Tag Archives: Italian POWs in Australia

Italian Soldiers at War

 

Left photo: Vincenzo Piciaccia

Right photo: Vincenzo Piciaccia on right

(photo courtesy of Leo Piciacci)

Vincenzo Piciaccia was 19 years old when these photos were taken in Libya.  The photo on the right shows the bravado of young men from Ascoli Piceno with Vincenzo holding his dagger in one hand and another man holding out his rifle. Side by side with weapons of war are the everyday items:  a  food container which Vincenzo holds in his left hand and the man on the left also holds a billy can. Vincenzo was 20 years old when he was captured at Bardia 4.1.41 and 26 years old when he returned to Italy: a youth stolen from him by war.

Domenico Masciulli from Palmoli was interviewed on 9 September 1997 as part of project to record the testimonies of the soldiers of World War 2.  He was 20 years old when he was captured at Bardia on 3rd January 1941. Domenico is pictured below on the left with his friend Francesco Pintabona on 25th December 1944 at a farm near Boonah Queensland.

Boonah.Rackely Masciulli Pintabona

Lu Spuaccisth

Fui chiamato alle armi il 3 Febbraio 1940.

Accettai sportivamente e senza appresioni questo momento come altri fecero nello stesso period.  Da Chieti al 14⁰ Reggimento Fanteria, ricordo fui destinato al 116⁰ Reggimento Fanteria ‘Mamorica” per giungere poi a Tobruck il 6 Marzo 1940, sembrava (quasi ansimando) tutto regolare tranne la vista che un grande territorio tutto o quasi desertico. L’impatto cosi cominciava gia a essere duro, communque sia, cercai d’accettare il tutto.  Dopo pochi mesi si cominciò il campo di lavoro militare diciamo cosi e in breve tempo da Tobruck fui trasferito a Bardia, il 10 Giugno scoppiò la maledetta Guerra del 1940, e li dai primi momenti vedemmo che le cose non crano più regolari, ma ci furono dei cambiamenti.  Il primo e forte impatto con la Guerra lo ricevetti il 13 Giugno del 1940, sotto un bombardamento della marina, nel quale ci furono parecchi feriti ed alcuni morti.

Fu distrutta la nostra infermeria e ne fu allestita un’altra, quella da campo, non poco lontano dalla località di Bardia.  Al primo impatto, anche un po’ per curiosità, mi avvicinai alle prime autoambulanze che scortavano i feriti e li aiutai insieme con altri commilitoni a prendere un ferito per metterlo su di una barella.  Ricordo che quest’ uomo era gravemente ferito a una gamba ed io timidamente chiesi a lui cos’era successo ed egli rispose: “Tutto chiedimi, tranne quello che mi è successo!”. In quel momento ebbi una forte crisi che non saprei descrivere. Una reazione che non so descrivere una… strana pieta mista a dolore e anche una grande forza d’animo.

Pochi giorni dopo avemmo una piccola ‘grande sorpesa’. La maggior parte della nostra compagnia fu trasferita alla cosiddetta Ridotta Capurzo [ Fort Capuzzo], confine tra Libia ed Egitto.  Non so se per fortuna o altro, qui io rimasi alla base; sapemmo che quelli che si trovavano all Ridotta si erano accampati lungo un viadotto attendendo lungo la notte et tutto trascorse con calma o qualcosa d’indecifrabile.  La mattina seguente squadriglie di aerei inglesi compirono diversi giri prima verso la Ridotta e poi verso la Piazzaforte di Bardia, dove ero rimasto e non vi dico il massacro che avvenne in seguito al bombardamento.  Ecco, cinque signori inglesi chiusero l’accesso per la strada direzione Tobruck.

Li feccero dei primi prigionieri, la nostra artiglieria, quasi distrutta e altre truppe italiane che ci venivano in aiuto non ne avevano.  I vari momenti e le diverse manovre si susseguirono fino al 28 Giugno del 1940.  Nonostante tutto io riuscii a scampare a tutti questi bombardamenti e giungemmo in seguito all grande avanzata del 12 Settembre e oltrepassammo la Ridotto Capurzo e ci inoltrammo in territorio egiziano.  Dovete sapere che tutto questo avvenne in 2-3 mesi finche ai primi di dicembre le cose purtroppo precipitarono e fummo costretti a ripiegare tutti all Piazzaforte di Bardi e per una ventina  di giorni e più, fummo circondati e assediati.

Il 3 gennaio 1941 gli inglesi sfondarono con il oro attacco e ci successe il patatrack. Per ben cinque giorni, poi la Piazzaforte crollo e tutto, l’esercito Italiano, la 10⁰ Armata era li, cadde, con prigionieri, feriti e tanti morti; il loro resto si aggirava intorno ai 5000.  Quello che rimase quella mattina del 3 gennaio 1941, non mi va di raccontare (con emozione), una storia molto triste.  Infatti, ormai prigionieri ci condussero a Sollum e li rimasi per cinque giorni.  Aspettando le promesse di propaganda dell’ Esercito che la 2⁰ avanzata che ci sarebbe venuta a liberare.  La fame la disperazione era tanta e chissà il destino cosa avera riservator per noi. Cosi da Sollum ci trasferirono a Mersamentuck  [Mersa Matruh] in un campo di concentramento e li rismasi tre giorni in territorio egiziano.  Da li ci portarono alla stazione e come bestie ci misero in un treno merci, e ogni vagone più di 40 -50 prigionieri per raggiungere un campo di concentramento lungo il canale di Suez. (From Cronache Di Guerra Secondo Conflictto Mondiale Vissuto e Raccottato Dai Palmolesi) Special thanks to Helen Mullan [Rackley] for this article.

Italian soldiers who were sent to Australia.  With thanks to the families of Angelo Amante, Francesco Cipolla, Stefano Lucantoni, Ermanno Nicoletti, Adofo D’Addario, Luigi Iacopini, Antioco Pinna and Nicola Micala, we have the  images below of the Italians as soldiers.

 

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Libya.Egypt.Eritrea.Ethiopia is a photo story of a number of battles together with personal photos of Australia’s Italian prisoners of war. Delving into these battles: Beda Fomm,  Sidi el Barrani, Wolkefit,  Buq Buq,  Keren,  Tobruk,  Gialo Oasis and Giarabub Oasis happened as I  assisted Italian families with their research on their fathers and grandfathers. Appendix 2 in  Walking in their Boots   is a comprehensive list of places of capture for Queensland Italian prisoners of war.

 

 

 

 

When did it start?

10th June 1940 was the official Italian declaration of war.

But for some Italians, the battles started in Eritrea and Ethiopia (1935), Spain (1936), Albania (1939).

For other recruits, it started with training before 1940.

From 10th June 1940, the Mediterranean Sea was a battlefield for the navy and the airforce; on 3rd August 1940 British Somaliland was taken, by 13th September 1940 the Italian forces had arrived at Sidi Barrani on the Libyan-Egyptian border and on 28th October 1940 the invasion of Greece began.

Benghazi… Tripoli… Bardia… Tobruk…Derna…Martuba…Acroma…Barca… Jarabub… desert forts…oases strongholds…

A special thank you to the families of these men for sharing the following photos: Antioco Pinna, Annibale Arangeli, Fioravante Blasioli, Tullio Brutti, Marino Casadio, Emidio Di Benedictis, Filippo Granatelli and Sebastiano di Campli

When and where did the war begin for your father?

For Biagio di Ferdinando life as a soldier started March 1938 when he was called up for military service. The following extract is from his book Odyssey

I was called up for military service during the month of February 1938. The postcard came from the military district of Teramo asking to present myself for military service. I left home the morning of 5 March 1938.  I farewelled my family and left together with a friend of the same age.  We arrived at the military barracks in good time. After a little while and a medical check up I was assigned to the 116th infantry regiment based in Chieti, a town inland from Pescara and south of my hometown. 

All the recruits from the district of Chieti of my class were assigned to the 116th infantry regiment in Libya.  The following days they gave us the green-gray uniforms.  Before that time the Italian soldiers in Africa wore the khaki colonial uniforms. 

… I wrote a letter to my family to let them know that I was assigned to the infantry in Tobruck, Libya.

We left Chieti on 13 March 1938.  We took the train to Naples and when we arrived we went to the harbour where we embarked on a ship that would carry us to Libya.

When the ship departed and we heard the siren it was a blow to the heart.. Nearly all us recruits had tears to our eyes, for the first time away from home and going so far away.  During the trip the sea was very rough and nearly all suffered sea sickness. 

When the ship arrived at Derna on 17 March 1938 it anchored far away from the land because there was no port.  Several boats came to take us to shore.  That morning the sea was very rough and the waves were breaking over the ship and as a result they could not use the ladders in order to board the boats. To disembark they put us in the nets used to unload goods, lifted us with the crane and lowered us into the boats, when over the boat we had to wait for the waves and the boat to be level in order to jump from the net into the boat. In the boats, to help us exit from the bag, were some Arabs. We approached them with fear, in the way they were dressed with those turbans on their head.   

In every net that came down were ten soldiers. When the net was lowered we had to wait in order to jump into the boat, had to be quick to get out of the bag to avoid falling into the sea.  In fact while the net was being withdrawn one soldier was nearly thrown overboard because one leg was caught in it….

Before leaving for Tobruck we stayed for the evening in the barracks of the 115th infantry in Derna.  We slept in bunk beds…

On 18 March 1938 we left Derna for Tobruck, one column of approximately 170 trucks. There were 170km from Derna to Tobruck and we arrived on 19 March 1938. The barracks in which we were billetted were brand new.  We, the new regiment of the 116 Marmarica infantry, were the first to wear the grey green uniform in Tobruck. I was allocated to the second company.  My serial number was:  8404… 

In Tobruck, and in all of Libya, blows a wind called ‘ghibli’, very hot and the sand is driven like a fog…and the flies were as thick as bees, like large swarms. 

 Drinking water was carried by tanker from Taranto in the south of Italy. The water that we had in Tobruck was not suitable to drink because it was salty.  With that water we only washed the clothes. 

In the first few months we were training every day.  We were the soldiers of the King and because we were the first gray-green uniforms in the Italian colonies, after a few months the King, Victor Emmanuel III, came to inaugurate all the new barracks in which we lived.  Our Colonel of the 116th Regiment Marmarica infantry presented all of us soldiers in the great square, with one beautiful new road around the barracks. 

The King arrived in an open carriage with General Balbo, the commander of all the Italian troops in Libya.  Behind the General was the King, he was small with a large helmet as protection from the sun, he remained seated and we could hardly see him. We filed past [marching] with the Roman step.  The King drove around the barracks and left.

Biagio returned home on leave four times. On the 1st June 1940 Biago returned to Libya.

He served at Sidi Barrani and Sollum, withdrew to Bardia on foot, was deployed inland to Jarabub and was captured 3rd January 1941 at Bardia.

On Christmas day 1940 for lunch they gave us about eight bucatini, strands of spaghetti, cooked with water.  In those last days of 1940 we were very badly situated.  We were full of fleas, unwashed and had almost nothing to eat.

Giovanni Palermo’s journey can be found in Noi Prigionieri Africa 1941-1947

Benghazi, Derna and Giarabub in Libya

Why?

Why research Italian prisoners of war in Queensland?

Book Launch Joanne - Copy

Joanne Tapiolas – Accidental Historian

(photo courtesy of Michele Sinclair)

My research started with the Italian prisoners of war growing vegetables up river Home Hill.  As a Burdekin local, I had heard stories about these Italians who had come from North Africa after being captured.  Memories of the locals of the time are sketchy, ‘we knew about them’ ‘ we knew they were there but not much else’ ‘one didn’t talk about those things back then’.  In my mind, there must have been a barbed wire enclosure housing 20 – 30 Italian POWs to grow vegetables.

A puzzle for my young 10 year old self was the image of the map in my school Atlas.  North Africa was a long long way from Home Hill in northern Queensland. Questions beginning with WHY and HOW and WHAT stayed in my memory bank.  Not too much of this made sense.

Map of World

When I found the time to do some research, I consulted an excellent publication on the Burdekin history : Black Snow and Liquid Gold by John Kerr.  A section covering the years of the war provided me with the background and details.  I found the names of two Italian POWs who twice escaped the hostel BUT I became frustrated because in an editing error, the names of these men were printed incorrectly.  They are named as Pietro Di Vincenzo and Landolfi Pasquale.  Their names are Vincenzo DI PIETRO and Pasquale LANDOLFI.  The other Italians mentioned have their names correctly ordered.

My dad was as amazed as myself at the records I began to uncover. The research told a story of 250 Italian POWs who lived in barracks and grew vegetables for the armed forces in North Queensland. Now Q6 Prisoner of War Control Hostel Home Hill not only had a history but also a context.  It was one of 10 prisoner of war control centres in Queensland and it operated as part of the Commonwealth Department of Commerce and Agriculture’s Vegetable Project : Home Hill and Ayr.

I became quite attached to MY Home Hill POWs especially when I could put a face to a name.  I left a copy of my research with the local historical society hoping that one day, the children or grandchildren of a Home Hill POW would pass through Home Hill looking for some information.  At least the list of POW names attached would verify that their father or grandfather had been at the hostel up river Home Hill.

I put aside other documents I found about the other nine centres in Queensland, just in case.  I felt that if the Burdekin locals had little knowledge about the Home Hill POW hostel, then did people in the other nine districts know about their POW history.

Curiosity got the better of me and so I began digging for information.  I found little bits of information BUT I was frustrated because the information in the public domain was scarce and incomplete.  The only photographic evidence of Italian prisoners of war in Queensland is three photos taken at Calico Creek.  They are housed in the John Oxley Library. Other records mention only six centres and there is no reference to the differences between a control centre: without guard and a hostel. Once such reference is: Prisoner-of-war control depots were established at Stanthorpe, Home Hill, Gympie, Nambour, Gayndah and Texas.(Fortress Queensland 1942-1945)

I believed that the history of Italian prisoner of war in Queensland needed to be more comprehensive,  contain various perspectives,  and include those who had a memory of the Italians an understanding of the context surrounding the placement of these men on the family farm.

It became obvious that this history was not found in the books of the libraries.  This history is found in the memories of Queensland locals and Italian families. Letters to editors, newspaper articles, letters to historical societies, Facebook posts, cold call letters, website development, oral history interviews, face to face interviews and radio interviews.

Slowly but surely, Queenslanders and Italians have helped write this history.

And just as I had hoped, the son of a Home Hill POW did come looking for the footsteps of this father.  Francesco (Ciccio) Cipolla was at the Q6 PWCH Home Hill from April 1944 to November 1945.  His son, Nino, on previous trips to Australia had visited the PW & I Camps at Hay and Cowra but the notation Q6 Home Hill had remained a mystery.  On a holiday to Melbourne in 2017, Nino searched yet again for some reference to this Q6 Home Hill. Nino found my research and Stepping Back in Time, Ciccio’s son was able to understand better his father’s time growing vegetables for supply to the armed forces in the north.

2017 Q6 36

Nino Cipolla Home Hill Railway Station April 2017

(photo courtesy of Joanne Tapiolas)

And back to the answer to the question: Why research Italian prisoners of war in Queensland?

Because it hadn’t been done… because if it wasn’t done now, the stories would be lost to time…because it needed to be done…Because it is a valuable part of Queensland history and this history should have a voice.

The rest they say is “HISTORY” and on these pages is this history.

Walking in their boots JPEG

Ossario Day 2018

Sombre and reflective, Kay Ball from Murchison Historical Society has written an article about the remembrance service at The Ossario 11th November 2018…

Murchison and District Historical Society Inc.

The Ossario, located in a quiet corner of the Murchison Cemetery was completed in 1961 and is a beautifully crafted Mediterranean style building. It contains the remains of Italian Prisoners of War and Internees who died on Australian soil during World War 2.

Murchison Ossario

Every year, on the second Sunday in November, hundreds of people gather to remember the 129 men and one woman for whom the Ossario is their last resting place.

On Sunday 11th November this year, a warm sunny day with a lovely clear blue sky, the occasion was again well attended by over 300 people. Mostly of Italian descent, they travel from Melbourne, interstate, overseas and across Victoria and are joined by locals who appreciate this special occasion. The ceremony is moving, suitably reverent and also colourful with many Italian Military Service uniforms, banners, flags, floral wreaths and bouquets in abundance.

Lining up at beginning…

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It started with George

VALE: Eric Charles BEHRENDORFF

Aged 97

15th November 2019

This story started with George aka Giovanni Ragusa, Italian Prisoner of War on Eric Behrendorff’s farm outside of Boonah.  At 94 years old Eric had clear memories of George that he shared with me for this project.  In 1944, Eric was  a young farmer of 22 years while George, slightly older at 32 years was also a farmer from Calascibetta on the island of Sicily.

Giovanni Ragusa

Giovanna Ragusa aka “George”

(from the Collection of Antonio Ragusa)

Fast forward 72 years and the story entitled His Name was George has connected Australians and Italians once again.  Antonio Ragusa, son of Giovanni has shared this father’s memories as a thank you to the Behrendorff family.  Antonio writes, “Dad never spoke of his imprisonment.  We knew he had been captured in North Africa and then sent to India and finally to Australia.  He worked in what he called ‘British labour camps’.  He learnt a little English and also to  strum the guitar.  He never played the guitar at home, but every so often he would say an English word.  We understood that he had a great nostalgia for Australia and the children.  Dad returned to Calascibetta and to his life as a farmer.  He married my mum in 1953 and then my brother and I were born.  In the mid 1960’s we moved to northern Italy where dad worked as a labourer until retirement.  He died in 1999, a month and a half after my mum died.  He had just turned 87 years.  In his personal papers, he have a small number of photos taken at the time he was working on a farm.  We did not know who the people were in the photo but we knew that that dad had a special connection to this family”.

Giovanni Ragusa Italy

Giovanni Ragusa

(photo courtesy of Antonio Ragusa)

After 72 years, Antonio Ragusa now knows the names of the people in the photos, thanks to Eric Behrendorff’s son David.  Antonio also now has details about his father’s movements between North Africa and Italy.

Giovanni Ragusa Eric Berhendorff

The Behrendorff Extended Family

George, John and Mary Schultz, Winifred, Bruce Abbot (boy in shorts) Nell Behrendorff (lady in hat), Phyllis, Eric Behrendorff (man in hat with tie) Rose and David Wieland (Eric’s parents in law)  Taken in John Street Boonah

(from the Collection of Antonio Ragusa)

Antonio says, “Grazie a te, mi hai fatto conoscere ancora meglio mio padre… thanks to you, I know my father better”.  Once upon a time language was an insurmountable barrier, but translation programs has aided the Ragusa and Behrendorff families  to communicate and exchange stories and memories of a time when an Italian POW nicknamed George worked on the farm of Eric Behrendorff.

Eric and Joanne.jpeg

Eric Behrendorff and Joanne Tapiolas October 2017

In October 2017, I had the pleasure of spending time with Eric. Eric spoke with melancholy of those war time years.  A time when you were scorned because you had a German surname, a time when you had charcoal burners fitted to your trucks to ‘power’ them and a time when ‘George’ was brought to a farm out Boonah way.

Eric said that sometime after George left the farm, he planted an avenue of olive trees.  Maybe George had  told him they would grow well or maybe they were a gentle reminder of a time when Italian prisoners of war worked on Queensland farms.

Legacy: Rabbit and Spaghetti

It is over 70 years now since Italian Prisoners of War who worked and lived in Australia for up to six years, left Australia for their homes in Italy. Their legacy is lasting in many ways and a poignant tribute is “Rabbits & Spaghetti” as is highlighted by the label below.

“Rabbit & Spaghetti” is a wine label from the vineyards of South Australia. This wine pays tribute to the Italian Prisoners of War who worked in the grape growing industry in the state.

The label reads: “As WWII swept across Northern Africa, the idyllic landscape of Australia’s wine regions must have seemed a strange place of incarceration for a prisoner of war. And yet this is where scores of captured Italian soldiers found themselves labouring on farms and vineyards in place of a generation of young men far away at war.  Without this help many a grape grower could not have endured these times.  In return for their labour, the farmers shared their homes and tables with their ‘prisoners’. Rabbit and spaghetti was a staple and from those shared meals, traditions and friendships were born that have outlasted the war.” (Naked Wines Australia Limited, 2014)

 rabbits-and-spaghetti

 Rabbit & Spaghetti Label

(Naked Wines Australia Limited, 2014)

 

Rabbit and spaghetti was a well remembered meal made by the Italian prisoners of war on farms.  Rabbit was also referred to as ‘underground mutton’.

Italian-Australian Family Reunion

Dall’ Australia a Bagnatica per riabbracciare l’ex prigioniero

Il giovane australiano non ha dimenticato il bergamasco che lavoro alle dipendenze della sua familiglia – Cordiale incontro con un altro ex prigioniero di Vigano S. Martino

Below is a translated copy of a 6th September 1960 newspaper article from “Eco di Bergamo”.  

 west wylong

Family Feast

Graydon Bolte (left) shares a meal with Angelo Airoldi and family

(from the collection of Graydon Bolte)

It tells the story of a Bergamose POW, Angelo Airoldi,  from the time he was captured in 1940 in Buk Buk, North Africa to the time a young Australian visited him on his farm in the commune of Bagnatica.

Today, the country men of “Portico” farm in commune of Bagnatica have suspended their work almost completely to stop in the large courtyard and keep company with an exceptional guest, from Australia. It is a question of a strong young mean bieng 23 years old, Mr. Graydon Bolte, from West Wyalong, New South Wales.

He arrived here three days ago and will stay here for some weeks, as a guest of Mr Angelo Airoldi who is the sole person not only at “Portico” but at Bagnatica able to understand and chat with young Graydon, who speaks in English language only.

Mr Airoldi went to the Bolte family in 1944 in Australia, where he was moved after being taken prisoner by the English soldiers in May 1940 in Africa.

Before reaching the fifth continent he had had a long ordeal from one concentration camp to another – from Africa to Bombay and Bangalore.

It was about the Easter day in 1944 when the American ship Mariposa discharged him in the Australian port of Melbourne, from where he was sent to Cowra camp.  Almost soon after his arrival the time of imprisonment had practically ended.  he was in fact … along with another Bergamose prisoner, Mr Ernesto Armati of Vigano San Martino, as agricultural workers by a rich Australian farmer, Mr Bolte senior.

The untiring work and the honesty of the two Italian men gained the Bolte’s sympathy, who began to treat them as members of the same family.  So as to entrust them with the direct custody of the farm, the breedings, the house, with an unlimited confidence, when the family who gave hospitality to them moved to town for the weekend.

Naturally the prisoners of war Airoldi and Armati took a seat at the same table as Mr Bolte and family.

They were very much friends with the children, amongst whom was Graydon, who was then 7 years old only and became attached deeply to Airoldi and Armati.

The ties of the friendship with the Bolte family did not discontinue when the two Italian men returned to their country after the war.  The frequent correspondence through which the respective families communicated one another, merry or sorrowful news was never interrupted.

The father before giving consent for the long trip, made Graydon promise he would visit the Airoldi family.  But it was not necessary for him to promise, because in place of stopping in Rome in order to see the Olympic Games, Graydon came direct to “Portico” farm of Bagnatica, where Angelo Airoldi the prisoner of war took him on his knees.

In these days he is happy to be able to make the same friendship with the little daughter of his friend.  it appears to him to give back a piece of affection and fondness which he received when he was still a little boy, and of which he conserved a deeply very congenial remembrance.

 

 

 

Gentilissima Signorina Irma

A trainee nurse, Irma Vettovalli was working at the Ayr General Hospital during 1944 and 1945 when Italian prisoners of war from Q6 Home Hill Hostel were admitted to the hospital. While the military rule was that Italian prisoners of war were not to fraternise with women, Irma was not about to let military regulations get in the way of her nursing duties.

Pane Irma.jpeg

Trainee Nurse: Irma Vettovalli

(photo courtesy of Pina Vettovalli)

Agostino Leto was admitted to the hospital for chronic appendicitis 29th May 1944.  The story goes that the senior doctor at the hospital refused to operate on a prisoner of war, but the junior doctor, Dr Kelly had no hesitation in acting according to the ethical obligations of his profession.

Once he was admitted to the ward, Irma Vettovalli, realising Agostino had little English, went out of her way to speak with this patient. The Matron ordered Irma to cease her contact with this prisoner and under no circumstance was she to talk to or nurse Agostino again.  A plucky 18-year-old, Irma offered her resignation to Dr Kelly, without reason.  Upon questioning Irma, Dr Kelly identified the issue and told Irma to continue as before.

Agostino spent one month at the Ayr Hospital before returning to Q6 Hostel on 29th June 1944  but he did not return home to Prizzi Italy until January 1947. Upon his return to Italy, his recount of his one month hospital stay to his mother, prompted her to write a letter to Irma. Irma’s care and ability to speak Italian, was remembered and retold with great affection and appreciation by Agostino.

Prizzi 20 February 1947

Gentilissima Signorina Irma,

…As a mum it softened by heart and I feel an ache in which I must thank you through this sheet of paper.  I hope you accept my poor letter writing… [my son] says that yours [your visits] as a nurse were special.  He found you and only you will remain in my heart and you will be unforgettable to my dear son.  I wish that I could see you in person so I can tell you all that my poor heart feels, that I cannot put on paper.

And so my most gracious Miss, this is a small token of my esteem and from all my family to pass on to your dear ones.  I wish you good fortune and every kind of good.  Consider me your unknown friend. Rosa Leto.”

Pane, Irma Envelope

 

Mail from Rosa Leto to Irma Vettovalli

(photo courtesy of Pina Vettovalli)

Held in high regard, Dr Kelly, the medical superintendent wrote in December 1945, “she [Irma] gave eminent satisfaction, on account of her obedience, application to duty and intelligence.”

In 1992, Irma Vettovalli (now Mrs Irma Pane) received an award from the Alpini and Friends Group “expressing their profound gratitude for Irma’s ‘Noble gesture of Human Dedication for Italian Prisoners of War recuperating in hospital during the war period’.”

Irma wrote about those times, “Because of my dedication to Nursing in Ayr, I came in contact with people from all walks of life, colour and creed and having had respect and compassion for all during their illness, I too gained their respect.  Re- the war years, on some occasions only the ignorant would make hurtful remarks…”

Those war years were complicated years for Irma’s family.  Enrico Vettovalli, Irma’s father, was interned in February 1942 and sent to Gaythorne for processing and then to Loveday Internment Camp.  He was a naturalised British Subject and had been resident in Australia since March 1922.  Enrico was interned until May 1943 when he was released to work for Manpower SA.  In November 1943, he returned to Queensland.

Adding to the complexity of war, Irma’s brother Donato had in January 1942, been called to duty in the Australian Army. He was released for discharge in May 1945. Born in Italy, he was three years old when he migrated to Australia with his mother 1924.

Agostino Leto is seated first on the left.

 

Leto 3

Cowra, NSW. 6 February 1944. Group of Italian prisoners of war interned at No. 12 POW Group. Back row, left to right: 49115 C. Trentino; 49354 G. Ippolito; 49592 A. Poggi; 49107 G. Zunino; 48833 R. Bartoli; 49212 R. Papini; 48863 S. De Micco.

Front row: 48939 A. LETO; 49172 A. Mandrini; 57531 B. Protano; 49923 F. Carlone; 45196 A. Ciofani. Note: The number is an assigned POW number. (Australian War Memorial Image 030173/11)

 

 

 

Stranger in a Strange Land

The complexity of  the war time policy of interment in Australia is mirrored by the backgrounds of  the Italian men, woman and child who have been laid to rest in The Ossario.

The list below informs visitors to The Ossario of the Italians buried in the complex. Lists are important but their purpose is limited. Feeling that every Italian laid to rest deserves more than their name on a list, I have delved into each person’s story. What I found while researching these names is  that there is a history lesson in the details.  I have learnt more about the complexity of war.

Tunnel vision, saw me focus on the five Italian prisoners of war who died in Queensland.  The Ossario however is the final resting place for 130 Italians: 128 men, one woman and one baby. Furthermore, one Italian prisoner of war drowned and his body was never recovered; therefore there is no public acknowledgement of this man’s death.

The Ossario List of Italians

Italians Buried at Murchison

(photo courtesy of Alex Miles)

From the names on the list, I have learnt about  Italians, residents of the British Isles, who were interned and sent to Australia on the infamous Dunera.  I have read about the Remo and RomoloItalian passenger ships in Australian waters when Italy declared war and scuttling of the Romolo in the Coral Sea. Italian internees were also sent to Australia from Palestine and New Guinea.

Details of Italian Internees who died in Australia 1941-1946 provides a little of the history for each internee resting at The Ossario.

Details of Italian Prisoners of War who died in Australia 1942-1946 provides a little of the background for each prisoner of war resting at The Ossario.

Three Italians whose freedom was taken from them and died in Australia deserve a specific mention:

MR Librio is Mario Roberto infant son of  Andrea and Giuseppina Librio. His parents were interned in Palestine and they arrived in Australia onboard Queen Elizabeth 23rd August 1941. His life was short: he was born 4th May 1942 and died 12th May 1942.

Librio Family

Mario Roberto Librio’s Family

Tatura, Australia. 10 March 1945. Group of Italian internees at No. 3 Camp, Tatura Internment Group. Back row, left to right: 20091 Andrea Librio; 20092 Giuseppina Librio; 20094 Concetta Librio; 20093 Giuseppe Librio. Front Row: 20095 Umberto Librio; 20096 Maria Librio. Note: The number is an assigned POW number. (AWM 030247/03 Photographer Ronald Leslie Stewart)

Cafiero Veneri was an Italian soldier captured at Sidi el Barrani on 11th December 1940.  He arrived in Australia from India on the Mariposa 26th April 1944. He was the son of Aldreo Veneri and Maria Fabbri from Porto Fuori Ravenna.  He was 32 years old when he drowned at Mornington on 23rd December 1945; caught in an undertow at Point Nepean, his body was never recovered.

Attilio Zanier was an Italian soldier captured at Asmara on 28th April 1941.  He arrived in Australia from India on the Mariposa 5th February 1944. He was 42 years old when he was gored by a bull on a farm in the W12 PWCC Narembeen district.  His death notice was advertised in The West Australian, a tribute from the Hall family:

Zanier (Attilio) – Accidentally killed on Frimley Farm Narembeen, on September 3 1944.  Attilio Zanier (prisoner of war). A stranger in a strange land. Husband of Erminia de Comun, fond father of Alcide of Ravascletto Udine Italia. Deeply regretted by the Hall family. (1944 ‘Family Notices’, The West Australian (Perth, WA : 1879 – 1954), 5 September, p. 1. , viewed 25 Feb 2019, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article44976920)

There has been an overwhelming generalisation that there were many POWs who committed suicide especially during 1946 when the men were desperate to return home to Italy. The nature and/or cause of death for the 95 Italian prisoners of war is illustrated in the graph below.  The numbers speak for themselves.

Deaths 95 updated

 

PS The main focus of my research has been Italian prisoners of war in Queensland. Their history is one small part of the bigger picture.  War is complicated and complex as were the groups of men, women and children who were interned in prisoner of war camps in Australia: Italian and German prisoners of war in other Australian states; Australian residents who were German, Italian, Austrian, Hungarian, Polish, Japanese, Spanish … who were interned; German and Italians who were resident in United Kingdom and interned in Australia; Italian families who were living in Palestine and interned in Australia;  and Italian and Austrian merchant seaman who were interned in Australia.

 

 

 

 

Arrival in Naples 1946

Col. A.W. Sandford, the son of Sir Wallace Sandford wrote an article Naples – when Italian Prisoners Return Home  which was published in November 1946.  While on his way to Hamburg to re-joining the British Army of occupation, he travelled in a ship transporting returning Italian POW.

The repatriation ship was most likely Chitral which had left Australia in September 1946 with over 2700 Italian prisoners on board.

Chitral.httppassengersinhistory.sa.gov.aunode922876

Chitral

(passengersinhistory.sa.gov.aunode922876)

From Advertiser (Adelaide, SA: 1931-1954), Thursday 21 November 1946, page 6.

...From the decks below a constant murmur of hushed excited voices could be heard – over three thousand prisoners, straining their eyes to catch their first glimpse through the grey mists of the docks where they hope to find parents, wives, children, friends, lovers or at worst the attentions of the Italian Red Cross and a rail warrant to freedom.

The light grew slowly more intense as we approached the entrance to the harbor, and one could discern dimly the shaped of buildings in the distance and shipping nearer at hand.  Quite suddenly as the pilot clambered aboard from this ramshackle launch, the first rays of morning struck a cluster of white and pink villas on the headland, away to port – Posilippo, the ‘garden suburb’ of the town.  The city itself shielded by Vesuvius was still plunged in grew gloom, but these scattered villas and palaces on their romantic terraced cliff glittered fiercely in the sun.

By this time more passengers had begun to appear and were standing in tows and threes on the boat deck leaning over the rail.  They watched the sun strike the ancient castle on Capodimonte as we slipped into the harbour mouth and stared in surprise at the city which began to appear, like a stage effect through the dissipating mist.

Battered Harbour

The harbour was impressive.  The carved stone arms of the kingdom of the Two Sicilies still stand on the western mole, as they stood in Nelson’s day and between the pillars could be seen among the trees towards Posilippo, the glittering white cube of the Villa Emma, where Lady Hamilton held court.

The massive Castel Nuovo still dominates the docks but the splendid new quays built of reinforced concrete by the Fascists have stood far less well than solid Bourbon stone masonry the effect of high explosive bombs.

Naples Castell.jpg

The Fort of Castell Dell’ Ovo 1944 Naples

(Photo from Imperial War Memorial)

The murmur of the returning prisoners of war had grown to a loud babble as they saw the Italian warships huddled ingloriously against the naval mole and two large liners burned out and rusted lying on the bottom of the city Side.  Another liner had capsized just beneath the eastern mole, and in the centre of the docks, an American troopship was discharging across the hull of another capsized and rusting casualty.  This they observed in a second and then all eyes were turned to the nearest quay which was clearly made ready to receive us.  Stevedores were busy trundling gangways, there were lines of trucks drawn up, lines of carabinieri and here and there the scarlet caps of British military policemen.

Then all at once the prisoners seemed to see in the shadow of the damaged gallery rows and rows of dark-clothed men and women, and a good many children too.  These struggled and shouted and gesticulated from beyond the police cordon in the shadows striving to make themselves heard above the yelling of soldiers and stevedores and the raucous braying of a brass band which struggled on to the quay without a conductor and burst at once into a rendering more vigorous than accurate of “Funiculi, Funicula”.

The complete story is available here: Naples – when Italian Prisoners Return Home

Following are two video links: Italian Prisoners of War Return to Naples  and  View of buildings near Naples 1946

Chitral 2

1946 ‘No title’, The Central Queensland Herald (Rockhampton, Qld. : 1930 – 1956), 10 October, p. 24. , viewed 19 May 2018, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article75342761