Prisoners of War
I: The North African Campaigns of 1942–43—Prisoners in Italian Hands
I: The North African Campaigns of 1942–43—Prisoners in Italian Hands
TO prisoners of war in Europe hearing enemy broadcasts and anxiously scanning enemy newspapers to try to follow the trend of the war, the months of 1942 until autumn brought news of disaster after disaster to the Allied cause, even allowing for the distortions and exaggerations of enemy propaganda. Yet by the end of the year the whole complexion of things had changed, the initiative was with the Allies, and as the first half of 1943 brought to light new successes (glossed over in the enemy press, but impossible to hide completely), prisoners began to realise that the Allies were, as one man put it in a letter, ‘starting on the home run’.
The early disasters in the Far East have already been mentioned. Yet by the end of 1942 the United States forces had stabilised the situation in the Pacific, and during 1943 the Japanese were dealt some heavy blows at sea. On the Russian front Sebastopol fell in July 1942 and the Germans entered Stalingrad in September; and the losses of the British raid on Dieppe, although it created a diversion in August, seemed a bad augury for the success of a second front. Yet by November the Russian forces were on the offensive and the new year brought them enormous gains in territory, together with the annihilation of large German and Italian forces. In North Africa a German offensive launched in late May gathered momentum in June and forced Eighth Army to withdraw hurriedly to the Egyptian border; then followed the fall of Tobruk and the retreat to Alamein, in spite of some delaying actions. Yet not only did the line hold at Alamein, but in October the British attacked and broke the Axis forces and during the next four months pursued them across Libya into Tunisia. The landing of Allied forces in French North Africa in November prevented their further retreat to the west, page 191 and in the first half of 1943 attacks from this quarter and from the south-east by Eighth Army put an end to enemy resistance on the African Continent.
The New Zealand Division was again heavily involved in the North African fighting and, especially in the struggle to hold the enemy at Alamein in July, suffered losses almost as severe as those of the previous November. Nor was the intense air activity in support of the ground forces maintained without losses, and more than half of the New Zealand airmen serving with the RAF who fell into Italian hands did so in North Africa during this period.1 Of the two thousand or so 2 NZEF personnel taken prisoner, about a hundred were captured south of Matruh in the first stand by the Division after its hasty return from Syria, and in its break-out from encirclement at Minqar Qaim. But the vast majority were lost in actions on the Alamein Line in July.
The first of these was an attack on the western end of Ruweisat Ridge by 4 and 5 Brigades, which found themselves on the morning of 15 July in possession of their objective but, as our own tanks did not come up, completely at the mercy of the enemy armour: 22 Battalion was overrun almost immediately, and so by evening were 19 and 20 Battalions. The incidents of capture were a recapitulation of Belhamed and Sidi Rezegh. An infantryman's diary tells the story:
The tanks having knocked out our guns, came rumbling and clanking towards us with nothing to stop them. Their machine guns were going all the time at anyone they saw moving, while behind them were German infantry and more tanks. We could do nothing, but kept hoping that some of our own tanks would turn up to the rescue; alas we were alone in the desert. A big Mark IV was only about seventy yards off me by this time … I only had a rifle and had seen two pounder shells bouncing off the tanks ….
As on previous occasions no one had visualised being captured, least of all after a successful attack. It came as a shock to see our men with their hands up, and one man puts it, ‘I think we all felt rather silly and self-conscious’.
1 Some forty New Zealand airmen fell into Italian hands, of whom over twenty were taken in the second half of 1942.
Patrol activity in August accounted for another 50-odd prisoners, and a harassing movement on Rommel's withdrawal from his September attack for still another 90-odd. From the beginning of October 1942 until the end of fighting in North Africa in May 1943, however, we lost only another ninety or so prisoners. Moreover, from the Battle of Alamein in late October 1942 until the end of the war in Europe—from all the subsequent fighting in Libya, Tunisia, and Italy—the Division's losses in prisoners were fewer than 350, as compared with over 8000 in the preceding period of the war. If the number of prisoners taken in land fighting can be used as an indication, the battle of Alamein was clearly the turning point of the fighting in the West.
‘About 9 a.m. the group comprised approximately eighty New Zealanders, two British officers from an armoured unit and a Canadian air force pilot. At this point the Commandant of the Panzer Division came forward with his Intelligence Officer as interpreter and then the New Zealanders were instructed to leave all their kit on the side of the hill and form up in three ranks. The Divisional Commander then said: “Tonight you New Zealanders fought us and didn't fight fair. You shot prisoners and bayoneted wounded and now we will show you that we can be just as hard as you.” We were then searched one by one and had everything, even handkerchiefs, taken from us except the clothes we were wearing. We were then formed up in another position and some of the German NCOs fitted the butts to their machine-guns. It looked as though we were to be shot. One of the British officers, who was not concerned in this, went up to the Divisional Commander and spoke to him in German. I was able to ask him later what he said and he said that he told the German commander that he thought it would be a mistake to start shooting prisoners as from then on there would be no prisoners taken by either side. He was roundly told off for his interference. Whether this had any effect, or whether the whole thing was designed to frighten us I don't know, but we were told we would be left standing in three ranks all day as a punishment. At this stage four or five men were taken away to bury the dead at the point where the breakthrough had taken place the night before….
‘The main group was left standing in the sun, the only relief occurring when a party was required to bury some of the dead and the wounded who had died on the spot. These tasks were given to those most affected by standing in the sun and in most need of relief. A little after midday the German supply column arrived. We were lucky in that the opportunity had to be taken to send us back and so we were spared the rest of the day standing in the sun. We were not allowed to take anything with us except our paybooks—not even water.’
Even those captured 18 days later at Ruweisat Ridge met with some signs of a carry-over of the hard feelings after Minqar Qaim. Some were asked expressly whether they had taken part in the Minqar Qaim action. Whether from this cause or not, although there was no brutality, the experiences of prisoners from the moment of their capture at Ruweisat until their arrival in a back area were unpleasant enough. Men of 18 and 19 Battalions, after a search for arms, were herded back a mile or two to a holding area, where there was a count and officers were taken off for interrogation. The march back then continued until late that night, by which time all had raging thirsts and a number had collapsed;1 but there was no food and almost no water that night nor was there any until, completely exhausted, they reached transport later the next morning. Men of 22 Battalion were marched back 15 miles through the heat of the day before being picked up by lorries. Those taken at El Mreir on the morning of 22 July had a similar exhausting march back to a plateau, where they were left in the blazing sun without food or water. A soldier's diary runs:
A scorching sun beat down on the shimmering rock. To lie was unbearable. To stand and feel the barely discernible breeze from the sea was impossible for more than a few seconds. Our legs were too weak to bear the weight of our bodies…. Chaps were offering watches for a cup of water.
Eventually transport came and took them to the prisoner-of-war cage at Daba.
1 Although the Germans had threatened to shoot any who fell out, in point of fact they brought them back on a truck.
There was a more serious attempt at interrogation than there had been in the campaign of the previous November, though still nothing like the systematic process to which captured airmen were subjected in Germany. Officers were questioned at German formation headquarters, many of all ranks by German interrogators at Daba and by Italians at Mersa Matruh, from which point back the lines of communication were manned by Italian forces. Some of the wounded were interrogated at the various dressing stations they passed through. Papers and paybooks were examined and questions were asked mainly with a view to unit identification; but though there was some angry shouting at times, there appears to have been little or no attempt to obtain information by intimidation or violence.
The leaving of some of the wounded on the battlefield at Ruweisat without attention has already been referred to. It happened at more than one place on this occasion and was probably the cause of many deaths that could have been avoided by immediate medical attention, however makeshift. But the Germans appear to have had a large number of their own casualties to treat, with only very limited medical supplies. The delay in treatment of prisoners seems to have been limited to sixteen hours at the most—long enough, certainly, to be fatal for many cases. Treatment at the dressing stations farther back seems to have been adequate and humane. In later battles during this period seriously wounded prisoners seem to have been attended to promptly, and even lightly wounded to have been segregated and treated at the first headquarters on the way back. There were hospitals at Matruh and at Tobruk, though with limited facilities, and most of the serious cases were evacuated to Italy by hospital ship from these points.
From a night bivouac near Sidi Barrani six British officer prisoners, including one New Zealander,2 were able to get away unseen in the early hours of 12 July. They hid for two days in the old Italian positions south-east of the town. They then seized an Italian vehicle and, overpowering the two Italians in charge of it, left them with some food and drove off by the coast road to the east. By picking up water, petrol, and other necessities from derelict trucks en route, they made their way to the Alamein positions and eventually came through to a British armoured detachment, waving a white towel.
From Daba back to Benghazi prisoners were taken in large Italian trucks, sometimes in trailers, and often packed so tightly that it was only possible to stand. The journey by the coastal road took some four or five days, with stops at night wherever there was a barbed-wire pen to hold the prisoners. There was some kicking and the use of rifle butts by Italian guards, and the ration of biscuit and bully beef was all too little; but after the tortures of thirst during the first two days of captivity, men felt that so long as there was a reasonable amount of water they had something to be thankful for. The more fortunate were allowed to swim at Sollum or to wallow at a water point en route.
The compound at Mersa Matruh in Italian hands was the first place where thirsts were really slaked, and men were then able to take more interest in the dry rations that were issued. Some were interrogated here and, as at almost every staging point, there was a search; not many valuables remained in the possession of prisoners by the end of the journey. As at other staging camps, most men had only shirt and shorts to sleep in.page 196
Tobruk's large prisoner-of-war compound was on the escarpment at the edge of the aerodrome. A prisoner gives his first impression on debussing:
Seen through clouds of racing dust it seemed a hopeless confusion, shanties, blanket-huts, tin shelters and tents all higgelty-piggelty and strung together with string and rope. There was a babel of tongues and a confusion of outlandish figures and dresses—South African Blacks, Indians, Gurkas, Siamese, Springboks, Tommies and Kiwis were living together, cheek-by-jowl. All conventional values were gone. The private no longer deferred to his officer nor black man to white.
The coloured troops were forced to work on the docks during the day, and while doing so were able to acquire not only extra food but firewood, groundsheets, blankets, and other things of high value to a prisoner of war. Their standard of living was higher than the average, and many of our men benefited by generous gifts from them. At night wood fires lit up the polyglot encampment and gave it an exotic atmosphere; and the gabble of foreign voices, some musical, some harsh, recalled to some men's imaginations stories they had read of Asiatic bands of freebooters. There was the usual issue of dry rations, and men lay down to sleep on the dust where they could. RAF raids made the nights broken, but though shell splinters fell among the prisoners the bombs were further away. In the morning there would be an issue of water and a convoy of trucks full of prisoners would move off.
There were further staging camps at Derna and Barce, with groundsheet tents at the former and huts at the latter. At Derna an Italian commandant with ‘reprisal mania’ kept the prisoners short of water, allowed guards to loot and bully, and generally kept conditions as uncivilised as possible. At Barce a well-disposed commandant did all he could to provide them with necessities and to see the sick properly cared for. From Derna most of the officers were flown to Lecce, in Italy.
1 This name embodies the main idea of a number of popular variants, ‘The Palm Grove’, ‘The Palms’, etc.
Barbed-wire fences lined the tops of the gully sides, and the guards ‘looked down on [the prisoners] as though it was a bear pit’. There was no sand and men slept on stones or hard rock with a top layer of dirt, many without coat or groundsheet; during the camp's most crowded period ‘you could hardly step between the bodies’ at night. Fleas and mosquitoes helped to make rest difficult. Latrines were dug on the slopes, but space was limited and there were always too few; in time the sewage seeped down into the central sleeping and eating area and a constant stench hung about the windless wadi. The place was partly redeemed by a plentiful supply of water from a spring, and there were even cold showers of a kind.
The food compared favourably with that of other transit camps: in the morning sweetened black substitute coffee, a quarter pound of tinned meat and more than half a pound of bread of inferior quality, and at night a cup of rice stew and half a lemon. Men brought some variety into their daily meals by cooking up the various elements of the ration, until the commandant placed a ban on fires to prevent the camp buildings disappearing as fuel. The one cookhouse which served the whole camp was difficult to control; unguarded rations quickly disappeared and others were sold at exorbitant prices, for under such circumstances money and treasure lose their value by comparison with food.1 Most men derived too little nourishment from the diet and became weak and listless. A great number soon had dysentery, spread by the swarms of flies, and there were never-ending queues for the latrines day and night. It was fortunate that there were British doctors at the camp to do what they could with the limited medical supplies for the hundreds of cases of digestive disorders and desert sores which daily lined up for treatment.
1 Prices quoted for 12 ounces of jam: 10s, 50–60 piastres, a good wrist watch, or a signet ring. Forty cigarettes brought similar prices.
There were no lights on the perimeter of the Palm Tree camp, and several men got away in the dusk but were recaptured in a few days. Two New Zealanders clung underneath the daily wood truck as it went out the gate,1 and thereafter there was some competition to go out in the same way; but the next two who attempted it were caught and chained to the camp gates for a night, though the guards who released them gave them cigarettes and grapes. Security was tightened up and sentries became quick on the trigger, sometimes no doubt made jittery through prisoners rattling the wire or throwing stones at it. There was some firing into the compound as well as along the perimeter, and at least one of our men was shot through the thigh while lying asleep.
In early August after over a fortnight in the camp, commanders of the groups into which the men had organised themselves decided, on the assumption of a lengthy stay, to try to secure better rations and amenities from the Italian commandant, who was described as ‘easy-going’ and not ill disposed to the British. But ten days later the camp was suddenly cleared and the prisoners transported by truck, 600 to a waiting ship and the rest next day to the main Benghazi prisoner-of-war collection centre.
The influx of prisoners following the fall of Tobruk and the swift Axis advance had extended the collection centre just outside Benghazi into an enormous encampment spread over a rectangular area covering 25 acres or so of the adjoining desert. By August 1942, when most of our men went there, drafts to Italy had reduced its population from 15,000 to about 10,000 prisoners, but over the whole area a mass of low bivouac tents still spread into the distance. The prisoners were segregated to some extent according to nationality and colour into huge pens. The thousand or so New Zealanders, with some others from the Palm camp, were almost immediately crowded into a small, well-used, and therefore dirty and (as it turned out) lousy compound, where drafts were held before being embarked for Italy. Transfer of some of these to another pen eased the overcrowding, but it was nearly a month before a ship was available.
1 Sgts H. P. Campbell (19 Bn) and G. G. Cleverley (25 Bn). They were free for five days before recapture.
Many of those in the camp had been there since the fall of Tobruk, had plenty of gear, and had made themselves as comfortable as circumstances allowed. Most of our men had the clothes they stood in when captured and various implements and odd garments they had since been able to acquire while moving about. At Benghazi there was much trading ‘over the wire’, both with the Italian guards for food and with the coloured troops who worked at the docks and brought back firewood, food, and cigarettes. Cigarettes (of which there was an issue of ten to fifteen a week) became the medium of exchange between prisoners for such transactions,1 as in so many other prisoner-of-war communities, and indeed among some civilian populations as the war brought enemy governments tumbling and enemy currencies soaring to ruin. Some prisoners at Benghazi went into business buying food from the sick and selling it later at a profit to men hungry from a working party; but most were good comrades enough to reject the idea of profit-making and to make exchanges at the ruling values.
Food varied in different compounds and at different times, but in general there was a small tin of meat, half a loaf of poor bread and six ounces of British biscuits, a small amount of sugar and substitute coffee, and some rice every few days. For food rationing purposes men were formed into groups of fifty, as they were for water, which was issued to individuals from German cans2 filled by an itinerant water truck twice daily. No cooked meal was supplied, nor even hot water, and men set to work in syndicates to build stoves from stones, mud and old tins, to acquire firewood and to plan their own cooked menus. Hours of ingenious endeavour were spent devising and carrying out dozens of ways of serving the never-varying ‘bully and biscuit’ as rissoles, pies, and stews. Besides making the food more palatable, all this domestic activity had the virtue of helping to occupy men's minds and to prevent them from brooding on their present miseries.
1 Prices quoted: two biscuits for one cigarette, 10 oz loaf of bread for ten cigarettes; one tin of meat for eight; blanket or overcoat for 30–40; toothbrush (later boiled) for two; eight sheets of paper for three; bundle of wood for two or three. Italian guards sold food for watches and signet rings.
2 Six German cans to fifty men daily: about two quarts a man.
Those who troubled to write about their situation drew a picture of this kind:
… unshaven, lousy, dirty, old ragged clothes hanging from bones, with our little improvised tin-can mugs, wooden spoons, bits of stick and wire.1
Yet even in these primitive conditions some order and internal organisation were created. Anti-social acts were kept down as far as possible by the senior warrant officer, who dealt out summary justice as in a regimental orderly room, and punished thieving, for example, by depriving the culprit of rations for twenty-four hours. In the various compounds lectures and concerts, and later an arts and crafts exhibition, were arranged to make the best use of what little recreational material there was. A South African padre held inspiring devotional services. Apart from this, men organised themselves into small living-groups—consisting often of regimental comrades or friends in civilian life—for mutual self-help and the division of the daily tasks; and they made their own pastimes with games of chess or cards and the exchange of whatever books they had with them. Without some such order and comradeship life at Benghazi would have been indeed nasty and brutish.
When the Benghazi pen had been reopened following the recapture of the town by Rommel's forces in January 1942, there had been a number of escapes. On one occasion a New Zealander2 had knocked the guard unconscious and opened his compound gate to let out all those inside. Though some of them were recaptured in the course of their journey to the east, he himself, with the help of food, water, and shelter from Senussi, and later alone in an Arab disguise, had got through to the British lines north of Mechili in April.
1 From the diary of a New Zealand soldier.
Most of the drafts which left Benghazi by ship contained men of various Commonwealth units. Some 600 of those who moved in the first batch from the Palm Tree camp were shipped almost immediately in August, and another party went on 8 September. Then followed a long gap in the transport schedule, occasioned no doubt by dangers to shipping in the Mediterranean from the RAF and British submarines; and with rumours of a British success, men who had begun to wonder about their chances of survival set their hopes on rescue by Eighth Army. In October the Italians moved a large number of South African and British troops to Tarhuna and other camps near Tripoli, but most of the remaining New Zealanders were left to be taken over to Italy by sea. In early November there were signs that Benghazi was being evacuated in some haste, by the middle of the month the last party from the main camp had gone, and on the 16th patients from the hospital who could be moved were taken off in an Italian hospital ship. A few managed to hide up, and remained with the seriously ill and a few medical personnel until the town was occupied by British forces.
2 Throughout the Western Desert campaigns the Senussi gave assistance to British escapers and evaders in spite of Italian reprisals, including many hundreds of hangings and shootings. Some of them operated as agents under a French officer attached to MI9.
Almost all officers were flown from one of the North African airfields to Italy, most of them landing at Lecce, where they were given temporary accommodation before going north to the transit camp at Bari. The drafts of other ranks from the Benghazi collection centre were packed tightly into the holds of the limited number of merchant ships available. In one ship 350 were crowded down below on the steel deck of a hold measuring about sixty feet by forty. There was no room for all to stretch out, and most men took off their boots as it was impossible to move without treading on someone's body. The convoys usually sailed straight to Piraeus, thence through the Corinth Canal to Patras, and across the Adriatic to Taranto. After four or more days and nights of the hot, humid atmosphere below decks, the innumerable lice that swarmed from body to body, and the meagre dry rations,1 many men, some of them suffering from dysentery, arrived ashore at Taranto in poor shape: A diary entry reads:
We had touched bed-rock. I am sure that as a body the men were in the lightest condition they ever reached…. We presented an appalling spectacle … lousy animated bags of bones draped in torn and greasy rags.
Here their hair was shaved off, they were given hot showers, and their tattered clothes were put through a fumigator at a large naval barracks. The process seems to have been carried out quite efficiently. Rations were issued, and the men were taken across the harbour by launch to a waiting train.
1 One shipload of prisoners discovered a hold full of food on the deck below them, and so at least did not suffer from hunger on the voyage.
In late August the survivors marched into Campo PG 75 at Bari, which was then being used as one of the main transit camps for British prisoners from North Africa, and was receiving nearly all our officers who had not gone to hospital and a good number of our other ranks as well. The unsavoury reputation for brutality and general ill-treatment achieved by this camp in the first few months of its history had resulted in a change of commandant at the end of March, though the previous holder of the post had remained as guard commander. The new commandant had been quite favourably disposed towards the prisoners, and there had been just sufficient time to set the camp more or less to rights and to transfer all those who knew it at its worst before the first visit of a delegate from the Swiss Legation on 13 May 1942. On this occasion ‘no complaints were made … by the internees’;1 but it is clear from the evidence accumulated by the War Crimes Commission that had the visit been allowed a month or two earlier or later there would have been no lack of them. When the camp numbers had risen sharply in June and July 1942, the new commandant was unfortunately replaced by two more senior officers, one of whom, in charge of the officer prisoners, proved particularly difficult to deal with. And the general commanding the area, a quick-tempered, highly excitable little man with anti-British feelings, remained to influence the camp during its whole history.
The scale of food rations differed little from that mentioned in the account of this camp at an earlier period, except that there was half as much meat and a little more cheese. It seems doubtful if even this meagre amount of food was supplied in full, for several officers describe their diet as consisting to all intents and purposes of a small loaf and two servings of skilly daily, with a tiny piece of meat once a week. For this and the extra fruit and vegetables supplied for their messing, officers had to pay approximately four shillings a day.1 From a canteen those able to pay the prices could buy irregular supplies of dried and fresh fruit and occasional cakes. Issues of Red Cross parcels were similarly irregular and inadequate.2
1 Daily rations cost three to four lire, and fruit and vegetables ten lire, a total of 13 to 14 lire.
2 Over four weeks of this period an officer records the following issues: an eighth, a quarter, and a half, a total of less than one complete parcel. Others record less.
In September most of the New Zealand officers were sent to Sulmona, and shortly afterwards numbers of our other ranks moved north to Gruppignano. Heavy rain in October made it necessary for other ranks who were in tents to be moved into the barracks, thus making the latter more overcrowded than at any previous period. More other ranks were transferred elsewhere, however, and of the New Zealanders only some thirty remained as part of the permanent staff of the camp doing cookhouse and other duties. There was little change in the food and no issue of Red Cross parcels for one period of 13 weeks.
In the New Year conditions began to improve. Issues of Red Cross food became more frequent, and plenty of hot water was available from the cookhouse for drinks. Italian uniforms marked with a yellow band, as well as underclothing and socks sent through the Red Cross, were issued to those who needed them. Each man had three blankets and sheets, though the latter were later withdrawn from other ranks as they were not being supplied to Italian prisoners in British hands. Pay was received regularly and mail started to arrive fairly well. Besides occupying themselves with indoor games and various arts and crafts, prisoners had organised lectures on accountancy and other subjects and classes in Italian and other languages. There was a weekly lecture on current events and a camp news sheet with items of topical interest. As the weather became warmer and sunnier in late February, men were able to divest themselves of their clothing and set about disinfestation in earnest. A New Zealand sergeant wrote, ‘Things seem to be improving all the time’. At the end of February the camp was visited by a papal nuncio, who insisted on reading complaints written by officers relating to past treatment in the camp. Five days later 2300 prisoners were transferred to other camps, leaving only the permanent staff of 139 and some Greeks. Most of the New Zealanders were transferred to Campo PG 85 at Tuturano, ready to be sent out to work, and Bari became a kind of base camp for neighbouring work detachments.
1 A few succeeded in breaking out of the camp but were recaptured after a few days at large.
Some of the drafts from Benghazi which arrived at Taranto during September were sent after disinfestation to a new camp three miles north-west of Altamura. It was on a gentle slope in the middle of a plateau of parched and stony land, but the barrenness of the compound was relieved by a shady almond grove which cut across one corner. Like Bari, this camp was only half finished: an administration block and latrines were built, but the only accommodation for the thousand or more prisoners consisted of the groundsheet bivouacs standard in Italian transit camps.1 Although the amount of food was very small, it was all of excellent quality by contrast with what had been issued at Benghazi, especially the bread, cheese, and fresh vegetables. With this diet, the crystal-clear water and the fresh upland air, men's digestive complaints began to clear up and their appetites if possible to increase. After three or four days one Red Cross food parcel was issued to roughly each ten men, much to their delight and amazement, for in two hungry months spent in North Africa since their capture they had almost forgotten that milk, butter, jam, chocolate, and other such foods existed.
Fortunately the New Zealanders and Australians were moved before the rains made the camp into a sea of mud. During their stay the mild autumn ‘enfolded [them] with sweet peacefulness’,2 and the pleasant Italian vistas helped to restore mental calm after the upheaval and strain they had hitherto experienced. The guards were easygoing and, apart from interminable roll-call parades, interfered little in the prisoners' daily lives. There was a general urge for mental occupation, which bore fruit in classes in languages and in informal lectures and debates under the only almond tree inside the compound. At night open-air concerts in the improvised parade ground gave men a chance to let off pent-up emotion in the community singing of sentimental and patriotic songs. In early October our men were moved north to Gruppigano by train—a crowded and uncomfortable two-day journey through the smiling Italian countryside.
1 Five or six months later there were still no huts, though the foundations had been laid.
2 Quoted from the diary of a New Zealand soldier.
To the new arrivals from Benghazi in November the camp was ‘like heaven’. They were shown to a bunk in a reasonably comfortable hut and issued with a palliasse and two blankets, some Red Cross food and fifty cigarettes. After a week they received a new British battle dress and an old Italian uniform as a change.1 Letters and cards for writing home and five Italian cigarettes were given out regularly. There were drawbacks: the huts were still infested with lice and fleas, and the Italian nonworker's ration was insufficient to build up their lost strength, so that there were still cases of dysentery and a prevalence of giddiness following exertion. But the Italian doctor did what he could with the scanty medical supplies at his disposal, and there seems to have been a general disposition on the part of the camp authorities to do their best for the prisoners.
In March 1943 there were nearly 5000 on the camp strength (including 300–400 New Zealanders), of whom 1700 were already out in work detachments and many other preparing to go. The large numbers in the main camp marred the efficiency of many camp services, and numbers of prisoners were again sleeping in tents. Heavy rains made crowded tent life very trying, and a Swiss Legation inspector who happened to arrive at this period mentioned that ‘tents were leaking and looked most uncomfortable’, and that there were ‘large lakes all over the place.’ In many men's minds there arose a conflict about accepting a place in a working party: one man described it as ‘trying to decide which comes first, duty to one's self or to one's country.’ Those who went out to work received double rations, were given preference for Red Cross supplies, and had at least the illusion of greater freedom; but, they reasoned, working for the enemy must be helping his war effort. In the upshot they had no say in the matter, for when the supply of volunteers ran out the Italians simply detailed parties by name. Some New Zealanders were sent to farming camps in the neighbourhood, and in May 200 went to a new work-camp at Aquafredda, attached to Campo PG 78 at Sulmona.
1 Stocks soon ran out, and later arrivals received only old Italian uniforms and Yugoslav coats. A Swiss inspector reported in March 1943: ‘… the outfit of the men is quite terrible to look at.’
Most of the shiploads of prisoners leaving from Tripoli at the end of 1942 were disembarked at Naples and sent to the camp at Capua, a few miles away. At the beginning of the year, when a number of New Zealand other ranks had spent some weeks in it, Campo PG 66 had possessed tent accommodation only. But in its new character of partly transit and partly permanent camp, it now had eight stone and twelve wooden barracks in one of its compounds and further barracks under construction in others. In general, tents were used only for prisoners in transit, though these sometimes comprised a very large proportion of the camp population, which rose on occasions to 8000 officers and men. The camp now took in an area about one and a half miles long by over 500 yards wide.
Our own men passed through in one of the comparatively empty periods of the camp and were housed in barracks. There was a good stock of Red Cross food parcels, though not enough clothing. The canteen sold fruit and toilet articles and there was a kitchen garden at the disposal of the prisoners. As Capua had previously been regarded as a transit camp, not many books or other recreational material had been sent there; but officers received Italian newspapers and other periodicals and organised lectures and classes. It was generally agreed that, although the completion of the barrack buildings was taking an unconscionable time, the commandant and his administrative staff were doing their best for the prisoners. After three or four weeks there most of our other ranks were moved north to Gruppignano, to join other New Zealanders from Bari, Tuturano and Altamura, as well as many taken in the previous campaign.
Except for a few captured at Minqar Qaim, who had arrived at Bari in early July and had gone with a number of South Africans and British Army officers to a camp at Chieti, all the New Zealand officers at Bari were sent in September to Sulmona. Officers who had been at Campo PG 78 for some time were living in comparatively comfortable quarters with ‘good hired civilian furniture and proper beds’; but the new arrivals were put into large huts with concrete floors and given sailcloth stretchers and page 209 one wooden stool each. At this period many of the brick buildings were getting into a bad state of repair and were very crowded,1 especially the accommodation for other ranks, some of whom had to sleep on the floor until March 1943. There was, too, the difficulty experienced in many Italian prisoner-of-war camps during the summer months that the water supply either failed or had to be restricted to a few hours each day.
On the other hand Sulmona had a regular canteen where fruit, jam, sweets, and cigarettes could be bought, although at excessive prices. There was now a football ground on which nearly everyone could get at least one game a week; and over the long period of its existence the camp had built up a good theatre organisation which produced some very good entertainments. In October, following their plan of segregating Dominion prisoners into camps of their own, the Italian authorities transferred the New Zealand officers to the new camp at Modena.
About forty of the New Zealand officers captured in the desert campaign of November 1941 remained at the monastery camp at Padula for the summer of 1942 before going on to Modena. The thriving black market which had provided such large additions to the diet (and the cost of living) suddenly collapsed after a raid by carabinieri and a full-scale inquiry involving many of the camp's administrative staff. The new commandant (for such inquiries were almost always the prelude to a change of command) was a colonel of carabinieri and considerably more strict than his predecessor. The discovery of an escape tunnel was followed by the closing of all the ground-floor sleeping rooms and consequent overcrowding elsewhere. The perimeter barbed wire was heavily guarded and equipped with searchlights and numerous machine-gun posts. Nevertheless in September a successful tunnel enabled a party of thirteen to break out, including two New Zealanders;2 and with a little more luck the remaining 18 of the escape team would have got away too next day but the tunnel was discovered. The first party were all recaptured within three weeks and were shortly afterwards sent to Campo PG 5.
Both Padula and Poppi for many months had large numbers of medical officers and padres, far in excess of camp requirements; but it was not until July 1942, after the large increase in the numbers of prisoners and camps in Italy, that they were moved to hospitals or other ranks' camps where their services were needed.3 Finally in October all but a few of the New Zealand officers were sent north to join their countrymen at Modena.
1 Camp strength rose to about 2000 in this period.
The amenities of Campo PG 38 at Poppi, which in early 1942 held between 80 and 90 New Zealand officers and a few other ranks, remained good throughout its history, owing to a well-disposed Italian staff. The orderlies received workers' rations of bread (400 grammes) and the officers more than that supplied in most other officers' camps (200 instead of 150 grammes). Although the summer brought difficulties in the water supply, outdoor exercise and a plentiful supply of Red Cross food, together with fresh fruit and vegetables, made everyone healthy and fit. And the now regular arrival of mail1 and parcels set at rest many of the worries that arise when contact is lost with those at home.
The Italian staff was alert to discover any activity on the part of the prisoners which might lead to an escape. Besides searches by carabinieri, the camp guards and interpreters were frequently in and out of the living quarters, and with the small numbers in the camp it was not difficult for them to detect anything suspicious. In July, however, a bold and hastily improvised attempt by two New Zealand officers2 gave them their freedom for three weeks. They lowered themselves at dusk one evening from an upper story on a rope made from sheets tied together, having first been swung clear of an intervening barbed-wire fence by assisting officers operating inside the building. The sentry who fired at them had a faulty rifle, and in the darkness and sudden downpour of rain which quickly followed they were able to elude the numerous guards and dogs which went off in pursuit. Keeping to the hills they reached La Spezia, but were there apprehended by carabinieri and sent back to camp. Soon afterwards they were transferred to Campo PG 5, which was then receiving prisoners who had attemped to escape or had committed other breaches of discipline. In October all the remaining New Zealand officers were transferred to Campo PG 47 at Modena.
1 Letters were arriving from New Zealand airmail in 16 weeks on the average.
2 Lts C. N. Armstrong (22 Bn) and A. Yeoman (21 Bn).
Food, well cooked and abundant, included large amounts of fresh vegetables; there were plenty of Red Cross food and medical comforts parcels on hand; and there was a well-stocked canteen selling a variety of articles from good watches to vermouth and other wines. The internal running of the camp was left almost entirely to the prisoners of war and was very highly organised. A library was built up from books brought from other camps, together with some local purchases and, later, books from private and Red Cross parcels. A educational scheme was soon in action, embracing classes on a wide diversity of subjects, conducted by members of various professions, including specialist teachers and university lecturers. A small stage was erected in the canteen, where an active theatre group produced a Christmas pantomime and thereafter a succession of musical and other shows. A large clay area in between the barracks provided ample space for basketball, teniquoit, even football and baseball matches, and a full-scale sports meeting. For those uninterested in games there were boxing, wrestling, and other forms of physical training, or daily walks along the roads through the pleasant countryside. In the sunny and healthy climate of the area and the stimulating atmosphere of a large group with plenty of ideas to exchange, there was no reason at Modena for physical or mental stagnation.
This all seemed too good to last, and indeed, following escape attempts by several officers in the new year (one of whom was successful in reaching Switzerland), the Italian commandant became reluctant to listen to any complaint or grant any request, whether about lighting or heating or any other matter, on the assumption that it might relate to future escape activity. Air Force officers had their uniforms taken away on the grounds that they might be used for civilian disguise. Books arrived from the censor with their covers ripped off (later merely slashed open) in case articles might be hidden in them. There were early morning searches by carabinieri of prisoners' personal effects, and regular testing of each barrack floor for tunnels, before which literally everything in the barrack had to be moved outside. During these inspections the ground outside the barrack was covered with an array of beds, stools, and the heterogeneous collections of improvised furniture and other property which prisoners acquire. Though many found these evictions irksome, they had the merit of being the occasion for ‘spring-cleaning’ which might otherwise have taken place only at much longer intervals.
1 The ratio of orderlies allowed in Italian camps for officers was one in four, though in practice it was generally lower.
There were other annoying measures, categorised by the Italian authorities as ‘reprisals’ for treatment of Italians in British hands. Red patches were sewn on prisoners' clothing; rings and other valuables were confiscated. In January the officers' messing charges were raised by a ‘maintenance charge’ of 8·60 lire a day, to pay for the hire of the property and furniture being used. Not only was this charge made retrospective to the beginning of July 1942, but the whole of the arrears (some 1500 lire a head) was to be deducted from each officer's account in one lump sum. Most of these reprisal measures were common to other camps, though in most other officers' camps the amount of ‘maintenance’ arrears was at least spread over a period of some months.
Although a communication from the senior officers regarding these excessive charges was forwarded to the Swiss Legation in Rome, communications complaining of other matters, and in particular of conditions in the transit camps of North Africa, were held up indefinitely. In this, as in many other camps, the only way of ensuring delivery of such communications was to wait for the visit of a delegate and put them in his hands. In the spring of 1943, following another escape from the camp, there was a new commandant who proved more reasonable; and thereafter administrative arrangements ran more smoothly.
It took some time for matters to straighten out between the Italian authorities of Campo PG 5 at Gavi and those officers and other ranks who were transferred there in June 1942 and subsequently. The camp was described by repatriates as an ‘officers’ punishment camp' or ‘bad boys’ camp', but though the Italian military authorities would admit that pericolosi were sent to it, they claimed that it differed from other camps only in that it was more difficult to escape from. Certainly camp security was taken seriously, for at one period 180 officer and 50 other rank prisoners1 were guarded by 14 Italian officers and 240 other ranks, including several carabinieri.
1 This remained roughly the camp strength. By December 1942 there were twelve New Zealanders at Campo PG 5.
In March 1943 the ‘Generals’ camp'1 at Villa Vincigliata—Campo PG 12—was the scene of one of the most notable escapes of the war. It was notable not so much for its execution, which was matched by many other examples of clever planning and determination, but because the actual break-out was made by two generals, an air vice-marshal and three brigadiers, all above the age of most other men who attempted such exploits, and because two of the brigadiers2 succeeded in reaching Switzerland.3
There had been several unsuccessful attempts to escape from the villa by one or two of the officers in the spring and summer of 1942. Finally in September entry was gained to a disused and sealed-up chapel, from which a tunnel leading into the outer garden was begun. All the officers and other ranks in the camp assisted in some way in the tunnelling and other preparations for this attempt. On a wet evening—29 March 1943—the six men went out through the completed tunnel, and by 9.30 p.m. four were on their way to the railway station to catch a night train to Milan, and the two generals had set off to walk to the Swiss border. The latter and two of the others had the misfortune to be recaptured; but the two New Zealand brigadiers travelled by train to Como, and at half past ten on the evening following the break-out they crawled through the frontier wire near Chiasso into Switzerland.
Later in the year, separately and each with the assistance of the French Resistance Movement, they reached the borders of Spain. Brigadier Hargest was able to make his way to the British consulate in Barcelona and was flown to England in December. Brigadier Miles4 lost his life in Spain in this last stage of a game attempt to reach Allied territory.
1 There were at this stage in the camp one lieutenant-general, three major-generals, one air vice-marshal, eight brigadiers, two junior officers, and 14 other ranks.
4 Brig R. Miles, CBE, DSO and bar, MC, ED, m.i.d.; born Springston, 10 Dec 1892; Regular soldier; NZ Fd Arty 1914–19; CRA 2 NZ Div 1940–41; comd 2 NZEF (UK) 1940; wounded and p.w. 1 Dec 1941; died, Spain, 20 Oct 1943.
Only a comparatively small number of New Zealand other ranks were employed as orderlies in officers' camps in Italy,1 the majority of them having gone to Chiavari or Gruppignano, or later to one of the many work-camps established throughout the country. By the summer the large camp near Chiavari, which then held some 950 New Zealanders, had considerably improved. Besides the large mess hut which was available for concerts and other recreation, gravel paths had been laid down between the huts, a hot-shower unit had been installed (though hot showers stopped in the spring through lack of fuel), and sanitation and water supply had been improved, though the latter was still liable to fail. The food rations remained on the same slender scale, but Red Cross food parcels began to arrive more frequently. Private parcels of clothing and cigarettes also began to arrive abundantly, and the camp which had had to rely largely on the regular issue of five Italian cigarettes became flush with English ones. Some of those with large quantities of cigarettes spent a good deal of time gambling with them; and the demand for such amusements was so great that a kind of gambling alley was set up where most of the better known games of chance were played.
Many spent much of their time cooking up tasty dishes made from the contents of their food parcels, on a great variety of miniature stoves made from empty tins. It was forbidden to use these inside the huts (as it was in other camps), but the commandant set aside an area in the compound where cooking might be carried out. An International Red Cross Committee delegate describes the scene thus:
This is a characteristic picture of Camp 52—little groups of men crouching round a mess tin and giving the most serious attention to the cooking of their ‘supplement’ in their own little ‘kitchen’. The question of fuel for these hearths, however, presents constant difficulties because wood is scarce and the prisoners find in their search for chance combustibles a scource of distraction and interest.
The shortage of fuel no doubt brought about the evolution of the ‘blower’, a circular fan adaptation which had the effect of a blacksmith's bellows. Owing to insufficient facilities and fuel for cooking Red Cross food in both Italy and Germany, the ‘blower’ played an important part in the feeding of great numbers of prisoners of war. So keen was the interest at Campo PG 52 that in July a contest was held to determine how quickly a certain quantity of water could be boiled on one of these contrivances.
Though the camp space did not allow the playing of any large-scale sports, a boxing tournament excited a good deal of interest. Walks under escort outside the camp, swimming parties to the river, and a life inside the camp spent almost entirely in the open air and sunshine helped to restore men to good physical condition. The library, a full programme of educational classes, music and the theatre provided mental activity. A bulletin of ‘news from home’ compiled from New Zealand letters, which were beginning to take only two and a half months in transit, was circulated—an idea which had been put into practice in other camps too. Although the morale of the camp seems to have been high, there were many who were not sorry to be among the 700 selected in July1 for farm work, with its prospects of seeing more of the country and getting better food. Parties began to leave in September for Campo PG 107—a work camp—and many others were sent to Campo PG 57 preparatory to being drafted to work. By the new year there was only a handful of New Zealanders left at Chiavari.
By September 1942, owing to transfers from other camps, the largest number of New Zealand prisoners in Italy had been concentrated in Campo PG 57 at Gruppignano.2 In July the camp had held only 1600, including some 450 New Zealanders, and the new intake made necessary the opening up of a third compound for which the huts had recently been completed. From then on the numbers rapidly increased until in March 1943 the camp held nearly 4500 (including 1800 New Zealanders) even after some had been sent off to work-camps. Although new sleeping barracks and other necessary buildings were put up, the accommodation never kept pace with the numbers arriving, and in spite of the use of recreation barracks as sleeping quarters the camp became very overcrowded.
1 In July the camp held some 950 New Zealanders.
2 As at 30 September there were in the camp 1000 New Zealanders and 1200 Australians out of a total of some 2500. The largest transfers were from Campo PG 65 at Gravina, where the party of 300–400 from the shipwrecked Jantzen had been held, and from Campo PG 51 at Altamura, where a large number of new arrivals from Africa had gone.
Nevertheless most of the new arrivals at Campo PG 57, which had been represented to them by Italians as the ‘best camp in Italy’, felt that it satisfied at least some of their expectations. One of the shipwrecked party from the Jantzen notes that the camp had ‘a good administrative staff’ and that the ‘rackets’ in food experienced in previous camps were ‘minimised’. Others in the party from Altamura who had been captured at Alamein mention the contrast between themselves—‘lousy, bony and ragged’—and their fellow countrymen taken in the previous campaign—‘cosy, clean, plump, and well-dressed in full British battle dress’; and the terms used, though perhaps somewhat exaggerated, express a contrast that was real. The newcomers mention the gifts of food and clothing they received, and the ‘fine spirit which existed throughout that camp’. Another man who had spent his previous period of captivity in transit-camp tents was impressed with the ‘neat huts’: and another still, who had been in Greece at Salonika, Larissa, and Patras, thought it the ‘best place [he] had been at for any period since [he] was first captured’.
By July 1942 a large number of the new sleeping huts with plenty of light and fresh air had been completed (as well as four intended for recreation), the sanitation had been made more efficient, and the water supply improved. Each of the compounds had its own kitchen, latrines, ablutions, and place for washing clothes, and was controlled by a senior prisoner NCO with a small staff. There were plenty of Red Cross food parcels on hand, and those who had lost weight in transit camps began to replace it rapidly. The canteen was well stocked and parcels of tobacco were beginning to arrive freely from New Zealand House and private sources. Letter mail from New Zealand itself was taking only two and a half months.
A small library of educational books had been built up and there was a large variety of general reading matter. All kinds of classes had been arranged, though among our men those in agriculture, accountancy, and languages seem to have had the greatest following. There were art, music, and drama groups; and individuals filled in their time with a variety of crafts, from knitting and crocheting to wood-carving and making objects from tin. For some time those who had wished had been able to cultivate flower and vegetable gardens within the camp bounds, seeds having originally been provided by the camp authorities. The arrival in the summer of 1942 of some cases of sports material sent by the World Alliance of YMCAs enabled full use to be made of the large area available for sport, and baseball, soccer, cricket, volley-ball, and deck tennis all had their following.page 217
The Italian commandant, of whom some mention has already been made, prided himself on maintaining strict ‘discipline’. For not standing to attention at the lowering or hoisting of the huge Italian flag at the camp gates, for not saluting an Italian officer, for talking during check parade, or for not wearing sufficient clothing near the perimeter fence (apparently considered an incitement to indecent assault) the punishment was 30 days in solitary confinement. Some claim that the commandant kept the cells almost always full as a matter of policy, and that they were emptied to some extent only during the visit of a neutral delegate or of a papal representative, or on the occasion of some happy event in the Italian royal family. Nor was brutality discouraged among his subordinates: the camp has a record of handcuffing, ‘beating-up’, and shootings and woundings at least as bad as that at Bari. And although one of the New Zealanders killed there was shot dead while cutting the wire for an escape, another who walked across the trip-wire in broad daylight in his pyjamas was obviously at the time mentally unbalanced and could easily have been apprehended.
The perimeter defences of the camp were exceptional: a squared barbed-wire fence 17 feet high, followed by a double concertina obstacle, and then a high double-apron fence of barbed wire with concertina wire under each apron. The whole length was lit by powerful arc-lights at close intervals and manned by frequent machine-gun posts, as well as by moving sentries. The commandant took pride in the fact that no one had been able to escape. On the night of 29 October, however, 19 Australians and New Zealanders broke out of the camp through a tunnel planned by two senior warrant officers. The tunnel—about 150 feet long—had been dug over a period of months, with great attention to secrecy even from the other prisoners in the camp; for it was found by experience that, especially in a large mixed camp, even if there was no one of doubtful loyalty, there were always some who through various kinds of indiscretion could not be relied on.
There was consternation among the Italian staff when the breakout was discovered at roll-call on the following morning, and there followed a hue and cry involving large numbers of troops in the district. Most of the escapers made their way across country in pairs, some heading for Switzerland and others for Yugoslavia, but all were recaptured in five days. Some of them spent long periods in the cells, part of the time in chains, and on release were housed in a special barrack and subjected for a while to special checks every two hours. The rest of the page 218 camp, too, came in for its share of what was described by a Protecting Power representative as ‘severe control and surveillance’. Searches similar to those described in connection with Campo PG 47 at Modena, involving the complete evacuation of each barrack and the taking up of sections of the flooring, occurred every week regardless of the weather. The prisoners were sometimes called out to check parade at past midnight. When taxed by a neutral delegate with the illegality of such treatment under international law, the commandant gave the arrogant reply that he proposed to continue it until he was satisfied that the prisoners were no longer secretly planning to escape.
Fortunately the winter turned out to be mild. Although the allowance of blankets was sufficient, there were few heating stoves in the barracks and only enough fuel to keep them going for about two hours each evening. Conditions in the cells were especially severe in winter, as they were not heated in any way, and prisoners slept on bare boards with one blanket only. Supplies of Red Cross food parcels failed owing to the breakdown in the transport arrangements through southern France, and the International Red Cross Committee warned all camps to issue at the rate of half a parcel a week as from 1 December. Some men who had not sufficiently recovered from previous privations broke down in health as a result of this additional food shortage; there were a good many cases of beriberi and a disproportionate number of deaths both in the camp and in the local hospital.
In February the supply of parcels again became ample, day after day of sunny weather made possible almost unlimited sport and sunbathing, and most of the camp population became physically fit. When medical inspections were held to determine who were fit enough to go out on a work-party, few were rejected. Because of a lack of volunteers for these labour camps a party of 300 had been detailed in October,1 and a ballot for another party had been held in December. From then on parties began to leave for work on various construction jobs in the district, mainly with pick and shovel; and in the spring and summer of 1943 considerable numbers left Campo PG 57 for agricultural work, both in the neighbourhood of Gruppignano and as far afield as the upper reaches of the Po in north-western Italy.
1 This party had no medical inspection, and several had later to be returned as unfit for work.
The first of the independent work-camps set up in Italy was Campo PG 107 at Torviscosa. In September 1942 a large party was transferred from Chiavari; in October another 300 were sent off from Gruppignano; and by the end of the year further parties from these two camps had brought the total of the new camp to a thousand, over 600 of them New Zealanders and the remainder South Africans. In the spring more men were transferred to the strength of Campo PG 107, but almost all went to its sub-camps, some of which were a considerable distance from Torviscosa.
The town, and the prisoner-of-war camp about a mile away, were situated in low-lying swamp country in a plain that lies at the extreme northern end of the Adriatic. It was about twenty miles from the sea, with Udine about fifteen miles to the north, and, beyond, the Julian and Venetian Alps. There was a large factory in the town for the manufacture of cellulose fabrics from cane that was grown on land reclaimed from swamp. Prisoners of war were used in the task of draining and levelling the swamp area, constructing roads through it, and later cutting the cane and preparing it for despatch to the factory. They were paid by the page 220 company at the rate of three lire a day,1 in addition to their normal pay from the Italian Army authorities, and received double the normal ration of bread and macaroni and extra cheese.
The camp itself comprised an area of about 200 by 100 yards, and contained ten brick sleeping huts besides cookhouse, infirmary, showers, and recreation huts. One of the last had for a long time to be used as extra sleeping accommodation owing to the overcrowding in those originally intended as dormitories. Beds consisted of long shelves three tiers high, allowing a space of a little over six feet by two and a half feet for each man and his possessions. There was a good water supply, though the ablution benches were not protected against bad weather, and rain also converted the camp area into something like the ground of a pigsty. There were no heaters in the sleeping barracks, and there was an almost continual shortage of fuel for cooking and heating in other buildings.
After an early morning drink of coffee substitute, the men were counted out the gate by 7.15 a.m. and marched along the road to the fields where they worked. They were organised in parties of a hundred under a foreman and three or four overseers, and worked with pick, shovel, and wheelbarrow at first, digging drains or small canals and levelling off the areas so drained. Winter working hours were 8 a.m. to 12 p.m. and 1 p.m. to 3 p.m., but in summer the hours were increased to ten. The prisoners were not overworked, but each had to wear a metal disc with a number on it so that he could be reported by the overseers if necessary. As it turned out the latter were found to be only too willing to do an illicit trade in food and wine for cigarettes and soap, and to retail items of news they had heard over the BBC. There was little hope of escape from the fields, as the area was well ringed by guards and thoroughly searched when the party lined up to return to camp.
1 This rate was laid down for working camps by the Italian Ministry of War, and raised to 4·50 lire as from 1 February 1943.
Mail began to arrive from New Zealand in about two months in 1943, and clothing parcels, although taking longer, were coming in well; so that with cigarette parcels from London and private food parcels from the Middle East, the inmates of Campo PG 107 did quite well for relief supplies. Work on the swamp area played havoc with clothes and at first there was a shortage, but ample consignments from the International Red Cross Committee in 1943 remedied this. They were not so well off for sporting and other recreational material as other camps, though in the spring they were able to play soccer and baseball and to open a proper library. In the winter they had had concerts, including one devoted to Maori songs and hakas. But as the Swiss representative pointed out, they did not have so much time for sport as in non-working camps. It was symptomatic of working camps, too, that the need for mental distraction was not so great; for, in the camp leader's words, ‘the majority vastly preferred work with all its fatigue to inaction in a camp’.
The seven sub-camps of Campo PG 107 formed in the spring of 1943 were smaller parties employed on agricultural labour. Campo PG 107/4, for example, on a state farm at San Dona di Piave on the Adriatic coast north of Venice, consisted of 50 New Zealanders employed on haymaking, weeding, and digging. Their quarters were cramped though quite comfortable, and they did well for food on the farm, after the same fashion as their compatriots at farm Arbeitskommandos in Germany. In such small groups it was possible to obtain concessions from the guards by organised going slow at work, concerted action of a kind that would be hard to organise in a large camp containing men of different nationalities.
In mid-December another offshoot of Campo PG 57 was formed by the transfer of some 250 New Zealanders to a new working camp near Bussolengo, about twenty miles north of Verona. They were employed on pick-and-shovel labour in the building of a canal, which was part of a large hydro-electric scheme using the waters of the Adige River. The river itself ran just below the camp and, together with far-stretching fields of grape-vines and orchards, provided the camp with a view of unusual beauty. Prisoners worked in squads of 25 and were engaged in filling trucks with spoil for most of their working day. This was six hours in winter and nine in summer, though a New Year decree page 222 made eight hours the minimum working day for all Italian workmen as well as for prisoners of war.
To house the prisoners new stone barracks had been built, containing three-tier wooden shelf-bunks similar to those at Torviscosa; cookhouse, ablutions, messroom, canteen, infirmary, and detention cells were in a separate block. The canteen was well stocked, and there were occasionally extra issues of wine, as at Christmas when the prisoners were allowed four days for celebrations. Though mail, both inward and outward, took longer in a work detachment than in one of the main camps, consignments of Red Cross food and clothing arrived fairly well at Bussolengo. A neutral inspector remarked that, apart from the satisfaction of the extra worker's rations, the men at such working camps seemed happier.
A smaller party of New Zealanders, together with South Africans, had gone to work under similar conditions on almost identical work at Campo PG 129 near Macerata, not long before the draft left for Bussolengo. In the spring Campo PG 148 became a base for small agricultural working camps in the district, in much the same way as Campo PG 107. At the same time about a hundred more New Zealanders went from Gruppignano to Campo PG 120, newly formed in the neighbourhood of Padua for similar farm work, with eight detachments. About 150 others went still farther afield to the neighbourhood of Vercelli, 50 miles north-east of Turin, where a new series of over twenty labour detachments, given the base number 106,1 was being set up. At Arro (Salussola) Campo PG 106/20 provided labour from among some eighty New Zealanders and twenty Australians for five nearby rice farms on the Piedmont plains. The prisoners were housed on their return from work in a disused cow-byre, where they were plagued by swarms of mosquitoes. As at many of the other work detachments on farms, the improvised sleeping quarters were very crowded, and the sole source of water was a pump and trough. At most of them, too, there were long delays in the arrival of Red Cross supplies and in sending on mail that had gone to their previous camp at Gruppignano. The bad living conditions produced sit-down strikes at more than one of these camps, one occurring on the day of a Swiss delegate's visit. There was little attempt to escape at this stage, most men realising that the end of the war for Italy was near, and that when it came opportunities would be much more favourable.
1 Nearly all the New Zealanders were at Campo PG 106/19 and Campo PG 106/20.
Mention has already been made of the party of 200 New Zealand prisoners transferred from Tuturano in May 1943 to Campo PG 78/1 at Aquafredda, in the hills to the north-east of Sulmona but near enough to come under Campo PG 78 for administration. The camp was 2000 feet up among the Abruzzi; the work was making a road with picks and shovels and carrying rails and posts connected with the operation of a stone quarry. The buildings were clean and new, but there were at first only poor rations and no stock of Red Cross food parcels. As these supplies came to hand, illicit trading with guards and civilians made it possible for the prisoners to supplement their diet. And whatever the drawbacks of navvying and roughing it among the Italian mountains, a good many of the men had reason later to be thankful for being in a place remote from a main camp and in the high country away from a town. For when the armistice came they were in a most favourable situation to reach the Allied lines, and large numbers of them were able to regain their liberty.
The seriously wounded and sick from hospitals at Matruh, Tobruk, and Benghazi received good treatment on the hospital ships which brought them to Italy, some landing at Reggio di Calabria and going on to Caserta hospital, others at Bari and going to the hospital there. Together with some of the survivors of shipwrecks and the sick from existing prisoner-of-war camps in Italy, they made a total of British prisoner patients far in excess of the hospital accommodation available for them. Although rooms and sometimes wards were set aside in Italian military hospitals to accommodate them, the need for further space page 224 necessitated the setting up of special hospitals for prisoners of war at Bergamo and Lucca in July 1942, and later at Bologna, Altamura, and Nocera. At the same time most of the surplus British medical officers and chaplains were transferred from officers' camps to the newly opened hospitals, or to those already established which had set aside portions for prisoners of war.
The overcrowding at Caserta hospital in the latter half of 1942 caused a considerable falling off in food and medical attention, though men still spoke of being well treated and, theoretically at any rate, they were on the same rations as the Italian patients.1 There were at the hospital 15 captured British medical officers who worked under trying conditions, as their actions were under constant supervision by the Italian medical staff, who if necessary could overrule them. In November 1942, in spite of the transfer of over 400 British prisoner patients to Bologna and Nocera, there still remained 1300 or more. Many others were moved on in the month following and Caserta came to be regarded as a ‘clearing hospital’, some patients passing on after two or three weeks, though others stayed for several months.
Bari military hospital had imposing new buildings set in beautiful gardens, three wards being allocated to prisoners. Here also, in spite of a fine-looking ration scale, there was a severe shortage of food, made all the worse by the complete absence, at least up till May 1942, of any Red Cross food parcels. There had been armed sentries in the wards and excessive restrictions on the use of latrines and washrooms, though conditions had improved later in the year. By contrast, in the wing of Parma hospital reserved for British prisoners, run mainly by Italian nuns, the patients were well treated and had plenty of food and cigarettes, though much of the latter were Red Cross supplies. The military hospital at Morigi di Piacenza had two wards set aside for prisoners, where although there were shortages at first, conditions by 1943 were pronounced ‘first-class’. Sick prisoners from Campo PG 57 at Gruppignano were sent to the Ospedale Vescovile in Udine, the converted upper floor of an ecclesiastical seminary. Sometimes where numbers were few, patients would go to the military or civilian hospital in the nearest town of any size, those from Campo PG 38 at Poppi going to Arezzo.
1 The military hospital daily ration scale given to a Swiss representative in May 1942 was:
|or Poultry||500 grammes|
|or Fish||300 grammes|
Of the new hospitals for prisoners of war only, Ospedale PG 201 at Bergamo opened in mid-July in what had been an old people's home. It was a huge, modern building with excellent equipment, and though not all of it was given up to the prisoner-of-war hospital, there was space for separate wards for officers, severely wounded, lightly wounded, and sick. By the end of the year there were over 300 patients, mostly from Bari and Caserta. All treatment was by British medical officers and orderlies, though under Italian control, and there were Sisters of Mercy attached for domestic duties. Plenty of Red Cross supplies enabled a high standard of diet to be maintained.
At Lucca, Ospedale PG 202 was also opened in July 1942. Once a civilian hospital, it soon held 530 prisoner patients with 13 British doctors and 104 orderlies to look after them. The hospital was fairly well equipped and supplied with drugs, and the Italian medical staff did their best for the patients. Although the British medical officers were at first hampered in their duties by the same supervision on the part of some local Italian medical officers that we have seen elsewhere, they gradually took over most of the surgery and curative treatment, with beneficial results to the patients. Cures were greatly helped by the addition of Red Cross food to the diet. Red Cross supplies of books and games helped prisoners to pass the time more easily while they were inmates of the hospital, and supplies of British uniforms and underclothing enabled them to be discharged properly clad.
Castel San Pietro military hospital at Bologna, established in a large school building among pleasant fields and vineyards and renamed Ospedale PG 203 when set aside for prisoners, was similarly well equipped, and the treatment and food for the 450-odd patients in January 1943 gave no ground for complaint. A smaller hospital for prisoners was established at Piacenza in an old palace belonging formerly to the Alberoni family. By January 1943 it held some sixty wounded British prisoners, who were looked after by an Italian medical staff assisted by nuns.
One of the chief discomforts suffered by prisoners of war in hospitals in the early days of 1942 had been insufficient heating in the wards. Constant pressure by our own medical officers as well as neutral inspectors had some effect, and a Swiss report notes in January 1943 that Bologna hospital was if anything rather overheated. For clothing many of the earlier patients had to be content with a shirt, though proper hospital suits were later issued to them. Mail was very slow in reaching almost all the hospitals, chiefly due to delay in readdressing; and sometimes the accumulation of months arrived all at once. Some hospitals had to rely on the nearest camp for their Red Cross supplies, and page 226 arrangements for regular consignments often took some time. For tobacco and recreational material all the hospitals had mainly to rely on such supplies, though playing cards and language textbooks were often bought for them locally. British chaplains did useful work at many of the hospitals in organising concerts, talks, and other entertainments. Apart from these, men spent their time in yarning, playing bridge, reading, and studying languages.
Owing to the lack of provision for either artificial limbs or re-education centres for disabled prisoners, and to the crowded state of the hospitals, many amputees and other disabled men were discharged as soon as their wounds were healed and sent off to a camp. Most of these men and other serious cases had their names sent forward by our medical officers for submission to the Mixed Medical Commission. After the first repatriation operation in April 1942 the Commission had continued with the examination of cases brought to its notice. Unfortunately, owing to occasional arbitrary action by some local camp authorities, a number of repatriable prisoners were sometimes not permitted to see the Commission despite energetic protests.1
Negotiations with Italy for a further exchange of prisoners dragged on through the latter half of 1942 without definite results. British proposals regarding a scale for the retention of protected personnel met with the Italian argument that it would be unfair to lay down a hard and fast scale regardless of climate and other factors, and that the number should be related to the amount of medical and dental work to be done in the particular area. On the other hand an Italian request that prisoners so mutilated as to be obviously incapable of further employment in the armed forces should be repatriated without the formality of an examination was at first rejected, as it was felt that such cases would all come before the Commission and be disposed of immediately. In December there was a considerable interchange of telegrams, and by March agreement had been reached on most of the main points. About the same time the Vatican, whose delegate had during his Christmas visits seen in the prisoner-of-war camps and hospitals of Italy cases of blindness, mutilation, tuberculosis and beriberi, expressed concern that their repatriation had been so long delayed and asked both countries to do what they could to hasten it.
1 Article 70 of the Geneva Convention of 1929 gave any prisoner the right to go before the Commission if he makes such a request to the camp medical officer.
The Talamba and Tairea returned with the Cap Saint Jacques to Smyrna on 9 May for the second flight, with 400 Italian sick and wounded and 2000-odd protected personnel. They brought back to Alexandria on 13 May some 150 British sick and wounded (including twelve New Zealanders) and 350 protected personnel (including 96 New Zealanders). Some NZASC transport drivers attached to medical units were fortunate enough to secure inclusion in both these flights. A third party exchanged at Smyrna on 2 June consisted of 2676 Italians and 430-odd British (140 sick and wounded and 290 protected personnel), some of whom had been passed by the Commission in Italy during a supplementary tour made after the commencement of the operations for the first flight. In this last party, which disembarked at Alexandria on 6 June, were four New Zealand sick and six protected personnel. Even after this large repatriation movement, involving the exchange of some 1630 British for upwards of 5700 Italians, there still remained in Italy a number of prisoners with amputations and eye injuries, as well as cases of tuberculosis and other diseases giving grounds for repatriation. Negotiations began almost immediately for a further exchange in the autumn, just too late, as it turned out, to avoid getting caught up with the march of events.
1 Rt. Rev. G. V. Gerard, CBE, MC, m.i.d.