One Italian prisoner of war, Leonido Tassinari and his documentation assists us in understanding the journey of Italians serving with the navy at Tobruk.
Leonido was a gunner on the San Giorgio which was stationed in Tobruk Harbour when he was ‘captured’ on 22nd January 1941.
TOBRUK HARBOUR, 1941. ITALIAN GUNNERY TRAINING SHIP SAN GIORGIO WHICH WAS REDUCED TO A WRECK BY ATTACKS OF NAVAL AIRCRAFT AND RAF BOMBERS AT TOBRUK BETWEEN 1940-06 AND JANUARY 1941. (AWM Image P00090.026)
Leonido was processed at Quassassin on 5th March 1941. His form is stamped in Geneifa Camp 15th September 1941.
On 24th September Leonida and 988 other Italian prisoners of war boarded the Queen Mary. Around this same time, 948 Italian prisoners of war boarded the Queen Elizabeth.
Elio Spandonari also served in the Italian navy at Tobruk. He wrote that from the Tobruk airfield which was used as a temporary prisoner of war compound, a group was taken to the port of Tobruk and boarded on a rusty boat. The boat landed the men in Alexandria and they were taken to a concentration camp near the sea which was guarded by Polish soldiers*. After a short stay, a group of marines were taken to a camp near Ismailia: El Quassassin (El Kassassin). Elio recalls that after many months, he was transferred to a camp close to Suez then the men in total about 2000 were transferred to the Port of Suez to be boarded on a ship: destination unknown.
“Il traghetto procedeva lentamente, però man mano la cittadina di Suez incominciava a rimpicciolirsi sino a diventare una striscia continua e incolore. Le navi ferme alle boe furono sorpassate e davanti a noi e, al di fuori di un enorme scafo poco distante non vi era più nulla, solo mare aperto.
Mai più pensavamo che quello fosse il mezzo destinato a trasportarci verso la destinazione che finalmente ci avevano comunicato: Australia, terra così lontana. Altre incognite, si andava verso posti sconosciuti…
Quel grande scafo con tre grossi fumaioli con una grande ‘C’ (Cunard Line) era la nave destinata al nostro trasporto. Era la Queen Mary, allora il più grande transatlantico del mondo, stazza 80000 tonnellate, una montagna di acciaio.” (from Diario per Laura by Elio Spandonari)
Together, Tassinari’s documents and Spandonari’s testimony provide a timeline from capture at Tobruk Libya to arrival at Cowra Prisoner of War Camp Australia.
Port Tewfik was where the Italians boarded a ferry to be taken to the Queen Mary. The Queen Mary departed Suez on the 24th September 1941. It arrived in Ceylon at Trincomalee, a deep-water harbour on 1st October 1941. On the 7th October 1941, the Queen Mary sailed into Fremantle Harbour Western Australia. Coming in through Sydney Heads and sailing under the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the Queen Mary disembarked her passengers on the 13th October 1941.
On the 14th October 1941, the first residents of Cowra Prisoner of War Camp arrived.
The Italian prisoners of war on the Queen Elizabeth arrived in Sydney on the 15th October 1941 and ‘marched in’ to Cowra Camp 16th October 1941.
1st November 1941 Cowra PW Camp 12 Section D (ICRC V-P-HIST-01879-25)
All four men served in the Italian Navy and were captured 21-22nd January 1941 at Tobruk.
There were a total of 339 marines from Tobruk on board the Queen Mary’s voyage to Australia in October 1941. It was almost nine months from the time the marines were captured to their arrival in Australia.
*Polish Independent Carpathian Brigade – a group of Polish soldiers, trained by the British in Latrun Palestine; they assisted the Australians and British during the Siege of Tobruk April 1941- December 1941.
Memories from Ippolito Moscatelli (Messaggero di Sant’Antonio July-August 2021)
A special thank you to Sara Bavato for her continued support of the Italian prisoner of war research project and her article in the latest publication of Messaggero di Sant’Antonio. Click on the link below to read the article…
Every Italian prisoner of war took something small home to Italy. It might be a memory of flying fish and dolphins, a button from the POW uniform, a dictionary, a theatre program or a chess set.
The history of Italian prisoners of war is enriched by these items. Each item adds new understanding to the life of the Italian prisoner of war in Australia.
Ippolito’s granddaughter Francesca continues to discover bits and pieces of her nonno’s collection and each one brings new meaning to her nonno’s life.
Pastel by Ippolito Moscatelli 11 November 1945 (courtesy of Francesca Maffietti)
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.