I am writing this on the 15th February 2020, which is the 100th birthday of a remarkable man.
Coriolano (Gino) Caprara is the man in question and I have had the pleasure of meeting him briefly on a couple of occasions here in Orkney.
Gino was one of the Italian POWs brought to Orkney during WWII to work on the construction of the Churchill Barriers. He was held at Camp 34 in Burray.
He has written down his war experiences - a fascinating and historically important document. It has been translated from Italian by our dear friend, Inga Sempel, who sent me a copy of it several years ago.
With the blessing of Inga and Gino himself, we are honoured to make his memoirs available on Orkneyology.com for anyone with an interest in wartime or Orkney history.
Gino is a delightful man, wreathed in smiles and with an open and kind nature. I have been very lucky in my life to have met some amazing people, and they don’t come more amazing than Coriolano (Gino) Caprara.
Happy Birthday, sir!
Most of the vintage photos found on this page, along with many more, can be seen at the Orkney Library & Archive. Many thanks to the archive for permission to use them here.
All photos showing the men's every day life in the camps are from the James Sinclair collection in the archive.
I went there on the 8th February because I had been busy organizing a dancing night as a drummer in a band.
After being told off because of my delay and after a medical check up, they told me that I would be assigned to the XXX Sector of the Frontier Guard in Tobruk – Libya.
I was sent to the military barracks in Naples to have my hair shaved and to be given a green and grey uniform with bands, a colonial helmet and strips of cloth instead of socks. Then I embarked.
I arrived at Tobruk where I was lodged in a garage of the 40th infantry barracks with bunk beds. I was supplied with a rifle model 91 with an 8 bullet magazine.
We started our “military training” with long marches in the desert.
Our unit was equipped with old machine guns sequestered from the Austrians during the 1915-1918 war, with water based cooling system. (Water in the desert?)
We had to face endless inconveniences because we were just temporarily lodged in those barracks before being directed to Bardia, at the border with Egypt. Our food was cooked in petrol tanks cut in half and our meals were distributed and eaten on the ground, at the mercy of flies and sand.
When the XXX Sector was transferred to the fortified town of Bardia, all men were allocated to the small forts along the border with Egypt.
My friend Gino Corsi and I, the only new recruits with a driving licence, stayed in Tobruk as a part of the transport fleet in order to give driving lessons to six of our comrades who would then have to drive the vehicles within our unit.
Soon after, the first bombing started.
On the 18th June I attended the shooting down of the aircraft in which Italo Balbo was flying.
A squad of English bombers, after having bombed other targets, flew past our barracks and dropped some fragmentation bombs on them and on some boats at the harbour. Our anti-aircraft guns and our battle cruiser San Giorgio shot at them from the harbour but missed their targets.
Almost at the same time an aircraft came from the same direction and it was struck.
All the attendants, myself included, rejoiced when they saw that at least one of the bombers wouldn’t come back to base.
Unfortunately our joy didn’t last too long because the stricken aircraft, which was rapidly losing altitude, showed off the crests of our air fleet.
We were astonished and in dismay. Those well informed, whom we used to call “radio dogface”, circulated the rumour that it hadn’t been a mistake; instead it had been a well organised plan to get rid of a troublesome character.
But, hadn’t Italo Balbo been acclaimed as a national hero?
Once we completed our course, we joined our unit in Bardia, where we got equipped with SPA38 crank up lorries. I was given the task of providing the men allocated at the eastern forts with water and food.
Up until the 15th December 1940 we were the targets of sporadic air bombings, especially during the provision of water at Fort Capuzzo.
I can say that every day we were target practice for the English artillery pieces. As soon as I would enter the sandy route to the first fort, cannon fire would start.
Luckily they would always hit the sand cloud that my lorry was lifting because of the high speed I was driving at, unaware of my head hitting the cabin roof all the time.
Once we had supplied the first fort, the same episode would repeat itself until I reached the second fort and so on. On the cargo bed of my lorry I could see the signs left by the splinters of the enemy.
I believe someone from above protected me because this sort of “race” continued every day until the 2nd January 1941, when the British troops overcame our defence posts and invaded our fortified town.
During our forced transfer to the lines behind the front, I realised how inadequate our so-called war equipment was; and because of that huge discrepancy, I had to admit how heroically our men had resisted for so long against such a massive attack from the sea.
Where was our fleet?
Anchored at Taranto Harbour!
I had been a driver all my previous life and I wasn’t used to walking over long distances.
After a while my feet began bleeding and I was no longer able to keep up with the others. I ended up staggering way behind the long stretch of queue of the marching prisoners.
A British soldier was given the order to escort me. It was just me and him, whilst the rest of the thousands of prisoners kept marching towards Sollum.
A truck reached us and stopped. Here something unexpected happened: my escort climbed on the truck and ordered me to run and reach the rest of the march, which by now was 2-3 km ahead of me.
How could I run when I couldn’t even walk?
I managed a few steps, but I couldn’t go on any further. I stood before the radiator of the truck and didn’t move.
The truck driver – who was an enemy as well – got out, lifted me up and placed me on the rear of the truck. This way I managed to join the other marching prisoners.
I remember that while on the truck, the two British soldiers – the truck driver and my escort – had a heated discussion. Although I couldn’t understand the language, I realised that the driver was being told off because he hadn’t had the courage to run over an enemy with the truck.
Any further comment is superfluous; these are real facts, such as when Ernest Goldsmith came to Latina to play the organ for my wedding with my beloved Amalia, and when the “enemy” Ernest Porter – part of the Eight Regiment that defeated us in Bardia – became like a brother to me.
Whilst walking, I found a military water bottle that had been abandoned in the sand. Because I didn’t have one, I thought that the bottle could turn out to be useful, so I took it with me.
When we eventually arrived at the harbour – we were all very tired – we saw a small vessel that was supposed to ferry us in groups all the way to a cargo ship anchored out at sea.
It was my turn to get on board. During the ferry trip, I suddenly thought that it would be a good idea to fill up the water bottle with sea water to rinse it and clean it of sand. Then something unpleasant happened: a British sailor brutally snatched the bottle from my hands and went away.
I must admit, at that moment I hated that sailor deeply because of his cruel gesture towards an enemy soldier.
In the meantime, our vessel had reached the bigger ship. We got the order to climb up the net that was hanging from the side of the ship.
While I was climbing up, that same British sailor attracted my attention by waving his arms and screaming.
He wanted to give me my water bottle back, which he had filled up with drinkable water!!!
Unfortunately, the vessel had already started the journey back. I didn’t have the time to say thank you to that sailor, but I never forgot the generosity of that “enemy” soldier.
After a long and tiring march in the desert, we arrived completely exhausted at Salloum Harbour where we were embarked on a cargo ship that would take us to Alexandria.
The air could come in only from the hatch.
Not only were we already in a bad state, but after a couple of hours we also had to tolerate the bad smell generated by so many men all forced to vomit, urinate and defecate in the same place.
Consequently, it happened that one of us felt sick and fainted. After a while, two sailors lifted him and took him to the deck.
My friend Gino Corsi shared a brilliant idea with me: he would pretend to faint so that maybe we could also get up on the deck.
We separated and we both pretended to faint. After a few minutes I felt that someone was lifting me and taking me on the deck where I finally had the chance to breathe some fresh and clean air. Unfortunately something very unpleasant happened to me, which I will never forget.
An Italian officer who was like us a prisoner of war, noticed my friend and me. He approached us and asked, “What are you doing here? Go back to your posts!”
We responded that we were feeling sick and he screamed back, “I order you to go back to your allocated post!”
I must admit that our reaction wasn’t respectful but I still think it was the one he deserved at that moment. We clearly said to him, “Mind your own fucking business!”
Oh God, all hell broke loose.
He came to us and threatened, “How dare you?!”
Our reply was vulgar but it was the only one we could think of as the proper one. “Leave us alone!” and we told him to fuck off.
After a while an English officer came up to us, undoubtedly called over by our “heroic” superior, and ordered us to go back to hell.
Literally these were his words: “Go back to hell!”
My friend, who never lacked initiative, suggested that we could faint one more time. I wisely pointed out that the guard would have recognised us and found out our trick.
We waited for the change of guard and when we saw that it had occurred, we “fainted” again, keeping ourselves distant from one another. As it had happened before, we were laid on the deck but this time we sneaked unnoticed behind a huge anchor, as we wanted to avoid other bad encounters and it was getting dark.
Nobody noticed us, so we had the opportunity to breathe fresh air until the following morning. We were honestly sad for the other guys, but in a situation like that we adopted the famous saying: “All is fair in love and war."
At some point we got noticed and were sent back to hell, but it didn’t last very long, as we arrived at Alexandria Harbour and disembarked.
They loaded us on a roofless train, which crossed Alexandria back and forth many times. I think the purpose was to show their “war trophy” off to the population.
The anger and the humiliation for being defeated took possession of us again when the train drove several times underneath a bridge where a multitude of Arabs had gathered to throw stones at us, spit and urinate on us.
We were interned in a camp called AGAMI 5 next to Geneifa.
The camp was vast, with a rectangular shape. Each of the four corners had a turret with armed guards. When we arrived we were reminded that we were prisoners of war and that we were not allowed to do politics.
The English command was located externally, but inside the camp there was a tent, different from ours, which served as an internal command. That’s where our officials stayed. A senior marshal was in charge.
It still hurts me but it is worth being recalled.
Every morning we were gathered at the centre of the camp. An English officer had the job of counting us. Once over, our marshal would get to the centre and make us sing. We obviously would sing the hymns we knew.
One day we were not given any food because there was no water. Another day the same happened, this time because they had run out of wood. These shortages occurred repeatedly and frequently. We were starving because our only food was a small bread roll.
One day two of our comrades came to our tent and told us that the English were punishing us because we were singing fascist songs. They warned us to stop doing it in order to avoid further punishment, then they moved on to warn the others in the other tents, leaving the same message.
The following morning, when they had completed the count, the marshal gathered us as usual and asked, “What shall we sing today?”
Silence. The marshal asked again, “Right, what shall we sing?”
That’s when I stepped forward and suggested to sing “La Marianna la va in campagna.”
The marshal was speechless and, blind with rage, he came to me. “What’s this news? Why? Who are you?”
I replied that we were all starving as a punishment for our fascist songs.
He replied, “I know! But we need to show our faith to the enemy!”
I told him that we should have shown our faith when in Bardia. Now we just had to think of a way to get back home alive. If he felt like playing the hero, it was just because his tent was full of food.
He wanted to know my name, then he proclaimed, “No bread for you today, we will discuss it when we’re back in Italy.”
I don’t think I exaggerated when I replied, “Do whatever you want,” and made to leave.
That’s when he shouted, “Where are you going? Come here, stand to attention!”
I couldn’t resist and I shouted back that the only things they were able to say were: “Attention! At ease! and Salute!” (salute to whom?) and I left.
Before reaching my tent I heard all my comrades, including the two messengers from the day before, singing: “Duce, duce chi non sapra’ morir? Il giuramento chi mai rinneghera’? Snuda la spada! Quando tu lo vuoi, gagliardetti al vento, tutti verremo a Te” etc.
Once they’d finished the hymn, they formed up as usual “Saluto al Duce! A noi!”
I obviously treated my comrades as cowards, including those staying in my own tent, who tried to find stupid excuses.
All 19 of them ended up offering me a piece of their bread ration as a forgiving gesture.
Then a train moved us to Port Said, where we were embarked on a transport ship southbound, sailing through the Red Sea and stopping by in Durban, Mombasa and Cape Town.
I think the stops were necessary to restock supplies and to form a fleet escorted by war ships. After circumnavigating Africa, we arrived in Liverpool on the 10th January 1942.
We sailed for three months inside a hold, hot, seasick and with the constant fear of being intercepted and torpedoed by German U-boats.
They gave us the chance to go up on the deck and breathe fresh air for just an hour a day.
Finally, thank God, we disembarked, happy to be on dry land again.
They let us off the ship and drove us uphill where we got completely undressed. Our clothes were put in a container to be disinfected.
We were over a thousand strong.
They positioned us in rows of four and chose the first four rows with a gesture. I was in one of them.
They took us to some cardboard boxes, which contained shaving machines. They gestured us to shave everybody’s hair completely. Even though I didn’t know the language, I understood that I had just been designated as hairdresser.
Despite having never used such a tool, I had to obey. I started working.
Although few “clients” complained about my lack of expertise and despite some moans, the shaving of the first twenty heads went smoothly.
Either because of the hair, which was dirty and full of sand, or because of my hand getting progressively tired, it happened that the machine got stuck in one poor guy’s hair. I couldn’t make it work nor take it off.
The owner of the head started swearing and insulting me: “What kind of fucking barber are you?” I apologised and said, “Hold the machine still, don’t move, leave it to me. WAIT!”
I left him and queued for my turn to be shaved, hoping I would find a better barber than myself.
I’ve always wondered how my last "client” got on with it.
I happened to be in a group directed to Edinburgh. Others were sent to other destinations.
I was separated from my close friend Gino Corsi, so when we parted I divided the only 100 lire note I had in two parts and I told him, “If we are ever going to be lucky enough to find each other again, we will go out for dinner with our parents.”
In Edinburgh we stayed in a former school for deaf-mutes for about three weeks to go through medical checks, to be registered with passport size photos and to receive the same uniforms as the British soldiers.
The only difference was that ours were chocolate-coloured and featured three red circles. A big circle was sewn on the back of the jacket, the two smaller ones were on the right thigh and on the left calf.
Under the three red patches there were three holes with the purpose of avoiding the patches themselves being removed.
Despite the colour and the patches, I have to say that the outfit was better than the one given to us at the barracks in Naples, not least because they gave socks instead of strips of cloth.
Eventually, thanks to the Red Cross, we were allowed to send a letter to our families who, from January 1941 to January 1942, had had no idea what had happened to us.
We were warned to be brief in our letters, otherwise they would have been censored.
I remember the content of my letter. Afraid that the censor would trash it, I only wrote:
Once done with formalities, we were embarked on a ship in Aberdeen and sent to the Orkney Islands, off the north of Scotland.
We were coming from North Africa and had to face the harsh climate of Orkney.
My contingent, made up of 530 men, was allocated to camp 34 on the island of Burray.
The other contingent of 500 men was allocated on the island of Lamb Holm.
The internal commandant was Marshal Bertone, who immediately had to organize the working squads as well as the camp staff.
I was lucky to be amongst the group of 15 men (along with chefs, two orderly room men, a nurse, a barber and a cobbler) who, once free from their specific tasks, had to look after the good running of the camp, keeping it clean and buying the food.
Apart from that, I was in a well-organised “band” that put on stage shows to lift our comrades’ moods amid the hard working conditions.
My friend Primiano Malavolti was part of the company despite walking with a limp.
I will say it again; I was lucky. The work others were assigned to do was exhausting and dangerous, besides being uncomfortable because of the weather.
We found out that the purpose of this work was to close off the accesses to Scapa Flow after a German U-boat in 1939, thanks to the tide, had been able break through the former defences, torpedoing and sinking the ship Royal Oak and causing 830  deaths amongst the sailors.
Mr Churchill, who at the time was First Lord of Admiralty, ordered that the four sea straits between the five islands be closed off.
Unfortunately, we were punished for this and were fed only bread and water. A normal meal would come only every four days.
The guards would often burst into our huts at night, forcing us to get up and go out so they could carry out inspections inside.
This would often happen several times during the same night.
After about 20 days of this atmosphere, an International Red Cross Committee arrived at the camp to communicate to us that the works at the barriers were not of war-like nature.
They were part of the plan to build causeways to facilitate the transportation of goods and people across the smaller islands to the capital, Kirkwall.
Not all of us believed what we were told but, despite that, we all decided that we’d better resume our work.
After this turbulent episode, our relationship with the British command and their men improved and became less strict.
A few of my comrades fell psychologically ill, some were homesick, and others fell sick because of the hard working conditions or because of the weather.
In order not to fall victim of depression myself (I considered myself lucky already for not being sent to work at the barriers), I made sure I kept myself busy as much as I could.
Along with working on the maintenance of the camp, I organized shows and played the drum in the band. Some instruments were donated to us by locals, others were provided by Major Yates, who was happy that the troubles at the works were over.
I tried to engage the spare time I had by learning English. I started by myself with a modest book I found at the camp outlet, The English Language in Three Months.
Once finished, I realised I hadn’t learnt much.
I had the idea to ask the military chaplain of the camp, Don Luigi Borsarelli, who was available, to give lessons to illiterate soldiers. Not only did he agree to help me but he also lent me £10 to purchase a grammar book, a dictionary, etc.
He had me sign a receipt with the commitment to give him the borrowed money back once we returned to Italy.
When I got back to Italy, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that the loan had been a present from the very beginning.
We used to be paid with symbolic currency, spendable only in our outlet where necessary goods were sold: pens, pencils, paper, toothpaste, toothbrushes, soap bars, razor blades, candies, etc.
No alcoholic drinks.
There were also table tennis, playing cards, draughts and a radio where we could listen to music and to war bulletins in English.
Moreover, our skilled craftsmen built a billiard table with concrete. The cloth for the top was made with blankets, which had been made smooth by rubbing them with razor blades. The pins were brilliantly made with toothbrush handles. The balls were made of concrete.
We could only play with the balls because we didn’t have the cues. We tried with broomsticks but stopped after few attempts.
During an inspection Major Yates was fascinated by our craftsmen’s skills. After a few days he donated real balls and a pair of cues.
Our men got qualified and many obtained positions of responsibility as drivers and crane operators. One of them became assistant to a civilian who was responsible for the electric power station that supplied energy to the four cableways and the two camps.
Despite the harsh weather, the works went on.
The 5 and 10 ton concrete blocks were built and stocked up waiting to be used. The superintendents to the construction company were happy with the works and the Commandant of the camp didn’t have any further problems.
Life in the camp became, let’s say, easier, except for the few episodes that normally happen when a lot of people are forced to live together and not everybody is able to tolerate each other.
We were being defeated on all fronts. Some of us would reply that it was just the English propaganda.
Nevertheless, in May 1943 the radio announced that the Italian-German forces in North Africa had capitulated. Then the allied invasion of Sicily in July.
That was not English propaganda at all!
We received shocking news on the 25th July 1943. After 21 years of holding power in Italy, Mussolini had received a vote of no confidence from the Great Fascist Counsel and the King had taken charge of our Army.
The news left us astonished and soon after we began to fear that in Italy a civil war might soon spread out.
There were some Black Shirts amongst us who were convinced it was high treason, therefore they stupidly started talking about taking revenge once back in Italy.
After work, we used to be stuck next to the radio trying to understand what the English war bulletin said.
It was the beginning of 1944 and we heard the words Sangro River, Garigliano, Gustav Line, Monte Cassino.
Terrible moments. We were all worried about our loved ones.
I personally got a big shock when I heard the news of the invasion of Anzio. The area of Littoria had become a front line.
What was happening to my family? I would almost feel guilty because, unlike them, I was safe.
One day in April 1944 we got the order to gather in the canteen. Major Yates announced that the Badoglio Government along with the British Government had decided to make us an offer.
We couldn’t be repatriated because the German troops were still occupying our land. Whilst waiting to be repatriated, we were free to form an “Italian Labour Battalion” with the following rules.
We would wear a uniform identical to the ones worn by the English soldiers, without the much-hated red patches, featuring the Italian flag and the word “Italy” written on the shoulders.
We would no longer be escorted by armed guards on our way to work. Instead we would be under one of our non-commissioned officer’s responsibility.
We would be paid with normal currency, spendable even outside the camp.
We had free time from 18:00 to 21:00. Sunday we had the whole day off.
There were also some restrictions. We couldn’t go further than 5 miles away from the camp; we couldn’t use public transport, go to pubs and have relationships with women.
Whoever decided not to accept these conditions would continue to be considered a POW with the same treatment as before and be transferred to another camp.
I had no hesitation in accepting the new offer because we had always worked and this way we could continue to work, but with better treatment.
It is painful to remember that some of the friends we had lived in harmony with for years decided to leave.
Instead of saying goodbye to us in a fraternal way, they shouted from the truck, “Traitors! Jersey-sellers!"
Some of us shouted back, “Dirty fascists!”
What a shame. It was such a painful episode.
We organised football matches against teams of English soldiers, and track and field competitions.
I came first in high jump.
It isn’t about me. It involves instead my friend Primiano Malavolti, the one I shared the bunk bed with and with whom I had created a duo to perform comedy jokes every Saturday night.
Primiano was part of the camp staff, too, and therefore exempted from the works because of a serious injury to his right leg. He had been walking on a knotty stick for the past two years. He was very popular. The English guards called him “Shipwreck.”
When we had the athletic day, we were all surprised to see “Shipwreck” entering the field to compete against the others. He excelled in several disciplines. At the end of each competition, his name was always among those called on stage to receive the prize. He even won the cup as best athlete in the field.
At the end of each competition, Major Yates had to shake Malavolti’s hand.
When we came back to our hut, an English sergeant walked in and shouted, “Shipwreck to the commandant! Come on!”
Primiano reluctantly got up and sighed. “Bloody hell, I knew it!”
He followed the sergeant and came back after about 30 minutes. We were all keen to know what happened.
He told us that he had entered the Major’s office and greeted him. The Major, without saying a word, had given him a card. He showed it to me, asking what it meant.
On the card there was only one word: “QUARRY.”
I translated it for him.
“Dear Primiano, you are screwed. Tomorrow morning you’ll have to get up at 6 and go to work at the quarry.”
He even had the courage to get angry because he thought it was not fair!
Some of our friends told him that if he had been in a concentration camp, the word on the card would have been “OVEN.”
We became friends with them and I met the Wylie family.
They invited me over for a cup of tea one day. We talked at length and when I left they reiterated the invitation: “Come again! Come again!”
I didn’t take advantage of that further invitation as I was quite shy, but one evening I bumped into Mr Wylie, who had come all the way to outside the camp gate.
He told me off. “What’s wrong with you? Why did you not pay a visit to us? Have you been ill?”
I replied that I didn’t want to be intrusive. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Don’t be silly! Come on!”
His wife Ina welcomed me in a warm way and we all had a lovely dinner together.
I was so touched by their openness because we had been considered with mistrust and hatred for so many years. The way they treated me made me regain confidence in human nature.
I left them the £3 that I hadn’t spent to purchase the books.
They promised to send the money to my Italian address. And they did it. We kept on corresponding for several years.
When I came back to Orkney for the first time in 1992 I went to look for them but I was told that unfortunately they were both dead.
The reason I left that small amount of money with them was because of the past experiences I had.
Every time we were transferred from one camp to another (Egypt, South Africa and Great Britain), we used to be thoroughly inspected, mainly to prevent us from carrying knives or other weapons.
Some of them took advantage of our precarious situation to take our money, our watches, our wedding rings and even our wallets, which often contained the pictures of our beloveds.
I don’t hold resentment to anybody. We were at war and we were their enemy in their eyes.
Speaking of that, I had the chance to read a book written by an English soldier who was captured by the Italian troops and interned in a prison camp in Italy.
I don’t remember his name but I remember the title of the book: And the Sun Stood Still.
I could have written that book by changing only the dates and the places; we both had the same good and bad experiences.
All British officials in charge of the camps where I’ve been, like Colonel Buckland or Major Yates, have always acted in a human and tolerant way.
When we arrived, it was raining. We were ordered to remain in silence in the ground whilst waiting for the commandant, who made us wait for a long period.
When he finally arrived, holding his stick under his arm, he stepped onto a wooden stage and welcomed us with the following words:
“I hate you! On my office door there is a board with the instructions to follow during your stay here. Read them and follow them scrupulously. Those who won’t do as ordered will be in trouble. That’s all!”
We didn’t have billets - only straw beds on the floor and three blankets that, according to the rules on the board, had to be perfectly folded and aligned.
During the day we were forced to hang around in the grounds because it was forbidden to enter the dormitory. It made no difference if it rained or not.
Luckily that was only a transit camp and after few days we left it, along with its “arrogant and heroic” commandant.
I wonder…maybe he was brother to that Italian official we met on the ship?
I was transferred along with a few friends to a camp near the town of Heywood, under the control of RAF (Royal Air Force). We were sent to work in an important establishment called 35 Maintenance Unit.
I must say that my life as a prisoner changed a lot here, because the men forced to work were only about 100, all younger than us and captured in Sicily. They wouldn’t speak English because they hadn’t studied it, nor had they had 5 years experience of imprisonment like we had.
Along with other comrades, I was sent to an English military doctor. Whilst he was checking me out, he was struck by my command of the English and immediately got hold of the phone and called my camp.
“How come you have a soldier who speaks perfect English and you always send over men who are not even able to explain what they have? Do something!”
The official interpreter of the camp was a civilian, but from that day on I got exempted from work to be assigned to this new task.
As I said, the camp was not as crowded as the previous ones. It was located in the outskirts of Heywood, whose inhabitants would treat us in a civilised way.
We were not monitored by armed guards as before, but were managed by our non-commissioned officers. The commandant was a senior Italian marshal.
Considering the past experiences, including living inside overcrowded camps in Egypt, South Africa and Orkney under the constant surveillance of armed guards, this was for us a godsend.
The only problem that afflicted everybody was the insufficient and poor quality of the food.
Our comrades kept on telling us that it was no use to complain because the marshal would have answered, “This is what the English government passes.”
As I had been exempted from work to escort patients to their medical checks, I could spend the whole day in the camp, so I had the opportunity to see certain abnormalities that I hadn’t noticed before.
Our non-commissioned officials would have their meals inside a hut, which was separated from ours. During the imprisonment, that “caste” would benefit from the canteen with two waiters.
There was a squad of three carpenters who worked in a hut that had been turned into a lab and ... they would make furniture there ?!
Basically I found that the civilian who worked as an interpreter, leagued with our superiors, would deal with the selling; therefore he would turn a blind eye to the personnel management issues.
I would like to stress the fact that the British commandant was outside our camp, far away from us. Because the RAF camp was so vast, he would trust our superiors (although it is difficult for me to call them that) to manage us.
One morning the military doctor, whom I had formed a sort of friendship with, told me that he couldn’t explain why there were so many check up requests.
I replied that it was the British government’s fault, as they didn’t feed us enough.
He replied, surprised, “What did you say? You get the same rations that our men have!”
I briefly told him what I had noticed and I suggested he make an inspection of our canteen and our kitchen during mealtimes, without failing to inspect the “private restaurant” and “the carpenters lab.”
Two days later, the doctor came in with the commandant and two other officials.
Followed by our marshal, they came into our canteen, walked through the kitchen and then went to the hut where our non-commissioned officers had their canteen.
It became like a spaghetti-western scene. We saw tables, chairs, plates and other crockery being thrown out the hut followed by shouts in English.
Once the English officers left, some men attacked our officials and there were punches and kicks.
The officers eventually managed to call the English commandant on the phone and he immediately sent a troop of armed guards to stop the riot.
The official in charge wanted to know the reason for the riot and obviously he asked the civilian, as official interpreter of the camp.
At this point everybody pushed me forward. “You speak, otherwise that guy will tell him only what suits himself!”
I had to report about what had happened regarding the poor quality of our food, the canteen for our non-commissioned officers, the furniture being built in secret then sold and ultimately the official interpreter who had allowed all that to happen.
The interpreter came to me in rage. “You are a liar!”
I replied, “You and your dishonest NCO’s have organised at our expense a damned gang of thieves!”
In order to avoid further chaos, the camp remained under the surveillance of armed guards for two days.
The third day, a couple of jeeps came to pick up the six non-commissioned officers and transfer them elsewhere.
Things got back to normal, our meals improved and we all resumed our respective work waiting to be repatriated.
We started frequenting it and made new friends.
I met Ernest Goldsmith and we became friends. He introduced me to one of his friends who had just been discharged from military service.
His name was Ernest Porter. He had basically been my direct enemy because he had been among the troops of the eighth army that defeated us in Bardia on the 2nd January 1941.
Whilst I got captured and sent to Egypt, he kept on fighting until the landing at Anzio and Rome’s liberation.
We became friends, he introduced me to his family, his wife Betty and three daughters: Betty, Helen and Margaret.
We said our farewells to our friends in Heywood. We embarked at Glasgow docks and arrived at Naples Harbour.
We were transferred to barracks in Rome, and then finally headed to Latina by train. (The town had changed its name in the meantime.)
I got on the first bus heading for Sabaudia. During the journey the ticket inspector wanted me to get off the bus, as I didn’t have a ticket.
I tried in vain to explain that I didn’t have any money on me, as I was going back home after being at war and in prison for the past six years.
He insisted that I was just finding an excuse, but he had to give up when the other passengers threatened to throw him out of the window. He finished the conversation by saying: “… well, it’s ok for this time.”
What an idiot! Did he maybe think that I was a veteran by profession??
The bus took a long route through Pontinia and dropped me off at the cross Migliara 48 because the Rio Martino bridge had been mined and blown up by the Germans in retreat.
We hugged and cried with joy, after six years and three months of forced and dangerous absence.
The news about my arrival filled the house with relatives and friends who came in to celebrate my repatriation.
After few days of rest, I started looking for a job.
I wrote to my English and Scottish friends to communicate my return home and my new address. I received the £3 that I had left to the Wylies. Our correspondence lasted for several years.
In 1951, Ernest Goldsmith came to my wedding with my beloved Amalia. During the ceremony he played the organ. My friend, singer Antonio Raponi, sang the Ave Maria.
Twenty years later, Ernest Porter retired and came to have a holiday in Rimini with his wife, Betty. Amalia and I went to see them.
Our meeting was so full of emotion, seeing each other after so many years ….
Amalia and I agreed on inviting them to come to Latina and be our guests whenever they decided to have their vacations in Italy.
They accepted, so for years they were our guests along with their daughters, their sons in law and their grandchildren. So were we at their place with our family.
Considering the horrors of war, causing deaths and hatred in any population, my ex enemy and I pondered over a glass of wine many times:
“To think…I could have killed you!”
My two friends and their wives are now dead, but I’m still in touch with their descendants.
I forgot to mention the construction of the Italian Chapel, still existent and used for worship on the island of Lamb Holm (Camp 60), built and painted by my dear friend Domenico Chiocchetti, an artist from Moena.
Many skilled artisans helped him, under his direction.
Several authors have talked about it in their books and asked for my collaboration. Amongst them are:
AND ON THIS ROCK: THE ITALIAN CHAPEL by Donald S. Murray (2010)
THE ITALIAN CHAPEL by Philip Paris (April 2010)
ORKNEY’S ITALIAN CHAPEL: THE TRUE STORY OF AN ICON by Philip Paris (September 2010)
Several articles have been written on newspapers and on magazines, but I would like to mention the poetry by my dear friend Leslie McLetchie: “Madonna of Olives,” “The Tale of Five Islands,” “For an Eternal Purpose” and “After the Silence.”
I would like to finish by recalling the English saying:
I think the hostile experiences and the difficulties I had to face were made up for by the opportunity to make new friendships:
Above all I’m grateful and proud to have a beautiful family who have always loved me.
Dear Tom and Rhonda,
first of all I must thank you for the card containing your best wishes for my centenary. Besides your wishes it is very important for me to have the photograph of the altar of the Chapel not finished of Camp 34.
When we were transferred elsewhere,the British soldiers got the order to destroy all the huts. The outer part of the Chapel had not been completed so, I suppose, for the men in charge with the demolition, it were normal hut and were demolished like the others . What a pity!
The card you so kindly sent me will enrich my private archives. Thank you. It is very difficult for me to answer to your interesting long letter but I can assure you that I very willingly consent you to publish my memories.
Wishing you both good luck I am yours,
Our warmest thanks to Gino for allowing us to share his memories with our readers.
With our deepest admiration,
Mermaid image (Rhonda's pages) and storyteller image (Tom's pages), and all other illustrations except where noted are here by the courtesy of our dear friend - Stromness author, artist and historian, Bryce Wilson MBE, who owns all copyrights. Thanks, Bryce!