The Desert War

Stories from the Desert

Queensland families remember their Italian POW workers telling little of the fighting, but many a comment was made about one aspect of their capture.  While they tolerated the Australian and British soldiers confiscating their watches, they were resentful that the Allies took their personal photographs from them.

Captured at Tobruk 22nd January 1941, Antonino Lumia reflected, “When the English and the Australians arrived… to our captain… they confiscated the watch, his binoculars… his belt and his weapon.  All our watches were confiscated.  To some soldiers their wallets, personal photographs.  We walked towards their lines.”

Fighting in the desert was never a picnic.  Soldiers were parched, water and food scare, they battled sandstorms which blocked their vision and suffered extreme cold at night.

Newspapers of the day offer an insight into this desert war and souveniring:

“One batch of prisoners rounded up in a wire enclosure must have numbered about 3,000.  Here I spoke with a 24 year old infantryman who was a waiter in Rome until conscripted for the army six months ago.  He told me, “I did not want to fight but had no choice.  None of the men you see here have had enough to eat in the last fortnight.  The daily ration is a tin of bully beef to each two men, soup and a loaf of bread.  We are glad it is over.”

“Lots of us are wearing new Italian boots and they are very comfortable.  Some boys are wearing captured socks and black shirts – in fact, by the time it is finished we will be a motley crew all right.”

boots and pants

6th January 1941 BARDIA, LIBYA. Driver Morrison of the Photographic Unit rummages around the Italian Infantry positions and finds a new pair of pants.  Discarded boots, weapons and personal papers are strewn over the area.  (AWM Image 005316 photography Frank Hurley)

“It was funny a couple of days ago; we were resting beside our gun when we saw a half dozen blue-clad figures strolling over the horizon toward us.  When they reached us they made us understand that they were lost, having become separated from the rest of the herd.  [POWs] We promptly directed them on the right track and after giving us a decent Fascist salute they proceed on their way – unescorted.”

“Wine and cigars were among the luxuries the Australians captured from the Italians at Bardia.” 

quartermaster stores

Bardia. 1941-01-03. Pile of provisions and clothing on the ground after an Italian Quartermaster Store was destroyed by the Allies. Note the soldier in the background, possibly from 2/2nd Battalion, with a large cloth, possibly a captured banner. (Original housed in AWM Archive Store)

“We went into action singing Waltzing Matilda and The Wizard of Oz.  The Italians just couldn’t understand the mentality of soldiers marching into battle against a numerically superior foe with a song on their lips.  They were completely demoralised.”

“As soon as we got within 50 to 100 yards from the Italians with our bayonets glistening in the sun, they threw down their rifles and raised their hands. Some of the prisoners said afterwards that the surprise that they felt when they heard us singing was heightened by the grim look on our faces.  They told us, ‘We Italians sing when we are happy: never before have we heard men singing and looking so serious!’ ”

“The Italian officers did themselves well… dugouts furnished with chests of drawers containing full dress uniforms, silk dressing gowns, and colourful pyjamas.  There were bathrooms with full sized baths.  There were bottles of wine, embossed stationery, cameras, quantities of patent medicines and crockery in addition to uncounted quantities of valuable technical equipment such as wireless sets and replacements, field telephones and Breda automatic guns and rifles.  Today there is probably no single Italian tunic in a Bardia dugout which still has a badge or shoulder strap.  Men are wearing Italian boots and breeches and using Italian blankets. Souveniring has been carried to such an extent that much of the booty must be abandoned because it will overload the battalion transports.”

004906 Liquor and cigareets

5th January 1941 BARDIA, LIBYA. The boys of the 2/2nd Battalion, now in occupation of Bardia, celebrate their entry into the Italian strong hold with a feast of captured food, wine and cigars.  (AWM Image 004906, photographer Frank Hurley)

Looting or Larrikinism

Craig Stockings wrote in detail about the revelry of Australia soldiers after the Battle of Bardia.  Bardia Captured illustrates the surrender of Bardia. The following is an extract from his book, Bardia.

“After the guns fell silent the dusty yellow landscape in and around Bardia was littered with the remnants of the defeated Italian force. Papers blowing on the wind caught on broken vehicles, scaterred weapons, abandoned guns, piles of stores, and long columns of prisoners heading south.” Litter in Libya films these images.

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27th December 1940 NEAR BARDIA – More of the many thousands of Italian prisoners captured during the Battle of Bardia. (AWM Image 004911 NEGATIVE BY F. HURLEY).

“Much of the spontaneous Australian carousing was innocent enough.  Many soldiers who found themselves close to Bardia’s beaches, for example, stripped their grimy clothes and dashed into the Mediterranean to wash clean the filth of combat.  A severe flea infestation …to sup baths, shave and establish their own hairdressing salon.  Where caches were discovered Australian troops feasted on Italian rations and smoked Italian cigarettes.  Many platoon vehicles were soon weight down with cases of tuna, preserves and a variety of tinned veal and pasta meals.  In some areas the nature of the boot surprised those who stumbled upon it… ‘all sorts of queer clothing ,silk underwear both male and female, lots of scents and hair pomades. Eau-de-cologne… was a great favourite….

004913 Knights of Bardia

5th January 1941 BARDIA. “The Knights of Bardia” – Colonels for the Day. Dressed in captured Italian finery, men of the A.I.F. react to their sweeping victory.  (AWM Image 004913 NEGATIVE BY F. HURLEY).

Not all celebratory activities were as innocent… particularly drunkenness, looting and dangerous larrikinism.. A barrel of captured wine was placed on a nearby truck and competitors drank mug for mug until only one man was left standing.  As one witness recounted, the ‘camp was a mess with three parts of the platoon lying drunk in heaps of spew and vomit’.  .. too much Italian cognac…

3999636

Bardia, Libya. 1941-01-04. An Italian prisoner of war (POW) is watched by some of his friends as he siphons wine from a barrel into his mouth while lying beside the barrel. Note the Italian camouflaged ground sheet rigged as a shelter on the left. The prisoners of war were under the supervision of members of 2/2nd Battalion. (AWM Image P02038.083 Original housed in AWM Archive Store)

Another distasteful post-battle pastime was the systematic robbery of Italian prisoners. As its most innocent this manifested as an informal type of resupply.  Almost every member… acquired at least one Italian pistol, officers helped themselves to Italian binoculars, which were superior to their British equivalents.  More concerning was the illegal theft of personal items… Shortly after the battle, he [one soldier] had ‘pockets full of money, wedding rings, some mother of pearl inlaid pistols and some flash fountain pens’, as well ‘had watches up both arms’… The same man later reminisced that for many Australians guarding prisoner columns, ‘it was like having an open go in a jewellery shop.’…

In one particularly atrocious incident, a soldier was tried at court martial (and found guilty) for tossing an Italian grenade into a prisoner cage, seriously wounding five unarmed Italians.

Tobruk POW CAge

23rd April 1941 TOBRUK. Birds of a feather stuck together in a common cage, German and Italian prisoners captured round about Tobruk by the Australian forces holding the town and surrounding country. (AWM Image 007482, Negative by F Hurley) 

Ossario Day 2018

Sombre and reflective, Kay Ball from Murchison Historical Society has written an article about the remembrance service at The Ossario 11th November 2018…

Murchison and District Historical Society Inc.

The Ossario, located in a quiet corner of the Murchison Cemetery was completed in 1961 and is a beautifully crafted Mediterranean style building. It contains the remains of Italian Prisoners of War and Internees who died on Australian soil during World War 2.

Murchison Ossario

Every year, on the second Sunday in November, hundreds of people gather to remember the 129 men and one woman for whom the Ossario is their last resting place.

On Sunday 11th November this year, a warm sunny day with a lovely clear blue sky, the occasion was again well attended by over 300 people. Mostly of Italian descent, they travel from Melbourne, interstate, overseas and across Victoria and are joined by locals who appreciate this special occasion. The ceremony is moving, suitably reverent and also colourful with many Italian Military Service uniforms, banners, flags, floral wreaths and bouquets in abundance.

Lining up at beginning…

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Farmer Supports POW Scheme

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Life on the Farm

(photos courtesy of AWM and individual contributors)

In response to a negative newspaper report on the POW workforce, Mr Male in Western Australia submitted a letter to the editor in support of the POW farm placement scheme.

A question is often posed: How do you quantify the value of the Italian POW workforce?  Mr Male is able to provide the answer.

Italian POW.

Mr L B Male, of Redmond, in writing of his Italian prisoner to the ‘Albany Advertiser’ certainly boasts the Ities as workers, Mr Male says:-

“I have had a POW since the inception of the scheme, and am well satisfied.  In fact, I can honestly say he is the best worker I have had on the place.  he works voluntarily from 5 am to 7 pm, and if necessary I am prepared to give a detailed account of his work, day by day.  Only dissatisfaction I have heard is from farmers who haven’t got any Italian labourers.

“It is said that some farmers think the military authorities nurse them too much.  Well, such is not the case as far as my Control Centre is concerned.

“They are very firms with both POW and employer, but are exceptionally fair to each.

“In my particular case, I was unable to obtain labour for three years.  Result: Fences not kept in repair; grass paddocks overgrown; calves running with cows that should be milked; only half the potatoes planted previously; and the farm generally going into a decline.  I thought I was going into one too!

“Now I have the farm back to normal, or even better than it was before the rot set in, and it is solely due to the work done by a POW in less than 12 months, with the co-operation received from the POW control centre.

“I have conversed with at least 20 employers of POW between Mt Barker and Albany, and not one of them has ever mentioned being dissatisfied.”

(Beverly Times (WA: 1905-1977), Friday 17 November 1944, page 4)

1944 ‘Italian POW.’, The Beverley Times (WA : 1905 – 1977), 17 November, p. 4. , viewed 09 May 2018, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article202749325

Memories in Concrete

Memories in Concrete

When I started this project, I had a firm belief that there was concrete evidence of the presence of Italian POWs in Queensland. John Oxley Library holds three photos of Italian POWs at Bill Beattie’s farm at Calico Creek via Gympie.  I hoped to be able to add to this collection and my aim was to find the POWs ‘footprints’ and photos seemed the obvious records to survive seven decades.

So Pam Phillip’s photos of the concrete footings for a windmill on her father, Ron Niebling’s farm at Moorgoorah were ‘footprints’ I didn’t expect to see.  But there they are, footprints captured in concrete.

Boonah.Niebling1

Footprints of Giuseppe Miraglia Enna Sicilia 25.10.1945 Moogarah

In  the good times, plentiful rain keeps the Moogoorah Lake full but in drought, as was the case in 1995, the lake offers up its secrets and treasures.

Boonah.Niebling 3

Footprints of Ron Niebling 24.10.45 Moogarah

Operatic Prisoners

This article, Operatic Prisoners was published and republished in Australian newspapers from 1943 to 1945. It describes a concert given by operatic Italian prisoners of war in North Africa.

It’s not every batch of prisoners that includes a great operatic singer! When does, he must be a great asset on the entertainment side, and is probably hotly compete for among rival camps.

A member of the BBC’s staff now in the R.A.F. and serving in North Africa has written home his impressions of opera, at first hand, in the desert. He and an R.A.F. colleague set off at eight o’clock one evening to try and contact a certain American unit.  When it proved difficult, they decided to seek assistance from their army counterparts.  At about 9 p.m. they went to call on them.  They halted involuntarily in the drive about 50 yards from the house, and listened spellbound to a superb tenor voice singing what seemed to be an Italian folk song to violin accompaniment.  They took it to be a star radio programme.  Then the applause ‘thundered out’ and they realised that the singer must be present in the flesh.  So they went in to find four Italians being shaken by the hand by British forces and joined in the congratulations.  This is how our correspondent describes the scene:- these four were part of an Italian party of thirty who were captured en bloc.  They were acknowledged to be the ‘finest collection of stars ever assembled for entertaining the Italian troops in the battle area.”  (a sort of ENSA counterpart).  And these four prisoners had volunteered to come along to this small ‘at home’.  The audience consisted of about fifty N.C.O.’s The singer was the principal tenor of La Scala, Milan, Scipa [Tito Schipa]: he looked as he stood there anything but one of the world’s great operatic stars.  His uniform – jacket and shorts – stained and patched, his legs sockless and in army boots. Yet, when he sang, … no one noticed his appearance; all one was aware of was the magnificent voice and the grand accompaniment on violin and piano.  He sang to us Gounod’s “Ave Maria”, “O’Paradisa” “Your Tiny Hand is Frozen” (from Boheme) and the famous aria from Tosca.  Right at the end he gave us Toselli’s Serenade.  Singing and accompaniment were equally amazing since none of them had any music – it had all been lost.  Both violinist and pianist were also from La Scala – their leading violinist, Vasco Passarella.  Just in case we should arrive in Milan before him, he gave us his address that we might call on his parents.”

1945 ‘Operatic Prisoners’, The Beverley Times (WA : 1905 – 1977), 13 April, p. 6. , viewed 11 May 2018, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article202750221

Listen to Ave Maria

 

Piccola Guida

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

(Photo courtesy of Davide Dander)

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

In India

Tripepi 10 - Copy

Clothing Inventory for Italian POWs in India

(NAA: A7919 C98988 Tripepi, Domenico)

Information about the prisoner of war camps in India is difficult to find.  The British oversaw the operations of these camp sites, many of which had been used during the Boer War.

Italian Prisoners of War in India is a guide for ordering a copy of the record relating to Italians who spent time in POW camps in India.

It is thanks to a number of Italian families that we can see and read about some of the experiences of Italian prisoners of war who were then transferred to Australia.

 

Adriano Zagonara, Andriano Zagonara and a group of Italian POWs in India

(photos courtesy of Paola Zagonara)

Paola Zagonara remembers the stories her father Adriano Zagonara told her about working and living in India:

Paola Zagonara wrote,  “Mio padre raccontava che erano nel campo di Bangalore,e che dovevano costruire I binari della ferrovia, che pativano la fame perche’il rancio era solo una scodella di riso integrale al giorno, e che era una festa quando riuscivano a catturare un serpente:lo arrostivano e se lo mangiavano sul posto, cosi’assumevano proteine della carne,e si mantenevano in salute.Me lo raccontava quando eravamo a tavola ed io non volevo mangiare, ma allora ero piccola e non capivo molto….un caro saluto!”

 

Ferdinando Pancisi and Reference from POW Doctor in India

(photos courtesy of  Tammy Morris and Nicola Cianti)

Ferdinando Pancisi remembers:

[I was in India for ] 2 years. I was working in the camp hospital. The doctor there wrote a letter of reference for me, here is the paper…He (the doctor) said that when you go back to Italy and you want to work in a hospital, give this letter to the doctors and they’ll surely give you a job.

He (the doctor) said that when you go back to Italy and you want to work in a hospital, give this letter to the doctors and they’ll surely give you a job. I was fine, I didn’t want for anything. I was doing a lot, male nurse, pharmacist, I did most things, because the doctor would just visit and leave!

[The doctor was a prisoner] Yes, the whole camp was run by prisoners. We made a hospital there just for the prisoners…

The 2nd World War was over in Italy but Japan was still going. In fact, our ship which transferred us to Australia was escorted by British destroyer ships.

(Interview with Ferdinando Pancisi 21 October 2107: Interviewers: Tammy Morris and Nicola Cianti)

 

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Salvatore Morello : Memories of India

(photos courtesy of Luigi Tommasi)

Salvatore Morello and Pietro Pepe were in India together and than transferred to work on a Boonah district farm.

They came to Australia on the Mariposa. Three ships came to Melbourne from India at that time. There were a total of 4056 Italians on the ships. Mariposa, SS Mount Vernon and Vernon Castle arrived in Melbourne 26.4.44. On board were 8 officers and 4048 ORs From Melbourne, the Italian POWs were put on trains and taken to Cowra for processing.

Sacred Heart of Maria was embroidered by Salvatore while in India.  The words 1942 and India are sewn into the banner held by the angels.

Foto Luigi Iacopini AUS__001 (2) - Copy

Luigi Iacopini with a group of Italian prisoners of war in a camp in India

(photo courtesy of Raffaele Iacopini)

life was monotonous and over time many of the men felt they were forgotten and became more desperate.  Health was the most serious worry.  At the camp, at Ramgarh many succumbed to beriberi and typhoid fever, ‘at an alarming rate’. The camp turned into a sea of mud and was filled with mosquitoes when the rains started.  Several hundred Italians died while interned during the war in India, some from natural causes but the majority from illnesses caught while in confinement.  For prisoners of war of all different nationalities, the war was characterised by a long, testing time of waiting in camps, longing for letters and hoping that their own news was getting through.  (Khan, Yasmin, The Rah at War: A People’s History of India’s Second World War)

Vincenzo Piciaccia from Pescara del Tronto (Ascoli Piceno) was captured 4th January a914 at Bardia.  From Egypt he was transported to India. The photo below is of a young 23 year old Vincenzo at Bangalore 1943.  He was transported to Australia and arrived in Melbourne 26th April 1944 onboard Mariposa.

Piciacchia Bangalore 1943

Vincenzo Piciaccia Bangalore India 1943

(photo courtesy of Leo Piciaccia)

Filippo Granatelli from Sant’ Elpidio (Ascoli Piceno) was captured at Asmara 6th May 1941.  He did not arrive in Australia until 13th February 1945. The group of Italians  onboard the General William Mitchell departed from India and were the last group of Italian POWs to arrive in Australia. Despite searches, Filippo managed to keep hidden a relic from his time in India, a One Anna note from Prisoner of War Camp Bhopal.

Granatelli India

One Anna from Bhopal

(photo courtesy of Veniero Granatelli)