Why the Italian POWs were not freed at once

As soon as Italy signed the armistice, the Australians asked for more Italian POWs to put them to work.  They transferred from India as many as they could.

I just discovered that in October/November 1943, the Americans told the British that, as Italy was a cobelligerent, the Italian soldiers captured while Italy was allied with Germany should no longer be considered POWs.

According to the Americans, the Italian POWs should have been organised into military units of the Italian armed forces to be placed under American or British command.

The Fascists among the POWs would be considered part of the armed forces of the newly formed Italian Social Republic, which was allied with Germany.  Despite being held by the Allies, they would be considered prisoners of the Royal Italian government, which was fighting the Germans and the “Repubblichini” beside the Allies.

In this way, the Americans hoped to increase the number of Italian troops fighting against the Germans.  I think it would have been the right thing to do and we have to give credit to the Americans for proposing it.

But the British (the Australians had no voice in this issue, as they were just seen as one of the states under British hegemony) were concerned that it would be difficult to maintain discipline of Italian troops placed under Allies’ control.  They pointed out that, once the Italians were freed, it would not be possible to change their status back to that of POWs.  As a result, they insisted that the Italians should remain POWs.

In the end, the British managed to convince the Americans.

That’s why the Australian government was able to use Italian POWs as a cheap labour force for the following three years.

I can’t help it but speculate that the British found the Italians more useful as farmers than as soldiers and acted accordingly, without much consideration with what would have been morally right.  I might be wrong...


  1. Hello!
    I am an American PhD student studying interactions between Italian POWs and locals in Massachusetts, USA, after the armistice was signed. I have read various primary sources discussing the US Army's rationale(s) for keeping the POWs in the US after the armistice (despite the Italian government protesting mightily), but have not seen mention of the US/British 1943 conversation you mention. I find it very interesting, and would love to know the source if you are willing to share!

    In general, I applaud your work to identify the postwar Italian POW immigrants in Australia. I have discovered a few POWs who similarly fell in love while in Boston and thus returned after the war to marry and live in MA. While I am pretty sure there are many more (likely 100s, though in some cases the American women moved to Italy instead), I have not yet had the time to track them all down, though I would love to do so.

    Best of luck in your endeavors,
    Anne Marie

  2. How nice!

    I was in Boston several times when I was working for Prime Computers (Natick). I loved the Cambridge area and have fond memories of those trips.

    My source is a secondary one (but reputable): Fitzgerald, Alan, "The Italian Farming Soldiers - Prisoners of War in Australia 1941-1947", Melbourne University Press 1981, ISBN 0 522 84211 9 (P. 48/49).

    I scanned and OCRed the passage (appended to this message) but, unfortunately, Fitzgerald didn't make direct reference to the relevant documents, which are only available in their original paper form at the National Archives of Australia. He does provide a bibliography at the end of the book, though, where all his sources are listed.

    If this information is important for your thesis, let me know via email to my university address .zambon@canberra.edu.au. I might be able to get the documents for you, because the NAA are in Canberra, where I live.

    To track down large numbers of people is a lot of work, because the immigration and naturalisation records have not been digitised. I only have a partial list of incoming passenger lists.

    Send me an email. Tell me more about your PhD.

    Ciao, Giulio.

    Here is the text I extracted from the book.
    The British attitude was that as the Badoglio government was unable to return British prisoners, they had every right to recoup this loss of manpower by continuing to use Italian prisoners as they thought best, although there should be some modification of their treatment because of the Armistice. However, the British were anxious to avoid the public criticism which would result from treating the Italians as civilians; such treatment would also entail problems of discipline, wage rates and security. The only course seemed to be to organize the Italian POWs in military units in which they would remain technically prisoners of war but be employed on any duties in any place in the world considered appropriate by His Majesty’s Dominion governments.

    The Italian units would be commanded by either British or Italian officers and the cost of the units’ upkeep might ultimately be borne by the Royal Italian government.

    The problem was that all prisoners of war were protected by the Geneva Convention until their repatriation, and their status could be altered only by the agreement of the Italian government which might be difficult to obtain. Until that was secured, the Italians could not be used along the lines proposed.

    The British hoped the Americans would agree on a joint approach to the Royal Italian government, but following an initial discussion they found that the Americans wanted to abolish the POW status of the Italian prisoners in recognition of the fact that the Royal Italian government was now a cobelligerent in the war against Germany. The Americans proposed that as soon as their POW status lapsed, the Italians should automatically become members of military units of the Italian government yet under the effective control of the US and British. Fascists would be removed from these units and treated as military prisoners of the Italian government and held on its behalf by the Allies. The great advantage, as the US saw it, was that the Italians could be given any task necessary in the fight against Germany. Oiily if the terms of the Armistice were broken would the Italians revert to the status of POWs.

    The British response to this American proposal was a legalistic one. They pointed out that once prisoner-of-war status had been relinquished it could only be regained after men were captured in the field. They saw problems of discipline in having military units of an Italian government under the control of the Allies, particularly in British African colonies where the Italian POWs outnumbered British European residents.

    The British view that Italian servicemen in Allied hands should remain prisoners of war was finally accepted by the Americans who also agreed to a joint approach to the Italian government.

  3. Are you by any chance Anne Marie Dolan? :-)

  4. I like your post ,now I must complete my research for my paper.

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  5. Thanks!
    I have been neglecting this blog, though...
    What paper are you working on?

  6. woow ! Very interesting post I like your website keep up the great posts
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  7. Thanks Jenis. I feel guilty because, after posting a few articles in February and March, I haven't added anything. But I will... :-)

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