Captured…On the Move

NorthAfrica.India.Australia

Once captured, Italian prisoners of war were impounded in temporary caged compounds in the deserts of North Africa.  They were then taken to Egypt and processed.  Each prisoner of war was given a M/E number (Middle East) and a card was sent to the families notifying them that their son or husband or father was a prisoner of war. From Egypt they were sent around the world: South Africa, India, Australia, New Zealand, England, Canada and USA.

Costanzo Melino’s journey took him to India and then to Australia.  He worked on a farm in the Gympie district before being repatriated to Italy.  He returned to Australia post-war, sponsored by his Gympie employer,  his family joined him  and eventually they settled in northern NSW.

Costanzo Melino was captured at Bardia on 4th January 1941.

Costanzo Melino remembers:

Forty-seven thousand Italians were taken prisoner of war by the 8th Battalion of English under General Wavell. Our General at that time was Annibale Bergonzoli. My captain was Alberto Agostinelli.  We were taken to internment camps by foot.  We were given little to eat or drink.

Water 4159600

Italian prisoners Mersa Matruh getting their water tank filled. They were allowed half a gallon per man per day.” Image from a large album of 86 pages containing 1858 photographs associated with the service of Lieutenant Robert Otto Boese

(Australian War Memorial, Image P05182.012)

In February 1941, we were sent to Port Said in the Suez Canal and the following month to Bombay where the heat was unbearable and many Italians died of heat exhaustion.

These camps were well run by the English.  We were given baths and we had Indian cooks.  There were toilets and we were fed well although we all got sick as we were not used to the English diet.  After this the English asked us to cook our own meals which we did gladly, making our own tagliatelle and gnocchi from the flour.  There were at least three thousand prisoners divided ingroups of one hundred. We were counted twice a day. We were fenced in and surrounded by armed guards so that we could not escape.

V-P-HIST-03469-24

Original tent camp 1941 Bangalore Italian Prisoners of War

(Maddy’s Ramblings maddy06.blogspot.com.au )

Having nothing else to do, a lot of prisoners devoted their time to study.  I studied Italian and English.  We didn’t stay in the one place for long in India.  We were constantly moved and constantly guarded by Indian soldiers.  The German prisoners were kept separate to us.  When the Italians surrendered to General Dwight David Eisenhower we were sent to Australia to work on farms. It appeared that the two million U.S. servicemen in Australia needed food.  The U.S. headquarters was in Brisbane commanded by General Douglas MacArthur.  It was the U.S. who commanded us in Australian as they had civil and military control.

The English in India said to us: “Now you’ve surrendered we are allies so now you’ll have to go to work to feed yourselves.  You’ll be free in Australia and they’ll even pay you for your work”. Of course we were all happy, leaving the camps singing.  However, as soon as we boarded the train we found the Indian soldiers hidden in the train and at the next stop we got off in our usual manner as prisoners of war.  We were really only free when we got to Naples in 1947.

Capture.Surrender.Imprisonment

North Africa.QueenMary.Australia

The North African Campaign began in June 1940. The Italian soldiers were in the main conscripted who had undergone the most basic of training.  Not only were food and water in short supply by weaponry was inferior to that of the  Allies, tactical attacks not supported by aerial and navy divisions and provision of armaments was slow to appear.

Antonino Lumia has had his memories of being a soldier in the Italian army and prisoner of war in Australia recorded for posterity.   Lumia’s words were recorded by his grandson Damiano and can be heard via YouTube,  Antonino Lumia POW in Australia 1941-1946.

This recording is an invaluable insight into the personal experiences of the ordinary men who were caught up in the politics of war.  Lumia had his 28th birthday in the north African desert and was captured at Tobruk.

Special acknowledgement to Damiano Lumia for allowing for his work and the words of  Antonino to be reproduced here as part of this project.  His  assistance is invaluable as these memories provide depth and perspective for this history.

Antonino Lumia was captured at Tobruk 22nd January 1941

Antonino Lumia reminsices :

We took a white sheet. Sign of surrender. We hijacked our guns. Unlike the enemy.

Very soon after the tanks …… we could hear: “come! Come! Come! We are there, prisoners!

Everyone took his things. One can. A piece of bread. The captain shared the stocks.

They surrounded us like sheep. A tank in front of us … another behind. And we all, prisoners, in column. When the English and the Australians arrived … … to our captain … … they confiscated the watch, its binoculars …… his belt, his weapon. All our watches were confiscated.

To some soldiers their wallets, personal photographs. We walked towards their lines.

We were locked up in an airport. Not food. No water.

POW cage 3955959

Tobruk, Libya. 1941-03 to 1941-06. Originally an Italian ammunition storage area this section was converted into a prisoner of war cage after the first battle.  It held as many as 15,000 prisoners at a time.  Litter in the picture includes cast-off clothing and empty ‘bully-beef’ tins.  Two members of the ‘Olds and Bolds’, 1st Australian Corps Guard Battalion, in their temporary camp in the area.

(Australia War Memorial, Image 020079)

Encircled by tanks …

… if one of our soldiers approached the barriers he risked being killed. When we walked … dead on the side of the road. Close to me a corpse. Lying on the side of the road. Forbidden to approach it.

If we dared to do it, from the top of their tanks … a shot …… our turn to be killed.

They shut us in at this airport. 140000 men. No place to sleep. 140000 men … 140000 men …

No food. No water. The next day, some cried. Others said, “I shall never see my wife again.”

“I will never see my daughter again.” Discouraged. One of our Sergeant Major …… only son …

… born in Vittoria …… his mother treated him like a young lady. He was crying. “If my mother knew it.”

“In what condition I am”. He was wearing a scarf. Sand everywhere on him.

There the sand flew very high. When some of us started dying … … the British collected seawater in petrol cans. The drinking-water cisterns had been destroyed by us, Italian.

They were all made to explode, so as not to give them to the enemy. They brought sea water.

They lined the barrels of oil, full of sea water. A hundred barrels. Threatened by their weapons, they were grouped together. “First line, kneeling!” We walked on our knees.

“Line number two, on your knees!” They formed about fifty lines. I did not have a container.

I got near the barrels. In my throat bits of sand. I began to drink despite the oil that floated on the sea water. An armed Australian was looking at me. “No good! No good!”

Not good … I just stood up. Regardless of oil, sea water … … I had a saucepan … … I fill it and go back to those who had drunk. I detached my military insignia. Two green and red bands.

I made a cross on my clothes with the insignia. I wanted to make them believe I was a nurse.

“This one can pass …” “He will help us, transport the sick …”

POW medical station6053463

Bardia, Libya. 1941-01-04. An Italian prisoner of war (POW) posing with a stretcher bearer at a dressing station operated by the 6th Division. (Original housed in AWM Archive Store)

(Australian War Memorial, Image P02038.080)

I crossed their lines thanks to the badge of the red cross. Again I approach the barrels. I take an Italian soldier over me. “Pretend to be dead”

We’ll drink again! I lifted this stranger on my shoulders. With this stratagem, I made several round trips. I drank and gave drink to the “sick”. I made three trips.

I’ve never had so much water. I was overjoyed. Despite the traces of oil.

At night we lay down on the ground. If it was raining or cold … … with a blanket we gathered to four …

… our breaths warmed us. Eight days of this life. Bitter as the poison. Lice … … our clothes were filled …… our flesh were bloody … scratching lesions.

One morning, very early, they woke us up with their weapons. I said to my cousin, “Standing, let’s see where they take us.” A group of 2,000 soldiers came out. Again a march, framed by soldiers.

Head towards the port of Tobruk. In the port there were their kitchens. On the ground there were orange peel. Lemon peel.I fill my pockets.It’s always there to feed me. From time to time I ate a peel.

I ate everything. The sand, the bark of fruit. On a boat, we joined the ship, 20 soldiers at a time.

It was a food transport ship. They grouped us in 3 holds. No water. No toilets.

Everyone went to the toilet in front of the others. Luckily they kept the light. The ship went away.

arrival in Egypt. Ready to disembark.

We were on deck. The Egyptians insult us: “Mussolini … Mussolini .. to death!” The English intervened. They beat them with their truncheons. “Leave them alone … they are hungry, are full of lice …”. We got off the ship.On trucks, we traveled inside the country. They grouped us in tents.

Near the sea. Meat arrived in their kitchen. Their military doctor said: “This meat is infected …

… forbidden to share with the prisoners “.They buried everything. I and my cousin have observed everything. A semi-raw meat, potatoes … That night, cousin … At nightfall, kneeling, in the sand, …

A potato was found. It’s here, cousin. We filled our towels, headed for the tent.

The next day, it was washed 20 times. Sand …It was cooked with a little water …

We mixed everything with our daily pasta. That was delicious.

I had received 35 cigarettes for a week. I am not a smoker. You smoke? Here’s this. Give me your bread.

After 8 days, in Egypt, passage to the baths.The goal was to decontaminate us. We changed clothes.

We went back to the canal. Mussolini paid very dearly for the passing of his people. Indian soldiers arrived.

Indian soldiers

An Indian soldier guards a group of Italian prisoners near El Adem aerodrome, during the pursuit of Axis forces westwards after the relief of Tobruk.

(Imperial War Museum, Image E7180)

8 of us had been designated to clean up their garrison. Clean the toilet, pass the brush, collect garbage …I say to my cousin: “Let’s go …… maybe we could eat. I took a big wipe. Around my belt. Cousin, let’s see if there is food.

When we had finished cleaning, the guard gave us a cigarette each. As I did not smoke, I gave it to my cousin. We observed that they threw their waste into a barrel. I stretched my wipe.

I plunge my hands into their trash. I plunge my hands, and lifts this mud. Very acid.

He was warmed up between soldiers. We were hungry. Each day eight pasta and a piece of bread were received. I ran away with the towel. The guard said, “That’s not good!” … Shut up.

For you it is not good. For me it is excellent. In the tent I cut this mud with my knife.

I stirred up all this with our meal.

After eight days. Head towards the Suez Canal. We embarked (Queen Mary)

I asked, “Where are we going?” … “we do not know, perhaps in the United States, or in India …”.

I’ll see where we’ll end up. On this ship they ate.

A ship carrying 15,000 men. Each had his bed.I got on deck. I was walking. When my cousin came. He wore a towel filled with bread.He had cleaned the beautiful walls of the boat. He took all the loaves. I saw him on the deck of the boat: “come cousin …”We sat on the floor. And we ate.

Order was given to walk barefoot on the boat.The shoes damaged the floor.

It was a luxury ship. A captain came to meet us. “Come, come.” What does this man want? Lets go see… We needed follow-up. We went down the stairs. A commander was waiting for us, as well as an Italian interpreter.

The commander tells us: “I have ordered you to walk barefoot, and you, abusively, wear your shoes!”

But I can not walk barefoot. Give us sandals … The sergeant major thought I was standing up to the interpreter. He shouted, “Shut up!”

 

Queen Mary

In the main mess hall on board the SS QUEEN MARY (formerly the First Class dining saloon) where more than 2,000 troops can be fed at one sitting. In peacetime it used to take 800 First Class passengers but now sittings go on from 6 am till 9 pm.

(Imperial War Museum, Coote, R.G.G. (Lt) Image A25924)

Give us our sanction. If it’s impossible to express why we drove here? We were following the sentinel. They gave us white blankets. Beautiful covers with silk edges. He leads us to the front of the ship, where the chimney is. He locked us in a room full of soot. We lay down on our blankets.

We’ll see tomorrow morning … The next morning they brought us a half bucket of coffee.

No bread, nothing else.We split the bucket.

After 24 hours of confinement … … we went out …

My cousin looked at me and said, “you are blackened from head to toe”

My dear cousin, if I am blackened, you are in a totally indescribable state!

We slept in the soot.The blankets had become black …We went back to our beds.

One day a prisoner died on board. They packed it in a bag and thrown it into the water.The priest took his papers. Queen Mary.

We arrived in Australia.

POW boat

Italian Prisoners of War – Italian prisoners of war bound for a prisoner-of-war camp, disembarking following their arrival in Australia.

(National Archives of Australia, NAA: A11663, PA 189)

 

Fighting in North Africa

At War

Antonino Lumia has had his memories of being soldiers in the Italian army and prisoners of war in Australia recorded for posterity.   Lumia’s words were recorded by his grandson Damiano and can be heard via YouTube,  Antonino Lumia POW in Australia 1941-1946.

This recording is an invaluable insight into the personal experiences of the ordinary men who were caught up in the politics of war.  Lumia had his 28th birthday in the north African desert and was captured at Tobruk.

Special acknowledgement to Damiano Lumia for allowing for his work and the words of  Antonino to be reproduced here as part of this project.  His  assistance is invaluable as these memories provide depth and perspective for this history.

Antonino Lumia was captured at Tobruk 22nd January 1941

.. we embark in the direction of Cyrenaica

We passed close to Tripoli at night …Destination Benghazi.  Before arriving in Benghazi, a captain tells us … “Young people, dress up. Tthat night the port was bombed …” “If aviation surprises you when going down, it’s the end of the world” We gathered our things. The blankets on our shoulders. Our guns. The dinner. When the boat arrives at the port in Benghazi … in speed, all … We have moved away from Benghazi. We found refuge under a tree. For a month we waited for the weapons, the cannons. Towards the fortress of Tobruk. Some morning workouts.  In the evening … free in Benghazi. 
Guns 044455

Bardia, Cyrenaica, Libya. C. 1941. An Italian 47mm anti tank cannon used by the Italian Army in operations in the Western Desert and abandoned after its defeat by Allied forces (Australian War Memorial, Image 044455)

After 15 days came the guns … we dragged them.  Shells firing … 8 kilometres … In columns, we went to war. We arrived in Barce. And we are stopped.

I found a fountain … … the women filled … … their water reserves …… a knife skin, mounted on a donkey.

I was on duty that day. Soldiers were forbidden to clean their dishes in drinking water.

A young black woman …… fills her reserve. A soldier is always a bit provocative.

I wanted to get close to her to help her …… she pushed me violently shouting. I could not approach her. She then left.

The next day, the order was given: departure for the war. The column was reformed: the colonel at the head, … and we all behind, trailing the guns.

We passed Tobruk. We landed in the desert. The fortress of Tobruk. Everyone had his place.

Our guns, concrete refuges. One day… … the British began the bombing …… the lieutenant calls me …”Lumia” “Tonight will get me to eat” Are you calling me? I’m just a sergeant, a helper …

Call the second lieutenant! “The sub-lieutenant is sick, you’re designated!” … They will think that I am an enemy, pull me off. And if I’m wrong, in the dark… “He is an enemy. “You are appointed.”

Resigned. I take my dinner. He said, “Take this power line in your hand …” … and walking … more …

I took this line in my hands. … you will find the mess of the officers …” I lifted this electric wire …

… and I walked. I arrived at the command post. Come back. in the dark. Again the line in my hands, back. Thorns in my legs, on my skin. I was following the telephone line in my hands. The lieutenant had his dinner. Lieutenant Duca, from Vallelunga. The next day the English bombed us.

With their guns. The American navy approached the port. The US Navy fired shells up to 20 kilometers. Shells fell on us … up to 250 kilos. Luckily they landed on sand.

Most did not explode. There’s something to jump in the air. They silenced us. In the distance, the smoke. The command telephone no longer works. Our commander called Sergeant Traina.

A man from Vittoria, near Canicatti. “Traina, the phone does not work anymore!”

Traina … orphan child of soldiers of the great war …”But, my captain … I’m going to die”

“You have to go, you!” The poor man. Religious sign. On a motorcycle. He’s going there.

Thanks to God, he returned alive.

 “Captain, the colonel told me …… we are free. Because in a moment …… the enemies will make us prisoners “.

“To fire, to flee, to surrender … everything is allowed”. The Colonel tells us. “Take with you whatever you want … one moment to the other we will be prisoners”.

POW cage 040628

Tobruk, Libya 1941. Italian Prisoners, captured by the 9th Australian Division, in a temporary P.O.W. cage.

(Australian War Memorial, G. Keating, Image 040628)

Captured at Bardia

Melino family 3 - Copy.jpg

Costanzo Melino: Italian Soldier: 20 years old

(from Anzaro: The Home of my Ancestors)

Costanzo Melino’s memoirs are part of ANZANO – The Home of my Ancestors, written by his daughter Rosa Melino.  From Anzano he was conscripted and sent to Libya to fight Mussolini’s war. His recollections are invaluable in providing the personal experiences of a shepherd who was captured at the Battle of Bardia and shipped to Australia as a prisoner of war.

Special thanks to Rosa Melino for allowing for her work and the words of Costanzo  to be reproduced here as part of this project. Her assistance is invaluable as these memories provide depth and perspective for this history.

Costanzo Melino was captured at Bardia 4th January 1941

I didn’t want to fight.  I always wondered ‘Why me?’ We were rounded up and taken to army barracks where we were given our uniforms…. I was appointed to the 21st Artillery Regiment of the Army Corps and then we were sent to the front.  You can imagine the effect upon a young man who had never seen or learnt much.  I was taken out of school aged seven and sent to look after the sheep with my grandfather.  My grandfather died in March 1935, but in 1921 Mussolini had made a law that all children had to go to school until the age of 15, (that’s one good thing the dictator did), but it was too late for me. 

 We were sent along with other boys from my class in Anzano on the Julius Caesar to Bengazi in Libya. This took us two days at sea.  Bengazi was an Italian colony in those days.  We had to drink sterilized sea water which was salty and hot.  I was very sick. I was called up on 2nd February 1940 and sent to fight in Benghazi in Libya.  Our Commander was Annibalo Bergonsoli.  He used to have a long beard and we nicknamed him ‘Barba Elettrica’. We certainly met war and we did not recover from the shock.

 We ate bread and water and were covered in fleas and sand from the Sahara Desert.   I had to learn to wash my own clothes once a week.  We were woken and were marched and exercised and then we were lined up and given coffee at 7 a.m. in the morning.  We were instructed until lunch time and then we were line up for lunch at 1 p.m. Then we were instructed again until 4 p.m. and again we were lined up and given our meal of ‘pasta asciutta’ or ‘minestrone’ or ‘risotto’.  We were also given some meat, half a litre of wine and two rolls of bread per day.  We had to be respectful to our superiors, and if we weren’t we were placed in confinement by our Colonel Commander.  Water was rationed.  From 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. we were free and we could go to the city of Bengazi.  We would go and look at the shops and if any soldier had some money he would buy what he needed. We were always watched by other soldiers doing the rounds – usually in groups of three.  We could not speak with the Arabs and we had to return at the right time.  We had to salute our officials.  Italo Balbi was the Italian Governor at the time.

Bardia P05182.051

North Africa: Western Desert.  Developed from a film taken from captured Italian prisoners at Bardia. c. 1940

(Australian War Memorial, Robert Otto Boese, Image P05182.051)

When the war broke we were commanded by Colonel Mario Bombagli to go to the Egyptian border between Bardia and Tobruk. One hundred thousand Italian soldiers of the various Infantry, Bersaglieri, Engineering and Artillery were killed there.  It was called the ‘Front Cerinaico’. There were so many men and so little equipment.  It was a desert with no water. It was hot during the day and freezing at night.  Bombs fell frequently upon us from overhead planes.  We were given orders to attack only when the enemy fired first.

In August 1940, we were given the order to advance into Egyptian territory. The Italian forces won ‘Siti Barrani’ in Egypt, but that too was a desert.  The desert winds would blow the sand and we could not even see.  We had to stay until the tempest passed.  At night we slept in the ‘trincee’ or tunnels that we built ourselves to protect us from the enemy bombardments.  We were given two litres of water and little food.

In October 1940, we were surrounded by the English and we lost ground and had to return to Bardia where after many battles we were defeated.

Bardia 0084113

Two captured Italian carro veloce CV22 tankettes on the road overlooking Bardia Harbour. Bardia can be seen on the far hill. (Negative by B.M.I.)

(Australia War Memorial, Image 0084113)

Battle of Bardia

Bardia had been taken.  The Italians lost 40,000 men (killed, wounded and captured), 400 guns, 13 medium tanks, 115 light tanks and 706 trucks.

Bardia Captured

Battle of Bardia

3rd to 5th January 1941

Questions often asked on the topic of Italian prisoners of war begin with WHY?  Why were Italian prisoners of war  working on Queensland farms? Why were there so many Italian prisoners of war in Australia?  Why did they so readily surrender? Why were they content to be prisoners of war in Australia? Why didn’t they escape and/or cause havoc?

An understanding of the battles they fought in North and East Africa# and the war they fought on Mussolini’s behalf gives a context to the situation of the Italian prisoners of war.

Australia’s first group of Italian POWs arrived in May 1941, four months after the Battle of Bardia and five months after the Battle of Sidi el Barrani. Place of Capture for many of the first POWs is recorded as Libya, but the date of capture pinpoints the place… 4th January 1941… Bardia.

Bardia was a military outpost in Libya, developed by Italy during its colonial rule of the country.  Situated on the coast, it encompassed a small town and harbour and roads leading east to the Egyptian border and west to Tobruk.  It was fortified by what the Italians believed was an impenetrable 18 mile arc of modern defences.  These defences incorporated a steep anti-tank ditch – 4 feet deep by 12 feet wide, dense barbed-wire entanglements and minefields with two lines of steel and concrete bunkers 800 yards apart.

Map Bardia

Map of Battle of Bardia, Position at Dusk on 3rd January 1941, from Battle of Bardia Wikipedia

Il Duce had given instructions to General Bergozoli, commander of Bardia, “the task of defending Bardia to the last”* to which Bergozoli replied, “In Bardia we are, and here we stay.”*  Bergozoli had 45,000 men and 400 guns to hold Bardia. (*The Desert Generals by Correlli Barnett)

3884090

General Annibale Bergozoli is pictured centre.

He was known as “barba elettrica” [Electric Whiskers]

Capture of Bardia – Three of the captured Italian Generals and their staff were brought from the Western Desert by air, and here they are arriving at an aerodrome in Cairo. (Photo by unknown British Official photographer)

The allies on the other hand were poorly equipped, equipment had suffered due to the poor condition of roads and the assault force was one third of the garrison’s strength.  This battle was part of Operation Compass and was the first battle of war in which an Australian Army formation took part: Bardia.Aust Division.

(from 3RAR Museum Display: Lavarack Barracks Townsville)

The allies had taken Sidi el Barrani 9th – 10th December 1940, which was the first battle of Operation Compass and continued to push westward into Italian held territory. This meant that Italian forces not taken prisoner at Sidi el Barrani, retreated westward and engaged in combat at Buq Buq, Sollum, Fort Capuzzo, Halfaya Pass on their out of Egyptian territory.  Many were taken prisoner at these battles between Sidi el Barrani and Bardia. This British Pathe film discusses Operation Compass.

Western Desert Campaign

Western Desert Campaign

(from https://worldwariipodcast.net/2014/12/)

In preparation for a land assault, Bardia was attacked by air support.  Between 31st December 1940 and 2nd January 1941 100 bombing sorties took place.  This was followed by heavy air raids on the night of 2/3 January 1941.  As well, tanks with exhaust baffles removed roared up and down the perimeter defences through the night and early morning. Images of the Battle Bardia are captured in this British Pathe film.

3rd January 1941:At 5.30 am, the ground assault began when every gun available opened the battle.  The objective was to breech the western defences using Bangalore torpedoes and captured Italian wire cutters.  The Australians had 120 guns and 23 ‘I’ tanks.  By the last hours of darkness, the first Italians emerged from their bunkers.  By 6.30am, the Aussies had cleared two corridors and 6 “I” tanks attacked toward Bardia. Dog fights ensued between the Italians and the Aussies. By 8am with the first objective taken, 8000 prisoners had been taken. A pause in the ground attack, was followed by the second phase of assault at 11.30am when the fleet laid a barrage and the airforce bombed Italian airfields.  Heavy naval bombardment consisted of  244 x 15 inch shells, 270 x 6 inch shells and 240 x 4.5 inch shells which rained down on Bardia.

Ferdinando Pancisi was captured on this day, he remembers:

“I was a male nurse for the Red Cross, I had to care for and help the sick, injured and look after the people. I was on the Front where all the soldiers were and where everything was happening. I saved myself. We were 40,000 [captured at Bardia]. All the countries of the world were fighting against Italy, Germany and Japan.

[After capture] we hadn’t eaten for days. Food wasn’t arriving. We tried our best to survive. We were trying to make do looking for food on one side or the other of the Front, looking everywhere that we could and we survived. Well those who managed, survived, many others didn’t make it. I went for 7 days and 7 nights without food or water because the English were not giving us anything.  I tried asking a British guard for some food or water and he’d always reply “tomorrow, tomorrow”.

4th January 1941: By midday, the Fortress of Bardia had fallen and the harbour was taken without damage.  Sporadic fighting continued in the north and south throughout the day.

Costanzo Melino  was captured on 4th January 1941 and recounts his experiences as a soldier in this battle: Captured at Bardia.

Libya Italian prisoners of war Bardia

Two captured Italian Carro Veloce CV33 Tankettes on the road overlooking Bardia Harbour. Bardia can be seen on the far hill. (Negative by B.M.I., photographer Unknown British Official photographer)

5th January 1941 : The battle was over by lunch time. It was said that the Australians ‘lunched on Italian champagne’.   Bardia had been taken.  The Italians lost 40,000 men (killed, wounded and captured), 400 guns, 13 medium tanks, 115 light tanks and 706 trucks.

Angelo Valiante was captured on 5th January 1941, he remembers:  “After one month, at the front, 23 kms walk, and no bottom of shoe, none left, nothing. Stopped one month there.  Night time, they say, all soldiers have to go back. English people chase us, to go back. At night time.  We go back.[to Bardia]  In the night time, the cold, the body, the arms, can’t walk, too tired, no food, no water.”

aaerial view italian pow

Bardia, Cyrenaica, Libya. 6 January 1941. Aerial view taken on the day that Bardia fell shows a long line of prisoners stretching down the road being rounded up by the Allied land forces and transported in the back of trucks.

ca[ptured guns

Near Bardia. 6.5 MM Breda Model 1924 and 6.5MM Fiat Revelli Model 35 Machine Guns Captured from the “Ities” (Italians) lined up by the roadside (Negative by F. Hurley)

Below are the recollections of an Italian soldier who was captured at Bardia. Giovanni Palermo was imprisoned at Zonderwater, South Africa:

Barida Palermo Givoanni.jpg

From  Noi! Prigionieri Africa 1941-47 P.O.W.104702 by Giovanni Palermo

Noi! Prigionieri Africa 1941-47 P.O.W.104702 by Giovanni Palermo in English

# Further and more detailed information about the war in North Africa can be found in the books : Bardia by Craig Stockings and The Sidi Rezeg Battles 1941 by Agar-Hamilton and Turner. Acknowledgement to these books for the details provided in this article.

Italian Soldiers at War

 

Left photo: Vincenzo Piciaccia

Right photo: Vincenzo Piciaccia on right

(photo courtesy of Leo Piciacci)

Vincenzo Piciaccia was 19 years old when these photos were taken in Libya.  The photo on the right shows the bravado of young men from Ascoli Piceno with Vincenzo holding his dagger in one hand and another man holding out his rifle. Side by side with weapons of war are the everyday items:  a  food container which Vincenzo holds in his left hand and the man on the left also holds a billy can. Vincenzo was 20 years old when he was captured at Bardia 4.1.41 and 26 years old when he returned to Italy: a youth stolen from him by war.

Domenico Masciulli from Palmoli was interviewed on 9 September 1997 as part of project to record the testimonies of the soldiers of World War 2.  He was 20 years old when he was captured at Bardia on 3rd January 1941. Domenico is pictured below on the left with his friend Francesco Pintabona on 25th December 1944 at a farm near Boonah Queensland.

Boonah.Rackely Masciulli Pintabona

Lu Spuaccisth

Fui chiamato alle armi il 3 Febbraio 1940.

Accettai sportivamente e senza appresioni questo momento come altri fecero nello stesso period.  Da Chieti al 14⁰ Reggimento Fanteria, ricordo fui destinato al 116⁰ Reggimento Fanteria ‘Mamorica” per giungere poi a Tobruck il 6 Marzo 1940, sembrava (quasi ansimando) tutto regolare tranne la vista che un grande territorio tutto o quasi desertico. L’impatto cosi cominciava gia a essere duro, communque sia, cercai d’accettare il tutto.  Dopo pochi mesi si cominciò il campo di lavoro militare diciamo cosi e in breve tempo da Tobruck fui trasferito a Bardia, il 10 Giugno scoppiò la maledetta Guerra del 1940, e li dai primi momenti vedemmo che le cose non crano più regolari, ma ci furono dei cambiamenti.  Il primo e forte impatto con la Guerra lo ricevetti il 13 Giugno del 1940, sotto un bombardamento della marina, nel quale ci furono parecchi feriti ed alcuni morti.

Fu distrutta la nostra infermeria e ne fu allestita un’altra, quella da campo, non poco lontano dalla località di Bardia.  Al primo impatto, anche un po’ per curiosità, mi avvicinai alle prime autoambulanze che scortavano i feriti e li aiutai insieme con altri commilitoni a prendere un ferito per metterlo su di una barella.  Ricordo che quest’ uomo era gravemente ferito a una gamba ed io timidamente chiesi a lui cos’era successo ed egli rispose: “Tutto chiedimi, tranne quello che mi è successo!”. In quel momento ebbi una forte crisi che non saprei descrivere. Una reazione che non so descrivere una… strana pieta mista a dolore e anche una grande forza d’animo.

Pochi giorni dopo avemmo una piccola ‘grande sorpesa’. La maggior parte della nostra compagnia fu trasferita alla cosiddetta Ridotta Capurzo [ Fort Capuzzo], confine tra Libia ed Egitto.  Non so se per fortuna o altro, qui io rimasi alla base; sapemmo che quelli che si trovavano all Ridotta si erano accampati lungo un viadotto attendendo lungo la notte et tutto trascorse con calma o qualcosa d’indecifrabile.  La mattina seguente squadriglie di aerei inglesi compirono diversi giri prima verso la Ridotta e poi verso la Piazzaforte di Bardia, dove ero rimasto e non vi dico il massacro che avvenne in seguito al bombardamento.  Ecco, cinque signori inglesi chiusero l’accesso per la strada direzione Tobruck.

Li feccero dei primi prigionieri, la nostra artiglieria, quasi distrutta e altre truppe italiane che ci venivano in aiuto non ne avevano.  I vari momenti e le diverse manovre si susseguirono fino al 28 Giugno del 1940.  Nonostante tutto io riuscii a scampare a tutti questi bombardamenti e giungemmo in seguito all grande avanzata del 12 Settembre e oltrepassammo la Ridotto Capurzo e ci inoltrammo in territorio egiziano.  Dovete sapere che tutto questo avvenne in 2-3 mesi finche ai primi di dicembre le cose purtroppo precipitarono e fummo costretti a ripiegare tutti all Piazzaforte di Bardi e per una ventina  di giorni e più, fummo circondati e assediati.

Il 3 gennaio 1941 gli inglesi sfondarono con il oro attacco e ci successe il patatrack. Per ben cinque giorni, poi la Piazzaforte crollo e tutto, l’esercito Italiano, la 10⁰ Armata era li, cadde, con prigionieri, feriti e tanti morti; il loro resto si aggirava intorno ai 5000.  Quello che rimase quella mattina del 3 gennaio 1941, non mi va di raccontare (con emozione), una storia molto triste.  Infatti, ormai prigionieri ci condussero a Sollum e li rimasi per cinque giorni.  Aspettando le promesse di propaganda dell’ Esercito che la 2⁰ avanzata che ci sarebbe venuta a liberare.  La fame la disperazione era tanta e chissà il destino cosa avera riservator per noi. Cosi da Sollum ci trasferirono a Mersamentuck  [Mersa Matruh] in un campo di concentramento e li rismasi tre giorni in territorio egiziano.  Da li ci portarono alla stazione e come bestie ci misero in un treno merci, e ogni vagone più di 40 -50 prigionieri per raggiungere un campo di concentramento lungo il canale di Suez. (From Cronache Di Guerra Secondo Conflictto Mondiale Vissuto e Raccottato Dai Palmolesi) Special thanks to Helen Mullan [Rackley] for this article.

Italian soldiers who were sent to Australia.  With thanks to the families of Angelo Amante, Francesco Cipolla, Stefano Lucantoni, Ermanno Nicoletti, Adofo D’Addario, Luigi Iacopini, Antioco Pinna and Nicola Micala, we have the  images below of the Italians as soldiers.

 

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Libya.Egypt.Eritrea.Ethiopia is a photo story of a number of battles together with personal photos of Australia’s Italian prisoners of war. Delving into these battles: Beda Fomm,  Sidi el Barrani, Wolkefit,  Buq Buq,  Keren,  Tobruk,  Gialo Oasis and Giarabub Oasis happened as I  assisted Italian families with their research on their fathers and grandfathers. Appendix 2 in  Walking in their Boots   is a comprehensive list of places of capture for Queensland Italian prisoners of war.

 

 

 

 

The Footprints Project

Join the journey and follow the footprints of the Italian prisoners of war

Footprints of Italian Prisoners of War Project is a community project supported by Australians in five states and Italian families in nine countries.****

Background

What started out as a personal journey to read about the Italian POW Camp outside of Home Hill has resulted in a comprehensive, diverse and rich collection of stories, letters, photographs, testimonies, artefacts, music, newspaper articles spanning 79 years: the battles on the Libyan/Egyptian border December 1940 to the present.

Over the past four years, I have heard these words many times over, “but you have it wrong, there were no Italian prisoners of war in Queensland”.

And this became a focal point for the research: to record this chapter in Queensland’s history before it was completely forgotten.

But like ripples in a pond,  Queensland’s history of Italian POWs expanded across and was part of a greater history and so the project extended and expanded: to other Australia states and to Italian families in nine countries across the world.

 

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What makes this research unique and diverse?

Perspective.

Contributions have come from far and wide:  farmers, farmers’ wives, farming children, the town kids, families of Australian Army interpreters, children of Italians who were prisoners of war, Italians who were prisoners of war, the local nurse, the mother of an ex-POW, government policy.

What does the research encompass?

Website: italianprisonersofwar.com

Facebook Page: Prigionieri di guerra Italiani in Australia

Music Book: Notations for songs and dance music by Ciccio Cipolla.

Farm Diary: daily notations regarding farm life during war time including information on Italian POWs and Land Army Girls.

Discussion about our Queensland research at conference in Catania Sicily May 2019 on prisoner of war experiences.

Memories in Concrete: Giuseppe Miraglia from Enna Sicily and Adriano Zagonara from Bagnara di Romagna Ravenna.

Donations to the Australian War Memorial of two artefacts made by Gympie Italian prisoners of war

Two publications: Walking in their Boots and Costanzo Melino: Son of Anzano (in collaboration with Rosa Melino)

Journey of two Italian families from Italy to visit Queensland and ‘walk in the footsteps of their fathers’: Q1 Stanthorpe and Q6 Home Hill

POW Kit Bags: Adriano Zagonara and Sebastiano Di Campli

The Colour Magenta

Handbooks: L’Amico del Prigioniero, Pidgin English for Italian Prisoners of War, Piccolo Guido per gli Italiani in Australia

Voices from the Past: five testimonials from Italian soldiers who worked on Queensland farms.

Letters written by Italian prisoners of war to family in Italy, to their Queensland farmers and to the children of farmers, written by mother of an Italian POW to a Queensland nurse, written by the Italians to their interpreter, Queensland farmer to Italian.

Photographs of Italian soldiers in full dress uniform, Italian soldiers in Libya during training, Italians as POWs with their Queensland families, Italians on their Wedding Day and with their families, Italians in POW camps in India.

Handmade items: embroideries, wooden objects, cellophane belt, silver rings, paintings, cane baskets, metal items, chess sets, theatre programs.

Contributions by nine Italian families whose fathers and family returned to Australia as ‘new Australians’.

Identification of five buildings used as prisoner of war accommodation.

Publication of three guides for Italian families to assist in their search for information about their fathers and grandfathers.

Collaboration with numerous Italian and Australian families; local museums and family history associations; journalists; translators; collectors of historic postal items; local libraries.

Did you know?

The website operates as a ‘virtual’ museum and library.

The website has a wide reaching readership to 118 countries!

170 articles have been written for the website.

My Wish List

In the beginning:

I had one wish, to find one Queensland family who remembered the Italians working and living on their farm. Thank you Althea Kleidon, you were the beginning with your photos and memories of Tony and Jimmy.

My adjusted wish list, to find three photographs of Italian POWs on Queensland farms. Then came Rosemary Watt and Pam Phillips with their collection of photos, a signature in concrete and a gift worked in metal.

….

Now:

To have the three Finding Nonno guides translated into Italian.

If I win Gold Lotto, to have Walking in their Boots translated into Italian.

 

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****What does the future hold… After four years of research, two and half years of weekly (and at times bi-weekly) website articles, two publications, thousands of emails, visits, interviews, cataloguing etc …

I plan to go at a slightly slower pace.  I will continue to work offline and in the background answering questions, assisting families and adding to this historical collection.

I will however republish articles in a chronological order starting with the soldiers and their battles. And I will slot in new articles and add new information along the way. Hopefully this will convey ‘the journey’ of the Italian soldiers from capture through to repatriation.

Join the journey and follow the footprints of the Italian prisoners of war.