Episodes & Studies Volume 1
ALTHOUGH in their treatment of officer prisoners of war they sometimes violated the provisions of the Geneva Convention in detail, on the whole the Italians tried to observe them. The three principal prison camps in which New Zealand officers were held at different times in Italy were Padula (Campo 35), an ancient monastery, Poppi (Campo 38), a villa in the Apennines, formerly a convent, and Modena (Campo 47), a military barracks. A few senior officers lived in a modern country villa near Florence (Campo 12) from which Brigadiers J. Hargest and R. Miles made their notable escape, and those ardent spirits who came into too fierce collision with authority were sent to the punishment fortress of Gavi (Campo 5).
At one time Padula was oppressively ruled by an emotional Carabinieri colonel who hysterically maltreated prisoners caught attempting escape.* At another time in Padula a kindly, elderly commandant presided over a camp in which a fair standard of comfort had been achieved; prisoners had developed the black market possibilities of the commodities contained in Red Cross parcels to get whatever they wanted. It was in Padula, in 1942, that 400 New Zealanders on their first Anzac Day in captivity held their own dawn parade.
Poppi was the first camp set aside exclusively for New Zealand officers, but perhaps through Italian haziness in Commonwealth geography, a few South Africans, Rhodesians, and British were also to be found among its 100 inmates. Until Red Cross parcels began to arrive in the spring of 1942, three months after the establishment of the camp, Poppi was a hungry place where most were too listless to move about unnecessarily and squander energy. (Newly established camps rarely received parcels promptly. There was a time-lag before the International Red Cross became aware of their existence, but as soon as it did, the new camps were sent full supplies.) Like most Italian camps in winter it was bitterly cold: there was the usual shortage of fuel for the stufas (stoves) which were scattered through the different rooms with a delusive liberality. In spite of the small recreation space out of doors, basketball and deck tennis were played on a ground excavated by the prisoners themselves, and many engaged in gardening on the steep slopes. Lectures and courses of study were extensively developed, particularly the study of Italian. On Saturday evenings a formal mess and a smoke concert were held; these were enlivened by wine saved from the week’s ration.** The Florence bookshops had provided Tauchnitz editions of English books before the arrival of Red Cross supplies.
Towards the end of 1942 the New Zealand officers were moved to Modena, where, with others captured in the Alamein fighting, their numbers rose to 200. They shared the camp with 800 South Africans and 200 British. With the additional resources of larger numbers and the productive capacity of the most fertile part of Italy, Modena was a well-fed camp. It was also comfortable and the Italian staff were well ‘managed’ by their prisoners. Wine was available in greater quantity than to civilians. The space for exercise was ample, and baseball, football, and basketball were played with keen international rivalry. Entertainments were many and the camp had an excellent orchestra.page 9
Conditions at Benghazipage 11 page 12
Then to Italy
A FUNERAL PARADE, CAMPO 75, Bari, December 1942
ALL BEDS AND GEAR OUT FOR A SEARCH, CAMPO 52, Chiavari. Some of the bed slats have been taken off for fuel
A JIU-JITSU DISPLAY, CAMPO 47, Modena, August 1943
Work & Routinepage 17 page 18
Guards and Prisoners
ITALIAN SISTERS OF MERCY, CAMPO 202, Lucca They nursed our wounded
OUTSIDE THE RED
DEPOT, CAMPO 57,
The camp leader (left) and padre are in front of an Italian guard
MASS EVACUATION TO GERMANY
Although university and professional examinations were not available in Italy, the studious at Modena did a good deal of work. Ex-prisoners, however, have commented on the quick waning of enthusiasms and their own inability to persevere with continuous study. A central news agency digested the contents of German and Italian newspapers and issued a suitably adjusted version of the news.
As the Allies advanced in Italy chances of liberation were very much in everybody’s mind. At Modena the nearness of the water level to the surface made the digging of escape tunnels difficult, and interest in them waned as the chances of being liberated by the Allied armies appeared larger.
* Horned Pigeon, by George Millar (Heinemann), Chapter IX.
** Unwilling Guests, by J. D. Gerard (A. H. and A. W. Reed), p. 65.