Tag Archives: Prigionieri di guerra italiani in Queensland

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)

Treasures in Thread

Take a look at four beautiful embroideries sewn in the POW camps in India…

A little background: where did the cloth and thread come from?

Australian POWs in German camps used threads from worn out socks and jumpers as well as cotton from their army issue ‘housewife’.

Indian Publication Volumes 8-9 January 1941, listed items to be included in POW packages eg coloured silks and cotton threads, plain linen or canvas for embroidering.

The Red Cross sent supplies of recreational and educational material in bulk to prisoner of war camps.

The YMCA is also mentioned as a group who not only contributed books to Australian PW camps but were known also to provide material for tapestry, carpentry, embroidery and leatherwork.

The canteen at Camp No. 22 in India sold balls of mercerized cotton (like Coats Mercer Crochet Cotton).

Cloth used was from a variety of sources eg handkerchief, calico, canvas, cotton; salvaged or repurposed materials.

Treasures in Thread

Treasured keepsakes, given as gifts to Queensland farming families or taken home to Italy come in many forms.  One does not necessarily pair needlework with Italian soldiers. Possibly a skill taught in the camps to wile away the hours of monotony.  The hands of farmers and soldiers were capable of producing the most delicate needlework.

Antonio Fracasso embroided this handkerchief in June 1941 in a camp at Bangalore India.  He was captured at Bardia Libya on 6th January 1941.  These details give an estimation about how long the prisoners were held in Libya and Egypt before sailing for India… a few months at the most.

Fracasso. Embroidery A XIX EF

Salvatore Morello took his embroidered work home to his wife and daughter. The Sacred Heart of Mary (Sacro Cuore di Maria) was worked on canvas.  The angels’ banner reveals that it was created 1942 in India.

Morello Embroidery 1942 India

Sacro Cuore di Maria

(photo courtesy of Luigi Tommasi )

Knight on Horse was embroidered by Francesco Pintabona who stayed with the Harsant family at Warril View via Boonah.  Made into a cushion, the fabric has yellowed with age, but the embroidery shows a calm hand an a good eye. It was made while Frankie was in a camp in India.

Francesco Pintabona

Helen Mullan (nee Rackley) explains this about her embroidered gift: Before he left the farm, Domenico gave me the needlework of “Madonna and Child”.  He had painstakingly worked on a men’s handkerchief, when in a prison camp in India, I believe.  It was kept folded in an envelope for many years.  It is my special treasure, a reminder of Domenico, and I felt I needed to share this treasure with everyone, so I had it framed.  It has pride of place in my China Cabinet. You can see that is a combination of needlework and drawing with a painted background.  I have often wondered if he ran out of cotton as there are sections which have not been embroidered like the feet and the arms of the angel. It looks like he copied the image because you can see his pencilled in grid pattern.  As an adult, I reflect upon what it must have been like in the POW camp in India and the hours he spent embroidering this “Madonna and Child”.

Domenico.Rackely.jpeg

Embroidery by Domenico Mascuilli

(photo courtesy of Joanne Tapiolas)

Another beautiful embroidery made in Derradoon India in 1942 can be viewed at Embroidery made by an Italian POW

An embroidery sewn in Australia by Italian POW: Gayndah Australia

Bouquet of Australia Wildflowers was crafted by Domenico Petruzzi who lived with the Robinson family at Glen Ellen via Gayndah.  The lettering at the bottom was Domenico’s addition: Remember Domenico Petruzzi Prisoner of War.

Gayndah Tapestry (2)

Embroidery by Domenico Petruzzi Q4 Gayndah

(photo courtesy of Joanne Tapiolas)

Crocifisso Salvatore Martinicca’s  embroidered  handkerchief was sewn while he was in England: Saint Antonio di Padova  

Today it is called ‘Embroidery Therapy’ but during WW 2, embroidery was a recreational and theraputic past time; a means to keeping the hands and the minds occupied during the long months of confinement in POW camps.

During WW 1, soldiers recuperating in hospital were given embroidery to help keep them busy.

Italian Sailors at Ross Creek

 

A photo, a banana farm, two names and a story of Italian Sailor POWs at Ross Creek via Gympie.

Knowles.Irace.Franco

Tony Franco and Giovanni Irace at Ross Creek via Gympie

(from the collection of Kathy Worth (nee Knowles))

Kathy Worth (nee Knowles) is the keeper of a framed photo of two men standing beside a bunch of bananas.  Her mother, Ellen Knowles, carefully noted the names of the men on the reverse side of the photo and 72 years later this photo tells a story.

Clarrie and Ellen Knowles of Ross Creek Gympie grew bananas during World War 2.  At some stage, they also grew beans between the runs. On 14th May 1945, two Italian POWs were sent to the Knowles farm and took up residence in the workers’ shack on the farm.

Both from the Amalfi Coast of Italy, Antonio Franco was from Maiori Salerno and Giovanni Irace was from Praiano Salerno.  Kathy remembers Tony and Giovanni from the stories her parents told her and she says, “Dad loved fishing and would take them to Tin Can Bay fishing with him but apparently they were not to leave the farm.  The ‘Ities’ as Dad called them ran out of milk one day so he went and milked the draught horse and they commented how sweet it was and he told them it was mare’s milk which caused a laugh.  They were frightened of fire flies as well.  Dad said that when they saw fire flies for the first time they were scared.  They told Dad how they called into the night, ‘boss, boss, is that you boss’.  Mum remembers that they didn’t want to go back to Italy”.

Delving further, the back story to Giovanni Irace and Antonio Franco coming to Australia is noteworthy. The last transport of Italian POWs to Australia was the General William Mitchell arriving in Melbourne; the 2076 Italians on board disembarked on 13th February 1945.  Two hundred and fifty were sent to Gaythorne in Queensland arriving on 13th March 1945 for onward placement on farms.  Irace and Franco were placed on Clarrie Knowles’ Gympie farm within two months.  Other Italians were encamped at Gaythorne for five months before placements were arranged to work on farms.

Another interesting point of history is the place and date of capture for Irace and Franco.  Both sailors in the Italian Navy, they were captured at Massaua (Massawa) on 8th April 1941.

The Red Sea Flotilla was a unit of the Italian Royal Navy (Regia Marina Italia) based in MassawaEritrea, when Massawa was part of Italian East Africa. In World War II, the Red Sea Flotilla was active against the British Royal Navy East Indies Station from Italy’s declaration of war on 10 June 1940 until the fall of Massawa on 8 April 1941.

The location of the squadron meant it was isolated from the main Italian bases in the Mediterranean by distance and British dispositions. The British capture of Massawa and other Italian ports in the region ended the Italian naval presence in the region in April 1941.”

(Wikipedia: Red Sea Flotilla)

 

Captured…On the Move

NorthAfrica.India.Australia

Once captured, Italian prisoners of war were impounded in temporary caged compounds in the deserts of North Africa.  They were then taken to Egypt and processed.  Each prisoner of war was given a M/E number (Middle East) and a card was sent to the families notifying them that their son or husband or father was a prisoner of war. From Egypt they were sent around the world: South Africa, India, Australia, New Zealand, England, Canada and USA.

Costanzo Melino’s journey took him to India and then to Australia.  He worked on a farm in the Gympie district before being repatriated to Italy.  He returned to Australia post-war, sponsored by his Gympie employer,  his family joined him  and eventually they settled in northern NSW.

Costanzo Melino was captured at Bardia on 4th January 1941.

Costanzo Melino remembers:

Forty-seven thousand Italians were taken prisoner of war by the 8th Battalion of English under General Wavell. Our General at that time was Annibale Bergonzoli. My captain was Alberto Agostinelli.  We were taken to internment camps by foot.  We were given little to eat or drink.

Water 4159600

Italian prisoners Mersa Matruh getting their water tank filled. They were allowed half a gallon per man per day.” Image from a large album of 86 pages containing 1858 photographs associated with the service of Lieutenant Robert Otto Boese

(Australian War Memorial, Image P05182.012)

In February 1941, we were sent to Port Said in the Suez Canal and the following month to Bombay where the heat was unbearable and many Italians died of heat exhaustion.

These camps were well run by the English.  We were given baths and we had Indian cooks.  There were toilets and we were fed well although we all got sick as we were not used to the English diet.  After this the English asked us to cook our own meals which we did gladly, making our own tagliatelle and gnocchi from the flour.  There were at least three thousand prisoners divided ingroups of one hundred. We were counted twice a day. We were fenced in and surrounded by armed guards so that we could not escape.

V-P-HIST-03469-24

Original tent camp 1941 Bangalore Italian Prisoners of War

(Maddy’s Ramblings maddy06.blogspot.com.au )

Having nothing else to do, a lot of prisoners devoted their time to study.  I studied Italian and English.  We didn’t stay in the one place for long in India.  We were constantly moved and constantly guarded by Indian soldiers.  The German prisoners were kept separate to us.  When the Italians surrendered to General Dwight David Eisenhower we were sent to Australia to work on farms. It appeared that the two million U.S. servicemen in Australia needed food.  The U.S. headquarters was in Brisbane commanded by General Douglas MacArthur.  It was the U.S. who commanded us in Australian as they had civil and military control.

The English in India said to us: “Now you’ve surrendered we are allies so now you’ll have to go to work to feed yourselves.  You’ll be free in Australia and they’ll even pay you for your work”. Of course we were all happy, leaving the camps singing.  However, as soon as we boarded the train we found the Indian soldiers hidden in the train and at the next stop we got off in our usual manner as prisoners of war.  We were really only free when we got to Naples in 1947.

Capture.Surrender.Imprisonment

North Africa.QueenMary.Australia

The North African Campaign began in June 1940. The Italian soldiers were in the main conscripted who had undergone the most basic of training.  Not only were food and water in short supply by weaponry was inferior to that of the  Allies, tactical attacks not supported by aerial and navy divisions and provision of armaments was slow to appear.

Antonino Lumia has had his memories of being a soldier in the Italian army and prisoner of war in Australia recorded for posterity.   Lumia’s words were recorded by his grandson Damiano and can be heard via YouTube,  Antonino Lumia POW in Australia 1941-1946.

This recording is an invaluable insight into the personal experiences of the ordinary men who were caught up in the politics of war.  Lumia had his 28th birthday in the north African desert and was captured at Tobruk.

Special acknowledgement to Damiano Lumia for allowing for his work and the words of  Antonino to be reproduced here as part of this project.  His  assistance is invaluable as these memories provide depth and perspective for this history.

Antonino Lumia was captured at Tobruk 22nd January 1941

Antonino Lumia reminsices :

We took a white sheet. Sign of surrender. We hijacked our guns. Unlike the enemy.

Very soon after the tanks …… we could hear: “come! Come! Come! We are there, prisoners!

Everyone took his things. One can. A piece of bread. The captain shared the stocks.

They surrounded us like sheep. A tank in front of us … another behind. And we all, prisoners, in column. When the English and the Australians arrived … … to our captain … … they confiscated the watch, its binoculars …… his belt, his weapon. All our watches were confiscated.

To some soldiers their wallets, personal photographs. We walked towards their lines.

We were locked up in an airport. Not food. No water.

POW cage 3955959

Tobruk, Libya. 1941-03 to 1941-06. Originally an Italian ammunition storage area this section was converted into a prisoner of war cage after the first battle.  It held as many as 15,000 prisoners at a time.  Litter in the picture includes cast-off clothing and empty ‘bully-beef’ tins.  Two members of the ‘Olds and Bolds’, 1st Australian Corps Guard Battalion, in their temporary camp in the area.

(Australia War Memorial, Image 020079)

Encircled by tanks …

… if one of our soldiers approached the barriers he risked being killed. When we walked … dead on the side of the road. Close to me a corpse. Lying on the side of the road. Forbidden to approach it.

If we dared to do it, from the top of their tanks … a shot …… our turn to be killed.

They shut us in at this airport. 140000 men. No place to sleep. 140000 men … 140000 men …

No food. No water. The next day, some cried. Others said, “I shall never see my wife again.”

“I will never see my daughter again.” Discouraged. One of our Sergeant Major …… only son …

… born in Vittoria …… his mother treated him like a young lady. He was crying. “If my mother knew it.”

“In what condition I am”. He was wearing a scarf. Sand everywhere on him.

There the sand flew very high. When some of us started dying … … the British collected seawater in petrol cans. The drinking-water cisterns had been destroyed by us, Italian.

They were all made to explode, so as not to give them to the enemy. They brought sea water.

They lined the barrels of oil, full of sea water. A hundred barrels. Threatened by their weapons, they were grouped together. “First line, kneeling!” We walked on our knees.

“Line number two, on your knees!” They formed about fifty lines. I did not have a container.

I got near the barrels. In my throat bits of sand. I began to drink despite the oil that floated on the sea water. An armed Australian was looking at me. “No good! No good!”

Not good … I just stood up. Regardless of oil, sea water … … I had a saucepan … … I fill it and go back to those who had drunk. I detached my military insignia. Two green and red bands.

I made a cross on my clothes with the insignia. I wanted to make them believe I was a nurse.

“This one can pass …” “He will help us, transport the sick …”

POW medical station6053463

Bardia, Libya. 1941-01-04. An Italian prisoner of war (POW) posing with a stretcher bearer at a dressing station operated by the 6th Division. (Original housed in AWM Archive Store)

(Australian War Memorial, Image P02038.080)

I crossed their lines thanks to the badge of the red cross. Again I approach the barrels. I take an Italian soldier over me. “Pretend to be dead”

We’ll drink again! I lifted this stranger on my shoulders. With this stratagem, I made several round trips. I drank and gave drink to the “sick”. I made three trips.

I’ve never had so much water. I was overjoyed. Despite the traces of oil.

At night we lay down on the ground. If it was raining or cold … … with a blanket we gathered to four …

… our breaths warmed us. Eight days of this life. Bitter as the poison. Lice … … our clothes were filled …… our flesh were bloody … scratching lesions.

One morning, very early, they woke us up with their weapons. I said to my cousin, “Standing, let’s see where they take us.” A group of 2,000 soldiers came out. Again a march, framed by soldiers.

Head towards the port of Tobruk. In the port there were their kitchens. On the ground there were orange peel. Lemon peel.I fill my pockets.It’s always there to feed me. From time to time I ate a peel.

I ate everything. The sand, the bark of fruit. On a boat, we joined the ship, 20 soldiers at a time.

It was a food transport ship. They grouped us in 3 holds. No water. No toilets.

Everyone went to the toilet in front of the others. Luckily they kept the light. The ship went away.

arrival in Egypt. Ready to disembark.

We were on deck. The Egyptians insult us: “Mussolini … Mussolini .. to death!” The English intervened. They beat them with their truncheons. “Leave them alone … they are hungry, are full of lice …”. We got off the ship.On trucks, we traveled inside the country. They grouped us in tents.

Near the sea. Meat arrived in their kitchen. Their military doctor said: “This meat is infected …

… forbidden to share with the prisoners “.They buried everything. I and my cousin have observed everything. A semi-raw meat, potatoes … That night, cousin … At nightfall, kneeling, in the sand, …

A potato was found. It’s here, cousin. We filled our towels, headed for the tent.

The next day, it was washed 20 times. Sand …It was cooked with a little water …

We mixed everything with our daily pasta. That was delicious.

I had received 35 cigarettes for a week. I am not a smoker. You smoke? Here’s this. Give me your bread.

After 8 days, in Egypt, passage to the baths.The goal was to decontaminate us. We changed clothes.

We went back to the canal. Mussolini paid very dearly for the passing of his people. Indian soldiers arrived.

Indian soldiers

An Indian soldier guards a group of Italian prisoners near El Adem aerodrome, during the pursuit of Axis forces westwards after the relief of Tobruk.

(Imperial War Museum, Image E7180)

8 of us had been designated to clean up their garrison. Clean the toilet, pass the brush, collect garbage …I say to my cousin: “Let’s go …… maybe we could eat. I took a big wipe. Around my belt. Cousin, let’s see if there is food.

When we had finished cleaning, the guard gave us a cigarette each. As I did not smoke, I gave it to my cousin. We observed that they threw their waste into a barrel. I stretched my wipe.

I plunge my hands into their trash. I plunge my hands, and lifts this mud. Very acid.

He was warmed up between soldiers. We were hungry. Each day eight pasta and a piece of bread were received. I ran away with the towel. The guard said, “That’s not good!” … Shut up.

For you it is not good. For me it is excellent. In the tent I cut this mud with my knife.

I stirred up all this with our meal.

After eight days. Head towards the Suez Canal. We embarked (Queen Mary)

I asked, “Where are we going?” … “we do not know, perhaps in the United States, or in India …”.

I’ll see where we’ll end up. On this ship they ate.

A ship carrying 15,000 men. Each had his bed.I got on deck. I was walking. When my cousin came. He wore a towel filled with bread.He had cleaned the beautiful walls of the boat. He took all the loaves. I saw him on the deck of the boat: “come cousin …”We sat on the floor. And we ate.

Order was given to walk barefoot on the boat.The shoes damaged the floor.

It was a luxury ship. A captain came to meet us. “Come, come.” What does this man want? Lets go see… We needed follow-up. We went down the stairs. A commander was waiting for us, as well as an Italian interpreter.

The commander tells us: “I have ordered you to walk barefoot, and you, abusively, wear your shoes!”

But I can not walk barefoot. Give us sandals … The sergeant major thought I was standing up to the interpreter. He shouted, “Shut up!”

 

Queen Mary

In the main mess hall on board the SS QUEEN MARY (formerly the First Class dining saloon) where more than 2,000 troops can be fed at one sitting. In peacetime it used to take 800 First Class passengers but now sittings go on from 6 am till 9 pm.

(Imperial War Museum, Coote, R.G.G. (Lt) Image A25924)

Give us our sanction. If it’s impossible to express why we drove here? We were following the sentinel. They gave us white blankets. Beautiful covers with silk edges. He leads us to the front of the ship, where the chimney is. He locked us in a room full of soot. We lay down on our blankets.

We’ll see tomorrow morning … The next morning they brought us a half bucket of coffee.

No bread, nothing else.We split the bucket.

After 24 hours of confinement … … we went out …

My cousin looked at me and said, “you are blackened from head to toe”

My dear cousin, if I am blackened, you are in a totally indescribable state!

We slept in the soot.The blankets had become black …We went back to our beds.

One day a prisoner died on board. They packed it in a bag and thrown it into the water.The priest took his papers. Queen Mary.

We arrived in Australia.

POW boat

Italian Prisoners of War – Italian prisoners of war bound for a prisoner-of-war camp, disembarking following their arrival in Australia.

(National Archives of Australia, NAA: A11663, PA 189)

 

Fighting in North Africa

At War

Antonino Lumia has had his memories of being soldiers in the Italian army and prisoners of war in Australia recorded for posterity.   Lumia’s words were recorded by his grandson Damiano and can be heard via YouTube,  Antonino Lumia POW in Australia 1941-1946.

This recording is an invaluable insight into the personal experiences of the ordinary men who were caught up in the politics of war.  Lumia had his 28th birthday in the north African desert and was captured at Tobruk.

Special acknowledgement to Damiano Lumia for allowing for his work and the words of  Antonino to be reproduced here as part of this project.  His  assistance is invaluable as these memories provide depth and perspective for this history.

Antonino Lumia was captured at Tobruk 22nd January 1941

.. we embark in the direction of Cyrenaica

We passed close to Tripoli at night …Destination Benghazi.  Before arriving in Benghazi, a captain tells us … “Young people, dress up. Tthat night the port was bombed …” “If aviation surprises you when going down, it’s the end of the world” We gathered our things. The blankets on our shoulders. Our guns. The dinner. When the boat arrives at the port in Benghazi … in speed, all … We have moved away from Benghazi. We found refuge under a tree. For a month we waited for the weapons, the cannons. Towards the fortress of Tobruk. Some morning workouts.  In the evening … free in Benghazi. 
Guns 044455

Bardia, Cyrenaica, Libya. C. 1941. An Italian 47mm anti tank cannon used by the Italian Army in operations in the Western Desert and abandoned after its defeat by Allied forces (Australian War Memorial, Image 044455)

After 15 days came the guns … we dragged them.  Shells firing … 8 kilometres … In columns, we went to war. We arrived in Barce. And we are stopped.

I found a fountain … … the women filled … … their water reserves …… a knife skin, mounted on a donkey.

I was on duty that day. Soldiers were forbidden to clean their dishes in drinking water.

A young black woman …… fills her reserve. A soldier is always a bit provocative.

I wanted to get close to her to help her …… she pushed me violently shouting. I could not approach her. She then left.

The next day, the order was given: departure for the war. The column was reformed: the colonel at the head, … and we all behind, trailing the guns.

We passed Tobruk. We landed in the desert. The fortress of Tobruk. Everyone had his place.

Our guns, concrete refuges. One day… … the British began the bombing …… the lieutenant calls me …”Lumia” “Tonight will get me to eat” Are you calling me? I’m just a sergeant, a helper …

Call the second lieutenant! “The sub-lieutenant is sick, you’re designated!” … They will think that I am an enemy, pull me off. And if I’m wrong, in the dark… “He is an enemy. “You are appointed.”

Resigned. I take my dinner. He said, “Take this power line in your hand …” … and walking … more …

I took this line in my hands. … you will find the mess of the officers …” I lifted this electric wire …

… and I walked. I arrived at the command post. Come back. in the dark. Again the line in my hands, back. Thorns in my legs, on my skin. I was following the telephone line in my hands. The lieutenant had his dinner. Lieutenant Duca, from Vallelunga. The next day the English bombed us.

With their guns. The American navy approached the port. The US Navy fired shells up to 20 kilometers. Shells fell on us … up to 250 kilos. Luckily they landed on sand.

Most did not explode. There’s something to jump in the air. They silenced us. In the distance, the smoke. The command telephone no longer works. Our commander called Sergeant Traina.

A man from Vittoria, near Canicatti. “Traina, the phone does not work anymore!”

Traina … orphan child of soldiers of the great war …”But, my captain … I’m going to die”

“You have to go, you!” The poor man. Religious sign. On a motorcycle. He’s going there.

Thanks to God, he returned alive.

 “Captain, the colonel told me …… we are free. Because in a moment …… the enemies will make us prisoners “.

“To fire, to flee, to surrender … everything is allowed”. The Colonel tells us. “Take with you whatever you want … one moment to the other we will be prisoners”.

POW cage 040628

Tobruk, Libya 1941. Italian Prisoners, captured by the 9th Australian Division, in a temporary P.O.W. cage.

(Australian War Memorial, G. Keating, Image 040628)

Captured at Bardia

Melino family 3 - Copy.jpg

Costanzo Melino: Italian Soldier: 20 years old

(from Anzaro: The Home of my Ancestors)

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

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

Costanzo Melino was captured at Bardia 4th January 1941

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

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

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

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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.

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

(Australia War Memorial, Image 0084113)