Episodes & Studies Volume 1
PRISONERS landing in Italy were given a preliminary clean-up at their port of disembarkation, usually Brindisi or Taranto. At Taranto the arrangements, in the hands of the Italian Navy, were efficient. The men had hot showers, very welcome after the cramped conditions on board ship, and simultaneously their clothes were steamed and fumigated to kill the lice—most men had picked up these squalid insects in the North African holding camps. One disadvantage of this necessary process was that the clothes came back with hundreds of creases which could never afterwards be removed. Thus the last vestige of military smartness disappeared from the uniforms in which prisoners had already been forced to live and sleep for weeks or months together.
From the port of disembarkation prisoners of war went to transit camps in the south of Italy. Bari (Campo 75) may be taken as typical of these. In the winter of 1941 it was not a pleasant place. It was overcrowded, 250 officers and 2000 men living in what might have been reasonable accommodation for a quarter of those numbers. Sanitation was bad, medicines and medical equipment scarce (the shortage was general throughout Italy), and the treatment of the sick within the camp rudimentary: only the severely ill were taken to hospital. The rations issued did not exceed 1100 calories daily, and even from this meagre diet some of the Italian supply staff were able to subtract something to sell for their own benefit on the black market. In four months only two and a half Red Cross parcels were issued to each man; the commandant, tersely described as a ‘swine,’ refused to issue one to each prisoner every week.
Campo 75 had already been the scene of an atrocity which was afterwards punished as a war crime. The General in charge of the district, who vied with the commandant of the camp in his unpleasantness to prisoners of war, had invited two British officers, recaptured after an escape, to page 6 demonstrate for his satisfaction just how they had passed through the camp’s barbed-wire perimeter. They reluctantly complied, and as soon as they were well entangled in the meshes he ordered the guard to shoot and himself fired on them with his own revolver. One of the officers was killed, the other wounded.* At Bari also, after a tunnel had been discovered in their section of the camp, the officers’ possessions were searched while they were absent on a walk: all Red Cross food was confiscated and many personal articles disappeared.
A medical orderly who revisited this camp in the spring of 1942 on his way to be repatriated found it much improved, possibly because it held smaller numbers; the sanitation was better, and the food clean and good. The general tendency of Italian prison camps was for them to begin as transit camps and after several months to become permanent, with some consequent amelioration of conditions.
This survey inevitably cites instances of Italian inefficiency and corruption. It is not its purpose to sum up for and against the Italian people, but it must also be mentioned that while the treatment of prisoners by the Italian Army or by the Carabinieri Reali was sometimes harsh, ordinary Italians were often prepared to go out of their way to do prisoners of war a good turn without any hope of reward. Women threw bread into camps like Tuturano, where conditions were known to be bad, and prisoners who gave their water bottles to civilians to be filled with water while waiting to board trains at Bari station in transit to other camps had them returned full of wine. The machine of Fascism regarded it as a duty to behave oppressively, although this was not the sentiment of most Italians.
* Report of the war criminal trial of Maj-Gen Bellomo, 23–28 July 1945.