Tag Archives: Desert War Libya 1941

The Desert War

Stories from the Desert

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

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

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

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

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

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

boots and pants

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

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

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

quartermaster stores

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

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

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

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

004906 Liquor and cigareets

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

Looting or Larrikinism

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

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

4091136.JPG

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

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

004913 Knights of Bardia

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

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

3999636

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

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

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

Tobruk POW CAge

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