Life goes a little more quietly now for Angelo but a morning spent with him showed that he is a keen and animated story teller and willing to talk about some of his experiences as an Italian soldier in Libya, his treatment as a prisoner of war and his memories of incidents in Cowra and Q1 PWCC Stanthorpe.
What I learnt from Angelo was not only details of his journey as a prisoner of war. With a wily wisdom and experience that comes with being 100 years old, Angelo gave me much more than facts. I found out about determination, endurance and perspective. A youth stolen from him by war. Starvation and deprivation as a Mussolini soldier. Prejudice experienced as a migrant family in the 1950s. Success with hard work. Strong family connections. A proud legacy.
Carmel Peck (Dywer) from Boonah told me that her family’s Italian POWs enriched their lives. This reflection holds true on so many levels and for so many Queensland families who welcomed the Italian POWs.
After interviewing Angelo in September 2017, I can honestly and humbly say that Angelo Valiante has enriched my life.
We lived on a farm 35 mile outside of West Wyalong, New South Wales. I would have been eight years old when Ernesto Armati and Angelo Airoldi came to stay with us. They became part of our family and to this day, I am in contact with their families.
Ernesto and Rosa Armati (married 1 January 1948)
Dad had sheep, wheat, pigs and milkers on the farm and the Italians did a lot of work around the farm. They built chook yards, dams and horse yards and I suppose general farm work.
They lived in a hut built for them which was basic. They ate with the family and became like brothers. We had a big dining room table and they would jostle and joke with us kids and try to push us off the bench seats we sat on. They cooked pasta meals for us. Watching them ride horses was funny and they would sometimes have a bit of a race. The closest church was 12 miles away and Dad bought a green and blue bike for them so that they could go to church. My sister was very upset because Dad never bought her a bike. Both Ernesto and Angelo had fiances in Italy and upon return were married: Ernesto to Rosa 1 January 1948 and Angelo to Angelina October 1947.
I clearly remember the canteen truck visiting the farm. They would get their cigarettes : three threes, brylcream, shaving cream stick and razors.
They had come to Australia on board “Mariposa” and arrived at Melbourne. They were then transported in open cattle trucks to Cowra.
Dad was a staunch Methodist: no smoking, no drinking but Dad made exceptions for Angelo and Ernesto. Dad brought in a big barrel for them and they used the table grapes to make grappa. They did it by stomping the grapes with their feet which became purple.
We cried when they left. I don’t know why they didn’t leave the POWs on the farms until they were taken back home, but they had to wait a long time in the POWs camps and it would have been better for them to stay with us.
Dad kept in contact with them over the years and when I was in my twenties I went to Italy for the Olympics: 1960. Dad encouraged me to go visit Ernesto and Angelo which felt awkward because 15 years had passed since I last saw them. They welcomed me into their homes with open arms. Lavish meals were prepared and eaten and I was taken around and shown the sites. I travelled a little of Europe and then returned to spend Christmas with them.
Angelo and Angelina Airoldi and family Bagnatica 1960
Years later, Ernesto’s granddaughter came to Sydney for her honeymoon. I felt very privileged to take her and her husband around for 5 weeks showing them the sights.
World War 2 affected Australians directly in many ways. We had rationing of essentials such as petrol, food items and clothing. There were numerous attacks on our shores: Darwin, Townsville and Mossman. Children of the time remember air raids, air raid shelters and drills, reduced school hours or doing lessons by correspondence.
For Italians living in invaded and bombed areas of Italy, life was one of deprivation. Food shortages, roads and railways destroyed, rumble littered streets, disappearance of residential areas and displacement of people.
A young boy, dressed in tattered clothes and bearing a poignant smile, in war-torn Naples Italy July 1944. Photo by Lt Wayne Miller
A Western Australian farmer who had employed Italian POWs wrote to the Western Mail, encouraging other Australians to send parcels to their Italian POW families and explaining their circumstances.
Helping former P.O.W. farm workers
… I have been sending frequent parcels to an Italian P.O.W. who worked for us…
Many farmers in this State were appreciative of the help given by prisoners of war during a period when labour was scare and I am sure that if they knew the tragedy of these men’s lives on their return to Italy many farmers would gladly send assistance to them now.
Most of the parcels take as long as six months to reach Italy and the quickest delivery of all those that I have sent was just over three months. Two parcels I posted in April reached Naples at the end of October. Our G.P.O. informed me that there are three groups of parcels, namely food, toilet articles and clothing and these goods must not be mixed. Clothing must we secondhand or if new duty must be paid by the receiver in Italy. Toilet articles can include soap, shaving gear, toothbrushes etc and food which seems to be the most appreciated is spaghetti in tins, vermicelli, baked beans, milk and jam, dipping, dried fruits, tinned cheese and tinned meat. Clothing is very badly needed as the winter is commencing in Italy and clothing of all kinds is very scarce.
Girl holding a toddler, Naples, Italy 1944. Photo by Lt Wayne Miller
My P.O.W.s family had not seen toilet soap for five years until they received my parcel and they had not had an egg for three years. Incidentally they consider themselves among the more fortunate Italians despite the fact that they often receive only one meal a day.
The weights of parcels can be 3, 7 or 11 lb. each including the wrappings. I pack mine in light cartons and sew them up in unbleached calico and so far they have arrived in good condition. The 7lb. parcel seems to be the best size.
(Western Mail (Perth, WA: 1885-1954), Thursday 27 November 1947, page 67)
In 1946, in Italy, children carry rocks from a war destroyed building to help rebuild their town. UNICEF/Romagnoli
A trainee nurse, Irma Vettovalli was working at the Ayr General Hospital during 1944 and 1945 when Italian prisoners of war from Q6 Home Hill Hostel were admitted to the hospital. While the military rule was that Italian prisoners of war were not to fraternise with women, Irma was not about to let military regulations get in the way of her nursing duties.
Trainee Nurse: Irma Vettovalli
(photo courtesy of Pina Vettovalli)
Agostino Leto was admitted to the hospital for chronic appendicitis 29th May 1944. The story goes that the senior doctor at the hospital refused to operate on a prisoner of war, but the junior doctor, Dr Kelly had no hesitation in acting according to the ethical obligations of his profession.
Once he was admitted to the ward, Irma Vettovalli, realising Agostino had little English, went out of her way to speak with this patient. The Matron ordered Irma to cease her contact with this prisoner and under no circumstance was she to talk to or nurse Agostino again. A plucky 18-year-old, Irma offered her resignation to Dr Kelly, without reason. Upon questioning Irma, Dr Kelly identified the issue and told Irma to continue as before.
Agostino spent one month at the Ayr Hospital before returning to Q6 Hostel on 29th June 1944 but he did not return home to Prizzi Italy until January 1947. Upon his return to Italy, his recount of his one month hospital stay to his mother, prompted her to write a letter to Irma. Irma’s care and ability to speak Italian, was remembered and retold with great affection and appreciation by Agostino.
“Prizzi 20 February 1947
Gentilissima Signorina Irma,
…As a mum it softened by heart and I feel an ache in which I must thank you through this sheet of paper. I hope you accept my poor letter writing… [my son] says that yours [your visits] as a nurse were special. He found you and only you will remain in my heart and you will be unforgettable to my dear son. I wish that I could see you in person so I can tell you all that my poor heart feels, that I cannot put on paper.
And so my most gracious Miss, this is a small token of my esteem and from all my family to pass on to your dear ones. I wish you good fortune and every kind of good. Consider me your unknown friend. Rosa Leto.”
Mail from Rosa Leto to Irma Vettovalli
(photo courtesy of Pina Vettovalli)
Held in high regard, Dr Kelly, the medical superintendent wrote in December 1945, “she [Irma] gave eminent satisfaction, on account of her obedience, application to duty and intelligence.”
In 1992, Irma Vettovalli (now Mrs Irma Pane) received an award from the Alpini and Friends Group “expressing their profound gratitude for Irma’s ‘Noble gesture of Human Dedication for Italian Prisoners of War recuperating in hospital during the war period’.”
Irma wrote about those times, “Because of my dedication to Nursing in Ayr, I came in contact with people from all walks of life, colour and creed and having had respect and compassion for all during their illness, I too gained their respect. Re- the war years, on some occasions only the ignorant would make hurtful remarks…”
Those war years were complicated years for Irma’s family. Enrico Vettovalli, Irma’s father, was interned in February 1942 and sent to Gaythorne for processing and then to Loveday Internment Camp. He was a naturalised British Subject and had been resident in Australia since March 1922. Enrico was interned until May 1943 when he was released to work for Manpower SA. In November 1943, he returned to Queensland.
Adding to the complexity of war, Irma’s brother Donato had in January 1942, been called to duty in the Australian Army. He was released for discharge in May 1945. Born in Italy, he was three years old when he migrated to Australia with his mother 1924.
Agostino Leto is seated first on the left.
Cowra, NSW. 6 February 1944. Group of Italian prisoners of war 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. (Australian War Memorial Image 030173/11)
LG Hoey, a journalist wrote a series of informative articles about the Italian prisoners of war in Western Australia. On 12 January 1947, he wrote: Anthony in Adversity and included the photo below of one Italian eating dinner with two little girls.
Anthony in Adversity captures the essence of this history providing stories of Italians and their farm experiences. Click on the link to read about some of these men:
the artist who was grief stricken as his hands became coarse and rough with farm work;
the hairdresser whose farm work was disrupted because the women of the district become his customers;
the tailor who made a suit for his farmer and yet the farmer still complained;
the farmer who was going to return his POWs until he found out one was a chef and one a dressmaker;
the Italian who was left in charge of the farm when the farmer went on holidays and disasters struck.
And then there is the story about Anthony: Antonio [Tony] was obsessed with washing, or so his boss said, and on many occasions the farmer had threatened to give Tony the “sack” [terminate his employment].
When the journalist asked Tony about his capture, Tony replied, “It was in Abyssinia. One day I felt very happy, so I went to the river and do some washing. I wash a little, then a voice say, ‘come’. I look around and 2 very big Indiani there with a knife. I say, ‘I come’, and I come.”
LG Hoey capably sums up this history: when Australian farmers and Italian prisoners of war were thrown together into new and strange situations and learnt to adapt.
NB The Burgundy Parade is in reference to the burgundy coloured uniforms that the Italian prisoners of war were given to wear in Australia. The official colour was magenta but these red uniforms were loathed by the Italians for obvious reasons.
Alcide Stucchi arrived in Naples in January 1947. Over seventy five years later, I spent a beautiful spring day in Milan with Miriam Stucchi. We talked about her father’s memories, photos and a button and did a little sightseeing.
Miriam told me that she has a memory from her childhood of a button from her father’s Australian prisoner of war jacket. The button was memorable because of the map of Australia on the button. Miriam remembered that this Australian button was in a coffee tin with hundreds of other ordinary buttons, but she reflected that over the years it had been lost.
Alcide Stucchi had told his daughters that besides a few photos, this was the only souvenir he saved from the inspections when he arrived at Naples.
It is interesting to note that Alcide was one of 115 Italian prisoners of war transferred from Murchison Camp Victoria to Adelaide South Australia to board the Moreton Bay.
This was the first batch from Victoria (apart from Andes) to be repatriated. The total group included 41 officers and 733 other ranks. Accompanying the Italians were Captain F.E.R. Kafehagen and Roman Catholic Chaplin F.J. Conlan. At Fremantle, one man was taken from the ship by ambulance for xrays at Hollywood Hospital. He did not return to the ship.
Another interesting fact is that four of the Victorian prisoners of war on the Moreton Bay were men ‘whose priority repatriation was requested by the Italian authorities.’
In July 2022, I received a message from Miriam, “…at last, I found the button from my father’s jacket as a prisoner in Australia.”
Alcide Stucchi’s Australian Button
(photo courtesy of Miriam Stucchi)
Although the information below is from the Routine Orders: Repatriation Alcantara the orders were the same for each repatriation ship:
Officers will wear their uniforms
Other ranks who possess uniform will wear them. Those without uniforms will wear regulations issues [burgundy Australian uniforms].
The Australian ‘red’ uniforms were a symbol representing ‘prisoner of war’. I wonder how many Italians still had in their possession items of their Italian uniform. Possibly one of the first purchases in Naples with money received at the accommodation centre was a set of civilian clothing.
The Moreton Bay departed Adelaide on 14th December 1946. The group of prisoners of war consisted of 659 Italians from Loveday Camp South Australia together with the 115 from Murchison Camp Victoria.
On the 8th /9th January 1947 about 500 Italian prisoners of war left from No. 7 Woolloomooloo Wharf in Sydney Harbour on the Otranto. The Italians had arrived by train from Cowra with a military guard of four officers and 50 other ranks.
Pietro Gargano was disheartened to leave Australia. Pietro had married a Cowra girl, Joyce Slocombe after escaping from the camp. His wife persuaded him to give himself up and representations were made to allow Pietro to remain in Australia. Pietro returned to Australia in 1949.
Alessio Matonti [Matoni] told reporters that he had spent three years working on orchards in Orange. He left Australia with these words: “Best wishes to everybody in Australia.”
Another Italian prisoner was photographed by a journalist in Sydney.
Ladened with his personal possessions, many Italians also took home items not available in Italy such as canned food, material and boots.
A Heavily Bearded Italian Prisoner of War Boards the Otranto
[The Sydney Morning Herald January 8th 1947]
Civilian passengers who boarded the Otranto in Sydney were told by the officers that passengers would be put off the ship if they fraternised with Italian officers during the voyage. Italian officers were quartered in passenger cabins and Italian troops were isolated from passengers in troop decks. One female passenger from Sydney stated that she found the order to not fraternise was ‘most rude’. Her logic was that should an Italian officer bump into her accidently and apologise to her, she could hardly refuse to reply. Some of the 200 civilian passengers were war brides travelling to Britain.
The OC British Lieut. Col. At T McCullogh was in charge of the Italians and stated, “I fought Italians and know them. Women can find them very attractive. I will not hesitate to stop fraternisation.”
Italian officers were not allowed to attend dances on the voyage, though an eight-piece POW orchestra were engaged to play at the dances.
10th January 1947 arrived at Station Pier Melbourne from Sydney to embark a further 3000 Italian prisoners of war. About 150 friends and relatives of the POWs waited at the Station Pier gates which were locked. Australian farmers and their wives had made the journey from country Victoria to say goodbye to prisoners who had worked well on their farms for two years. It was reported that some women managed to get through to hand the prisoners parcels and take letters to mail from them.
Raffaele Caprioli had boarded the Otranto in Sydney. Suffering from appendicitis, he was carried ashore at Station Pier and transferred to 115 Heidelberg Military Hospital. He was repatriated on the Orontes on the 21st January 1947.
A group of Italian prisoners of war were photographed by a representative of the International Committee for the Red Cross, waiting to board a repatriation ship. One man’s kit bag shows his name: LALLA. There were only two Italian prisoners with the surname LALLA: Ettore Lalla, 26 years old from San Buono Chieti and Attilio Lalla, 46 years old from Liscia Chieti. Both boarded the Otranto in Melbourne.
Repatriation of Italian Prisoners of War ICRC VP-HIST-03235-24
15th January departed Fremantle F Shed
While in Fremantle Harbour it was reported that there were 3708 Italians on the Otranto, which included 21 officers. When the ship berthed, the wharf was barricaded, and the Italians POWs were kept below. Some talked through portholes to 30 Italians who came to farewell them. Otranto sailed at 1pm.
2nd February 1947 arrived at Suez
5th February 1947 arrived in Naples
Weather conditions forced the Otranto to stand off Naples Harbour until the winds abated. Gale force winds tore other ships in Naples Harbour from their moorings.
Fine War Service for Otranto
From September 1939 to August 1945, the Otranto was in ‘war service’. During that time, the ship carried 132,1919 troops, 10,076 prisoners of war and 3,181 civilians. Her first engagement carried the first Australian contingent to the United Kingdom.
On her voyage from Sydney to Italy to England in January/February 1947 she transported 523 passengers, 3708 Italian prisoners of war and an Australian guard of 46.
Today’s article is with thanks to Rocco Martino in New York. After I published the article about the Ormonde titled: Sailing Home, Rocco made his generous offer to pay for a copy of the Alcantara Nominal Rolls of Italian Prisoners of War.Thank you most sincerely Rocco on behalf of the 3321 Italian families whose fathers and grandfathers were on this ship.
There were over 20 ships which transported Italian prisoners of war from Australia to Italy but not all lists have been digitalized by the National Archives of Australia. The four main transport ships were Alcantara, Ormonde, Otranto and Orontes, sailing the end of 1946/ beginning of 1947.
The Alcantara departed Sydney on 23rd December 1946. Official military documentation records that there were 3321 Italian prisoners onboard: 77 officers and 3244 ORs.
The group of Italians were transported in six train from Cowra to Sydney where they embarked the Alcantara from Pyrmont Wharf. The event was reported in the newspapers and no doubt the Italians would have seen the humour and irony in the situation where the Italians ‘munched hard-boiled eggs, tarts and sandwiches’ while the ‘guards went without food‘. Upon arrival in Sydney, the Italians were given a mug of tea and fruit.
The Telegraph, Prisoners Eat: Guards Starve, 23 December 1946.
The Italians were allowed up to 90 lbs of personal possessions and the photo below show all manner of baggage. Some Italians had used their cash funds to buy up essential items like soap, toothpaste, clothing for their family, boots and canned food, as they already knew these items were in short supply in Italy. “Most of the Italians wore camp made felt slippers and carried one or two pairs of new boots. One in every twenty had a musical instrument, a violin, mandolin, guitar or accordion.”
Daily Advertiser, Back to Italy, 25 December 1946
The departure of the ship was held up waiting for the crew (Australian guards who no doubt went in search of food). Scheduled for a 4 pm departure, the Alcantara sailed at 6.30pm. In the article below, you can see one of the Italians enjoying his sandwich and cup of tea.
Nicola Auciello is pictured on the bottom right. He had reason to smile as he was engaged to an Australian girl. Nicola’s fiancee Muriel travelled to Italy at the end of 1947 and married Nicola in Bari in April 1948. They returned to Australia in December 1948 taking up residence on a sheep property at Wee Waa.
Each of the 3321 Italians would have their own special story. One Italian, showed the newspaper reporter a picture of his 11 year old son, who had never seen. Other Italians commented that they wanted to return to Australia and they were not looking forward to seeing ‘how bad’ the situation was in Italy.
The Sun, Italian POW’s Leave for Home, 23 December 1946
The Alcantara according to Domenico Masciulli’s testimony, arrived into Naples on 22nd January 1947.
Take the time to read through the lists of Italians. You will find men from your village or town; and men who were born in USA, Brazil, Argentina, France, Libya, Switzerland and Scotland.
This is an invaluable document and while looking through the names in the lists, it is difficult not to feel a definite sense of certainty: these men: brothers, fathers, grandfathers and sons were finally going home.
Many a name on the list is familiar to me; I have had contact with their families or spoken with their Australian farming families. I have seen their life through photos: after they returned home, on their wedding day, with their children. And you have been introduced to them through the articles on this website: Domenico Petruzzi, Domenico Masciulli, Francesco (Ciccio) Cipolla, Stefano Lucantoni, Angelo Amante, Angelo Valiante, Adriano Zagonara, Salvatore Morello, Vincenzo Pace, Fortunato Gobbi, Luigi Iacopini, Paolo Reginato, Ferdinando Pancisi, Giuseppe Mangini, Costanzo Melino, Antonio Lumia, Domenico Tiberi.
The complexity of the war time policy of interment in Australia is mirrored by the backgrounds of the Italian men, woman and child who have been laid to rest in The Ossario.
The list below informs visitors to The Ossario of the Italians buried in the complex. Lists are important but their purpose is limited. Feeling that every Italian laid to rest deserves more than their name on a list, I have delved into each person’s story. What I found while researching these names is that there is a history lesson in the details. I have learnt more about the complexity of war.
Tunnel vision, saw me focus on the five Italian prisoners of war who died in Queensland. The Ossario however is the final resting place for 130 Italians: 128 men, one woman and one baby. Furthermore, one Italian prisoner of war drowned and his body was never recovered; therefore there is no public acknowledgement of this man’s death.
Italians Buried at Murchison
(photo courtesy of Alex Miles)
From the names on the list, I have learnt about Italians, residents of the British Isles, who were interned and sent to Australia on the infamous Dunera. I have read about the Remo and Romolo, Italian passenger ships in Australian waters when Italy declared war and scuttling of the Romolo in the Coral Sea. Italian internees were also sent to Australia from Palestine and New Guinea.
Three Italians whose freedom was taken from them and died in Australia deserve a specific mention:
MR Librio is Mario Roberto infant son of Andrea and Giuseppina Librio. His parents were interned in Palestine and they arrived in Australia onboard Queen Elizabeth 23rd August 1941. His life was short: he was born 4th May 1942 and died 12th May 1942.
Mario Roberto Librio’s Family
Tatura, Australia. 10 March 1945. Group of Italian internees at No. 3 Camp, Tatura Internment Group. Back row, left to right: 20091 Andrea Librio; 20092 Giuseppina Librio; 20094 Concetta Librio; 20093 Giuseppe Librio. Front Row: 20095 Umberto Librio; 20096 Maria Librio. Note: The number is an assigned POW number. (AWM 030247/03 Photographer Ronald Leslie Stewart)
Cafiero Veneriwas an Italian soldier captured at Sidi el Barrani on 11th December 1940. He arrived in Australia from India on the Mariposa 26th April 1944. He was the son of Aldreo Veneri and Maria Fabbri from Porto Fuori Ravenna. He was 32 years old when he drowned at Mornington on 23rd December 1945; caught in an undertow at Point Nepean, his body was never recovered.
Attilio Zanier was an Italian soldier captured at Asmara on 28th April 1941. He arrived in Australia from India on the Mariposa 5th February 1944. He was 42 years old when he was gored by a bull on a farm in the W12 PWCC Narembeen district. His death notice was advertised in The West Australian, a tribute from the Hall family:
Zanier (Attilio) – Accidentally killed on Frimley Farm Narembeen, on September 3 1944. Attilio Zanier (prisoner of war). A stranger in a strange land. Husband of Erminia de Comun, fond father of Alcide of Ravascletto Udine Italia. Deeply regretted by the Hall family. (1944 ‘Family Notices’, The West Australian (Perth, WA : 1879 – 1954), 5 September, p. 1. , viewed 25 Feb 2019, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article44976920)
There has been an overwhelming generalisation that there were many POWs who committed suicide especially during 1946 when the men were desperate to return home to Italy. The nature and/or cause of death for the 95 Italian prisoners of war is illustrated in the graph below. The numbers speak for themselves.
PS The main focus of my research has been Italian prisoners of war in Queensland. Their history is one small part of the bigger picture. War is complicated and complex as were the groups of men, women and children who were interned in prisoner of war camps in Australia: Italian and German prisoners of war in other Australian states; Australian residents who were German, Italian, Austrian, Hungarian, Polish, Japanese, Spanish … who were interned; German and Italians who were resident in United Kingdom and interned in Australia; Italian families who were living in Palestine and interned in Australia; and Italian and Austrian merchant seaman who were interned in Australia.
Robert Perna from Detroit Michigan writes, “Many years ago my grandfather told me about his time as a POW from Italy. He surrendered in North Africa and was first shipped to Iraq. Then he was shipped to Australia and worked on a cattle farm. He told me it would take weeks to walk the fence and repair it. He said the owner owned a territory.
I’m looking for any way to find out who he lived with. He passed many years ago, but his memory of his time there was always very clear. He did end up going back to Italy because that’s where his family was.”
And so the journey begins for a grandson to meld a grandfather’s stories with historical fact.
Using the guide Finding Nonno, Robert found with ease his grandfather’s Australian records which confirmed a few details: his nonno Arcangelo was captured in North Africa: Amba Alagi on 5.5.1941; he was sent to India (not Iraq); he was shipped to Australia: onboard the SS Uruguay in 1943 which docked at Sydney; and he was assigned to farm work: in the N11 Prisoner of War Control Centre Glen Innes.
Robert recounts the details of Arcangelo’s conscription and war service, “My grandfather went to Rome to go pay the taxes on his property. While there, they recruited him off the streets* and sent him to Africa. He could not say goodbye to his family.
From there he was sent to Northern Africa where he was in charge of a platoon. They found out they were being attacked at dawn. So they hunkered into a hill waiting for the African army to attack. Once they ran out of bullets, everyone surrendered, so no one would get killed.”
The piecing of history continues giving credence to Arcangelo’s memories of the day he was captured 5th May 1941:
1 May 1941 Viceroy of Italian East Africa Duke of Aosta and 7,000 troops were trapped at Amba Alagi, Abyssinia by Indian 5th Indivision to the north and South African 1st Brigade in the south.
3 May 1941 Allied and Italian troops engaged in heavy fighting at Amba Alagi, Abyssinia.
4 May 1941 29th Brigade of the Indian 5th Division launched another attack at Amba Alagi, Abyssinia, capturing 3 hills between 0415 and 0730 hours.
5 May 1941 3/2nd Punjab Battalion advanced toward the Italian stronghold at Amba Alagi, Abyssinia at 0415 hours. They were pinned down by 12 Italian machine guns for the most of the day. The attack was called off at dusk.
British Pathe footage captured the Italians after the surrender of Amba Alagi. Another detail from this battle comes from Craig Douglas at Regio Esercito History Group in Brisbane: “When the Italian troops surrendered at Amba Alagi, the British commander allowed them to surrender with the full honours of war. In tribute to their tenacious defence right to the end.”
The battle for Amba Alagi, the last Italian stronghold in Eritrea. Italians who surrendered Fort Toselli seen marching down the road from the fort. c. June 1941
(AWM Image 007945, Photographer: Unknown British Official Photographer)
From Amba Alagi, Arcangelo would have been sent to POW camps in Egypt to be processed and assigned a M/E number: 289564 [Middle East]. From Suez he would have been transported to India.
Critical Past footage gives a window into the past; the arrival of Italian prisoners of war in Bombay India.
The next stage of Arcangelo’s journey is his arrival in Australia which was reported in the newspapers. Two ships from India arrived together in Sydney 4th October 1943 with 507 Italian POWs on each ship (one medical officer, 5 medical other ranks and 501 other ranks: MV Brazil and SS Uruguay.
Arcangelo Perna’s arrival is documented on the Nominal Rolls Cowra 12 (c) POW Camp arrival from overseas 5th October 1943. He is assigned his Australian POW number : PWI 55833. Notice that his rank is Corporal though his other documents have his rank as Italian and Private; somethings are lost in translation.
Nominal Rolls of Italian Prisoners of War to Cowra
(NAA: SP196/1, 12 PART 2, 1943-1944 Sydney)
Within two months of his arrival in Australia, Arcangelo is assigned to farm work N11 C.C. Glen Innes.
Robert has a clear memory of his nonno’s recollections of Australia, “ He told me he worked on a cattle farm there. First thing he had to do was mend the fence with the owner. So they packed up the cart and took off. It took over 3 weeks to walk the fence. After that he worked there for a few years. Once it was time to go, the owner begged him to come back and live there. My grandfather said no, he had a farm in Italy. He never said anything bad about being there in Australia. He said they were a nice family who treated him wonderfully.”
Arcangelo’s Service and Casualty Form provides the details of his time between leaving the Glen Innes farm and his repatriation. A documented four day stay in the Glen Innes hospital and his transfer from the farm to Murchison suggests ongoing medical concerns. Those Italian who were medically unfit were sent to Murchison. And it is while Arcangelo was at Murchison, official group photos of the Italians were taken.
(AWM Image 030229/13, Photographer: Stewart, Ronald Leslie)
Arcangelo was repatriated on Chitral from Sydney on 24th September 1946. These early repatriations were for special consideration, medical or compassionate reasons. This was one of the early repatriation ships which boarded 300 POWs in Sydney and another 2900 in Fremantle Western Australia. The majority of Italian POWs held at Northam Camp WA were repatriated on Chitral.
Robert continues, “When he came home, my grandmother wasn’t even home when he got there! One of my aunts were born while he was away. Plus, my dad was born about 9 months after he came home.”
“These memories [of my nonno] have been a part of my life since he’s told me the story. It has been told hundreds of times. Now I have proof, pictures and info to back up my story,” Robert reflects.