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Brief History of Italian POWs in South Africa

By Illona Osso-Fairbrother [Daughter of Italian POW]

“Italy entered the Second World War on 10 June 1940. Hostilities commenced with an Italian invasion of Egypt, followed by a rapid Italian advance against an unprepared British force. The Italian advance reached a point 100 kilometres from the Libyan border at Sidi El-Barrani. At this point the British rallied and, on 9 December 1940, went over on to the attack in an offensive known as Operation Compass. Within two months about 40 000 Italian soldiers were taken prisoner and shipped out of the operational area to Egypt, India, Kenya and South Africa.

For reasons of its distance from the scene of action; space available; food supplies and infrastructure, South Africa emerged as the destination of choice and a number of prisoners of war (POW) camps were established here, the largest being at Zonderwater, near Cullinan. This was in fact the biggest Allied POW camp of the Second World War and was opened in April 1941. About 109 000 Italian prisoners would ultimately pass through this camp, many of these were aviators. They were initially housed in tents but, after several had been killed by lightning attracted by the steel tent poles, they were re-housed in barracks at the insistence of Colonel H F Prinsloo, the Camp Commandant appointed by General Smuts in January 1943.

Under Prinsloo's supervision conditions steadily improved. A proper hospital was established, followed by sports facilities and then schools for the many illiterate prisoners. These were staffed by fellow Italian prisoners, who also produced the textbooks. A vocational centre was brought into being to further the production of arts and crafts; theatres were built and orchestras and bands were established.

Starting in June 1942, about 25 000 POW’s were also allowed to serve as skilled labourers on South African farms and infrastructure projects, the best-known of these being the construction of Du Toit’s Kloof Pass and Chapman's Peak Drive. Churches, schools, mansions and other buildings were also erected and are well-known landmarks today.

Zonderwater was finally closed down in 1947 and today serves as a jail that surrounds the beautiful Italian cemetery, monument and museum. There are 252 Italians buried at Zonderwater, 25 in Worcester and 35 in Pietermaritzburg. The total of 312 deaths from 109 000 prisoners is a remarkable tribute to the camp authorities and their humane treatment of the POW’s. An even better tribute is the fact that 870 POW’s elected to remain in South Africa after the war, while several thousand immigrated back with their families during the 1950s. They and their descendants have played a substantial part in the subsequent development of this country.

“Il Silenzio”

Due to vandalism, the 35 POW Graves in Pietermaritzburg [8 from Mountain Rise included with those from Hillary Cemetery] were exhumed and transferred to the grounds of The Little Italian Church in Epworth, PMB.

The 25 POW Graves in Worcester were exhumed and transferred to Zonderwater. This happened on 9 March 2016.




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