Episodes & Studies Volume 1
Across the Mediterranean
Across the Mediterranean
OFFICER prisoners of war generally did not have long to wait before being taken to Italy. Many were flown across the Mediterranean; some went by submarine and others by ship. Those who went by submarine—their conditions were very cramped but they were otherwise amiably treated—strongly hoped that the vigilance of the Royal Navy would be at least temporarily relaxed. Those who went by air were equally anxious about the activities of the Royal Air Force. Many of those on board cruisers or destroyers called at Crete or Greece before crossing to the south of Italy.
The men were taken to Italy packed in the holds of freighters. Before they sailed they were issued with three days’ rations—two small loaves of bread, four biscuits, and three tins of bully between two men. The voyage, usually by way of Piraeus, through the Corinth Canal, and thence across the Adriatic, might last longer without more food being issued, although in one ship the prisoners gained access to the ship’s stores and so fared reasonably well. In some ships the men had to remain in the hold without light or adequate ventilation, conditions which were worsened by the number of cases of dysentery; in a few ships they had the run of the decks during daylight.
The Mediterranean in 1941 and 1942 was hardly safe for Italian ships. Vessels were torpedoed and prisoners drowned in them without even a chance of escape. One merchant ship with 2000 prisoners in its holds was torpedoed or mined a few miles off the coast of Greece. The Italian crew abandoned it immediately, taking off a few of the prisoners of war but leaving most of them and their Italian guard on board. A German engineer officer who remained on the ship saved the situation. Although slowly sinking by the bow, the ship’s engines were intact, and with the help of the prisoners he succeeded, in spite of deteriorating weather, in beaching her. Meanwhile, the medical orderlies had rescued the survivors among the prisoners in the forward hold and had attended to their injuries as best they could. Many men got ashore that night by a bosun’s chair rigged between the ship and the top of the cliff, and others later left the ship by a pontoon bridge built by some German marines. Although some took three days to get ashore, the Italians did not move the many injured away to hospital until the last man had come off.
Prisoners of war in Italian hands in Greece were mostly either the survivors of torpedoed vessels or fugitives who had hidden after the German invasion and were later captured by or betrayed to Italian garrison troops. Conditions generally were comparable to the harshness of Cyrenaica rather than to the better-regulated, though not wholly satisfactory, treatment of Italy itself. The Italians seem to have small gift for dealing with the unexpected. The survivors, some of them bare-footed, from the damaged ship whose beaching was described above, were made to march six miles along a road covered with rough metal and bordered by thistles, were imprisoned several days in Navarino Castle, and were then taken by bus and train to Acacia and confined in an page 5 intolerably small compound, a field hastily surrounded by barbed wire. Here the prisoners lived in tents and suffered from the cold: it was nearly Christmas, the dead of winter, and some of the men already had frostbite from their misadventures by sea. Rations were meagre; this was one of the camps where some of the more privileged fared better than their fellow-prisoners. Soon there was ample reason for the camp’s nickname of ‘Dysentery Acre’. As nearly everyone was ill, there was small point in establishing hospital tents. Only the worst cases, some of whom died, were removed to a Greek hospital for treatment.
Bad feeding and confused organisation were not the only faults of which the Italians in Greece were guilty. In a transit camp a man was clubbed and tied up for six hours for not obeying promptly enough a sentry’s order to move away from the boundary wire. In another camp a man who had been recaptured after several months’ wandering in Greece was punished for an attempted escape by being severely flogged with a rubber whip: this was done publicly on the order of the commandant.
Although Red Cross parcels were occasionally issued to prisoners in Greece, the Italian camps, none of them permanent (though Italian transit camps had a way of becoming permanent), did not receive the visits of the representatives of the protecting power. The voyage of at least some of the shipwrecked party from Greece to Italy was satisfactory. These men sailed in an Italian troopship, had the same rations as the Italian troops on board, and were generally well treated.