My interest in the Indian Prisoners of War (PoWs) held captive in Italy during the Second World War was aroused by an article that I wrote some years ago. ‘Prisoners of Aversa’ was about Indian officers who were captured in North Africa including Sahabzada Yaqub, Yahya Khan, Kumaramanglam, Tikka Khan and others. Under an agreement between Germany and Italy, troops captured in Africa were kept in PoW camps in Italy. On the 1st of April 1942, i.e. just before the Battle of Ghazala, the Italians were holding over 15,000 Commonwealth and South African PoWs which included 1,150 Indians. This figure would rise steeply with the fall of Tobruk and the drive by Rommel to El Alamein.
NCOs and soldiers captured in the initial stages of the North African Campaign were used as labour at the ports like Benghazi and Tripoli for unloading ships, etc. Ironically, some were kept in cages prepared earlier by the British from which escape was difficult but living and sanitary arrangements were good. Other camps were barely habitable. The common feature was the heat in summer, flies by the thousands, lice-infested beds and clothes, perpetual hunger and sand everywhere including the food. As the demand of logistics for Axis forces multiplied and losses at sea of cargo ships from Italy started climbing, the PoWs in North Africa were shipped to mainland Italy. The Italians were much more officer-conscious than the Germans and a number of Commonwealth officers went by air while the soldiers went by cargo ships. Even while traveling by train within Italy, while the other ranks were in cattle cars, the officers were taken in in second-class passenger coaches.
The ships arrived at Taranto, in the heel of the Italian peninsula, from where the PoWs were taken to transit camps – PG-85 at Tuturano or PG-75 at Bari. All camps in Italy for military personnel had the designation PG which denoted “Prigione di Guerra” (Prison of War). Many of the prisoners taken at the Battle of Ghazala had not eaten properly or washed since their capture. After registration, their clothes were deloused and they were given a much-relished hot bath. The International Red Cross then provided them with the first decent meal that they had after being captured.
Till April 1942, the Indian officers and other ranks were in two camps; half in PG-85 and the other half in PG-91 at Avezzano. PG-85, which also doubled as a transit camp, was a mixed camp of 1,500 PoWs from Commonwealth nations. PG-91 southeast of Rome was a detention camp during the First World War for 15,000 Austro-Hungarian prisoners. Part of it was reopened in February 1942 for Indian PoWs – however, after the fall of Tobruk, a number of British and New Zealand PoWs also arrived there. Officers shared small rooms while troops lived in separate barracks, with each nationality living and eating separately. The Indian sepoys did not venture towards the barracks where the ‘Gora’ (white-skinned) soldiers lived, because, according to the Indians, they lay in the sun “taking vitamins” – which meant lying stark naked. In way of clothing, the PoWs had nothing but what they were wearing day and night, and it slowly turned to rags.
The inmates of PG-63 found many ways of keeping themselves busy – escape-planning, classes and sports to name a few. However, by far the most popular was the theatre
Under the Geneva Convention, a prisoner’s country of origin debited a quarter of the PoW’s pay (called “enemy cut”) and transferred it to the Red Cross, which was passed onto the detaining country. It was converted into the currency of the detaining country (at a highly favourable rate) and a portion was also retained by the camp administration for messing. What was ultimately left was paid in coupons valid only inside the camp. However small, it made a great difference by enabling the PoWs to buy toiletries and extra rations. The rations provided by the camp administration barely sufficed and if it wasn’t for the food parcels packed by the Indian Red Cross, the PoWs would have faced a rapid decline in body weight. The scale was one per prisoner per week. But as the war progressed, their supply became more erratic and 3-4 PoWs had to share one box.
The parcels were tailored for the Indian palate and religious sensitivities. Apart from tea, tinned milk, powdered eggs etc., they contained lentils, curry powder, flour and rice but no meat. Cooking utensils had to be improvised from empty food tins, but the Italians used to confiscate or puncture them because they were used in escape tunnels. Fifty cigarettes per week were also issued. Every camp had an elaborate barter system within which cigarettes were the basic currency against which all other items were valued. The Red Cross also sent parcels of medicines and diet for invalids which were distributed by the camp doctor.
Axis forces captured a large number of prisoners during and after the Battle of Ghazala and many of the fresh Indian PoWs landed up in PG-78 at Sulmona, not far from Avezzano. PG-78 was another one of those First World War vintage camps which now contained as many as 3,000 British and Commonwealth officers and other ranks. However, the Italians started to activate more camps and from September 1942 onwards, all the Indians were ultimately transferred south to PG-63 at Aversa near Naples. The Indians now had their own senior camp officer, P.P. Kumaramanglam (‘K’) but his job was a very delicate one – both in handling the PoWs as well as representing them with the Italian camp commander.
While most PoWs chose to remain because of rumours that pro-Mussolini fascists were killing escaping prisoners, a few Indian officers and other ranks left the camps even after the Germans had arrived
One delicate matter was a suggestion from the Italian Camp Major that Subhas Chandra Bose of the pro-Axis Indian National Army (INA) could talk to the PoWs, but it was declined. However, some of the more nationalistic PoWs desired to do away with the British national anthem sung at the close of camp concerts and replace it with Iqbal’s Taranah-e-Hind, “Sarey Jahan se Acha.” As a compromise, both were sung.
In between, a contingent of 30 South African PoWs arrived, which created tensions because of their racist attitude – and also because their colonel outranked Major ‘K’ and became the camp senior officer. They didn’t stay long, but one of the South Africans relates a funny experience at PG-63: “The commandant was a small Italian colonel with a very short fuse. One day, something upset him and he called a parade of all the officer prisoners. As he could not speak English, he harangued us in Italian, screaming and shouting, and punching the air with his fists. After about five minutes, he turned to his interpreter who said in English, ‘Gentlemen, the commandant is displeased with you.’ We all burst out laughing, whereupon the commandant really went crazy, and finally stamped off the parade ground.”
The inmates of PG-63 found many ways of keeping themselves busy – escape-planning, classes and sports to name a few. However, by far the most popular was the theatre, which, till the late 1930s, was still very prevalent in India. With tools provided by the Italians, the sappers erected a magnificent stage, the PoWs bought a few musical instruments and also received one as a present from the Pope. The pugri cloth offered by the Sikhs made beautiful saris and some clever VCOs designed attractive dresses from paper packing and tinfoil wrappings contained in the food parcels and cigarettes. Soon the camp had a full-fledged concert party which became a regular fortnightly show. There was no dearth of playwrights and starting with small pieces, they later ventured onto a full-length drama which was a grand success.
The Allied advance stalled on a series of defensive lines established by the Germans, and for the PoWs, the happy thought of being liberated by a rapid Allied advance started vanishing
Winter of 1943 was tough. From December onwards it was freezing cold, and warm clothing was scarce. During the day, PoWs wrapped themselves in the only two blankets they had, and at night it was impossible to get a decent sleep. It was a great relief when warm military-pattern clothing was provided by the Red Cross. In any case, the morale of the PoWs had improved considerably with the news of the surrender of Axis troops in Tripoli.
Suddenly in May 1943, all the PoWs from PG-63 were taken north to Avezzano. Following the Allies’ landing in Italy in September 1943, the Italians surrendered 20 days later. The situation created a dilemma for the PoWs because the camps had had received clandestine orders from British intelligence that no prisoners should leave the confines till a mechanism was established for their evacuation. This was based on the faulty premise that when Italy surrendered, the Germans would withdraw north to the Alps. In actual fact, the reverse happened and the German Amy rapidly advanced into southern Italy, successfully blocking the Allied advance.
There was a small window of 2-3 days between the Italian-conscripted soldiers abandoning the camps and the Germans appearing at the gates. While most PoWs chose to remain because of rumours that pro-Mussolini fascists were killing escaping prisoners, a few Indian officers and other ranks left the camps even after the Germans had arrived. Some were given refuge by kind Italians at great risk, and waited for the Allies to arrive. Others headed south through German lines – and a few actually got through.
The Allied advance stalled on a series of defensive lines established by the Germans, and for the PoWs, the happy thought of being liberated by a rapid Allied advance started vanishing. It was replaced by the foreboding prospects of travelling deeper into German occupied territories and further from freedom.
On the whole, however, the treatment that they were subjected to by the Germans and Italians was mild compared to how the Japanese treated Allied prisoners. Of the approximately 132,000 Allied prisoners taken by the Japanese, 27% i.e. 35,760 died. On the other hand, the Germans and Italians had almost twice as many prisoners, i.e. 235,500, but a death rate of only 4%.
Author’s Note:I am writing a book related to the Indian PoWs in Italy and Germany during the Second World War. If any reader from the Subcontinent has details and/or pictures related to relatives who were PoWs in North Africa or Europe, I would be very grateful if you could share the information with me at: email@example.com