Prisoner of War Camp Quassassin was situated 35 kms by rail west of Ismalia on the Suez Canal; 230 kms SE of Alexandria and 74 kms from Geneifa.
On the map below, El Qassasin, Ismalia and Geneifa are identified.
One Italian prisoner of war, Leonido Tassinari and his documentation assists us in understanding the journey of Italians serving with the navy at Tobruk.
Leonido was a gunner on the San Giorgio which was stationed in Tobruk Harbour when he was ‘captured’ on 22nd January 1941.
TOBRUK HARBOUR, 1941. ITALIAN GUNNERY TRAINING SHIP SAN GIORGIO WHICH WAS REDUCED TO A WRECK BY ATTACKS OF NAVAL AIRCRAFT AND RAF BOMBERS AT TOBRUK BETWEEN 1940-06 AND JANUARY 1941. (AWM Image P00090.026)
Leonido was processed at Quassassin on 5th March 1941. His form is stamped in Geneifa Camp 15th September 1941.
On 24th September Leonida and 988 other Italian prisoners of war boarded the Queen Mary. Around this same time, 948 Italian prisoners of war boarded the Queen Elizabeth.
Elio Spandonari also served in the Italian navy at Tobruk. He wrote that from the Tobruk airfield which was used as a temporary prisoner of war compound, a group was taken to the port of Tobruk and boarded on a rusty boat. The boat landed the men in Alexandria and they were taken to a concentration camp near the sea which was guarded by Polish soldiers*. After a short stay, a group of marines were taken to a camp near Ismailia: El Quassassin (El Kassassin). Elio recalls that after many months, he was transferred to a camp close to Suez then the men in total about 2000 were transferred to the Port of Suez to be boarded on a ship: destination unknown.
“Il traghetto procedeva lentamente, però man mano la cittadina di Suez incominciava a rimpicciolirsi sino a diventare una striscia continua e incolore. Le navi ferme alle boe furono sorpassate e davanti a noi e, al di fuori di un enorme scafo poco distante non vi era più nulla, solo mare aperto.
Mai più pensavamo che quello fosse il mezzo destinato a trasportarci verso la destinazione che finalmente ci avevano comunicato: Australia, terra così lontana. Altre incognite, si andava verso posti sconosciuti…
Quel grande scafo con tre grossi fumaioli con una grande ‘C’ (Cunard Line) era la nave destinata al nostro trasporto. Era la Queen Mary, allora il più grande transatlantico del mondo, stazza 80000 tonnellate, una montagna di acciaio.” (from Diario per Laura by Elio Spandonari)
Together, Tassinari’s documents and Spandonari’s testimony provide a timeline from capture at Tobruk Libya to arrival at Cowra Prisoner of War Camp Australia.
Port Tewfik was where the Italians boarded a ferry to be taken to the Queen Mary. The Queen Mary departed Suez on the 24th September 1941. It arrived in Ceylon at Trincomalee, a deep-water harbour on 1st October 1941. On the 7th October 1941, the Queen Mary sailed into Fremantle Harbour Western Australia. Coming in through Sydney Heads and sailing under the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the Queen Mary disembarked her passengers on the 13th October 1941.
On the 14th October 1941, the first residents of Cowra Prisoner of War Camp arrived.
The Italian prisoners of war on the Queen Elizabeth arrived in Sydney on the 15th October 1941 and ‘marched in’ to Cowra Camp 16th October 1941.
1st November 1941 Cowra PW Camp 12 Section D (ICRC V-P-HIST-01879-25)
Elio Spandonari, Ippolito Moscatelli , Leonido Tassinari Giuseppe Loprieno.
All four men served in the Italian Navy and were captured 21-22nd January 1941 at Tobruk.
There were a total of 339 marines from Tobruk on board the Queen Mary’s voyage to Australia in October 1941. It was almost nine months from the time the marines were captured to their arrival in Australia.
*Polish Independent Carpathian Brigade – a group of Polish soldiers, trained by the British in Latrun Palestine; they assisted the Australians and British during the Siege of Tobruk April 1941- December 1941.