Until seven years ago, all Kittel knew about her father’s story was that he was captured while fighting in North Africa in 1942 and taken to Italy. In 1943, he broke out and faced “some dangerous moments” but eventually crossed the Alps and made it to Switzerland, Kittel says.
To fill in the blanks, she turned to other ex-POWs and veterans’ associations – and began to realise that her father’s experience was one of many.
“It snowballed from there,” Kittel told The Local by email. With the help of a former prisoner, Bill Rudd, she identified approximately 2,000 Australian soldiers who were captured and held in Italy between 1941-5 and began investigating where they ended up after Italy announced its surrender on September 8th, 1943.
Australian POWs held at Carpeneto. Photo courtesy of Brinley Jones, the Sincock brothers and other POW families.
“The POWs had three main choices: to stay in camp to await the rumoured Allied advance from the south, or to head south to Allied lines, or to head north to Switzerland,” says Kittel, who is working on a book about the men who escaped.
Many of those who chose to run would find themselves depending on the courage of Italian civilians who, until recently, had been told that Allied soldiers were ‘the enemy’. Yet several Australian escapees were assisted by Italians, according to Kittel’s research; some were hidden by Italian families, and others even joined Italian partisans fighting against fascism.
“I now realize that the time after the 1943 armistice was also a watershed for our men as they experienced enormous amounts of help from civilians to feed, clothe, shelter and guide them, despite great risk of retributions,” Kittel says.
In fact, relations between Allied POWs and Italian civilians were never black and white, even when they were officially on opposite sides of World War II.
Drawing on archives, memoirs and interviews with veterans, Kittel has been able to paint a picture of life for POWs in Italy both before and after the surrender. Mostly captured in North Africa or Greece, Australian and New Zealander prisoners were typically taken to transit camps in southern Italy before being moved to prison camps in the north.
By 1942, most were held in Campo 57 in Grupignano, near Udine in north-east Italy, with others sent to work at Campo 106, a collection of farms around Vercelli in Piedmont, to the north-west.
Campo 57 in 1941. Photo: public domain via the Australian War Memorial.
Come September 1943, these locations would prove to the advantage of anyone looking to escape: they were remote, near neutral Swiss territory and on the farms in particular, security was looser. Fortuitously for Australian POWs, several hundred of them were transferred to the farms in April 1943 to labour through the peak season.
But even before they had the chance to flee, POWs found themselves in close contact with the local population, Kittel discovered. She was especially struck by prisoners’ accounts of working alongside mondine, women who carried out the back-breaking task of weeding rice fields in and around the Po Valley.
“Bloody beautiful sheilas,” as one Australian POW described them, many mondine actively resisted Italy’s Fascist government and later the Nazis, as well as striking for the rights of workers and women.
Mondine at work in the 1940s. Photo: public domain via Wikimedia
“At the farms, POWs developed relationships and trust with many farmers and local people, and of course they were delighted to be working with females,” explains Kittel. By the men’s account their conversations with the mondine, conducted under the watchful eyes of guards during the day or through windows and fences at night, were surprisingly open.
“Of course not all farm relations with padrone or local people were friendly, but the POWs were surprised to learn that the mondine were particularly empathetic, and were keen to be friendly, and flirt, with the young foreign POWs,” says Kittel.
“The girls would sometimes speak and cry about their home towns or cities being bombed by Allied forces, but they were still feeling no bitterness to the POWs. All hoped for an end to the war.”
Such hopes would provide common ground when prisoners came to flee after the surrender, and many Australians took advantage of their relatively easy exit from the farms to do so in the days after it was announced.
Kittel tells the story of Fred Tabram, a private in the 2/24th Infantry Battalion, as an example.
Fred Tabram. Photo courtesy of Ray Tabram.
Held first in Campo 57 and moved to 106, he escaped around September 10th but remained in the area for several weeks with the help of sympathetic locals. Setting off to reach Switzerland, “he moved from village to village, choosing to keep moving in order to evade recapture and not to bring trouble for the many villagers who assisted him,” says Kittel, who has read Tabram’s wartime diary.
The escaper was “overwhelmed by generosity” as Italians offered him hiding places in barns, hay sheds and fishermen’s huts, Kittel says, and when he found himself unable to cross the Alps before winter as hoped, “Fred joined a partisan band in early 1944 as he believed it his duty to repay the hospitality of villagers”. Later that year he joined the British Special Operations Executive, engaged in supporting the resistance in Italy, and remained with them until liberation in 1945.
“During the months of Jan to Aug 1944 these people were marvellous to me,” Tabram wrote of his helpers in Italy, specifically the towns of Strona and Ronsecco in Piedmont, in his post-victory report.
“Although poor they gave me what food they could. They fed, sheltered, bought me necessities and above everything they always kept my whereabouts secret. When I went to the partisans I was not obliged to do so, and they begged me to stay with them until war finished.”
More than one escaper describes being sheltered by Italians “as if everyone in these small villages (almost!) was coming to their places of shelter and bearing food, wine, and supplies,” Kittel adds. “Some of the POWs worried that families were offering too much, that they were going hungry to help the escapers.”
Of course not all Italians were sympathetic to the prisoners’ cause, but those that were left an impression that has stayed with former POWs to this day, according to Kittel.
“Fred also wrote in his 1944 diary that like many Anzac soldiers, he felt contempt for Italian soldiers – they were an enemy,” she says. “But after escape from camp, the extent of the response by civilians to help escapers was so significant that a respect and connection was deeply made.”
Mariucchia (Maria) Olivero of Ronsecco, who sent this photo to Fred Tabram after the war with a note asking why he hadn't written to them. Photo courtesy of Ray Tabram.
Tabram eventually made it home – but not all POWs got that chance.
“I have visited the war graves in Udine and Milan and researched many of the Australians buried there,” says Kittel. “I can think of at least ten Australians who were shot by Fascists, and one killed by German encounter.
“I am touched to learn of memorials to some of these men at remote hillsides and bridges, and that they had been remembered and honoured by local people for their assistance to partisans, or simply because they were killed for no reason at all.”
Other POWs never made it out of the camps, like John Law, who was shot at close range by an Italian guard as he attempted to scale the wall of a farm camp at Carpeneto in June 1943. Kittel gathered the account of one local woman, a teenager at the time, who said she knew Law and had never forgotten him. She recalled that prisoners and locals alike were horrified by the incident and furious at the guard, who was subsequently removed from the camp.
Incidents like these, as well as the experience of escapers, show “the changing of attitudes when people get to know each other, when ‘enemies’ find common ground in wanting end to war,” Kittel believes.
Yet helping escaped Allied prisoners brought great risks for Italian civilians. Spies who noticed unusual comings and goings or missing supplies could unleash severe retributions.
One hotel in Alpe Noveis, north of Biella and close to the Swiss border, sheltered large numbers of POWs – including Kittel’s father – for days at a time as they prepared to cross into Switzerland. The sister and brother who ran it were exposed and imprisoned and their property was burned down, Kittel discovered decades later from one of their relatives.
Laying flowers at the Milan War Cemetery. Photo: Katrina Kittel.
So what did happen to her father in those dangerous months on the run in wartime Italy?
Kittel’s father Colin Booth, a gunner in the 3rd Anti-Tank Regiment, turns out to have kept notes during the four weeks between his escape and arrival in Switzerland in October 1943. The scribbled names and addresses, clustered in the margins of a small notebook given to POWs in Italy as a gift from Pope Pius XII, led her to several people in Italy who helped him along the way.
Those Kittel has been able to track down include a family in Rovasenda, Piedmont, who sheltered her father and another POW in their barn: some 70 years later the mother of the family, then almost 100, would continue to say how sorry she was not to have had more food to offer them.
Kittel continues to look for people remembered by her father and other Australians, especially in the villages of Olcenengo, Strona, Ronsecco and Santhia in Piedmont. (One name in particular listed in her father’s notes, Maria – or possibly Mario – Michelone of D'Allodi in Olcenengo, remains a mystery.) After a research trip in 2013 that saw her meet the descendants of her father’s helpers and hike the same route through the Alps that he and other escaped POWs would have taken, she hopes to return to Italy this year.
While most POWs spent no more than a few years here, the country and its people marked many of them for life. “Some sponsored Italian families to come to Australia or New Zealand,” Kittel says. “Some fathered children with Italian women.” Others tried their best to forget the war or lost touch with the people who helped them survive it, half a world away.
Now Kittel is trying to record their memories before it’s too late, preserving what she calls “a brilliant history – a shared history”.
Katrina Kittel is a member of Professional Historians Australia. Her book about the POW experience in Italy will be published in 2019. She also collaborated on a project that led to the translation and publication of an Australian POW’s memoir in Italian.