Episodes & Studies Volume 1
GRUPPIGNANO (Campo 57), near Udine, between the Adriatic and the Alps, was a camp in which many New Zealanders were imprisoned; it was the policy of the Italians to carry out the terms of the Geneva Convention by concentrating in the same camp prisoners of war of the same nationality.** This was one reason for the train journeys which punctuated prisoner-of-war existence. These journeys were made in varying degrees of comfort. If many men moved together, they might be packed tightly into closed trucks resembling furniture vans, with or without wooden seats. The guards were chary of letting prisoners out at halts even though the journey might last three days. On the other hand, small groups of prisoners travelling separately with their guards were usually well treated. Guards were known to buy them food and wine out of their own pockets, and invariably civilian travellers, without distinction of sex, were evicted from their seats to make room for the prisoners.
Every prisoner-of-war camp in Italy had a squad of Carabinieri Reali, the police force whose specialist efficiency preceded the advent of Fascism. These men were responsible for security, seemed to be able to over-rule the Army commandant of camps, no matter what his rank, conducted the most rigorous and unexpected searches of personal belongings, and sometimes treated prisoners with the brutality which presumably had become habitual to them in dealing with page 7 civil offenders. At Gruppignano the commandant was himself a colonel in the Carabinieri Reali; he was also military governor of Udine and an ardent Fascist. This man, Calcaterra, prided himself on the strictness of his discipline, and the thirty cells at Gruppignano were never empty. Had he not been killed by Italian partisans, he would probably have faced war-crimes charges. Many prisoners had something approaching respect for this would-be ogre, and one recorded his satisfaction that Calcaterra at the fall of Mussolini did not, like so many Fascists, attempt to change his coat. Atrocities were committed in this camp—a man who had got drunk was shot by a carabiniere while being helped back to his hut, and another was shot while getting wood after dark—and in general discipline was childishly pin-pricking. Men whose faces twitched on roll-call parade went straight to the cells, without trial or inquiry. If too much talking went on at night in any hut, the Carabinieri took several men at random and put them in the cells. Life in the camp’s cells was not as bad as it might have been, as extra food and cigarettes were smuggled in by friends, the cigarettes being hidden inside ration bread. When escapes took place, collective punishments were imposed on the whole camp. Although Gruppignano was strictly run by the Carabinieri, many prisoners of war preferred this camp to others because it was run efficiently and the ‘rackets’ which flourished elsewhere were suppressed.
On arrival at Gruppignano, after weeks or months in transit camps, many of the men were in rags and tatters. They and their garments were disinfested, and they were issued with old Yugoslav or Greek uniforms. It was a great relief later to get British uniforms through the Red Cross and woollen underwear in the first parcel from New Zealand House. In the camp, baths were irregular and lice common: the periodical steaming of clothes did not kill them all. The medical department was backward, although matters improved when an Australian medical officer took over the sick parades.
In Gruppignano the space available for exercise was ample, but there was no hut set aside for recreation. Cricket, football, baseball, volley ball, and deck tennis were played, much of the material being provided by the British Red Cross, sometimes indirectly: the Italians would not allow balls for cricket and baseball to be supplied, but the prisoners made their own, weaving them from the string round Red Cross parcels. ‘Blowers’* were a feature of life in this camp, as in many others. The scarcity of fuel was severe throughout Italy, and much ingenuity was lavished on the perfection of these cookers; competitions were held between different types and different operators to boil water in the shortest time. Several could bring over a litre (approximately 1 ¾ pints) to the boil in less than two minutes. Even the Italian commandant was fond of displaying his camp’s ‘blowers’ to visiting Generals.
Like many of the Italian camps Gruppignano had beautiful surroundings, including a view of the distant Dolomite Mountains. A prisoner has recorded that his main memories of this camp were the beauty of the Alps, the echoing of the bells of the many old churches nearby, stamping the feet on the frozen mud in winter in an attempt to keep warm, the long waits for meals, the weaving of the searchlights along the wire at night, ‘the weird solemnity of the funeral processions out to the gate when a man died’, and ‘the box-like interiors of the huts, the patterns on the walls in the place where I slept, the strange, coke-like smell of a charcoal burner’.
** Most of the New Zealand prisoner-of-war NCOs and men were confined in Campo 57 (Gruppignano) and Campo 52 (Chiavari); there were smaller numbers at a few other main camps and at numerous working camps, particularly in northern Italy. At one stage Gruppignano housed nearly 2000 New Zealanders.
* Blowers were of several different types. This is a former prisoner’s description of the ingenious ‘1942 Rotary Model’: ‘These little blowers, made solely out of old food tins plus an old bit of wire for an axle, a heel plate for bearings and a bootlace for driving belt, are ideal. They create such a draught that we can burn any old bits of swamp wood and rubbish we like to stick in the fire box.’