Tag Archives: Italian Prisoners of War captured at Bardia

Capture…what next and where to!

The Italians soldiers, airmen and sailors who were captured from December 1940 to February 1941,  believed the propaganda promises that the second advance would arrive quickly to liberate the increasing numbers of prisoners of war. This was not to happen.

Another insult was that they felt betrayed by the Italian Commanders.  Before capture, the soldiers were ordered to destroy everything. The belief was that the enemy would not take any of the supplies.  Water tanks were tainted with oil and food supplies destroyed. How then were the Allies expected to conjure food and water for 40,000 prisoners at Bardia? This order to destroy Italian provisions contributed to the deaths of Italians from starvation. The other betrayal was that the commanders ‘vanished’ so as to evade capture.

Ferdinando Pancisi remembers, “We hadn’t eaten for days. Food wasn’t arriving. We tried our best to survive. We were trying to make do looking for food on one side or the other of the Front, looking everywhere that we could and we survived. Well those who managed, survived, many others didn’t make it. I went for 7 days and 7 nights without food or water because the English were not giving us anything. I tried asking a British guard for some food or water and he’d always reply “tomorrow, tomorrow”. For 8 days we were kept at Bardia. Then they moved us to near Alexandria in Egypt near the SuezCanal. Every now and then they would send some of us to some part of the World.

For me, India. I was trying to depart, I wanted to go. I was trying to get out of there. People were dying of starvation, there were fleas and head lice, we couldn’t sleep. It wasn’t a nice place to be.”

Sidi El Barrani.jpg

13th December 1940 SIDI BARRANI – A STREAM OF PRISONERS NEARLY TWO MILES LONG CAME INTO SIDI BARRANI FROM THE SOLLUM AREA, THERE TO AWAIT TRANSHIPMENT TO PRISON CAMPS. (AWM 004436 PHOTOGRAPHED BY F. HURLEY).

The Italian POWs also suffered from bombardments by the Germans.  Filthy, covered in lice and sand, hungry and thirsty, there are many testimonies that the Italians did not eat or drink for seven days. There was always a promise of ‘tomorrow’ from the British and Australia.

1940 Water

10th December 1940. WESTERN DESERT – THE MOST PRECIOUS COMMODITY IN THE DESERT….WATER. EVERY OPPORTUNITY MUST BE TAKEN TO REPLENISH SUPPLIES & THESE ITALIAN PRISONERS, ALTHOUGH THEIR WORRIES ARE OVER, ARE TAKING NO CHANCES OF RUNNING DRY DURING TIME OF WAITING TO BE SENT TO SOME COMFORTABLE PRISON CAMP. (AWM Image 004452 PHOTOGRAPHED BY F. HURLEY).

From places of capture the men walked to internment areas; caged compounds; and then to marinas at Bardia, Sollum or Tobruk.

“In fact, now prisoners they led us to Sollum and I stayed there for five days. Waiting for the propaganda promises of the Army that the 2nd advance that would come to free us. Hunger, the despair was so great and who knows the destiny what would have reserved for us. So from Sollum they transferred us to Mersamentuck in a concentration camp in Egyptian territory. From there they took us to the station and as beasts they put us in a freight train, and each wagon more than 40 -50 prisoners to reach a concentration camp along the Suez Canal.

The number of prisoners, which could not be counted, was high and I can affirm that the treatment for us was of the pitiful and inhuman ones that not everyone could sustain. In this field I stayed for about two months, then they took us to lead us to Suez and from there embarked on an English ship, think that in a hold, below sea level, worse than animals we were amassed in 700 prisoners. For nineteen days by sea we suffered that penance, until we arrived in Bombay in India and received another “moral slap”.” Domenico Masciulli

Loaded onto supply ships,  Italians were first used to unload supplies before embarkation.

1940 supplies

SIDI BARRANI – ITALIAN PRISONERS EARNING THEIR KEEP & HELP TO UNLOAD STORES FROM BRITISH SUPPLY VESSELS. LOWER RIGHT CORNER MEMBERS OF THE “COMMANDERS” – A SORT OF ENGLISH FOREIGN LEGION, WHO BECAUSE OF THEIR SLOUCH HATS ARE OFTEN MISTAKEN FOR AUSTRALIANS. (AWM Image 004464, PHOTOGRAPHED BY F. HURLEY).

Some were shipped to Marsa Matruh (Mersa Matruh) and entrained to Alexandria: Film footage of the Italians on trains 

Mersha Merah

MERSA MATRUH, EGYPT. C.1941. GERMAN PRISONERS OF WAR CAPTURED IN THE WESTERN DESERT IN A COMPOUND SEEN THROUGH THE BARBED WIRE PERIMETER. (AWM Image P00064.013)

Others were sent directly to Alexandria.

Eypt POW onboard troopship 1940

31st December 1940 Alexandria, Egypt. An Australian destroyer with Italian prisoners aboard. (AWM Image 005002/03 Photographer Damien Peter Parer)

Recollections tell of being treated no better than beasts as they were loaded into train crates.   Sent to camps such as Quassassin or Ismailia the Italians eventually were sent to camps at Geneifa where they were officially processed.

In time they boardered ships at Suez headed for Australia or India. ‘Emanuele Favoloro a fishman from Lipari Sicily:  “…took us to Alexandria in Egypt. Here we were given a loaf of bread for tomorrow.  But we ate it instantly and starved fthe next morning.  We had plenty of water.  We got given five cigarettes and I sold my cigarettes for more bread.  My biggest horror from the war is the starvation and lack of water plus the horror of the deaths.  After six months in Alexandria, I was taken to Quassassin Camp.  We worked carrying light poles.  I was there six months and then I was shipped to Suez where I became ill and was left behind whereas the others went to Australia.” Favoloro Emanuele from Bocia Cesarin by Cesare Romane Stefanate.

Geneifa POW Camp AWM 2

GINEIFA, EGYPT, 1941. PRISON CAMP AT GINEIFA, NOT FAR FROM SUEZ. TAKEN FROM PASSING TRAIN. (AWM Image P00237.056)

Luigi Bortolli kept a diary and detailed maps of Campo 9 Ismailia and Campo 2 Suez:  Luigi Bortolotti: From Tobruk to Clare.

Edmondo Mazzinghi Testimonial Yol-La mia avventura: is in Italian and includes numerous photos for his journey.

Canal Zone Camps

It was 1941 and those sent to Australia did not return home until January-February 1947.

Map 2

Marsa Matruh… Alexandria…Port Said…Ismailia…Suez…

(from Google Maps)

 

Battle of Bardia

Bardia had been taken.  The Italians lost 40,000 men (killed, wounded and captured), 400 guns, 13 medium tanks, 115 light tanks and 706 trucks.

Bardia Captured

Battle of Bardia

3rd to 5th January 1941

Questions often asked on the topic of Italian prisoners of war begin with WHY?  Why were Italian prisoners of war  working on Queensland farms? Why were there so many Italian prisoners of war in Australia?  Why did they so readily surrender? Why were they content to be prisoners of war in Australia? Why didn’t they escape and/or cause havoc?

An understanding of the battles they fought in North and East Africa# and the war they fought on Mussolini’s behalf gives a context to the situation of the Italian prisoners of war.

Australia’s first group of Italian POWs arrived in May 1941, four months after the Battle of Bardia and five months after the Battle of Sidi el Barrani. Place of Capture for many of the first POWs is recorded as Libya, but the date of capture pinpoints the place… 4th January 1941… Bardia.

Bardia was a military outpost in Libya, developed by Italy during its colonial rule of the country.  Situated on the coast, it encompassed a small town and harbour and roads leading east to the Egyptian border and west to Tobruk.  It was fortified by what the Italians believed was an impenetrable 18 mile arc of modern defences.  These defences incorporated a steep anti-tank ditch – 4 feet deep by 12 feet wide, dense barbed-wire entanglements and minefields with two lines of steel and concrete bunkers 800 yards apart.

Map Bardia

Map of Battle of Bardia, Position at Dusk on 3rd January 1941, from Battle of Bardia Wikipedia

Il Duce had given instructions to General Bergozoli, commander of Bardia, “the task of defending Bardia to the last”* to which Bergozoli replied, “In Bardia we are, and here we stay.”*  Bergozoli had 45,000 men and 400 guns to hold Bardia. (*The Desert Generals by Correlli Barnett)

3884090

General Annibale Bergozoli is pictured centre.

He was known as “barba elettrica” [Electric Whiskers]

Capture of Bardia – Three of the captured Italian Generals and their staff were brought from the Western Desert by air, and here they are arriving at an aerodrome in Cairo. (Photo by unknown British Official photographer)

The allies on the other hand were poorly equipped, equipment had suffered due to the poor condition of roads and the assault force was one third of the garrison’s strength.  This battle was part of Operation Compass and was the first battle of war in which an Australian Army formation took part: Bardia.Aust Division.

(from 3RAR Museum Display: Lavarack Barracks Townsville)

The allies had taken Sidi el Barrani 9th – 10th December 1940, which was the first battle of Operation Compass and continued to push westward into Italian held territory. This meant that Italian forces not taken prisoner at Sidi el Barrani, retreated westward and engaged in combat at Buq Buq, Sollum, Fort Capuzzo, Halfaya Pass on their out of Egyptian territory.  Many were taken prisoner at these battles between Sidi el Barrani and Bardia. This British Pathe film discusses Operation Compass.

Western Desert Campaign

Western Desert Campaign

(from https://worldwariipodcast.net/2014/12/)

In preparation for a land assault, Bardia was attacked by air support.  Between 31st December 1940 and 2nd January 1941 100 bombing sorties took place.  This was followed by heavy air raids on the night of 2/3 January 1941.  As well, tanks with exhaust baffles removed roared up and down the perimeter defences through the night and early morning. Images of the Battle Bardia are captured in this British Pathe film.

3rd January 1941:At 5.30 am, the ground assault began when every gun available opened the battle.  The objective was to breech the western defences using Bangalore torpedoes and captured Italian wire cutters.  The Australians had 120 guns and 23 ‘I’ tanks.  By the last hours of darkness, the first Italians emerged from their bunkers.  By 6.30am, the Aussies had cleared two corridors and 6 “I” tanks attacked toward Bardia. Dog fights ensued between the Italians and the Aussies. By 8am with the first objective taken, 8000 prisoners had been taken. A pause in the ground attack, was followed by the second phase of assault at 11.30am when the fleet laid a barrage and the airforce bombed Italian airfields.  Heavy naval bombardment consisted of  244 x 15 inch shells, 270 x 6 inch shells and 240 x 4.5 inch shells which rained down on Bardia.

Ferdinando Pancisi was captured on this day, he remembers:

“I was a male nurse for the Red Cross, I had to care for and help the sick, injured and look after the people. I was on the Front where all the soldiers were and where everything was happening. I saved myself. We were 40,000 [captured at Bardia]. All the countries of the world were fighting against Italy, Germany and Japan.

[After capture] we hadn’t eaten for days. Food wasn’t arriving. We tried our best to survive. We were trying to make do looking for food on one side or the other of the Front, looking everywhere that we could and we survived. Well those who managed, survived, many others didn’t make it. I went for 7 days and 7 nights without food or water because the English were not giving us anything.  I tried asking a British guard for some food or water and he’d always reply “tomorrow, tomorrow”.

4th January 1941: By midday, the Fortress of Bardia had fallen and the harbour was taken without damage.  Sporadic fighting continued in the north and south throughout the day.

Costanzo Melino  was captured on 4th January 1941 and recounts his experiences as a soldier in this battle: Captured at Bardia.

Libya Italian prisoners of war Bardia

Two captured Italian Carro Veloce CV33 Tankettes on the road overlooking Bardia Harbour. Bardia can be seen on the far hill. (Negative by B.M.I., photographer Unknown British Official photographer)

5th January 1941 : The battle was over by lunch time. It was said that the Australians ‘lunched on Italian champagne’.   Bardia had been taken.  The Italians lost 40,000 men (killed, wounded and captured), 400 guns, 13 medium tanks, 115 light tanks and 706 trucks.

Angelo Valiante was captured on 5th January 1941, he remembers:  “After one month, at the front, 23 kms walk, and no bottom of shoe, none left, nothing. Stopped one month there.  Night time, they say, all soldiers have to go back. English people chase us, to go back. At night time.  We go back.[to Bardia]  In the night time, the cold, the body, the arms, can’t walk, too tired, no food, no water.”

aaerial view italian pow

Bardia, Cyrenaica, Libya. 6 January 1941. Aerial view taken on the day that Bardia fell shows a long line of prisoners stretching down the road being rounded up by the Allied land forces and transported in the back of trucks.

ca[ptured guns

Near Bardia. 6.5 MM Breda Model 1924 and 6.5MM Fiat Revelli Model 35 Machine Guns Captured from the “Ities” (Italians) lined up by the roadside (Negative by F. Hurley)

Below are the recollections of an Italian soldier who was captured at Bardia. Giovanni Palermo was imprisoned at Zonderwater, South Africa:

Barida Palermo Givoanni.jpg

From  Noi! Prigionieri Africa 1941-47 P.O.W.104702 by Giovanni Palermo

Noi! Prigionieri Africa 1941-47 P.O.W.104702 by Giovanni Palermo in English

# Further and more detailed information about the war in North Africa can be found in the books : Bardia by Craig Stockings and The Sidi Rezeg Battles 1941 by Agar-Hamilton and Turner. Acknowledgement to these books for the details provided in this article.