The first 2016* Italian prisoners of war arrived in Australia on the Queen Mary 25th May 1941. The Queen Mary had been the jewel in Cunard White Star Line between wars making voyages across the Atlantic. Catering for 2332 passengers, the Queen Mary was berthed in New York at the start of hostilities. The Queen Elizabeth joined her in New York before both ships were sent to Australia for use as troop transport ships. On the return journey to Australia, Italian and German prisoners of war were embarked in the Middle East. The Queen Mary brought Italian POWs to Australia on three occasions during 1941, as did the Queen Elizabeth. Military record cards use the reference “Q.M.” and “Q.E.”
With the entry of the USA into the war at the end of 1941, the Magnificent Queens: the Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth were re-routed as transports for American troops. They would transport between 12,000 to 15,000 armed personnel on these voyages.
The newspaper article below describes the arrival of Australia’s first 2016 Italian prisoners of war and the circumstances of their arrival.
Queen Mary: The Swimming pool is now a troops sector, with tiers of bunks for men
(from the Imperial War Museum: Coote, RGG (Lt) Image A25931)
2000 Arrive in Sydney
INLAND INTERNMENT CAMP
(photo from Mercury (Hobart, Tas.: 1860 – 1954), Thursday 29 May 1941, page 1)
Sydney, May 26,- A large shipment of 2000 Italian prisoners of war captured in Libya has arrived in Sydney and the first trainload of about 500 have been sent off to an inland internment camp in New South Wales.
Unimpressive physically, wearing a nondescript mixture of garments in which the greenish-grey Italian field uniform predominated, the prisoners were brought ashore by ferry and immediately issued with A.I.F. greatcoats, relics of the war of 1914-1918, which have been dyed a burgundy colour. At the prison camp they will be dressed completely in wool uniforms of this colour, which is so conspicuous that it should act as a strong deterrent against attempts to escape.
There was no sign yesterday, however of any wish among the prisoners to cause trouble. Overshadowed by their Australian guards, they trooped ashore quietly with few smiles and only a little quiet talk among themselves. Some scowled as press photographs were taken. The ship guards described their behaviour on the voyage was docile.
(photo from The Courier Mail (Brisbane, Qld.: 1933-1954) Wednesday 28 May 1941, page 3)
Before they were disembarked, a number of them sought the senior officer and asked if they could not be allowed to stay and work until the end of the war on the ship, which has been engaged as a transport carrying Australian troops overseas. Their offer was not accepted. On the voyage out, much of the scullery work was done by the prisoners, who also waited on the members of the A.I.F. who were returning after being wounded.
The only officers among the prisoners ware five medical officers and a priest. one of the doctors was a distinguished surgeon in Italy, a professor of surgery at the University of Turin. A doctor who came ashore yesterday was wearing black field boots, green-grey breeches and a khaki drill tunic with the gold braid insignia of a captain’s rank on his shoulder straps, three stars below a larger star, the device giving a general effect more like the shoulder badges worn by a brigadier in the British forces. His batman followed him ashore laden with the baggage of both and wearing Red Cross arm and cap badges.
None of the prisoners speak English, but the medical officers almost all speak some French. Corporal Craig, of the Eastern Command Records Staff, who speaks Italian, French and Greek, acted as the military interpreter. After serving in the first A.I.F., he lived for nearly 20 years in Alexandria and spent a period in Italy in the service of an American motor firm, who established tractor assembly works there.
The medical captain, who came from Piedmont, explained through the interpreter that he was a civilian who had been called up from the reserve for service. he had been in Libya eight months before he was taken prisoner. When asked by an Australian officer what he thought of Australia, he replied briefly: “No opinion”. Then he smiled wryly and added, “Very nice, but I am a prisoner.” He said that the average age of the prisoners would be 24 or 25. They looked younger. Most of them came from Southern Italy, though a few were taller men who looked though they might have come from the north.
Half a dozen wore sailors’ uniforms, but it was explained that they were not necessarily naval men as they used any clothes they could get hold of. A number were in shorts. There were several tropical helmets, one with Tobruk and Bardia painted on it.
As they filed ashore from the ferry in a double line between military police guards with fixed bayonets, they were handed their burgundy coloured coasts and a tin mug each. A packet meal supplied by the railway refreshment service was given to them on the train.
(photo from Telegraph (Brisbane, Qld.: 1872-1947), Tuesday 27 May 1941, page 9)
An assortment of moustaches and many beards, including one black spade Balbo model, adorned the swarthy faces, many of which looked as though their owners might have come from Alexandria or Port Said, rather than from Italy. They carried untidy packs containing their belongings. One man, when offered a burgundy coloured greatcoat, proudly gestured towards his pack to show that he already had a coat, an Italian model. he looked puzzled as he walked on carrying his distinctive Australian garment.
All the prisoners were medically examined with great care before being sent ashore. The official instruction is that anyone with any sign of infectious disease is to be quarantined rigorously to guard against the introduction of epidemic diseased from the Middle East.
(Kalgoorlie Mine (WA: 1895-1950), Wednesday 28 May 1941, page 1)
(photo from Telegraph (Brisbane, Qld.: 1872-1947), Friday 30 May 1941, page 7)
*Nominal Roll for the Queen Mary identify 2016 Italian POWs. Other sources record 2006 and the newspapers rounded off the numbers to 2000.