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Medical Services in New Zealand and The Pacific

III: Repatriation of Prisoners

III: Repatriation of Prisoners

At intervals during their stay the medical officers captured in Libya made applications for repatriation of protected personnel. Towards the end of 1941 an agreement had been reached between the United Kingdom and Italy that either power could detain any protected personnel whose services were required to care for their fellow countrymen who were prisoners. Although very few British protected personnel were employed in looking after British prisoners, the Italian authorities were not willing to arrange any large-scale repatriation. In March 1942 they selected the four senior medical officers (Lieutenant-Colonels Twhigg, Tennent and Speight, and Major T. G. de Clive Lowe1) and twenty-seven orderlies and three amputees to be the New Zealand component of a party of 60 British sick and wounded and 69 protected personnel who were exchanged for 919 Italians in Smyrna harbour on 7 April. The medical officers informed the representative of the International Red Cross on the Italian hospital ship of the unsatisfactory conditions in the Bari camp, and in Egypt recommended that steps be taken to improve the knowledge of our forces in regard to the laws and usages of war on land in general, and to the Geneva Convention in particular, in order to reduce ill-treatment of prisoners and wounded of combatants on both sides. It was stated that in Libya there had been page 126 considerable illegal confiscation of personal equipment and effects belonging to prisoners, and medical work was hampered through misappropriation of transport and equipment of field medical units.

The crowded state of the hospitals led to amputees and other disabled men being discharged to a camp soon after their wounds were healed. Most of these men and other serious cases had their names sent forward by our medical officers for submission to the Mixed Medical Commission. After the first small repatriation of April 1942 the Commission continued with the examination of cases brought to its notice. Unfortunately some local camp commandants prevented a number of prisoners suitable for repatriation from seeing the Commission.

After protracted negotiation, on 19 April 1943 at Smyrna 150 sick and wounded, including 44 New Zealanders, were exchanged for 1211 Italians, while at Lisbon at the same time there were 15 New Zealanders in a party of 430 British repatriated to the United Kingdom. At Smyrna further exchanges were made. On 9 May 150 sick and wounded (12 of them New Zealanders) and 350 protected personnel (96 of them New Zealanders) were exchanged for 2400 Italians, and on 2 June 140 sick and wounded (4 of them New Zealanders) and 290 protected personnel (6 of them New Zealanders) were exchanged for 2676 Italians.

There still remained in Italy a number of amputees and eye and tuberculosis cases, but a further exchange arranged for the autumn was prevented by events at the time of the armistice. On 8 September 1943 an Italian train with over 100 prisoners for repatriation left for Lisbon for exchange with 550 Italians, but the train fell into German hands and was not allowed to proceed; some of those on board were sent back to their camps and others to a hospital at Treviglio. In spite of British Government requests the German authorities refused to allow the sick and wounded to go on to Lisbon, and in addition refused to recognise the findings of the Italian Mixed Medical Commission, stating that the men would have to be medically boarded again in Germany.

In 1943 prisoners in the south of Italy were steadily moved north and in mid-1943 the hospital patients at Nocera and Altamura were transferred to Milan. Though moved out of the danger zone of Allied landings, they were then more exposed to Allied air operations. A hospital was set up in a school building opposite a factory in central Milan, and on 13 August during a bombing raid the building was wrecked by blast, a number of prisoners losing their lives, including three New Zealand medical orderlies. Along with all other prisoners, patients were taken from Italy to Germany after the Allied invasion of Italy, most going to Lamsdorf or Spittal, at least some of the seriously disabled being taken by hospital train.

1 Maj T. G. de Clive Lowe; Auckland; born Auckland, 17 Sep 1900; surgeon; medical officer 5 Fd Amb Dec 1939–Dec 1940, Aug-Nov 1941; p.w. 28 Nov 1941; repatriated Apr 1942.