2/3rd POW’s In Italy In WW2
Summary of 2/3rd ALAA Regiment Prisoners of War in Italy in Second World War
by Katrina Kittel
Katrina Kittel is a Graduate Historian member of the Professional Historians of Australia, and can be contacted via email@example.com.
As part of the overall total of approximately 2000 Australians who became prisoners of war held in Italy, 90 men have been identified from the 2/3 LAA Regiment. This number is approximate and may be refined with further information and with reference to records held by the Regiment Association. This summary of a number of 3LAA veterans who became prisoners of war will draw much from the words of the veterans.
Alex Barnett VX41455 set about the task of writing his memories into a book, “Hitler’s Digger Slaves”, after his retirement as a pharmacist. It is a valuable recount of the events that befell Alex and his mates during service in North Africa, and as prisoners of war. Alex described some of the action for Eighth Battery on 7 April 1941, the day that he was taken prisoner of war. Where identifiable, the service numbers for men mentioned by Alex are inserted in brackets within the following extract from p. xiii of his book.
“It seemed a miracle that the guns were still firing. The Panzer Units circled and relentlessly closed in. One gun was blown from the truck. The others were fast running out of ammunition. Sergeant Adams’ (VX44744) gun together with that commanded by Bombardier Neil Sloane (VX31655) continued firing. Gunners Charlie Little (VX48658), Ken Clements (VX25827), the twins Mick and Darcy Edwards (VX32445), Lew Potter (VX31007), Russ Morres (VX29826), Norm Colson (VX21603) and myself were kept busy manning the guns and acting as ammunition numbers until such time as supplies were exhausted. Our gun crews showed great courage keeping the guns firing under such difficult and dangerous conditions. The guns of Sergeant Tom Hawke (VX40783 Hawkes) and Bombardier David Syme (VX38984) were on fire and out of action. Their gun crews had no weapons for defence and still under heavy fire scrambled from the burning wrecks to take cover behind low rocks which offered no protection. Lieutenant Chester Guest (VX14424), revolver in hand, fired an occasional shot, moved among his men, called targets and directed the action.” Lieutenant Colonel “Spike Marlin of the 2/15 Battalion consulted with Lt. Guest, and they were compelled to surrender to avoid a massacre of the men. Alex paid tribute in these pages to Gunner Les Wilkin (VX38513) who was killed as he attempted to speed away on his motorcycle to raise the alarm. Les was 21 years old. Tribute was also paid by Alex Barnett to Sergeant Arthur Adams VX44744 who, on recommendation of Lt.Col. Marlin, was awarded a Military Medal in 1948.
Another significant date for the Regiment was 29 May 1941. The National Archives digitised service file for Leo Armitage VX37549 carries a Statement on which Leo refers to be taken prisoner of war with the 3LAA regiment on 29 May 1941. Leo wrote on his Statement that “During the evacuation of Crete, I was on the HMS Hereward which was bombed by Stukas and the ship was sunk. After being in the water 6 – 8 hours, I was picked up by M.T.B.’s on 29 May 1941”. He was “picked up by Italians”, in the Kaso Straits off Crete, and was held on the Isle of Rhodes from 3 June to 18 July, according to a Report given by Leo in 1944. Henry Greive VX31219, former fisherman, was captured the same day. Henry’s 1944 POW Statement reiterates the above and also mentions the men who he recalled were with him at the time – Norman Inglis VX44067 and Thomas Clifford VX47792. William Dellar VX37219 in a letter to the Army in 1979 also summarised this day of capture and four years of overseas captivity. “I was with members of my troop manning Bofor guns defending the aerodrome at Heraklion on Crete, evacuated from Crete on the British destroyer ‘Hereward’,picked up by Italian motor torpedo boats when it was sunk by German bombers, and spent just on four years in Italian and German prisoner of war camps.”
Clarence Mannix VX37269 was another veteran who wrote of 29 May 1941: “Whilst in the sea, one of my mates looked like drowning (Gnr. T. Chadwick) and happened to be near him and helped him to pull through.” Clarence recorded on his 1945 POW Statement that Gunner Edwin “Ted” Rawlins VX48557 drowned on 29 May 1941.
In a memoir held at the Australian War Memorial, William “Bill” Waller VX47958 recalled that lifeboats had been destroyed and it was every man for himself, with hands used to paddle floats. Bill did not think he would survive that day. “I was engaged to be married and that among other plans did not look like taking place.” He described his capture/rescue from the sea as “landed like a fish”.
With him were his 3LAA mates, Leonard “Len” Woolcock VX47950 and Malcolm Webster VX23397. Bill Waller, in a 1944 report, said that he was held on the Isle of Rhodes from 29 May to 20 June.
Leo Arnitage, a former textile dyer from Brunswick, was removed from Rhodes in July 1941 and transported to Italy to be held in several camps including the notorious prison camp PG57 Grupignano. Leo reported “unfair collective punishment” and the withholding of Red Cross Parcels by camp authorities. Henry Greive reported the same but added that he was “tied and handcuffed for 3 days”. Harold Lucas VX28382, one the older 3LAA veterans, born in 1899, reported the same punishment. The vast majority of 3LAA prisoners held in Italy were to be interned at PG57 at some stage. A small number of the 3LAA men were however held at an officer’s camp at Sulmona, PG78. Records indicate that the PG78 men included John Bartlett VX37285, James Guest VX14424, Clarence Mannix VX37269, Cyril Speers VX34115 and Leonard Woolcock VX47950. Another small group were held at Chiavari PG52 including VX33008 Humphrey Anchen (who reported being moved from PG57 to PG52 in February 1942), James Anderson VX25053, George Batty VX44432, Colin Bremner VX32474, Reginald Crawley VX26135.
Armitage, Greive, Clifford and Inglis were moved on from Grupigano in April 1943 to the rice growing area between Turin and Milan. Malcolm Webster and William “Bill’ Waller, their relocation to the ricefields meant leaving their mate “Len” Woolcock behind. Malcolm and Bill were also separated as were allocated to different farm camps. This new internment was under the PG106 complex of working farms. Although a precise number is not clear, perusal of service files, British War Office POW lists and other records indicates that over half of the 3LAA POW cohort in Italy were included in the group moved on to the Vercelli region. On the whole, this was a stroke of good fortune for these men. The men were to receive improved food rations in these working camps, and were able to be amongst Italian workers, male and female, during their working day. This gave them opportunities for interaction, and for information about the changing context and progress of the war.
Opportunity to escape became a real possibility, with the promulgation of news of an Armistice signed between Italy and the Allies, about 8 September 1943. With the announcement of the Armistice, there was general turmoil and confusion, with a number of camps being abandoned by Italian guards. It is known that at least 16 3LAA men reached Switzerland after escape from PG106 camps. Armitage, Greive, Clifford made it in third week of September 1943, whereas Inglis was to arrive in early October. “Bill” Waller included descriptions of several other 3LAA escapers in his company in northern Italy. “Jack” (John) Nicholson VX28557 was “a serious and capable redhead about my own age”. VX33099 “Tom” (Thomas) James and Allan Young VX47581 “were a little older”, and VX32728 Ernest Preiser was “the eldest, a plump forty years old.” Probably the last of the 3LAA escapers to make Swiss soil was VX47992 William Richardson who arrived two months after Inglis.
They were fortunate as most of the 3LAA POW Italy cohort were to be transferred to German captivity. In particular those who had remained at PG57 were not afforded opportunity to escape this camp after the Armistice announcement. One example of a 3LAA veteran who had the fortune to escape a PG106 camp and to spend time on the loose, only to be recaptured again, was William Garrigan VX32518.
The experiences and outcomes of the 3LAA Regiment POWs following the Italian Armistice are indicative, in general, of the wider Australian POW experience in Italy. Escapers sought assistance and shelter from brave families; and subsisted on low rations throughout their evasion. They crossed paths with various partisans of the Italian Resistance, which was very active during this tumultuous time in Italy. A November 1944 Interrogation Report on Reginald Crawley informs that he was with Humphrey Anchen at time of escape from a train taking them from PG52.
With Phipps, he was involved with partisans and later met American lines in mid-November 1944. Malcolm Webster, VX23397, was also involved with Italian Resistance activities in a different part of Italy. Malcolm had escaped camp with fellow 3LAA, VX48409 Roger Wettenhall, but Roger was arrested in early 1944 and taken to German captivity. Malcolm crossed paths with another 3LAA POW escaper William ”Bill” Wrigglesworth VX46959 within a partisan brigade blowing up bridges and ambushing Germans.