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Prisoners of War

IV: New Zealanders captured in the Italian and Aegean Campaigns

IV: New Zealanders captured in the Italian and Aegean Campaigns

In mid-October New Zealand troops had landed in Italy to rejoin the Eighth Army, and by 14 November the New Zealand Division had taken over a portion of the line. In the attacks on Orsogna which followed the crossing of the Sangro, a number of New Zealanders fell into enemy hands. Fifty-three were lost in an ill-fated attack on the town by 25 Battalion on 3 December, and another 14 by 24 and 28 Battalions on 7 December. But the days of large-scale withdrawals were over for the New Zealand Division, and the number lost as prisoners was kept down to a hundred, only a fifth of the total number lost in action.2 Some of these were lost in patrol activity against the enemy Winter Line.

As transit camps for new prisoners and for recaptured escapers, the Germans used some of the former Italian prisoner-of-war camps if the numbers were large enough; otherwise they used commandeered barracks and other buildings. Thus in the south some men were taken to the old Italian camps at Sulmona and Aquila, others to barracks at Aquila, Chieti, or Avellino. In the north, although there was a collecting centre at Trieste for those recaptured in the eastern provinces, the main transit camp was at Mantua and became known as Stalag 337. It had once consisted of an old garage and store-rooms; but if sleeping, washing, and sanitary facilities were primitive, the food was satisfactory, and prisoners were usually kept there for only ten days before going on to Germany.

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One of the many unpleasant thoughts that passed through the minds of prisoners transported northwards through Italy in the weeks following the armistice was the possibility of being bombed by our own aircraft. Though fortunately this did not happen on many occasions, there was a tragic occurrence of this kind on 8 December. Four hundred prisoners (including 57 New Zealanders) who had been collected in the old Campo PG 102 were being entrained at Aquila station. Some 260 had been locked in box-wagons, which happened to be in between a petrol and an ammunition train, when a heavy air attack was delivered on all the rolling stock at the station. Although the attack lasted only ten minutes over 200 were killed (including eight New Zealanders) and over 75 injured. In the ensuing confusion many of those uninjured were able to escape and some eventually made their way to Allied lines.

A few New Zealand airmen were captured in RAF operations over Italy in the second half of 1943. Before the Italian armistice those who fell into German hands were usually sent post-haste to Germany for interrogation; if they fell into Italian hands they were sent to the same prisoner-of-war camps as other prisoners. One New Zealander1 brought down in July was sent to Sulmona. After being free after the armistice for 14 days, he was retaken but made another break shortly afterwards from a train. He lay up in the hills near Castel di Sangro for a while and, though wounded by a German patrol two days before, made his way to the British forces at Isernia on 7 November.

Another New Zealander, a Fleet Air Arm lieutenant,2 who made a forced landing near Salerno on 9 September, had an even shorter period in captivity. He jumped from a German truck taking him to a prison camp and made his way south towards Naples, helped en route by local Italians. After spending ten days hidden with an Italian family, he and some companions climbed the slopes of Mount Vesuvius and crossed to the village of Torre del Greco, where he met British troops only three weeks after his capture.

On 14 September British forces took advantage of the Italian armistice to occupy Cos and Leros, two islands of the Italian Dodecanese. Included in the small occupation force on Leros was a New Zealand detachment of the Long Range Desert Group. Strong German airborne and seaborne forces eventually overcame the British garrison and occupied the island in November. Some of the British forces, including most of the New Zealanders, were able to disperse and evade capture, and many finally got away in small boats or were rescued by caiques of the MI9 organisation. But page 319 numbers were held prisoner, among them 22 New Zealanders, the majority of whom were captured while raiding the island of Levita in October. They were taken to Greece and so north to Germany.

2 Comparative figures for this and the Battle for Egypt in the summer of 1942 are given below:

Killed in actionDied of woundsPrisoners of war
20 Jun to 31 Aug 19425362861819
12 Nov 1943 to 31 Jan 1944298101100
In the later campaign losses in prisoners of war form only 20 per cent of the total, whereas in the Battle for Egypt they form 70 per cent. In the three earlier campaigns the percentage of losses in prisoners was higher still.

1 Flt Lt M. R. Head, RNZAF., awarded MC for his escape.

2 Lt (A) D. Cameron, RNZNVR.