Category Archives: Tasmania Italian POWs

In their spare time…

What isn’t written into the records is how the Italian prisoners of war kept themselves occupied during their many hours of idleness.  It just wasn’t the hours spent on board the transport ships to India and Australia that needed filling, but also the Sundays on farms and the days and nights in Cowra, Hay and Murchison.

Snippets of information from newspapers, oral histories and letters, when combined with images from photos deliver an insight into the pastimes of our Italian POWs.

CARDS and BOARD GAMES My nonno taught me how to play card games.  I have always thought that this is how he wiled away his spare hours during the ‘slack’ in the cane cutting communities of north Queensland during the 1920s and 1930s.  Briscola and scopa are two Italian card games which no doubt the Italian POWs played while in Australia.  A newspaper photographer captured two Italians playing cards onboard the train taking them to Hay.  A pack of cards is portable and cheap.

Mention is made in a newspaper article of an ‘improvised draughts board’ carried by an Italian POW when he landed in Sydney. The draught pieces had been cut from broom handles. Official photos taken at Hay and Cowra, had Italian POWs playing chess and making chess sets (from lathes constructed by the POWs).

Italian POWs Playing Cards

(The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW: 1842-1954) Thursday 16th October 1941, page 10)

EDUCATION and LANGUAGE CLASSES Costanzo Melino wrote that whilst in India, he attended Italian and English classes.  Having minimal formal education in Italy, he seized opportunities to undertake classes in Italian and English. It was considered imperative that POWs occupied their leisure time usefully and the policy was to provide opportunities for POWs to further their studies.  Libraries in the camps were established and canteen profits used to purchase additional text books relevant to courses undertaken. Books from overseas were allowed in the areas of banking and financial, medical, scientific, art, economics, music, agriculture, religion, trade and commerce as well as periodicals of a general literary nature.

METAL WORK CLASSES Rosemary Watt (Bury) is caretaker of a carved artefact made in Cowra by Angelo Capone.  Most like mass produced in a mould, the Italians then finished the carving with adornments of their choosing.  Interestingly, the Australia War Memorial has a similar arefact in their collection and one is left to ponder “how many other carved arefacts are their in homes in Australia and Italy?”

LEATHER WORK  Australian children recall the shoes and sandals made by their Italian POWs.  The leather would be produced from hides and crafted into practical items such as coin pouches, belts and footwear.  In POW group photos taken at Cowra, Hay and Murchison, many Italians can be seen wearing sandals, which were certainly not standard issue.

EMBROIDERY The origins of the elegant sewing prowess of Italian POWs is hard to locate.  Personal memories are that the Italian POWs had learnt the skill in India and embroideries completed by Italian POWs in India can be found from time to time on EBay. Two beautifully embroidered works are keepsakes of Colleen Lindley (a gift from Domenico Petruzzi to her mother Ruby Robinson of Gayndah) and Ian Harsant (a gift from Francesco Pintabona to the Harsant family of Boonah). An interesting interpretation of the word ’embroidery’ is offered by Alan Fitzgerald in his book ‘The Italian Farming Soldiers’. Used in letters written by Italian POWs,  the word ’embroidery’ was code  for ‘fascist propaganda’.

ART and MUSIC and PLAYS Musical performances and stage plays were performed in the camps.  The wigs of theatre as illustrated below were captured on film at Cowra.

Cowra 12D 2 7.43 Wigs of Theatre V-P-HIST-01882-02

(International Committee for the Red Cross)

Instruments and art supplies were provided to Italian prisoners of war. The photo below shows a wall of the barracks at Hay which had been decorated as well as the musical instruments acquired for use by the Italians.  Furthermore, Queenslanders remember the mandolins, guitars and banjos that were played on the farms and Nino Cipolla has the music for songs his father Francesco notated while in Q6 Home Hill and Cowra PW & I Camp.



(Australian War Memorial Image 030142/02)

Cowra Council have an interpretive display on a number of themes at various points around the precinct.  The Italians is once such display and under the title Members of the Family, the following is recorded: “Their great love of music, food and art endeared them to the community.  They formed bands and produced musical events which would attract local people to sit outside the camp and listen to their beautiful singing”.


It is not surprising that just as football is a passion for Italians today, it was also a passion back in the 1940’s.  Group photos of Italian prisoners of war were taken in 1944, among them photos of the Football Teams.

Murchison.Football Team


(Australian War Memorial: Image 066766)


Yanco, NSW. 1944-01-31. Soccer teams from No. 15 Prisoner of War (POW) Camp lined up on the ground before commencement of play. All Italians, some have recently transferred from Hay. The match was played in temperatures over 109 degrees F.

(Australian War Memorial: Image 063921 Geoffrey McInnes)

Official photos in the Australian War Memorial collection also show the Italians playing tennis at Hay and boxing competitions at Cowra.

GARDENS and STATUES and FOUNTAINS  One would be hard put to find a piazza in Italy that doesn’t have a statue or fountain. Group photos taken at Cowra have the Italians seated in front of this prominent fountain.


Guerre 1939-1945 Nouvelle – Galls du Sud. Camp du Cowra Fontaine.

(International Red Cross V-P-HIST-01881-01)

Reflecting their history and culture, the Italians keenly constructed statues like the replica Colosseum  at Hay and just to the right of the photo is a tank atop a plinth. Italian POWs grew their own vegetables as is evident by the photo below. Between the barracks at Hay, gardens were dug and crops grown.   Ham Kelly told his grandson that the Italian POWs at Q6 Home Hill Hostel grew the most amazing vegetables outside their barracks.



(Australian War Memorial Image 063365)


For the Italian POWs, there were two main regulations regarding the sending of mail:

Prisoners were not to send letters other than through official channels.

Prisoners were allowed to send two letters or two postcards or one letter and one postcard every week on approved Service of Prisoners of War Notelopes and postcards.

Unfortunately, postal services to and from Italy were unreliable. Italians became despondent at not receiving mail from family.  In a letter written by Giuliano Pecchioli, he writes on 12/1/45 that he was in receipt of his sister’s letter dated 3/6/1943.  Communication with family was difficult.  Before Christmas, POWs were given cards with Australian scenes to send home to Italy. Below is a page of a booklet of scenes produced for Christmas 1941.

Card 1941 Xmas

Di sotto la “cartolina” dell’YMCA distribuita per il Natale del 1941

(From the collection of Enrico Dalla Morra)

A number of journals survive, written by Italian soliders and prisoners of war.  For some Italians, it was a way of recording the events of the lives, over which they had little control.  From Tobruk to Clare  is the story of Luigi Bortolotti as recorded in his diary. The “Libbretta” of “Corporal Cofrancesco Umberto” is the basis for “Umberto’s War” . Recorded are details of his journey as a soldier and prisoner of war which took him to Australia.  Another journal “Diario di Guerra” by Francesco D’Urbano was found in  the sands of north Africa by an Australia soldier.  In time, the soldier asked the assistance of CO.AS.IT to trace D’Urbano.  Laura Mecca researched the Italian archives and found that he had spent time in India before returning to Italy.  A copy of the diary was presented to his wife.


While this photo is of Italian POWs in an Egyptian camp, it illustrates the type of craft work POWs engaged in and similar projects would have been undertaken in Australian camps.

NZ Italian Prisoners of War Craft Work

Italian prisoners of war with items of their carved handiwork at Helwan POW Camp, Egypt. One prisoner shown chiselling portrait features of a roundel. Taken 1940-1943 by an official photographer.

John Oxley Library from the collection of New Zealand Department of Internal Affairs Image DA-00736-F

India: Free Italy Movement

Italia Redenta

A special thank you to Francesca Moltedo. In a conversation I had with her about Bardia, she told me about the Italian Redenta Unit in India. Her father, Luigi Moltedo, was the Assistant Adjutant of Italia Redenta.  Francesca continues to work through her father’s papers to elicit more information about this interesting ‘forgotten’ history.

Italian Redenta’:  I was unfamiliar with this term.  I did a few google searches and came up blank. I tried the British Archives, British Library, the Imperial War Museum and still there was no information to be found.  What was this army unit of Italian prisoners of war under British command in India?  What was its purpose?

Hopefully more information will be shared by Italian families whose fathers and grandfathers who were also in the Italia Redenta.

Information for this article has been taken from The British Empire and its Italian Prisoners of War, 1940-1947 by Bob Moore and Kent Fedorowich.

The Italia Redenta was developed as part of the Allies’ “Free Italy Movement” plan. Its aim was to enlist the support of anti-fascist Italian prisoners of war in India.  Two years of planning and preparation by the Political Warfare Executive Mission to India (PWE***) saw the establishment of Italia Redenta [Italy Redeemed] in Jaipur January 1943.

The PWE was responsible for the propaganda war against the Axis and had direct influence in India to gauge the political persuasions of the Italian prisoners of war and enlist the support of non-fascists in the POW camps. By February 1943, there were 68,000 Italian prisoners of war in India.

The long term plan of the PWE was to enlist co-operative Italian POWs in turning the tide of the war against the Germans in Italy.  Segregating fascists (black) POWs  from non-fascists (white) POWs was the first move and then a special camp at Jaipur in Rajasthan would be established for this ‘pioneer corps’ under British command.  Eventually, from this pioneer corps, Italians would be recruited to a Free Italian Force.

A list of 3,000 anti-fascist Italian POWs was to be compiled with the first group of 1,000 to be sent to Jaipur to a special complex.  Construction which began in August 1942 was slow and by the end of January 1943, accommodation for 200 officers and 1,000 other ranks was completed. The plan was to transfer another 3,000 anti-fascist POWs once further building was completed and ultimately the camp would house 10,000 within a five month time frame.

The Italia Redenta was named and the POWs were to be involved in providing technical support in India or to assist as guides for the upcoming invasions of Sicily and mainland Italy.  The volunteers were led by their own officers and wore a uniform similar to that of the British with an Italia Redenta emblem embroidered onto their left sleeve.

The exact time of the demise of the Italia Redenta is difficult to pinpoint.  Australia’s application in May 1943 for 10,000 anti-fascists from India for farm work in Australia is given as one contributing factor. Around this time,  the PWE mission to India was withdrawn to UK or Middle East.  Events in Europe such as the Allies’ invasion of Sicily in July 1943, Mussolini’s resignation on 25th July 1943 and Italy’s declaration of war on Germany on 13th October 1943 also contributed to a slow death of the Italia Redenta as there was no longer a need for a Free Italy movement.

Some of the men from Italia Redenta made their way to Australia and farm work.  Others were sent to UK and Middle East. For those who remained in India, a plan was devised for these prisoners to form their own small units of 250 men each to be deployed in India on vital military projects such infrastructure building, but this was short lived.  India was in famine; military food supplies were being rerouted for civilian use and the War Department in India preferred all Italian POWs to be removed from India.

Whites vs Blacks

In the POW camps in India, fascist activity whereby threats to Italian soldiers and their families in Italy was rife. Moore and Fedorowich state, “At one POW facility, Fascist membership cards had been fashioned from cigarette cartons, and a nominal roll of all members and their activities within the camp was kept, as well as the record of the movements of Fascists between camps.  The Fascists have made it know that they are keeping a tally of each prisoner for report back to Rome.” Conversely, anti-fascist Italian POWs feared retributions to their families in Italy as fascist cells kept lists of names of collaborators.  Threats to send this information to Italy and to fascist members in villages weighed heavily on those ‘captives’ in India. Moore and Fedorowich state, “…those POWs who had openly declared their support for the Allied cause who would suffer the bitterest disappointment. They and their families had taken great risks in wholeheartedly assisting the PWE in the formation of the Italia Redenta.  Men had been intimidated and beaten up by ‘blacks’ in the camps, and there were several unconfirmed cases where the families of several co-operators had been made to suffer as well.”

Political Warfare Executive

*** During World War II, the Political Warfare Executive was a British clandestine body created to produce and disseminate both white and black propaganda, with the aim of damaging enemy morale and sustaining the morale of the Occupied countries. The Executive was formed in August 1941, reporting to the Foreign Office. Wikipedia

Last two groups of Italian prisoners of war  sent to Australia

Melon (arrived Melbourne 29.12.44) and General William Mitchell (arrived Melbourne 13.2.45) brought the last 3067 Italian prisoners of war to Australia from India.  These Italians were given an Australia prisoner of war number prefaced by PWIX = Prisoner of War Italian Fascist.  Possibly these men were segregated in 1943 from the rest of the Italian POWs in India, as part of the Political Warfare Executive’s Italia Redenta plan.

Origin of PWIX - Copy.jpg

16 January 1945 War Diary Entry for General William Mitchell Italian POWs

AWM 52 1/1/14 War Diary Headquarters Unit January to April 1945

Some of these men have only the word Blackshirt  recorded on their documents.  Others have general words like Army or Navy. And others give specific details eg 154 Leg. C.C.N.N. Blackshirt; 129 Btn BS; 360 Antoreparto (motor transport); G. Pai Questura Dello Scioa; M.V.S.N. (Blackshirt); 211th Inf.; Navy-Radio; 4th Div. 3rd Gennaro 170 Bat. B/S; 203rd Machine Gun Unit; 2nd Btn Engineer; 158 Reg. Infantry; 132 Batt C.C.N.N. Div 28 Ottobro; Sussistenza; 61 Batt. Mitraglieri.

Men from these two transport ships, went to work on farms without breach of discipline incidents.

NAA MP1103 1 PWIX67417

NAA: MP1103/1, PWIX67417 Di Vivo, Michele


Moore, B and Fedorowich, K The British Empire and its Italian Prisoners of War, 1940-1947, Palgrave, Hampshire, 2002.