photo frame: it is a record of Anselmo’s journey.

Photo frame made by Anselmo Franchi (photo courtesy of Roberto Pardini)

The crest and crown motif – Crest representing the House of Savoia, the Kingdom of Italy

The date palms, minaret, and sand dunes – Libya, Anselmo was captured at Port Bardia Libya

The three-funnel ship – the Queen Mary which transported Anselmo from Egypt to Australia

The kangaroo – Australia

F A – Franchi Anselmo

While the photo frame represents the past, with the inclusion of a photo of Anselmo’s wife, it also represented the ‘present’ and the ‘future’.

Stand for Photo Frame (photo courtesy of Roberto Pardini)

Roberto Pardini, Anselmo’s son-in-law, shares further details, “Anselmo was very proud of his work, since, as you can imagine, the tools to make it were not many. He used an axe to bring the wood to the desired thickness and with a piece of blade from a table knife he made the bas-relief. Anselmo used the map of Australia on the 1941 YMCA Christmas card as a pattern for the frame.”

Front cover of Anselmo’s 1941 Christmas Card from YMCA (photo courtesy of Roberto Pardini)

Food… finally

Food… water… the most basic of necessities was in short supply for the Italians after capture.  Providing food and water to 40,000 prisoners of war after the capture of Bardia or to 28,000 after the surrender of Tobruk was a logistical nightmare for the Allied forces.

At the Tobruk [prisoner of war]Cage it was reported that, “At first, it took one of the two infantry companies posted at the cage seven hours to distribute the day’s rations—one tin of veal, two biscuits and a bottle of water to each man, though few prisoners had even a bottle to receive their water in… The 2/2nd Battalion which relieved the 2/7th reduced the time spent feeding the prisoners to five hours by installing water tubs and employing Italian N .C.O’s to organise the lines.

(From AUSTRALIA IN THE WAR OF 1939-1945 SERIES ONE ARMY

VOLUME I TO BENGHAZI AUSTRALIA IN THE WAR OF 1939-1945

SERIES 1 (ARMY ) I . To Benghazi. By Gavin Long. *

Volume 1 Chapter 9 Capture of Tobruk)

The featured photo is dated 22 January 1943: COME AND GET IT. HUNGRY GERMAN AND ITALIAN PRISONERS TAKEN BY THE 8TH ARMY RECEIVE A RATION OF BULLY BEEF AND BISCUITS. (NEGATIVE BY F. HURLEY). It illustrates the distribution of food as reported above: tinned meat and biscuits.

The hunger pains and the lack of food security contributed to fear of starvation and dehydration. Thirst was more pressing, made worse by the fact that the tinned meat was highly salted.

In the camps of Egypt, one would either smoke or eat. Cigarettes were currency and would be exchanged for bread. Italians took up the offer to work outside the camps or within the British Officers’ compounds. Any opportunity which offered a chance to scrounge found was taken.

Secret Document: “Ration scale to be applied in respect of prisoners of war, all ranks, from Middle East in Troop Transports” indicates that the Italians on the ships, at least for the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth voyages of 1941 were well fed.

This view is supported by written testimonies of Italians on two separate voyages of the Queen Mary

steaming food… hot tea… bread… butter… jam

breakfast…lunch…dinner

dream or reality

(AWM2021.8.387)

Suspicious that the first meals were a ruse, minds turned to thoughts that soon, life would return to days of hunger.

Will tomorrow be the day that the food rations are reduced?

Will tomorrow be the day that hunger returns?

Italians took opportunities to volunteer to work in the kitchens or galleys to ensure food security.  In time, the Italians realised that they would always have enough food and they drifted away from ‘work’.

Kindness was shown to the Italians by the British ship’s crew: a box of capstan cigarette and matches, being taken to a crew’s cabin for a shower, a bowl of plum-pudding, slices of ham, delicious apricot tart, issue of white clothing and apron for kitchen work; and the Australian soldiers: cigarettes, pressed tobacco and papers.

For c. three weeks from Suez to Sydney with three meals a day, the daunting concerns were now:

will we have enough food in the camps in Australia?

Nonno’s Blanket

Salvatore Di Noia has sent me photo of a grey blanket with light grey stripes. This blanket is his nonno’s blanket from his prisoner of war days in Australia.

Nonno’s Blanket (courtesy of Salvatore Di Noia)

Salvatore Targiani departed Australia on the Oranje, a medical ship, on the 27th March 1943.  The Oranje was the first repatriation of Italian prisoners of war, under special arrangements. Salvatore worked in the 17th Hygiene Unit in Bardia.  His skills as a medical orderly is most likely the reason for his early repatriation.

In Australia, the Italian prisoners of war were issued with 4 blankets for their bedding.  An extra blanket was issued in winter.

The topic of blankets is interesting.

Italians at Sandy Creek Transit Camp in South Australia complained about the quality of the blankets they had been issued. It was claimed that the blankets were made India and were of poor quality.  They requested that these blankets were substituted for Australian made blankets which were of a better quality.

On 27th September 1946, a newspaper reported that the Italians being repatriated on the Chitral from Western Australia, had been given army blankets at Northam Camp but they were to return them to the Australian guards upon arrival in Naples. I see a logistical problem in this directive.  There were up to 3000 Italians repatriated on ships: 4 blankets x 3000 men = 12,000 blankets.  Was it possible that the Australia guards could count every blanket?

 Pasquale Landolfi and Vincenzo Di Pietro from the Home Hill Hostel in north Queensland used their army blankets for suits.  They were found 110 south of Home Hill outside the town of Bowen.  They were dressed in grey suits made from blankets.  There were five Italian tailors at the Home Hill Hostel.

Italian officers in Myrtleford Camp in Victoria made coats from blankets. The photo below shows a rather stylish yet practical coat.  Myrtleford is in the alpine country of northern Victoria: winters have maximum temperature 12 degrees C and minimum temperature 3 degrees C.

Guerre 1939-1945. Camp de Myrtleford. Groupe numéro 27. World War 1939-1945. Myrtleford camp. Group number 27.

1-6-43 Myrtleford Officers Camp (ICRC V-P-HIST-01882-27)

Domenico Modugno’s souvenirs from Australia were blankets. Domenico was sent to Tasmania for farm work and then was sent to V25 Hume Hostel to await repatriation.  His daughter Lucrezia recalls, “From captivity, my father brought home grey-black blankets date 1945 which we used as children in the cold winters.”

A report on a group of Italians from Liverpool Camp mentions that the men were taking home items such as soap, cotton and wool goods purchased from the canteen.  These items were in short supply in Italy. Wool army blankets would have been an appropriate and practical item to ‘souvenir’.

The men boarding the Moreton Bay repatriation ship in 1946 found many ways to strap their blankets to luggage or to make a swag to hang from shoulder to waist.

4-8-46 Repatriation of Italian prisoners of war on the Moreton Bay