Tag Archives: Prigionieri di guerra italiani Tasmania

Storia di un contadino italiano in Australia – parte 2: prigioniero in terra australe

by Elena Fortini

Vincenzo ha solo 21 anni quando parte per la Libia. Mai avrebbe pensato che, nei pochi anni successivi, avrebbe attraversato mezzo mondo, passando dapprima per l’Egitto, poi nei campi di concentramento indiani per, infine, raggiungere il misterioso e lontano continente australiano.

Nel gennaio 1944, insieme a qualche migliaio di altri prigionieri italiani, mio zio si imbarca a Bombay per l’Australia. A febbraio giunge nel porto di Melbourne e viene condotto al campo di Murchison, nell’entroterra australiano, per lo smistamento. Dopo la visita medica viene sottoposto ad analisi per la sospetta presenza di tifo, poi smentita dagli accertamenti. Da questo momento in poi verrà identificato con la dicitura PWI (Prisoner of War, Italian, vale a dire “prigioniero di guerra italiano”) 58070.

Il suo viaggio, però, non finisce qui. A Murchison viene decisa la sua destinazione: sarà nell’ancor più remota isola della Tasmania. Nell’aprile del ‘44 giunge nel campo di Brighton, vicino alla capitale Hobart, nel sud-est dello Stato insulare, per l’identificazione. Si tratta del campo centrale della regione, che si dirama poi in ulteriori campi sparsi per tutta l’isola.

Nel maggio 1944 viene trasferito a Burnie, più a nord, e il mese successivo a Smithton, nel nord-ovest dell’isola. Ricoverato per una sospetta appendicite nell’ottobre dello stesso anno, sarà rilasciato qualche giorno dopo senza essere operato, e rimandato al campo. Qui sarà assegnato a un agricoltore locale, Reginald Poke, e inizierà a lavorare come contadino nella sua proprietà agricola a Scotchtown, una località rurale distante circa 6 km dalla cittadina di Smithton. 16.397 sono invece i chilometri che separano Scotchtown dal paese natale di Soncino: una distanza incolmabile oggi, inimmaginabile all’epoca.

Con mia grande sorpresa sono riuscita a contattare i discendenti di Mr. Poke. Alcuni hanno sentito parlare dei prigionieri italiani nei racconti dei rispettivi antenati, altri ricordano di averli visti e conosciuti, durante l’infanzia. In particolare, un nipote di Reginald ricorda Vincenzo come un uomo forte, che spesso si allenava nella fattoria. I prigionieri vivevano in baracche separate nella proprietà, e un’altra nipote ricorda che da bambina, negli anni ’60 e ’70, vi entrava per gioco e che le sembravano sufficientemente spaziose per essere adibite ad abitazioni. Dopo la partenza degli italiani queste costruzioni vennero destinate a baracche degli attrezzi, e successivamente demolite. In generale, i soldati italiani hanno lasciato un bel ricordo alle famiglie locali: sulla sua lettera di dimissione si può leggere che è stato un bravo prigioniero.

Nel marzo del ‘46 Vincenzo viene finalmente rilasciato e torna nell’Australia occidentale, a Loveday, da dove il 3 dicembre dello stesso anno sarà rimpatriato sulla nave neozelandese Rangitata diretta a Napoli. Sbarcherà infine nella città partenopea il 31 dicembre 1946, nello stesso porto da cui era partito otto anni prima. Una leggenda di famiglia vuole che, nel periodo trascorso in Australia, mio zio si sia innamorato di una donna del posto e che volesse perciò rimanere e sposarsi. Non sappiamo se sia tornato per rispettare la convenzione internazionale sui prigionieri di guerra, che voleva che fossero tutti rimpatriati una volta terminato il conflitto, o per sua decisione, conscio che la sua famiglia lo aspettava e aveva bisogno di lui. Gli anni della guerra sono stati duri, infatti, anche nello sperduto paesino di campagna che per Vincenzo era ormai solo un lontano e caro ricordo. Con il figlio primogenito in Australia, il secondogenito, Giulio, anch’egli prigioniero degli Alleati in Albania, il lavoro nei campi e nelle stalle era affidato ai restanti membri della famiglia: il padre Bortolo, la madre Genoveffa, le sorelle Gina, Maria, Cila e Carla e il fratello minore, Miro, che allo scoppio del conflitto aveva solo sei anni, e che Vincenzo ricorda nella lettera inviata dall’India e mai ricevuta dalla famiglia come il “piccolino” di casa.

Ambrogi Famiglia : late 1940s

Back row: Vincenzo second from left. Front row: Mama Genoveffa on far right (photo courtesy of Elena Fortini)

Si racconta che, dopo il suo ritorno, ogni volta che mio zio parlava di quanto aveva visto in guerra veniva preso per pazzo. Metteva in guardia sugli effetti nefasti delle droghe quando la maggior parte dei compaesani non sapeva nemmeno cosa fosse uno stupefacente. Parlava di tutto ciò che aveva visto, della convivenza di molteplici religioni e confessioni che nella cattolicissima Italia del tempo era solo un lontano miraggio. Portava sei anni di prigionia sulle spalle che l’avevano segnato profondamente, e non solo sul viso che il rovente sole australiano aveva bruciato per sempre: avvertiva il bisogno di parlarne, ma si sentiva incompreso. Forse per questo poi si chiuse in sé stesso e smise di raccontare, lasciando correre anche le domande curiose dei nipoti che, anni dopo, gli avrebbero chiesto della sua esperienza in guerra: ne parlava solo con i commilitoni, uomini che, come lui, avevano lasciato tutto alle spalle e che vivevano gli anni della guerra come un voraginoso e incolmabile vuoto.

Vincenzo Ambrogi 1970s standing at left (photo courtesy of Elena Fortini)

Al funerale di sua madre, Vincenzo chiese alla famiglia di non lasciarlo mai più solo. Spero che questa mia ricerca renda giustizia alla sua storia e al suo ricordo. Non ho avuto il piacere di incontrare lo zio Vincenzo, che ci ha lasciati ben prima che io nascessi ma, dopo le tante ore trascorse a ripercorrere il suo passato, posso forse dire di conoscerlo un po’ anch’io.

Elena Fortini

Tasmanian ‘Italian Farming Soldiers’*

There were seven prisoner of war centres in Tasmania including Brighton Prisoner of War Camp. Some of the boundaries for a centre changed as additional centres were established during 1944 to accommodate the increasing numbers of Italian POWs in Tasmania. I have put together a summary of this information.

Brighton Prisoner of War Camp

It was the PARENT Camp for all Italian prisoners of war in Tasmania. One of the Camp Commandants was Major C.R. Hawker. For serious breaches in discipline, a POW would be awarded 28 days detention. He would be transferred from his farm placement and sent to Brighton Camp for detention. Brighton Camp also had a hospital unit.

T1 Prisoner of War Control Centre Burnie

The centre’s office was in Jones Street Burnie and Captain G.D. Pollington was the commanding officer. Burnie farm placements included: Table Cape, Penguin, Leven, Circular Head, Burnie, Kentish, Devenport, Latrobe. An April 1944 report documents that there were 248 Italian POWs placed with 143 farmers. A May 1944 report documents that there were 161 Italian POWs placed with 106 farmers.

T2 Prisoner of War Control Centre Launceston (April 1944 Report)

The T2 Launceston district included: Beaconsfield, Westbury, Deloraine, Longford, Campbell Town, Ross, Evandale, St Leonards, Fingal. An April 1944 report documents that there were 145 Italian POWs placed with 92 farmers.

T2 Prisoner of War Control Centre Scottsdale (June 1944 Report)

The centre’s office was in the Drill Hall Scottsdale and Lieut. G.H. Napier was the commanding officer. Scottsdale farm placements included: Scottsdale, George Town, Lilydale, Ringarooma. A May 1944 report documents 86 Italian POWs placed with 55 farmers.

T3 Prisoner of War Control Centre Hobart (May 1944 Report)

Hobart farm placements included: Esperance, Huon, Cygnet, Kingborough, Glenorchy, New Norfold, Brighton, Clarence, Sorell, Tasman, Spring Bay, Richmond, Green Ponds, Bothwell, Hobart. A May 1944 report documents that there were 146 Italian POWs placed with 84 farmers.

T3 Prisoner of War Control Centre Glenorchy (June 1944 Report)

The centre’s office was in the Drill Hall Glenorchy and Lieut. A. Coulthard was the commanding officer. Glenorchy farm placements included: Hobart, Glenorchy, Richmond, New Norfolk, Kingborough, Sorell, Huon, Brighton, Esperance, Clarence, Tasman, Cygnet, Spring Bay, Green Ponds.

T4 Prisoner of War Control Centre Smithton (June 1944 Report)

The centre’s office was at 2 King Street Smithton with Lieut. E.W.D. Lacy as the commanding officer. Farm placements were at Smithton and Circular Head. A May 1944 report documents that there were 152 Italian POWs placed with 70 farmers.

T5 Prisoner of War Control Centre Deloraine

The centre’s office was at the Drill Hall Deloraine with Lieut. R.K. Lane as commanding officer. In June 1944, the area included Deloraine, Devonport, Kentish, Westbury, St. Leonards, Longford, Latrobe, Evandale, Fingal, Ross, Campbell Town, Beaconsfield. A May 1944 report documents there were 165 Italian POWs placed with 109 farmers.

By Sept 1944, some of these areas became part of T6 Conara.

T6 Prisoner of War Control Centre Conara

The centre is documented as “Conara Camp” and Captain A.A. Thompson was the commanding officer. The areas of St Leonards, Longford, Evandale, Fingal, Ross, Campbell Town became part of T6 with an addition of Oatlands, Bothwell, Green Ponds.

*Alan Fitzgerald coined the phrase “The Italian Farming Soldiers” as a title for his 1981 book about this history. It was the first work undertaken to document the history of Italian prisoners of war in Australia.

I pray for a special favour…

Giuseppe and Tarquinio Scatena spent the duration of the war together: 231 Leg. Blackshirts, capture at Bug Bug 11.12.40, processing in Geneifa (ME Numbers 30249 and 30243), arrival in Australia onboard Lurline 16.11.43, processing in Murchsion (PWI 56934 and 56935), transfer from Murchison PW Camp to Brighton Camp 17.2.44, allocation to farm work T2 PWCC Launceston 24.2.44, awarding of 28 days detention for disobeying a lawful command on 1.4.44.

Family men from Capistrello L’Aquila, Tarquinio was 31 years old with a son and two daughters while Giuseppe was 34 years old with two sons and one daughter.

On 1.8.44, unfortunately Giuseppe and Tarquinio  go separate ways when Tarquinio was returned from Brighton to Murchison as medically unfit.  This separation lead Giuseppe to pen a letter to the Brighton Camp Commandant on 2.8.44.

Comandante

Translation

To Camp commandant

Dear Sir,

During five years of military life, of which four years have been spent as a prisoner of war, I have always been united with my brother SCATERA – Tarquinio.  In whichever command we have been under, we always have had the privilege of being together and I cannot understand the reason why we have been separated.  Therefore I beg you to let us re-unite at the earliest opportunity.

I pray, as a special favor, to take into consideration, the pain and desperation that two brothers would feel in being apart.

I would like to explain that we  have not received any news from our families for about 14 months, and the only consolation we have is to speak a word of comfort between us.

Thanking you in anticipation.

sgd SCATERA Giuseppe

PW56934

(NAA: P617, 519/3/159 Part )

In response, Captain Pearson wrote to Captain Tiege to inform Giuseppe that a transfer to Murchison PW Camp might not necessarily mean he would be reunited with his brother. The memo continues that while no promise could be made, the matter would be considered when the next draft of Italian prisoners were returned to Murchison Camp.

A year later on 28.8.45, Giuseppe was transferred to Murchison Camp.  This transfer resulted in the brothers returning to Italy, together onboard Ortranto 10.1.47.

Had Giuseppe remained in Tasmania, he would have been transferred to Sandy Creek then Loveday Camps in South Australia and repatriated without Tarquinio in 1946.

Someone somewhere in the chain of command had shown a little understanding and humanity.

Brighton PW Camp: December 1943

Brighton Military Camp has an interesting history.  A military camp for training recruits, it became a prisoner of war camp during WW2 and then after the war it was a migrant hostel for newly arrived migrants from Europe. Details of this history has been written by Reg Watson: Brighton Army Camp History

But from December 1943 to 1946 (April/May) the complex was known as Brighton PW Camp No. 18. Army records state that it had a capacity of 600: two compounds of 300 each. It was the parent and administrative camp for all Italian prisoners of war sent to work on farms in Tasmania.

Professor Ian McFarlane’s research into the Italian POW workforce adds further details and personal experiences to this history: Italian POWS in North West Tasmania

Below is a diagram of the PW Camp drawn in October 1944.  With some concern over the security of the camp, changes to the boundaries had changed as resident numbers decreased. The original compound is indicated by the outer blue line.  The compound was reduced in size to the red line.  The second reduction saw the compound decreased in size to the a to b line.  The October 1944 proposed reduction of the compound at night was to the inner blue line.  This last proposal was rejected by Camp Commandant Captain A Pearson.  In a letter he reports that due to the number of years the Italians had been in captivity c. 3.5 years, they had developed ‘barbed wire complex’ and would struggle mentally if they were fenced in, in a small compound as many were becoming ‘mentally deranged.’  Captain Pearson wrote, “In conclusion, it is desired to emphasise that the forgoing is not submitted to molly-coddle PW, but with the sole purpose of keeping them mentally and physically sound and thereby have the maximum number available for employment and at the same time comply with intention of regulations issued relative to the control of PW.” NAA P617 519.3.159 PART 1 

 

NAA P617 519.3.159 PART 1 Page 35

Brighton PW Compound 1944

NAA P617 519.3.159 PART 1 Page 35

In  February 1944, the scheme of employing prisoners of war on Tasmanian farms had received the ‘thumbs up’ from farmers and further recruitment of farmers was sort from Department of Manpower.

nla.news-page000001867187-nla.news-article26018382-L3-2d4170b0224f0f19d6badbf4beb926a1-0001

1944 ‘ITALIAN WAR PRISONERS’, The Mercury (Hobart, Tas. : 1860 – 1954), 14 February, p. 2. , viewed 30 Jul 2019, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article26018382

nla.news-page000025422766-nla.news-article235765497-L3-6b2ee59ca476d7d28b771057852b1086-0001

But by June 1944, right wing racism was being reported by ‘Smith’s Weekly’ which seized on any opportunity to discredit the Italian prisoners of war and their treatment.

1944 ‘PREFERENCE TO DAGOES’, Smith’s Weekly (Sydney, NSW : 1919 – 1950), 3 June, p. 1. , viewed 30 Jul 2019, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article235765497

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The following two photos were taken of the Brighton PW Camp site in April 1943 when it was under the direction of Department of Army as an army training camp.  Little would have changed when it transitioned to a PW Camp.

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BRIGHTON, TAS. 1943-04-23. A SECTION OF BRIGHTON CAMP IS BEING CONVERTED BY MEMBERS OF NO. 19 MAINTENANCE PLATOON, ROYAL AUSTRALIAN ENGINEERS, INTO BARRACKS FOR A TRAINING UNIT OF THE AWAS. THIS PHOTOGRAPH SHOWS A GENERAL VIEW OF THE NEW QUARTERS FOR THE TRAINING UNIT.

 

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BRIGHTON, TASMANIA, AUSTRALIA. 1943-04-28. GENERAL VIEW OF BRIGHTON MILITARY CAMP.

By June 1944, Brighton PW Camp Tasmania had been abandoned and the Italian prisoners of war were transferred to Loveday PW Camp South Australia.

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Prisoners of War. Italian. Loveday (S.A.) & Northam (W.A.) Camps. NAA: A1067, IC46/32/1/9