Memories from Ippolito Moscatelli (Messaggero di Sant’Antonio July-August 2021)
A special thank you to Sara Bavato for her continued support of the Italian prisoner of war research project and her article in the latest publication of Messaggero di Sant’Antonio. Click on the link below to read the article…
Every Italian prisoner of war took something small home to Italy. It might be a memory of flying fish and dolphins, a button from the POW uniform, a dictionary, a theatre program or a chess set.
The history of Italian prisoners of war is enriched by these items. Each item adds new understanding to the life of the Italian prisoner of war in Australia.
Ippolito’s granddaughter Francesca continues to discover bits and pieces of her nonno’s collection and each one brings new meaning to her nonno’s life.
Pastel by Ippolito Moscatelli 11 November 1945 (courtesy of Francesca Maffietti)
Queensland families remember their Italian POW workers telling little of the fighting, but many a comment was made about one aspect of their capture. While they tolerated the Australian and British soldiers confiscating their watches, they were resentful that the Allies took their personal photographs from them.
Captured at Tobruk 22nd January 1941, Antonino Lumia reflected, “When the English and the Australians arrived… to our captain… they confiscated the watch, his binoculars… his belt and his weapon. All our watches were confiscated. To some soldiers their wallets, personal photographs. We walked towards their lines.”
Fighting in the desert was never a picnic. Soldiers were parched, water and food scare, they battled sandstorms which blocked their vision and suffered extreme cold at night.
Newspapers of the day offer an insight into this desert war and souveniring:
“One batch of prisoners rounded up in a wire enclosure must have numbered about 3,000. Here I spoke with a 24 year old infantryman who was a waiter in Rome until conscripted for the army six months ago. He told me, “I did not want to fight but had no choice. None of the men you see here have had enough to eat in the last fortnight. The daily ration is a tin of bully beef to each two men, soup and a loaf of bread. We are glad it is over.”
“Lots of us are wearing new Italian boots and they are very comfortable. Some boys are wearing captured socks and black shirts – in fact, by the time it is finished we will be a motley crew all right.”
6th January 1941 BARDIA, LIBYA. Driver Morrison of the Photographic Unit rummages around the Italian Infantry positions and finds a new pair of pants. Discarded boots, weapons and personal papers are strewn over the area. (AWM Image 005316 photography Frank Hurley)
“It was funny a couple of days ago; we were resting beside our gun when we saw a half dozen blue-clad figures strolling over the horizon toward us. When they reached us they made us understand that they were lost, having become separated from the rest of the herd. [POWs] We promptly directed them on the right track and after giving us a decent Fascist salute they proceed on their way – unescorted.”
“Wine and cigars were among the luxuries the Australians captured from the Italians at Bardia.”
Bardia. 1941-01-03. Pile of provisions and clothing on the ground after an Italian Quartermaster Store was destroyed by the Allies. Note the soldier in the background, possibly from 2/2nd Battalion, with a large cloth, possibly a captured banner. (Original housed in AWM Archive Store)
“We went into action singing Waltzing Matilda and The Wizard of Oz. The Italians just couldn’t understand the mentality of soldiers marching into battle against a numerically superior foe with a song on their lips. They were completely demoralised.”
“As soon as we got within 50 to 100 yards from the Italians with our bayonets glistening in the sun, they threw down their rifles and raised their hands. Some of the prisoners said afterwards that the surprise that they felt when they heard us singing was heightened by the grim look on our faces. They told us, ‘We Italians sing when we are happy: never before have we heard men singing and looking so serious!’ ”
“The Italian officers did themselves well… dugouts furnished with chests of drawers containing full dress uniforms, silk dressing gowns, and colourful pyjamas. There were bathrooms with full sized baths. There were bottles of wine, embossed stationery, cameras, quantities of patent medicines and crockery in addition to uncounted quantities of valuable technical equipment such as wireless sets and replacements, field telephones and Breda automatic guns and rifles. Today there is probably no single Italian tunic in a Bardia dugout which still has a badge or shoulder strap. Men are wearing Italian boots and breeches and using Italian blankets. Souveniring has been carried to such an extent that much of the booty must be abandoned because it will overload the battalion transports.”
5th January 1941 BARDIA, LIBYA. The boys of the 2/2nd Battalion, now in occupation of Bardia, celebrate their entry into the Italian strong hold with a feast of captured food, wine and cigars. (AWM Image 004906, photographer Frank Hurley)
Looting or Larrikinism
Craig Stockings wrote in detail about the revelry of Australia soldiers after the Battle of Bardia.Bardia Captured illustrates the surrender of Bardia. The following is an extract from his book, Bardia.
“After the guns fell silent the dusty yellow landscape in and around Bardia was littered with the remnants of the defeated Italian force. Papers blowing on the wind caught on broken vehicles, scaterred weapons, abandoned guns, piles of stores, and long columns of prisoners heading south.” Litter in Libya films these images.
27th December 1940 NEAR BARDIA – More of the many thousands of Italian prisoners captured during the Battle of Bardia. (AWM Image 004911 NEGATIVE BY F. HURLEY).
“Much of the spontaneous Australian carousing was innocent enough. Many soldiers who found themselves close to Bardia’s beaches, for example, stripped their grimy clothes and dashed into the Mediterranean to wash clean the filth of combat. A severe flea infestation …to sup baths, shave and establish their own hairdressing salon. Where caches were discovered Australian troops feasted on Italian rations and smoked Italian cigarettes. Many platoon vehicles were soon weight down with cases of tuna, preserves and a variety of tinned veal and pasta meals. In some areas the nature of the boot surprised those who stumbled upon it… ‘all sorts of queer clothing ,silk underwear both male and female, lots of scents and hair pomades. Eau-de-cologne… was a great favourite….
5th January 1941 BARDIA. “The Knights of Bardia” – Colonels for the Day. Dressed in captured Italian finery, men of the A.I.F. react to their sweeping victory. (AWM Image 004913 NEGATIVE BY F. HURLEY).
Not all celebratory activities were as innocent… particularly drunkenness, looting and dangerous larrikinism.. A barrel of captured wine was placed on a nearby truck and competitors drank mug for mug until only one man was left standing. As one witness recounted, the ‘camp was a mess with three parts of the platoon lying drunk in heaps of spew and vomit’. .. too much Italian cognac…
Bardia, Libya. 1941-01-04. An Italian prisoner of war (POW) is watched by some of his friends as he siphons wine from a barrel into his mouth while lying beside the barrel. Note the Italian camouflaged ground sheet rigged as a shelter on the left. The prisoners of war were under the supervision of members of 2/2nd Battalion. (AWM Image P02038.083 Original housed in AWM Archive Store)
Another distasteful post-battle pastime was the systematic robbery of Italian prisoners. As its most innocent this manifested as an informal type of resupply. Almost every member… acquired at least one Italian pistol, officers helped themselves to Italian binoculars, which were superior to their British equivalents. More concerning was the illegal theft of personal items… Shortly after the battle, he [one soldier] had ‘pockets full of money, wedding rings, some mother of pearl inlaid pistols and some flash fountain pens’, as well ‘had watches up both arms’… The same man later reminisced that for many Australians guarding prisoner columns, ‘it was like having an open go in a jewellery shop.’…
In one particularly atrocious incident, a soldier was tried at court martial (and found guilty) for tossing an Italian grenade into a prisoner cage, seriously wounding five unarmed Italians.
23rd April 1941 TOBRUK. Birds of a feather stuck together in a common cage, German and Italian prisoners captured round about Tobruk by the Australian forces holding the town and surrounding country. (AWM Image 007482, Negative by F Hurley)
23rd January 1941 TOBRUK – MORE ITALIAN PRISONERS TAKEN AFTER THE ADVANCE INTO TOBRUK. (NEGATIVE BY F. HURLEY).
One of the incoming force’s greatest embarrassments was the number of prisoners. More than 20,000 of them were soon herded into a fenced enclosure measuring about 800 yards by 400 yards which the Italians had erected near the junction of the El Adem and Bardia roads to house their own prisoners. Here during more than six weeks never fewer than 7,000 and sometimes 20,000 prisoners were crowded like sheep in a dusty pen. Many of the men lacked blankets, and the nights were bitterly cold.
To give them adequate medical care was far beyond the resources of their captors. There was no sanitation; and, at first, it took one of the two infantry companies posted at the cage seven hours to distribute the day’s rations: one tin of veal, two biscuits and a bottle of water to each man, though few prisoners had even a bottle to receive their water in.
From the 23rd to the 26th the 2/7the Battalion was on guard and strove unceasingly to feed and water the prisoners. The 2/2nd Battalion which relieved the 2/7th reduced the time spent feeding the prisoners to five hours by installing water tubs and employing Italian N.C.O.s to organise the lines.
Eventually the guards from this battalion made sure that every prisoner had at elast a greatcoat or blanket and his own water bottle… Gradually the numbers were reduced by sending them eastwards to Egypt in empty trucks that had come forward carrying supplies and after the harbour was opened 1,500 to 2,000 were shipped away every second or third day. By the middle of February the number of prisoners had been reduced to about 10,000 and by the end of the month to 7,000, but on 28th February convoys, each containing 800 to 1,000 prisoners began to arrive from Benghazi and, in a few days the cage contained 11,000. The Tobruk cage was finally emptied in March.
From AUSTRALIA IN THE WAR OF 1939-1945 Series One Army, Volume 1 To Benghazi by Gavin Long. Chapter 9 Capture of Tobruk
NEAR TOBRUK – A CROSS SECTION OF MUSSOLINI’S MIGHTY ARMY. (NEGATIVE BY F. HURLEY).
Click on the link below to see more photos taken by Frank Hurley and further information about the Tobruk Prisoner of War Cage.
Antonino was captured at Tobruk 22nd January 1941. His grandson Damiano Lumia recorded his nonno’s memories. Listen to Antonino as he tells us his story: A Voice from the Past
In 1940, Emanuele was sent to Tobruk. “I was a sailor on a small boat that was used to ferry goods between ships on the harbour… I recall as soon as we reached the harbour, one midnight, the bombing began. This bombing was to last nine months… The constant booms of the bombs drove us half crazy.
23rd January 1941 TOBRUK – THESE AUSTRALIANS ARE TAKEN BESIDE A WALL WHICH SHOWS DAMAGE CAUSED BY THE INTENSE BARRAGE FROM BRITISH FORCES PENETRATING THE ITALIAN DEFENCES. (NEGATIVE BY F. HURLEY).
There were six ships in the harbour that night… the Liguria (passenger ship), the Serenitas (carrying cement), the Manzoni (carrying mechanics) and the Serenco (carrying wood). I’ve forgotten the other two.
23rd January 1941 TOBRUK – THE “SERENTATIS” ANOTHER ITALIAN SHIP SCUPPERED, A TRICK THAT THE ITALIANS SEEM TO HAVE LEARNT FROM THEIR AXIS FRIENDS. (NEGATIVE BY F. HURLEY).
… Our role in Tobruk Harbour was to supply goods to all the Italian soldiers, Navy and Air Force…
My worst memory is the night before I was taken P.O.W. by the Australian soldiers. Our Commanders ordered us to destroy everything in Tobruk Harbour… The generals took the attitude, ‘The enemy must not have any of our goods,’ but in doing this they condemned their own men to death by starvation.
Tobruk was captured the next day. We had to destroy even the ships that were half sunk. Even the Italian cruiser, the San Giorgio was destroyed by us.
23rd January 1941 TOBRUK – ITALIAN PRISONERS LEAVING THE TOWN ON FOOT. (NEGATIVE BY F. HURLEY).
That evening we found the Aussies waiting. They greeted us with ‘hands up! Come down to the wharf!’. They took us to an open area and we were surrounded. They put us in a line and made us walk twelve kilometres to the operation field. We had no food or drink…
23rd January 1941 TOBRUK – MOST OF THE ITALIANS CARRY POCKETSFUL OF GRENADES AND IT IS THEREFORE NECESSARY TO SEARCH PRISONERS FOR THESE AS SOON AS POSSIBLE. NOT ONLY BECAUSE OF POSSIBLE TREACHERY BUT THEY FORGET THEY ARE CARRYING THEM ABOUT AND SOMETIMES THIS FORGETFULNESS IS DANGEROUS. (NEGATIVE BY F. HURLEY).
I remember one night they [Germans] bombed us. The Germans our friends, thought we were the enemy. About two hundred and eighty-one Italians died that night.
After one week, the Aussie solders took about one thousand people and took us to the harbour of Tobruk again. There was an Egyptian ship called Solum, and we went on board. The ship sailed us to Egypt…Alexandria… when we neared Bardia, we saw three planes.. and they threw bombs at us. When the ship was hit by a bomb, the Captain tried to take the ship to shore. Being a fisherman, I knew how to swim. Many men drowned…. The trucks came to rescue us and took us to Alexandria in Egypt. My biggest horror from the war is the starvation and lack of water plus the horror of the deaths. Here we were given a loaf of bread for tomorrow…. We had plenty of water. We got given five cigarettes and I sold my cigarettes for more bread. From Alessandria I was taken to Quassassin Camp. We worked carrying light poles and then we were shipped to Suez… I was sent to Zonderwater (near a mining town). I worked as a kitchen hand for two years.” (from Boccia Cesarin-An Historial Link – Italy – Australia by Cesare Romane Stefanate)
Manlio Sulis was at Tobruk and his son Giovanni Sulis provides insightful details about Tobruk and the journey: Tobruk -Sollum – Alexandria – Geneifia Camp 306 – Zonderwater
Luigi Bortolotti was an infantry sergeant who was captured on 21st January 1941 at Tobruk. His diary of 300 pages details his journey from ‘the sad day of my capture to that longed-for day of my release.’
Desmond O’Connor used Luigi’s diary to write: From Tobruk to Clare: the experiences of the Italian prisoners of war Luigi Bortolotti 1941-1946.
On 22nd January 1941, Tobruk capitulated to the Allies.
22nd January 1941 AN AERIAL VIEW OF TOBRUK, AFTER THE ITALIAN GARRISON HAD SURRENDERED. SHOWN, BLACK SMOKE ROLLING FROM BURNING OIL TANKS BEYOND WHICH, IN THE HARBOUR, THE ITALIAN CRUISER SAN GIORGIO IS ON FIRE.
General Enrico Pitassi Manella: Commander of Tobruk; General Umberto Barberis: Commander of Easter Section; General Vincenzo della Mura: Commander of Western Sector and General Adolfo de Leone: Chief of Staff XXII Corps surrendered in the field.
Commander of the Navy at Tobruk Garrison, Rear Admiral Massimillian Vietina surrendered his 1500 strong naval contingent to General Robertson and Lieutenant Hennessy. Through an interpreter, Vietina was asked where the Commander of the Army at the Tobruk Garrison was. It was reported ‘the military commander of Toburk fortress had escaped by schooner.’
The town of Tobruk and naval headquarters was surrendered by Vietina.
22nd January 1941 View across the harbour of the town. Note the clouds of smoke from the bombed oil tankers and the cruiser San Giorgio. Members of 2/2nd Battalion camped later just past the area of bombardment. `B’ Company guarded the wharf with the crane and were bombed every night and morning. The Hotel Tobruk can be seen on the left.
22nd January 1941 A motor cyclist rides along the exit road of the wharf area beside the harbour where members of 2/2nd Battalion were stationed. Note the remains of the destroyed jetties and sunken Italian shipping in the background.
Below Navy Headquarters was a complex of deep underground shelters and passageways which had been concreted and fitted with electricity. Stairs descended about 60 – 70 feet underground.
About 500 marines appeared from these mazes of corridors and spilled out into the courtyard.
31st January 1941 TOBRUK – FOUR NAVAL RATINGS FROM THE ITALIAN SHIP SAN GIORGIO, CAPTURED DURING THE ACTION. (Photographer: James Francis Hurley)
The township of Tobruk was said to be a pleasant place of white brick and plaster buildings with services to accommodate a garrison of 10,000 or more men. After the surrender of Tobruk, the church was said to be the only building to escape major damage. The church can be seen in the photo below.
23rd January 1941 TOBRUK – VIEW FROM THE VERANDAH OF A HOUSE IN TOBRUK SHOWING THE CHURCH – THE ONLY UNDAMAGED BUILDING IN THE TOWN AFTER THE BRITISH ATTACK. (NEGATIVE BY F. HURLEY).
23rd January 1941 TOBRUK – AUSTRALIANS TEAR DOWN THE ITALIAN FLAG AFTER THEY HAVE PENETRATED THE ITALIAN DEFENCES AND ENTERED THE TOWN. Notice the fasces: symbols of fascism adorning the columns. (NEGATIVE BY F. HURLEY).
The harbour had been damaged, but the Allied forces had it in running order within three days. One jetty was largely undamaged, and the flotilla of schooners, pontoons and launches were also in good order.
23rd January 1941 TOBRUK – ITALIAN MERCHANT SHIPS CAUGHT IN TOBRUK HARBOUR. (NEGATIVE BY F. HURLEY).
TOBRUK – ITALIAN AIRCRAFT FLEW OVER THE ITALIAN CAMPS & DROPPED LEAFLETS EXHORTING THE BESIEGED TROOPS TO HANG ON FOR THE ASSISTANCE THAT WAS SURELY COMING. HERE AN ITALIAN OFFICER TRANSLATES THE LEAFLET FOR ALLEN ANDERSON OF THE PHOTOGRAPHIC UNIT. (NEGATIVE BY F. HURLEY).
The Merchant ships Marco Polo and Liguria had been rendered worthless.
23rd January 1941 Tobruk Harbour, Libya. The Italian Merchant vessel Marco scuppered before the Italians surrounded the town. (Photographer: Frank Hurley)
5th September 1941 Two of the wrecks in Tobruk Harbour. The larger vessel is the Italian troopship “Liguria” and the smaller is the “Bankura” a Navy Army Air Force Institute (NAAFI) supply ship. (Photographer: Thomas Fisher)
The old cruiser, San Giorgio was seaworthy and had been used since June 1940 to supplement the anti-aircraft defences of Tobruk claiming 47 enemy aircraft. In January 1941 the San Giorgio was used as off-shore artillery with its guns pounding the Tobruk attackers. At 4.15 am on the 22nd January 1941, the San Giorgio was scuttled by her captain Stefano Pugliese.
c. 22nd January 1941 The Italian Coast Defence Ship (former armoured cruiser), San Giorgio, scuttled and burning after attacks by Naval Aircraft and RAF bombers at Tobruk, June – January 1941. Note the anti-torpedo nets around the wreck.
Inspection of the San Giorgio’s torpedo nets after the fall of Tobruk, revealed that as many as 39 torpedoes had become stuck in the nets during her service in Tobruk.
Another ship in Tobruk harbour was RN Alberga/Albernga. Both Francesco Riva from Galbiate Como and Renzo Menicucci from Livorno served on this boat. Possibly the ship’s name has been misspelt. [There were light cruisers in service: Alberico de Barbiano and Alberto Da Giussano.]
January 1941 Italian prisoners of war (POWs) are marched along the harbour wharf prior to embarkation on the ship in the foreground. Note the destroyed Italian ships in the background. The view is as seen looking up towards the cage where the prisoners of war were housed. (Original housed in AWM Archive Store)
23rd January 1941 TOBRUK – HIGH OFFICERS OF THE ITALIAN NAVY & ARMY LED THEIR MEN OUT OF TOBRUK TO SURRENDER TO BRITISH FORCES. ALTHOUGH WITHOUT GUARDS, THIS COLUMN OF PRISONERS MARCHED WITH PERFECT DISCIPLINE TO THE PRISONERS CAMP WHERE THEY WERE HANDED OVER BY THEIR OWN OFFICERS. (NEGATIVE BY F. HURLEY).
Feature Photo Above: Gianni Senici, Durante il servizio militare in Libia (1936-1938) (photo courtesy of Fabrizio Senici)
Below is an extract from the book P.O.W. No. 48664 Prisoner of War written by Fabrizio Senici. Disponible su / Available on: AMAZON and IBS LIBRI
Italian Prisoners of War at Tobruk (AWM Image P10989.002 Photographer: Cartledge, Bryan Hammersley)
Siamo dentro, al riparo. Buio, paura e silenzio: penso a come devono essere spessi questi muri per chiudere fuori tutto quel casino.
Paura, buio, silenzio: nessuno di noi ha il coraggio di parlare. Anche il sergente sta zitto. Qualche colpo di tosse, qualcuno tira su con il naso, ognuno ascolta solo il bum-bum del suo cuore. Silenzio, paura e buio: piano piano i miei occhi si abituano alla poca luce che filtra dalle feritoie.
Faccio la conta di quanti siamo, cerco qualcuno che conosco, ma non conosco proprio nessuno. Solo che mi è sembrato che uno parlasse bresciano e almeno questo mi fa sentire meno solo.
Il sergente sa che tutti ci aspettiamo da lui una decisione. Siamo tagliati fuori da qualsiasi contatto e spetta a lui decidere della nostra sorte. Mi guardo intorno mentre la polvere gioca e balla nei fasci di luce delle feritoie e nella nostra puzza di paura. Il mio sguardo incontra gli occhi del sergente che sembrano non vedermi, mi passano oltre. Ostia. Siamo tutti gnari [ragazzi] di poco più di vent’anni, spauriti, gente che fino all’anno prima faceva il contadino, l’operaio, il magüt [il carpentiere] e ora è solo carne da macello. Quando inizia a parlare capisco che il sergente è un uomo buono.
«Ragazzi, qui è finita, non c’è più niente da fare» dice e la sua voce mi fa capire tutta la sua stanchezza.
«Che cosa facciamo, sergente?» chiede una voce.
«Non lo so, sacramento, non lo so proprio» risponde il sergente. E poi continuando: «In quanti siamo qui dentro? Dài fioi, contiamoci».
Allora mi faccio forza e inizio io: «Uno» dico, e poi altre voci: «due, tre, quattro, cinque, sei, sette. Dov’è il bambino? Dov’è Mario?» chiede
qualcuno in veneto. Non so chi sia questo “bambino”, questo Mario, ma posso immaginare che sia il più giovane di quel gruppo.
«Non l’ho più visto da un po’» dice un altro veneto, da questo capisco che sono tre che si conoscono, magari dei compaesani.
«Allora in quanti semo?» continua il sergente.
«In sette, sergente, qui dentro siamo in sette» risponde pronto il caporale.
«Chi cazzo è che sta piangendo?» la voce del sergente adesso non è più così buona: «Dài che siamo uomini del Duce, ostia!».
Sono stanco morto. Da tre giorni scappo come un topo da un rifugio all’altro e mangiare non se ne parla, figurarsi il bere. Mi lascio scivolare lungo il muro e quando il mio sedere tocca terra mi sento come un sacco svuotato e penso che potrei anche morire così.
Guardo il sergente. Tutti guardiamo il sergente. C’è più luce adesso che gli occhi si sono abituati. Lui si toglie l’elmetto, si asciuga il sudore con il dorso della mano lasciandosi una striscia nera sulla fronte. Ci squadra a uno a uno. Poi parla. Con voce forte e chiara, an che lui è veneto, o trentino: «Ascoltatemi bene tutti, qui non c’è più un cazzo da fare. Da ieri gli ufficiali non rispondono e secondo me se la sono già svignata perciò se non vogliamo crepare, e io non vi voglio sulla coscienza, non ci resta che arrenderci».
«Però, quando usciamo da qui, che nessuno si metta in testa di fare l’eroe».
«Che cosa dobbiamo fare sergente?» chiede il bresciano.
«Usciamo da qui con le mani sopra la testa. Lasciate qui le armi» risponde lui.
«Qualcuno sa l’inglese?» chiede una voce.
«Che cosa ci faranno, sergente?» chiede un’altra.
Adesso tutti prendiamo il coraggio di parlare e sembra un pollaio.
«State zitti tutti» urla il sergente, ma poi si calma.
«Non lo so» dice sconsolato «non lo so!».
Detto questo, si fa largo nello spazio angusto del bunker, mette mano alla pesante maniglia in ferro e si decide a uscire.
«Dài andiamo fora dai cojon, stiamo uniti, proviamo a stare tutti insieme».
«Padre nostro che sei nei cieli…» qualcuno sta pregando a mezza voce.
«Chi cazzo è che prega, ostia, non è il momento di pregare» urla di nuovo il sergente e aggiunge: «Dài fuori di qui. FUORI!».
23rd January 1941 TOBRUK – THE DEFENCE POSITION ON THE ROAD APPROACHING TOBRUK. NOTE WIRE, CONCRETE PILLBOX & THE ANTI TANK GUN THAT WAS RESPONSIBLE FOR THE DESTRUCTION OF THE Y.M.C.A. CAR. (NEGATIVE BY F. HURLEY).
Above Featured Photo: Gianni Senici 1985. Aged 69 years.
It is a privilege to honour the journey of Giovanni Senici, as recreated by his son Fabrizio Senici in his book P.O.W. No. 48664 Prisoner of War. Fabrizio has researched extensively his father’s story which included a visit to Australia in 2017, to walk in his father’s footsteps. Disponible su / Available on: AMAZON and IBS LIBRI
Non riesco a credere che sono ancora vivo. Mi appoggio al muro, chiudo gli occhi e cerco con la mano la mia piastrina di riconoscimento. Mi dà sicurezza quel pezzo di ferro con su il mio nome. Se dovessi morire, penso, almeno sanno chi sono.
Sì, perché qui si aspetta solo di morire. Certo, se mi avessero detto che la guerra era questa, mica sarei partito fischiettando da Concesio quando mi hanno richiamato il 1° maggio.
Ho in mente questa cosa da stamattina, quando per un momento le bombe hanno smesso di fischiarmi sopra la testa. È stata dura perché sono due notti che ci bombardano. Da terra, dal mare e dal cielo. Sembra la grandinata del 1936. Una grandine così a Brescia non l’avevano mai vista. I chicchi erano grossi come uova e hanno spaccato su tutto: tetti, carri, le automobili, i vetri delle case. Ecco, le bombe degli inglesi oggi hanno fatto quella stessa roba lì, solo che i buchi sono molto più grandi.
Sono due giorni che me ne sto rintanato nella mensa ufficiali. E chi ha più avuto il coraggio di mettere fuori il naso! Sono un cameriere io, mica uno che spara. E per fortuna che non mi sono più mosso da qui, se no addio Gianni, e chissà perché rido mentre sento gli areoplani che volano bassi su Tobruk. Sarà la paura.
È mattino presto, quasi l’alba. Spio fuori dai sacchi che abbiamo messo da dieci giorni fuori dalle finestre della sala mensa. I caporioni lo sapevano da un bel po’ che saremmo stati attaccati, ma si sono guardati bene dal dircelo.
E gli ufficiali allora? Ah, quelli poi sono tutti impazziti. Qui non si capisce più niente di chi comanda e di chi non comanda. Prima ti danno un ordine, poi te ne danno un altro e intanto giù bombe. Non ho ancora finito di pensare a questa cosa che entra di corsa un alto ufficiale. Riconosco che è un colonnello dalla torretta con le tre stelle d’oro che porta sulla divisa. È tutto impolverato e perde sangue da un braccio.
Sono da solo qui dentro, e non ci dovrei stare. Che faccio? Lo saluto o non lo saluto? Poi scatto sull’attenti: «Soldato semplice addetto alla mensa ufficiali Senici Giovanni, 67a divisione Sirte» dico, e resto lì aspettando un ordine di “riposo”, ma quello passa fuori che sembra non vedermi nemmeno, allora mi rilasso e gli dico: «Sta bene, signor colonnello?».
Lui si gira, si tocca il braccio e sorridendo senza guardarmi mi dice: «Stavo meglio prima. Comunque non è niente, soldato. Grazie».
Ostia! Mi sorprende di più quel “grazie” che non trovare un po’ di acqua qui a Tobruk, e allora gli rispondo: «Prego, signor colonnello» ma in verità avrei voluto chiedergli «Che facciamo?».
E lui fa una cosa che non dimenticherò. Mi mette il braccio sano sulla spalla e mi dice: «Pensa a portare a casa la pelle, giovanotto, che qui siamo tutti come morti che camminano» e così dicendo se ne va: apre la porta delle cucine ed esce come se niente fosse, aggiustandosi l’elmetto sulla testa.
Volevo dirgli di stare attento, ma mi rimetto dietro i sacchi e lo vedo, testa alta e petto in fuori, attraversare la piazza dove ancora resiste il monumento di Mussolini con la scritta VINCERE.
Guardo quel colonnello gentile che mi ha detto “grazie” e un momento dopo non c’è più. Una granata li ha disintegrati insieme, lui e il monumento di Mussolini.
D’istinto mi tiro indietro. Ho le orecchie che fischiano per il gran botto e il cuore che batte forte in gola. Mi viene da piangere tanta è la paura. Me lo diceva sempre mio padre che noi soldati siamo solo carne da macello e che i governi sono i macellai. Non gli volevo credere, l’erasemper cioc. [era sempre unbriaco]
Mi siedo su una seggiola e accendo una Milit. Tiro lunghe boccate che sentono proprio di merda e bruciano la gola e mi ricordo che ho sete.
Acqua dai rubinetti non ne viene, gli inglesi hanno bombardato per prima cosa i nostri pozzi. Allora mi attacco a una bottiglia di vino spumante mezza vuota, lì da chissà quanto.
Adesso qui dentro, in questa cucina, è tutto calmo. Fuori c’è la guerra: scoppi, boati, urla, i cingolati che fanno un fracasso della madonna, ma qui dentro c’è una pace che si sta quasi bene. Mi fumo la mia sigaretta fino a scottarmi le dita e finalmente mi decido ad alzare il culo dalla seggiola.
Dài, forza, mi dico che l’ultima sigaretta l’ho fumata e poi penso che morirò come quel colonnello. Torno a guardare fuori dai sacchi e vedo un gruppo che corre rasente il muro del palazzo ad angolo e allora vado: mi affaccio fuori dalle cucine e prendo tutto il coraggio che ho per uscire fuori allo scoperto.
Davanti a tutti c’è un sergente che grida forte per farsi sentire sopra gli scoppi, la polvere e la gran confusione. Corro con loro con le mie braghe bianche da cameriere. Capisco che faccio anche un po’ ridere.
Tutti gridano tutto:
«Caporale, raduna i tuoi!».
«Dài, dài veloci, veloci, madonna!».
«Tenete giù la testa, tenete giù la testa!».
«Oh sergente, sono da tutte le parti questi inglesi di merda!».
Ci fermiamo un momento. Al riparo di una casa sventrata. Giro lo sguardo sui miei compagni, ma non ne conosco nessuno. Per forza mi dico, a Tobruk saremo in ventimila.
«Telefonista, chiama il comando, chiedi rinforzi!».
«Comando, comando, qui è la sessantasettesima… comando, comando… non rispondono, sergente!».
«Ma dov’è il 6° con i 50 millimetri, dove cazzo sono?».
«Dài, via di qui, non c’è più niente da fare!».
«Dài via di lì, venite via!».
«State giù, state giù!».
«Dài tutti dentro qui, al riparo, al riparo!».
Sapevo che la città era piena di bunker che sarebbero serviti proprio in caso di ultima, estrema difesa. Quelli davanti aprono con fatica la pesante porta in metallo che non vuole saperne di cedere sotto le spallate disperate dei primi della fila. Finalmente entriamo. C’è puzza di cantina ammuffita.
«Sergente, non si vede una madonna qui dentro».
«Caporale mettiti allo spioncino».
«Oh sergente fuori è pieno di inglesi».
«Caporale, non sono inglesi sono australiani».
«Peggio ancora, al corso ci hanno spiegato che questi sono come delle bestie!».
23rd January 1941 TOBRUK – LOOKING ALONG THE PIAZZA BENITO MUSSOLINI, AFTER THE ENTRANCE OF THE BRITISH FORCES. (AWM Image 005416 NEGATIVE BY F. HURLEY).
An Australian army driver from Western Australia, Chas. [Charles] Parsons sent home written details about his 2,000 mile drive from Alexandria in Egypt to the front between Bardia and Tobruk. While published 1st May 1941 in an Australian newspaper, this journey would have taken place between 6th January and 21 January 1941.
Chas. Parsons describes the scenes of destruction, the lines of Italian prisoners of war, the noises of battle and the cold of a desert night.
…Mersa Matruh, prettily situated on the shores of the Mediterranean. As we approached, the beauty vanished and a slight devastation greeted us. Hardly a building had escaped damage of some description.
“Burying Italian prisoner at Mersa Matruh, Padre Phillips assisted the Italian padre.” January 1941-May 1941 (AWM Image PO5182.014, Photographer Robert Otto Boese)
Sidi Barranai it [the road] was badly blown about… we came across the first lot of captured Italian material. Hundreds of guns of all descriptions war were in neat rows; also dumps of other goods… a very sorry sight. It was blown to pieces and the wonder is how anybody could possibly get out alive from such destruction. Only parts of walls were left standing and utter confusion was everywhere… up to this point we had seen occasional smashed trucks and cars by the roadside; but now they started to appear every few yards, and also other equipment that had not been collected.
SIDI BARRANI – THE ONLY THING LEFT STANDING COMPLETE IN BARRANI WAS THIS MONUMENT PROUDLY COMMEMORATING THE LIBERATION OF LIBYA BY THE ITALIANS. 13 December 1940 (AWM Image 004418, PHOTOGRAPHED BY F. HURLEY).
Sollum with its pretty little harbor. We did not go through the town but took the “Hell Fire Pass” up over the hills – a rough, treacherous, windy track… it was an extremely difficult road to negotiate… the way to the Libyan border, was marked by miles of barbed wire. For miles now we had been meeting trucks of “Iti” prisoners packed in, standing room only – being conveyed to various spots behind the lines, and many of the trucks were captured ones.
SOLLUM – OVERLOOKING THE JETTY AND HARBOUR AT SOLLUM BRITISH TRANSPORTS ARE UNLOADING BENZINE INSPITE OF ARTILLERY FIRE FROM ITALIAN GUNS DIRECTED ON THIS POINT. 28 December 1940 (AWM Image 004945, Photographer F. HURLEY).
Approaching Fort Capuzzo, the roadside was littered with all sorts of equipment – big trucks, burnt, on their sides, on their nose, upside down, in hundreds of bits; tanks burnt and disabled, guns, rifles, clothes, motor bikes, boots, water bottles, gas masks, blankets – everything…In the distance we saw a big mass of black figures; they were thousands more prisoners, hemmed in by barbed wire and awaiting transportation. Fort Capuzzo is nothing but a heap of rubble…
FORT CAPUZZO, LIBYA. RUINS OF THE FORT AFTER THE HEAVY BOMBARDMENT BY BRITISH FORCES. 24 December 1940 (AWM Image 005274, Photographer James Francis Hurley)
Another bad stretch of bombed road, with many of Graziani’s tablets, milestones and victory monuments uprooted…. an occasional aeroplane smashed and burnt by the roadside.
FORT CAPUZZO, LIBYA. L/C W. BROOKS, PROVOST CORPS 6TH DIVISION DIRECTS TRAFFIC AT JUNCTION OF SOLLUM-BARDIA ROAD. HIS IMPOSING PEDESTAL IS THE VICTOR ARCH ERECTED BY ITALIANS AND IS ANOTHER EXAMPLE OF THEIR FLAMBOYANT DECORATION OF THE OTHERWISE FEATURELESS LANDSCAPE. 27 December 1940 (AWM Image 005264, photograph James Francis Hurley)
Everywhere are signs of absolute confusion and rout of the Dagos. They left burnt bridges, undamaged as well as thousands of pounds worth of most valuable equipment in the way of big Diesel trucks, guns, clothing and stores.
Bardia. 1941-01-03. Pile of provisions and clothing on the ground after an Italian Quartermaster Store was destroyed by the Allies. Note the soldier in the background, possibly from 2/2nd Battalion, with a large cloth, possibly a captured banner. (Original housed in AWM Archive Store)( AWM Image PO2038.078)
Hundreds of these Dago trucks are being used by English and Aussie boys, who are also wearing various Dago things – caps, hats, overalls, boots etc are blending in with our own khaki dress…. along the route were hundreds of empty wine casks. They like their wine like our chaps like their tea or beer. Not all the barrels and bottles were empty, as our chaps found plenty of them full and had quite a merry time.
BARDIA, LIBYA, 1941-01. DISABLED ITALIAN GUN, A 105/28 FIELD HOWITZER, AFTER BATTLE AROUND BARDIA ROAD. (DONOR: L. MOUSER). (AWM Image P00643.002)
… we were able to enjoy Graziani’s beautiful road. It is a magnificent road, excellent surface, good foundations, shiny knobs on every curve and every 200 yards are built platforms off the road to make turning easy and packing and unpacking of trucks a simple matter…
TOBRUK, LIBYA. 1941-12. ROAD BLOCKS USED ON THE EASTERN END OF THE BARDIA ROAD. (AWM Image 022175)
Arrival at the Battle Area
The night was beautiful- a full moon, mild and myriads of stars. Sometimes there would be a lull in firing, and then everything would go again – big and small, machine guns, rifles and anti-aircraft. The flash of the guns at night was beautiful … The cold towards morning is terrific. I slept in blankets, sleeping bag, pullover, shirt and balaclava… Most of the firing was being done by our fellows, and Tobruk was being pounded relentlessly by land and sea. The Dagos are well beaten here and the place will soon be in our hands…
TOBRUK, LIBYA. 1941. ITALIAN PRISONERS, CAPTURED BY THE 9TH AUSTRALIAN DIVISION, IN A TEMPORARY P.G.W. CAGE. (AWM Image 040628, Photographer G Keating)
Driving back to Alexandria
At one spot we came across about 24,000 prisoners straggling along the road. They were unattended and presented a sorry picture; they stretched for miles and naturally were most dejected, as they would be wondering, of course, just what treatment was ahead of them… I did forget to mention the thousands of petrol tins thrown everywhere across the desert. Mostly tins are carried for convenience, as each vehicle has to look after itself and those tins, twinkle and shine everywhere along the 2,000 mile trip we had…
LIBYA, 1941-12. FIGURE OF EROS MADE FROM KEROSENE TINS IN THE DESERT. (AWM Image 021710)