Part 1 - "Missing in Action - Believed POW"
Chapter 5 - Italian Prison Camps
C. Camps controlled by PG 106 - Vercelli
Molinetto - All Aussies. Camp Leader Cpl W. Parker
San Dominano - 2/24th? Ted Price?
Palestrino/Collabanio - Geoff Rhodes 2/24th Ted Faulkes,2/32nd - Mills, Loffman, Bullock, Morgan all 2/28th?
Selvi/Salasco - Nelson, Newby, Jobson Bros 2/7 RAE
Tenuta Veneria/Lignano - 100 POW 2/15th Tony Giddins, La Valee, Ray Hassan, Brimicombe, Garrigan, Jagoe, "Ringer" Collins, Carey, Reese, Cotterell, Berg, Brennan Double
Castell Apertole (Livorno Ferraris)
Castel Merlino (Livorno Ferraris)
Langosca a Busonengo/Villaboit
Foglietta - Fred Vardy, Bert Lockie
Carpeneto/Bianze - Harold Digwood, Dan Black, Daglish, Wilson, Terzo, Squadro, Dare, Edwards, "Paddles" Laws, Querruell
Petiva/San Germano - Bert Wainewright, Sgt John Worsfold, Waller, Woolcock, Clarkson?, John Peck 2/7, Stan Bailey, Creasey, Crofts
Cascina Oschiena - Mal Webster and mates 2/3 LAA, Liddell, Sproule 2/32nd, Powling
Tenuta Salussola/"Barracone" - 40 Australians, 40 Kiwis (see separate list of all names)
Riccarda/Tronsano - Ted Triffett 2/15th, Beattie 2/24, Boulger
Brianco - Jack Rowe 2/28th
Arro - Peagram
Caroma - John Fitzgerald
"Lachele" - George Rea 2/28th, Jack Dodd, Doug le Fevre, Norm Terrell
Ronsecca - Dan Black (Part of Carpenneto complex?)
Montenegro - Ian Hemphill 2/24th
Casa Rossa - Putland 2/28th, Jones
Cargastello - Jack Morris, (2/32?)
Narrator Jim Wilson recalls his transfer from Gruppignano:
"On 25 April, 1943, a train load of us made the 15 hour journey in cattle trucks from Udine to Vercelli, and then our group of 40 marched to the small village of Carpanetto, to be billetted at a farm managed by the Peno Brothers. Carpanetto is between Milan and Turin. Here we were split into 3 groups, again, each directed to work on a different farm. Other groups of approximately 40 were sent to other farms. Here again, I worked as a blacksmith while the rest were out in the fields, not always as useful to the farmer as they were supposed to be. For this work we were paid 3 lire a day - just chits to that value, not Italian money -nowhere to spend it anyway.
It was here that John "Paddles" Law of the 2/13th Inf Bn was shot whilst attempting to escape. Half-a-dozen of us were allowed to attend his funeral as pall-bearers. "Titch" Messenger followed with a huge wreath he had to look through. A 2/13th Sergeant took the purple ribbon from the wreath and sent it to "Paddles" parents in Sydney.
Whilst working in the blacksmiths shop, I had made contact with civilians and been able to exchange my clothing bit by bit and had been paid for small jobs I'd done for them so that when I escaped, I had enough civilian clothes and money to get by with. Also I was well sun-tanned and learnt sufficient Italian to pass for one of them.
I had been told of the Allied landing in the south of Italy, and both the guards and civilians were apprehensive about the future. One day in early September I was told not to go to work and was taken by a guard (walking along the canal) to another camp in a nearby village. Here I found POWs who had been earlier volunteers to work, locked in a building. I don't know what became of the rest of my group at that particular time as I had worked alone at the blacksmith's shop and they in the fields. These POW had been locked in for a couple of weeks. I did not take kindly to this and asked to see the C.O. I was taken to him and to my surprise he was in civvies and spoke good English. I learned that he had just arrived too and was puzzled as any as to what was to be done about us. He was friendly anyway, and just wanted to talk about Australia.
Ted Faulkes remembers:
"Sometime in April, 1943, several hundred prisoners were taken by train (again in cattle wagons) across the north of Italy to the Vercelli area, which is about midway between Milan and Turin in the province of Piedmonte. This was only virtually an overnight journey. At several small villages in the area groups of 100 prisoners were taken off the train and walked to previously prepared POW camps. The group that I was in de-trained at Brianco. In this area of Italy a lot of rice was grown under irrigation from the rivers Po and Sesia and I believe it still is. Our job was to wheelbarrow soil to make the paddyfield embankments. This was done under the supervision of an elderly Italian foreman. We had to walk about 2 miles each day to and from the work area, accompanied by armed guards. There were quite a few civilian farm workers also working on the farm we were on.
The owner of "padrone" was a Mr. Buongiovani, who was a reasonable type of person. The civilian workers were hard to convince that we were Australians, as they were under the impression that all Italians were were black and also cannibals. After a few days of the hard labour we were doing, we were getting very weak due to the meagre rations of watery boiled rice or macorini and the small black bread roll. One of the group who could speak a bit of Italian, spoke to the "padrone", Mr. Buongiovani and asked him to come and see for himself how little food we were getting. Our saviour was Mr. Phil Loffman, 2/28th Battalion, who persuaded the "padrone" to come to the camp when our rations were being dished out. When he saw how little we got he was amazed, and immediately agreed to approach the authorities, which he did. Consequently our rations were doubled, and the Red Cross food parcels were delivered regularly thereafter.
In this area, malaria fever was endemic and the mosquitoes were there in plague proportions. I think I was the first one to go down with malaria fever, but others soon followed. In this camp was a corporal, Wally Mills, of the 2/28th and he diagnosed us of having malaria. Phil Loffman and Wally Mills then convinced the Italian officer in charge of the camp, that we needed urgent hospital treatment. As a result, we were taken to Vercelli "Ospidale". On arrival at the hospital, we were put in a wing that was for military personnel which included POW's as well as Italian "soldati" (soldiers). There were other POW there, mainly with malaria, but we were kept in a separate ward from the Italians. There was a 24 hour guard on us. They were quite friendly to us, and gave us news of the progress of the Allied Forces in Southern Italy and quite freely told us that they wished the "Americanos" (Americans) would hurry up and chase the "Tedesci" (Germans) out of Italy. This was about June 1943.
The treatment at the hospital was dispensed mainly by nuns who were very efficient and sympathetic towards us. We were given large doses of quinine tablets and also injections. After about 3 weeks I was discharged and taken back to the Brianco camp. I still had re-occurences occasionally until 1946. Shortly after this the camp at Brianco was closed and we were split up. I was in the group that was taken to a new camp (by horses and carts) on the outskirts of Collobiano, which is about 3 to 4 miles north of Vercelli.
Narrator Ted Kent recalls:
"Then the Spring came, the days started to get longer, the snow starts to melt on the mountains, everything gets green - Spring's here. Then in May work starts again on the farms and they need farm labourers, there's a lot of men away in the army you see, so the prisoners of war had to work on the farms. I didn't want to go, but it turned out better in the long run. The wounds in my leg were crook, anyway they put us on a train one night and took us right across the top of Italy to a place half way between Milan and Turin. All plains, it was a big irrigation area. Well we got to this place at about ten or eleven o'clock in the morning and we got off the train there, and there were all these men - soldiers and civilians - on the railway yards and lots of horses and drays. They were picking us out in groups of about fifty and put our gear into the drays and off they'd go up the road, and another fifty up another road. And then they came up to us and an officer said "You're coming up to my farm" and off we went.
"We had guards all around us and big red patches in the middle of our backs and on the seat of our pants. The officer he was riding in the cart beside us. We had to walk about six miles to the farm we went to, real hot day and we never stopped once to have a spell. Four or five o'clock they showed us where to sleep - a big room double decker bunks in there and some bales of straw and some bags, so we made some mattresses and pillows for ourselves and a couple of blankets each and a pair of sheets each. At about five or six o'clock there was no activity in the cook house, a little cook house that was out the back and I said to them "what about something to eat" and they said "you'll get something tomorrow". He says, "you've supposed to have had something to eat today" and I said "we ate that yesterday". "Well too bad", he said. "Too bad". So we were all extra hungry that night.
"The next morning get up at seven or eight o'clock and the bread had arrived. We got two loaves of bread each, that was twice as much as we got at the prison camp. So we'd soon eaten one and had one left. We then got our breakfast that was a cup of black coffee after that we'd all go on parade. They counted us up and sorted us out and said who we were going to work for. Just for farmers. I was lucky I had twenty of us staying on home farm. We worked in gangs of five and worked for four different share-farmers. The others they had to go to the three neighbouring farms about three miles away, they were working over there and they had their dinner over there and came home at night. We'd go back to the home farm and have two hours for dinner.
"Our first job the next morning we started work, the farmer takes us down to a storeroom and gives us a shovel each we had to go down into this paddock and make irrigation banks to grow the rice so all day on the shovel we're all soft a hot day and hungry, not used to working for eighteen months. We plodded along all day. Gee, it was hard on the hands. Your hands get blistered, your backs got sore and you got sunburnt. After about a week we got more used to it. They make you work hard, you've got to keep going.
"The boss was there all the time and guards all the time, so after a couple of weeks we get hardened up a bit you see, you'd get an extra bit of food for working as well. We started to get a bit hardened up. Then the hay starts, the grass hay. Well they cut the hay over there and then they turn it over about six times in the one day to make it dry quicker. That was easy work, just forking the hay and turn it over. That wasn't a bad job that one. There was a little boy about twelve, thats his first job, to carry water around to all the workmen. We used to work on one farm and he had us five prisoners and two or three broken down men who had been soldiers, four or five teenage girls four or five of their mothers and perhaps two or three of their old grandmothers. Everyone's got to work over there. We were out in the paddocks working and we were able to talk to the Italian civilians. They couldn't stop us. They'd tell us how the war was going and one thing or another. They'd say "Our war's going great - bombed London last night". That was funny, they laughed at that.
"So anyway we'd keep on going, working, and getting a bit interesting. Better than the concentration camps, there was no interest there. We'd make hay some days, and some days we'd make irrigation banks and somedays we'd be hoeing maize or something like that. The guard would take us out to work each morning, he'd take us down to where the boss was and he'd give us a hoe or a pitchfork or a shovel or whatever we'd got to work at. They ploughed the paddock over there and cut the grass and then we'd have to get all over it with a hoe and rake it all up to plant the rice in. There were twenty of us across the paddock and the boss'd be leaning on a shovel just ahead of us, just keeping an eye on us all day and the guard'd be standing there just watching us too. I was lucky, I had a watch so we'd knock off on time. Some of the other blokes that didnt have a watch well the farmers would work them five or ten minutes longer.
"When they'd cut and ploughed the paddock, they'd flood it with water and there was a gang of girls, about fifty girls- teenagers - early twenties - they'd come up and they were rice packers. They'd come, riding their bikes around, they'd plant the rice. They'd grow the rice thick somewhere else, and then they'd cart it over to this paddy and shove it in bundles about as big as that in the water along the headland. These girls would pick up a bundle, have to plant it in the water like that, up to their knees in the water all day. They'd be singing away happy as anything - of course they didn't know much better - and we'd come along with our pitchforks and shovels or whatever and they'd give us cheek 'cause they knew we were harmless.
"It goes on, they'd plant their rice and next day they'd be on a farm somewhere else. The weather was getting a lot hotter all the time and some days were very hot and we're getting the hay carted and doing the harvesting. You'd turn the hay in the morning and you'd load it onto the drays in the afternoon. And because I knew a lot about the pitchfork, I got the hard job of loading the hay up onto the dray. The blokes that didn't know how to do it, well, they had the easy job. That went on for a few weeks, then one day we're throwing hay there, a very hot day, the guard got sick of just standing there in the sun just watching us so he goes up the end of the paddock to a shady tree there and he's down in the grass under that shady tree and goes to sleep.
"Not long after the sergeant in charge of the guard comes along, riding his bike, and sees us in the paddock with no guard there so over he comes. He said "Where's the guard?" We pointed up there and down he goes and finds the guard there asleep. We were expecting him to get a boot in the behind, but he didn't. He unhooked his rifle, and gets it off him without waking him up, goes down past us, back over the road, onto his bike and then back to the camp to tell the officer that he's found the guard asleep and the guard would be in big trouble when we went back at dinner time.
"A little while later the guard wakes up and realises that he's got no rifle. We could see him look around in the grass for his rifle and naturally he thinks one of us has taken it. He comes down to us and says "Where's my rifle?" and I said "The sergeant's got it". Well his bottom lip dropped, he was going to go on leave the next day, a bit of that would be cancelled. Anyway we're going back to the camp, he's swearing and cursing all the way back, and he had to go up to the officer then. The officer took two days off his leave so he reckoned he'd got out of it light. That was a funny time.
"So anyway it was going on and on, a bit of a routine, much the same every day and we're getting in better condition. I was about six and a half stone when I went out to the farm and after about two or three months I was up to about eight. I worked fairly hard there when I wanted to. I didn't always want to though. The farmers, if you worked good for them, they'd give you something, some rice or tomatoes, or something like that.
"But the farmer I worked for wouldn't give you anything. He was a real shylock. So the other fellas had to share what the farmers gave us with us too. He wanted a lot of work done, but he didn't want to give us anything for it, to encourage us. So that goes on and the harvest gets about finished the wheat's come again and we had to turn to thrash the wheat. They would turn it for a day and then thrash it and turn it and the farmer would thrash what he thought. This day it was our turn to get the thrasher out and parked over near the stack of wheat and we're ready to go when this fella, he was from the western district, he's on the stacks forking up the bales and there's two girls on top who kept their hands on the bales to put them on to the thrasher and he's making a heck of a mess of the bales - he'd shear you under the table, but he didn't know how to process sheaves of hay - so I told him to get out of the way and let me in there.
"So I got in there and started up the stack and forked up the sheaves of hay two or three at a time. At about four o'clock in the afternoon the stack's still about this high and the farmer comes up to me and says - "When you've finished you can have a spell" and I thought "Yeah" and I just about ran the pitchfork through him. It was about six o'clock before it got finished that was a hour overtime and you don't get paid overtime there.
"So anyway, the thrashings finished and we're doing odd jobs, planting the maize and combine harvesting and Italy's getting weaker and weaker. It comes to one day and we heard that Italy's collapsed - the guards were a bit lax and some of us ran way from the farm one night out into the scrub. Anyway it was a bit hard to keep up as a group, two or three of you was about it. Even when you got away from the prison farm, the prison camp, you still had to eat anyway, so we pandy potatoes out of someones garden or something like that. Then Italy collapsed and the Germans had overrun the country".
CAMPO 106 Vercelli XIX /Salussola -"Barracone"
The Recorder was allocated to a State Farm, one of forty Australians, together with forty New Zealanders, under command of 13329 Corporal Lou Moir, later to be among the escapees to reach Switzerland. He was the senior NCO and became Camp Leader. There were no NCOs among the Australians. One of New Zealanders, 45265 John Skilton 22 Battalion NZEF contacted him, after he had supplied the "POW-WOW" organisation of New Zealand ex-POW with a nominal roll of the 108 New Zealanders who reached the safety of neutral Switzerland.
John Skilton had managed to retain his list of names of all 80 POW in "Barracone" and is working on matching them with the group photo taken of them at that camp. He writes:
"On 25th April 1943, I was transferred to PG 106/XIX, a working camp in the North of Italy. Our work was mainly in ricefields. We were supposed to get double rations in working camps but for a while the Italian officer on charge of rations was selling a lot of rice on the black market. There were 80 in our camp, about half Australians and half Kiwis, so there were some good arguments, not to mention North versus South Island rivalry. For a start, we had 80 shovels which meant the whole camp working each day. We soon reduced the number of useable shovels to 40 by breaking the handles, knowing the Italians had no replacements for them. This meant only 40 prisoners working at a time,so we had every second day off.
"In charge of the camp was an Italian Sergeant-Major who had fought on our side in World War 1. He was supposed to take a roll-call night and morning, but instead locked us in at night after taking and counting our boots. Two Aussies escaped in sandshoes and were not missed for five days. However, they were caught, although we never saw them again. The Sergeant-major was also taken away after that.
"When Italy capitulated on 8 September, 1943, we were held in prison for several days to be handed over to our forces but as the Germans had other ideas, so we were turned loose by the guards to fend for ourselves".
John Skilton was one of the many allied POW who remained "on the loose" in the mountains of North Italy during the winter of 1943. He finally reached Switzerland on May 29, 1944, one of the last New Zealanders to do so.
Of the 80 inmates of 106/ Vercelli XIX/ Salusolla, "Barracone" over a quarter made it to freedom, one way or the other.
14 Australians and 12 New Zealanders made it to Switzerland.
QX17734 "Jock" Smith reached Allied Lines.
WX10462 Ed Morley, WX14394 Les Parker MID KIA, WX15065 A.C. Scott, WX13239 Ray Vigar, WX6803 Norm Willacott fought on with Italian partisans.
Possibly another 10 either reached Allied Lines or stayed "underground" in Italy.
Of the 40 Australians, 14 were from the 2/28th Inf Btn and 8 were from the 2/32nd.
This particular battalion had men from every Australian State. The fate of those 8 members who were incarcerated in Campo 106 Vercelli XIX/Salusolla, "Barracone" exemplifies the typicality of AIF POW experience in this Italian work camp complex.
The eight from the 2/32nd Inf Bn were:
QX20453 R. Oldes, Stalag 4D Germany
WX14394 L. Parker, KIA fighting with Italian Partisans
WX12186 G. Please, Switzerland
VX11824 A. Price, Switzerland
WX12766 W. Richards, Stalag 4B Germany
NX30501 J.Ryan, Remained underground in Italy
WX15065 A. Scott, Served with Italian Partisans
VX48488 J. Williams, Switzerland
A3 "Tobruk and El Alamein", Barton Maughan
A4 "Official History of N.Z. in WWII", Wynne Mason
F6 "Australian Partisan", Ian Sproule
F2 "A Strange Alliance", Roger Absalom