Tag Archives: Prigionieri di guerra italiani in Australia

The Big Picture: 1943

A question often raised is: ‘Why were Italian prisoners of war sent to Australia?’

Statistics aid in an understanding of the global situation in May 1943: Italian casualties numbered 400,000. ‘And the figures for the North African campaign were not completed yet.’

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1943 ‘EMPIRE CASUALTIES.’, The Port Macquarie News and Hastings River Advocate (NSW : 1882 – 1950), 22 May, p. 2. , viewed 08 Aug 2019, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article106048757

The question becomes then, ‘What do the Allies do with these Italian prisoners of war?’  accommodation, food, water, sanitation, clothing, interpreters, guards, short term strategies and long term strategies….

In a SECRET War Cabinet Agendum 10th September 1943, titled, Prisoners of War. Responsibility and Accommodation, the situation is presented:

  • By 1st January 1944, America will have accommodation for 250,00 prisoners.  By 1st July 1944, the figure will be increased by 100,000.
  • Approximate nubmers of prisoners held various, particularly Empire:-

United Kingdom 76,700; Canada 23,500; Australia 7,100; New Zealand 800; South Africa 49,000; India 67,000; Middle East 71,000; East Africa  60,000; West Africa  600; Persia/Iraq  1,200; Jamaica  600; Caribbean  600.

Camp Food: November 1941

A common memory that Queenslanders have about their Italian prisoners of war focuses on food: a dislike for pumpkin, considered in Italy to be livestock food; a love of watermelon; dislike for bread and butter pudding; relishing bacon and eggs; a yearning for spaghetti; learning how to twirl spaghetti with a fork and spoon; the copper full of spaghetti; hand made spaghetti; rabbit stew. Doug Wilson, once the Italians left his parents’ farm at Lagoon Pocket, refused to eat spaghetti and to this day does not eat pasta.  He ate ‘far too much spaghetti’ during those war years.

Fullerton.Glasshouse Mtns.jpeg

Fullerton Pumpkin Crop 1947 Glasshouse Mountains

(photo courtesy of Yvonne Derrington[Fullerton])

Jim Fullerton from Glasshouse Mountains sent this photo to Paolo Santoro in 1947. It explains a little about the Italians’ views on what was put on the Aussie dinner plate.  Paolo replied in his letter of 25th December 1947, “I told them some good story you know, about the pumpkins, you had a good crop, but you know I don’t like to [too] much to eat them.”

The diet of the Italian was very different from the good old Aussie meat and 3 veg.  Theirs was a diet of little meat, pulses, pasta, rice and vegetables of the season.

This difference is explained in an extract from We Never Forgot Domenico. Thea Beswick [Robinson] recalls:

“There was one young man, Domenico, who understood a little English so he became the spokesperson for the men.  The first hurdle was the food.  Copious
amounts of meat, eggs and milk, potatoes and pumpkin were served.
Domenico approached Dad and said the men were sick, ‘Too much meat.
We need pasta.” Of course pasta and rice were not available during war
time so Mum had to come up with a more varied meal plan.  I think a
few of the chooks may have ended up in a pot and an effort was made to
catch fish from the river.”

The menu below is from November 1941 for Cowra Prisoner of War Camp.  The camp appears to have been provisioned according to those for Australia armed forces as the diet is overloaded with meat and mashed potatoes.  The daily ration for 100 men for Tuesday was 150 lbs beef, 95 lbs potatoes, 40 lbs cabbage…

The camp cooks were Italians and I am sure they would have been scratching their heads as to how to use the daily rations. The cooks would have been grateful for such generous supplies and so set to, to utilise all produce provided.  With five meals on offer a day, the POWs would have felt that they spent most of their day eating. After meagre rations as soldiers in Libya, the abundance of food must have seemed like ‘food heaven’. No longer were they eating one month old bread scraps and tinned bully beef.

This menu also makes sense of something Nino Cipolla said about his dad Ciccio Cipolla who spent time in both Hay and Cowra Camps.  Nino said, “When I saw the photo of my father which was taken at Cowra Camp, this was the heaviest he weighed in his life!”  And no wonder, after having to eat 1 lb of potatoes a day.

A newspaper report from November 1942, supports Nino’s observation, “Italian prisoners-of-war in camps in south NSW have gained on an average nearly a stone in weight since they reached Australia.” (Western Mail, 12 November 1942 page 8).  Another reason for the weight gain would have been the sedentary life and idleness associated with life in a POW camp.

However by July 1943, weekly provisions for 100 men show a considerable change away from meat, potatoes and cabbage as it now included rice, spaghetti, split peas, prunes, puree tomatoes, vinegar, oil, an increase in bread rations, a decrease in meat rations. By this time, Italian prisoners of war at Cowra Camp had 140 acres under cultivation, growing primarily crops for their own use.

Menu for Cowra Camp 10th November to 16th November 1941

Cowra Menu 1941

Cowra 1941 – A Snapshot

Cowra is probably the most recognised Prisoner of War and Internment Camp due the memory and history of the  Japanese outbreak in 5th August 1944.

For many Italian families who find the word Cowra on the Service Card of their relative, it is also a name they remember from the stories their fathers and grandfathers told them.

A little of Cowra’s establishment and history….

The first prisoners of war to be accommodated at Cowra Prisoner of War and Internment Camp arrived in camp on 14th October 1941. While the camp has been established in June 1941, facilities had to be put in place before the first intake’s arrival.

On 11th and 12th November 1941, an independent international delegate visited the Cowra Camp to inspect the conditions and make his report.  This report offers a unique snapshot into Cowra Camp life and the Italian prisoners of war residing there.

Cowra Camp was divided into four groups: Camp A, Camp B, Camp C and Camp D.  Only Camp C and Camp D were in operation in November 1941.

The group of Italian prisoners of war consisted of 964 – Army, 367- Navy, 1 – Airforce, 453 Health Personnel (medics, doctors, orderlies), 3 – priests = 1788.

Daily routine

Cowra November 1941 Daily Routine

With the camp still in its construction phase, barracks with galvanised sheeting and windows had been constructed for the following purposes: dining room, detention block, ablutions, toilets, laundry, administration, kitchens, infirmary  and canteen.

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Cowra November 1941 Camp C: Ablutions

Until barracks were constructed for dormitories, the Italians lived in tents. The tents sat atop  a base of wooden planks with impermeable canvas separating the mattress and floor and also used for sides and roof. A mattress and three covers were provided for each man.  The tents slept six men and they were swept daily and three times a week cleaned with soap.

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Cowra November 1941 Camp D: Tents

Camp Leaders were assigned for Camp C and Camp D. Camp C: Sgt Major Ugo Porta (Medical), Sgt Major Alfonso Angeli (Combatant).  Camp D: Sgt Major Giovanni Fimiani (Combatant). The two camps were separated by a barbed wire fence and contact between camps was not allowed. Each tent had a tent leader and each group of 28 tents had a company leader assigned.

There were four refectories for each camp, with each refectory set up for 250 men.  They were furnished with long tables and bench seats.

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Cowra November 1941 Camp D: Dining Hall

The canteen was well provisioned with items available for purchase such as food, treats, chocolate, condensed milk, jams.  The men were issued with coupons to use at the canteen.

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Cowra November 1941 Camp C: Canteen

The Italian prisoners of war were offered work outside the camp eg building roads, irrigation and collecting wood or inside the camp eg as butchers, barbers, tailors, cooks.

The men also kept busy building a chapel, altar and making musical instruments such as guitars, violins, tambourines and cymbals. A school barracks had been built but classes were yet to be set up, but would offer a range of courses.

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Cowra November 1941 Camp D: Orchestra

Both camps had a sports ground where football and handball was played.  New sport and gym equipment consisted of footballs, basket balls, medicine balls.  Camp C established a marionette theatre while Camp D set up an orchestra with 12 musicians.

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Cowra November 1941: The Play of Handball

Rapport between the garrison soldiers and officers was reported to be cordial, treatment of the Italian prisoners of war excellent.  In general, the Italians did not know English, but Australian military interpreters are attached to each camp.  Each morning at inspection, Camp Leaders present their requests to the Commandant of each camp.

A number of requests made by the Italian POWs were noted: purchase of harmonium for church services, books to start a library, daily newspapers, gramophone and records eg lessons in Italian/English, purchase of indoor games eg cards, chess, checkers,  transfer of money relinquished in Egypt to Australian accounts.

Objections were made regarding the burgundy colour of their clothes.

Most importantly, the Italian prisoners of war expressed their concerns for their families as they wait anxiously for news from Italy. 

 

Hay PW & I Camp

Hay Prisoner of War and Internment Camp was built in July 1940 at the location of the Hay Racecourse, Show Grounds and Recreation Reserve. The first residents were Italian and German internees from Britain who arrived in September 1940.

No 7

HAY, NSW. 1944-01-14. VIEW OF NO. 7 COMPOUND, 16TH GARRISON BATTALION PRISONER OF WAR DETENTION CAMP TAKEN FROM THE SOUTH GUARD TOWER OF NO. 8 COMPOUND. (AWM Image 063213 Photographer Geoffrey McInnes)

Initially planned for 2 compounds each accommodating 1000, this was extended to 3 compounds: Camp 6, Camp 7 and Camp 8. In March 1943, Camp 6 residents were Japanese internees, Camp 7 residents were Italian POWs and Camp 8 residents were also Italian POWs. There were three labour detatchments drawn from Camp 7 and Camp 8: Yanco (NSW), Toogimie (NSW) and Cook (SA). Yanco was a vegetable production project, Toobimie (and later Riley’s Bend) was a firewood procurement satellite camp with Cook being a railways re-sleeping project and firewood production.

No 8

HAY, NSW. 1944-01-14. NO. 8 COMPOUND OF THE 16TH GARRISON BATTALION PRISONER OF WAR DETENTION CAMP. IN THE LEFT FOREGROUND ARE THE ADMINISTRATION AND ORDERLY ROOM OF THE HEADQUARTERS 16TH GARRISON BATTALION. (AWM Image 063208 Photographer Geoffrey McInnes)

The internees began departure from Hay PW & I Camp on 25th May 1941 to make way for the Italian prisoners of war who had arrived on the Queen Mary into Sydney on 27th May. The article below from  29th May 1941 discusses this change in Hay Camp residents.


On 20th July 1942, the Hay Camp was described as a “Model Prisoner of War Camp” where, “The men have made their own roads, erected their own pumping plants and fences, and laid down their own irrigation channels and sewerage. They have made their
own bricks, and built a modern dairy.”

In time,  Italian POWs were replaced by Japanese POWs. Some 2000 Japanese POWs left Hay 1st March 1946 to make way for the return of the Italians POWs. Italian POWs were being withdrawn from farm service and brought back into camps.

Queensland  Italian prisoners of war from all centres excluding Q8 Kingaroy left Gaythorne PW & I Camp for Hay on 18th and 25th March 1946. 

Hay PW & I Camp closed on 28th October 1946. The Italian POWs were then transferred to Cowra PW & I Camp in preparation for repatriation. In Novemeber 1946, a comprehensive article was written by A.J.T. Hay Prisoner of War Camp Some Reflections

 

 

Hay Statues

HAY, NSW. 1944-01-16. THE CRAFTSMANSHIP OF THE ITALIAN PRISONERS OF WAR IS ILLUSTRATED BY THIS GARDEN AT THE 16TH GARRISON BATTALION PRISONER OF WAR DETENTION CAMP. NOTE THE MODEL OF THE COLISEUM IN THE FOREGROUND. (AWM Image 063365 Photographer Geoffrey McInnes)

In March 1947, the buildings and property of Hay PW & I Camp were advertised for auction: The Commonwealth Disposals Commission will offer buildings and cooking, kitchen, and laundry equipment, as well as a considerable quantity of miscellaneous camp equipment, at an auction sale to be conducted at the P.O.W. Camp, Hay, from June 17 to 20. The buildings are mainly of rusticated weatherboard, with corrugated asbestos cement roofs. The Land: Disposal Sale of Hay P.O.W.

 

Wide Variety of Uniforms

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Photos are from the Australian War Memorial Collection taken at Cowra and Murchison 1944-1945

On 16th August 1941, the second transport of Italian prisoners of war arrived in Sydney on board the Queen Mary.  What caught the attention of the press was the odd assortment of clothing that the Italians wore.  There were 817 Italian prisoners of war consisting of 405 officers and 412 ordinary ranks.  German prisoners of war also arrived into Australia on this transport.

Italians Down Under is a newsreel film taken in 1941. Watch this clip as Italian prisoners of war alight from a Sydney ferry onto the wharf and then step onto trains.

Italian POW Rossi Pith Helmet

Italo Rossi M/E 68057 Photo taken in India

 

BIG BATCH OF ITALIAN WAR PRISONERS HERE

WIDE VARIETY OF UNIFORMS

from Sun (Sydney, NSW: 1910-1954), Saturday 16 August 1941, page 3

Clad in an amazing variety of uniforms and headgear, a big batch of Italian prisoners of war – officers, N.C.O.’s and other ranks – has arrived in Sydney.

The party presented a remarkable contrast to that which arrived a few months ago.

Many to-day were in high spirits, and their demeanour indicated that they were not at all reluctant to ‘take up residence’ on Australian soil.

Several laughed and joked as they boarded the train that was to take them to their internment camp. Two defiantly gave the Fascist salute.

All of the first party to land were officers and among them were several airmen and one wearing dark blue naval uniform.

Sartorial honours went to a tall Italian who walked nonchalantly along the wharf clad in a sweeping dark blue cloak with scarlet lining and frogs.

An Alpini wore a slouch Tyrolean hat with a long feather and a grey well-cut uniform with thick woollen socks.

QM August 1941 Italian POWs

Headgear ranged from orthodox military caps to pith helmets and from blue woollen berets to improvised black felt skull caps.  Some retained traces of smartness in high-fronted peak caps of the Nazi types.

Taste in knee boots inclined towards the exotic in some instances. One officer wore gaiter-like coverings on his legs of a beige tint.

Knickers and Sandshoes

At the other end of the scale was an Italian in plain grey knickerbockers with white sandshoes.  Two wore dark eyeshades.

Mufflers ran the gamut of the colour range contrasting strangely with battered pith helmets and war-stained uniforms.

Many of the prisoners grinned cheerfully at cameramen but one was camera-shy.

He walked the full distance from the disembarkation point to the waiting train with a cardboard carton draped around his head and shoulders.

On the wharf was a high pile of luggage.  The Italians had come well prepared for their stay in Australia.  Several portmanteau and tarpaulin sheets covering them were camouflaged.

The rangers carried blankets and tin panikins.  A number were only youngsters.

QM August 1941 Italian POW

Several carried improvised draught boards and two started a game with pieces cut from a broom handle.

Medical Precautions

Exhaustive precautions to guard against the prisoners bringing dysentery to Australia were taken before the ship arrived.  Medical officers went aboard and carefully examined the medical history of every prisoner.

Elaborate arrangements had been made to have the men quarantined if this had been found necessary.

The Army Director-General of Hygiene made a special trip to Sydney to study the health situation before the prisoners landed.  Arrangements were made for the prisoners to be given meals on the train and they were accompanied by their own medical officers, as well as by Australian army medical men.

Panniers of medical stores were taken on the train to guard against illness on the journey.

Half a dozen of the prisoners who were ill were taken direct from the wharf to an ambulance and then to hospital.

Italian POW Hospital Queen Mary 1941

The photo below was taken in summer at Cowra. It shows the men some two and half years later and the odd assortment of clothing they wore.  Footwear consisted of sandals (possibly hand made), boots and high boots.  Clothing varied with tee shirts, buttoned shirts and safari suit tops of various colours being part of the Italians’ wardrobes.

Ippolito 3917517

Cowra, NSW. 6 February 1944. Group of Italian prisoners of war (POWs) interned at No. 12 POW Group. Back row, left to right: 49115 C. Trentino; 49354 G. Ippolito; 49592 A. Poggi; 49107 G. Zunino; 48833 R. Bartoli; 49212 R. Papini; 48863 S. De Micco. Front row: 48939 A. Leto; 49172 A. Mandrini; 57531 B. Protano; 49923 F. Carlone; 45196 A. Ciofani. Note: The number is an assigned POW number.

(Australia War Memorial: Geoffrey McInnes, Image 030173/11)

Red Uniforms

Magenta Dyed Army Issue

Italian POW uniform Red

Dark red shoulder strap with a button hole at the end. The button hole and the edges of the strap have been reinforced with khaki cotton.

(Australian War Memorial: ID number REL32594)

A predominant memory, if little else is remembered, is that the Italian prisoners of war were dressed in red.  A number of hues are recalled: red, burgundy, maroon, claret, pink and orange but the official term was ‘magenta’.

The colour was conspicuous, to make POWs stand out in a crowd.  POWs and internees were dealt the same humiliation: army issue clothing which had been dyed magenta.

The Italian prisoners of war objected against the dyeing of their clothes ‘burgundy’ but authorities responded with a practical answer… it was the only colour that could dye khaki.

The above shoulder strap is a remnant of one such POW magenta-dyed army issue, held in the heraldry collection of the Australia War Memorial. Its description is as follows:

“This shoulder strap was part of a scrap book put together by Eastern Command Salvage and Recovery Section in the early 1940s. The strap is taken from a uniform jacket issued to enemy prisoners of war and civilian internees held in Australian camps during the Second World War. The Salvage and Recovery Section were responsible for collecting and repairing unserviceable Australian army khaki uniforms, repairing them, and dying them the distinctive maroon that was required uniform for enemy prisoners of war. It was found that the section could carry out the work for far less cost than a civilian contractor.

Until 1942 there were not enough surplus uniforms available for dying and issue to prisoners of war or internees. Internees were required to bring their own clothing into camp and prisoners wore the uniforms in which they had been captured supplemented by civilian issue clothing.

From 1942 both groups were required to wear the distinctive red issue clothing, which was produced in both uniform and civilian styles. Generally speaking, prisoners of war were allowed to retain their own national headdress until it wore out. The compulsory wearing of red clothing by civilian internees varied from camp to camp and seems to have been at the camp commandants’ discretion. Many commandants found that civilian internees worked better when allowed to wear their own clothes, but others insisted they wear red as the prisoners of war were required to do”.

Another reference and more personal reference to the clothing is from internee, Peter Dalseno who wrote the following in Sugar, Tears and Eyeties:

“The officer signalled him on to the next table where he was allotted one overcoat, two shirts and two pairs of trousers – dyed a rich burgundy hue not dissimilar to wine aging in casks.  The name tags affixed to the garments – the property of previous soldiers – had not been obliterated…. Then came the pair of singlets, longjohns and socks and army boots that carried no name tags but showed signs of considerable wear”.

From the Australia War Memorial also comes the photos below.  Italian internees at Loveday dyed their uniforms and Army staff working at 3rd Salvage Depot are photographed dyeing salvage uniforms which were possibly used for the Italian POWs.

Loveday Uniforms 4087605

Loveday, Australia. 11 March 1943. An Italian internee at No. 9 Camp, Loveday Internment Group, at work dyeing clothing for issue to internees. This clothing is discarded Australian uniforms, cleaned, repaired and now dyed a burgundy colour.

(AWM Image 030198/09 Halmarick, Colin Thomas)

Uniforms 3887249

FISHERMENS BEND, VIC. 1944-02-02. V290231 PRIVATE T. A. MCDERMOTT (1) AND V325800 CORPORAL T.B. CUMMINS (2) OF THE CLOTHING AND DYING SECTION, 3RD SALVAGE DEPOT REMOVING HATS FROM A TROUGH OF DYE.

(AWM Image 063720 Rogers, MB)

The first 2000 Italian POWs

The first 2016* Italian prisoners of war arrived in Australia on the Queen Mary 25th May 1941.  The Queen Mary had been the jewel in Cunard White Star Line between wars making voyages across the Atlantic. Catering for 2332 passengers, the Queen Mary was berthed in New York at the start of hostilities.  The Queen Elizabeth joined her in New York before both ships were sent to Australia for use as troop transport ships.  On the return journey to Australia, Italian and German prisoners of war were embarked in the Middle East. The Queen Mary brought Italian POWs to Australia on three occasions during 1941, as did the Queen Elizabeth.  Military record cards use the reference “Q.M.” and “Q.E.”

With the entry of the USA into the war at the end of 1941, the Magnificent Queens: the Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth were re-routed as  transports for American troops. They would transport between 12,000 to 15,000 armed personnel on these voyages.

The newspaper article below describes the arrival of Australia’s first 2016 Italian prisoners of war and the circumstances of their arrival.

Queen Mary Bunks

Queen Mary: The Swimming pool is now a troops sector, with tiers of bunks for men

(from the Imperial War Museum: Coote, RGG (Lt) Image A25931)

ITALIAN PRISONERS

2000 Arrive in Sydney

INLAND INTERNMENT CAMP

first

(photo from Mercury (Hobart, Tas.: 1860 – 1954), Thursday 29 May 1941, page 1)

Sydney, May 26,- A large shipment of 2000 Italian prisoners of war captured in Libya has arrived in Sydney and the first trainload of about 500 have been sent off to an inland internment camp in New South Wales.

Unimpressive physically, wearing a nondescript mixture of  garments in which the greenish-grey Italian field uniform predominated, the prisoners were brought ashore by ferry and immediately issued with A.I.F. greatcoats, relics of the war of 1914-1918, which have been dyed a burgundy colour. At the prison camp they will be dressed completely in wool uniforms of this colour, which is so conspicuous that it should act as a strong deterrent against attempts to escape.

There was no sign yesterday, however of any wish among the prisoners to cause trouble.  Overshadowed by their Australian guards, they trooped ashore quietly with few smiles and only a little quiet talk among themselves.  Some scowled as press photographs were taken.  The ship guards described their behaviour on the voyage was docile.

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(photo from The Courier Mail (Brisbane, Qld.: 1933-1954) Wednesday 28 May 1941, page 3)

Before they were disembarked, a number of them sought the senior officer and asked if they could not be allowed to stay and work until the end of the war on the ship, which has been engaged as a transport carrying Australian troops overseas.  Their offer was not accepted. On the voyage out, much of the scullery work was done by the prisoners, who also waited on the members of the A.I.F. who were returning after being wounded.

The only officers among the prisoners ware five medical officers and a priest.  one of the doctors was a distinguished surgeon in Italy, a professor of surgery at the University of Turin.  A doctor who came ashore yesterday was wearing black field boots, green-grey breeches and a khaki drill tunic with the gold braid insignia of a captain’s rank on his shoulder straps, three stars below a larger star, the device giving a general effect more like the shoulder badges worn by a brigadier in the British forces.  His batman followed him ashore laden with the baggage of both and wearing Red Cross arm and cap badges.

None of the prisoners speak English, but the medical officers almost all speak some French.  Corporal Craig, of the Eastern Command Records Staff, who speaks Italian, French and Greek, acted as the military interpreter.  After serving in the first A.I.F., he lived for nearly 20 years in Alexandria and spent a period in Italy in the service of an American motor firm, who established tractor assembly works there.

The medical captain, who came from Piedmont, explained through the interpreter that he was a civilian who had been called up from the reserve for service.  he had been in Libya eight months before he was taken prisoner.  When asked by an Australian officer what he thought of Australia, he replied briefly: “No opinion”. Then he smiled wryly and added, “Very nice, but I am a prisoner.” He said that the average age of the prisoners would be 24 or 25. They looked younger.  Most of them came from Southern Italy, though a few were taller men who looked though they might have come from the north.

Half a dozen wore sailors’ uniforms, but it was explained that they were not necessarily naval men as they used any clothes they could get hold of.  A number were in shorts.  There were several tropical helmets, one with Tobruk and Bardia painted on it.

As they filed ashore from the ferry in a double line between military police guards with fixed bayonets, they were handed their burgundy coloured coasts and a tin mug each.  A packet meal supplied by the railway refreshment service was given to them on the train.

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(photo from Telegraph (Brisbane, Qld.: 1872-1947), Tuesday 27 May 1941, page 9)

An assortment of moustaches and many beards, including one black spade Balbo model, adorned the swarthy faces, many of which looked as though their owners might have come from Alexandria or Port Said, rather than from Italy.  They carried untidy packs containing their belongings.  One man, when offered a burgundy coloured greatcoat, proudly gestured towards his pack to show that he already had a coat, an Italian model.  he looked puzzled as he walked on carrying his distinctive Australian garment.

All the prisoners were medically examined with great care before being sent ashore.  The official instruction is that anyone with any sign of infectious disease is to be quarantined rigorously to guard against the introduction of epidemic diseased from the Middle East.

(Kalgoorlie Mine (WA: 1895-1950), Wednesday 28 May 1941, page 1)

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(photo from Telegraph (Brisbane, Qld.: 1872-1947), Friday 30 May 1941, page 7)

*Nominal Roll for the Queen Mary identify 2016 Italian POWs.  Other sources record 2006 and the newspapers rounded off the numbers to 2000.