anzac POW freemen in europe

Part 1 - "Missing in Action - Believed POW"

Chapter 5 - Italian Prison Camps

A. Campo PG 78 and 78/1 - Sulmona

The Italian POW Camp at Sulmona, near Rome, had housed Austrian POW in World War I. Then, "the Officers and other ranks were each in separate compounds, the former in brick buildings, the latter in stone huts with cement floors." (A3 p757)

In WWII, the first ANZAC POW from the early battles in The Western Desert arrived in Italy in late 1941 and after processing in the transit camp at Capua, were taken to Sulmona, officers and other ranks alike. But the accommodation for the latter became very congested, and when the Italians re-organised their prison camp system and introduced numbering and categorisation early in 1942, nearly all Allied POW "other ranks" were transferred from Sulmona to other camps. Most of the ANZAC ones soon found themselves in the infamous Campo 57, Udine.

Some, however, remained behind in Sulmona as batmen to officers, being given separate accommodation in the lower section of the main camp. Others went to a satellite camp - Campo 78/1 - established at Aquafredda  high in the hills to the north-east of Sulmona, but close enough to come under the administration of Campo 78. This was a work camp, making roads and operating a stone quarry (A4 p223)

Most Australian officers were concentrated into Sulmona, just as Australian NCOs and other ranks were gradually brought together to Campo 57. The Senior British Officer at Campo 78 was Lt Col Munro of the 2/3rd Anti-Tank Regiment AIF. Capt E.W. Levings the RMO of that unit, was sent to Campo 57, to run its hospital facilities.

In a heavily censored letter to his parents, dated May 11, 1942, Narrator Lt. "Barney" Grogan,formerly in Campo 17 - Razzonella on the river Po south of Milan, writes:

"We have been transferred to a new camp, N78, PM 3300 and will probably be here for the duration. There are about 35/40 Australian officers here. It will take a while for our mail to catch up, but the Italian officers are most obliging and will probably get them through as fast as possible".

In subsequent letters he praises the facilities at Campo 78, the high quality of the Camp concerts (some POWs were professional actors) and sports events (also with many professional players). In a letter dated August 27, 1942, he mentions the "knocking the 9th Division got at El Alamein" and the loss of the whole of the 2/28th Inf Bn there. The details of that action were soon to be provided when officers from that battalion arrived at Sulmona "in person".

Lt. Ken Bradshaw, of the 2/7th Field Company RAE and with 15 of his sappers, was attached to the 2/28th on the third and final attack on Ruin Ridge on the 28/29 July 1942. Like most of the AIF officers involved in that debacle, he was separated from his sappers, flown to Italy, and reached Sulmona towards the end of August.

In his privately published "Instead of a Life", he describes his time at Sulmona:

"The relationship with our Italian captors was cosy. They were glad to be away from the main action and amenable to barter trading, mainly for the cigarettes we had through the Red Cross. Thus we were able to celebrate Christmas with vermouth and vino. Our rations and Red Cross food parcels were adequate. The contents of the food parcels provided the necessary vitamins and minerals to supplement the basic food rations from the Italians. The cookhouse, run by O.R.s rose to pastaciuta, which to me was a pleasant dish of lovely flavour. The tomato paste and cheese (possibly mozzarella) gave the glutinous mass a rich golden cream colour. It was my first taste of real Continental cooking and it was no hardship".

When the Allies landed on Italian soil, the Italian POW camps in southern Italy were closed down and the inmates were sent north. The British officers in Sulmona were drafted out to Campo 19, Bologna.

Lt. Ken Bradshaw comments:

"The move was made in passenger train for the officers, about 200 in all, through Chieti to the Adriatic coast, then through vineyards North West ending up in Bologna. There we were housed in modern army barracks. We were joined by officers from other camps, South African and British from Modena, from the Navy as well as the Army and Air Force ... our time in Bologna was short.

"The Italian Armistice with Marshall Badoglio became the significant event in our lives. Instructions from the Allies had been received that we were to wait in the camp for the arrival of the Special Air Service. There were many of us who wanted to break out and head south to the Allies. A forlorn hope considering our numbers ... We had our packs ready for a rapid exit on the arrival of the SAS. It was therefore convenient for a rapid exit with the Germans.

"It seemed that the German General in charge of the area had his HQ in Bologna. It would have been awkward to have a thousand Allied officers on the loose. Thus a German parachute battalion was ordered to collect the officers from our camp to move to Germany. No passenger trains for this operation - we were bundled into cattle trucks which carried the legend "Quarante hommes ou huit chevaux en long". Ken Bradshaw ended up at Oflag VA Weinsberg, on the Neckar river close to Heilbronn." (See chapter, "The Moosburg Express").
The Aquafredda work camp 78/1, was located close to Italy's highest mountain, Gran Sasso, which fed the icy river that flowed past it (hence the name "cold water"). It contained some 300 O.R.s of whom 200 were New Zealanders. Among them was an Australian, Hal Perske who was on a working holiday in New Zealand when war broke out and was unable to return to Australia and consequently enlisted in the 2NZEF. He remembers that when the Italian Armistice was announced, the Italian guards deserted and the whole camp made for the hills. Hal Perske holed up in one of the many caves that pockmarked the Abbruzzi hills where he was fed by a local Italian family at great peril to themselves. So he then headed south but was re-captured by the Germans and finished up in Stalag VIIA (Moosburg). However another 54 New Zealanders from Campo 78/1 successfully made contact with Allied Units on the Termoli-Campobosso road. (A4 p312)

Acknowledgements and Thanks to:

Ken Bradshaw
"Barney" Grogan
Hal Perske

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