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Thursday 7 July, 2016
One of my early memories of WWII is of photographs and newsreels showing tens of thousands of Italian soldiers captured in North Africa. Of roughly 400,000, about 18,000 were brought to Australia as Prisoners of War (POW’s).
Early impressions of Australia must have been inauspicious. Disembarking in Sydney, they travelled by train, probably at night, to Hay in New South Wales. There, one of a number of camps in Australia had been established for interned civilian “enemy aliens” and German, Italian and later, Japanese POW’s. Far from the fighting in North Africa, Hay is isolated, cold in winter, hot in summer and prone to huge, billowing dust-storms. The first Italian POW’s arrived there in mid-1941.
By mid-1942, some had transferred to South Australia’s Loveday Camp on the Murray near Barmera. Accommodating 5,000, this camp was run by the militia. Here POW’s and internees established a self-sufficient market garden, felled wood for the boiler in the local electricity plant, cultivated opium and insecticidal pyrethrum for Australian military medical needs, and grew experimental crops of guayule, (Parthenium argentatum) commonly called “desert rubber plant”, an aster family flowering shrub high in latex content.
Like most Australians, I didn’t know this at the time. Nor did I know that manpower shortages resulted in Italian POW’s working as fettlers on the East West Railway. Based at Cook, some 300 replaced sleepers over miles of track; they were reliable, hard-working, unlikely escapees and rare trouble-makers.
These attributes were crucial to the government decision to employ Italian POW’s to boost agricultural production. After Japan entered the war, farmers desperately needed help and substitutes for workers leaving the land to join fighting forces. The Australian Women’s Land Army was far too small to fill the gap. Feeding Australian and American servicemen and women, and Australian civilians, was a priority that could only be met using POW labour. Italian POW’s, often from the land themselves, were ideal.
Farmers were invited to apply for POW labour. Subject to satisfactory security checks, they were allocated one POW, sometimes two. Those allocated were issued identity cards and fed, accommodated and paid by farmers. The scheme, with 12 “Control Centres” in SA ranging from Mt. Gambier to Tumby Bay, was run by the Militia (since 1980 known as Australian Army Reserve). Each Centre was responsible for about 100 men. A Centre in Willunga, then a small country town, was located in what had been the Church of Christ in High Street.
According to a “Twentieth Century Survey 1928-1945” dated 2008, the scheme started in April 1943. By March 1945, eighteen months after Italy capitulated and changed allegiances, it involved 13,000 POW’s, some 70% of Italian POW’s in Australia. Seemingly, by then all were volunteers totalling almost four times Australian Women’s Land Army numbers. Fifteen hundred worked on farms and properties in SA.
At the time, unlike most Australians then and now, I knew from my Father that Italian POW’s lived and worked on farms in SA. Dad was Horticultural Adviser in the Department of Agriculture. Among other things, he supervised government contract vegetable-growing in the Adelaide Hills and met quite a few of them.
The first I saw, probably in 1943 school holidays, was wearing a purple-dyed (officially “burgundy” coloured) Australian army uniform and was standing under trees by the road near the top of Willunga Hill – by-passed these days by the A13, but not by “Tour Down Under”. Subsequently I met soberly dressed POW’s working on farms and properties visited with Dad.
The colourfully clad man I saw on Willunga Hill is a vivid memory and cogent reminder of the vital contribution 13,000+ Italian POW’s and internees, (the latter not addressed in this “Think Piece”), made to Australia’s agricultural production in WWII.