The North African Campaign began in June 1940. The Italian soldiers were in the main conscripted who had undergone the most basic of training. Not only were food and water in short supply by weaponry was inferior to that of the Allies, tactical attacks not supported by aerial and navy divisions and provision of armaments was slow to appear.
Antonino Lumia has had his memories of being a soldier in the Italian army and prisoner of war in Australia recorded for posterity. Lumia’s words were recorded by his grandson Damiano and can be heard via YouTube, Antonino Lumia POW in Australia 1941-1946.
This recording is an invaluable insight into the personal experiences of the ordinary men who were caught up in the politics of war. Lumia had his 28th birthday in the north African desert and was captured at Tobruk.
Special acknowledgement to Damiano Lumia for allowing for his work and the words of Antonino to be reproduced here as part of this project. His assistance is invaluable as these memories provide depth and perspective for this history.
Antonino Lumia was captured at Tobruk 22nd January 1941
Antonino Lumia reminsices :
We took a white sheet. Sign of surrender. We hijacked our guns. Unlike the enemy.
Very soon after the tanks …… we could hear: “come! Come! Come! We are there, prisoners!
Everyone took his things. One can. A piece of bread. The captain shared the stocks.
They surrounded us like sheep. A tank in front of us … another behind. And we all, prisoners, in column. When the English and the Australians arrived … … to our captain … … they confiscated the watch, its binoculars …… his belt, his weapon. All our watches were confiscated.
To some soldiers their wallets, personal photographs. We walked towards their lines.
We were locked up in an airport. Not food. No water.
Tobruk, Libya. 1941-03 to 1941-06. Originally an Italian ammunition storage area this section was converted into a prisoner of war cage after the first battle. It held as many as 15,000 prisoners at a time. Litter in the picture includes cast-off clothing and empty ‘bully-beef’ tins. Two members of the ‘Olds and Bolds’, 1st Australian Corps Guard Battalion, in their temporary camp in the area.
(Australia War Memorial, Image 020079)
Encircled by tanks …
… if one of our soldiers approached the barriers he risked being killed. When we walked … dead on the side of the road. Close to me a corpse. Lying on the side of the road. Forbidden to approach it.
If we dared to do it, from the top of their tanks … a shot …… our turn to be killed.
They shut us in at this airport. 140000 men. No place to sleep. 140000 men … 140000 men …
No food. No water. The next day, some cried. Others said, “I shall never see my wife again.”
“I will never see my daughter again.” Discouraged. One of our Sergeant Major …… only son …
… born in Vittoria …… his mother treated him like a young lady. He was crying. “If my mother knew it.”
“In what condition I am”. He was wearing a scarf. Sand everywhere on him.
There the sand flew very high. When some of us started dying … … the British collected seawater in petrol cans. The drinking-water cisterns had been destroyed by us, Italian.
They were all made to explode, so as not to give them to the enemy. They brought sea water.
They lined the barrels of oil, full of sea water. A hundred barrels. Threatened by their weapons, they were grouped together. “First line, kneeling!” We walked on our knees.
“Line number two, on your knees!” They formed about fifty lines. I did not have a container.
I got near the barrels. In my throat bits of sand. I began to drink despite the oil that floated on the sea water. An armed Australian was looking at me. “No good! No good!”
Not good … I just stood up. Regardless of oil, sea water … … I had a saucepan … … I fill it and go back to those who had drunk. I detached my military insignia. Two green and red bands.
I made a cross on my clothes with the insignia. I wanted to make them believe I was a nurse.
“This one can pass …” “He will help us, transport the sick …”
Bardia, Libya. 1941-01-04. An Italian prisoner of war (POW) posing with a stretcher bearer at a dressing station operated by the 6th Division. (Original housed in AWM Archive Store)
(Australian War Memorial, Image P02038.080)
I crossed their lines thanks to the badge of the red cross. Again I approach the barrels. I take an Italian soldier over me. “Pretend to be dead”
We’ll drink again! I lifted this stranger on my shoulders. With this stratagem, I made several round trips. I drank and gave drink to the “sick”. I made three trips.
I’ve never had so much water. I was overjoyed. Despite the traces of oil.
At night we lay down on the ground. If it was raining or cold … … with a blanket we gathered to four …
… our breaths warmed us. Eight days of this life. Bitter as the poison. Lice … … our clothes were filled …… our flesh were bloody … scratching lesions.
One morning, very early, they woke us up with their weapons. I said to my cousin, “Standing, let’s see where they take us.” A group of 2,000 soldiers came out. Again a march, framed by soldiers.
Head towards the port of Tobruk. In the port there were their kitchens. On the ground there were orange peel. Lemon peel.I fill my pockets.It’s always there to feed me. From time to time I ate a peel.
I ate everything. The sand, the bark of fruit. On a boat, we joined the ship, 20 soldiers at a time.
It was a food transport ship. They grouped us in 3 holds. No water. No toilets.
Everyone went to the toilet in front of the others. Luckily they kept the light. The ship went away.
arrival in Egypt. Ready to disembark.
We were on deck. The Egyptians insult us: “Mussolini … Mussolini .. to death!” The English intervened. They beat them with their truncheons. “Leave them alone … they are hungry, are full of lice …”. We got off the ship.On trucks, we traveled inside the country. They grouped us in tents.
Near the sea. Meat arrived in their kitchen. Their military doctor said: “This meat is infected …
… forbidden to share with the prisoners “.They buried everything. I and my cousin have observed everything. A semi-raw meat, potatoes … That night, cousin … At nightfall, kneeling, in the sand, …
A potato was found. It’s here, cousin. We filled our towels, headed for the tent.
The next day, it was washed 20 times. Sand …It was cooked with a little water …
We mixed everything with our daily pasta. That was delicious.
I had received 35 cigarettes for a week. I am not a smoker. You smoke? Here’s this. Give me your bread.
After 8 days, in Egypt, passage to the baths.The goal was to decontaminate us. We changed clothes.
We went back to the canal. Mussolini paid very dearly for the passing of his people. Indian soldiers arrived.
An Indian soldier guards a group of Italian prisoners near El Adem aerodrome, during the pursuit of Axis forces westwards after the relief of Tobruk.
(Imperial War Museum, Image E7180)
8 of us had been designated to clean up their garrison. Clean the toilet, pass the brush, collect garbage …I say to my cousin: “Let’s go …… maybe we could eat. I took a big wipe. Around my belt. Cousin, let’s see if there is food.
When we had finished cleaning, the guard gave us a cigarette each. As I did not smoke, I gave it to my cousin. We observed that they threw their waste into a barrel. I stretched my wipe.
I plunge my hands into their trash. I plunge my hands, and lifts this mud. Very acid.
He was warmed up between soldiers. We were hungry. Each day eight pasta and a piece of bread were received. I ran away with the towel. The guard said, “That’s not good!” … Shut up.
For you it is not good. For me it is excellent. In the tent I cut this mud with my knife.
I stirred up all this with our meal.
After eight days. Head towards the Suez Canal. We embarked (Queen Mary)
I asked, “Where are we going?” … “we do not know, perhaps in the United States, or in India …”.
I’ll see where we’ll end up. On this ship they ate.
A ship carrying 15,000 men. Each had his bed.I got on deck. I was walking. When my cousin came. He wore a towel filled with bread.He had cleaned the beautiful walls of the boat. He took all the loaves. I saw him on the deck of the boat: “come cousin …”We sat on the floor. And we ate.
Order was given to walk barefoot on the boat.The shoes damaged the floor.
It was a luxury ship. A captain came to meet us. “Come, come.” What does this man want? Lets go see… We needed follow-up. We went down the stairs. A commander was waiting for us, as well as an Italian interpreter.
The commander tells us: “I have ordered you to walk barefoot, and you, abusively, wear your shoes!”
But I can not walk barefoot. Give us sandals … The sergeant major thought I was standing up to the interpreter. He shouted, “Shut up!”
In the main mess hall on board the SS QUEEN MARY (formerly the First Class dining saloon) where more than 2,000 troops can be fed at one sitting. In peacetime it used to take 800 First Class passengers but now sittings go on from 6 am till 9 pm.
(Imperial War Museum, Coote, R.G.G. (Lt) Image A25924)
Give us our sanction. If it’s impossible to express why we drove here? We were following the sentinel. They gave us white blankets. Beautiful covers with silk edges. He leads us to the front of the ship, where the chimney is. He locked us in a room full of soot. We lay down on our blankets.
We’ll see tomorrow morning … The next morning they brought us a half bucket of coffee.
No bread, nothing else.We split the bucket.
After 24 hours of confinement … … we went out …
My cousin looked at me and said, “you are blackened from head to toe”
My dear cousin, if I am blackened, you are in a totally indescribable state!
We slept in the soot.The blankets had become black …We went back to our beds.
One day a prisoner died on board. They packed it in a bag and thrown it into the water.The priest took his papers. Queen Mary.
We arrived in Australia.
Italian Prisoners of War – Italian prisoners of war bound for a prisoner-of-war camp, disembarking following their arrival in Australia.
(National Archives of Australia, NAA: A11663, PA 189)