PG 106 - Vercelli

Sheet by: Isabella Insolvibile

General data

Town: Vercelli

Province: Vercelli

Region: Piemonte

Location/Address: Varie - Vercelli

Type of camp: Work camp

Number: 106

Italian military mail service number: 3100

Intended to: troops

Local jurisdiction: Difesa Territoriale di Torino

Railroad station: Vercelli

Accommodation: huts

Operating: from 04/1943 to 09/1943

Commanding Officer: Major. Rossi (April – June 1943); Major. Carlo Ghirardi (August – September 1943).

Brief chronology:
Spring 1943: Vercelli camp had 28 (or possibly 29) work detachments.
4 June 1943: the PoWs in San Germano Vercellese went on strike.
15 June 1943: Private John Ernest Law was killed.
8 September 1943: the PoWs escaped.

Allied prisoners in the Vercelli camp

Date Generals Officers NCOs Troops TOT
30.4.1943       974 974
31.5.1943       1410 1410
30.6.1943       1526 1526
31.8.1943       1422 1422

Camp’s overview

PG 106 Vercelli was a “scattered” camp formed by at least 28 work detachments in the area surrounding the town, each housing between 20 and 100 PoWs. The camp was instituted in the spring of 1943 and was inspected by neutral observers (at least at some of its detachments) at the beginning of June. PG 106 held roughly 1,500 PoWs, mostly Australians but also British, New Zealanders and South Africans. They were employed in various agricultural occupations: harvesting hay, levelling pastures, and building embankments on rice fields. According to the delegates, the accommodation and the treatment of the PoWs were satisfactory, except for the lack of clothing, the sometimes-primitive hygiene services and especially, the delays in the mail service. The PoWs complained about their mail and packages being pilfered. Some PoWs even went on strike to protest at this.
On 4 June 1943, for example, the soldiers working in an estate in San Germano Vercellese refused to work because they did not receive their Red Cross parcels. According to the Protecting Power’s report, whose delegates, by chance, inspected the detachment on the same day as the strike, the PoWs complained that they did not receive any cigarettes or any mail from PG 106. Moreover, their dormitories were overcrowded, the medical service inadequate, and the PoWs did not receive credit notes for their work.
M. Tenconi confirms the “uneasiness” of many PoWs working in the Vercelli area, claiming that, as well as having various reasons to protest, the PoWs were also trying to hinder the Italian efforts:

The continuous presence of some negative aspects concerning life in the detachments, the solidarity between the fellow PoWs, and the desire to continue to fight, albeit differently, were the basis for many actions of sabotage which happened in the working structures. In the sub-camp I, on the same day as the Red Cross’s inspection, the PoWs went on strike that was suspended only when the camp’s commander promised the PoWs’ representative that the PoWs would face no repercussions for their actions. In the Salussola detachment (XIX), instead, the guards made some arrests as the PoWs refused to work. However, this did not ease the tension. The 80 PoWs working in the detachment, half Australians and half New Zealanders, switched to active sabotage of their working tools. In a short time, their equipment was cut in half, and since it could not be replaced, the PoWs could work only every other day, resting for the rest of the week. In Arro, instead, they managed to convince the guards that, following a New Zealander custom, they were entitled to a pause of ten minutes each hour to smoke. To avoid working in a rice field, they claimed there was a clause in the Gevena conventions (which did not exist) that did not allow PoWs to work in water. [Tenconi, Prigionia, sopravvivenza e Resistenza, p. 30]

However, PG 106 also demonstrated that when the work offered was not dangerous or prohibited; the PoWs generally were happy to do it. A former guard recalled that the Allied PoWs arrived in April 1943: «asked voluntarily to work, hoping […] to improve their conditions compared with their PoW camp, where life was dull and hard. They wanted to enjoy a little freedom, something all PoWs wanted, to distract themselves and, during work, to meet other people, meaning the civilians that, at the time […] worked on the fields» [Moranino, p. 44].
In the Selve detachment (Salasco), one worker was Australian PoW Carl Carrigan, whose experience was narrated by his daughter:

Italian farms, to the eyes of the Australian farmers, were run in an old-fashioned way. The one Carl, Lloyd Ledingham, Paul, and the two Rons were assigned to had 197 Frisona caws and ten workhorses. They also cultivated wheat, rice, corn, and barley. The livestock building was four storeys tall and housed horses, pigs, and caws. The barn was in the back, the family’s rooms on top. […] They woke up at six in the morning, had breakfast at seven and then marched for half an hour to work. They returned to their accommodation to eat lunch and then had to work from 2 pm until 6 pm. Then they had dinner: vegetables and pasta. Meat and cheese were served twice a week, and two loaves of bread accompanied the meals. As agricultural workers, their rations were larger and were integrated using whatever was available at the farm. One of their first occupations was to prepare the ground for beans and lettuce. They were divided into four groups to work in the rice fields […]. There were also a milkman, two gardeners, a carpenter, a smith, and those who worked in the warehouse, where the machine to pound the rice was kept. […] The milkman was an excellent job for a hungry person. Carl was lucky because this job allowed him to drink much of the milk he was supposed to milk. Others would steal eggs or anything else they could to stave off the ever-present hunger.
[…] Food was at the centre of their lives, and when they suspected someone was pilfering their daily rations, they went on strike. For two days, they refused to work, asking for better rations. Some guards spoke English and finally admitted someone had taken their food but promised it would not happen again. The PoWs’ vegetables were found rotten during an inspection. The camp’s commander showed the PoWs the rations list and the criteria to check for its correct application, allowing them to improve significantly their situation.
[Carrigan, pp. 43-44]

However, there were also some accidents. The most notable happened on 15 June 1943, when an Australian Private, John Ernest Law, who was 20 at the time, was killed by a sentry while trying to escape from the farm where he was working in Carpeneto di Bianzè. The guard was awarded a prize of 200 lire and 15 days of premium leave. The British investigation later confirmed that the guard and the prisoner had an agreement to sell bread, but things took a wrong turn. A witness, a fellow PoW, claimed that the guard killed Law to gain a commendation and be rehabilitated after being punished for sleeping on duty. In any case, the investigation proved that the shot was fired from a close distance, incompatible with an escape attempt. However, while the guard was identified, he was never found.
The local population still remember the camp because, after 8 September 1943, many PoWs were sheltered by them. Some escapes, however, happened even before the Armistice. Australian PoW John Desmond Peck, captured in Crete in June 1941 (then aged20), according to R. Absalom: «did not wait for the Armistice to make his captors lives difficult and lived on the lam for 11 months, out of a total of 27 months spent as a PoW» [Absalom, p. 73]. Peck had already escaped from Crete. He was then recaptured and brought to Rodhe, where he escaped again. He was sent to Italy in September 1942 and ended up in Grupignano. Despite his records, he was nonetheless assigned to the detachment in San Germano Vercellese. He remained there for two months and then escaped, staying on on the until the end of June 1943:

Actually – as Absalom pointed out – Peck and one comrade managed to cross the border with Switzerland, but since they could not see anything but frightful mountains and had marched for days without any food, they thought they could not make it […]. They went back to Italy, where they ran into a shepherd who promised to bring them food and instead brought them to the carabinieri. [Absalom, p. 75]

After this escape, Peck was sentenced to solitary, and it was during this period that the Armistice was proclaimed. Unrelenting, Peck escaped once more and became one of the organisers of rescue operations aimed at Allied PoWs to save them from the Germans.
Peck, however, was surpassed by Sergeant Edgar Nathaniel Triffet. The latter, in July 1943, escaped from the 106/2 detachment of Tronzano Vercellese and reached Zermatt, in in the Vallese canton of Switzerland, where he remained until the Armistice, hidden by a priest. After 8 September, he returned to Italy and joined the partisans. He returned to the United Kingdom in November 1944.
However, escape attempts after the Armistice were not always peaceful. In the 106/2 detachment of Tronzano Vercellese, for example, «the Italian NCO claimed he would shoot anyone who attempted to escape» and, as a response, «The PoWs threatened to “capture all the guards”, then tore down the fence and ran away» [Absalom, p. 140]. Instead, the Italian officer surrendered at least 25 PoWs to the Germans in another detachment. In general, the “great escape” in the Vercelli area was a success, thanks to the friendly relationships created in the previous months between the PoWs and the local farmers.

Archival sources