Part 1 - "Missing in Action - Believed POW"
Chapter 2 - Being a POW
Once the initial shock and disbelief of being taken prisoner had been overcome, and the transit camps had led to permanent ones, newly minted POW settled down to the routine of prison camp life. With a new camp discipline replacing that of their own fighting units, individuals reacted in accordance to their personalities, their temperaments, and to a large extent the circumstances of their life back home.
Their basic needs were being met, albeit at a lower standard to that which they had been accustomed. Their priorities became their health and well being, more food, news, particularly from home, and entertainment, in most cases, in that order.
The importance of food permeates the interview narrator QX22164 Gnr Ted Kent of the 2/3rd Anti-Tank Rgt gave to a radio station in Yarragon on May 17, 1995. After describing his early experiences with his unit his story is taken up when he was recuperating from his wounds in an Italian hospital.
"The hospital was a bit outside Naples, a bit. The hospital accommodation was alright in the wards, about 6 to 8 men to a ward, the bed was all right, but there wasn't much food. We were terrible, terrible hungry, starving, weight was falling off us like anything. And at night you'd get eaten alive by bugs, there were bugs everywhere, it was just terrible. Only advantage I had was I didn't smoke. The other blokes were starving and dying for a smoke. I didn't smoke so I didn't have that worry.
"Then a few days later we got a Red Cross parcel. Gee it was luxury. We had our own sort of food. Anyway as I didn't smoke, I could swap my smokes for a bit more food. Anyway I was there for about a month or six weeks getting my wounds dressed about every third or fourth day perhaps. But my wounds wouldn't heal up properly. They went bad in the flesh. They had to burn them off with a caustic pencil every second or third day - that wasn't very nice. There were all types, there were all sorts of conditions in the hospital, a lot of men worse off than I was, and some were better.
"Outside the hospital there was a little garden and barbed wire fence, and outside that, was a park. A lot of Italian people used to come over to this park and eat their lunch at dinner time and they started to throw their scraps over the fence for us. And we used to scramble for them, just as you throw out food for the chooks. Blokes with arms in plaster, legs in plaster, arms in bandages, all scrambling for these scraps they were throwing over. Sometimes you'd get two or three extra mouthfuls of dirt but that didn't matter. It went down too.
"So then one day there were a lot more people. There were prisoners coming in from Africa. They had to get rid of those that they reckoned were fit to travel. I wasn't fit to travel, but they reckoned I was, so they walked us down to the railway station and put us on a train and we spent about two days getting right up to the North of Italy, where there was a big concentration camp - Number 57. Most of the Australians and New Zealanders were there, about three or four thousand men. There the accommodation was all right, big long huts, about eighty men to a hut and an electric light was on and a big wood heater in the middle. But there was no wood to put into it. The food was scarce, we got two meals a day, very watery rice of a morning and cabbage leaves boiled up for a soup of a night and one loaf of bread a day. A very little loaf of bread - not as big as a salad roll you'd get at home. Gee we were hungry.
"The Red Cross parcels were fairly regular, there'd be one each week we'd get. It was the day we lived for - the day the Red Cross parcels got issued, it was generally on a Monday. You'd see the men go over to where they they kept the storeroom, on tables and trestles. A gang would carry the parcels out and another gang would cut the strings and unpack them and then the Italian officers would go along and inspect them all, and see that there were no guns or anything in them. Then a gang of Italian soldiers would step forward and they'd all have sharp spikes in their hands and they'd punch a hole in every tin, that was so you had to eat the food straight away. In wintertime you could keep things for a few days, meat and that, but summer time all the fish and meat wouldn't keep too long. That was so that you couldn't save up food to escape.
"The only way you could save up food to escape was sometimes we got honey in the Red Cross parcels and chocolate but when you're hungry its pretty hard to save food up. But I was never fit enough to escape, so I didn't have to worry about that. So they ripped the Red Cross parcels open, and each one of you would have a turn, and you'd walk along, pick up a Red Cross parcel and you'd go to the end of the rail and you'd salute the officer there and back down and then it'd be Paddys Market! These fellas trying to sell you something else, something he didn't want and you'd used to go "gees, there's no biscuits in there, in the parcel" and if we didn't like them we'd try and swap them for something else. So anyway that goes on for three or four months. Christmas came then. Oh gee, it was an awful Christmas, got a crook tin of meat in my Red Cross parcel. It nearly broke my heart I had to throw this tin of meat away. I survived, somehow."
Narrator WX17240 Pte Ted Faulkes of the 2/32nd Inf Bn reports: "We landed at Brindisi, and as we staggered through the streets, we were spat upon, abused and pelted with garbage. We had not eaten for 3 days, and the guards enjoyed it. From Brindisi, we were taken in railway wagons to a camp called "Santa Fara" near the port of Bari ... At "Santa Fara" we received our first Red Cross parcel, but we only had a small taste of "proper food" as it was only one parcel among 10 POW. Also we were issued with British Army battle dress clothing by courtesy of the Red Cross. It was here, as well, we had a proper wash after six months without one.
After about a month at "Santa Fara", where for the first time, I saw men eating grass and the leaves of olive trees, we were again walked to Bari, a distance of probably 5 miles. Once again, we were put on a train into cattle wagons. The only ventilation in these wagons were apertures about 12 inches square with bars. They were situated at each top corner of the wagon and were impossible to see out from. Two days and nights we spent in these wagons as the train headed northwards. No food or water was issued and the stench was unimaginable. Eventually we arrived at Campo Prigioniera PG 57 which was at Gruppignano near Udine, north-east of Venice".
Narrator QX5147 Pte Jim Wilson of the 2/15th Inf Bn, remembers receiving his first Red Cross parcel: "It was like Christmas morning when we were kids. In spite of advice to the contrary some set to, and didn't stop eating until they had eaten the lot. One chap sat up half the night licking out his tins until his mates threatened to throw him and his tins out - many were ill afterwards - not accustomed to so much food. He quotes a poem -
I always think of food in Aussie, for I've nothing else to do,
Then my back starts itching, for the lice are starving too!
"Of all the assistance provided to AIF POW in Europe by the International Red Cross, their standard food parcels were probably the most appreciated.
"Theoretically, a POW was entitled to one Red Cross parcel a week, and in the bigger and better organised camps such as 57 Gruppignano, this aim was achieved so long as transport of them to camps remained effective.
Later in the war, Allied bombing raids and increasingly effective partisan attacks on rail systems certainly did disrupt the steady supply of parcels as it did the enemy supply system generally. But it was often used as an excuse when te true cause was administrative or the cessation of supply of parcels became a punitive measure.
"While according to the Geneva Conventions, the withdrawal of Red Cross parcels was a punishment that could not be inflicted on POW, it was often uses as a reprisal for such "crimes" in a prison camp as attempting an escape, or "insubordination".
"Colonel Calcaterra in 57 Gruppignano certainly used the witholding of parcels, already held within the camp, as a means of punishment. At times parcels would be witheld, not for reasons of local punishment but for some political or propoganda reason, for what was seen by the enemy to be an act of inhumanity by the Allies in the day to day conduct of the war.
"Red Cross food parcels, were also distributed to work camps, and as they also contained such highly prized non-edible trading items as cigarettes and soap, were of great assistance to prisoners planning an escape. The could be traded for civilian clothes, maps and even wirecutters".