Prisoners of War
I: The Desert Campaign of 1941—Prisoners in Italian Hands
I: The Desert Campaign of 1941—Prisoners in Italian Hands
LESS than six months after the end of the campaign in Crete the British Western Desert Force, now the Eighth Army, again took the initiative in North Africa. As part of this force the New Zealand Division, reformed and re-equipped, crossed the border into Libya on 19 November ready to play a full part for the first time in desert warfare. The initial successes of the campaign in eastern Cyrenaica could not be exploited because of the unfavourable outcome of the great tank battle around the Sidi Rezegh area. The plan to destroy the enemy armour failed, and British losses in tanks and guns left some of our detached forces a prey to enemy armoured columns. Whereas the Greece and Crete campaigns had culminated in fairly controlled withdrawals from stubbornly defended positions, the Libyan campaign of November 1941 developed into a bewildering alternation of attack and defence with a possible front on every point of the compass.
The result was a complicated tangle of captures, escapes, recaptures, and liberations. General von Ravenstein, commanding part of Rommel's armour, fell into the hands of three of 21 NZ Battalion's Intelligence Section near Point 175. The headquarters of 5 NZ Brigade Group, isolated on an airfield near Bardia, was swept up by Rommel's mobile column. Captured Italian prisoners were liberated when German tanks surrounded their captors. A thousand-odd British prisoners were freed when Bardia was retaken. So difficult was it to tell whether a column of vehicles was British or enemy, that newly-captured prisoners were sometimes able to drive away in enemy trucks and make their way back to our lines.
Most of the New Zealanders captured were infantry and supporting elements whose positions had been overrun by German tanks. An infantryman's diary of events at Sidi Rezegh on 30 November tells a typical story of capture in the desert:
I look again through the loop-hole on my side and I can scarcely believe my eyes. The sun has set and through the moonlit dusk two hundred yards in front of me scores of men from all directions are walking in among page 105 the German tanks, their hands raised above their heads…. A minute or two and tanks are rumbling through and in our lines, men rising from their possies and surrendering….
A warrant officer of the same battalion mentions that the attached artillery was out of shells and that the supply line was cut; an attached machine-gunner states simply that ‘both machine-guns were silenced’. Such a situation made resistance to a tank attack hopeless, and indeed suicidal.
With appropriate alterations in time and place, this is in general the story of most of the other groups of army prisoners taken in the campaign of November 1941. The overrunning of the headquarters and attached troops of 5 Brigade by a tank column from Bardia on 27 November has already been mentioned; an already weakened 21 Battalion met a similar fate at Point 175 on the 29th; 24 and 26 Battalions were cut to pieces at Sidi Rezegh on the 30th; and on 1 December a German armoured attack on Belhamed practically destroyed 20 Battalion. Almost the entire medical services of the Division, grouped together and left unprotected south of Zaafran, had fallen into enemy hands on 28 November. Our assumption that, in view of their protection by the Geneva Convention, medical personnel would not be taken prisoner did not prevent many of them being transported back to the Axis base areas and later to Italy. The German armour had reaped a good harvest among the widely spread units of the Division. Less than a fortnight after the three brigade groups had crossed the Libyan border, 2578 of their number were killed or wounded and another 2042 were prisoners in the transit camps or hospitals of Bardia, Derna, and Benghazi. The remnants of 4 and 6 Brigades made their way back to Egypt, and three battalions of the 5th remained in the field with an improvised headquarters.
After a brief search for arms, most prisoners were almost immediately herded back along the enemy's line of communication. Some had only a short distance to go, others a march of four hours before they reached trucks to take them on to a staging compound in the enemy rear areas. Both on the march and in enemy transport it was sometimes the misfortune of prisoners to be bombed and machine-gunned by our own planes. At the staging compounds they were usually handed over to Italian line-of-communication troops, often with expressions of regret from the escorting guards of the Afrika Korps. The majority of these makeshift ‘cages’ were just wired-in pieces of open desert, on which prisoners had to spend a cold night, with a blanket among three or more and little or no food and water, before going on next day. Some parties were made by the Germans to work temporarily at supply dumps, but while there they seem to have been treated generously with food page 106 and cigarettes. The German front-line soldiers appear to have been instructed against looting from prisoners, for they were in general scrupulous in avoiding it; but it is clear that no such scruples weighed with many of the Italian guards.
Although only a few of those taken seem to have undergone interrogation, there were some Italian and German interrogators (mainly the latter) at the staging camps. The Italians collected large quantities of photographs and personal papers for examination. The German methods ranged from getting into casual conversation in the prison compound to shouting and screaming and threatening with a revolver (fired over the prisoner's head or near his feet), or even with a machine gun. Almost every soldier had had it impressed upon his memory that if captured, no matter what he was asked, he must give only his name, rank, and number; that the German interrogators had to resort to methods of intimidation indicates that few of our men gave away information.
Although few official instructions on what to do in the event of capture were given out in the Greece and Crete campaigns, the matter was not neglected in the preparations for the desert campaign of 1941. An instruction from GHQ Middle East had been passed on to almost every man, and maps of enemy countries and other escape aids had been distributed on as wide a scale as possible. The instructions emphasized the warning concerning name, rank, and number mentioned above, and the importance of trying to escape. Lack of cover in the desert made the initial concealment necessary for an escape very difficult; and this, combined with heat, lack of water, and heavy going underfoot made a long journey back to our lines a tremendous feat of physical endurance. Some succeeded in evading capture, like the machine-gunner at Sidi Rezegh on 30 November who feigned death and crawled away in the darkness to reach our lines the same night, but many others who tried lying low in a similar way were discovered.
1 A Note from the British Government to the Italian Government on 11 September 1941 had given Italy the right to retain British medical personnel and chaplains if they were needed to attend to British prisoners.
The evacuation by truck of prisoners taken in the area near Tobruk followed the main coastal road through Derna and Barce to the main transit camp at Benghazi. This journey took two days or considerably longer according to the transport available and the time spent at one or other of the many staging places along the route. Most of these were wired enclosures in open ground of the type already described, sometimes equipped with Italian bivouac tents for shelter, primitive sanitation, and a little bedding. Rather heavy rain during this period made most of these temporary camping grounds quagmires, thus completing the discomfort occasioned by cold nights with very little bed covering. By way of contrast Derna was pleasantly situated, had tidy rows of big square tents with plaited mat floors and an ample water supply, and seems to have been properly organised beforehand. At all these staging camps there were hard rations of tinned meat and biscuits.
2 Brig J. Hargest, CBE, DSO and bar, MC, m.i.d.; Member of Parliament for Invercargill 1931–35, Awarua 1935–44; born Gore, 4 Sep 1891; farmer; served 1 NZEF 1914–20, commanded 2 Bn Otago Regt, 1918; comd 5 NZ Inf Bde May 1940-Nov 1941; p.w. 27 Nov 1941; escaped Mar 1943; killed in action, France, 12 Aug 1944.
The main enemy collecting centre at Sidi Hussein outside Benghazi had been in use for some time. Airmen shot down in Libya and troops captured during or since the enemy counter-thrust to the Egyptian border in April made up a total of several hundreds by September 1941. At that date the camp was suddenly cleared. A small number remained in North Africa as a working party for the Germans, but most were taken by truck to Tarhuna, near Tripoli, whence after a short stay in military barracks they were shipped to Italy. When in November 1941, as a result of the British offensive, unexpected thousands of British troops fell into enemy hands, the German policy of speedy evacuation by truck to the rear soon filled Benghazi transit camp to overflowing. By 5 December it held behind barbed wire some 6000 British Commonwealth troops—Australians, Indians, New Zealanders, South Africans (including negroes), and men from the United Kingdom. The facilities were quite inadequate for such numbers, and improvements were neglected, seemingly in the hope that the prisoners would quickly move on to Italy.
The main compound, a large area of sandy ground, contained several barracks and sheds for motor transport; an overflow compound alongside it contained only Italian groundsheet bivouac tents. Over 700 had to jam into each draughty, unlighted shed at night, the majority sleeping on the concrete floor after the few camp beds were occupied. The lack of bedding is typified by three men who shared a blanket, a greatcoat, and a groundsheet; many had still less. In the daytime the men milled about in the space between the barrack huts. There were long queues for the few small taps; beards grew for lack of shaving facilities, and most men, unable to wash properly, had not had their clothes off since going into action two or three weeks before. The long trenches serving as latrines soon became cesspools and clouds of flies spread dysentery.
A dreary diet of half a pound of bread, a little macaroni soup, and a little tinned meat was issued daily through the camp staff of South Africans appointed by the Italian commandant. By mid-December men were experiencing the ‘blackouts’ through lack of nourishment which have already been noticed in the transit camps of Greece and Crete; and many had adopted a policy of lying down page 109 as much as possible to conserve their strength. An occasional issue of a lemon and a few cigarettes did little to alleviate the situation. Tempers began to fray under the boring routine of waiting all day to queue up with an empty meat-tin for the next meagre issue of food. Both with each other and with the Italian troops, some men traded for food at fantastic prices such of their valuables as had survived various searches: wristlet watches, rings, or fountain pens for small quantities of cigarettes or loaves of bread. Besides the all-important topic of food, thoughts and conversation turned on the possibility of rescue by our advancing forces and the alternative of transportation to Italy. Rumours of the British advance and the nightly sound of bombs on Benghazi helped to maintain morale, which to judge by the enthusiastic evening sing-songs seems to have been high in spite of the conditions. Almost every night men got out from the compound, planning to hide up and wait for Allied liberation, but most of them were recaptured.
In early December a first draft of 2000-odd had marched down to the docks, bound, as the guards enthusiastically put it, for ‘bella Italia’—an aesthetic rapture which brought little response among the prisoners. They sailed from Benghazi packed in the holds of a merchant ship, and in the next few days several smaller drafts followed. By the 20th the camp still held some 1500 prisoners, but had been cleared of almost everything else, in anticipation of the arrival of British forces. Hopes of liberation ran high among the prisoners. When no rations were forthcoming the camp store was ransacked for what it would yield. A false march down to the docks and back to camp heightened the prisoners' suspense and made it look as if this last evacuation would indeed prove impossible. But next day they were marched off and packed into the holds of a German cargo ship, which left for Tripoli the same night.
A few prisoners made last-minute escapes from the line of march to the docks, diving up alleyways or dodging inside ruined buildings. One New Zealander1 hid in a cement heap and finally emerged with cement bags over his head and legs, to stroll easily out of the town as an Arab. Senussi fed and concealed him five miles out until it was safe to return. Another2 simply hid with two companions in a ruined hotel, where they carefully rationed out their remaining food and lay low. They had only to wait in hiding for three days, for on Christmas Eve British armoured cars were in the town, and that night they had a celebration dinner with their rescuers.
Statements by eye-witnesses, both medical and combatant, indicate that the treatment of our wounded on the battlefield by the Germans was as good as conditions allowed. In the Italian field hospital at Bardia there seems to have been no discrimination between patients of whatever nationality, though general overcrowding lowered the standard of care. The Italian nursing nuns in the Torelli hospital at Benghazi made up in kindness to prisoner patients what was lacking in medical treatment and hospital equipment. Many of the patients in the hospital were liberated when Benghazi was recaptured.
Apart from the few who were transported from Bardia by submarine, the bulk of the prisoners from North Africa had left Benghazi or Tripoli direct for Italy in Axis cargo or passenger vessels or in Italian warships. Crammed into the holds and battened down at nights, they had been rushed across the Mediterranean and were just as relieved as the Italian guards and crew to reach Taranto or Brindisi in safety, though many prisoners had vaguely nursed wild hopes of a dramatic naval rescue during the crossing. One of the ships paid an unexpected call to Crete, where a party of 250-odd spent a week or so at the then comparatively empty Galatas camp before going on to Taranto.
On 8 December a large draft of 2100 had left on the Jantzen, an 8000-ton cargo vessel, with rations sufficient for the 36-hour dash across to Italy. In the middle of the next afternoon, just off Cape Methoni, near Pilos on the south-west coast of the Greek Peloponnese, she was struck by a torpedo in one of the forward holds. Five hundred or more of the prisoners packed there were page 111 killed, and the hatchboards falling in with men lying on them killed others as they crashed below. As soon as they had recovered from the shock of the explosion, men rushed to the decks up ropes or still usable ladders. The rugged coastline of Greece could be seen a mile or two away with heavy seas breaking on it, lashed by a bitterly cold wind.
The Italian captain and crew had taken themselves off in two of the three lifeboats, the other having capsized in launching, and some of the men jumped overboard in an attempt to swim to the shore. Nine New Zealanders reached one of the boats, which eventually made a nearby uninhabited island where they spent the night, and they were taken over to the mainland next day. Fifteen got away on a raft they had managed to launch, but more than half of these died of exposure. Meanwhile a German naval engineer had taken control of the ship, explaining to those on board that the engines would still go and that there was a good chance of reaching safety. He ordered everybody aft in order to keep the weight off the damaged bow and organised rescue parties to bring up to the officers' quarters the injured from the lower decks. Although the wind and sea were still strong, the ship was brought in stern first and beached about 5 p.m. broadside on to an open piece of coast. In spite of the bitter cold many now swam the remaining fifty yards to the shore, and when darkness fell many others made their way to safety along ropes secured to the rocks. Next day dawned fine, and those still on board came off in the remaining lifeboat or on stretchers slung to the ropes. A check made later showed that a little over two-thirds of the British prisoners had survived, the remainder (including 44 New Zealanders) having perished either in the explosion or in the events which followed.
The survivors, many of whom had lost clothes and boots, spent a wretched winter in primitive and ill-provided transit camps on the Peloponnese, now under Italian control. They lived successively in empty buildings near the scene of the wreck, in the cells of an old Turkish fort at Pilos, and in Italian bivouac tents erected in a small area at Akhaia, on the route to Patras. The last became known to the prisoners as ‘Dysentery Acre’, on account of the prevalence of the disease among them at the camp and the thick mud resulting from persistent rain and snow. Food consisted of the normal kind of Italian army rations, though the quantity was insufficient in cold weather to satisfy the needs of men who had been on limited rations for some time. The nearest water supply was the pump of a Greek household several fields away. After a fortnight the Italians issued boots and greatcoats for those without them. Much sickness (some of it fatal), the squalid living conditions, and a good deal of page 112 unnecessary regimentation by Italian officers left an indelible imprint on the memories of those who endured the short stay at this ‘camp’.
At the end of December the prisoners were taken north to Patras. Here they lived in the old, verminous concrete huts of a transit camp near the shore, formerly used by the Greeks for Italian prisoners. After a month the Italian guard, whose almost sole consideration was to prevent anyone escaping, allowed the prisoners out of the huts for a set time each day. Two New Zealanders who tried to escape received a brutal beating up and a spell in a civilian jail in chains. During February the camp was cleared in small drafts to Italy, the men travelling on Italian transports under the most favourable conditions they had yet encountered during captivity.
Most of the early shiploads of prisoners from North Africa had disembarked at Naples and, after disinfestation there, had been taken to the prisoner-of-war camp at Capua. Later shiploads had disembarked at Brindisi and gone to a transit camp at Tuturano, some miles inland; others had disembarked at Taranto or Bari, to be accommodated at a camp on the outskirts of the latter. And so at the beginning of 1942 almost all the able-bodied New Zealanders taken in the Second Libyan Campaign found themselves in prison camps in southern Italy. Some of the senior officers had gone to Sulmona (Campo PG 78)1 and the sick and wounded were in hospitals in Caserta and Bari. The bulk of the prisoners, however, were in Campo PG 662 at Capua, in Campo PG 85 at Tuturano, or in Campo PG 75 at Bari, each of them near a port with a disinfesting plant. They were all temporary camps intended for holding prisoners until ‘disinfestation and sorting’ had been carried out. But it is doubtful whether either process ever reached finality in any of them, and a ‘temporary’ stay might sometimes extend to several months.
1 Campo (or Campo PG) is short for Campo concentramento di prigioneri di guerra, permanent camp. The camps were originally known by their place names, and numbers were not introduced until early 1942.
2 Campo disinfestazione e smistamento, quarantine camp.
Soon after their arrival most parties of prisoners had the experience of their first Red Cross food parcel since capture. ‘What a scene! … We cheered, clapped one another on the back, and went temporarily crackers….’2 There was a canteen, too, which in return for camp pay chits sold fruit, cigarettes, and other small goods but was quite inadequate in size for a camp of 2000-odd. And as in most camps which had not had time to become fully organised, there were muddles and anomalies in issues and enormous queues whether for rations, canteen goods, or Italian clothing. When Red Cross supplies ran out, food again became the prime preoccupation of men's minds, and the more obsessed haunted the rubbish heaps for cabbage leaves and other scraps which they could carry off and boil up. Men passed the time between meals reading whatever printed matter they had in their pockets, writing letter-cards home, and swopping stories of their capture and subsequent experiences, especially when an occasional issue of wine warmed the blood and loosened the tongue.
1 It consisted of cotton underpants, cotton shirt, belt, cap, handkerchief, and two squares of calico in place of socks.
2 From a diary kept by a New Zealand private at Campo PG 66.
3 A system by which, on a roll-call parade, a rear rank one (or even two) less in number than a front rank could be made to appear to be covering the latter man for man. It usually involved slight sideways movements by rear rank men during the count.
Many transports from North Africa went to Brindisi or Taranto, and prisoners who disembarked at these ports, after going through a disinfesting centre, were taken to the camp at Tuturano. Accommodation here was totally inadequate. Whereas the officer prisoners were housed in wooden huts, other ranks were herded into an adjacent piece of ground turned by rain and the tramping of a thousand men into a sea of mud, on which they had to erect Italian bivouac tents.1 Officer prisoners were given a camp bed each; other ranks received a heap of straw and two fibre blankets. There was a concrete washing place and latrine in the officers' compound; the whole of the other ranks had to manage with two small tubs for ablutions and a trench three feet deep for a latrine. Though the air was bracing, wet weather culminating in snow and the prevalence of intestinal disorders helped to make living conditions trying. Nevertheless, as one medical officer put it, the ‘morale of [the] men seemed to thrive on it’. The British senior warrant officer maintained a smartness and discipline which was an obvious contrast to the comportment of the camp guards; and the Australian bugler who added a patriotic tune to each call unbeknown to the Italians raised the spirits of the whole camp in a different way.
The food consisted of the Italian army ration of bread, macaroni or rice, and other staple items, with the addition of a little fresh fruit and vegetables for those ranks who could pay for the extras.2 Those with pay credits were also able to buy cigarettes, a few toilet necessities, some packs of cards, and Italian newspapers. There developed an alternating routine of card-playing and walking up and down to keep warm, with breaks for meals and periods in bed. A week before Christmas the English and South African officers were sent to permanent camps in the north, and in early January the New Zealand officers left for Campo PG 38 near Arezzo.
1 These consisted of Italian groundsheets buttoned together.
2 Officers received the pay of Italian officers of equivalent rank; other ranks received one lira a day.
All were like children on a Christmas morn eager to see what each parcel contained … [that night] sleep was out of the question. The camp was one continued buzz from end to end with chaps conversing on the sole topic—the parcels.1
In early May some Indians were sent out on the first working party, and a few days later the majority left for Campo PG 65 at Gravina, where further working parties were planned.
1 From a diary kept by a New Zealand soldier—one of the shipwrecked party.
2 Italian ration scales for prisoners of war (grammes daily):
|Officers||Other Ranks (non-working)||Other Ranks (working)|
|Macaroni or rice||66||66||120|
|Cheese (table)||when available||30||43|
|Egg||(1 a month)||..||..|
|Peas and beans||15||30||30|
Those transferred to other camps were not slow in reporting these matters and in early 1942 Bari had achieved sufficient notoriety to demand urgent investigation by a neutral observer.1 The lot of prisoners, especially of officers, would have been considerably worse if it had not been for one or two of the junior Italian officers who were well-disposed towards the British. Through their efforts ‘canteen’ supplies came into the camp, including such things as dried fruits, jam and cakes. A senior medical officer estimated the value of the additional food bought in this way at an average of 500 calories a day for each officer. Besides food, the supply of toilet necessities, playing-cards, and Continental editions of authors in English did much to make life more tolerable and relieve the irritation of confinement in such a cramped space. The day passed mainly in domestic chores, card games and reading, with lecturettes in the evenings to give variety. After two or three months some issues of Red Cross food (although on a low scale) did much to restore flagging energies, which medical officers ascribed to a ‘decline in general health.’ Nobody was able to break out of the camp during this period, a first tunnel project in March having come to an abortive end. But the discovery of the tunnel probably hastened the transfer of prisoners, and no one in the parties which left for permanent camps or for repatriation was sorry to see the last of Bari.
1 No inspection was allowed until 13 May 1942, when a member of the Swiss Legation in Rome visited the camp.
2 The numbers rose to about 90 officers (mostly New Zealanders) and 25 other ranks (mostly South Africans).
After a day or two it was also clear that this high standard of attention, with the best will in the world, could not be kept up. Moreover there were material defects beneath the façade of renovation. The fuel supply was inadequate for keeping the building warm, and the rations, though of good quality, were sufficient only to keep everyone perpetually hungry. It was difficult to get Red Cross and other supplies owing to the isolated situation of the camp, especially in winter when the only road to the village below was inaccessible to all but foot traffic. Critical news from the Far East and the bitter cold helped to cast a gloom over this period, though the obviously ridiculous claims and stories of heroism appearing in the Fascist press provided material for countering depression. There was, too, a strong sense of solidarity among the prisoners, no doubt helped by the initial decision of the senior British officer to let the camp be run as an officers' mess by a democratically elected committee, which had to answer for its actions at monthly meetings of the whole camp.
From the spring of 1942 onwards the supply of Red Cross food parcels, together with the extras that it was found could be bought in addition to the basic ration, provided everyone with an ample diet. Prisoners were able to supplement this with vegetables and fruit grown in the plots of the convent garden, which they were allowed to cultivate under the supervision of an Italian officer, who not only took a friendly interest but contributed seeds from his own agricultural estate. After some preliminary delay a canteen enabled prisoners to buy fruit, sweets, cigarettes, and wine (often at exorbitant prices), as well as toilet articles, shirts, pyjamas, and other items of clothing that were badly needed. In time, too, the purchase of plenty of books in English, and music and the hire of a piano gave increased scope for recreation and entertainment, which had hitherto been confined to card games, chess, lectures, and learning to read the Italian newspapers.page 118
An attempted escape opened the eyes of the Italian camp staff to another side of their guests' make-up, but though more cautious they remained well-disposed. As the May sun brightened and warmed the beautiful Italian countryside, the ‘Villa’ became rather like an officers' rest camp, with the day spent reading in a deck-chair or sketching, or walking (with guards) in the surrounding hills or playing basketball and deck tennis, and the evening in sipping wine over cards, chess, or music. The carefree Italian atmosphere became infectious and time lost its meaning; for anything that could not be fitted into one day could always be left till the morrow. Domani è un altro giorno.
The New Zealand officers who went to Campo PG 35 about two months after the Poppi draft had a somewhat similar experience. A large medieval monastery building at Padula, in a beautiful valley south-east of Salerno in southern Italy, was converted into accommodation for officer prisoners, the first batch of whom went into residence on 22 March 1942. A high-ceilinged monks' refectory became the officers' mess and served also for entertainments, and there was a two-acre area in grass to provide a playing field, walking space and gardens.
After a preliminary period of food shortage, it was soon found that some members of the camp staff were willing to act as middle-men for the purchase of black-market goods. By May hams, poultry, cheese, eggs, and large amounts of condensed milk were being smuggled into the mess, to say nothing of private transactions. So that with the Red Cross food parcels which had arrived towards the end of April, the late spring became a period of plenty. Clothing could be ordered from a visiting tailor. The camp soon had a well-stocked library and the lectures and classes common to most camps. There was no difficulty in providing talent for a variety of good entertainment from the 400-odd officers and 140-odd other ranks to which the camp strength had risen by the middle of the year.
There were a few New Zealanders in other officers' camps—Montalbo, Sulmona, and Vincigliata. Campo PG 41 at Montalbo was a fourteenth-century castle near Piacenza, converted into a camp for British officers without losing the defects in heating, sanitation, and water supply which by modern standards such buildings possess. It had held British prisoners, together with a number of Greeks, since September 1941, and though extra purchases of food were possible, the Italian camp staff was hostile and amenities were only slowly developed. Campo PG 12, a castle-like villa at Vincigliata on a hill above Florence, housed all the captured British generals page 119 and brigadiers (including two New Zealanders1) in quarters suitable to their rank. A close watch was kept on their activities in order to prevent the escape of such valuable prisoners. But they were allowed to keep hens, rabbits, and a vegetable garden, to indulge in hobbies, to have books and gramophone records, and to take daily walks under strong guard in the surrounding countryside.
Campo PG 78 at Sulmona has already been described in its earlier period, and a report by a medical officer repatriated in April 1942 confirmed that the ‘general conduct and appointments of the camp’ surpassed any other in Italy. Although during the first year of its existence camp security had tightened up, and although during the winter there was a shortage of fuel and of Red Cross food, the amenities for officers and NCOs remained comparable to those described at Poppi, except that the larger numbers at Sulmona gave more scope for entertainments.2 For other ranks the quarters had become overcrowded and lacked comfort, though they were compensated by additional rations. The ration cut in March caused most camps (even that of the generals) to depend for an adequate diet on the arrival of Red Cross food parcels. Sulmona was no exception, for there was little black-market food obtainable in the area, and for junior officers at all events the regular messing charge of 21 lire a day left too little in their pay accounts to buy at the enhanced prices.3
1 Brigadiers R. Miles and J. Hargest. They and one or two others were kept in a villa near Sulmona until transferred to Campo PG 12 in the spring of 1942.
2 1678 all ranks on 23 April 1942.
3 This was the messing charge as in January 1942. The pay of a British second-lieutenant in Italian hands was 750 lire a month. After deducting a messing charge of 630 lire a month, this left 120 lire for all other purchases and incidental expenses.
5 A prisoner's diary describes the huts thus: ‘Some wooden, made from what we think were large packing-cases, and some pre-fabricated, type of Gibraltar board….’
Food supplied in the first period of the camp's existence was considered a great improvement on that at Capua. But satisfaction with the rations was shortlived, for the 60 per cent cut imposed in March brought back the food shortages, and a prisoner wrote resignedly that everyone was ‘constantly semi-hungry, but that [was] a permanent feature of prisoner-of-war life.’ Some Red Cross supplies had arrived in mid-February, but deliveries were irregular owing to the difficulty of access to the camp and to the shortage of Italian transport. There was evidence of considerable pilferage of parcel mail for prisoners. One man who kept a careful check received a total of three and a half food parcels in the period January to April 1942. This was insufficient to stop men thinking about food (if indeed many prisoners of war ever did stop), and there developed a craze for collecting and writing down recipes for tasty dishes which would be prepared and eaten when the collector was again in a position to procure the ingredients. A canteen was available to sell onions, dried fruit, some tobacco and wine, and fresh fruit in season, but the facilities were adequate for about 150 men only instead of the 3000 which the camp soon held; and the pay of one lira a day1 restricted what could be bought at the high prices ruling. Hunger, besides making men thinner and hollow-cheeked and weak enough to faint on occasions, also made them bad-tempered and suspicious of the staff of the cookhouse from which food was issued to each hut. An Easter Sunday diary entry indicates the state of irritability which sometimes prevailed:
Have been nearly crazy today for lack of something to do; if ever there was a lazier, more useless, hungry, and at times hopelessly boring life than that of a prisoner of war in a foreign country, I cannot imagine what or where it could be … waiting for our third and last check parade, then drearily to bed with hunger gnawing at our stomachs.
1 1.25 lire for NCOs.
Walks outside the camp under guard were started in March, and many men derived pleasure and inward solace from the beautiful north Italian landscape in spring flower and from the friendliness of the civilians they encountered. One man writes, after the long dreary winter months, of calm starlit evenings with fireflies showing their fascinating lights, and the nightingale's lonely song. Another, seeing a lovely Italian girl through the wire, recalls how long it is since he spoke to a woman. The arrival of New Zealand mail in April brought back a sense of reality and gave our men a new incentive to fill up and send off the cards and letter-forms issued to them. On Anzac Day a service and march past made many remember past occasions and reawakened in them a feeling of corporate and national pride that they could still turn on a smart parade if necessary.
1 Carabinieri reali, royal guard—a type of Italian police. Each of the larger prisoner-of-war camps had carabinieri attached for security purposes—searching, investigating escapes, and keeping a check on the other Italian guards.
A number of New Zealanders went straight from Capua to Campo PG 57 at Gruppignano, near Udine in north-east Italy, which had at first held mainly Australians. The camp stood on the flat ground of a river plain surrounded by the distant, snow-capped Dolomites—a large area enclosed by barbed wire and planned for division into compounds as expansion took place. For administrative purposes, accommodation, and food the camp was organised at this period into two compounds, each with its own cookhouse and orderly room serving about 800 men. An Italian colonel of carabinieri, a stern disciplinarian with dictatorial methods, controlled the camp. Though it was run more efficiently than many other Italian camps, pinpricking regulations and some brutal punishments1 made it clear that this was not due to feelings of humanity or goodwill.
Double-walled wooden huts about 80 feet long on concrete foundations held two-tier wooden bunks in batches of eight. Only enough fuel for three to four hours' heating each night was available, and one double and one single blanket was a meagre enough allowance to combat the winter wind off the mountains. A recreation hut had been in use up till the end of 1941, but the large influx of prisoners in early 19422 (including some 400 New Zealanders) made necessary its use for accommodation. Water was plentiful, there were proper ablutions outside the huts and adequate latrines, but the poor drainage system was to be a source of trouble later. Hot baths were irregular and there was the usual difficulty in getting rid of lice.
1 Besides numerous handcuffings and long and rigorous treatment in the camp cells, two New Zealanders were shot dead and two were wounded in this camp.
2 By June 1942 the camp strength had risen to 1500, including some 450 New Zealanders.
3 ‘In any locality where there may be prisoners of war they shall be authorised to appoint representatives to represent them before the military authorities and the Protecting Powers…. in the event of the prisoners deciding to organise among themselves a system of mutual aid, such organisation shall be one of the functions of the prisoners’ representatives.'
Educational classes flourished in much the same way as at Chiavari, though entertainments were hampered by lack of a proper hut and equipment. A New Zealander writes of studying surveying and sitting examinations under an Australian sergeant; another writes of ‘all trades and professions’ being taught. Red Cross consignments made possible the formation of a library, a large number of the books having been selected for their educational value. Accordions and mouth-organs helped to provide the music in the concerts that were held by each hut. In one respect Gruppignano was better off than Chiavari: the large area where the check parades were held was available for sport—baseball, cricket, soccer and volleyball—although wet weather made it too muddy to use. Much of the problem of recreation in summer was solved if there was space for physical play, and space for others to watch.
The last of the shipwrecked party left Tuturano in early May for Campo PG 65, which had been established in March at Gravina, about thirty miles inland from Bari. It was surrounded by a countryside divided into huge fields of wheat and oats, and the city of Altamura could be seen in the distance. Large new barrack buildings of white stone, roofed with red tiles or slates, were divided into seven or eight bays, each holding twenty or so two-tier bunks. Quarters were roomy and designed so as to be cool and airy in the hot summer months. Although all the camp buildings had not been completed, there were well-built ablutions and latrines, served with a good water supply, and a proper infirmary. As in other permanent camps the sheets on the beds were the biggest surprise to new arrivals. Like Gruppignano, the camp was organised by groups of huts into ‘compounds’, each holding about a thousand men.1 It was an immense improvement in living conditions for the harassed party from Greece, most of whom were still suffering from the privations they had endured, a hundred of them badly enough to be put on extra rations for a while by the Italians. Basking in the southern Italian sunshine one of the party wrote, ‘At last we are settled.’
1 The camp was designed eventually to hold 8000 men. On 12 May 1942 it held some 3150, including 387 New Zealanders.
Although many sick and wounded prisoners remained in Libya in field dressing stations and hospitals and were ultimately recaptured during the British advance, others were transported by hospital ship to Italy. A good number of these went to the large hospital at Caserta, just outside Naples. Some of the buildings were surrounded by barbed wire so that they could accommodate prisoners of war, not only those who arrived by hospital ship, but those ill enough to warrant their evacuation from a camp in the neighbourhood. Officer prisoners occupied the third floor of a stone building, and other ranks some two-storied wooden barracks. The situation of the hospital was pleasant, with plenty of sun and fresh air.
Men speak of being well treated in Caserta hospital, and a repatriated medical officer reported that the Italian doctors were doing their best for the prisoners. The food was much better than that received in camps; even so, Red Cross supplies greatly helped to speed the patients' recovery. From December onwards three British medical officers worked in the hospital, assisted by British medical orderlies, though the supply of instruments was meagre and they had to rely a great deal on Red Cross parcels of medicaments. They were able to make improvements in sanitation, in the washing of patients, and in other aspects of nursing which had up till then been largely neglected.
The same conditions obtained in other hospitals which had prisoner patients in this period, though there are indications of considerable neglect of prisoners and shortage of food in Bari hospital. Repatriated medical officers also criticised the medical treatment available in camps, which was often rigidly controlled by a not very competent Italian and suffered from a shortage of drugs. Some officers' camps1 held large numbers of captured medical officers and chaplains for several months before their transfer to hospitals or to other ranks' camps where their services could be of more use.
1 Notably Campo PG 35 at Padula and Campo PG 38 at Poppi, so far as New Zealanders were concerned.
Many of these officers had applied to the Italian authorities, some through the Swiss Legation, for repatriation. Since September 1941 a Mixed Medical Commission had been at work in Italy examining cases nominated for inclusion in a future exchange of prisoners; similar commissions were working on Italian cases in the United Kingdom and the Middle East. Towards the end of the year an agreement had been reached between the United Kingdom and Italy that either power could detain any protected personnel whose services were required to care for their fellow countrymen who were prisoners. The right of medical personnel to repatriation, instead of resting on the individual's wish, had become a matter for decision by the detaining power. Only the four most senior medical officers and a handful of orderlies were selected from the large numbers of New Zealand medical personnel in Italy in spite of their not being used to any great extent to care for the comparatively small number of British prisoners in Italian hands.1
Late in March 1942 the Italian authorities informed the selected sick and wounded and protected personnel, then scattered in various camps throughout Italy, that they were to be exchanged. There was much congratulation of the fortunate ones and raising of hopes among the others. The 129 repatriates were assembled in Bari and embarked and sailed on Easter Saturday (4 April) on the hospital ship Gradisca. On 7 April she was anchored in Smyrna Harbour a few hundred yards from the Llandovery Castle, which had arrived from Alexandria with 919 Italians. Next day the exchange took place under arrangements made by International Red Cross delegates with the Turkish military authorities, the transfers being made on a ferry-boat in mid-harbour with the aid of pontoons moored to the two ships.
Treatment on the Italian hospital ship had been excellent, and a warm welcome awaited this first batch of repatriates on the Llandovery Castle. There was another more formal welcome to the party when it arrived at Alexandria on the 11th. A journey by hospital train brought them to Cairo, where they dispersed, the disabled New Zealanders going to 1 NZ General Hospital and the protected personnel to appropriate camps. During the train journey there was a distribution of comforts by women of the British Red Cross and an interrogation by Intelligence officers.
1 The numbers of British prisoners repatriated were:
|Sick and wounded||60 (including 3 NZ amputees)|
|Protected personnel||69 (including 27 NZMC)|