PG 75 - Torre Tresca

Sheet by: Isabella Insolvibile

General data

Town: Bari

Province: Bari

Region: Puglia

Location/Address: Torre Tresca - Bari

Type of camp: Transit camp; quarantine camp

Number: 75

Italian military mail service number: 3450

Intended to: Officers; NCOs; Troops

Local jurisdiction: IX Army Corps

Railroad station: Bari

Accommodation: Tents; huts

Capacity: 4000, including 500 officers

Operating: from 05/1941 to 07/1943

Commanding Officer: Captain Antonio Sommavilla (February 1942), Major. Germano Armellini (March – June 1942), Lt. Col. (later Col.) Stefano Orofalo (July 1942 – April 1943), Col. Petragnani (May 1943), Col. Orofalo (June – July 1943)

Brief chronology:
May 1941: the camp was opened.
10 November 1941: Captain Playne and Lt. Col. Cooke escaped from the camp, but they were recaptured. A few hours later, in an unexplained incident, Playne was killed, and Cooke wounded by the Italian personnel.
10 December 1941: death of Lt. H.E. Linton.
March 1942: Major. Noel Reeves attempted to escape and was wounded.
16 July 1943: Private Patrick Grogan was killed by a sentry.
May 1943: 13 PoWs who worked at Foggia airport died.
Summer 1943: the camp was closed.
Summer 1945: General Nicola Bellomo was put on trial and executed.

Allied prisoners in the Bari camp

Date Generals Officers   NCOs Troop TOT
1.3.1942 123   10 82 215
1.4.1942 25   27 148 200
1.5.1942 3   8 91 102
1.6.1942 8   16 113 137
1.7.1942 709   16 54 779
1.8.1942 1455   216 1942 3613[1]
1.9.1942 739   78 785 1602[2]
30.9.1942 209   36 229 474[3]
31.10.1942 105   116 1382 1603
30.11.1942 143   94 729 966[4]
31.12.1942 215   382 1813 2410[5]
31.1.1943 184   256 1421 1861[6]
28.2.1943 143   256 1424 1823[7]
31.3.1943 30   58 562 650[8]
30.4.1943 56   167 1661 1884[9]
31.5.1943 23   103 2150 2276
30.6.1943 20   62 2135 2217
[1] Including 3 American officers. [2] Including 5 American officers. [3] Including 6 American officers. [4] Including 1 American officer. [5] Including 10 American officers. [6] Including 12 American officers and 2 NCOs. [7] Including 1 American officer, 2 NCOs, and 3 soldiers. [8] Including 13 American officers, 18 NCOs, and 79 soldiers. [9] Including 18 American officers, 23 NCOs, and 94 soldiers.

Camp’s overview

PG 75 Torre Tresca, on the outskirts of Bari, is well known for one incident that happened in the first months after its opening and resulted in the killing of a British officer and the wounding of another by the Italian captors. Later, General Nicola Bellomo, identified as responsible for the incident, was put on trial and executed. He remains the only Italian officer executed by the Allied forces as a war criminal. However, even ignoring this specific episode, the camp was, together with PG 66 Capua, the worst in Italy. It was opened in May 1941 to hold PoWs coming from Africa who arrived in Italy in terrible conditions, as noted by the camp’s adjutant in the period between the end of 1942 and January 1943:

The South African prisoners, when they arrived, were in very poor shape indeed. I have never seen men look so ill. They were suffering from dysentery and desert sores and were grossly underfed. The clothing position was appalling for them as they had only their desert kit and it was mid-winter. As soon as any South Africans [sic] became seriously ill they were sent way to other camps. Captain Micklethwaite put forward many complaints, but nothing was done. [TNA, WO 310/9]

Initially, it was conceived as a transit camp, where PoWs were supposed to stay only for a short time. However, PoWs were often kept in PG 75 for extended periods (even seven months), waiting to be transferred to a permanent camp. As in many other camps, living conditions improved during the summer or when it was not overcrowded. Unfortunately, PG 75 was often very crowded, and the PoWs had only tents at their disposal, while the few huts were assigned to the officers. Moreover, the camp lacked heating. The PoWs did not receive any clothing and were left in their light African battledress to face the winter. Food was also scarce; according to the British camp doctor, it was insufficient even for resting men. Journalist Noel Barber noted:

British prisoners were huddled together, half starved, and invalids died because of shortage of medical attention and medical equipment. An officer who was adjutant there for some time lost three stones in weight. With others, he existed on a mixture of vegetables, macaroni, and rice, with meat once a week. Two hundred and fifty officers and two thousand men had to sleep four to a bed. Seven men died in one week in this camp – many of them went to the camp already half starved by the conditions at Benghazi. Dysentery was a scourge. Three British medical officers and three Italian doctors had to look after the entire camp. Medical equipment, drugs, and physics were dreadfully scarce. That was Bari – a picture painted by repatriates in 1943. [Barber, p. 91]

Barber’s analysis was confirmed by the death of South African Lt. H.E. Linton, 31, who arrived at Torre Tresca at the end of 1941. Linton was seriously ill, but, according to the sources, he was not treated. He was hospitalised only four days later and was diagnosed with ulcerous angina, which led to his death in a few days. Based on the Swiss legation’s testimony, the British investigation after the war also mentioned the bad treatment he received at the hospital, where he was abandoned to die alone.
As well as food being scarce, parasites were abundant in the camp, making epidemics a concrete and constant risk for the PoWs. Moreover, Red Cross parcels arrived irregularly.
As usual, the Italians justified all the camp’s issues with the excuse of it being a transit camp and not a permanent accommodation for the PoWs.
At the end of 1942, many of the camp’s structures were already crumbling; huts lacked lighting or glass windows, there were water infiltrations in the walls and roofs, and many facilities were still under construction. After one last inspection in May 1942 and until March 1943, the Red Cross and the Protecting Power delegates were not admitted to the camp. While the sources do not specify why this decision was taken, it is noteworthy that this period saw the peak of PoW arrivals in Italy, meaning that the captors had to face increased organisational difficulties. When the delegates were finally readmitted, they noticed that the wooden huts had been replaced with brick structures, which looked cleaner, ventilated, and well lit. They were even heated in the winter. Just as in the past and in other camps, the reports of the delegates and the PoWs started to diverge.
In the spring of 1943, as no more PoWs were arriving from Africa, PG 75 became a permanent camp with several work detachments. PoWs, in groups of at least 50, were sent to work on the nearby farms except for one group, which was sent to the Foggia airport (perhaps working for the Germans, possibly since January 1943). There, a series of Allied airstrikes in the spring-summer killed 13 PoWs (nine Indians and four South Africans).
After the Allied landings in Sicily, in the summer of 1943, PG 75 was closed. After the war, it became a refugee camp. In this period, a church was built in the camp, which today is the only remaining trace of the structure.

Compared to PG 66 Capua, PG 75 is considered among the worse camps in Italy, not for the living conditions, which, while terrible, were nothing out of the ordinary for Italian transit camps in the south of the country, but because of the apparent hostility of the guards towards the PoWs. Complaints and denunciations in Torre Tresca were numerous. They included the kidnapping of protected personnel (treated as PoWs), the black market established by the guards with the prisoners, the camp’s hygienic conditions, overcrowding… The captors’ behaviour, however, remained the main complaint. So much so that, when the United Nations War Crimes Commission launched its investigation into the «Bari cases», they noted that:

Camp. No. 75 at Bari, Italy, was conducted with methods of great hardship and cruelty. It became notorious as the worst of the Prisoner of war Camps in Italy. Many incidents of ill-treatment of and cruelty towards Prisoners of war can be proved, which point to either deliberate cruelty on the part of those in command of the Camp or gross dereliction of duty and failure to deal with the notorious conditions. [TNA, WO 311/316]

The captors were accused of physical and psychological maltreatment, indifference towards the PoWs’ primary needs, theft (especially regarding Red Cross parcels), forbidden work at the Foggia airport, and severe violence (inflicted especially on escapees or aspiring ones). The first, and most notorious case, happened in the late evening of 30 November and involved General Nicola Bellomo. Born in Bari in 1881 and decorated during the First World War, in 1941 Bellomo was the commander of the Bari military garrison. As such, he was involved in capturing the Colossus operation paratroopers. On the evening of 30 November, he was in Torre Tresca (the camp, at this point, was most likely still under construction) to help after the recapture of two escapees, Captain George Playne and Lt. Roy Roston Cooke. A few hours before, the two had managed to escape through a hole in the barbed wire. Bellomo ordered the two officers to show him how they did it. In the confusion that followed, the guards and (presumably) Bellomo himself shot the PoWs. During the trial, Bellomo and others would claim that the PoWs were trying to escape again, which appears to be highly unlikely, considering they knew that all the guards were watching them at that moment. While the incident was never adequately explained, its consequences were dramatic: Playne, wounded on the ear and the nape, died soon afterwards. Cooke, wounded on the leg, survived (the position of the wound would be contested during the trial). The Italian investigation ended quickly, exonerating Bellomo and the guards. The British investigation, instead, ended in a very different way, after a famous but problematic trial whose «fairness» is still debated today, with Bellomo’s execution. Among the first to be inflicted by the Allies against an Axis officer, the sentence was executed on 11 September 1945 in Nisida (Naples) prison. Bellomo was executed even though he was among the few Italian officers who decided to openly fight the Germans after the Armistice and protect the harbour of Bari, later used to a great extent by the Allies. For these actions, Bellomo received posthumously, in 1951, a silver medal for military valour by the Italian republic.
While Bellomo’s case was the most famous, it was not the only «Bari case». After the war, the British opened a series of investigations into all episodes of violence in PG 75 and, of course, on the overall treatment of the PoWs. One case was the wounding of British Major Noel Reeves, who had attempted to escape (according to the Italians) with his fellow PoW Lewis (which was denied by Reeves) and was wounded by the guards. On 16 July 1942, British Private Patrick Grogan was killed by a sentry while escaping, perhaps because he did not stop at the guard’s halt. While it was a dubious case, it was overshadowed by Bellomo’s trial. According to the Italian investigation, Private Filippo Casullo was guarding a heap of straw intended for the PoWs’ beds. He noticed a shadow and then a person near it. Casullo ordered him to stop, but the PoW, perhaps startled, started to run. At this point, Casullo fired, killing Grogan instantly. Grogan’s intention remained unknown, but Casullo was acquitted and rewarded with a period of premium leave. However, the British investigation soon found some discrepancies. Chiefly, the fact that Casullo fired against a PoW who was running towards the tents, not the barbed wire (Grogan was hit on the chest, and not the back), meaning he was running towards the camp, not away from it. The British concluded it was not an escape attempt and indicted Casullo for war crimes. The soldier was arrested in January/February 1946 but managed to escape from custody in May, together with 18 Italian and German suspected war criminals. He was never tracked down.
The British list of possible war criminals included the whole staff of PG 75, starting with the notorious Captain Antonio Sommavilla, considered to be suspect number one. According to a Treasury Solicitor functionary, the camp was: «conducted without regard to the provisions of the Geneva Convention» [TNA, TS 26/711]. However, even though the suspects were all obviously guilty, no one paid as Bellomo did. Sommavilla was described as a violent person who liked to drink, always ready to beat the PoWs and was put on trial on 13 February 1946 by an Allied court as an accomplice in the Playne and Cooke case. This was but one of the cases in which he was put on trial, which demonstrated, according to the investigators, «a consistent attitude towards British prisoners of war in that they were frequently struck by Captain Sommavilla and shot at by the sentries» [TNA, WO 311/306]. However, Sommavilla was exonerated. For a while, the Judge advocate general (JAG), who was convinced Sommavilla was guilty, tried to put him on trial for other crimes committed in Torre Tresca and elsewhere, but it was futile. In April 1946, the JAG decided not to indict him.
Likewise, Major Germano Armellini, Col. Stefano Orofalo and Lt. Col. Antonio Lattanzio, all suspected war criminals, were acquitted. In particular, Orofalo, who was the camp commander and was involved in the Grogan case, was found not responsible for Casullo’s actions. Regarding Orofalo and Armellini, a JAG colonel noted:

It does not seem to me that either of these officers can be held criminally responsible for the conditions at P.G. 75. Conditions there were not those to be found in British Prisoners of War Camps, but, when these conditions are compared with those of other camps in Italy (even the ordinary Italian Barracks), you may feel that, on this aspect of the case, no charge should be brought. [TNA, WO 311/316]

The only officer of PG 75 convicted (with a lenient sentence) for his behaviour towards the PoWs was the interpreter, Lt. Ipparco Espinosa, who was found guilty of having tortured the PoWs. Lt. Chesney, who attempted to escape and was recaptured after six hours, was chained with a dog’s chain by Espinosa and left alone for six hours, treatment that caused him many wounds, and was then put in solitary for days. Espinosa had the habit of punishing the PoWs harshly for minimal offences, like laughing during roll call. In particular, Espinosa was convicted for an episode involving Captain Montagu Mixon-Eckersall, who, with other PoWs, attempted to escape on the night between 21 and 22 January 1943. They were recaptured and confined in dirty cells which were infested with parasites. They were interrogated by Espinosa and Lattanzio and beaten by the guards and the carabinieri, who were instructed not to hit them on their faces in order not to leave any visible signs. Espinosa, who faced trial in October 1946, was sentenced to three years in prison, immediately reduced to two, which he served in the Procida prison. At the time, Lattanzio was exonerated for unclear reasons and later, when he was declared guilty, the «season of trials» had already ended.
Overall, these investigations depict a camp where life was hard, run by people who were openly hostile to the PoWs and often dangerous in their behaviour. For example, there were numerous denunciations regarding the «trigger happy» habits of the guards. In 1944, a report mentioned two episodes in which three Allied PoWs, Major Chaplain McDowall in the first, and the aforementioned Reeves and Lewis in the second, risked their lives. McDowall was arrested and spent the following 24 hours in a cell after being shot at by a guard (who missed him) while returning to his hut after visiting the outhouse. This episode was also investigated after the war. So, too, was the promulgation of criminal orders, such as the one to always shoot against escaping PoWs, and also the mistreatment, beatings and even torture of PoWs who tried to escape or had broken the camp’s rigid discipline. Often, PoWs were wounded by the guards, and those who were sick were ignored. As mentioned, all these investigations, which relied on a wealth of evidence, led to few convictions, making PG 75 a contradictory symbol. On the one hand, it was where one of the few war crimes committed by Italians took place, and the culprit punished with a death sentence. Conversely, it was the most prominent example of the general impunity enjoyed by many «bad Italians» who took advantage of single scapegoats like General Bellomo.

Archival sources