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Part 2 - Escape from Italian Prison Camps

Chapter 1 - The Italian Armistice - September 1943

To most Australians captured by Rommel's Afrika Korps, becoming an Italian POW was a bit like a joke in bad taste. And the further one was taken behind the lines, the more the military calibre of the Italian officers and guards deteriorated. Nearly all guards were conscripts involved in an imperialistic war, which few of them believed in, they were far from home, even in Italy, and were generally viewed as pretty poor types. This general view was to be drastically changed by those Australian POW in Italy who escaped further incarceration as German POWs after the Italian Armistice was declared in September, 1943.

The northern Italians, whether farmers, workers in the giant factories such as Fiat, or merely citizens in thriving provincial towns, were made of sterner stuff than their compatriots in the South. Well before the rise of Mussolini and his Fascists, the workers in the north were beginning to assert themselves. Communism took deep root there and political agitation was commonplace and growing. The strong movement towards "National Liberation" transcended party, political, and religious interests, and in March 1943, in Milan and Turin, Italian patriots dealt Fascism the first deadly blow (A6 p32).

Partisan activity, although divided along political lines, was carried out by individuals who were literally fighting for their own homes, and their war became a personal war. Many were ardently anti-Fascist irrespective of other loyalties. The Allied landings in Sicily in July 1943, after their conquest of Cyrenaica and the other Italian controlled areas in North Africa had a profound effect on the Italian population. The battle of Stalingrad had destroyed the myth of the invincibility of the German army and the benefit of the Axis military co-operation forever.

The whole of Europe was waiting for its liberation from the Axis yoke and many Italians felt they were fighting on the wrong side, particularly those who had memories of the First World War, when Italy was then an ally of Britain against Germany.

Italy had occupied Albania in 1939 and declared war on Greece in October 1940. It was only then that Hitler sent Rommel and his Afrika Korps to North Africa "to help his Italian Allies". But three years later, the Italian Army under command of Marshal Rodolpho Graziani, had lost all military credibility, and on July 25, 1943, King Victor Emmanuel assumed supreme command of the Italian Armed Forces and appointed Marshall Badoglio with full powers, while he and his entourage withdrew to safety in Brindisi in the South.

On September 3, 1943, the British Eighth Army under General Montgomery set foot on the mainland at Reggio Calabrio from Sicily, and six days later the American Fifth Army under General Mark Clarke landed at Salerno. The principle of the unconditional surrender of Italy's military forces had been confirmed at the Quebec Conference in August, but it was agreed that the conditions might be modified depending on how much assistance could be provided to the Allies by the Italian forces and the Italian people. On September 2, 1943, the British Government informed the USSR that Italy had agreed to the terms of an Armistice and would also surrender to them as well as to the British and American armies advancing from the South (A6 p43).

On September 3, 1943, after discussions in Lisbon and Sicily the military terms of the "Short Armistice" was signed between General Castellano on behalf of the Italian Government and General Bedell Smith representing General Dwight Eisenhower, Commander of all Allied Forces in the Mediterranean area. A "Long Armistice" expanding the military terms to cover political, economical, and financial clauses as well was subsequently signed in Malta on September 29, 1943 (A6 p66).

Clause 3 in the "Short Armistice" stated: "All POW and internees of the UN shall immediately be handed over to the Allied Supreme Commander and no one of them shall now, or in any moment, be transferred to Germany. In the "Long Armistice", Clause 3. became "All POW belonging to the forces of the UN or indicated by the latter, and all subjects of the UN including Abyssinian subjects, confined, interned, or detached in any other manner on Italian territory occupied by the Italians, shall not be transferred and shall be immediately delivered to the Allies".

But for most Allied POW in Italy, it was too late! The German Army had other plans. On July 25, 1943 the Germans had seven divisions, a total of 100,000 men in Italy and occupied all the airfields. A further 18 German divisions soon arrived and the Bodoglio Government had not increased its seven divisions to any large extent (A6 p 42/43). The Supreme German Command had laid down "Operation Alarico", which covered the liberation of Mussolini, the occupation of Rome, the seizure of the Italian Navy, the elimination of the Italian army and all the key positions taken over by the Germans.

Almost immediately after the promulgation of the Armistice, the Germans rounded up the inmates of such large POW camps as Gruppignano, and Sulmona and were moving steadily to mop up the smaller camps and more isolated working camps.

Although Senior Camp Officers were under orders from Whitehall to "stay put", Lt Col De Burg of the RAA realised what the inevitable consequence would be. Risking court-martial he declared the general order to be "inapplicable" to his camp at Fontanello, containing some 600 Allied officers and lead them out of that camp, dispersing them into the countryside.

At the announcement of the Armistice, in the working camps, Australian and other POW simply walked out of them when the Italian guards left them to their own devices. All told in what was probably the biggest mass-escape in military history, some 20,000 Allied POW were temporarily "on the loose" in Italy. Some made it safely south to Allied Lines, some stayed  "underground" in Italy, many actively fighting on with various partisan bands. Most were recaptured by the Germans, but 5,139 crossed the Alps, to the sanctuary of neutral Switzerland. These included 420 Australians and 108 New Zealanders.

Acknowledgements and Thanks to:

Roger Absalom
Malcolm Webster

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