On 10 June 1940, Italy entered the Second World War at the side of Germany. During the course of the War, Great Britain and their allies captured in Ethiopia and North Africa approximately 400,000 Italian troops, who were sent to POW camps all over the world, including Australia.
Between 1941 and 1945, Australia received custody of 18,420 Italian POWs. Then, after Italy signed an armistice with the Allies in September 1943, the Australian authorities took between 13,000 and 15,000 Italian prisoners out of the POW camps and put them to work.
Farmers and other primary producers were required to provide food and keep, plus ₤1 a week for each POWs (significantly less than what Australian labourers were been paid). The prisoners only received about one shilling a day for their work, while the government retained almost two thirds of the weekly pound as compensation for providing medical services and clothing.
In 1945, when war in Europe was over and Italy had been on the side of the allies for over for one and a half years, the Australian government, instead of returning the Italian prisoners to their families, kept them working in Australia for another one to two years. In fact, requests were sent to British authorities in India to send more Italian POWs to Australia.
Finally, mostly in 1946 and 1947, the Italian POWs were repatriated to Italy. Then, during the following couple of years, perhaps 10% of them returned to Australia as migrants.
The father of a friend of mine, here in Canberra, was one of them. He had fallen in love with an Australian young woman (my friend’s mother) and came back to Australia to marry her. Actually, after publishing this article, I discovered that my friend escaped to marry her love, after which he surrendered to the Australian authorities to be repatriated. Then, as soon as he was back in Italy, he applied to migrate to Australia.
When I heard my friend’s story, as the incurable romantic I am, I searched the Internet to find out whether many former Italian POWs had returned to Australia for love.
I couldn’t find almost anything. It is not even clear how many came back as migrants. That’s when I had the crazy idea of taking a PhD to research and tell some of the stories of those men. Who were they? What motivated them to come back to Australia?
Perhaps my idea was not completely crazy after all, because the University of Canberra agreed with me. Since December 2012, I’m a student again.
These stories need to be told. That part of our history has been badly neglected. The 15,000 Italian POWs who worked in Australian rural communities, with their hard work and moral values, made many Australian realise that the Italians were more than just bloody Dagoes only wishing to lazy in the sun.
The monograph I loved an Italian prisoner of war tells the story of Domenico Camarda, and the article From Tobruk to Clare: the experiences of the Italian prisoner of war Luigi Bortolotti 1941-1946 tells another one of those stories. But what about the other 18,418 Italian POWs? Are they going to disappear into oblivion? Not all of them, if I can help it.
The purpose of this blog is to let me describe some of the work I am doing for my PhD, but also to tell many snippets of information of which few people are probably aware.
The background image of this blog is a picture of the landscape around Cowra, the site of the largest POW camp in Australia.