Over recent months many of us have watched the events unfolding across North Africa, thought of the places mentioned, and stopped to remember their meaning for our family history.
Suez Harbour, 16 Nov 1940
W H E West Collection
Seventy years ago today my father, Private Wilfred West of the Royal Corps of Signals, was captured in Libya – at El Mechili (also known as Fort Mechili). He had arrived at Suez in November 1940. The events surrounding his capture were described by his Commanding Officer in a letter to my grandmother: ‘In our recent withdrawal, I had kept behind with me a small party of men, of which your son was one. I had, of course, picked my best men to stay with me, as one does in a crisis. We withdrew at night, and I brought up the rear of our small convoy. It was very dark, and the roads were blocked with traffic. No one dropped out behind me. I can only conclude that the party he was with, went on ahead, and losing their way in the darkness, were captured by a German patrol. He was a good worker, and I always relied on him.’
My father, along with hundreds of other new Prisoners of War (POWs) arrived at Campo Prigionieri di Guerra (PG) 78, Fonte d’Amore, Sulmona on 15 May 1941, having travelled with hundreds of other men via Derna, Benghazi, and an Italian transit camp at Capua (Campo PG 66). The two groups of Allied generals captured during the same battle (6-8 April 1941), were transferred to Villa Orsini on the southern outskirts of Sulmona. They were sorted into huts of 42 men, and each allocated a single iron folding bed with sheets. They proceeded to organise themselves into ‘combines’ – a group of approximately six men – who for the next two and a half years would share their rations, Red Cross parcels and private parcels in order that they would survive the times ahead of them. Waves of men continued to arrive throughout 1941, necessitating the replacement of the single beds with wooden, immovable bunks, thereby doubling the numbers in each hut to 84.
Rations within the camp varied throughout the war and were supplemented by Red Cross and private parcels which usually began to arrive soon after coming into the camp – as soon as family and friends had an address – for example, those who arrived in May 1941 parcels received their first private parcels in September. The numbers and types of parcels varied over time and could be irregular: a feast or a famine – in the month of May 1943 over 8000 private parcels were received. However, when the parcel shortage corresponded with an Italian national ration cut of 60 per cent in March 1942, desperation was in the air and many diaries record the harsh experience of hunger and the loss of weight experienced by the prisoners.
As early as April 1943 rumours were rife throughout the camps about the fortunes of war: repatriation, battles and even the possibility of going home. There was jubilation with the announcement of the Italian Armistice on the evening of 8 September, and many prisoners left the camp over the ensuing days. Within a fortnight of the armistice 327 British and Commonwealth ex-prisoners had reached Allied lines. However, the majority of them were soon recaptured by German soldiers and returned to their camps, before their ultimate transfer to Germany and Poland for the remainder of the war. Many of those who survived, did so only because they were housed, fed and guided by dozens of extremely generous Italian people, at enormous risk to themselves. Indeed, many Italians were killed, deported or made destitute as a result of helping the prisoners of war.
Wilfred West, 1946
W H E West Collection
My father had travelled south through the Apennines for six weeks with a companion, dressed as a shepherd. On 27 October 1943, a cold and wet day, they were challenged by two young German soldiers near Lago di Scanno and recaptured. They were taken back the 75 kilometres to Campo PG102 (L’Aquila) where they were transferred to a train bound for Germany. On 10 Nov 1943 they arrived at Stalag VIIA at Moosberg, north of Munich, which was their base camp until General Patton’s troops liberated the camp on 29 April 1945. Victory in Europe (VE) day was a truly happy day as they arrived in England and home to their families. The next months and years were a time of adjustment in many ways: emotions, food, return to jobs after years of comparative idleness, illness, rehabilitation and the final demobilization from the army.
Today many children and grandchildren of former prisoners of war are trying to discover the stories of their ancestors ‘missing years’. As the prisoners have lived in the shadow of the camps, so too have their families lived in the shadow of their wartime experiences, spoken and unspoken.
© 2011, Maureen R West
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