Fighting with the enemy: New Zealand POWs and the Italian Resistance
On 10 July 1943 Allied forces attacked Italy, landing in Sicily. Two weeks later the Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini was overthrown in an internal coup. Encouraged, the Allies proceeded to invade the mainland whereupon the new Italian government, led by General Pietro Badoglio, opened secret negotiations which ended in Italy’s surrender and withdrawal from the war on 8 September.
The Germans reacted quickly. Field Marshall Albert Kesselring was ordered to use the 18 German divisions stationed in Italy to occupy the country and defend it against the Allied invasion. At the time of the Italian surrender there were nearly 70,000 Commonwealth prisoners of war in Italy. These were men who had been captured in North Africa. Most New Zealand POWs were held in the north of the country, especially in and around Camp PG57 near Udine. The men were given orders to remain in their camps after the Italian surrender – a misconceived idea which meant that when the German troops arrived to take over, the men were still there. Most were subsequently put on trains and taken to Germany where they spent the rest of the war.
Fighting with the Enemy is the story of some of the New Zealand POWs who managed to escape from their camps, or from trains carrying them to Germany, in 1943. Not all were successful in staying free but a surprising number – 447 – did manage to escape either back to the Allied lines, or to Switzerland. Susan Jacobs provides useful background information about the anti-German and anti-Fascist activities in Italy at the time these men escaped and were on the run. A number of these men have published autobiographies, so it is helpful to be able to read something which contextualises these accounts and backgrounds events they describe. Apart from these personal memoirs, the Italian resistance to fascism has not, before now, played a very important role in New Zealand histories of the Italian campaign, and Jacobs is to be congratulated for making this material available.
It is also helpful to be reminded of the danger faced by Italians who helped the escapees. See, for example, Italico Formentin who felt that “the New Zealander epitomises the thoughtlessness of the prisoners who, protected by their prisoner-of-war status, risked only losing their liberty. Ordinary Italians like Giovanni Zulian lost their lives.” Jacobs also reminds us that there were differences of opinion within the Italian population, and that some Italians informed on compatriots who helped the POWs.
Despite this, it is also a disappointing book. I would have greatly appreciated a map (other than the contemporary Red Cross one on p272 showing POW camps) to track where the activity was taking place. More dates would have helped, as would an index. Jacobs has chosen, in many cases, not to follow one person or group’s story from escape to liberty or recapture but to use a chronological approach. There is nothing wrong with this – in fact, it could allow the reader to gain an impression of how the war was faring behind the front lines. Unfortunately, the lack of dates and contextual information meant that I found parts of the narrative quite confusing.
The great strength of this book is that Jacobs has interviewed Italians with whom the POWs lived and fought while they were on the loose, as well as some of the POWs themselves. The use of oral material allows her to convey the men’s personalities nicely. Here is Clelia Furlanetto talking about John Senior:
That evening John got out from his bed, washed himself and put on a suit. He said that dressed like that he already felt better. He took the medicine and was cured in a week. He would always say that if he died we should bury him under a grapevine as he would make the wine taste better.
The book is a salutary reminder of what is possible even when people are living in a police state. Jacobs shows us how resistance and acts of defiance, which may have been small in themselves, ultimately saved many people’s lives. By allowing us to hear the Italian side of this story, she has done us a great service.
Megan Hutching’s book on the Italian campaign, A Fair Sort of Battering, has just been published.