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Episodes & Studies Volume 1

Life in Camp

Life in Camp

THE ITALIANS were themselves short of food. The drastic cut in rations made in March 1942 was applied to Italian base troops as well as to prisoners of war: these are supposed to receive identical rations, and in this matter the Italians kept to the letter of the Geneva Convention. A New Zealand doctor has stated: ‘After I escaped and had lived with the Italian people for some time, I was able to get a truer perspective of the poverty of Italy, and to realise how much the authorities did try to help us….’ Although prisoners of war fared badly and could not have survived without Red Cross parcels, the mass of the Italian people, at least in the towns, was no better off.

Food was the main preoccupation of men’s thoughts. The Red Cross parcel was the focus of intense interest, and the day of issue was the ‘day of days’ in prison life. How to deal with the ten pounds or so of tinned food it contained was a problem each solved for himself. The two main schools of thought were ‘the seven-day planners who allocated portions for each day’ and those who preferred to overeat for two or three days and then go hungry for four or five. Unfortunately the supply of Red Cross parcels to camps in Italy was sometimes interrupted for months together, though the attempt was always made to make the regular issue of one a week. Peculation and pillaging of parcels occasionally occurred: in one camp an Italian officer and two privates were placed under arrest for ‘thieving from Red Cross parcels’ in transit.

The men themselves ate the bulk food in their parcels, but they sometimes traded away some of the tea, coffee, cocoa, and soap which they contained. It was even possible to dispose of used tea-leaves to advantage. Bread, fruit, eggs, and wine were the chief articles acquired in these illicit exchanges with guards or civilians. The prison canteens offered small opportunity to add to the food supply. They had on sale intermittently figs, grapes, oranges, tomatoes, biscuits, and sweets, but more usually their stock-in-trade consisted of notebooks, pencils, combs, and similar articles; in any case prices were high, 5 lire for a kilo. (2 ¼ lb.) of grapes or 15 lire for a half kilo. of figs, a whole kilo. of figs thus representing approximately a month’s pay. Prisoners could make their purchases only with ‘camp money’, and thus the canteen had a monopoly which seems always to have been exploited to their disadvantage. At some camp canteens bottles of brandy and even of page 28 champagne were for sale, but at 200 lire each only ‘“Two-up Kings” or similar gambling aristocracy of vast wealth’ could afford to buy them. For each British Commonwealth prisoner of war in Italy, the British Red Cross paid a lira a day for the purchase of fruit and vegetables in addition to the Italian ration, but prisoners doubted whether anything like value was obtained for this expenditure.

After the halving of prisoner-of-war rations in March 1942, the daily issue was reduced to a loaf of bread weighing perhaps five ounces and a ladle of macaroni or vegetable stew. Every few days a piece of cheese the size of a matchbox would be issued, and about twice a week there were traces of meat in the stew. Breakfast consisted solely of ersatz coffee, described as ‘sugarless and milkless and tasting strongly of earth’. The midday stew was thin: ‘Thirty pieces, or more, of macaroni in half a pint of faintly oily water was considered by the fortunate recipient to be quite a lucky occurrence’.

The ration of five Italian cigarettes daily to prisoners of war was punctually distributed. Some wine was also occasionally issued, one-third of a litre of Italian Army issue, christened ‘demon vino’ by those who found it too sour for their unsophisticated palates. ‘Plonk artists’ were eager to buy it from comrades in exchange for cigarettes. At Christmas the Italian Red Cross made gifts of cake, biscuits, and wine in some camps; in one the Italian Air Force gave each prisoner a bottle of beer. His Holiness the Pope, at Christmas and at other times, made gifts to prisoners of war of musical instruments, medical comforts, or money to be spent for their welfare.

Books found their way into camps in considerable numbers, at least after the first months of captivity, but not many had the mental energy to study hard. Light novels were favoured. Before 1943 the Italians would not allow sheet music to be sent into camps as they feared that musical notation might be used as a code. Men welcomed sport, concerts, debates, plays, and revues, organised by the more restless or conscientious spirits; they welcomed the services held by padre prisoners of war; but life tended more and more to be built up on routines. ‘There was not much that was done purely for the sake of its being done,’ wrote one prisoner. ‘A man did not normally read to enjoy a literary form or the skill of a plot. Nor did he genuinely listen to a lecture for enlightenment. He used such happenings to ease the time between meals. There was a peculiar dislike of any irregularity …. existence is more effortless if built upon simple habit patterns.’

Much time was spent (one cannot say ‘wasted’) in purely personal gossip. Prisoners were generally able to send a letter-card and a postcard every week, but the arrival of inward mail was very irregular and infrequent. Men would lend their own letters from home to friends who had not had mail, and those who received these favours derived a strong vicarious pleasure from somebody else’s family gossip.

No camps had illicit radios, as the general standard of supervisory vigilance in Italy was high. But news came in by word of mouth, sometimes from Italians who heard the BBC. In one camp the comments in a wall newspaper displeased the Italians so much that it was suppressed; its very title Domani (‘tomorrow’: the stock Italian answer to any request whatsoever) was itself an insult. But this journal still managed to carry on; it was read out in each hut every night. In another camp a prisoners’ newspaper called The Mountain Echo, consisting of a single longhand copy, was openly circulated. It was highly critical of the Italians, but they never suppressed it.*

* Give Me Air, by Edward Ward (John Lane), p. 63.