PG 66 - Capua

Sheet by: Isabella Insolvibile

Prisoners at work inside the concentration camp No. 66 in Capua (NA) - AUSSME Archive, Fototeca 2 Guerra Mondiale Italia 507/645

General data

Town: Capua

Province: Napoli (Caserta)

Region: Campania

Location/Address: - Capua

Type of camp: Transit camp; quarantine camp

Number: 66

Italian military mail service number: 3400

Intended to: Officers; NCOs; Troops

Local jurisdiction: Difesa Territoriale Napoli

Railroad station: Capua

Accommodation: Tents; Huts

Capacity: 6000

Operating: from 04/1941 to 08/1943

Commanding Officer: Major Masola (February 1942); Lt. Col. (later Col.) Guglielmo Nicoletti (3.1942 – 15.7.1943); Col. Achille Bonito Oliva (15.7.1943 – August 1943)

Brief chronology:
April 1941: the camp was opened
January – February 1942: the camp became the main transit camp for PoWs captured in Libya.
16 April 1942: Corporal R.A. Smith was killed while trying to escape.
17 –18 August 1942: Captain K.A. Mitchell and Lieutenant J.H. Reeves were killed during an escape attempt.
12 November 1942: Fusilier Colin Davies was killed while trying to escape.
January – April 1943: many escape attempts, both by single and groups of PoWs.
18 April 1943: Private James Smith was killed during an escape attempt.
May 1943: a sector of the camp was given to the Wehrmacht which used it to hold American PoWs.
June 1943: Private Jacob Gedile was killed by an Italian guard because he refused to work.
July – August 1943: the camp was closed and the prisoners were transferred.

Allied prisoners in the Capua camp

Date Generals Officers NCOs Troops TOT
1.3.1942 284 213 2235 2732
1.4.1942 30 189 1883 2102
1.5.1942 17 186 1821 2024
1.6.1942 18 55 732 805
1.7.1942 176 51 566 793
1.8.1942 187 369 3864 4420
1.9.1942 1 344 612 6616 7574[1]
30.9.1942 1 324 456 4776 5556[2]
31.10.1942 1 264 338 4711 5314
30.11.1942 140 460 6259 6859[3]
31.12.1942 111 442 5418 5971[4]
31.1.1943 121 326 4569 5016[5]
28.2.1943 122 318 3754 4194[6]
31.3.1943 155 295 3913 4363[7]
30.4.1943 144 333 3927 4404[8]
31.5.1943 111 275 3660 4046[9]
30.6.1943 55 167 1965 2187[10]
31.8.1943 9 16 118 143[11]
[1] Including one American NCO. [2] Including one American NCO. [3] Including two American NCOs and 5 American privates. [4] Including 16 American Officers, 21 American NCOs, and 143 American privates. [5] Including 12 American Officers, 8 American NCOs, and 36 American privates. [6] Including 17 American Officers. [7] Including 4 American Officers, 21 American NCOs, and 23 American privates. [8] Including 4 American Officers, 10 American NCOs, and 66 American privates. [9] Including 17 American Officers, 22 American NCOs, and 36 American privates. [10] Including 2 American Officers, 6 American NCOs, and 28 American privates. [11] Including 4 American Officers, 6 American NCOs, and 30 American privates.

Camp’s overview

PG 66 Capua, opened in April 1941 was the largest transit camp for Allied PoWs in Italy. From January – February 1942, it became the main site for sorting the prisoners captured in Libya. It was also one of the worst camps in Italy as regarded living conditions. This was mainly because the camp, for all of its operational life, remained permanently in «preparation», meaning that the huts and the brick buildings of the camp were always in construction, while the PoWs “in trasit” were housed, often for weeks or even months, in tents. The tents were exposed to the weather and erected on bare ground, which became mud in case of rain, causing the PoWs great discomfort and exposing them to illnesses. In January 1942, the camp’s morbidity was 4% and the most common illnesses were rheumatic fever, enteritis, and skin sores. Moreover, the camp was infested with fleas and lice. These problems were compounded by the fact that the PoWs came from the African camps, in which conditions were terrible, and thus arrived at Capua already in bad shape. As noted by Sargeant Major Charles Henry Burgess, the camp leader at a time when two contingents of 2,000 PoWs arrived from the Libyan camp of Suani Ben Adem:

The […] drafts were in a such deplorable state of starvation, disease and neglect that when they arrived at Capua station at 5 p.m. in the evening, the Italian Authorities would not bring them into Camp at Capua but kept them at the station until midnight so that no-one could see their deplorable condition. They were all in an advanced state of starvation and were almost all suffering from dysentery and desert sores. Many were desperately ill, some of the men had no clothes of any sort of description except a small blanket as a loin cloth and no boots or shoes at all. It was a case of the most ghastly and criminal neglect. The most desperate cases were sent on at once to Caserta hospital and I heard […] that there were more than 100 deaths at Caserta hospital from one of the said drafts. [TNA, WO 311/320]

Living conditions were harsh and the prisoners were exposed to the changing weather during the year. During autumn and winter, the climate (even in the south of Italy) is rainy and cold. The tents were not waterproof, nor heated, and seldom had electric lighting. They were often flooded with mud and the humidity was dangerous for the PoWs and their belongings. The camp did not have running water, firewood, soap, clothing, or enough food for the prisoners. Red Cross parcels and mail from home were similarly scarce. Moreover, the camp was overcrowded and riddled with parasites. These issues were noticed not only by the PoWs but also by the neutral delegates, and even by Italian sources, such as the military health directorate of Naples, whose representatives inspected the camp multiple times, pointing out its inadequacy.

These issues were never resolved and were justified, according to the Italian authorities, by the transitory nature of the camp. The way discipline was maintained as well, confirms the terrible situation. Punishments were frequent because the PoWs often voluntarily damaged the huts, for example taking wood to light fires. Moreover, escape attempts were commonplace, and PG 66 registered both the highest number of escapes and the highest rate of often lethal accidents (which sometimes were not unintentional) during these attempts. Some escapes were attempted by entire groups of prisoners and were spectacular. For example, there was one on 25 (or possibly 27) January 1943, when 28 PoWs escaped through the sewers. They were all recaptured by 30 January: 15 near the camp, the rest in the surrounding area. According to British sources, the escapees were brutally beaten and one of them was even stabbed with a bayonet. Witnesses recalled that the prisoners made too much noise during the attempt and that the Italians realised what was going on while the PoWs were still inside the sewer’s pipes. At this point, the guards opened fire on the pipes, wounding three prisoners. It was only by luck that a massacre did not occur. After the war, the Italian commander claimed he did not witness any kind of violence, but that he had removed one of the officers in charge of security, Captain Emerigo, who was also punished with 20 days of arrest, because he «did not like how he [Emerigo] treated the prisoners» [TNA, WO 311/320].

A few weeks later, between February and March 1943, 33 more prisoners attempted to escape through the sewers. This time they managed to elude capture for longer, and the last two were recaptured six days later. The escapees were found in possession of maps, compasses and «skills» which would have allowed them, according to some witnesses, to reach Switzerland. They too suffered a brutal punishment: they were put in solitary and invited to write their last letter home, as they were told a firing squad was ready for them on the next day. They were not executed but were beaten for a week and one of them ended up in the Caserta hospital.

However, the worst months in Capua were those of the summer of 1942, when the influx of PoWs to Italy reached its peak. Almost all of them passed through PG 66. Moreover, in this period, the Italian authorities ordered the suspension, without giving an explanation, of the regular inspections carried by the international delegates in all camps in southern Italy. When they were allowed to return, in November 1942, the situation was critical: the camp proper was still in construction and more than 4,000 PoWs, which now included also people of colour and Indians, were crammed into the tent encampment. There was no heating, Red Cross parcels had not arrived for four months, and this meant that the clothing situation was very poor. The soldiers, coming from the African front, were ill-equipped to face winter in Italy. Moreover, the combination of the scarce food ration and the lack of Red Cross parcels made the living conditions of the prisoners even worse. Dan Billany and David Dowie later wrote in The Cage about the hunger they felt in Capua and its psychological repercussions:
The fact that Red Cross parcels were divided amongst groups of five imposed an artificial grouping on us, and within the «syndicates» of five resentment at this mutual interdependence expressed itself in subdued quarrelling and distrust. We quarrelled quietly but rather bitterly over each other’s manners and mannerisms, and over the division of the food: and our suppressed sense of shame mortified us afterwards. We were hungry all the time at Capua (except in November, when at last we got a parcel per man per week). When we went into the Mess Hut for the soupy meals the Italians gave us, we watched each other’s plates as well as our own. It was not only every man for himself – the syndicates also were exclusive and suspicious of each other: little families of five, hostile to every other family, sitting in jealous circles round their bits of food, and wrangling within themselves. There was joking, but it was often unkindly. If a syndicate found some way to bribe an Italian (with soap or coffee) to smuggle them an extra loaf, they guarded the secret like misers. There could not be much genuine co-operation in such an atmosphere. When we went to bed and drew the sheet over us, each man felt more secure, because more alone. If we walked in couples it was not so much for real talking as for superficial grumbles. Nobody felt responsible for anyone else. That was how we began. […] so long as it lasted – all the time we were at Capua – the Syndicate System remained a barrier to the fullest co-operation, narrowing our sympathies down to our own «family» and often making us unconsciously hostile to «outsiders». [The Cage, pp. 12 e 25-26]

In this situation, the relations between the PoWs and the guards were naturally tense. But this was also true among the PoWs, as they were of different nationalities, and especially ethnicities. In Capua, PoWs of colour, already discriminated against by the Italians, were often mistreated by their fellow white PoWs, who, for example, accused them of theft.

The last inspection by the IRC delegates happened in March 1943, when the camp held also a few hundred Americans, kept in a separate sector administered by the Germans. At the time of this inspection, more than 900 PoWs were hospitalised in Caserta or Nocera Inferiore. The camp itself was still in construction and the officers were allowed to resume showering and walking on the outside only the day before the inspection – an odd coincidence, for sure. In general, the issues with the showers were common in all Italian camps, particularly in the transit ones, and were caused by the lack of a proper water system.

In May 1943, one of the camp’s sectors, where the prisoners still lived in tents, was given to the Germans. In a few days, the huts were ready. In general, however, the camp was never truly finished, despite the many promises and the numerous protests made by captors, PoWs and external observers. The camp was evacuated and dismantled in July 1943, and most of the PoWs who remained in Campania were sent to Sforzacosta and Laterina.

Capua remained the most lethal camp in Italy. According to Billany, a sign on the barbed wire, written in approximative English, among other things warned the prisoners that the guards were ordered to «shoot to kill» escaping prisoners, as «no PoW must escape alive» [Billany, The Trap, cap. 41]. Naturally, this policy was investigated after the war.

With regard to the deaths that occurred in the camp:

  • 16 April 1942: New Zealander Corporal Robert Alfred Smith was killed. Smith had escaped with two companions and eluded recapture for a week. The PoWs were found in an area between Salerno and Avellino (Bracigliano-Volturara Irpina), roughly 100 km away from Capua. According to the Italians, Smith was ordered to stop but did not obey and was mortally wounded. The other two PoWs, one of them lightly wounded, instead testified that the Italians shot Smith in cold blood, while he had his hands behind his head. Italian authorities denied any responsibilities, but the case was examined as a possible war crime. During the investigation, it was discovered that Smith was killed during a «hunt» which involved also some carabinieri and some local civilians: One Salvatore Paracuollo, Vice Brigadiere of Carabinieri at Bracigliano, being aware that the said New Zealanders were in the neighbourhood, armed several of the local Italian civilians and ordered them to search for them, and if found to kill them. Among the civilians so instructed was one Giuseppe Basile of Bracigliano. The said armed civilians came upon the said three New Zealanders (who were in khaki uniform and without firearms) near the village of Volturare [Volturara Irpina, nda] near Bracigliano and called on them to stop; which they did, offering no resistance, and holding up their hands by way of surrender. Notwithstanding this, the said Basile fired one, or it may be two, shots from his gun (probably a shot gun) at a distance of 15 to 20 meters. […] The incident was reported to the said Salvatore Paracuollo at the Carabinieri Station at Bracigliano, who ordered the said Smith to be brought to that Station; but on arrival there, he was dead. About a month later, the said Paracuollo paid the said Basile 60 lire for assistance in the matter. [TNA, WO 311/331]. During the investigation and the trial, that took place in March 1946, the doctor who examined Smith’s body testified that the shots (four, from two different weapons) were fired from a distance of 6 – 7 meters, using hunting weapons. Apparently, the civilians were convinced that the three were paratroopers, of which the Italian population had a phobia (witnesses told the court they thought the men had poisoned a water spring). Paracuollo tried to defend himself, claiming that the civilian squad had been organised by the local head of the fascio, but the other witnesses contradicted his version of the events, claiming it was he who organised the group, including the fascists. Paracuollo was sentenced to 20 years in prison, reduced immediately to 10, while Giuseppe Basile was sentenced to 15, reduced to 8 (or possibly 7). They were imprisoned in Procida and were released in the mid-1950s.

  • 17 – 18 August 1942: during the night two young officers, Captain Kenneth Amyot Mitchell and Lieutenant Henry Reeve died during an escape attempt. The former was killed during the escape, and the latter, who was wounded, died at Caserta hospital the next day. Some loaves of bread and a few Red Cross tins already opened – it was a common tactic to hinder escapes – were found in their possessions, hidden in a sack. According to the camp commander, Co. Nicoletti, the two left the perimeter through the main gate and then found themselves in the open once they passed the barbed wire. Immediately, they were chased by the sentries. Mitchell, who was 22, was killed in an olive tree orchard where he was trying to hide. Reeves, 10 years older, kept running but was shot. Mitchell received full military honours bestowed by Nicoletti but, at the same time, the Ministry for War gave prize money and leave permits to those involved in the killings.
    After the war, the British investigation enquired whether the guards had shot Reeves while he was already on the ground. According to a source, he himself told a fellow prisoner before dying that he « was in a field beyond the […] wire when he was hit. […] he lay [sic] on the ground to give up: the Italian Guard approached him and fired a burst into him, afterwards kicking him in the chest» [TNA, WO 311/1188]. The medical analyses were discordant. The Italian one claimed that Reeves’s body presented ten wounds: on the buttocks, the thighs, the arms and the perineum. The British, instead, noted three distinct series of gunshots and at least 28 wounds, on the thighs, the chest and the abdomen (proving the shots were fired from the front, and not at the back of a running man). Moreover, it was possible that the body was also stamped upon by the guards.
    However, the British investigation could not proceed because the three suspects, Antonio D’Angelo, Luca De Crescenzo and Alfonso Esposito, could not be found. As for Nicoletti, incredibly, he was found not responsible for the events (nor for many others) as he was considered not able to control his subordinates effectively, and they had acted on their own initiative and in full autonomy.

  • 12 November 1942: British Fusilier Colin Davis, who was 25, was killed during another escape attempt. The events happened after dark, around 5 pm. Private Perrotta, who was on sentry duty, heard the screams of another guard and saw a prisoner jumping down from the camp’s fence. Both guards opened fire and the wounded prisoner was carried to the Caserta military hospital, where he died a week later. The two guards were awarded 15 days leave permits for their actions. After the war, the British JAG [Judge Advocate General] did not consider this a possible war crime and thus did not open an investigation.

  • 19 April 1943: Private James Smith, aged 27, managed to escape but was tracked down and killed by a guard as he tried to avoid recapture. Smith escaped with two companions, one dressed as a German soldier and the other two as Americans. The plan was to pretend that the «German» was escorting two «American» PoWs, which was sound, as a sector of the camp was administered by the Germans and intended for American PoWs. However, the three were not able to go far enough and tried to hide in a wheat field, where they were discovered by the Italian guards. One of them, Private Giuseppe Cocco, shot and killed Smith. According to Smith’s comrades, he had his hands high and was asking for mercy. As usual, Cocco received a money prize and premium leave. After the war, Cocco was judged guilty of the PoW’s murder and sentenced to death, which was immediately commuted to life in prison. However, he did not serve his full sentence as he was released from Procida prison in the mid-1950s.

The killings during escape attempts, however, were not the only reasons why the British authorities opened investigations into PG 66. In fact, violations of the Geneva conventions on the treatment of PoWs were commonplace. Besides the already mentioned terrible living conditions in the camp, the prisoners were subjected to disproportionate punishments, such as the one inflicted on Stoker James Downey: 100 days in solitary (served both in Capua and in Pian di Coreglia), because he had, according to his captors, insulted Mussolini and the Italian soldiers in a letter home. (He wrote that the Italian guards were begging for food and that «Mussolini was a fool coming into the war and he probably realises it by now» [TNA, WO 311/317]). Some PoWs were directly employed to bolster the Italian war effort, something which was specifically forbidden by the conventions. Moreover, this work also endangered the PoWs as they worked, for example, at the Pontecagnano (SA) airport, where four of them were killed in an Allied air raid on 20 July 1943. They belonged to the South African forces: two to the Native Military Corps – A. Ramabuya and L. Ncube – one to the Cape Corps, W. Filander, and one to the Indian and Malay Corps, M. Hendricks. They were all buried in the Salerno war cemetery.
There were other war crimes committed in PG 66: in June 1943, most likely on 10 June, a coloured soldier belonging to the South African forces, Jacob Gedile, was murdered by an Italian sentry because he refused to work.
The whole staff of the camp was present in the list of war criminals compiled by the British at the end of the war, in particular, Col. Nicoletti, who, however, never faced trial.
It is likely the camp was used to house refugees after the war and today no traces of it remain, even in the local public memory.

Archival sources