23rd January 1941 TOBRUK – MORE ITALIAN PRISONERS TAKEN AFTER THE ADVANCE INTO TOBRUK. (NEGATIVE BY F. HURLEY).
One of the incoming force’s greatest embarrassments was the number of prisoners. More than 20,000 of them were soon herded into a fenced enclosure measuring about 800 yards by 400 yards which the Italians had erected near the junction of the El Adem and Bardia roads to house their own prisoners. Here during more than six weeks never fewer than 7,000 and sometimes 20,000 prisoners were crowded like sheep in a dusty pen. Many of the men lacked blankets, and the nights were bitterly cold.
To give them adequate medical care was far beyond the resources of their captors. There was no sanitation; and, at first, it took one of the two infantry companies posted at the cage seven hours to distribute the day’s rations: one tin of veal, two biscuits and a bottle of water to each man, though few prisoners had even a bottle to receive their water in.
From the 23rd to the 26th the 2/7the Battalion was on guard and strove unceasingly to feed and water the prisoners. The 2/2nd Battalion which relieved the 2/7th reduced the time spent feeding the prisoners to five hours by installing water tubs and employing Italian N.C.O.s to organise the lines.
Eventually the guards from this battalion made sure that every prisoner had at elast a greatcoat or blanket and his own water bottle… Gradually the numbers were reduced by sending them eastwards to Egypt in empty trucks that had come forward carrying supplies and after the harbour was opened 1,500 to 2,000 were shipped away every second or third day. By the middle of February the number of prisoners had been reduced to about 10,000 and by the end of the month to 7,000, but on 28th February convoys, each containing 800 to 1,000 prisoners began to arrive from Benghazi and, in a few days the cage contained 11,000. The Tobruk cage was finally emptied in March.
From AUSTRALIA IN THE WAR OF 1939-1945 Series One Army, Volume 1 To Benghazi by Gavin Long. Chapter 9 Capture of Tobruk
NEAR TOBRUK – A CROSS SECTION OF MUSSOLINI’S MIGHTY ARMY. (NEGATIVE BY F. HURLEY).
Click on the link below to see more photos taken by Frank Hurley and further information about the Tobruk Prisoner of War Cage.
Antonino was captured at Tobruk 22nd January 1941. His grandson Damiano Lumia recorded his nonno’s memories. Listen to Antonino as he tells us his story: A Voice from the Past
In 1940, Emanuele was sent to Tobruk. “I was a sailor on a small boat that was used to ferry goods between ships on the harbour… I recall as soon as we reached the harbour, one midnight, the bombing began. This bombing was to last nine months… The constant booms of the bombs drove us half crazy.
23rd January 1941 TOBRUK – THESE AUSTRALIANS ARE TAKEN BESIDE A WALL WHICH SHOWS DAMAGE CAUSED BY THE INTENSE BARRAGE FROM BRITISH FORCES PENETRATING THE ITALIAN DEFENCES. (NEGATIVE BY F. HURLEY).
There were six ships in the harbour that night… the Liguria (passenger ship), the Serenitas (carrying cement), the Manzoni (carrying mechanics) and the Serenco (carrying wood). I’ve forgotten the other two.
23rd January 1941 TOBRUK – THE “SERENTATIS” ANOTHER ITALIAN SHIP SCUPPERED, A TRICK THAT THE ITALIANS SEEM TO HAVE LEARNT FROM THEIR AXIS FRIENDS. (NEGATIVE BY F. HURLEY).
… Our role in Tobruk Harbour was to supply goods to all the Italian soldiers, Navy and Air Force…
My worst memory is the night before I was taken P.O.W. by the Australian soldiers. Our Commanders ordered us to destroy everything in Tobruk Harbour… The generals took the attitude, ‘The enemy must not have any of our goods,’ but in doing this they condemned their own men to death by starvation.
Tobruk was captured the next day. We had to destroy even the ships that were half sunk. Even the Italian cruiser, the San Giorgio was destroyed by us.
23rd January 1941 TOBRUK – ITALIAN PRISONERS LEAVING THE TOWN ON FOOT. (NEGATIVE BY F. HURLEY).
That evening we found the Aussies waiting. They greeted us with ‘hands up! Come down to the wharf!’. They took us to an open area and we were surrounded. They put us in a line and made us walk twelve kilometres to the operation field. We had no food or drink…
23rd January 1941 TOBRUK – MOST OF THE ITALIANS CARRY POCKETSFUL OF GRENADES AND IT IS THEREFORE NECESSARY TO SEARCH PRISONERS FOR THESE AS SOON AS POSSIBLE. NOT ONLY BECAUSE OF POSSIBLE TREACHERY BUT THEY FORGET THEY ARE CARRYING THEM ABOUT AND SOMETIMES THIS FORGETFULNESS IS DANGEROUS. (NEGATIVE BY F. HURLEY).
I remember one night they [Germans] bombed us. The Germans our friends, thought we were the enemy. About two hundred and eighty-one Italians died that night.
After one week, the Aussie solders took about one thousand people and took us to the harbour of Tobruk again. There was an Egyptian ship called Solum, and we went on board. The ship sailed us to Egypt…Alexandria… when we neared Bardia, we saw three planes.. and they threw bombs at us. When the ship was hit by a bomb, the Captain tried to take the ship to shore. Being a fisherman, I knew how to swim. Many men drowned…. The trucks came to rescue us and took us to Alexandria in Egypt. My biggest horror from the war is the starvation and lack of water plus the horror of the deaths. Here we were given a loaf of bread for tomorrow…. We had plenty of water. We got given five cigarettes and I sold my cigarettes for more bread. From Alessandria I was taken to Quassassin Camp. We worked carrying light poles and then we were shipped to Suez… I was sent to Zonderwater (near a mining town). I worked as a kitchen hand for two years.” (from Boccia Cesarin-An Historial Link – Italy – Australia by Cesare Romane Stefanate)
Manlio Sulis was at Tobruk and his son Giovanni Sulis provides insightful details about Tobruk and the journey: Tobruk -Sollum – Alexandria – Geneifia Camp 306 – Zonderwater
Luigi Bortolotti was an infantry sergeant who was captured on 21st January 1941 at Tobruk. His diary of 300 pages details his journey from ‘the sad day of my capture to that longed-for day of my release.’
Desmond O’Connor used Luigi’s diary to write: From Tobruk to Clare: the experiences of the Italian prisoners of war Luigi Bortolotti 1941-1946.
On 22nd January 1941, Tobruk capitulated to the Allies.
22nd January 1941 AN AERIAL VIEW OF TOBRUK, AFTER THE ITALIAN GARRISON HAD SURRENDERED. SHOWN, BLACK SMOKE ROLLING FROM BURNING OIL TANKS BEYOND WHICH, IN THE HARBOUR, THE ITALIAN CRUISER SAN GIORGIO IS ON FIRE.
General Enrico Pitassi Manella: Commander of Tobruk; General Umberto Barberis: Commander of Easter Section; General Vincenzo della Mura: Commander of Western Sector and General Adolfo de Leone: Chief of Staff XXII Corps surrendered in the field.
Commander of the Navy at Tobruk Garrison, Rear Admiral Massimillian Vietina surrendered his 1500 strong naval contingent to General Robertson and Lieutenant Hennessy. Through an interpreter, Vietina was asked where the Commander of the Army at the Tobruk Garrison was. It was reported ‘the military commander of Toburk fortress had escaped by schooner.’
The town of Tobruk and naval headquarters was surrendered by Vietina.
22nd January 1941 View across the harbour of the town. Note the clouds of smoke from the bombed oil tankers and the cruiser San Giorgio. Members of 2/2nd Battalion camped later just past the area of bombardment. `B’ Company guarded the wharf with the crane and were bombed every night and morning. The Hotel Tobruk can be seen on the left.
22nd January 1941 A motor cyclist rides along the exit road of the wharf area beside the harbour where members of 2/2nd Battalion were stationed. Note the remains of the destroyed jetties and sunken Italian shipping in the background.
Below Navy Headquarters was a complex of deep underground shelters and passageways which had been concreted and fitted with electricity. Stairs descended about 60 – 70 feet underground.
About 500 marines appeared from these mazes of corridors and spilled out into the courtyard.
31st January 1941 TOBRUK – FOUR NAVAL RATINGS FROM THE ITALIAN SHIP SAN GIORGIO, CAPTURED DURING THE ACTION. (Photographer: James Francis Hurley)
The township of Tobruk was said to be a pleasant place of white brick and plaster buildings with services to accommodate a garrison of 10,000 or more men. After the surrender of Tobruk, the church was said to be the only building to escape major damage. The church can be seen in the photo below.
23rd January 1941 TOBRUK – VIEW FROM THE VERANDAH OF A HOUSE IN TOBRUK SHOWING THE CHURCH – THE ONLY UNDAMAGED BUILDING IN THE TOWN AFTER THE BRITISH ATTACK. (NEGATIVE BY F. HURLEY).
23rd January 1941 TOBRUK – AUSTRALIANS TEAR DOWN THE ITALIAN FLAG AFTER THEY HAVE PENETRATED THE ITALIAN DEFENCES AND ENTERED THE TOWN. Notice the fasces: symbols of fascism adorning the columns. (NEGATIVE BY F. HURLEY).
The harbour had been damaged, but the Allied forces had it in running order within three days. One jetty was largely undamaged, and the flotilla of schooners, pontoons and launches were also in good order.
23rd January 1941 TOBRUK – ITALIAN MERCHANT SHIPS CAUGHT IN TOBRUK HARBOUR. (NEGATIVE BY F. HURLEY).
TOBRUK – ITALIAN AIRCRAFT FLEW OVER THE ITALIAN CAMPS & DROPPED LEAFLETS EXHORTING THE BESIEGED TROOPS TO HANG ON FOR THE ASSISTANCE THAT WAS SURELY COMING. HERE AN ITALIAN OFFICER TRANSLATES THE LEAFLET FOR ALLEN ANDERSON OF THE PHOTOGRAPHIC UNIT. (NEGATIVE BY F. HURLEY).
The Merchant ships Marco Polo and Liguria had been rendered worthless.
23rd January 1941 Tobruk Harbour, Libya. The Italian Merchant vessel Marco scuppered before the Italians surrounded the town. (Photographer: Frank Hurley)
5th September 1941 Two of the wrecks in Tobruk Harbour. The larger vessel is the Italian troopship “Liguria” and the smaller is the “Bankura” a Navy Army Air Force Institute (NAAFI) supply ship. (Photographer: Thomas Fisher)
The old cruiser, San Giorgio was seaworthy and had been used since June 1940 to supplement the anti-aircraft defences of Tobruk claiming 47 enemy aircraft. In January 1941 the San Giorgio was used as off-shore artillery with its guns pounding the Tobruk attackers. At 4.15 am on the 22nd January 1941, the San Giorgio was scuttled by her captain Stefano Pugliese.
c. 22nd January 1941 The Italian Coast Defence Ship (former armoured cruiser), San Giorgio, scuttled and burning after attacks by Naval Aircraft and RAF bombers at Tobruk, June – January 1941. Note the anti-torpedo nets around the wreck.
Inspection of the San Giorgio’s torpedo nets after the fall of Tobruk, revealed that as many as 39 torpedoes had become stuck in the nets during her service in Tobruk.
Another ship in Tobruk harbour was RN Alberga/Albernga. Both Francesco Riva from Galbiate Como and Renzo Menicucci from Livorno served on this boat. Possibly the ship’s name has been misspelt. [There were light cruisers in service: Alberico de Barbiano and Alberto Da Giussano.]
January 1941 Italian prisoners of war (POWs) are marched along the harbour wharf prior to embarkation on the ship in the foreground. Note the destroyed Italian ships in the background. The view is as seen looking up towards the cage where the prisoners of war were housed. (Original housed in AWM Archive Store)
23rd January 1941 TOBRUK – HIGH OFFICERS OF THE ITALIAN NAVY & ARMY LED THEIR MEN OUT OF TOBRUK TO SURRENDER TO BRITISH FORCES. ALTHOUGH WITHOUT GUARDS, THIS COLUMN OF PRISONERS MARCHED WITH PERFECT DISCIPLINE TO THE PRISONERS CAMP WHERE THEY WERE HANDED OVER BY THEIR OWN OFFICERS. (NEGATIVE BY F. HURLEY).
Above Featured Photo: Gianni Senici Durante il servizio militare in Libia (1936-1938) Lui è quello coi calzoni bianchi. Era addetto alla mensa ufficiali (photo courtesy of Fabrizio Senici)
Below is an extract from the book P.O.W. No. 48664 Prisoner of War written by Fabrizio Senici. Disponible su / Available on: AMAZON and IBS LIBRI
Usciamo in fila indiana con le mani sopra la testa e gli occhi accecati dal sole.
Tengo lo sguardo basso e ancora una volta mi viene da ghignare per quei miei calzoni bianchi che abbagliano nel sole di mezzogiorno.
Non facciamo che pochi passi. Di fronte ci troviamo i fucili automatici dei soldati australiani. Tengo bassa la testa, ma alzo lo sguardo per vedere che cosa succede. Il sergente si fa avanti per primo tenendo le mani bene alzate sopra la testa e dichiara la volontà di arrendersi. Parla in italiano, ma lo capiscono ugualmente, come lui capisce i gesti che gli fa il suo parigrado. Il sottufficiale australiano tiene il suo fucile ad altezza d’uomo e con quello indica la via.
Il sergente si incammina per primo e ci parla a bassa voce: «State calmi e non fate monate» ma un colpo nel costato gli fa capire che deve stare zitto. Per un piccoletto tutto scuro di carnagione le parole del sergente non servono: esce dalla fila e inizia a scappare. Ci giriamo tutti giusto in tempo per vedere un australiano che prende la mira e lo centra in testa. Credo che morirò anch’io. Anzi ne sono sicuro. Mi vengono in mente le parole del colonnello: “Pensa a portare a casa la pelle, giovanotto, che qui siamo tutti come morti che camminano” e in effetti sembriamo una fila di morti viventi.
Ci spingono con le canne dei fucili verso un primo concentramento, in uno slargo dove mi rendo conto che siamo migliaia. Non ho mai visto tanta gente insieme così sporca e cenciosa, stremata, e soprattutto triste. Intorno a me ci sono feriti leggeri e gravi. Tutti abbiamo lo sguardo perso nel niente, incapaci di reazione. Ma quello che mi fa ancora più paura è non capire una parola di quello che dicono. Gli australiani non parlano, non ordinano. Urlano.
Mi metto in coda al sergente e dietro di me si mette il bresciano. «Come ti chiami?» riesco a dirgli a quello dietro, e poi ancora: «Sèt de Brésa?».[sei di Brescia?]
«Mi chiamo Rossetti Angelo» mi risponde lui «bresciano di Castelmella».
Mi vien da piangere dalla gioia. Poi tiro la giacca al sergente: «Sergente, come vi chiamate?» gli do del voi per rispetto al grado. Lui si gira appena un po’: «Bortolotti Luigi* e sono friulano, e tu?».
«Senici Giovanni della sessantasettesima, ma voi mi potete chiamare Gianni».
Allora anche lui mi dice: «E tu chiamami Luigi e smettila di darmi del voi. Da adesso in poi siamo tutti uguali».
23rd January 1941 TOBRUK – ITALIAN PRISONERS LEAVING THE TOWN ON FOOT. (AWM Image 005604 NEGATIVE BY F. HURLEY).
*Fabrizio uses the name of Luigi Bortolotti as he also was captured at Tobruk 21 January 1941. Fabrizio would like to think that Luigi and Giovanni’s paths crossed during the chaos of Tobruk. Click below to read the experiences of Luigi Bortolotti: From Tobruk to Clare.
Feature Photo Above: Gianni Senici, Durante il servizio militare in Libia (1936-1938) (photo courtesy of Fabrizio Senici)
Below is an extract from the book P.O.W. No. 48664 Prisoner of War written by Fabrizio Senici. Disponible su / Available on: AMAZON and IBS LIBRI
Italian Prisoners of War at Tobruk (AWM Image P10989.002 Photographer: Cartledge, Bryan Hammersley)
Siamo dentro, al riparo. Buio, paura e silenzio: penso a come devono essere spessi questi muri per chiudere fuori tutto quel casino.
Paura, buio, silenzio: nessuno di noi ha il coraggio di parlare. Anche il sergente sta zitto. Qualche colpo di tosse, qualcuno tira su con il naso, ognuno ascolta solo il bum-bum del suo cuore. Silenzio, paura e buio: piano piano i miei occhi si abituano alla poca luce che filtra dalle feritoie.
Faccio la conta di quanti siamo, cerco qualcuno che conosco, ma non conosco proprio nessuno. Solo che mi è sembrato che uno parlasse bresciano e almeno questo mi fa sentire meno solo.
Il sergente sa che tutti ci aspettiamo da lui una decisione. Siamo tagliati fuori da qualsiasi contatto e spetta a lui decidere della nostra sorte. Mi guardo intorno mentre la polvere gioca e balla nei fasci di luce delle feritoie e nella nostra puzza di paura. Il mio sguardo incontra gli occhi del sergente che sembrano non vedermi, mi passano oltre. Ostia. Siamo tutti gnari [ragazzi] di poco più di vent’anni, spauriti, gente che fino all’anno prima faceva il contadino, l’operaio, il magüt [il carpentiere] e ora è solo carne da macello. Quando inizia a parlare capisco che il sergente è un uomo buono.
«Ragazzi, qui è finita, non c’è più niente da fare» dice e la sua voce mi fa capire tutta la sua stanchezza.
«Che cosa facciamo, sergente?» chiede una voce.
«Non lo so, sacramento, non lo so proprio» risponde il sergente. E poi continuando: «In quanti siamo qui dentro? Dài fioi, contiamoci».
Allora mi faccio forza e inizio io: «Uno» dico, e poi altre voci: «due, tre, quattro, cinque, sei, sette. Dov’è il bambino? Dov’è Mario?» chiede
qualcuno in veneto. Non so chi sia questo “bambino”, questo Mario, ma posso immaginare che sia il più giovane di quel gruppo.
«Non l’ho più visto da un po’» dice un altro veneto, da questo capisco che sono tre che si conoscono, magari dei compaesani.
«Allora in quanti semo?» continua il sergente.
«In sette, sergente, qui dentro siamo in sette» risponde pronto il caporale.
«Chi cazzo è che sta piangendo?» la voce del sergente adesso non è più così buona: «Dài che siamo uomini del Duce, ostia!».
Sono stanco morto. Da tre giorni scappo come un topo da un rifugio all’altro e mangiare non se ne parla, figurarsi il bere. Mi lascio scivolare lungo il muro e quando il mio sedere tocca terra mi sento come un sacco svuotato e penso che potrei anche morire così.
Guardo il sergente. Tutti guardiamo il sergente. C’è più luce adesso che gli occhi si sono abituati. Lui si toglie l’elmetto, si asciuga il sudore con il dorso della mano lasciandosi una striscia nera sulla fronte. Ci squadra a uno a uno. Poi parla. Con voce forte e chiara, an che lui è veneto, o trentino: «Ascoltatemi bene tutti, qui non c’è più un cazzo da fare. Da ieri gli ufficiali non rispondono e secondo me se la sono già svignata perciò se non vogliamo crepare, e io non vi voglio sulla coscienza, non ci resta che arrenderci».
«Però, quando usciamo da qui, che nessuno si metta in testa di fare l’eroe».
«Che cosa dobbiamo fare sergente?» chiede il bresciano.
«Usciamo da qui con le mani sopra la testa. Lasciate qui le armi» risponde lui.
«Qualcuno sa l’inglese?» chiede una voce.
«Che cosa ci faranno, sergente?» chiede un’altra.
Adesso tutti prendiamo il coraggio di parlare e sembra un pollaio.
«State zitti tutti» urla il sergente, ma poi si calma.
«Non lo so» dice sconsolato «non lo so!».
Detto questo, si fa largo nello spazio angusto del bunker, mette mano alla pesante maniglia in ferro e si decide a uscire.
«Dài andiamo fora dai cojon, stiamo uniti, proviamo a stare tutti insieme».
«Padre nostro che sei nei cieli…» qualcuno sta pregando a mezza voce.
«Chi cazzo è che prega, ostia, non è il momento di pregare» urla di nuovo il sergente e aggiunge: «Dài fuori di qui. FUORI!».
23rd January 1941 TOBRUK – THE DEFENCE POSITION ON THE ROAD APPROACHING TOBRUK. NOTE WIRE, CONCRETE PILLBOX & THE ANTI TANK GUN THAT WAS RESPONSIBLE FOR THE DESTRUCTION OF THE Y.M.C.A. CAR. (NEGATIVE BY F. HURLEY).
Above Featured Photo: Gianni Senici 1985. Aged 69 years.
It is a privilege to honour the journey of Giovanni Senici, as recreated by his son Fabrizio Senici in his book P.O.W. No. 48664 Prisoner of War. Fabrizio has researched extensively his father’s story which included a visit to Australia in 2017, to walk in his father’s footsteps. Disponible su / Available on: AMAZON and IBS LIBRI
Non riesco a credere che sono ancora vivo. Mi appoggio al muro, chiudo gli occhi e cerco con la mano la mia piastrina di riconoscimento. Mi dà sicurezza quel pezzo di ferro con su il mio nome. Se dovessi morire, penso, almeno sanno chi sono.
Sì, perché qui si aspetta solo di morire. Certo, se mi avessero detto che la guerra era questa, mica sarei partito fischiettando da Concesio quando mi hanno richiamato il 1° maggio.
Ho in mente questa cosa da stamattina, quando per un momento le bombe hanno smesso di fischiarmi sopra la testa. È stata dura perché sono due notti che ci bombardano. Da terra, dal mare e dal cielo. Sembra la grandinata del 1936. Una grandine così a Brescia non l’avevano mai vista. I chicchi erano grossi come uova e hanno spaccato su tutto: tetti, carri, le automobili, i vetri delle case. Ecco, le bombe degli inglesi oggi hanno fatto quella stessa roba lì, solo che i buchi sono molto più grandi.
Sono due giorni che me ne sto rintanato nella mensa ufficiali. E chi ha più avuto il coraggio di mettere fuori il naso! Sono un cameriere io, mica uno che spara. E per fortuna che non mi sono più mosso da qui, se no addio Gianni, e chissà perché rido mentre sento gli areoplani che volano bassi su Tobruk. Sarà la paura.
È mattino presto, quasi l’alba. Spio fuori dai sacchi che abbiamo messo da dieci giorni fuori dalle finestre della sala mensa. I caporioni lo sapevano da un bel po’ che saremmo stati attaccati, ma si sono guardati bene dal dircelo.
E gli ufficiali allora? Ah, quelli poi sono tutti impazziti. Qui non si capisce più niente di chi comanda e di chi non comanda. Prima ti danno un ordine, poi te ne danno un altro e intanto giù bombe. Non ho ancora finito di pensare a questa cosa che entra di corsa un alto ufficiale. Riconosco che è un colonnello dalla torretta con le tre stelle d’oro che porta sulla divisa. È tutto impolverato e perde sangue da un braccio.
Sono da solo qui dentro, e non ci dovrei stare. Che faccio? Lo saluto o non lo saluto? Poi scatto sull’attenti: «Soldato semplice addetto alla mensa ufficiali Senici Giovanni, 67a divisione Sirte» dico, e resto lì aspettando un ordine di “riposo”, ma quello passa fuori che sembra non vedermi nemmeno, allora mi rilasso e gli dico: «Sta bene, signor colonnello?».
Lui si gira, si tocca il braccio e sorridendo senza guardarmi mi dice: «Stavo meglio prima. Comunque non è niente, soldato. Grazie».
Ostia! Mi sorprende di più quel “grazie” che non trovare un po’ di acqua qui a Tobruk, e allora gli rispondo: «Prego, signor colonnello» ma in verità avrei voluto chiedergli «Che facciamo?».
E lui fa una cosa che non dimenticherò. Mi mette il braccio sano sulla spalla e mi dice: «Pensa a portare a casa la pelle, giovanotto, che qui siamo tutti come morti che camminano» e così dicendo se ne va: apre la porta delle cucine ed esce come se niente fosse, aggiustandosi l’elmetto sulla testa.
Volevo dirgli di stare attento, ma mi rimetto dietro i sacchi e lo vedo, testa alta e petto in fuori, attraversare la piazza dove ancora resiste il monumento di Mussolini con la scritta VINCERE.
Guardo quel colonnello gentile che mi ha detto “grazie” e un momento dopo non c’è più. Una granata li ha disintegrati insieme, lui e il monumento di Mussolini.
D’istinto mi tiro indietro. Ho le orecchie che fischiano per il gran botto e il cuore che batte forte in gola. Mi viene da piangere tanta è la paura. Me lo diceva sempre mio padre che noi soldati siamo solo carne da macello e che i governi sono i macellai. Non gli volevo credere, l’erasemper cioc. [era sempre unbriaco]
Mi siedo su una seggiola e accendo una Milit. Tiro lunghe boccate che sentono proprio di merda e bruciano la gola e mi ricordo che ho sete.
Acqua dai rubinetti non ne viene, gli inglesi hanno bombardato per prima cosa i nostri pozzi. Allora mi attacco a una bottiglia di vino spumante mezza vuota, lì da chissà quanto.
Adesso qui dentro, in questa cucina, è tutto calmo. Fuori c’è la guerra: scoppi, boati, urla, i cingolati che fanno un fracasso della madonna, ma qui dentro c’è una pace che si sta quasi bene. Mi fumo la mia sigaretta fino a scottarmi le dita e finalmente mi decido ad alzare il culo dalla seggiola.
Dài, forza, mi dico che l’ultima sigaretta l’ho fumata e poi penso che morirò come quel colonnello. Torno a guardare fuori dai sacchi e vedo un gruppo che corre rasente il muro del palazzo ad angolo e allora vado: mi affaccio fuori dalle cucine e prendo tutto il coraggio che ho per uscire fuori allo scoperto.
Davanti a tutti c’è un sergente che grida forte per farsi sentire sopra gli scoppi, la polvere e la gran confusione. Corro con loro con le mie braghe bianche da cameriere. Capisco che faccio anche un po’ ridere.
Tutti gridano tutto:
«Caporale, raduna i tuoi!».
«Dài, dài veloci, veloci, madonna!».
«Tenete giù la testa, tenete giù la testa!».
«Oh sergente, sono da tutte le parti questi inglesi di merda!».
Ci fermiamo un momento. Al riparo di una casa sventrata. Giro lo sguardo sui miei compagni, ma non ne conosco nessuno. Per forza mi dico, a Tobruk saremo in ventimila.
«Telefonista, chiama il comando, chiedi rinforzi!».
«Comando, comando, qui è la sessantasettesima… comando, comando… non rispondono, sergente!».
«Ma dov’è il 6° con i 50 millimetri, dove cazzo sono?».
«Dài, via di qui, non c’è più niente da fare!».
«Dài via di lì, venite via!».
«State giù, state giù!».
«Dài tutti dentro qui, al riparo, al riparo!».
Sapevo che la città era piena di bunker che sarebbero serviti proprio in caso di ultima, estrema difesa. Quelli davanti aprono con fatica la pesante porta in metallo che non vuole saperne di cedere sotto le spallate disperate dei primi della fila. Finalmente entriamo. C’è puzza di cantina ammuffita.
«Sergente, non si vede una madonna qui dentro».
«Caporale mettiti allo spioncino».
«Oh sergente fuori è pieno di inglesi».
«Caporale, non sono inglesi sono australiani».
«Peggio ancora, al corso ci hanno spiegato che questi sono come delle bestie!».
23rd January 1941 TOBRUK – LOOKING ALONG THE PIAZZA BENITO MUSSOLINI, AFTER THE ENTRANCE OF THE BRITISH FORCES. (AWM Image 005416 NEGATIVE BY F. HURLEY).
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.
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.
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.)
Somewhere in the vicinity of Sidi el Barrani, Agostino Marazzi abandoned his machine gun at the suggestion of a lieutenant. He was captured by the British on 11th December 1940. He had served with an infantry unit for 17 months.
On 24th March 1940, Agostino was photographed with a friend at Martuba Libya. Martuba was an important Italian airbase but also had numerous staging camps for newly arrived Italian soldiers.
Agostino Marazzi and friend Martuba Libya 24.3.1940 (photo courtesy of Amedeo Marazzi)
Agostino’s next stop was Tobruk which is 150 km south west of Martuba.His son Amedeo recalls that the two photos of his father with a machine gun were taken at Tobruk.
Agostino Marazzi at Tobruk(photo courtesy of Amedeo Marazzi)
Commander-in-Chief of the Italian army, Rodolfo Graziani had advanced Italian troops from the Libyan-Egyptian border to Sidi el Barrani from 13-16th September. Field Marshal Wavell’s offensive to reclaim Egyptian territory began on 9th December 1940.
Along the fifty-miles-wide battlefield and astride the road leading west lay a fantastic litter of abandoned trucks, guns and tanks, piles of abandoned arms and ammunition, of food stores and clothing, and of the paper which a modern army spends so profusely. It was some days before all the enemy dead had been found and buried. Long columns of dejected prisoners in drab olive-green and khaki streamed eastwards. In the whole battle 38,300 prisoners, 237 guns and 73 tanks were captured . Four generals were taken: Gallina of the Group of Libyan Divisions, Chario of the 1st Libyan Division, Piscatori of the 2nd Libyan, Merzari of the 4thBlackshirt.
12 December 1940 SOME OF LATEST BATCH OF 4000 PRISONERS FROM AREA BETWEEN BARRANI AND Buq Buq. ALL ITALIAN TROOPS WERE WELL-CLOTHED & ARMED & IN GOOD PHYSICAL CONDITION BUT SEEMED IN NO MOOD FOR FIGHTING AFTER THE FIRST FEW HOURS OF THE ENCOUNTER. (PHOTOGRAPHED BY F. HURLEY).
The Italian prisoners’ journey begins: Sidi Barrani to Mersa Matruh to Alexandria. Some were taken to Palestine while others were taken to camps along the Bitter Lakes/Suez area.
Agostino Marazzi boards the Queen Mary bound for Sydney Australia. The ship leaves Suez on 7th May and arrives at Trinomalee (Ceylon) 14th May. She departs Trinomalee on 15th May and arrives in Fremantle Australia 21st May. Queen Mary departs Fremantle on 21st May and arrives in Sydney on 25th May 1941
The Queen Mary had been in service as a troopship since May 1940 after she had been fitted out to accommodate 5000 troops. Towards the end of the war, Queen Mary was carrying 15,000 American troops in a voyage.
Amedeo Marazzi remembers his father’s story about the Queen Mary: “The Queen Mary was the largest ship in the world at the time and had 3 swimming pools, a theatre and a cinema. My father said that when they passed the equator at night, it was so hot some men jumped into the water of the pools for relief but the temperature in the pool was worse in than out.”
The Australian army identity photo was taken on 4th November 19411. Amedeo reflects, “To see the young face of my father was a unique wonderful emotion.”
Marazzi, Agostino NAA: A367, C85443
Agostino’s brother sent him a picture postcard of his mother, Celeste Vinciguerra, on 16th December 1942. Mention is made of Sergio Galazzi, a radio mechanic from Rome.
Sergio had arrived at Hay Camp 26th March 1942. News must have reached the Marazzi and Galazzi families that Agostino and Sergio were now in the same camp.
Ecco la foto di mamma che tanto desideri. L’abbiamo fatta in questi giorni. Ti saluta e ti bacia. Tanti saluti dalla mamma di Galazzi Sergio. Tanti saluti da noi.
Celeste Vinciguerra(photo courtesy of Amedeo Marazzi)
Amedeo reminisces, “My father and his friends once they arrived in Australia realized that this was a wonderful place. He settled immediately and became a labourer on a farm. He would talk about breakfast where he could have coffee or milk, honey, fruit, bread, butter and jam. He has never felt like a prisoner of war.”
My father had good memories of Australia. He always told us that if he won the lottery, he would take us all on a holiday to Australia,” reflects Amedeo.
Carnivale 1950s Adele, Rossella, Amedeo, Agostino(photo courtesy of Amedeo Marazzi)
Recently Amedeo obtained a copy of his father’s extra Australian file.
Little details emerge from this file: Agostino was captured at Buq Buq, west of Sidi Barrani; while in Hay Camp he worked as a bootmaker; in Hay Camp he was awarded 24 hours detention for possession of a prohibited article but this was not officially recorded.
Other documents record that he worked on the farm of Mr LE Peacock at Oakbank together with Sebastiano Aiello.
Upon return to Italy, life returned quickly to a familiar routine surrounded by family.
Adele and Agostino Marazzi(photo courtesy of Amedeo Marazzi)
In a beautiful tribute to his nonno, Damiano Lumia recorded the voice of Antonino Lumia telling his story as a soldier and a prisoner of war.
Hay, NSW. 9 September 1943. Group of Italian prisoners of war (POW) interned at No. 6 POW Group. In this group are known to be: 46032 Raffaele Lomonaco; 46627 Giuseppe Restivo; 46007 Antonio Lumia (front row second left); 45586 Isidoro De Blasi; 46206 Gaetano Mineo; 45360 Giuseppe Cannata; 45103 Leonardo Barbera; 45997 Pietro Lomonte; 46221 Antonio Rondi and 47999 Leonardo Ciaccio. Note: The number is an assigned POW number.
(Australian War Memorial Lewecki Image 030143/33)
Antonino’s journey begins in Sicily and listening to his voice, we follow in his footsteps from his home town of Bompensiere to Toburk and Benghazi, then Australia. Finally, Antonino takes us back to Italy and his family.
Antonino Lumia begins his story with,
“My dear grandson, I had a lot of trouble. When they called us…”
and ends with…
“I saw your grandmother. I came down. I came home. I rushed to your father. Here is my story, dear grandson. The sufferings were severe, dear grandson”.
Damiano’s video Antonino Lumia POW in Australia 1941-1946 combines images of Bompensiere with photographs and documents from Australian War Memorial and National Archives of Australia to take the viewer on an intimate journey through time.
Antonino’s memories are told with humour and melancholy. English subtitles combined with Antonino’s voice, makes this accessible for those who only speak English. More importantly for those Queenslanders who have memories of ‘their’ Italian POW, it brings back to life their voices: the timbre and musicality of the Italian language.
“Footprints of Italian Prisoners of War in Queensland” has always been about connectivity between people, with the past, between Italians and Australians, with memories and history.
I am honoured and humbled that Damiano Lumia’s video has become part of this project for the oral histories of Italian prisoners of war are paramount to adding depth and perspective to this project.
Another aspect of the project has been to connect people with information. Research has provided Damiano with details about Antonino’s time in Queensland. Antonino Lumia was assigned to Q3 PWCC Gympie along with Giovanni Adamo. They were employed by Mr R – Mr Kevin John Rodney of North Deep Creek from 14 March 1944 to 4 January 1946. Miss Gloria, mentioned by Antonino is Miss Gloria Davis from Auchenflower. Mr R and Miss Gloria were married in St Stephen’s Cathedral in Brisbane on 6th May 1944.
Antonino remembers with clarity when he first met Miss Gloria. “The farmer was back. You could hear the horn of his car in the distance. His wife was with him. I had planted very beautiful flowers near the hut. I mad a bouquet of flowers. When they arrived near us… I offered flowers to his wife. He introduced us to his wife: Miss Gloria. They went home. For us the work continued. The next morning Madame served us the meal. A very nice woman. Every morning I brought wood to this woman for cooking”, speaks Antonino.
Antonino Lumia’s testimony is not only a voice from the past but also an important window into the past. Click on the above link and take a walk with Antonino through history.
HAY, NSW. 1944-01-16. ITALIAN PRISONERS OF WAR HAVING A MEAL IN THEIR MESS AT NO. 7 COMPOUND, 16TH GARRISON BATTALION PRISONER OF WAR DETENTION CAMP. PICTURED ARE: 46007 ANTONIO LUMIA (1); 45824 BRUNO GALLIZZI (2); 46734 ALMO STAGNARO (3); 48355 GIUSEPPE ARRIGONI; (4); 45087 ANTONIO BACCIGALUPO (5); 46620 MICHELE RIZZO (6); 46626 EMILIO RUOCCO (7); 46635 FRANCO RONDELLI (8); 45900 ALESSANDRO IANNOTTA (9).
(Australian War Memorial, Geoffrey McInnes Image 063371)