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Prisoners of War

III: The First Battles in the Middle East

III: The First Battles in the Middle East

On 10 June 1940 as resistance in France was crumbling, Mussolini brought Italy into the war on the side of his Axis partner. Before the end of the year his forces had pushed across the Libyan border into Egypt as the thin British garrisons withdrew; and, using Albania as a base, they had made a bid for ascendancy in the Balkans by attacking Greece. By December not only had the Greeks unceremoniously pushed them back into Albania, but the British counter-attack was driving the desert army helter-skelter across Cyrenaica, with thousands of Italian troops pouring back into Egypt as prisoners. Royal Air Force and Fleet Air Arm units co-operated in these first battles of the Middle East, and some of their crew, including a few New Zealanders, had the misfortune to fall into enemy hands. Whether captured in Albania or Libya, whether officers or NCOs, these airmen found themselves sooner or later brought to Sulmona1 in Italy, at that time the only prisoner-of-war camp for British and French on the Italian mainland.

The camp itself was a few kilometres from the town of Sulmona in a beautiful valley up among the Abruzzi, near a village with the romantic name of Fonte d'Amore. The camp had been used for Austrian prisoners in 1917. Concrete barracks on a sloping terrain contained dormitories with twenty or so double-tiered bunks for other ranks, but for officers there were small rooms for two with tables and cupboards. There was a spacious sick-bay with an Italian medical officer in charge. Patients had hot showers once a week, and abundance of good food—for the officers the same as that for the Italian officers' mess. If an officer prisoner was short of clothes, the Unione Militare2 would come and measure him for a uniform. There were armchairs in the officers' mess, and tablecloths and glassware; attached to the mess was a gymnasium and games room.

1 About four hours' journey from Rome on the Pescara railway.

2 Suppliers of clothing to the Italian forces.

page 40 Out of doors there were gardening facilities and Sunday walks up into the mountains. There was every courtesy from the Italians, who were clearly doing everything possible to make the monotony of what seemed to them the unnatural life of a prisoner-of-war camp more bearable.

At the time of the entry of Italy into the war very few New Zealand civilians were in that country, and none were interned. The difficulties that arose concerned the provision of means of subsistence for a student at Genoa and the New Zealand-born widow of an Italian at Rome. As happened in Germany, those deriving an income from New Zealand suddenly found themselves without funds. Great Britain had accepted responsibility for British-born widows of enemy subjects, and New Zealand followed this example on 19 June 1940 when she agreed that:

… the fund held by United States Government should be expended in same manner and on same conditions in respect destitute persons normally domiciled in New Zealand as is being done on behalf of H.M. Government in United Kingdom.1

After the necessary arrangements for repayment had been made, money was thus made available through the Protecting Power.

Besides those who fell into the hands of enemy belligerent states there were a few, almost always airmen, who were forced while on military operations to land on the territory of a neutral country. Such men had under international law to be treated as military internees and so kept until the end of hostilities. One of our naval airmen operating over Norway in September 1940 had to make a forced landing in Sweden and was detained by the police for questioning, being billeted meanwhile in a hotel. His identity established, he was transported to an internment camp at Falun, 100 miles north-west of Stockholm. There he was well fed and generally well treated, his pay and any special wants being attended to by the British Legation in Stockholm.

In November and December of the same year during operations in the Mediterranean, two New Zealand RAF pilots were forced down on French North African territory.2 They were similarly interned at Aumale in Algeria for similar reasons, though their treatment was by no means so hospitable, and improvements were largely due to the efforts of the United States Consul in Algiers. The internees were strictly guarded, but one New Zealand NCO3 was able to escape by way of the roof of the internment building and make his way (with native help) some distance west before being recaptured.

1 Cable from Prime Minister to New Zealand High Commissioner, London.

2 At that time under the control of the neutral Vichy Government.

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colour bar chart of prisoner of war losses

Prisoner-of-war losses in 2nd N.Z.E.F. (Middle East and Mediterranean)

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