Tag Archives: Italian soldiers Cyrenaica

The Desert War

Stories from the Desert

Queensland families remember their Italian POW workers telling little of the fighting, but many a comment was made about one aspect of their capture.  While they tolerated the Australian and British soldiers confiscating their watches, they were resentful that the Allies took their personal photographs from them.

Captured at Tobruk 22nd January 1941, Antonino Lumia reflected, “When the English and the Australians arrived… to our captain… they confiscated the watch, his binoculars… his belt and his weapon.  All our watches were confiscated.  To some soldiers their wallets, personal photographs.  We walked towards their lines.”

Fighting in the desert was never a picnic.  Soldiers were parched, water and food scare, they battled sandstorms which blocked their vision and suffered extreme cold at night.

Newspapers of the day offer an insight into this desert war and souveniring:

“One batch of prisoners rounded up in a wire enclosure must have numbered about 3,000.  Here I spoke with a 24 year old infantryman who was a waiter in Rome until conscripted for the army six months ago.  He told me, “I did not want to fight but had no choice.  None of the men you see here have had enough to eat in the last fortnight.  The daily ration is a tin of bully beef to each two men, soup and a loaf of bread.  We are glad it is over.”

“Lots of us are wearing new Italian boots and they are very comfortable.  Some boys are wearing captured socks and black shirts – in fact, by the time it is finished we will be a motley crew all right.”

boots and pants

6th January 1941 BARDIA, LIBYA. Driver Morrison of the Photographic Unit rummages around the Italian Infantry positions and finds a new pair of pants.  Discarded boots, weapons and personal papers are strewn over the area.  (AWM Image 005316 photography Frank Hurley)

“It was funny a couple of days ago; we were resting beside our gun when we saw a half dozen blue-clad figures strolling over the horizon toward us.  When they reached us they made us understand that they were lost, having become separated from the rest of the herd.  [POWs] We promptly directed them on the right track and after giving us a decent Fascist salute they proceed on their way – unescorted.”

“Wine and cigars were among the luxuries the Australians captured from the Italians at Bardia.” 

quartermaster stores

Bardia. 1941-01-03. Pile of provisions and clothing on the ground after an Italian Quartermaster Store was destroyed by the Allies. Note the soldier in the background, possibly from 2/2nd Battalion, with a large cloth, possibly a captured banner. (Original housed in AWM Archive Store)

“We went into action singing Waltzing Matilda and The Wizard of Oz.  The Italians just couldn’t understand the mentality of soldiers marching into battle against a numerically superior foe with a song on their lips.  They were completely demoralised.”

“As soon as we got within 50 to 100 yards from the Italians with our bayonets glistening in the sun, they threw down their rifles and raised their hands. Some of the prisoners said afterwards that the surprise that they felt when they heard us singing was heightened by the grim look on our faces.  They told us, ‘We Italians sing when we are happy: never before have we heard men singing and looking so serious!’ ”

“The Italian officers did themselves well… dugouts furnished with chests of drawers containing full dress uniforms, silk dressing gowns, and colourful pyjamas.  There were bathrooms with full sized baths.  There were bottles of wine, embossed stationery, cameras, quantities of patent medicines and crockery in addition to uncounted quantities of valuable technical equipment such as wireless sets and replacements, field telephones and Breda automatic guns and rifles.  Today there is probably no single Italian tunic in a Bardia dugout which still has a badge or shoulder strap.  Men are wearing Italian boots and breeches and using Italian blankets. Souveniring has been carried to such an extent that much of the booty must be abandoned because it will overload the battalion transports.”

004906 Liquor and cigareets

5th January 1941 BARDIA, LIBYA. The boys of the 2/2nd Battalion, now in occupation of Bardia, celebrate their entry into the Italian strong hold with a feast of captured food, wine and cigars.  (AWM Image 004906, photographer Frank Hurley)

Looting or Larrikinism

Craig Stockings wrote in detail about the revelry of Australia soldiers after the Battle of Bardia.  Bardia Captured illustrates the surrender of Bardia. The following is an extract from his book, Bardia.

“After the guns fell silent the dusty yellow landscape in and around Bardia was littered with the remnants of the defeated Italian force. Papers blowing on the wind caught on broken vehicles, scaterred weapons, abandoned guns, piles of stores, and long columns of prisoners heading south.” Litter in Libya films these images.

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27th December 1940 NEAR BARDIA – More of the many thousands of Italian prisoners captured during the Battle of Bardia. (AWM Image 004911 NEGATIVE BY F. HURLEY).

“Much of the spontaneous Australian carousing was innocent enough.  Many soldiers who found themselves close to Bardia’s beaches, for example, stripped their grimy clothes and dashed into the Mediterranean to wash clean the filth of combat.  A severe flea infestation …to sup baths, shave and establish their own hairdressing salon.  Where caches were discovered Australian troops feasted on Italian rations and smoked Italian cigarettes.  Many platoon vehicles were soon weight down with cases of tuna, preserves and a variety of tinned veal and pasta meals.  In some areas the nature of the boot surprised those who stumbled upon it… ‘all sorts of queer clothing ,silk underwear both male and female, lots of scents and hair pomades. Eau-de-cologne… was a great favourite….

004913 Knights of Bardia

5th January 1941 BARDIA. “The Knights of Bardia” – Colonels for the Day. Dressed in captured Italian finery, men of the A.I.F. react to their sweeping victory.  (AWM Image 004913 NEGATIVE BY F. HURLEY).

Not all celebratory activities were as innocent… particularly drunkenness, looting and dangerous larrikinism.. A barrel of captured wine was placed on a nearby truck and competitors drank mug for mug until only one man was left standing.  As one witness recounted, the ‘camp was a mess with three parts of the platoon lying drunk in heaps of spew and vomit’.  .. too much Italian cognac…

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Bardia, Libya. 1941-01-04. An Italian prisoner of war (POW) is watched by some of his friends as he siphons wine from a barrel into his mouth while lying beside the barrel. Note the Italian camouflaged ground sheet rigged as a shelter on the left. The prisoners of war were under the supervision of members of 2/2nd Battalion. (AWM Image P02038.083 Original housed in AWM Archive Store)

Another distasteful post-battle pastime was the systematic robbery of Italian prisoners. As its most innocent this manifested as an informal type of resupply.  Almost every member… acquired at least one Italian pistol, officers helped themselves to Italian binoculars, which were superior to their British equivalents.  More concerning was the illegal theft of personal items… Shortly after the battle, he [one soldier] had ‘pockets full of money, wedding rings, some mother of pearl inlaid pistols and some flash fountain pens’, as well ‘had watches up both arms’… The same man later reminisced that for many Australians guarding prisoner columns, ‘it was like having an open go in a jewellery shop.’…

In one particularly atrocious incident, a soldier was tried at court martial (and found guilty) for tossing an Italian grenade into a prisoner cage, seriously wounding five unarmed Italians.

Tobruk POW CAge

23rd April 1941 TOBRUK. Birds of a feather stuck together in a common cage, German and Italian prisoners captured round about Tobruk by the Australian forces holding the town and surrounding country. (AWM Image 007482, Negative by F Hurley) 

Captured at Bardia

Melino family 3 - Copy.jpg

Costanzo Melino: Italian Soldier: 20 years old

(from Anzaro: The Home of my Ancestors)

Costanzo Melino’s memoirs are part of ANZANO – The Home of my Ancestors, written by his daughter Rosa Melino.  From Anzano he was conscripted and sent to Libya to fight Mussolini’s war. His recollections are invaluable in providing the personal experiences of a shepherd who was captured at the Battle of Bardia and shipped to Australia as a prisoner of war.

Special thanks to Rosa Melino for allowing for her work and the words of Costanzo  to be reproduced here as part of this project. Her assistance is invaluable as these memories provide depth and perspective for this history.

Costanzo Melino was captured at Bardia 4th January 1941

I didn’t want to fight.  I always wondered ‘Why me?’ We were rounded up and taken to army barracks where we were given our uniforms…. I was appointed to the 21st Artillery Regiment of the Army Corps and then we were sent to the front.  You can imagine the effect upon a young man who had never seen or learnt much.  I was taken out of school aged seven and sent to look after the sheep with my grandfather.  My grandfather died in March 1935, but in 1921 Mussolini had made a law that all children had to go to school until the age of 15, (that’s one good thing the dictator did), but it was too late for me. 

 We were sent along with other boys from my class in Anzano on the Julius Caesar to Bengazi in Libya. This took us two days at sea.  Bengazi was an Italian colony in those days.  We had to drink sterilized sea water which was salty and hot.  I was very sick. I was called up on 2nd February 1940 and sent to fight in Benghazi in Libya.  Our Commander was Annibalo Bergonsoli.  He used to have a long beard and we nicknamed him ‘Barba Elettrica’. We certainly met war and we did not recover from the shock.

 We ate bread and water and were covered in fleas and sand from the Sahara Desert.   I had to learn to wash my own clothes once a week.  We were woken and were marched and exercised and then we were lined up and given coffee at 7 a.m. in the morning.  We were instructed until lunch time and then we were line up for lunch at 1 p.m. Then we were instructed again until 4 p.m. and again we were lined up and given our meal of ‘pasta asciutta’ or ‘minestrone’ or ‘risotto’.  We were also given some meat, half a litre of wine and two rolls of bread per day.  We had to be respectful to our superiors, and if we weren’t we were placed in confinement by our Colonel Commander.  Water was rationed.  From 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. we were free and we could go to the city of Bengazi.  We would go and look at the shops and if any soldier had some money he would buy what he needed. We were always watched by other soldiers doing the rounds – usually in groups of three.  We could not speak with the Arabs and we had to return at the right time.  We had to salute our officials.  Italo Balbi was the Italian Governor at the time.

Bardia P05182.051

North Africa: Western Desert.  Developed from a film taken from captured Italian prisoners at Bardia. c. 1940

(Australian War Memorial, Robert Otto Boese, Image P05182.051)

When the war broke we were commanded by Colonel Mario Bombagli to go to the Egyptian border between Bardia and Tobruk. One hundred thousand Italian soldiers of the various Infantry, Bersaglieri, Engineering and Artillery were killed there.  It was called the ‘Front Cerinaico’. There were so many men and so little equipment.  It was a desert with no water. It was hot during the day and freezing at night.  Bombs fell frequently upon us from overhead planes.  We were given orders to attack only when the enemy fired first.

In August 1940, we were given the order to advance into Egyptian territory. The Italian forces won ‘Siti Barrani’ in Egypt, but that too was a desert.  The desert winds would blow the sand and we could not even see.  We had to stay until the tempest passed.  At night we slept in the ‘trincee’ or tunnels that we built ourselves to protect us from the enemy bombardments.  We were given two litres of water and little food.

In October 1940, we were surrounded by the English and we lost ground and had to return to Bardia where after many battles we were defeated.

Bardia 0084113

Two captured Italian carro veloce CV22 tankettes on the road overlooking Bardia Harbour. Bardia can be seen on the far hill. (Negative by B.M.I.)

(Australia War Memorial, Image 0084113)

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)