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Episodes & Studies Volume 1

Other Camps in Italy

Other Camps in Italy

CIRCUMSTANCES varied from camp to camp, but some conditions were fairly general— hunger in the early days, overcrowding in all transit camps, poor sanitation until protests had taken effect, and an atmosphere, until the authorities’ bluff had been called, of overbearing truculence and petty restrictions. Tuturano (Campo 85), near Brindisi, rivalled Bari as a bad camp, although men straight from the amenities of Benghazi were delighted to be given bunks, palliasses, and blankets.

Early in 1942 Tuturano had an outbreak of meningitis which alarmed the Italians as well as the prisoners: however, one Italian doctor certified several supposed deaths from meningitis as being caused by malnutrition. Discipline was harsh or at least contrary to the Convention: some men were tied up for periods ranging from two to ten hours for trading their boots with the Italian soldiers for bread. When the Red Cross found that the camp existed and sent parcels, shortage of fuel to cook their contents became a problem which the prisoners solved by using the shutters from the windows of their huts. To the despair and disgust of the Italians, 150 of these shutters disappeared in a few weeks.

Another camp where many New Zealanders were held was Chiavari (Campo 52), on the Ligurian coast near Genoa. This was considered a fairly good camp. Of course, it is important to remember that a camp which could be very bad at one period, particularly in the early days, might be greatly improved later; few camps had bad conditions permanently, but none was perfect continuously. Discipline was moderate, although the twice-daily appello or check parade was strictly enforced. One commandant had himself been a prisoner in the hands of the Austrians in the 1914–18 War and had a certain sympathy with his British captives. However, the Carabinieri ran true to form here, as elsewhere, and once, when a tunnel had been found, kicked and beat a hut leader to reveal the names of the offenders. Protests to the camp commandant for this and similar acts of violence were ineffective.

Some New Zealanders passed through Sulmona (Campo 78) where the prison was located on a site which bore the encouraging name of Fonte d’Amore, or Fountain of Love. During 1941 water was turned on for only six hours a day, and in any case the ablution arrangements were inadequate. Men had baths at slightly longer intervals than once a fortnight. The concrete huts were crowded and the lack of ventilation and adequate air space dangerous to health. The outdoor page 26 recreation space was small, though there was a hut set aside for recreation. It was typical of Italian inefficiency that the cells at Sulmona were the easiest part of the camp to escape from.

Gravina (Campo 65) was a bad camp. It was cold and hungry. Men died of starvation. Before the autumn of 1942, when Red Cross parcels began to arrive, the camp was filled with rows of exhausted men sitting or lying down to conserve their meagre energy. The commandant at this time was believed to be corrupt and to be selling food, boots, and clothing intended for the prisoners in his charge.

No account is given here of the many work camps where from fifty to 200 men lived with rather more freedom than in the main camps, even though their facilities for recreation were more limited. Their contacts with the Italian population were more direct and sympathetic. But, even in a camp like Tuturano, an Italian civilian cook was at pains to provide from his own resources special cakes at Christmas for the prisoners. Nearly all the 3600 New Zealanders who were in Italian hands at the Armistice had received some acts of kindness from individual Italians which tempered their resentment of the inefficiency of Italian administration.