What isn’t written into the records is how the Italian prisoners of war kept themselves occupied during their many hours of idleness. It just wasn’t the hours spent on board the transport ships to India and Australia that needed filling, but also the Sundays on farms and the days and nights in Cowra, Hay and Murchison.
Snippets of information from newspapers, oral histories and letters, when combined with images from photos deliver an insight into the pastimes of our Italian POWs.
CARDS and BOARD GAMES My nonno taught me how to play card games. I have always thought that this is how he wiled away his spare hours during the ‘slack’ in the cane cutting communities of north Queensland during the 1920s and 1930s. Briscola and scopa are two Italian card games which no doubt the Italian POWs played while in Australia. A newspaper photographer captured two Italians playing cards onboard the train taking them to Hay. A pack of cards is portable and cheap.
Mention is made in a newspaper article of an ‘improvised draughts board’ carried by an Italian POW when he landed in Sydney. The draught pieces had been cut from broom handles. Official photos taken at Hay and Cowra, had Italian POWs playing chess and making chess sets (from lathes constructed by the POWs).
(The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW: 1842-1954) Thursday 16th October 1941, page 10)
EDUCATION and LANGUAGE CLASSES Costanzo Melino wrote that whilst in India, he attended Italian and English classes. Having minimal formal education in Italy, he seized opportunities to undertake classes in Italian and English. 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.
METAL WORK CLASSES Rosemary Watt (Bury) is caretaker of a carved artefact made in Cowra by Angelo Capone. Most like mass produced in a mould, the Italians then finished the carving with adornments of their choosing. Interestingly, the Australia War Memorial has a similar arefact in their collection and one is left to ponder “how many other carved arefacts are their in homes in Australia and Italy?”
LEATHER WORK Australian children recall the shoes and sandals made by their Italian POWs. The leather would be produced from hides and crafted into practical items such as coin pouches, belts and footwear. In POW group photos taken at Cowra, Hay and Murchison, many Italians can be seen wearing sandals, which were certainly not standard issue.
EMBROIDERY The origins of the elegant sewing prowess of Italian POWs is hard to locate. Personal memories are that the Italian POWs had learnt the skill in India and embroideries completed by Italian POWs in India can be found from time to time on EBay. Two beautifully embroidered works are keepsakes of Colleen Lindley (a gift from Domenico Petruzzi to her mother Ruby Robinson of Gayndah) and Ian Harsant (a gift from Francesco Pintabona to the Harsant family of Boonah). An interesting interpretation of the word ’embroidery’ is offered by Alan Fitzgerald in his book ‘The Italian Farming Soldiers’. Used in letters written by Italian POWs, the word ’embroidery’ was code for ‘fascist propaganda’.
ART and MUSIC and PLAYS Musical performances and stage plays were performed in the camps. The wigs of theatre as illustrated below were captured on film at Cowra.
Cowra 12D 2 7.43 Wigs of Theatre V-P-HIST-01882-02
(International Committee for the Red Cross)
Instruments and art supplies were provided to Italian prisoners of war. The photo below shows a wall of the barracks at Hay which had been decorated as well as the musical instruments acquired for use by the Italians. Furthermore, Queenslanders remember the mandolins, guitars and banjos that were played on the farms and Nino Cipolla has the music for songs his father Francesco notated while in Q6 Home Hill and Cowra PW & I Camp.
HAY, AUSTRALIA, 1943-09-09. GROUP OF ITALIAN PRISONERS OF WAR INTERNED AT NO.6. P.O.W. GROUP, WHO HAVE FORMED THEMSELVES INTO THE CAMP ORHESTRA.
(Australian War Memorial Image 030142/02)
Cowra Council have an interpretive display on a number of themes at various points around the precinct. The Italians is once such display and under the title Members of the Family, the following is recorded: “Their great love of music, food and art endeared them to the community. They formed bands and produced musical events which would attract local people to sit outside the camp and listen to their beautiful singing”.
FOOTBALL, TENNIS and BOXING
It is not surprising that just as football is a passion for Italians today, it was also a passion back in the 1940’s. Group photos of Italian prisoners of war were taken in 1944, among them photos of the Football Teams.
MURCHISON, VICTORIA, AUSTRALIA. 1944-05-20. SOCCER TEAM OF ITALIAN PRISONERS OF WAR OF NO. 13A COMPOUND, MURCHISON PRISONER OF WAR GROUP.
(Australian War Memorial: Image 066766)
Yanco, NSW. 1944-01-31. Soccer teams from No. 15 Prisoner of War (POW) Camp lined up on the ground before commencement of play. All Italians, some have recently transferred from Hay. The match was played in temperatures over 109 degrees F.
(Australian War Memorial: Image 063921 Geoffrey McInnes)
Official photos in the Australian War Memorial collection also show the Italians playing tennis at Hay and boxing competitions at Cowra.
GARDENS and STATUES and FOUNTAINS One would be hard put to find a piazza in Italy that doesn’t have a statue or fountain. Group photos taken at Cowra have the Italians seated in front of this prominent fountain.
Guerre 1939-1945 Nouvelle – Galls du Sud. Camp du Cowra Fontaine.
(International Red Cross V-P-HIST-01881-01)
Reflecting their history and culture, the Italians keenly constructed statues like the replica Colosseum at Hay and just to the right of the photo is a tank atop a plinth. Italian POWs grew their own vegetables as is evident by the photo below. Between the barracks at Hay, gardens were dug and crops grown. Ham Kelly told his grandson that the Italian POWs at Q6 Home Hill Hostel grew the most amazing vegetables outside their barracks.
HAY, NSW. 1944-01-16. THE CRAFTSMANSHIP OF THE ITALIAN PRISONERS OF WAR IS ILLUSTRATED BY THIS GARDEN AT THE 16TH GARRISON BATTALION PRISONER OF WAR DETENTION CAMP. NOTE THE MODEL OF THE COLISEUM IN THE FOREGROUND.
(Australian War Memorial Image 063365)
LETTER and JOURNAL WRITING
For the Italian POWs, there were two main regulations regarding the sending of mail:
Prisoners were not to send letters other than through official channels.
Prisoners were allowed to send two letters or two postcards or one letter and one postcard every week on approved Service of Prisoners of War Notelopes and postcards.
Unfortunately, postal services to and from Italy were unreliable. Italians became despondent at not receiving mail from family. In a letter written by Giuliano Pecchioli, he writes on 12/1/45 that he was in receipt of his sister’s letter dated 3/6/1943. Communication with family was difficult. Before Christmas, POWs were given cards with Australian scenes to send home to Italy. Below is a page of a booklet of scenes produced for Christmas 1941.
Di sotto la “cartolina” dell’YMCA distribuita per il Natale del 1941
(From the collection of Enrico Dalla Morra)
A number of journals survive, written by Italian soliders and prisoners of war. For some Italians, it was a way of recording the events of the lives, over which they had little control. From Tobruk to Clare is the story of Luigi Bortolotti as recorded in his diary. The “Libbretta” of “Corporal Cofrancesco Umberto” is the basis for “Umberto’s War” . Recorded are details of his journey as a soldier and prisoner of war which took him to Australia. Another journal “Diario di Guerra” by Francesco D’Urbano was found in the sands of north Africa by an Australia soldier. In time, the soldier asked the assistance of CO.AS.IT to trace D’Urbano. Laura Mecca researched the Italian archives and found that he had spent time in India before returning to Italy. A copy of the diary was presented to his wife.
While this photo is of Italian POWs in an Egyptian camp, it illustrates the type of craft work POWs engaged in and similar projects would have been undertaken in Australian camps.
Italian prisoners of war with items of their carved handiwork at Helwan POW Camp, Egypt. One prisoner shown chiselling portrait features of a roundel. Taken 1940-1943 by an official photographer.
John Oxley Library from the collection of New Zealand Department of Internal Affairs Image DA-00736-F