Episodes & Studies Volume 1
NEARLY all the New Zealand prisoners of war in Italian hands were first captured by the Germans. A few were caught in Greece by Italian occupation troops, and some were airmen shot down over the Western Desert or over Italy. On several occasions in the Desert campaigns German tanks overran positions held by New Zealanders, and these men found themselves, dazed and unbelieving, ‘in the bag’. Some few made their escape shortly after capture; others had the luck to be liberated by our own forces.
The first anxiety of enemy guards was to get their prisoners back quickly into territory they firmly held. But they rarely had transport for prisoners, and the men had to march back distances varying from ten to sixty miles, taking from one to four days on the way. Their first captors. German front-line troops, were usually courteous, correct, and good-natured; often they apologised to their prisoners when they handed them over to the Italians, to whom—since they had been captured in Italian territory—they were to ‘belong’. The Italians frequently relieved them of their valuables—wristlet watches, fountain pens, cigarette cases—and on many occasions behaved arrogantly and without consideration for their welfare, although some of the men noticed that their Italian guards were much less demonstrative when there was no audience to witness their warlike demeanour while guarding unarmed prisoners of war.
Few men were given any food at all during the first one or two days after their capture, and until they reached a more or less permanent camp they were rarely given any form of shelter. The Italian prison camps in North Africa were appallingly run, and it was only because their stay in them was comparatively short that many of the men survived. At Benghazi, for instance, in 1942, one of the holding camps used was in a saucer-shaped wadi, a few miles from the town, where a group of date palms provided the illusion of a fertile oasis. Up to two thousand men were herded into 2½ acres, groundsheets set up as tents giving shelter to about a quarter of the number. Sanitation, always a weak point with the Italians, consisted of three or four trenches, only four feet deep, as the ground was rocky and difficult to dig; after a few days these latrines overflowed and new ones had to be dug. Food was scanty: a daily ration of four ounces of Italian bully beef, perhaps eight ounces of bread, a cup of cooked rice, a cup of synthetic coffee. On this diet, even if supplemented by bread gained by exchanges with the guards for any valuables that had survived the searches, and by prickly pears gathered on expeditions through the wire (at the risk of being shot), the men within a few weeks suffered from the dizziness and ‘blackouts’ which are symptoms of malnutrition. The other camps, whether barbed-wire pens in the open or massive, fortress-like buildings, provided no better conditions; some were worse.
The prisoners had to languish in these holding camps for anything up to three months waiting for transport to Italy. They began to know the Italians better and on closer acquaintance found them mostly humane, though unpractical and inefficient. As there was little to do in the compounds, a few concerts were organised. In one group, men turned to carving small objects from wood and, strange as it may seem, an arts and crafts exhibition was held, in Cyrenaica, a few weeks after capture. The listlessness of undernourishment did not encourage energetic pursuits even if they page 4 had been available. Trading became important. A man who had been captured in a shirt and shorts was glad to ‘buy’ an army greatcoat for a tin of bully and twenty cigarettes. Rumour also flowered: one of its strangest blossoms was ‘King Farouk has given Rommel twenty-four hours to get out of Egypt!’ Morale was still high as no man realised that he might remain a prisoner of war for several years.