2013-11-14

How many Italian prisoners, really?

The Australian War Memorial holds the document AWM 54, Written records [1939-1945], 780/1/6, Report on the Directorate of Prisoners of War and internees at Army Headquarters, Melbourne, 1939-1951.

Volume 1, part 2 is about Enemy prisoners of war, and pages 101 to 106 list all the arrivals in Australia of Italian POWs.  On page 106, you will find summary table of which I reproduce here below the part about Italian POWs:


 This figure of 18,432 is what everybody quotes, including the most authoritative authors, like  Gianfranco Cresciani in "Captivity in Australia: The case of the Italian prisoners of war, 1940-1947". Studi Emigrazione / Etudes Migrations, 26(94), 1989, 195–220, on page 204, and Desmond O’Connor in "From Tobruk to Clare : the experiences of the Italian prisoner of war Luigi Bortolotti 1941-1946". Fulgor, 1, 2003, 69–85. , on page 69.  Also Alan Fitzgerald, in his widely quoted book, The Italian farming soldiers: prisoners of war in Australia, 1941-1947, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, on page 191, reports the magic figure of 18,432.

The problem with that figure is that if you read the text of the original document, rather than just looking at the total, you will see that only 256 seamen were first interned and then held as POWs, not 268 as reported in the summary table.  As a result, it is reasonable to conclude that the Italian POWs were in fact 18,420.

My study of the list of 44,513 POWs and internees of all nationalities made available by the Australian National Archives as series MP1103-1 seems to confirm the lower number.  I eliminated as carefully as possible all entries of non-Italian POWs and all entries of Italian internees and ended up with 18,415 names.

For a while I had in the list exactly 18,420 names!

This series MP1103-1 includes the Service and Casualty Forms of all POWs and internees.  The military authorities filled in those forms when the POWs arrived in Australia.  If it turned out that there are indeed 18,420 forms for Italian POWs, the universally accepted figure of 18,432 might have to be reconsidered.  In any case, it can no longer be accepted at face value!

In case you are wondering, I'm still working on the PhD.  But the focus of the PhD has somewhat shifted from telling the stories of POWs to how to tell those stories.  I'll try to write more often.  The huge void before this article is shameful...

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