Eliseo Pieraccini and Carlo Vannucci are names on the lists of Italian prisoners of war sent to Australia during WW 2. Individually, they were just a number and a name; their details were recorded and notated on multiple Australian Military Forces forms.
But there are invisible threads that connect the two men. They were both from Viareggio (Lucca) a seaside town on the Tuscan coast. They arrived in Australia from India onboard the Mariposa. Their only placement in Australia was Cowra: 27.4.44 until repatriation onboard the Alcantara 23.12.46. They both left a lasting legacy.
Vannucci’s occupation is recorded as ‘decorator’ and Pieraccini’s occupation is ‘clerk’. They are names that remain forever connected to this history and Cowra, because during their time in Cowra, they painted ‘renaissance’ style Altar Panels for Cowra Camp 12 (C).
Cowra Altar Compound 12 (C) c. 1946 (photo courtesy of Francesca Maffietti)
The coloured photo of the chapel at Camp 12(C) was one of three photos Ippolito Moscatelli took home to Ospitaletto di Cormano (Milano) with him; souvenirs of life as a prisoner of war in Australia. At first glance, granddaughter Francesca Maffietti thought this was a chapel in Italy. Her grandparents made pilgrimages to many chapels in Italy, taking photos along the way. At first glance this chapel could be mistaken for an Italian chapel; the decorations are undoubtedly Italian in style. Eliseo and Carlo through their art, brought a little of Italy to Cowra.
The wooden floor, corrugated iron roof, exposed beams and gaps between walls and roof: this is the chapel in 1946. The altar is painted in a fashion to appear like marble. The details are beautiful: the motif of the Holy Ghost represented as a dove above the crucifix, the cross on the front of the altar, the paintings of Mary and Jesus, the backdrop painted in burgundy, whites and shades of black. In contrast is the November 1941 chapel for Cowra Camp 12 (C). It consisted of an outdoor altar. Quite possibly this original altar eventually found a home inside a hut and bit by bit, decorative paintings were added as were religious items.
Outside Altar Cowra Camp 12 C 12.11.41 (ICRC V-P-HIST-E-00217)
The Virgin Mary painted by Eliseo Pieraccini (left) and Jesus painted by Carlo Vannucci (right) (photos from The Cowra Guardian December 24 2019, Council Seeks Heritage Listing for Italian POW Art Works)
In addition to this little know history is the close connection between Sergeant Robert Dunlop Burge and Carlo Vannucci. Hugh Cullimore, Art Curator at the Australian War Memorial provides the following information:“Sergeant Robert Dunlop Burge (N386934) was in charge of the Engineering section at Cowra prisoner of war camp from 15 May 1942 to 29 April 1947. During his service as a guard, Sergeant Burge formed friendships with several of the prisoners, including Italian artist Carlo Vannucci. Vannucci had been captured in Libya and transported by the US Navy to Australia, where he was interned in Cowra. Sergeant Burge organised paints and canvas from old flour bags for Vannucci and other artists in the camp. Sergeant Burge’s wife, Jenny Catherine Burge, regularly travelled on the train to visit her husband serving at the camp. Vannucci painted [a] portrait of Jenny for Sergeant Burge, as a gift.” And the same initial descriptor with this quote: “Sometime later on a routine workshop inspection Vannucci took me bysurprise with a gift of a framed painting which he had signed” Burge said in 1975, in an article published in the local paper at the time, as reported by the ‘Cowra Guardian’, 5 June 2014. “It was an impression from memory of a sea view in his home town Viareggio, an Italian well known seaside resort…The painting was an expression of Vannucci’s thanks.”
“La vacca capitolina” di Carlo Vannucci (Carro di prima categoria)terzo premio al CarnevalediViareggio 1979
In the Relic Collection of the Australian War Memorial, there is a sculpture that is attributed to Eliseo Pieraccini. Hugh Cullimore Art Curator provides the following information: The two [photos] titled CR25408 are of the Pieraccini work we have, with scant details on its creation. I note its strong Art Deco appearance, a style that was sliding out of fashion by the time of the War.
Statue made by Eliseo Pieraccini (AWM CR25408)
What works of art did your father bring home from Italy?
Did they create an item in wood or metal?
Do you have a painting or sketch made by your nonno?
“Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” ― Pablo Picasso
A special thank you to Francesca Maffetti, granddaughter of Ippolito Moscatelli and Hugh Cullimore, Art Curator Australian War Memorial for their contributions to this article.
POST SCRIPT: The history of the Cowra Camp is complicated. It consisted of 4 compounds: A, B, C and D each capable of accommodating 1000 people. It housed prisoners of war: Italian, Japanese, Korea and Formosan; and internees: Italian, Indonesian and Javanese. Which group lived in which compound changed during the years of its operation : 1941-1946.
In 1942 Compound D was named: Special Camp 12 (D) for Italian prisoner of war Dysentery Carriers [amoebic and bacillary carriers].
Cowra Camp also housed children. Indonesian families were interned at Cowra in September 1943.
By 1944 Compound D housed Japanese Officers, Formosans and Koreans.
Such was the complexity of the prisoner of war and internment camps in Australia.
The inspiration for this article began with a photo of the Cowra Chapel. After some research, I realised that this topic was much more complex. Prayers, Priests and Chapels begins with the patron saints of villages and is a journey of the Italian soldier and prisoners of war through their faith.
There might have been exceptions but it was reported that all Italian prisoners of war were Catholic. Evidence of their religious faith starts with the prayer cards they were given of the patron saint of their village. These prayer cards were taken with them to the battlefields, to the prisoner of war camps, to Australia and then finally returned with the men to Italy.
Domenico Feruilli’s Prayer Card (photo courtesy of Rossana Ferulli)
In Libya Roman Catholic Churches were built by the Italians before the outbreak of war. Did the Italian soldiers get an opportunity to visit these churches and pray? Did they light a candle for their safety in battle? Or maybe they made the sign of the cross as they passed by these churches on the way to battle?
Biagio di Ferdinando wrote, “During my travels from Tobruck to Bengasi, after Derna and Barce there were many beautiful villas, towns, schools, churches, all new.” (Odyssey by Biagio di Ferdinando)
1st March 1941 BENGHAZI. EXTERIOR OF THE CATHEDRAL OF THE SACRED NAME OF JESUS. SMALL BOMBS HAVE FALLEN IN THE COURTYARD BEFORE THE CATHEDRAL AND THE BLAST FROM HEAVY GERMAN BOMBS HAS SHATTERED MOST OF THE WINDOWS. (AWM Image 006539, Photographer Hurley, James Francis (Frank)
In 1941, the Apostolic Delegate for Egypt and Palestine had ‘Libro di Preghiere’ published in Palestine, with the permission of G.H.Q. Middle East. It was a prayer book distributed to Italian prisoners of war.
It included Preghiera Del Prigioniero as well as part of a prayer for the prisoners by Pope Pius XII. For many, this would have been their only book but it was a book to give the men spiritual guidance and comfort.
Libro di Preghiere(photo courtesy of Daniel Reginato)
In India, the men were given materials to paint and sew with. The men drew inspiration from their faith. Filippo Granatelli’s ‘Last Supper’ is one example.
Filippo Granatelli 16.11.42 (photo courtesy of Veniero Granatelli)
Many of the embroideries are religious in nature: the patron saint of a village, Jesus, The Sacred Heart, Immaculate Heart of Mary.
Giuseppe Polito: Rappresenta la Madonna degli Angeli, protettrice di Sacco (SA) il suo paese. (photo courtesy of Silvio Masullo)
Carved Wooden Statue of Madonna made by Isidoro Del Piccolo in Yol Camp India (photo courtesy of Ermanno Scrazzolo)
The Italians brought a little of Italy to the chapels in the British camps in India with elaborate decorations: paintings, statues, frescos and altars.
Camp No 23 Bangalore Altar (ICRC V-P-HIST-03474-16A)
Worthy of note are the details of Our Lady of the Prisoner. The hat, the shirt with a black diamond patch, the shorts with the black strip; items which identified the men as prisoners of war have been meticuoulsy represented.
Our Lady of the Prisoner Bangalore Group I 12.12.1941(ICRC V-P-HIST=03474-05A)
Bangalore Camp 2 View of the Altar in the Chapel (ICRC V-P-HIST-03474-20A)
Australia: In the Camps
The first group of Italian prisoners of war arrived at Hay Camp New South Wales in May 1941. A 1943 report and a 1944 photo records information about how the spiritual needs of the Italians were catered for at Hay Camps 7 and 8:
The prisoners of war of these two camps are all Catholics. Camp 8 has a chapel adorned with a beautiful altar carved in wood and having a harmonium. The chapel of Camp 7 is located in one of the refectories; it also has a beautiful sculpted altar and a harmonium. Each camp has a prisoner of war priest who provides regular worship.
Camp priest, Virgilio Iacobelli featured below arrived in Australia on 27th May 1941 with the first group of Italian prisoners of war. He served at both Hay and Cowra camps.
HAY, NSW. 1944-01-16. 45005 LIEUTENANT PADRE I. VIRGILIO IACOBELLI AN ITALIAN ROMAN CATHOLIC PRIEST, AT THE ALTAR IN THE CHAPEL OF NO. 7 COMPOUND, 16TH GARRISON BATTALION PRISONER OF WAR DETENTION CAMP. ALL THE CRAFT WORK IN THE CHAPEL WAS DONE BY THE PRISONERS. PLAYING THE ORGAN IS 45192 SERGEANT MAJOR VINCENZO COMMARATA. (AWM Image 063360, Photographer McInnes, Geoffrey)
To make way for new arrivals of Italian prisoners of war to Australia, Italians were transferred from the established camps at Hay to the tented camps of Cowra. Cowra Prisoner of War Camps for the Italians were under construction. In November 1941, photos and reports record the temporary chapel and arrangements for church services:
Each section has a large tent serving as a chapel, containing a pretty altar built for prisoners. The sacred candles, bread and wine are provided once a week by the local priest of Cowra. Religious duties are carried out by three prisoner of war priests. Recently, Cowra had a visit from the Archbishop of Sydney, representing the Apostolic Delegate in Australia.
Cowra Camp No 12 Section D Altar under Construction 12.11.41(ICRC V-P-HIST-E-00216)
Giuseppe Raimondi from Amaroni (Catanzaro) served as priest at Cowra Special Camp 12 D before being sent to Victoria: V28 Attwoods, Myrtleford Camp, Puckapunyal and V22 Rowville. Raimondi was called as a witness to an inquiry into Captain JM Waterson and the fatal shooting of Rodolfo Bartoli at V22 Rowville.
Cowra Camp No 12 Section D The Chapel 12.11.41(ICRC V-P-HIST-E-00215)
Cowra Camp A Altar in the Dining room 3.9.42 (ICRC V_P-HIST-E-00218)
Faustino Lenti from Milano had been a Missionary Father in India and served at Cowra Camps. Lenti was a charismatic and colourful character and by April 1944, it was reported: It is alleged that he controls a ‘basher gang’ composed of PoW… and that he employs a personal bodyguard for his protection. The latest information about him is that he fears an attempt will be made on his life. (NAA: SP196/2 443/1/5280)
Reports were conflicting.
Cowra Prisoner of War Camp Information Board(photo courtesy of David Ackers)
The Apostolic Delegate for Australia, Monseigneur Giovanni Panicio published ‘L’Amico del Prigioniero’ in1943. It is a prayer book written in Latin and Italian containing the service of the mass, important prayers, Catholic Calendar of Holy Days from 1943 to 1951 and hymns.
Having the book written in Italian and Latin is significant. Mass was said in Latin until the Second Vatican 1965. This book ensured that the Italian prisoners of war had a prayer book in Italian. This gesture was a significant show of concern for the spiritual welfare of the Italian prisoners of war in Australia.
Ermanno Nicoletti carved a piece of wood and turned it into a profile of his mother, while praying. Granddaughter Alessandra contemplates, “News of prisoners of war were scarce and at some point my grandmother almost lost faith that her son was still alive.” On the other side of the world in Australia, Ermanno ‘knew’ that his mother was praying for him and carved his thoughts in wood.
Wood Carving by Ermanno Nicoletti (photo courtesy of Alessandra Nicoletti)
Australia: Life on the farm
By the middle of 1943, the first Italian prisoners of war were sent to farm placements in the Hamilton district of Victoria and Coonabarabran district of New South Wales. This trial was successful and was implemented throughout Australia: Prisoner of War Control Centres: Without Guards [PWCC]. In the Notice to Employers of Prisoners-of-War given to the farmers as part of the employment contract there is this statement:
5. You will be required to see that the following rules are obeyed:-
(a) P.W. must not leave your property except-
(i) to attend religious services, for which special arrangements will be made by the Military Authorities; (NAA: D2380)
There are many memories of the Italians attending local churches. All manner of transport was used to get the men to church; bikes, horse and sulky, truck, car, on foot. It was remembered the Italians would go to church with the Catholic family on the neighbouring farm, as the host family were not Catholic. Children of the time remember the Italians walking to church in their ‘red pyjamas’ a reference to the burgundy coloured uniform the men wore. Some Australians remember with shame that the Italian POWs had to stand at the back or sides of the church and had to leave the mass before its conclusion. Others recall the beautiful singing voices of the Italians during mass.
Italians in the Boonah district of Queensland attended a Mission Church because they learned that the pastor, Dr Dwyer spoke Italian. The Italians would enjoy conversations with Dr Dwyer after service. Members of the congregation knew this was against the ‘rules’ and wondered if they would get arrested for their compassion. Father Steele from Beaudesert Queensland, assisted and nominated Paul Raffa with his application process to return to Australia. It was Father Steele who welcomed Raffa when he disembarked from the ‘Napoli’ at Brisbane in May 1949.
In June 1944, a special event was reported in the Gympie news: His Excellency the Apostolic Delegate, Most Rev. John Panico, has recently been visiting prisoners of war employed in various centres on the North Coast of Queensland. At Gympie he met a large number of them at St. Patrick’s Church, where he celebrated Mass. At 10 o’clock his Excellency addressed the people, speaking in Italian to the prisoners of war and tendering them excellent advice. The services of these men are greatly valued by their employers because of their good habits and their knowledge of rural industries. (1944 ‘Of General Interest’, Advocate (Melbourne, Vic. : 1868 – 1954), 7 June, p. 4. , viewed 12 Jan 2021, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article172213489)
However this event drew the ire of Smith’s Weekly whose headline was: Fascist “Guard of Honor” and made mention of ‘dago prisoners of war’.
Also criticized was a decision by Commonwealth Authorities to give a petrol allowance [petrol was rationed in Australia during WW 2] to farmers to take Italian prisoners to church. The question was asked as to ‘why such benevolent treatment was accorded “these dagoes”.’
A kindly gentleman, Cyril Blacket of Pinery South Australia met an Italian prisoner of war at his local church. With good intentions, Cyril tried to communicate with the Italian farm worker, via the Pidgin English for Italian Prisoners of Warbooklet the Italian had, but with little success. Blacket applied to the Department of Army for a copy of the booklet, only to be warned: PW are not allowed to fraternise with members of the public, PW Camp Order No. 13 Sec 68 (c). (NAA: D2380)
1946 Cowra Camp
In 1946, the Italian prisoners of war were withdrawn from farm placements and brought into the camps to await repatriation. It was during this time that two altar panels for the chapel were painted by Cowra Italian POWs.
Cowra Chapel 1946(courtesy of Francesca Maffietti)
Back to Italy
Ippolito Moscatelli from Ospitaletto di Cormano (Milano) returned to Italy with photos of the Cowra Chapel. It is with special thanks to his granddaughter Francesca Maffietti that there is a record of the Cowra Chapel in 1946.
The altar panels survived. However they deserve a more detailed article.
How many other copies of this photo returned to Italy?
Have you seen this photo in your nonno’s collection?
Maybe you thought this photo was of a church in Italy?
Life as a soldier and as a prisoner of war was difficult. Some Italians were absent from their families for ten years. Those years saw the men always on the move. Life was a continual cycle of change.
One aspect of the men’s lives that did no change was their religious faith.
(ICRC V-P-HIST-01881-01 New South Wales, camp of Cowra. Fountain.Guerre 1939-1945. Nouvelle-Galles du sud, camp de Cowra. Fontaine. )
Two Cowra Italian POW fountains have been uncovered and partially reconstructed. The larger of the two was used as a backdrop to the group photos. These group photos were taken of the Italian prisoners of war in September 1943 and February 1944. Some Italian families are fortunate to have seen their father or grandfather, posing with other Italian prisoners of war for a photo, in front of this fountain.
An archaeological assessment of the Cowra Camp reports, “ In contrast, are the remains of formal gardens established by the Italian POW are extant within the area of the Italian Compound A. They illustrate the transfer of cultural actives by the Italian prisoners into their new enforced environment. The construction of fountains using methods, possibly ethnic origin, is of exceptional research interest and reflects the prisoner’s expressions of their homeland and culture.” : Archaeological Assessment for the site of Prisoner of War Camp 12 Cowra, NSW. October 2003, Dr JL Tracey and Dr MM Tracey.
During the excavations a panel with A XXI EF was discovered, this dates the fountain to the twenty first year (Anno XXI) of the Fascist Era (Era Fascista): October 29 1942 to October 28 1943.
Fountain Inscription XXI EF(Cowra Guardian September 17 2014, Cowra-Italy Friendship Association resolves to support museum push)
By 2014, archaeological work had uncovered the remnant of the fountains, and the smaller of the two fountains has been reconstructed. Two men responsible for the unearthing of the collapsed fountains and subsequent partial reconstructions were George Ridley and Dick Bell.
Dick Bell and George Ridley
(Cowra Guardian September 17 2014, Cowra-Italy Friendship Association resolves to support museum push)
Reconstruction of the smaller fountain(Lyn W April 2016 Tripadvisor)
Fragments of concrete are important reminders of a history which is relevant and important for thousands of Italian families. They link the past with the present; they give a context to photos or memories.
There are also almost invisible links to this history. The photo below are testament to this: Amante, Guarnaci, La Iacona were all sent to Gympie Queensland for farm work and they are all from Sicily; Vizzini and Giarratano are from Villarosa (Enna); Bloise, Armentano and Amoroso are from Mormanno (Cosenza); Foringo and Gordini are also from the province of Cosenza.
Cowra, NSW. 6 February 1944. Group of Italian prisoners of war (POWs) interned at No. 12 POW Group. Back row, left to right: 57037 A. Amante; 57273 G. Guarnaccia; 57288 G. La Iacona; 57252 S. Giambusso; 57051 C. Avola; 46957 S. Vizzini; 57257 G. Giarratano. Front row: 57268 M. Gordini; 57070 L. Bloisi; 57046 R. Armentano; 57038 S. Amoroso; 57226 D. Foringo. Note: The number is an assigned POW number. (AWM Image 030173/15 Photographer: McInnes, Geoffrey)
Notice also the the difference in the gardens between the first photo and the 1944 photos of the fountain. The shrubs have grown and are neatly trimmed. The 1944 photo below is taken at a slightly different angle, which highlights two gardens.
Cowra, NSW. 6 February 1944. Group of Italian prisoners of war (POWs) interned at No. 12 POW Group. Shown here are: 49777 Father F. Lenti, Military Chaplian; 57147 A. Cerrutti; 49593 A. Poggi; 57534 G. Quintiliani; 49557 A. Mercurio; 49439 G. Carrari; 45953 G. Lo Russo; 57431 F. Pelliconi; 57122 N. Chiaranta; 57521 A. Vezzola; 57289 R. La Notte; 57136 P. D’Autilia; 48214 F. Mainardi; 57102 F. Caraccio; 45006 B. Arbasi; 57432 G. Pennacchio; 45739 M. Gatti; 57118 N. Cerreto; 46466 A. Piermattei; 57528 F. De Scisciolo; 49621 L. Piervirgili; 57196 P. Di Siena; 57227 F. Fornari; 57171 V. De Lucia; 57318 M. Lullo; 57278 C. Iacolari; 57339 G. Manda; 46264 N. Monteleone; 57355 S. Martella; 57293 C. La Rosa; 45169 C. Catuogno; 57435 T. Peruzzini; 57277 R. Iacobucci; 57402 G. Napolitano. Note: The number is an assigned POW number. (AWM Image 030175/04 Photographer McInnes, Geoffrey)
Today’s article is with thanks to Rocco Martino in New York. Twelve weeks ago, he offered to pay for a copy of the Alcantara Nominal Rolls of Italian Prisoners of War.
There were over 20 ships which transported Italian prisoners of war from Australia to Italy but not all lists have been digitalized by the National Archives of Australia. The four main transport ships were Alcantara, Ormonde, Otranto and Orontes, sailing the end of 1946/ beginning of 1947.
After I published the article about the Ormonde titled: Sailing Home, Rocco made his generous offer. Thank you most sincerely Rocco on behalf of the 3321 Italian families whose fathers and grandfathers were on this ship.
The Alcantara departed Sydney on 23rd December 1946. Official military documentation records that there were 3321 Italian prisoners onboard: 77 officers and 3244 ORs.
The group of Italians were transported in six train from Cowra to Sydney where they embarked the Alcantara from Pyrmont Wharf. The event was reported in the newspapers and no doubt the Italians would have seen the humour and irony in the situation where the Italians ‘munched hard-boiled eggs, tarts and sandwiches’ while the ‘guards went without food‘. Upon arrival in Sydney, the Italians were given a mug of tea and fruit.
The Telegraph, Prisoners Eat: Guards Starve, 23 December 1946.
The Italians were allowed up to 90 lbs of personal possessions and the photo below show all manner of baggage. Some Italians had used their cash funds to buy up essential items like soap, toothpaste, clothing for their family, boots and canned food, as they already knew these items were in short supply in Italy. “Most of the Italians wore camp made felt slippers and carried one or two pairs of new boots. One in every twenty had a musical instrument, a violin, mandolin, guitar or accordion.”
Daily Advertiser, Back to Italy, 25 December 1946
The departure of the ship was held up waiting for the crew (Australian guards who no doubt went in search of food). Scheduled for a 4 pm departure, the Alcantara sailed at 6.30pm. In the article below, you can see one of the Italians enjoying his sandwich and cup of tea.
Nicola Auciello is pictured on the bottom right. He had reason to smile as he was engaged to an Australian girl. Nicola’s fiancee Muriel travelled to Italy at the end of 1947 and married Nicola in Bari in April 1948. They returned to Australia in December 1948 taking up residence on a sheep property at Wee Waa.
Each of the 3321 Italians would have their own special story. One Italian, showed the newspaper reporter a picture of his 11 year old son, who had never seen. Other Italians commented that they wanted to return to Australia and they were not looking forward to seeing ‘how bad’ the situation was in Italy.
The Sun, Italian POW’s Leave for Home, 23 December 1946
The Alcantara according to Domenico Masciulli’s testimony, arrived into Naples on 22nd January 1947.
Take the time to read through the lists of Italians. You will find men from your village or town; and men who were born in USA, Brazil, Argentina, France, Libya, Switzerland and Scotland.
This is an invaluable document and while looking through the names in the lists, it is difficult not to feel a definite sense of certainty: these men: brothers, fathers, grandfathers and sons were finally going home.
Many a name on the list is familiar to me; I have had contact with their families or spoken with their Australian farming families. I have seen their life through photos: after they returned home, on their wedding day, with their children. And you have been introduced to them through the articles on this website: Domenico Petruzzi, Domenico Masciulli, Francesco (Ciccio) Cipolla, Stefano Lucantoni, Angelo Amante, Angelo Valiante, Adriano Zagonara, Salvatore Morello, Vincenzo Pace, Fortunato Gobbi, Luigi Iacopini, Paolo Reginato, Ferdinando Pancisi, Giuseppe Mangini, Costanzo Melino, Antonio Lumia, Domenico Tiberi.
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.
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.
(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.
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.
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.
Statue of Fascist Eagle at Hay Prisoner of War Camp
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.
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 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 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.
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.
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.
(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.
Marco Lucantoni from Napoli has a special collection of items belonging to his father Stefano Lucantoni. As a prisoner of war in Australia, Stefano kept himself occupied in several ways.
He had a lot on his mind: his family. His wife Egle was pregnant when he had last seen her in 1939. His son was seven years old before father and son met.
A special thank you to Marco and his brothers for sharing Stefano’s treasured keepsakes. Relics like these give credence to the historical accounts. They tell the personal history of Italian prisoners of war in Australia.
Stefano took home with him a beautiful chess set made in Cowra. Featuring the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the image was a reminder of Stefano’s arrival in and departure from Sydney: 1941 and 1946.
In Cowra on the 28th June 1946, a group of Italians staged L’Antenato a Commedia in 3 Alli. Stefano played the part of Egidio.
The carefully designed and produced programme highlights the efforts the men made for their production. The play was written by Guerrino Mazzoni, the sets created by Eliseo Pieraccini and Carlo Vannucci. Montaggio by Stefano Lucantoni, Renato bianchi, Felice di Sabatino, Luigi Proietti, Armano Mazzoni and Cesare Di Domenico. Performers were Bruno Pantani, Guerrino Mazzoni, Carlo Vannucci, Tarcisio Silva, Bruno Dell Amico, Guigi Giambelli, Renato Bazzani, Marcello Falfotti, Alvise Faggiotto, Stefano Lucantoni. Suggestore was Giuseppe Carrari.
They were men from all walks of life: electrical engineer, butcher, clerk, mechanic, plumber, butcher, decorator, policeman, farmer, blacksmith, carpenter.
EDUCATION and LANGUAGE CLASSES
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. Grammatica – Italiana – Inglese is Stefano’s exercise book from these language classes and shows his meticulous notes.
The book, Pidgin English for Italian Prisoners of War was specifically published and given to Italian POWs being allocated to farm work under the Prisoner of War Control Centre: Without Guard scheme. Some of the sections were: Tools, Machinery, Farm Produce, Animals, Hygiene and Medical, Family, House and Conjugation of Verbs.
Stefano’s third 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.
A story of love and a story of imprisonment.
The ring shows the intials E and S entwined and signifies the love of Stefano and his wife Egle. Made in silver and another metal, the silver was obtained from Australian coins eg florins and shillings. Although it was forbidden for POWs to have Australian currency in their possession, necessity and ingenuity always find a way around the rules.
The emblem is carefully crafted with the words: Ricordo Campo 12 A Cowra and entwined initials POW. It was the badge for the chess set.
This card was printed and distributed for Natale 1944. A bucolic Australia landscape of sheep, gum trees and space. Despite processes in place for prisoners of war to send postcards for Notification of Capture and Transfer of Prisoner, Stefano’s wife believed him dead and asked the Red Cross to try to locate some information about him.
In September 1941, Egle received a letter from the Red Cross telling her that her husband was a prisoner of war in Australia. Instructions were given to send mail to: Posta per prigionieri di Guerra, Australia.
Any wonder why mail was lost and months and sometimes years passed before mail was received. The image on this postcard was very foreign to Stefano’s family, but its arrival conveyed love and hope.
Stefano and Egle: Happier Times
A special thank you to Marco Lucantoni for the photographs used in this article.
A common memory that Queenslanders have about their Italian prisoners of war focuses on food: a dislike for pumpkin, considered in Italy to be livestock food; a love of watermelon; dislike for bread and butter pudding; relishing bacon and eggs; a yearning for spaghetti; learning how to twirl spaghetti with a fork and spoon; the copper full of spaghetti; hand made spaghetti; rabbit stew. Doug Wilson, once the Italians left his parents’ farm at Lagoon Pocket, refused to eat spaghetti and to this day does not eat pasta. He ate ‘far too much spaghetti’ during those war years.
Fullerton Pumpkin Crop 1947 Glasshouse Mountains
(photo courtesy of Yvonne Derrington[Fullerton])
Jim Fullerton from Glasshouse Mountains sent this photo to Paolo Santoro in 1947. It explains a little about the Italians’ views on what was put on the Aussie dinner plate. Paolo replied in his letter of 25th December 1947, “I told them some good story you know, about the pumpkins, you had a good crop, but you know I don’t like to [too] much to eat them.”
The diet of the Italian was very different from the good old Aussie meat and 3 veg. Theirs was a diet of little meat, pulses, pasta, rice and vegetables of the season.
“There was one young man, Domenico, who understood a little English so he became the spokesperson for the men. The first hurdle was the food. Copious amounts of meat, eggs and milk, potatoes and pumpkin were served. Domenico approached Dad and said the men were sick, ‘Too much meat. We need pasta.” Of course pasta and rice were not available during war time so Mum had to come up with a more varied meal plan. I think a few of the chooks may have ended up in a pot and an effort was made to catch fish from the river.”
The menu below is from November 1941 for Cowra Prisoner of War Camp. The camp appears to have been provisioned according to those for Australia armed forces as the diet is overloaded with meat and mashed potatoes. The daily ration for 100 men for Tuesday was 150 lbs beef, 95 lbs potatoes, 40 lbs cabbage…
The camp cooks were Italians and I am sure they would have been scratching their heads as to how to use the daily rations. The cooks would have been grateful for such generous supplies and so set to, to utilise all produce provided. With five meals on offer a day, the POWs would have felt that they spent most of their day eating. After meagre rations as soldiers in Libya, the abundance of food must have seemed like ‘food heaven’. No longer were they eating one month old bread scraps and tinned bully beef.
This menu also makes sense of something Nino Cipolla said about his dad Ciccio Cipolla who spent time in both Hay and Cowra Camps. Nino said, “When I saw the photo of my father which was taken at Cowra Camp, this was the heaviest he weighed in his life!” And no wonder, after having to eat 1 lb of potatoes a day.
A newspaper report from November 1942, supports Nino’s observation, “Italian prisoners-of-war in camps in south NSW have gained on an average nearly a stone in weight since they reached Australia.” (Western Mail, 12 November 1942 page 8). Another reason for the weight gain would have been the sedentary life and idleness associated with life in a POW camp.
However by July 1943, weekly provisions for 100 men show a considerable change away from meat, potatoes and cabbage as it now included rice, spaghetti, split peas, prunes, puree tomatoes, vinegar, oil, an increase in bread rations, a decrease in meat rations. By this time, Italian prisoners of war at Cowra Camp had 140 acres under cultivation, growing primarily crops for their own use.
Menu for Cowra Camp 10th November to 16th November 1941