Tag Archives: Italian Prisoners of war Australia

Camp Food: November 1941

A common memory that Queenslanders have about their Italian prisoners of war focuses on food: a dislike for pumpkin, considered in Italy to be livestock food; a love of watermelon; dislike for bread and butter pudding; relishing bacon and eggs; a yearning for spaghetti; learning how to twirl spaghetti with a fork and spoon; the copper full of spaghetti; hand made spaghetti; rabbit stew. Doug Wilson, once the Italians left his parents’ farm at Lagoon Pocket, refused to eat spaghetti and to this day does not eat pasta.  He ate ‘far too much spaghetti’ during those war years.

Fullerton.Glasshouse Mtns.jpeg

Fullerton Pumpkin Crop 1947 Glasshouse Mountains

(photo courtesy of Yvonne Derrington[Fullerton])

Jim Fullerton from Glasshouse Mountains sent this photo to Paolo Santoro in 1947. It explains a little about the Italians’ views on what was put on the Aussie dinner plate.  Paolo replied in his letter of 25th December 1947, “I told them some good story you know, about the pumpkins, you had a good crop, but you know I don’t like to [too] much to eat them.”

The diet of the Italian was very different from the good old Aussie meat and 3 veg.  Theirs was a diet of little meat, pulses, pasta, rice and vegetables of the season.

This difference is explained in an extract from We Never Forgot Domenico. Thea Beswick [Robinson] recalls:

“There was one young man, Domenico, who understood a little English so he became the spokesperson for the men.  The first hurdle was the food.  Copious
amounts of meat, eggs and milk, potatoes and pumpkin were served.
Domenico approached Dad and said the men were sick, ‘Too much meat.
We need pasta.” Of course pasta and rice were not available during war
time so Mum had to come up with a more varied meal plan.  I think a
few of the chooks may have ended up in a pot and an effort was made to
catch fish from the river.”

The menu below is from November 1941 for Cowra Prisoner of War Camp.  The camp appears to have been provisioned according to those for Australia armed forces as the diet is overloaded with meat and mashed potatoes.  The daily ration for 100 men for Tuesday was 150 lbs beef, 95 lbs potatoes, 40 lbs cabbage…

The camp cooks were Italians and I am sure they would have been scratching their heads as to how to use the daily rations. The cooks would have been grateful for such generous supplies and so set to, to utilise all produce provided.  With five meals on offer a day, the POWs would have felt that they spent most of their day eating. After meagre rations as soldiers in Libya, the abundance of food must have seemed like ‘food heaven’. No longer were they eating one month old bread scraps and tinned bully beef.

This menu also makes sense of something Nino Cipolla said about his dad Ciccio Cipolla who spent time in both Hay and Cowra Camps.  Nino said, “When I saw the photo of my father which was taken at Cowra Camp, this was the heaviest he weighed in his life!”  And no wonder, after having to eat 1 lb of potatoes a day.

A newspaper report from November 1942, supports Nino’s observation, “Italian prisoners-of-war in camps in south NSW have gained on an average nearly a stone in weight since they reached Australia.” (Western Mail, 12 November 1942 page 8).  Another reason for the weight gain would have been the sedentary life and idleness associated with life in a POW camp.

However by July 1943, weekly provisions for 100 men show a considerable change away from meat, potatoes and cabbage as it now included rice, spaghetti, split peas, prunes, puree tomatoes, vinegar, oil, an increase in bread rations, a decrease in meat rations. By this time, Italian prisoners of war at Cowra Camp had 140 acres under cultivation, growing primarily crops for their own use.

Menu for Cowra Camp 10th November to 16th November 1941

Cowra Menu 1941

Cowra 1941 – A Snapshot

Cowra is probably the most recognised Prisoner of War and Internment Camp due the memory and history of the  Japanese outbreak in 5th August 1944.

For many Italian families who find the word Cowra on the Service Card of their relative, it is also a name they remember from the stories their fathers and grandfathers told them.

A little of Cowra’s establishment and history….

The first prisoners of war to be accommodated at Cowra Prisoner of War and Internment Camp arrived in camp on 14th October 1941. While the camp has been established in June 1941, facilities had to be put in place before the first intake’s arrival.

On 11th and 12th November 1941, an independent international delegate visited the Cowra Camp to inspect the conditions and make his report.  This report offers a unique snapshot into Cowra Camp life and the Italian prisoners of war residing there.

Cowra Camp was divided into four groups: Camp A, Camp B, Camp C and Camp D.  Only Camp C and Camp D were in operation in November 1941.

The group of Italian prisoners of war consisted of 964 – Army, 367- Navy, 1 – Airforce, 453 Health Personnel (medics, doctors, orderlies), 3 – priests = 1788.

Daily routine

Cowra November 1941 Daily Routine

With the camp still in its construction phase, barracks with galvanised sheeting and windows had been constructed for the following purposes: dining room, detention block, ablutions, toilets, laundry, administration, kitchens, infirmary  and canteen.

V-P-HIST-01880-31 Section C Ablutions.JPG

Cowra November 1941 Camp C: Ablutions

Until barracks were constructed for dormitories, the Italians lived in tents. The tents sat atop  a base of wooden planks with impermeable canvas separating the mattress and floor and also used for sides and roof. A mattress and three covers were provided for each man.  The tents slept six men and they were swept daily and three times a week cleaned with soap.

V-P-HIST-01879-25Tents Section D.JPG

Cowra November 1941 Camp D: Tents

Camp Leaders were assigned for Camp C and Camp D. Camp C: Sgt Major Ugo Porta (Medical), Sgt Major Alfonso Angeli (Combatant).  Camp D: Sgt Major Giovanni Fimiani (Combatant). The two camps were separated by a barbed wire fence and contact between camps was not allowed. Each tent had a tent leader and each group of 28 tents had a company leader assigned.

There were four refectories for each camp, with each refectory set up for 250 men.  They were furnished with long tables and bench seats.

V-P-HIST-01879-30B Section D Dining Hall.JPG

Cowra November 1941 Camp D: Dining Hall

The canteen was well provisioned with items available for purchase such as food, treats, chocolate, condensed milk, jams.  The men were issued with coupons to use at the canteen.

V-P-HIST-01880-04B.JPG

Cowra November 1941 Camp C: Canteen

The Italian prisoners of war were offered work outside the camp eg building roads, irrigation and collecting wood or inside the camp eg as butchers, barbers, tailors, cooks.

The men also kept busy building a chapel, altar and making musical instruments such as guitars, violins, tambourines and cymbals. A school barracks had been built but classes were yet to be set up, but would offer a range of courses.

V-P-HIST-01882-34 Section D Orchestra.JPG

Cowra November 1941 Camp D: Orchestra

Both camps had a sports ground where football and handball was played.  New sport and gym equipment consisted of footballs, basket balls, medicine balls.  Camp C established a marionette theatre while Camp D set up an orchestra with 12 musicians.

V-P-HIST-01882-26 Handball.JPG

Cowra November 1941: The Play of Handball

Rapport between the garrison soldiers and officers was reported to be cordial, treatment of the Italian prisoners of war excellent.  In general, the Italians did not know English, but Australian military interpreters are attached to each camp.  Each morning at inspection, Camp Leaders present their requests to the Commandant of each camp.

A number of requests made by the Italian POWs were noted: purchase of harmonium for church services, books to start a library, daily newspapers, gramophone and records eg lessons in Italian/English, purchase of indoor games eg cards, chess, checkers,  transfer of money relinquished in Egypt to Australian accounts.

Objections were made regarding the burgundy colour of their clothes.

Most importantly, the Italian prisoners of war expressed their concerns for their families as they wait anxiously for news from Italy. 

 

The first 2000 Italian POWs

The first 2016* Italian prisoners of war arrived in Australia on the Queen Mary 25th May 1941.  The Queen Mary had been the jewel in Cunard White Star Line between wars making voyages across the Atlantic. Catering for 2332 passengers, the Queen Mary was berthed in New York at the start of hostilities.  The Queen Elizabeth joined her in New York before both ships were sent to Australia for use as troop transport ships.  On the return journey to Australia, Italian and German prisoners of war were embarked in the Middle East. The Queen Mary brought Italian POWs to Australia on three occasions during 1941, as did the Queen Elizabeth.  Military record cards use the reference “Q.M.” and “Q.E.”

With the entry of the USA into the war at the end of 1941, the Magnificent Queens: the Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth were re-routed as  transports for American troops. They would transport between 12,000 to 15,000 armed personnel on these voyages.

The newspaper article below describes the arrival of Australia’s first 2016 Italian prisoners of war and the circumstances of their arrival.

Queen Mary Bunks

Queen Mary: The Swimming pool is now a troops sector, with tiers of bunks for men

(from the Imperial War Museum: Coote, RGG (Lt) Image A25931)

ITALIAN PRISONERS

2000 Arrive in Sydney

INLAND INTERNMENT CAMP

first

(photo from Mercury (Hobart, Tas.: 1860 – 1954), Thursday 29 May 1941, page 1)

Sydney, May 26,- A large shipment of 2000 Italian prisoners of war captured in Libya has arrived in Sydney and the first trainload of about 500 have been sent off to an inland internment camp in New South Wales.

Unimpressive physically, wearing a nondescript mixture of  garments in which the greenish-grey Italian field uniform predominated, the prisoners were brought ashore by ferry and immediately issued with A.I.F. greatcoats, relics of the war of 1914-1918, which have been dyed a burgundy colour. At the prison camp they will be dressed completely in wool uniforms of this colour, which is so conspicuous that it should act as a strong deterrent against attempts to escape.

There was no sign yesterday, however of any wish among the prisoners to cause trouble.  Overshadowed by their Australian guards, they trooped ashore quietly with few smiles and only a little quiet talk among themselves.  Some scowled as press photographs were taken.  The ship guards described their behaviour on the voyage was docile.

first 2

(photo from The Courier Mail (Brisbane, Qld.: 1933-1954) Wednesday 28 May 1941, page 3)

Before they were disembarked, a number of them sought the senior officer and asked if they could not be allowed to stay and work until the end of the war on the ship, which has been engaged as a transport carrying Australian troops overseas.  Their offer was not accepted. On the voyage out, much of the scullery work was done by the prisoners, who also waited on the members of the A.I.F. who were returning after being wounded.

The only officers among the prisoners ware five medical officers and a priest.  one of the doctors was a distinguished surgeon in Italy, a professor of surgery at the University of Turin.  A doctor who came ashore yesterday was wearing black field boots, green-grey breeches and a khaki drill tunic with the gold braid insignia of a captain’s rank on his shoulder straps, three stars below a larger star, the device giving a general effect more like the shoulder badges worn by a brigadier in the British forces.  His batman followed him ashore laden with the baggage of both and wearing Red Cross arm and cap badges.

None of the prisoners speak English, but the medical officers almost all speak some French.  Corporal Craig, of the Eastern Command Records Staff, who speaks Italian, French and Greek, acted as the military interpreter.  After serving in the first A.I.F., he lived for nearly 20 years in Alexandria and spent a period in Italy in the service of an American motor firm, who established tractor assembly works there.

The medical captain, who came from Piedmont, explained through the interpreter that he was a civilian who had been called up from the reserve for service.  he had been in Libya eight months before he was taken prisoner.  When asked by an Australian officer what he thought of Australia, he replied briefly: “No opinion”. Then he smiled wryly and added, “Very nice, but I am a prisoner.” He said that the average age of the prisoners would be 24 or 25. They looked younger.  Most of them came from Southern Italy, though a few were taller men who looked though they might have come from the north.

Half a dozen wore sailors’ uniforms, but it was explained that they were not necessarily naval men as they used any clothes they could get hold of.  A number were in shorts.  There were several tropical helmets, one with Tobruk and Bardia painted on it.

As they filed ashore from the ferry in a double line between military police guards with fixed bayonets, they were handed their burgundy coloured coasts and a tin mug each.  A packet meal supplied by the railway refreshment service was given to them on the train.

first 4

(photo from Telegraph (Brisbane, Qld.: 1872-1947), Tuesday 27 May 1941, page 9)

An assortment of moustaches and many beards, including one black spade Balbo model, adorned the swarthy faces, many of which looked as though their owners might have come from Alexandria or Port Said, rather than from Italy.  They carried untidy packs containing their belongings.  One man, when offered a burgundy coloured greatcoat, proudly gestured towards his pack to show that he already had a coat, an Italian model.  he looked puzzled as he walked on carrying his distinctive Australian garment.

All the prisoners were medically examined with great care before being sent ashore.  The official instruction is that anyone with any sign of infectious disease is to be quarantined rigorously to guard against the introduction of epidemic diseased from the Middle East.

(Kalgoorlie Mine (WA: 1895-1950), Wednesday 28 May 1941, page 1)

first 3

(photo from Telegraph (Brisbane, Qld.: 1872-1947), Friday 30 May 1941, page 7)

*Nominal Roll for the Queen Mary identify 2016 Italian POWs.  Other sources record 2006 and the newspapers rounded off the numbers to 2000.

Captured…On the Move

NorthAfrica.India.Australia

Once captured, Italian prisoners of war were impounded in temporary caged compounds in the deserts of North Africa.  They were then taken to Egypt and processed.  Each prisoner of war was given a M/E number (Middle East) and a card was sent to the families notifying them that their son or husband or father was a prisoner of war. From Egypt they were sent around the world: South Africa, India, Australia, New Zealand, England, Canada and USA.

Costanzo Melino’s journey took him to India and then to Australia.  He worked on a farm in the Gympie district before being repatriated to Italy.  He returned to Australia post-war, sponsored by his Gympie employer,  his family joined him  and eventually they settled in northern NSW.

Costanzo Melino was captured at Bardia on 4th January 1941.

Costanzo Melino remembers:

Forty-seven thousand Italians were taken prisoner of war by the 8th Battalion of English under General Wavell. Our General at that time was Annibale Bergonzoli. My captain was Alberto Agostinelli.  We were taken to internment camps by foot.  We were given little to eat or drink.

Water 4159600

Italian prisoners Mersa Matruh getting their water tank filled. They were allowed half a gallon per man per day.” Image from a large album of 86 pages containing 1858 photographs associated with the service of Lieutenant Robert Otto Boese

(Australian War Memorial, Image P05182.012)

In February 1941, we were sent to Port Said in the Suez Canal and the following month to Bombay where the heat was unbearable and many Italians died of heat exhaustion.

These camps were well run by the English.  We were given baths and we had Indian cooks.  There were toilets and we were fed well although we all got sick as we were not used to the English diet.  After this the English asked us to cook our own meals which we did gladly, making our own tagliatelle and gnocchi from the flour.  There were at least three thousand prisoners divided ingroups of one hundred. We were counted twice a day. We were fenced in and surrounded by armed guards so that we could not escape.

V-P-HIST-03469-24

Original tent camp 1941 Bangalore Italian Prisoners of War

(Maddy’s Ramblings maddy06.blogspot.com.au )

Having nothing else to do, a lot of prisoners devoted their time to study.  I studied Italian and English.  We didn’t stay in the one place for long in India.  We were constantly moved and constantly guarded by Indian soldiers.  The German prisoners were kept separate to us.  When the Italians surrendered to General Dwight David Eisenhower we were sent to Australia to work on farms. It appeared that the two million U.S. servicemen in Australia needed food.  The U.S. headquarters was in Brisbane commanded by General Douglas MacArthur.  It was the U.S. who commanded us in Australian as they had civil and military control.

The English in India said to us: “Now you’ve surrendered we are allies so now you’ll have to go to work to feed yourselves.  You’ll be free in Australia and they’ll even pay you for your work”. Of course we were all happy, leaving the camps singing.  However, as soon as we boarded the train we found the Indian soldiers hidden in the train and at the next stop we got off in our usual manner as prisoners of war.  We were really only free when we got to Naples in 1947.

Capture.Surrender.Imprisonment

North Africa.QueenMary.Australia

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.

POW cage 3955959

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 …”

POW medical station6053463

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.

Indian soldiers

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!”

 

Queen Mary

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.

POW boat

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)

 

Fighting in North Africa

At War

Antonino Lumia has had his memories of being soldiers in the Italian army and prisoners 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

.. we embark in the direction of Cyrenaica

We passed close to Tripoli at night …Destination Benghazi.  Before arriving in Benghazi, a captain tells us … “Young people, dress up. Tthat night the port was bombed …” “If aviation surprises you when going down, it’s the end of the world” We gathered our things. The blankets on our shoulders. Our guns. The dinner. When the boat arrives at the port in Benghazi … in speed, all … We have moved away from Benghazi. We found refuge under a tree. For a month we waited for the weapons, the cannons. Towards the fortress of Tobruk. Some morning workouts.  In the evening … free in Benghazi. 
Guns 044455

Bardia, Cyrenaica, Libya. C. 1941. An Italian 47mm anti tank cannon used by the Italian Army in operations in the Western Desert and abandoned after its defeat by Allied forces (Australian War Memorial, Image 044455)

After 15 days came the guns … we dragged them.  Shells firing … 8 kilometres … In columns, we went to war. We arrived in Barce. And we are stopped.

I found a fountain … … the women filled … … their water reserves …… a knife skin, mounted on a donkey.

I was on duty that day. Soldiers were forbidden to clean their dishes in drinking water.

A young black woman …… fills her reserve. A soldier is always a bit provocative.

I wanted to get close to her to help her …… she pushed me violently shouting. I could not approach her. She then left.

The next day, the order was given: departure for the war. The column was reformed: the colonel at the head, … and we all behind, trailing the guns.

We passed Tobruk. We landed in the desert. The fortress of Tobruk. Everyone had his place.

Our guns, concrete refuges. One day… … the British began the bombing …… the lieutenant calls me …”Lumia” “Tonight will get me to eat” Are you calling me? I’m just a sergeant, a helper …

Call the second lieutenant! “The sub-lieutenant is sick, you’re designated!” … They will think that I am an enemy, pull me off. And if I’m wrong, in the dark… “He is an enemy. “You are appointed.”

Resigned. I take my dinner. He said, “Take this power line in your hand …” … and walking … more …

I took this line in my hands. … you will find the mess of the officers …” I lifted this electric wire …

… and I walked. I arrived at the command post. Come back. in the dark. Again the line in my hands, back. Thorns in my legs, on my skin. I was following the telephone line in my hands. The lieutenant had his dinner. Lieutenant Duca, from Vallelunga. The next day the English bombed us.

With their guns. The American navy approached the port. The US Navy fired shells up to 20 kilometers. Shells fell on us … up to 250 kilos. Luckily they landed on sand.

Most did not explode. There’s something to jump in the air. They silenced us. In the distance, the smoke. The command telephone no longer works. Our commander called Sergeant Traina.

A man from Vittoria, near Canicatti. “Traina, the phone does not work anymore!”

Traina … orphan child of soldiers of the great war …”But, my captain … I’m going to die”

“You have to go, you!” The poor man. Religious sign. On a motorcycle. He’s going there.

Thanks to God, he returned alive.

 “Captain, the colonel told me …… we are free. Because in a moment …… the enemies will make us prisoners “.

“To fire, to flee, to surrender … everything is allowed”. The Colonel tells us. “Take with you whatever you want … one moment to the other we will be prisoners”.

POW cage 040628

Tobruk, Libya 1941. Italian Prisoners, captured by the 9th Australian Division, in a temporary P.O.W. cage.

(Australian War Memorial, G. Keating, Image 040628)

Finding Nonno

The history behind nonno’s stories

Robert Perna from Detroit Michigan writes, “Many years ago my grandfather told me about his time as a POW from Italy. He surrendered in North Africa and was first shipped to Iraq. Then he was shipped to Australia and worked on a cattle farm. He told me it would take weeks to walk the fence and repair it. He said the owner owned a territory. 

I’m looking for any way to find out who he lived with. He passed many years ago, but his memory of his time there was always very clear. He did end up going back to Italy because that’s where his family was.”

And so the journey begins for a grandson to meld a grandfather’s stories with historical fact.

Using the guide Finding Nonno, Robert found with ease his grandfather’s Australian records which confirmed a few details: his nonno Arcangelo was captured in North Africa: Amba Alagi on 5.5.1941; he was sent to India (not Iraq); he was shipped to Australia: onboard the SS Uruguay in 1943 which docked at Sydney; and he was assigned to farm work: in the N11 Prisoner of War Control Centre Glen Innes.

Robert recounts the details of Arcangelo’s conscription and war service, “My grandfather went to Rome to go pay the taxes on his property. While there, they recruited him off the streets* and sent him to Africa. He could not say goodbye to his family.

From there he was sent to Northern Africa where he was in charge of a platoon. They found out they were being attacked at dawn. So they hunkered into a hill waiting for the African army to attack. Once they ran out of bullets, everyone surrendered, so no one would get killed.” 

The piecing of history continues giving credence to Arcangelo’s memories of the day he was captured 5th May 1941:

1 May 1941 Viceroy of Italian East Africa Duke of Aosta and 7,000 troops were trapped at Amba Alagi, Abyssinia by Indian 5th Indivision to the north and South African 1st Brigade in the south.

3 May 1941 Allied and Italian troops engaged in heavy fighting at Amba Alagi, Abyssinia.

4 May 1941 29th Brigade of the Indian 5th Division launched another attack at Amba Alagi, Abyssinia, capturing 3 hills between 0415 and 0730 hours.

5 May 1941 3/2nd Punjab Battalion advanced toward the Italian stronghold at Amba Alagi, Abyssinia at 0415 hours. They were pinned down by 12 Italian machine guns for the most of the day. The attack was called off at dusk.

British Pathe footage captured the Italians after the surrender of Amba Alagi. Another detail from this battle comes from Craig Douglas at Regio Esercito History Group in Brisbane: “When the Italian troops surrendered at Amba Alagi, the British commander allowed them to surrender with the full honours of war. In tribute to their tenacious defence right to the end.”

The battle for Amba Alagi, the last Italian stronghold in Eritrea. Italians who surrendered Fort Toselli seen marching down the road from the fort. c. June 1941

(AWM Image 007945, Photographer: Unknown British Official Photographer)

From Amba Alagi, Arcangelo would have been sent to POW camps in Egypt to be processed and assigned a M/E number: 289564 [Middle East].  From Suez he would have been transported to India.

Critical Past footage gives a window into the past; the arrival of Italian prisoners of war in Bombay India.

The next stage of Arcangelo’s journey is his arrival in Australia which was reported in the newspapers.  Two ships from India arrived together in Sydney 4th October 1943 with 507 Italian POWs on each ship (one medical officer, 5 medical other ranks and 501 other ranks: MV Brazil and SS Uruguay.

ITALIANS FOR FARMS” Sunday Times (Perth, WA : 1902 – 1954) 10 October 1943: 5. Web. 22 Jun 2019 http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article59187793

1000 Italian War Prisoners Arrive” Kalgoorlie Miner (WA : 1895 – 1950) 7 October 1943: 4. Web. 22 Jun 2019 <http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article95630892&gt;

 

Arcangelo Perna’s arrival is documented on the Nominal Rolls Cowra 12 (c) POW Camp arrival from overseas 5th October 1943. He is assigned his Australian POW number : PWI 55833. Notice that his rank is Corporal though his other documents have his rank as Italian and Private; somethings are lost in translation.

Nominal Rolls of Italian Prisoners of War to Cowra

(NAA: SP196/1, 12 PART 2, 1943-1944 Sydney)

Within two months of his arrival in Australia, Arcangelo is assigned to farm work N11 C.C. Glen Innes.

Robert has a clear memory of his nonno’s recollections of Australia, “ He told me he worked on a cattle farm there. First thing he had to do was mend the fence with the owner. So they packed up the cart and took off. It took over 3 weeks to walk the fence. After that he worked there for a few years. Once it was time to go, the owner begged him to come back and live there. My grandfather said no, he had a farm in Italy. He never said anything bad about being there in Australia. He said they were a nice family who treated him wonderfully.”

Arcangelo’s Service and Casualty Form provides the details of his time between leaving the Glen Innes farm and his repatriation.  A documented four day stay in the Glen Innes hospital and his transfer from the farm to Murchison suggests ongoing medical concerns.  Those Italian who were medically unfit were sent to Murchison. And it is while Arcangelo was at Murchison, official group photos of the Italians were taken. 

A search of the Australian War Memorial collection did not turn up a match for Arcangelo. And Arcangelo’s photo could have been missed because, not all photographs taken of the POWs include the names of the men in the photos.

With this information and a chance at finding his nonno, Robert set to looking through all the group photos taken at Murchison March 1945. And there he was: seated second from the right.

A special moment for Robert: he had found Nonno in Australia.

Murchison, Australia. 2 March 1945. Group of Italian prisoners of war (POWs) interned in D2 No. 13 POW Group.

(AWM Image 030229/13, Photographer: Stewart, Ronald Leslie)

Arcangelo was repatriated on Chitral  from Sydney on 24th September 1946. These early repatriations were for special consideration, medical or compassionate reasons. This was one of the early repatriation ships which boarded 300 POWs in Sydney and another 2900 in Fremantle Western Australia. The majority of Italian POWs held at Northam Camp WA were repatriated on Chitral.

 Robert continues, “When he came home, my grandmother wasn’t even home when he got there! One of my aunts were born while he was away. Plus, my dad was born about 9 months after he came home.”

These memories [of my nonno] have been a part of my life since he’s told me the story. It has been told hundreds of times. Now I have proof, pictures and info to back up my story,” Robert reflects.

No title” The Sun (Sydney, NSW : 1910 – 1954) 24 September 1946: 3 (LATE FINAL EXTRA). Web. 22 Jun 2019 <http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article231583722&gt;

*This is not the first time I have heard about this method of recruitment. A group of young men from the Lecce region, told a similar story to their Queensland family in Gayndah.