Tag Archives: Cowra Prisoner of War and Internment Camp

Camp Food

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.

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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.

This difference is explained in an extract from We Never Forgot Domenico. Thea Beswick [Robinson] recalls:

“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

Cowra Menu 1941

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.

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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.

Memories of My Father

Paola Zagonara has shared with me, two items relating to her father Adriano Zagonara.

With the assistance of the Cowra-Italy Friendship Association, Paola is now in contact with John and Robert Davidson from the farming family where Adriano lived and worked near Canowindra.  A water tank constructed by Adriano still bears the plaque he made to ensure his time as a POW was not forgotten.  Read more about Adriano’s POW journey here

Water Tank at Davidson Farm

(photo courtesy of Paola Zagonara)

Adriano Zagonara was captured during the Battle of Bardia on 5th January 1941.  From Egypt he was sent to a prisoner of war camp in India.  In April 1944, he travelled by ship ‘Mariposa’ to Melbourne. He arrived in Melbourne on 26th April 1944.

On 27th April 1944 he arrived at Cowra Prisoner of War Camp.  He stayed in Cowra until 20th April 1945.  He was transferred to Liverpool Camp.

He was then sent to work on a farm in the   N5 Prisoner of War Control Centre: Canowindra in New South Wales.

He returned to Cowra Camp on 4th December 1945.

On 23rd December 1946, Adriano boarded the ship ‘Alcantara’ which took the Italians to Naples.

Adriano’s kit bag went home with him and the lettering is a reminder of his POW number and his time as a POW in Australia.

Wonderful keepsakes for his family.

Zagonara Kit Bag

Kit Bag for Adriano Zagonara

(Photo courtesy of Paola Zagonara)

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Italian POWs boarding Moreton Bay 4th August 1946

(ICRC Archives)

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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