anzac POW freemen in europe

Part 1 - "Missing in Action - Believed POW"

Chapter 5 - Italian Prison Camps

By and large, Australian and New Zealanders captured by the enemy in the first and second Libyan campaigns and in Greece and Crete, became German POW and began their indefinite long-term imprisonment in Germany or its satellites. Those captured in later battles in North Africa and particularly those for El Alamein, were handed over by the Germans to the Italians for their captivity in Italy.

The main POW collection centre outside Benghazi held over 6,000 British troops by 5 December, 1941, in quite inadequate facilities (A4 p108):

"The main compound, a large area of sandy ground, contained several barracks and sheds for motor transport - an overflow compound alongside contained only Italian groundsheet bivouac tents. Over 700 POW had to jam into each unlighted shed at night, the majority sleeping on the concrete floor when the few camp cots had been occupied. The lack of bedding was typified by 3 men who shared a blanket, a greatcoat and a groundsheet, many had still less. In the daytime, the men milled around in the space between the huts. There were long queues for the few small taps - beards grew from lack of shaving facilities, most men were unable to wash properly, and were in the same clothes they had worn into action two or three weeks before. The long trenches that served as latrines soon became cesspools and clouds of flies spread dysentery.

"A dreary diet of half a pound of bread, a little macaroni soup and a little tinned meat were issued daily through the camp staff of South Africans appointed by the Italian camp commandant. By mid-December men were experiencing blackouts through lack of nourishment as already had been the case in the transit camps of Greece and Crete, and many had adopted the policy of laying down as much as possible to conserve their strength. An occasional issue of a lemon and a few cigarettes did nothing to alleviate the situation.

"Tempers began to fray under the boring routine of waiting all day to queue up with an empty meat tin for the next meagre issue of food. Both with eachother and with the Italian guards, some men traded for food at fantastic prices such of their valuables that had survived various searches - wristlet watches, rings or fountain pens - for small quantities of cigarettes or loaves of bread. Besides the all-important topic of food, thoughts and conversation turned to the possibility of rescue by advancing forces, and the alternative, of transportation to Italy. Rumours of the British advance, and the nightly sounds of bombs on Benghazi helped to maintain morale, which to judge by the enthusiastic evening sing-songs seems to have been high despite the conditions".

By the end of 1941, Benghazi transit POW camps had hosted over 6,000 Allied POW captured in the "Benghazi Handicap" from Derna to Tobruk, on their way to further captivity in Italy. By the end of 1942, it had hosted a similar number collected from the fierce fighting of the determinant battles around El Alamein, and they too had been on-forwarded to Italy. The squalid conditions of the Benghazi holding camps had never been improved.

Ted Faulkes remembers: "In the main Benghazi camp near the Bernina airport, which is about 5 miles from the port, were several thousand POW, including Australians, South Africans, English, New Zealanders, Indians, Senegalese and Cypriots. We were in the open, but some were lucky enough to have small 2 man tents. Food and water rations were extremely light consisting of 2 Italian army biscuits per day per man and one small tin of horseflesh between two men per day. Some prisoners with dysentery died in this camp. The flies, lice and fleas were unbearable".

On arrival in Italy, most British POW passed through the Italian transit camp at Capua and then moved to more permanent camps. In early 1942, the Italian army began to re-organise their POW camp system and commenced to number and classify them. The large camp at Sulmona, outside Rome, became known as "Campo concentramento di prigionieri di guerra 78", abbreviated to PG 78, where there were already a large number of British officers and other ranks, including a few Australians (A3 p757).

Officers and other ranks were separated, and the Italians began to further their re-classification by turning PG 78 into a fully officer camp, and PG 57 at Udine in the north, near the Yugoslav border into a camp for other ranks, almost exclusively Australian and New Zealand.

Captain Jack Kroger and Lieutenant Barney Grogan, for example, were moved from PG 17, Razzanello into PG 78, Sulmona. Australian and New Zealand other rank survivors of the "Nino Bixio" went straight to PG 57, Gruppignano. By the end of 1942, all Australian and New Zealand officers, including airforce officers, were in PG 78 and all other ranks were in PG 57, which then held some 4,000 men.

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