Today I introduce you to Pasquale Landolfi from Frattaminore Napoli. Pasquale was 20 years old when he was captured at Tobruk 21.1.1941.
From 13.10.41 and his arrival on the Queen Mary into Sydney NSW until his departure on 28.6.1949 from Sydney NSW on the SS Surriento Pasquale travels through five states of Australia.
Tracing his journey Pasquale went from NEW SOUTH WALES: Sydney to Cowra Camp to VICTORIA: Murchison Camp. He transited through SOUTH AUSTRALIA on his way to WESTERN AUSTRALIA: No 8 Labour Detachment Karrakatta and Marrinup Camp.
Pasquale then crossed Australia again and returned to VICTORIA: Murchison Camp and then NEW SOUTH WALES: Hay Camp.
The next stage of his journey took him to QUEENSLAND: Gaythorne Camp and Home Hill* Hostel. After escaping from the Home Hill Hostel, he briefly ‘visited’ Bowen until his arrest and return the Home Hill Hostel.
He returned to Gaythorne Camp before a return to VICTORIA: Murchison Camp and the Dandenong after he escaped from a Murchison working party. Upon capture he was sent to NEW SOUTH WALES: Holdsworthy Military Barracks for detention.
Three Italian prisoners of war boarded the SS Surriento in Sydney on 28.6.49: Pasquale Landolfi, Giacomo Tagliaferri and Isidoro Cammaroto. The ship sailed from Sydney to Brisbane QLD before departing for Italy.
The newspaper article below records this unusual situation of a passenger liner carrying three prisoners of war and two political deportees.
Memories from Ippolito Moscatelli (Messaggero di Sant’Antonio July-August 2021)
A special thank you to Sara Bavato for her continued support of the Italian prisoner of war research project and her article in the latest publication of Messaggero di Sant’Antonio. Click on the link below to read the article…
Every Italian prisoner of war took something small home to Italy. It might be a memory of flying fish and dolphins, a button from the POW uniform, a dictionary, a theatre program or a chess set.
The history of Italian prisoners of war is enriched by these items. Each item adds new understanding to the life of the Italian prisoner of war in Australia.
Ippolito’s granddaughter Francesca continues to discover bits and pieces of her nonno’s collection and each one brings new meaning to her nonno’s life.
Pastel by Ippolito Moscatelli 11 November 1945 (courtesy of Francesca Maffietti)
Rosary beads are one of the most recognised symbols of Catholicism.
Before I received this photo from Rocco Severino De Micheli, I had not thought about rosary beads and prisoners of war. But for a catholic, rosary beads are important.
Graziella from Cormano Lombardia provides her personal perspective, “Rosary is a powerful weapon against evil. It means CROWN OF ROSES and every time you recite a Hail Mary, with a bead, it is like giving a rose to the Virgin Mary. I say this prayer every day and I always have a rosary in my bag and another one under my pillow. When you hold a Rosary in your hand you feel protected; you are under the mantle of the Virgin Mary and whatever happens you are protected.”
from “Il Cardinale Panico e la sua terra”- Congedo editore – Galatina 1995
The apostolic delegate Giovanni Panico is photographed distributing rosary beads to prisoners of war in Gaythorne Camp Queensland*.
a small but significant gesture
Another interesting reference to rosary beads comes from India. Italian prisoners of war in the British camps in India made requests through the YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association) for sandalwood and carving knives so that they could make rosary beads. Rosary beads are like prayer beads used in other religions. To pray the rosary is to recite specific prayers corresponding with particular beads on the string. A rosary is a made up of a crucifix, one larger bead, three small beads, another larger bead and then a medal. After the medal comes a larger bead again, followed by a group of 10 smaller beads. Rosary beads are a symbol of religion: a souvenir of your home, parish church, your youth; a reminder to pray.
What did rosary beads mean for the Italian prisoners of war?
*If the photo is dated 1942, then the only residents of Gaythorne Camp were internees, Australian resident Italians who were arrested in parts of Queensland and sent to Gaythorne Camp before onward movement to southern camps. *If the men in the photo are Italian prisoners of war, then the photo would have been taken from October 1943 onwards.
Filippo Ferrante had £-/14/6 (fourteen shillings and sixpence) in his possession when he completed his Property Statement in December 1941.
Filippo had arrived on the Queen Elizabeth in October 1941. He was sent directly to Cowra Camp New South Wales.
Where did he get the money from?
A barber from Pofi (Frosinone) possibly Filippo offered his services to Australia soldiers on the ship returning to Australia.
Australian currency – Maths Lesson
The currency of Australia was pounds £, shillings s and pence d
£1/10/6 = one pound, ten shillings and six pence.
£1 = 20 shillings
1 shilling = 12 pence
A look at 1943 newspapers
Petal Toilet Soap bar 4d
Sal-Vital tin 2/-
Shaving mirror 1/4½
Sunshine Milk tin 1/4
Coffee Essence 1/10
Macaroni packet 7½d
Tomato sauce large 1/7
Seed packets 6d
Pastel Drawing Book 3d
Coloured pastels 9d
Exercise book 6d
Memo book 3d
Drawing lead pencils 2d
Plain flour 5 lbs 11d
Ricette (rice substitute) 3 lbs 1/-
Navy Beans 3 lbs 1/-
Plum Jam 24 oz 1/-
Soup mix 1/-
Biscuits doz. 1/3
Newcastle Sun Wednesday 22 December 1948
NB The document for tobacco and cigarettes is from 1948. It is included for a general idea of prices.
Going Shopping £-/14/6
I have chosen items I know the men purchased from the canteen truck. Sal-Vital are effervescent salts to aid in digestion. Add to water, stir and drink. Brillcream is a hair cream. Tally Ho are cigarette papers for rolling your own cigarettes. The prisoners of war could use money in their accounts to purchase items from the camp canteen or the canteen truck which visited the farms. The items on sale were provisioned from army supplies. Some of these items like chocolate, canned peaches, condensed milk were impossible to purchase in shops (at times). Italian prisoners of war buying hard to find items, was a cause for criticism by many Australians. Some Italians purchased these items for the farmer’s wife in exchange for currency. It was prohibited to have currency. Some of the coins were used to make rings as gifts for the girls and women of the farming family.
Antonio Ciancio, a chauffeur from San Giovanni a Teduccio Napoli was one of many thousands of Italian prisoners of war to reside in Hay Prisoner of War Camp.
Having arrived in May 1941, a nominal roll places him in Camp 7 Hay [11th November 1942]. There were three camps at Hay: Camp 6, Camp 7 and Camp 8. Each camp was built to house 1000.
The camps were designed in an octagonal layout and were separate from each other. The history of Hay Prisoner of War and Internment Camp began in July 1940, when the Australian War Cabinet agreed to build two camps at Hay to accommodate 1000 persons per camp. Camps 7 and 8 were filled with internees sent to Australia from Great Britain. On 2nd November 1940, Camp 6 opened with Italian civilian internees.
Italian prisoners of war from Egypt arrive in Hay 28th May 1941. Antonio Ciancio was in this group. They were accommodated in Camp 7 and Camp 8. The next major development was the commencement of the River Farm in April 1942. I have used a 1962 aerial photo to highlight the positions of the camps and River Farm. If you look at Hay NSW on google maps and choose satellite view you will see an octagonal outline for Camp 6 and the extent of the River Farm.
Rough Location of Camps and River Farm Hay New South Wales
In August 1942, the newspapers reported that Hay Prisoner of War and Interments Camps had become a “model of what such a camp should be like in all countries.” In particular the produce from the farm/s were praised for its ‘experimental area of cotton which yields over 900 lb to the acre, the prison has 308 acres of vegetable, 20 acres of poultry, 16 for pigs, and 740 for mixed stock and crop farming.’
Dr Georges Morel reported in March 1943 that the Italian prisoners of war worked inside and outside the camp. Work outside the camps in addition to agriculture, consisted of building roads, erecting water pumping plants and fences, construction irrigation channels and sewerage works.
Prisoners of war were encouraged to be engaged in work parties. Dr Morel recorded that for Camp 7, 94 men worked inside the camp and 320 men worked outside the camp and for Camp 8 87 worked inside the camp and 470 worked outside the camp. The total number in residence for Camp 7 was 651 and for Camp 8 646.
It was reported that the Italians at Hay Camps in three months had grown 193,500 lbs of vegetables on 1000 acres of virgin soil. The men had also gained a stone in weight since arriving in Australia [during 1941].
Antonio was transferred to Cowra Camp on 13th August 1943. The placement of Italian prisoners of war on farms was gaining momentum in New South Wales and Queensland. The movement of Italians from Hay to Cowra was based on geography and the need to have men available for easy transfer into districts north of Cowra.
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. Alunni; 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 [Ioime]; 45256 A. Ciancio. Note: The number is an assigned POW number. (AWM Image 030148/10 Photographer Michael Lewicki)
Antonio was sent to a farm in the Coonabarabran district of New South Wales on 31.10.43. A newspaper report positively describes the Italian workforce. They were performing remarkable work, conduct was excellent, manners were most impressive, most were learning English very quickly and with guidance they were operating agricultural machinery.
By the time Antonio boarded the Alcantara to return to Italy on 23rd December 1946, he had spent 5 years and seven months in Australia.
His home city of Naples had been heavily bombed during 1944.
Naples Harbour 1944 (Imperial War Memorial)
Antonio would have been able to see San Giovanni a Teduccio on the journey into Naples harbour: a bittersweet moment.
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 4thBlackshirt.
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.
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)
Andrea Favatella arrived in Australia on 26th April 1944 and by 29th August 1944, he was working within the State Conservator of Forest plantations in South Australia.
There were three forestry areas where Italian prisoners of war worked: Mt Burr, Penola and Mt Gambier. The hostel camp sites were at Rocky Camp-Millicent for Mt Burr, Nangwarry for Penola, Wandilo for Mt Gambier.
Additional information from Peter Dunn at ozatwar.com indicates that Andrea was at Nangwarry [Penola]. Andrea departed the S13 Hostel on 22nd March 1946.
Forestry Work Nangwarry South Australia: Andrea Favatella is the first standing on the left.
(photo courtesy of Nino Favatella)
There were a number of state and commonwealth government projects throughout Australia which employed Italian prisoners of war. Forestry work was one project; others were wood cutting for firewood, rice growing, vegetable production for armed forces; railway maintenance on the Trans Australian Railway Line. The relevant government department was the employing authority and responsible for providing appropriate accommodation. Numbers of Italians in these hostels ranged from 75 to 250. Andrea’s Australian books indicate that he used his free time in learning a little English and reading about Australia. Nino shares that his father had an elementary education, but he used language books to study a little English. Piccola Guida was issued free to Italian Prisoners of War. Produced for Italian migrants in Melbourne it contained relevant information about Australia and also information to assist migrants to learn English. Andrea’s copy was distributed by the Apostolic Delegate in Australia: Giovanni Panico.
The other two language books: Hugo’s Dictionary and Grammatica-Enciclopedia would have been purchased by Andrea.
Andrea Favatella’s Italian-English Language Books
(photo courtesy of Nino Favatella)
Andrea departed Australia 4.35 pm 8th November 1946 on the Strathmore which was moored at Outer Harbour Adelaide. It was reported: “The first large scale embarkation of Italian prisoner of war from South Australia was carried out smoothly…Clad in burgundy POW uniforms which many of them have worn for six years, [they] marched in from a special train from Loveday Internment Camp… Each man is allowed to take two kit bags containing his personal belongings”. Records report that there were 1500 Italian prisoners of war onboard. The Strathmore arrived in Naples 6th December 1946.
The Italian motorship Remo was in Fremantle harbour on 10th June 1940, the day of Mussolini’s declaration of war.
The ship was seized on 11th June 1940 under international rules. The 229 passengers were a diverse mix of nationalities: Italians, Hungarians, Poles, Greeks, Bulgarians Jugoslavs, Estonians and Finns. Italian women and children together with those of other nationalities were transferred to Melbourne. The Italian men were interned together with merchant seaman onboard.
Remo was loaded with cargo for several Australia ports including new machinery for a factory in Newcastle and technical equipment for Postmaster’s General Department. The ship was awarded to the Crown as Allied prize after the matter was heard in the Prize Court. By early July 1940, the Australian flag was flown from the Remo.
The crew of the Remo presented an interesting situation for Australian authorities. Were they prisoners of war or internees? In the first instant they were processed on 11.6.40 as ‘internees’. Officers were transferred to Fremantle Prison while the crew were transferred to an internment camp on Rottnest Island. On 24 and 25th September 1940, officers and crew were transferred to Harvey Internment Camp.
The internment camp in Harvey where up to 1,000 Italians were detained during WWII. (Source: Harvey Historical Society)
In transit to Victoria, officers and crew were then sent from Harvey Camp 2nd April 1942 to Parkeston Transit Internment Camp. This camp was situated 2 km north-east of Kalgoorlie on the Trans Australian railway line. It is recorded that the camp had accommodation for 20 internees in small cells.
The next stage of the journey was from Parkeston WA to Murchison Camp Victoria. One document records that these ‘internees’ were reassigned as ‘prisoners of war’ on 15th April 1942 as they departed for Murchison Camp. Other documents give the date 22nd June 1942 as the date of reassignment to POW.
The men arrived in Murchison on 18th April 1942. The officers and their batmen from the Remo were sent to an officers’ camp at Myrtleford and the crew joined Italian soldiers at Murchison and other work placements in Victoria and Tasmania.
Cosmo Valente was an oiler on the Danish tanker Anglo Maersk when it docked in Fremantle Harbour. He was 60 years old when he was ‘arrested’ on 25.6.40 and sent to Rottnest Island Internment Camp. As a lone Italian on the Anglo Maersk, he travelled with the group from the Remo.
The Remo was renamed the Reynella. It was used to transport foodstuffs and war materials from Australia to Great Britain. Some of the items on a 1940 run were jams, canned fruits, flour, wheat, tallow, hides and lead. In February 1949, the Reynella was no longer suitable for Australian services and the Federal Government offered the ship for sale to the Italian government for £1,875,000.
(1949). Passenger-cargo ship Reynella anchored in Newcastle Harbour, New South Wales, 12 November 1949
By November 1949, newspapers report the ship had been sold to an Italian company and had returned to its original name Remo.
Domenico Ippedico was one of the Glen Innes POW workers. A handsome young mason from Gravini [Bari] he told his family that working on a farm after being in camps with barbed wire was a good situation.
His daughter Anna shares that the farmer’s daughter fell in love with her father. But like many such romances between an Aussie girl and an Italian POW, the relationship could not continue.
Domenico was in the Glen Innes district from June 1944 to January 1945. He had two admissions to the Glen Innes District Hospital during that time.
Unfortunately for prisoners of war who were in Queensland or New South Wales, there is no extra file containing identity photos or the name of the farmer. Domenico’s stories to his daughter Anna about life on an Australian farm were happy memories. Through her father’s stories, Anna feels a connection to Australia; a place where Domenico lived for two and a half years.
Domenico came to Australia as a ‘forced migrant’; a group of Italian who because of circumstances out of his control temporarily called Australia home. For the Ippedico family, there will always be a special connection with Australia. Many decades later, Domenico’s granddaughter found her way to Australia. Francesca teaches Italian at a bilingual school in Melbourne.
Domenico as a prisoner of war lived in a bilingual world. Like many of his peers, he took opportunities to learn English. Living with a farming family would have assisted his mastery of English together with the lessons in his book “L’Inglese in Tre Mesi”.
L’Inglese in Tre Mesi (photo courtesy of Anna Ippedico)
Against a backdrop of anti-Italian sentiment, in December 1943 a POW centre was approved for Glen Innes. The POW centre office (Prisoner of War Control Centre: PWCC) was situated besides the Grand Theatre. Captain JJ Owens was in charge of the administration of allocation of Italians to farms.
For the centre to be established 30 district farmers had to submit applications. In November 1943, only 8 applications had been received by Mr Furby from the District War and Agricultural Committee. The application form was comprehensive, detailing the regulations of the scheme: Prisoner of War Control Centres: Without Guards. Below is an example of a form used in South Australia.
Employment Agreement to Employ Italian Prisoners of War (NAA: D2380)
Fear of the ‘unknown’ is a powerful influence.
One Glen Innes farmer declared, “My idea is that we would be better without prisoners of war.” His concern was that when he was in the paddock working, his wife might be left at home on her own with a couple of prisoners who could not speak English.
Other farmers feared the power of trade unions. If a farmer employed Italian prisoners of war, then in the future, no unionised worker would want to work on that farm.
Despite opposition for Italian POW workers and threats by locals that they would rather their farms go bankrupt than employ the POWs, approximately 100 Italians worked on district farms from December 1943 to December 1945.
Necessity is a powerful motivator: farmers needed labourers.
In March 1944, Mr Furby reported lack of evidence against the use of POWs was the best explanation as to why the Italian prisoners of war were of no threat to local residents. At that time, there were 69 Italian workers in the Glen Innes district and ‘everyone says they work like sons of guns’ and that one farmer says ‘he can’t knock them off from working.’
“Mr Furby said there had been excellent reports about the cleanliness and general suitability of the prisoners made available. In some instances it was considered they looked after the farmers better than the farmers themselves.
As to safety of the womenfolk, the opinion had been expressed that women were safer with most of the Italian prisoners than they would be with many Australians.” [1943 ‘P.O.W. LABOR’, The Inverell Times (NSW : 1899 – 1907, 1909 – 1954), 17 November, p. 5. , viewed 22 May 2021, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article263355284%5D
Employment Contract for Italian Prisoners of War (NAA:7919)
Fear of the ‘unknown’ also relates to the Italian prisoners of war. What did they know about Australian farming methods? How were they going to communicate with the farming family? Would they be treated like a slave? It was a ‘leap of faith’ for the Italians to transfer from their known world: camp life behind barbed wire to the unknown: living on a farm with an Australian family.
The Department of Army was committed to ensuring that this employment scheme would work. Inspections of proposed accommodation for the Italians were made before the prisoners of war were sent to a farm. A language book, Pidgin English for Italian Prisoners of War was published to assist with communication between farmer and worker. Regular visits to each farm by Australian army staff ensured that any minor concerns could be discussed and/or rectified. The commanding officer of the POW centre would respond immediately to any complaints of major discipline issues a farmer might have experienced.
Across Australia approximately 13,500 Italians prisoners of war worked on farms or on government projects. This workforce of ‘forced migrants’ made a valuable economic, social and cultural contribution to war time Australia.
Domenico Ippedico (photo courtesy of Anna Ippedico)
Quelli che sono nati dopo la fine del secondo conflitto mondiale hanno vissuto e ancora vivono in un periodo di pace, il più lungo, dicono gli storici, che abbia attraversato il vecchio continente. Il merito, sostengono sempre gli studiosi, è anche di quel documento noto come il Manifesto di Ventotene, Per un’Europa libera e unita, scritto da Ernesto Rossi, Altiero Spinelli, Ursula Hirschmann ed Eugenio Colorni, al confino sull’isola dove scontavano la condanna perché socialmente pericolosi. Non è questa la sede per ripercorrere le vicende che hanno portato alla creazione dell’Unione Europea una realtà politica da tenere cara nonostante le difficoltà sorte tra i diversi stati e in situazioni come nel caso della recente pandemia.
WW2 Memorial Rivolta d’Adda (photo courtesy of Cesare Sottocorno)
Non possiamo dire che nel nostro Paese quella pace abbia significato tranquillità e che gli anni passati siano stati sereni. Ricordiamo i contrasti sociali, il terrorismo, le vittime delle mafie, le povertà vecchie e nuove, le convivenze difficili e problematiche con le diversità di lingua, di cultura, di religione o di genere. Problemi che esigerebbero lunghe analisi, ma pur sempre lontani dalle distruzioni, dalla fame, dalle migliaia di morti che ogni guerra porta con sé.
Occorre peraltro affermare con forza che, insieme agli intellettuali illuminati e a quelli fra i politici che hanno garantito la pace e un sostanziale benessere, tantissimi cittadini, come ha affermato il presidente Mattarella, si sono dimostrati, nel tempo, consapevoli di appartenere a una comunità capace di risollevarsi dalle avversità e di rinnovarsi nello spirito della democrazia: donne e uomini, contadini e operai, casalinghe, infermiere, medici, insegnanti, giudici, operatori del commercio, impiegati… e tutti ne abbiamo conosciuti.
Se per fortuna la guerra è lontana, non possiamo dimenticarla. Non possiamo dimenticare i soldati che hanno lasciato le loro vite in battaglia, tra le trincee, nei campi di concentramento e nelle gelide steppe di un’Europa in fiamme, per ordini assurdi di politici aggressivi e di comandanti inetti, oppure sulle montagne a difesa della libertà.
I loro nomi sono scritti sul marmo, in ogni località, sulle vie e sulle piazze, perché non siano dimenticati. Li hanno letti, per tanti anni, a voce alta quelli del nostro paese, e li ho letti anch’io, da solo, dopo la messa dell’aurora, qualche mattina fa, il 25 aprile, l’anniversario della liberazione che vogliamo continuare a ricordare, inizio e simbolo della riconquistata libertà.
WW2 Memorial Rivolta d’Adda (photo courtesy of Cesare Sottocorno)
Tra questi un nome mi è familiare perché è stato dato anche a me. Soldato di leva, della classe 1920. Data di nascita, come è nel mio caso, incerta: il 31 maggio o il 1° giugno. Arruolato in anticipo e chiamato alle armi il 5 febbraio 1940 a Livorno. Sul foglio distrettuale è annotato: contadino, di religione cattolica, abitante a Rivolta d’Adda in via Paladino n. 44, occhi castani e così anche i capelli dalla forma ondulata, mento diritto, colorito roseo, dentatura sana e una doppia cicatrice, una al labbro superiore e una alla fronte. Sapeva leggere e scrivere, aveva frequentato le scuole fino alla quarta elementare e non era ammogliato.
Allo scoppio delle ostilità, il 10 giugno 1940, è partito, con il 7° Reggimento Artiglieria, per la Libia, territorio allora italiano dichiarato in stato di guerra. Sei mesi più tardi, il 5 gennaio 1941, secondo le fonti italiane, è stato considerato disperso durante le operazioni militari in Cirenaica. Lo stesso giorno, dicono i documenti inglesi, è stato catturato a Bardia e dichiarato prigioniero di guerra.
In una valigia di cartone ho trovato le sue lettere. Il giovane soldato racconta ai genitori il suo viaggio di otto giorni con il mare in burrasca. Dice a suo padre d’essere in compagnia con altri cinque di Rivolta e che la terra che lui ha conquistato è poco di bello, è tutta sabbia, la gente è mezza nuda, ci sono bestie che non conosce, non si capisce niente, dorme sulla paglia, di giorno fa molto caldo e di notte molto freddo. Come tutti i militari viene vaccinato e la febbre a quaranta lo costringe a letto. Mangia pane e cipolle perché il ghibli, il vento del deserto, solleva la sabbia che finisce nella minestra. Scrive alla mamma che essere malato sotto le armi è una vita da martire perché lei è lontana: per la cura e per tutto il resto bisogna fare da solo. La informa d’essere guarito, di aver dovuto tagliare i capelli perché nella sua tenda c’erano i pidocchi, ma anche di fare l’allenamento e di andare ogni festa a giocare a calcio in città. Aspetta con ansia le loro lettere e quando non arrivano si rattrista e piange.
Trova conforto nell’amicizia e smentisce chi ha detto che sono in pericolo dal momento che sono al sicuro. Non nasconde la sua felicità a suo fratello che un giorno si è trovato con undici militari di Rivolta e che si sono messi tutti a piangere come bambini. Il suo paese è sempre nei suoi pensieri. Ride dopo aver saputo da suo fratello di una recita all’oratorio in cui il protagonista rimane in mutande e la sera di Sant’Alberto, guardando il cielo, gli è sembrato di vedere, anche nel deserto, i fuochi artificiali. Per far passare la malinconia si rivolge al nonno e gli dice che è un ortolano da poco perché raccoglie solo le zucche e le cornette e gli domanda se la sua bicicletta è ancora appesa al soffitto.
I libri di Storia narrano che dal dicembre 1940 al gennaio 1941 le truppe del generale Geroge J. O’Connor sferrarono un’offensiva di sorpresa e il giorno 5 conquistarono la guarnigione di Bardia, costituita da 45.000 soldati. Le truppe italiane si arresero e il generale Annibale Bergonzoli che aveva affermato: a Bardia siamo e ci resteremo, fuggì e raggiunse a piedi Tobruk che distava 120 chilometri.
Il nostro soldato fa sapere alla mamma che ora si trova prigioniero e che sta bene e le chiede di dire qualche Ave Maria alla Madonna di farlo stare sano.
Il 13 ottobre 1941 viene trasferito a Sydney in Australia e internato a Cowra. Ricoverato all’ospedale militare del campo di concentramento, muore il 22 gennaio 1942, alle undici di sera, per un ascesso al polmone destro.
In una lettera della Segreteria di Stato del Vaticano indirizzata alla Pregiatissima Signora ***
si precisava che il *** morì di dissenteria ed è stato sepolto nel cimitero cattolico di Sidney e la lapide porta l’iscrizione alla memoria di *** il primo prigioniero italiano morto in Australia all’età di 21 anni.
Grave of Cesare Sottocorno in Rockwood Cemetery New South Wales Australia
(photo courtesy of Cesare Sottocorno)
Il fratello, al quale spesso raccontava le difficoltà della vita militare e che, come alpino del reparto sanità, stava per partire per la Russia, ottiene, grazie anche al parroco, un anno di licenza per stare vicino ai genitori.
A guerra finita, il 27 novembre 1947, il professor Lambert Yonna, medico dell’Ospedale Militare racconta che il caro e simpatico giovane venne operato il 13 gennaio, dopo aver sentito il parere di Sir Charles Blackburn, un rinomato specialista per tali malattie. Il soldato, invece di reagire per il meglio cominciò a declinare e, ricevuti gli onori militari e i Sacramenti, rese la sua giovane anima a Dio, mentre mi serrava la mano e cercava di parlarmi.