Tag Archives: Cowra Prisoner of War and Internment Camp

Finding Nonno

The history behind nonno’s stories

Robert Perna from Detroit Michigan writes, “Many years ago my grandfather told me about his time as a POW from Italy. He surrendered in North Africa and was first shipped to Iraq. Then he was shipped to Australia and worked on a cattle farm. He told me it would take weeks to walk the fence and repair it. He said the owner owned a territory. 

I’m looking for any way to find out who he lived with. He passed many years ago, but his memory of his time there was always very clear. He did end up going back to Italy because that’s where his family was.”

And so the journey begins for a grandson to meld a grandfather’s stories with historical fact.

Using the guide Finding Nonno, Robert found with ease his grandfather’s Australian records which confirmed a few details: his nonno Arcangelo was captured in North Africa: Amba Alagi on 5.5.1941; he was sent to India (not Iraq); he was shipped to Australia: onboard the SS Uruguay in 1943 which docked at Sydney; and he was assigned to farm work: in the N11 Prisoner of War Control Centre Glen Innes.

Robert recounts the details of Arcangelo’s conscription and war service, “My grandfather went to Rome to go pay the taxes on his property. While there, they recruited him off the streets* and sent him to Africa. He could not say goodbye to his family.

From there he was sent to Northern Africa where he was in charge of a platoon. They found out they were being attacked at dawn. So they hunkered into a hill waiting for the African army to attack. Once they ran out of bullets, everyone surrendered, so no one would get killed.” 

The piecing of history continues giving credence to Arcangelo’s memories of the day he was captured 5th May 1941:

1 May 1941 Viceroy of Italian East Africa Duke of Aosta and 7,000 troops were trapped at Amba Alagi, Abyssinia by Indian 5th Indivision to the north and South African 1st Brigade in the south.

3 May 1941 Allied and Italian troops engaged in heavy fighting at Amba Alagi, Abyssinia.

4 May 1941 29th Brigade of the Indian 5th Division launched another attack at Amba Alagi, Abyssinia, capturing 3 hills between 0415 and 0730 hours.

5 May 1941 3/2nd Punjab Battalion advanced toward the Italian stronghold at Amba Alagi, Abyssinia at 0415 hours. They were pinned down by 12 Italian machine guns for the most of the day. The attack was called off at dusk.

British Pathe footage captured the Italians after the surrender of Amba Alagi. Another detail from this battle comes from Craig Douglas at Regio Esercito History Group in Brisbane: “When the Italian troops surrendered at Amba Alagi, the British commander allowed them to surrender with the full honours of war. In tribute to their tenacious defence right to the end.”

The battle for Amba Alagi, the last Italian stronghold in Eritrea. Italians who surrendered Fort Toselli seen marching down the road from the fort. c. June 1941

(AWM Image 007945, Photographer: Unknown British Official Photographer)

From Amba Alagi, Arcangelo would have been sent to POW camps in Egypt to be processed and assigned a M/E number: 289564 [Middle East].  From Suez he would have been transported to India.

Critical Past footage gives a window into the past; the arrival of Italian prisoners of war in Bombay India.

The next stage of Arcangelo’s journey is his arrival in Australia which was reported in the newspapers.  Two ships from India arrived together in Sydney 4th October 1943 with 507 Italian POWs on each ship (one medical officer, 5 medical other ranks and 501 other ranks: MV Brazil and SS Uruguay.

ITALIANS FOR FARMS” Sunday Times (Perth, WA : 1902 – 1954) 10 October 1943: 5. Web. 22 Jun 2019 http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article59187793

1000 Italian War Prisoners Arrive” Kalgoorlie Miner (WA : 1895 – 1950) 7 October 1943: 4. Web. 22 Jun 2019 <http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article95630892&gt;

 

Arcangelo Perna’s arrival is documented on the Nominal Rolls Cowra 12 (c) POW Camp arrival from overseas 5th October 1943. He is assigned his Australian POW number : PWI 55833. Notice that his rank is Corporal though his other documents have his rank as Italian and Private; somethings are lost in translation.

Nominal Rolls of Italian Prisoners of War to Cowra

(NAA: SP196/1, 12 PART 2, 1943-1944 Sydney)

Within two months of his arrival in Australia, Arcangelo is assigned to farm work N11 C.C. Glen Innes.

Robert has a clear memory of his nonno’s recollections of Australia, “ He told me he worked on a cattle farm there. First thing he had to do was mend the fence with the owner. So they packed up the cart and took off. It took over 3 weeks to walk the fence. After that he worked there for a few years. Once it was time to go, the owner begged him to come back and live there. My grandfather said no, he had a farm in Italy. He never said anything bad about being there in Australia. He said they were a nice family who treated him wonderfully.”

Arcangelo’s Service and Casualty Form provides the details of his time between leaving the Glen Innes farm and his repatriation.  A documented four day stay in the Glen Innes hospital and his transfer from the farm to Murchison suggests ongoing medical concerns.  Those Italian who were medically unfit were sent to Murchison. And it is while Arcangelo was at Murchison, official group photos of the Italians were taken. 

A search of the Australian War Memorial collection did not turn up a match for Arcangelo. And Arcangelo’s photo could have been missed because, not all photographs taken of the POWs include the names of the men in the photos.

With this information and a chance at finding his nonno, Robert set to looking through all the group photos taken at Murchison March 1945. And there he was: seated second from the right.

A special moment for Robert: he had found Nonno in Australia.

Murchison, Australia. 2 March 1945. Group of Italian prisoners of war (POWs) interned in D2 No. 13 POW Group.

(AWM Image 030229/13, Photographer: Stewart, Ronald Leslie)

Arcangelo was repatriated on Chitral  from Sydney on 24th September 1946. These early repatriations were for special consideration, medical or compassionate reasons. This was one of the early repatriation ships which boarded 300 POWs in Sydney and another 2900 in Fremantle Western Australia. The majority of Italian POWs held at Northam Camp WA were repatriated on Chitral.

 Robert continues, “When he came home, my grandmother wasn’t even home when he got there! One of my aunts were born while he was away. Plus, my dad was born about 9 months after he came home.”

These memories [of my nonno] have been a part of my life since he’s told me the story. It has been told hundreds of times. Now I have proof, pictures and info to back up my story,” Robert reflects.

No title” The Sun (Sydney, NSW : 1910 – 1954) 24 September 1946: 3 (LATE FINAL EXTRA). Web. 22 Jun 2019 <http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article231583722&gt;

*This is not the first time I have heard about this method of recruitment. A group of young men from the Lecce region, told a similar story to their Queensland family in Gayndah.

Gift to Farmer

Angelo Capone’s gift to his employer and friend George Bury was an ornament he carved while in Cowra Prisoner of War & Internment Camp. It is a treasured Bury family memento from the time Italian prisoners of war lived on their Beerwah farm 1944-1945.

Rosemary Watt, daughter of George Bury has always wanted to know more about her dad’s eagle and the ringed insignia at the bottom. Angelo said that the ornament had been carved with a six inch nail as were the words: Cowra 21-4-42 Australia.

It wasn’t until Rosemary found a similar object in the Australian War Memorial that a more complete history of such objects was revealed.  The AWM relic is more expertly crafted as the pictures below attest, but the description reveals, ” The eagle is made from thin sheet lead or alloy taken from used toothpaste tubes.”

The Italian prisoners of war were resourceful and were known to repurpose and recyle items in the most unusual ways.  The cellophane belts made from the cellophane wraps from cigarette packets is another example of their resourceful abilities.

Fascist Eagle Desk Ornament

(Australian War Memorial Relic 33406)

Click on the link to read the description of the above Eagle from the Australian War Memorial

The Italian POWs left a number of reminders and/or political statements in the camps in Australia.  Italians made many statues at Hay PW Camp which included  the Colosseum, the she wolf with twins Romulus and Remus, an army tank and a fascist eagle sitting atop a plinth.

V-P-HIST-01881-16B.JPG

Statue of Fascist Eagle at Hay Prisoner of War Camp

Cowra Chess Set

Artefacts made by Italian Prisoners of War are rare. While there are many memories of the gifts made by the POWs such as rings, engravings and wooden objects, there are few items still in existence.

So an email from David Stahel in Brisbane is very exciting. David owns a boxed chess set made by Italian POWs in Cowra.  It is not only beautiful but it is special because of the story behind the board.

Cowra Chess (1).jpeg

Badge on Chess Set

( from the photographic collection of David Stahel)

The Italian prisoners of war were making chess sets in 1944, when Geoffrey McInnes captured them on film.  And quite possibly David’s chess set was one such set made by the Italian POWs. The photo below shows five Italian POWs working on a lathe built from salvaged timber and metal to produce chess pieces. The sets were sold for 35/- to Army Amenities Section.

Cowra Chess AWM 4134226

(AWM Image 064356 Photo by McInnes, Geoffrey Cowra, NSW. 1944-02-07)

David’s chess sets adds detail to the history of the chess sets being made by Italian POWs at Cowra.  “My father had a chess board that he told me he bought from an Italian POW for some packs of cigarettes.  I grew up with this board and learnt to play draught and chess on it with my father… the painted watercolour scene (unsigned) is very reminiscent of the Italian countryside.  The workmanship of the board and pieces are of a very high standard. Inside is quilted with a satin like fabric. Pawns, rooks, bishops, kings, queens, draught have been turned on a lathe which the knights are carved from a turned base… My father was a lieutenant in the artillery, specifically in the anti aircraft arena,” writes David Stahel.

Boxed Chess Set

( from the photographic collection of David Stahel)

The concept of Italian POWs selling boxed chess sets for 35/- raises a few questions.  POWs were not allowed to have in their possession Australian currency, so what happened to the proceeds of sales.  Quite possibly funds were deposited into the canteen fund.  Profits from the canteen were used by POWs to purchase books for the camp library. Prisoners of war were allowed access to books and music to further their studies and libraries were established in camps. Additionally, access to books and music was a way for POWs to usefully occupy their leisure time.

Cara Mamma

I am very grateful to Reinhard Krieger, a collector of military post, who has shared with me letters and postcards, written by Queensland Italian POWs to their families in Italy.

POW mail was censored but these letters to families still have much to tell us about the men who wrote them.

On 23.10.45, Umberto Liberto wrote a letter to his mother, from a farm in the Q1 Stanthorpe area.  Umberto was one of the youngest POWs who made their way to Queensland.  Born in 1922, he was 19 years old when captured in Libya in February 1941 and 23 years old when he wrote this letter. He had been working on a farm/farms in the Stanthorpe area since 27th October 1943.

Q1 Stanthorpe Liberto Umberto

 

Cowra, NSW. 16 September 1943. Group of Italian prisoners of war (POW) interned at No. 12 POW Group. Back row, left to right: 49731 A. Olivieri; 45651 A. Fazio; 49632 D. Mocchetti; 49373 U. Liberto; 46913 G. Villa; 49942 L. Volonteri. Front row: 45782 L. Gardini; 49884 I. Paniccia; 49436 L. Casinelli; 49792 A. Alessi. Note: The number is an assigned POW number.

(AWM, Lewecki, Image 030149/21)

Listen to Umberto’s Letter:

Thank you to Matteo Tettamanti for his reading of Umberto Liberto’s Letter.

23.10.45

Dear Mum

A couple of lines so as to not leave you without any of my news that thanks to God is good, as I hope is the same for you.  Last week my work employers sent you two packages.  I hope that they arrive there.  I have also sent you my photo and eight pounds Stirling but as yet have not receive a reply. Dear Mum, by now the worst has passed but there are still some months and then all will be finished.  Your mail takes 5 to 6 months to arrive and not so often just now and then some letters.  Anyway as for now it is not so important because all of this is coming to an end.  You will not recognise your son – five years has been a long time.  However, it could have been worse.

Finally hugs and kisses to share around.

Yours Berto.

Translation from Italian to English by Morwenna Arcidiacono, Stanthorpe

Letter from Umberto Liberto to his mother in Italy 23.10.45

Special thank you to Reinhard Krieger, Brisbane who graciously shared letters from his collection for this project.

 

 

Conflicting Times

Australian Soldier or Italian Internee

Interned June 1942

(Ipswich Times Thursday 13 June 1940)

My father Giovanni Devietti was from Corio in the Piedmont region of Italy.  It is about 26 km from Turin and about the same distance to the French border. Born in 1906, he was a young man of 21 when he migrated to Australia in 1928 onboard the S.S. Orvieto.

He was educated and had undertaken a university course as an industrial chemist. The National Fascist Party had been in power under Mussolini since 1921 so it is against this background of political unrest that my father came to Australia.  He told us how his parents worked in a leather factory and would walk to and from work.  One was expected to take off your hat if you passed a Fascist in the street as a symbol of respect.  My nonno was a social democrat.  He would change his direction, go into a shop or cross the street and keep his hat on, rather than acknowledge fascist rule.

When he first arrived in Ingham, dad worked on farms, but by the time he was naturalised in 1934, he was a business proprietor.  He had what today we would call a Deli, but I think that in those days  it was called an Emporium.  He supplied Italian made goods to the people in the Ingham district. He would go around to the farms and take orders from the Italians.  He was also a Commission Agent (Real Estate Agent). Part of his work was also interpreting and translating.  Italians who wanted to make application to sponsor relatives to come to Australia, those who wanted to make application for naturalisation and those who wanted to buy property often required someone to assist them with the paper work.

Gayndah.Devietti - Copy

Letter Head for G.Devietti 1934

With Italy declaring war on the 10th  June 1940, many Italian residents in Ingham came under suspicion as Fascist supporters.  From the school yard, I would see Italians in the back of utes after they had been arrested to be taken to the police station.  And then you would see them in rail carriages with bars as they were sent south for internment.

Suspicion fell on dad.  He was told to be careful: he was an educated man, was well known and had the potential to lead an uprising.  I travelled to Brisbane and read my father’s file in the National Archives of Australia.  There were pages and pages of information about his suspected involvement with the Fascist Party.  A letter was sent to Sydney CIB accusing my father of being the secretary of the Fascist Party in Babinda.  Letters went back and forward between CID in Sydney, Brisbane, Townsville, Ingham, Townsville, Cairns, Babinda.  Babinda police confirmed that they had no knowledge of a Giovanni Devietti working in Babinda and besides all fascist records had been burnt.  There was another letter written to CIB from a man in Ingham, known to my father.  He said that he saw Devietti crossing the street to talk with a friend.  The friend asked him “How is the war going” to which my father allegedly replied “The Greek and British are going to be ### by the Germans”.  My dad when talking to friends would have spoken his dialect, which this man wouldn’t understand, so there was no substance to the story.  The letters went back and forth with a call for ‘Devietti to be interned’.

My mother’s father was Antonio Origliasso and he had two sons:  Nicola (Nicholas) and Mario.  Nicholas arrived in Australian in 1912 with my mother and their mother (their father was already in the Ingham district). Mario was born in Australia.  Mario, the younger one, was called up in the army but later those with italian names had their arms taken from them and placed into a labour camp.  Nicholas, born in Italy, was called up later in the army and ended up fighting in New Guinea.  Luigi Betta of Halifax and two of his sons were also interned.  A third son was called up for army service, leaving the family farm abandoned. This son was able to challenge his ‘call up’ and was released so that he could work the farm.

Dad was called up for service with the army.  Maybe they thought they could keep an eye on him that way.  He was sent to Warwick and was involved in record keeping.  He wasn’t a good soldier and eventually was sent to Horn Island.  There was an airfield there and he was attached to the military hospital: 1 ACH (Australian Camp Hospital). Dad’s next transfer was to Cowra.  Possibly they were looking for people with a number of languages, and dad had English, Italian, Spanish and French.

Cowra was a big complex of 4000 prisoners of war.  He first worked with the Formosans: Compound D.  I think his Spanish came in use because Formosa was a Spanish and Portuguese colony.  According to dad, he didn’t feel secure working in this compound.  The armed guards were all old men and he felt that the young prisoners could overcome the guards quickly.  This was after the Japanese outbreak on 5th August 1944.  He was then transferred to one of the Italian prisoner of war compounds as a translator/interpreter.

cowra

Cowra Prisoner of War and Interment Camp after 5th August 1944

Dad not only worked in the Cowra compound, but he also was involved when the Italian POWs arrived on the ships.  As an interpreter he had deal with the antics of the Italian POWs.  One story was about getting the Italians onto or off a truck.  They would play dumb.  Instructions would be given: “Get off the truck” or “Get on the truck” and they would just stand there.  Or they would climb onto the roof of the truck.  Dad had to sort out not just the language and communication side of things but also the behaviour. He would often tell the officers “All is well” as to tried to made sure the POWs complied with the orders.

italian-pow-2

Italian Prisoners of War waiting to board a train bound for a prisoner-of-war camp

The Italian POWs at Cowra ate well, better than the army soldiers and interpreters.  There was the story that the Italians would have to go out to work on the farms and had these buckets or milk pails with them.  Dad noticed that when the Italians returned, the pails would seem quite heavy.  Dad realised that they were bringing something back to camp: vegetables.  Eating with the Italian POWs was preferable to eating in his own mess, which he did often.

Somewhere in there mum and I moved to Brisbane up near St Pauls Terrace.  I went to a school on Leichardt Street.  Mum worked at Momma Luigi’s on St Pauls Terrace and I would help out there on weekends.  It was a Brisbane institution.  The American soldiers would be lining up on the street to get a meal of spaghetti and meatballs.

I think by that time dad was in Gayndah at the POW centre there.  I remember visiting Gayndah to see dad.  It was cold and we had a fire where we stayed.  He worked in a longish building like a hall in Gayndah.  Dad did all the interpreting and I suppose he censored the POW mail.  Dad’s comments were that most Italians were easy going.  They enjoyed going rabbit hunting and while the farmers allowed them rifles, this was contra to rules.  There were those with fascist ideas, but I think they were dealt with quickly if they caused any trouble.

Ingham has another link to Italian prisoners of war because an escaped POW cut cane in Ingham. His name was Alberto Bandiera and he had escaped in September 1946 and surrendered in Brisbane February 1950. The police questioned dad about this but he denied any knowledge.  Bandiera was repatriated on the ship which brought out my cousins to Brisbane Surriento. They arrived 23rd February 1950 and Alberto Bandiera was repatriated onboard on the 24th February 1950.   In time, he returned to Australia and worked at Peacock Siding. Bandiera wasn’t the only escaped POW the police were looking for.

Joe Devietti

6th July 2017