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Prisoners of War

III: Reception of Ex-prisoners of War in Italy

III: Reception of Ex-prisoners of War in Italy

Reference was made in Chapter 7 to the setting up of transit camps in Italy by the Prisoners of War Sub-Commission (of the Armistice Commission) to accommodate Allied escapers and evaders from enemy-held territory. The elaborate programme devised for the Sub-Commission was not carried out because the assumptions concerning post-armistice developments in Italy on which it was based were not confirmed by events, the situation demanding a much smaller organisation, with detachments up near the forward troops to receive escapers and evaders as they came through. Nevertheless, some of the ideas of the original repatriation scheme were put into practice. Its staff included, for example, detachments of New Zealanders and South Africans originally intended to assist in dealing with servicemen of the Dominions they represented.

The Sub-Commission was disbanded on 10 March 1944 and its work was taken over by the Allied Prisoner of War Repatriation Unit. At the same time the large stocks of welfare supplies built up for distribution to the ex-prisoners expected after the Italian armistice were, with the exception of a small residue, added to the general pool for the armed forces in Italy. For Allied Force Headquarters the accommodation and administration of escaped prisoners had become a relatively minor matter, to which it was not prepared to allocate more manpower and supplies than it felt to be absolutely necessary. The newly formed unit was therefore only too glad to retain Dominion personnel on its staff and to fill places on its war establishment with graded men available from 2 NZEF Base.1 It thus became possible to have one New Zealander with each post handling ex-prisoners from the front line to the camp near Naples, where they were held while awaiting embarkation. The idea was that a New Zealand ex-prisoner would by this means always be able to consult one of his own countrymen at each stage of his evacuation. At the end of March the Allied unit had forward posts at Casoli, Torino di Sangro and Presenzano, and a staging camp at Foggia. The unit headquarters was at Naples, with a main camp at Resina nearby and an embarkation detachment at Taranto.

On arrival at one of these repatriation posts an ex-prisoner had his name checked against the War Office roll of prisoners previously located in Italy; he was also interrogated by a local representative of CSDIC2 and warned about maintaining security concerning his

1 At the end of May these New Zealanders were formed into No. 1 (NZ) PW Repatriation Unit, which while remaining under command of 2 NZEF, was seconded for duty with the Allied PW Repatriation Unit. Graded men were those medically unfit for front-line service.

2 Combined Services Documentation and Interrogation Centre. This body was responsible for the interrogation of both Allied and enemy prisoners in the Middle East and the Mediterranean areas.

page 431 escape and helpers. He was accommodated and fed as well as circumstances permitted, and there was some attempt at providing the welfare amenities of a rest camp, including periodicals and a radio, but as soon as possible he was transported by road to the main camp at Resina.

Here he was able to have a hot shower, to get an issue of clean clothing, to have good meals, to sleep in reasonably comfortable accommodation, and to enjoy similar amenities to those of an army rest camp. As soon as possible he was given a medical and dental examination, and any inoculations and necessary dental work were attended to. Once he had passed through this routine, which came to be known as ‘processing’,1 he was allowed to draw limited amounts of pay and to go on day leave to Naples. His subsequent disposal depended on how long he had been a prisoner; if for less than two months, a fit ex-prisoner was sent after three weeks' rest as a reinforcement to rejoin his former unit; if for longer than two months, an ex-prisoner was returned to New Zealand as soon as possible, though one or two of these (mainly officers) were allowed to rejoin the Division and serve with a unit in the field.

In May 1944 when the Allied advance north began, a collection post was staffed by the Allied unit and sent north to establish itself in Rome for collecting and evacuating the numerous prisoners who had been hiding in the neighbourhood of the city. Dealing with the two to three thousand Allied prisoners unearthed there, together with others recovered elsewhere, placed a strain on the limited staff of the unit.2 The camp outside Naples quickly filled3 and the overflow had to be found accommodation at army rest camps in the area. It was clear that more staff would be required, especially if to those Allied prisoners still to come from northern Italy were added the 50,000 in Austria and a proportion of those in Germany. But after the invasion of western Europe on 6 June the adoption of the SHAEF4 plan to evacuate ex-prisoners from Germany for reasons of military expediency down the lines of communication of the advancing invasion forces was made known. Commonwealth ex-prisoners from Germany were to be evacuated to England, and the formation there of an organisation to receive them was begun.

At the time this was regarded in some quarters in Italy as a mistake. It was considered that, on the throwing open of prisoner-of-war camps following an internal collapse of Germany, the

1 The whole ‘process’ included registration, identification, interrogation, disinfestation of old clothes, medical and dental examination, issue of clothing, and issue of pay.

2 The commander mentions in a report compiled in June that ‘three NCOs on the [processing] staff have collapsed from fatigue.’

3 It was reckoned to accommodate 800, but on 21 June 1944 1250 ex-prisoners were being held prior to embarkation. The staff of the Naples camp was at that time seven officers and 58 other ranks, and that of the unit ten officers and 36 other ranks.

4 Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force.

page 432 prisoners would make for the nearest Allied troops (which would be in Italy), and that Dominion troops would ‘probably do so instinctively because their homes lie in that direction’.1 To anyone acquainted with the compelling attraction of a visit to the ‘old country’ for most New Zealanders, this makes strange reading. Yet it does not appear that the idea of New Zealand ex-prisoners from Germany being evacuated through the United Kingdom was viewed enthusiastically at that time even by 2 NZEF authorities in Italy. In view of the immensely greater amenities available in the United Kingdom, the operational considerations which caused these prisoners to be sent home by this route might, so far as concerned their welfare and ultimate rehabilitation, be considered almost providential.

Meanwhile it was clear that the staff and facilities of the Allied Repatriation Unit would have to be increased, for those existing in June and July 1944 were unable to cope adequately with the large numbers of ex-prisoners suddenly thrust upon them. A good deal of misunderstanding seems to have arisen during this period between the ex-prisoners and some at least of those in the Repatriation Unit. The latter seemed at the time ignorant of the fact that these ex-prisoners, whether they had come through the lines by their own efforts or been overrun by the Allied advance, had, in order to prevent their recapture and transfer to Germany, been living under considerable strain for some months.2 They ignored, too, the inevitable dislike of combatant personnel for being handled by a purely Base organisation. The unit regarded some of the ex-prisoners as a ‘hard resistant core which will undoubtedly present authority with many problems’. It records that 86 of them absented themselves without leave while waiting in Naples for a ship—some of them were known to have revisited the places in which they had been hiding before the German withdrawal. The desire of these men to return and thank the people who had risked their lives and homes for them, and if possible to see that they got credit for their help, was natural enough; and many ex-prisoners who were unable to do it were sincerely distressed. It was inevitable, too, that some of the men should have become affianced to Italian girls, and they were understandably concerned when they discovered that the ruling 2 NZEF order forbade such marriages.

1 Report by Commander of the Allied Repatriation Unit requesting more staff.

2 This was recognised in a memorandum circulated by the commander of the Allied unit to detachments in late December 1944: ‘I notice that the attitude adopted by certain ex-prisoners of war whilst in our care is having its effect on the tempers of the staff of Detachments, Camps and Posts. A minority are troublesome … their behaviour is naturally remembered whilst that of the well-behaved majority is forgotten…. We must never forget that the nerves of these men have been kept taut for months or even years….’

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On the other hand the Repatriation Unit was honestly and conscientiously trying to carry out its orders, which were, so far as New Zealanders were concerned, to effect their repatriation without delay. The sudden influx in the summer of 1944 forced them to hasten embarkation, and the work involved in ‘processing’ and running the camps left them little or no time to listen to individual wants. There was perhaps too little realisation of these difficulties by the ex-prisoners and a natural tendency for them to draw comparisons with the efficient administrative organisations which had been evolved in some of their former prisoner-of-war camps. Perhaps they were not patient enough in explaining their point of view to the men who had been given the job of administering them. But it must have seemed to these ex-prisoners unlikely that members of the Repatriation Unit would be able in the short time available to understand their feelings after the physically exhausting and nerve-racking experiences that most of them had undergone. Many felt that few would see their point of view except those who had been prisoners themselves.

In August the need for some preparation of servicemen for the coming changeover to civilian life after the end of hostilities was recognised by the establishment in 2 NZEF of an Education and Rehabilitation Service (ERS), and provision was made for some of its facilities to be available in camps for ex-prisoners of war. By the end of 1944 the Repatriation Unit had handled over 18,000 Allied ex-prisoners of war, the number of detachments had expanded to eight, and another camp had been formed at Bari on the site of the former Italian prisoner-of-war camp.

A New Zealand interrogation section was operating at both camps to assist in coping with the large volume of such work. One of the difficulties of all interrogation organisations was that the newer members of their staffs did not have sufficient background knowledge of the situation behind the enemy lines, or of reports from other escapers, to know whether what they heard was true or false. One or two of those New Zealand ex-prisoners who had been working with ‘A’ Force or other clandestine missions very properly declined to give any information about these activities to any except the highest Allied Intelligence authorities. It was unfortunate that this sometimes resulted in misunderstanding between ex-prisoners and those given the task of receiving them. One escaped NCO, who later received the Military Medal for his escapes and work behind the enemy lines, was disbelieved and was sent to the Middle East under a cloud. Fortunately for such men, the Allied interrogation organisation possessed sufficient corroborative reports and other information to establish the authenticity of their stories.

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