Tag Archives: Italian Prisoners of War India

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 Febraury 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)

 

Further Reading

India

A very good reference to life for Italian Prisoners of War in India can be found at Maddy’s Ramblings  Maddy also relates the story of Filippo Casella who had been imprisoned in India, returned to Italy then made his way to Australia.  The purchase of a small vineyard in 1966 was the beginning of Casella Wines and its well known brand Yellow Tail.

List of Camps in India

India and UK

Italian Prisoners of War and Internees in India

Indian Camp Currency

Bangalore

Italian POWs arrive in Bombay

Bairagarh

India: Ramgarh

Australia

The Italian Farming Soldiers by Alan Fitzgerald  published in 1981, it is the first comprehensive book on the subject of Italian prisoners of war in Australia

When Italian Prisoners of War Were in Australia

History of Directorate of Prisoners of War and Internees

Employment of Enemy PW and Internees

Remo and Romolo

South Australia

From Tobruk to Clare  is the story of Luigi Bortolotti as recorded in this diary manuscript.

Campbelltown

Victoria

GippslandColacFrancesco PonzoniNorth East VictoriaBete Bolong Orbost,

Victorian POW CampsBroadfordLeongatha and Adolfo AllariaMurchison,  Northcliffe, Graytown

Leongatha and Warragul

Umberto Cofrancesco’s biography covers fighting in North Africa, capture and treatment, life in POW Camp India, transfer to Australia, working in Victoria and repatriation.

Tasmania

North West TasmaniaQuamby BrookLulworth the story of Augusto Silvestri, West ScottsdaleBrighton Army CampLuigo Pezzotti

Queensland

Stanthorpe and the Granite Belt : Echoes of Italian Voices Family Histories from Queensland’s Granite Belt edited by Francesco and Morwenna Arcidiacono (a chapter on the Stanthorpe POWs)

Kingaroy: We Remember, Italian Prisoners of War 1944/45 by Docas Grimmet (collection of Kingaroy residents’ memories)

Q6 Home Hill Francesco Cipolla

Wallangarra German POWs from Kormoran

New South Wales

Don CaprezioNorth and North WestCowraMick CamardaIngleburn Hostel,

Bathurst Hostel Funeral and DeathsSt Ives Hostel and Rick Pisaturo, CoonabarabanCarlo Vannucci at Cowra , Mudgee  Connabaraban page 15 – 17

Toogimbie / Riley’s BendFrank Foster and POWsCanowindra Bruno Dell AmicoGiacomo Rizzello at WellingtonAlessandro Luciani at Inverell ,  Nunzio Marotta at Temora 

Lismore Koonorigan Wallace Jackson,   Pietro Gargano at Glen Innes Ch 6 Page 90,         Orange – Michele Ostorero, 

Western Australia

NorthamPrisoner of War Hut West Bruce RockRosemary Johnston ResearchNorthcliffe HostelKarrakatta

A book by Bill Bunbury, Rabbits and Spaghetti, tells the story of  Internees and Prisoners of War using local stories, experiences and memories.

Zonderwater South Africa

Zonderwater Prisoner of War Camp and Museum

The Story of Zonderwater