The Allied presence in Italy
In 2020, the UK-based Monte San Martino Trust suggested to the Istituto Nazionale Ferruccio Parri that they collaborate on telling the story of the Allied prisoners of the Second World War in Italy. A project to map the prison camps was readily agreed and it was decided to include this in a broader framework, which would systemise the studies carried out in the past and present new evidence on the overall theme of the Allied presence in Italy from 1939 to 1947.
The research areas
The objective is to explore the following aspects of the Allied presence in Italy:
- A census of the PoW camps.
- A collection of stories and testimonies by those PoWs who escaped from the camps after 8 September 1943; tracking their paths to safety, repatriation, or participation in the Italian Resistance and examining when and where local communities helped them.
- A census of the Allied Liaison Missions to support the Italian Resistance.
- A census of the civil officers belonging to the AMG (Allied Military Government), which would be especially relevant for the centre-south of Italy.
- A census of bombing raids, linked to the Lincoln University portal.
- A census of the Allied places of memory in Italy, in collaboration with Liberation Route Italia.
Research has initially been focused on the first two aspects, thanks to sponsorship from the Monte San Martino Trust.
(by Isabella Insolvibile and Costantino Di Sante)
Between 1940 and 1943, roughly 70,000 Allied PoWs were held in Italy, mostly belonging to Commonwealth nations and including a small percentage of Americans. They were captured on the African Front and in the Mediterranean and transferred to Italy after a variable period of detention in Africa. The Italian camps were divided into transit camps, PoW camps, and work camps. In total, there were 61 sites, and not all of them were operating at the same time. After the harsh transfer voyage, the first stop in Italy was usually a transit camp in the south of Italy. This rough accommodation immediately showed up Italy’s inadequacy in managing the PoWs. The PoW camps, to which the prisoners were transferred as “permanent” accommodation, were often riddled with defects in the buildings, the amenities and, in general, in the care of the PoWs. While they were mostly kept imprisoned, between the second half of 1942 and the first half of the following year some prisoners were also made to work, mostly in agriculture or in industry. They were also employed in film-making and were even used illegally as part of the Italian war effort.
The Italian attitude towards the PoWs was generally poor, sometimes openly hostile. This is clear from the numerous violations of the Geneva Conventions, a feature of Italy’s management of the PoWs, caused mainly by the material incapacity of the country to provide for its citizens or its prisoners. Moreover, the Italian captors also committed more war crimes than one might imagine.
The Italian imprisonment of the Allied PoWs ended with the Armistice in September 1943, when several thousand men managed to avoid capture by the Germans thanks to the crucial help of the civilian population. Some of them took part in the Resistance, together with local partisans.
Thousands of other PoWs, instead, ended up in German hands and were deported to PoW camps in Germany.
(by Eugenia Corbino and Nicola Cacciatore)
The prisoners whose captivity ended on 8 September 1943 began a long and difficult path to survive and avoid recapture by the Germans. The first step was escaping from the PoW camps, where they had been held for short or long periods.
The portal “Allies in Italy” offers a selection of 40 stories of Allied PoWs who escaped from the 60-plus PoW camps analysed in the “camps” section. It describes what happened to those who escaped beyond the barbed wire.
The stories aim to document the various experiences of the escapees in Italy. They describe the hard choice between fighting and fleeing (often conditioned by the orders they received in the PoW camp); the path they took; the crucial help they received from the local population; the relationships they created with the Italians; and their participation in the Resistance.
Many escapees were able to cross the border into Switzerland or the Front line in the South and reach Allied-controlled territory and return home. Others, instead, were recaptured and deported to Germany. However, some stories ended tragically, with the death of the escapee.
The stories were selected according to the documents available, which will be briefly described, and by attempts to unearth unknown or lesser-known events. The reader will appreciate how varying the escapees’ experiences in Italy were.
As a tool intended for the general public, the stories are written in clear and straightforward language, using quotes from the PoWs’ memories, interviews, and reports produced during or after their escape. Moreover, where possible, the stories also include pictures and photos. In all stories, it is possible to follow the itinerary of the escapees through occupied Italy thanks to a map. Finally, where possible, the authors have mentioned the names of those who helped the PoWs, the so-called “helpers”, often farmers (contadini), to bring to light those who spontaneously supported these hunted men.
Hopefully, this section will bring even more unknown stories to light through user feedback.