Nov 19, 2016

The Italian prisoners of war at Bangalore

Maddy @ Saturday, November 19, 2016
And the yellow tail from down under

Ironically, the story of the Italians arriving in Bangalore starts with the explosive success of a Bangalore invention called the Bangalore Torpedo, only that it was during the WW II attacks in Libya, the jewel of Mussolini’s crown. The unexpected Allied successes at the African western deserts of Libya and Egypt resulted in the capture of many thousands of Italian POW’s. Many were sent to work in Britain and South Africa. Officers who did not have to work according to the Geneva Convention (remember the dialog between Saito and Nicholson in ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’?) were the first to be sent to Indian Camp at Yol. The many tens of thousands of soldiers who followed were interned at various camps at Bangalore, Bhopal, Ramgarh and Dehra Dun. Some 22,000 of the so called group 1 landed up in Bangalore (Jalahalli, Jakkur and Hebbal). I will attempt to do a short study on this group and go on to trace the story of one prisoner who decided to do something else with his remaining life.

At the beginning of World War II the Italians military was ensconced in Libya. Mussolini had ordered his commander, Graziani, to attack the British in Egypt. His large army of 250,000 (though badly trained and ill equipped) faced a crack British force of barely 30,000 on torridly hot and dusty desert terrains. The British were led by two brilliant officers, Lt. Gen. Sir Richard O'Connor, who commanded the Western Desert Force, and Gen. Sir Archibald Wavell, supreme commander of Egypt. Operation Compass was O’Conner’s brainchild.

On 9 December 1940 the Western Desert Force attacked the Italian positions at Sidi Barrani overrunning them, and 38,000 Italian soldiers were taken prisoners. Later as the operation in the Arabian western deserts got underway, the ANZAC Australian troops rising early on 3 January 1941, ate a meal, drank a tot of rum and singing ‘South of the border down Mexico way’, (don’t ask me why) commenced the attack on the Italian XXIII Corps at Bardia for the next three days. Sappers blew gaps in the barbed wire with Bangalore torpedoes (12-foot pipes packed with ammonal which were slid under the barbed wire at 60 yards intervals) blowing the fences off.

The explosive charge called the Bangalore torpedo was developed in Bangalore by one Captain McClintock in 1912, which involved packing explosives in a tube (perhaps mimicking the old Mughal method of packing gunpowder in bamboo tubes) and used to blow up barbed wire fences by inserting it into the wire coils at the bottom. Such was the explosive effect in quickly breaching a fence that traditional time intensive wire cutting methods (the BT is still used by armies around the world and under the name Bangalore Torpedo) could be loudly done away with, when in a hurry.

The troops overran the Italian defenses, and eventually the Italian garrisons in the North surrendered after which about 25,000 prisoners were taken. The British allied troops lost only a few in these successful attacks. In the following months a half million Italians had surrendered. Many of these prisoners were destined to Bangalore, a place they would never ever have heard of.

Having achieved success in North Africa, the thoughts of the strategist and generals veered to the vexing problem of dealing with the prisoners. After much discussions and arguments, Wavell send a big lot of them to India. As we saw earlier, the officers went to live in relative comfort at Yol near Dharmasala, and the foot soldiers were sent off to Bangalore. Jalahalli which later became the location of the air force training school was the biggest of the POW camps housing the Italians. In all, over half a million Italian soldiers were taken prisoner during the Second World War and were sent to camps in Great Britain, the United States, North and South Africa, India and Australia. India accommodated in total more than 67,656 Italians, including over 11,000 officers.

In February 1941, about 2,200 Italian prisoners (mainly the ones captured at Sidi Barrani, Bardia and Tobruk campaigns) of war arrived in Bangalore after a weary ride on a special train and were marched to transit camps at Byramangala and Krishnarajapura. They were then moved to tent camps at Jalahalli the largest of them, Jakkur and also at Hebbal. By Nov 1941, around 22,000 prisoners (18,500 soldiers and 3,500 officers) lived in Bangalore, nearly half of the total 45,676 sent to India. Camps 1-6 in Bangalore were occupied by soldiers while 7 & 8 were occupied by officers. In total Jalahalli, Jakkur and Hebbal were home to a total of 8 camps.

For the next two years they were held in captivity and in 1943, following Italy’s surrender were
Original tent camp 1941
allowed a higher degree of freedom until 1945/46, as hostilities of the WW II ceased, were repatriated back home in troop ships. The International Red Cross photo library provides some detail of the life at the Jalahalli camps and the overall picture is not too bad. Initially they lived in open tents and thatched hutments and the prisoners had their kitchen, garden, pigs and sheep to tend. They had a laundry arrangement and a church, bathing areas, and recreation such as soccer and boxing.

They even constructed a large framework where a white sheet was strung across to show European movies (Bangaloregirl mentions that Ramalingam Mudaliar and his son had a contract to screen films brought in from Europe). They had a hospital building, were dressed in khakhi shorts and shirts, ‘sola-topi’ hats, though donning trousers for formal occasions such as Sunday mass, in their makeshift church. They made curios and musical instruments to while away time, and some took to gardening and growing chickens and pigs One collected and built up a bottled library of various types of snakes and there is even a story of an Italian who picked up a coiled cobra thinking it was a tennikoit (remember that game anybody?) ring and got bitten.

Frame used to sling a white sheet to project movies
Unlike Italian prisoners sent to London or South Africa, the POW’s did not have too much work except for building reinforced barracks for themselves (by 1942 the tents were replaced by thatched huts) and mostly led a boring and forgettable existence for two years. They had representations and evangelical radio messages beamed from the Vatican. Some did make attempts to escape as is narrated in a novel ‘Latin lovers’ by Ottone Menato, a soldier who spent his time in Bangalore.

The camps had barbed wire fence and armed sentries, Indian soldiers from the looks of it. I could also identify local Indian labor from some of the pictures, for delivering water, other menial jobs and were also perhaps used as help. Neatly laid out graves with crosses were the temporary abodes of those who departed for ever from Bangalore. I am not sure if these gravesites are still there in Jalahalli.

Playing Soccer
The inter-camp football matches were well attended with a lot of spectators on the sidelines and the teams can be seen properly dressed for the game, with canvas shoes and uniforms. The boxing teams show very healthy, muscular men with cross countenances and even wearing regular boxing gloves and shoes! So the British did take reasonable care of them.

Many others not too fond of rough and tussle in the field preferred to play chess (with regular wooden chess pieces) in their tents. We see that in the initial stages, they had bedding laid out on the ground, but in later photos, they seem to have used rope lined charpoys or Indian village cots. The brass band seemed to be a popular pastime with some youngsters learning to blow bugles. They had a canteen from which tinned goods could be purchased, but I am not sure if alcohol was ever served, though hooch service existed, as will be seen later. Special credit notes and temporary currency took care of their subsistence within the camps.The notes were printed alike with the name of the camp over printed or over stamped.  Bangalore issued denominations of 1, 2, 4, and 8 annas and 1,2, and 5 rupees.

In the kitchen, they made their own spaghetti and even obtained fish for their dishes! For contrast, it is interesting to read a comment from a letter of an Italian internee at Lameroo “These people demand so much of us Italians, and they would like to treat us as Indians – work without eating”.

Some amount of subversion of the non-fascist members of this motley group was planned by the British SOE and the so called Mazzini team of five Italians were to be inserted in these camps. It did not quite work out as planned and the idea was scuttled early enough, but the head of the team, an American Italian doctor (educated in Paris) named Lucio Tarchiani was later commissioned by the Intelligence Corps in March 1942, to serve as an interpreter and liaison officer at the POW camps at Bangalore and Dehra Dun.

Somewhere along the way a few of these POW’s strayed further south, albeit temporarily and ended up making a lovely Italian garden within the precincts of the botanical gardens at Ootacamund (Oooty) which can be seen to this day.

As we saw, the original camps were tent camps and it is mentioned that the Bangalore NST group supplied and/or erected the tents for these makeshift camps for the Italians towards the end of 1940. They were as you can imagine hastily constructed and the lack of good sanitation resulted in epidemics of bowel diseases such as enteric fever, dysentery and cholera. They were quickly contained.

Muthiah’s lovely book on the Spencer’s of Madras mentions that they provided catering to this camp at some point of time (perhaps for the officers?). Later when I saw the list of rations supplied to them, I could figure out that it did require an organization such as the Spencer’s to supply large amounts of imported goods. The Italians were placed on peace scale British standard rations and were given a cash allowance of 3 ½ annas per head each day! The working men got 4 ¾ annas per day. From the military records we can observe that a large number of prisoners were recalcitrant and did not cooperate resulting in them being maintained on a reduced ration (even then they had meat daily, fish, eggs, fresh butter, fruits and fresh vegetables, corn, onions, semolina, jam, milk and what not).

Rations were reduced somewhat during the 1945 famine but desirable items were available in the canteen for purchase. Some of these supplies were made by Nilgiri’s. Chenniappan of Nilgiri’s  states - "During World War 2, we had a good supply of butter to the military camps in Jalahalli, there were Italian prisoners there who laid roads and played football with the local team! There were also part-time wounded soldiers who needed good quality butter and we were the only people who supplied that quality."


In 1942 the Quit India movement was launched and started to gather momentum, and by 1944 the Bangalore palace construction was finally completed. Ravi idly (so they say) was invented by MTR to tide over rice shortages. Right hand drive lorries arrived at Bangalore all the way from America, to serve the Americans housed (serving the war cause) in Bangalore city and gashol (petrol and ethyl alcohol mixture) was used for vehicles. The first time football was played in Bangalore, according to lore and legend was at the garrison ground opposite MG Road where Italian prisoners clad in boots played against the barefoot locals. This was followed by games at the YMCA ground, the corporation ground in Austin Town and other grounds.

Between 1943 and 1944, after Italy surrendered to the Allies, the prisoners were allowed to roam around and some of them did turn out to be a nuisance for old-timers of Bangalore. Women were somewhat scared, with rumors floating around of women being kidnapped and taken to the camps, and they were kind of unruly in the movie theaters, but others did well, partaking in merriment, dancing at Funnels in Brigade road, competing in boxing matches or even helping form Soccer teams. They could be seen ambling past Brigade road, being allowed to shop only at specific shops.

The Italians loved romancing the many European women, dancing and football as is oft stated by the jealous old timers of Bangalore, especially those who chat about those days. Margaret Ledger, a Nurse mentions this in her memoirs “They were Italians who were captured in North Africa, who were employed in general duties.  They were very polite, but enjoyed hiding away from work. One day three of them had disappeared, and I went to search for them, because we were short of staff. They were sitting outside the Quartermaster’s Stores. I told them to come back to the ward. In a chorus of three voices, they replied “Madam, we do not make war, we make love!”

Boxing was of particular interest to these Italian soldiers and Bangalore rose to fame with keenly contested matches at the Opera house (Residency Rd), Hollywood city, Garrison sports ground and the Globe theater to name a few. As narrated in Samyukta Harshita- The matches were generally held in the evenings and continued till the night. Prices of tickets started at Rs. 6 for a ring side seat. Soldiers fought soldiers and soldiers fought civilians too. The American ‘Gunboat Joe’ was a famous boxer of that era.

The POW camps at Bangalore and Dehra Dun were closed on 15th September 1944. By this time the camp was a well laid out affair and fully self-contained and the Jalahalli camp gave way to what was in those days known as Hospital town, the largest hospital complex in the world and meant to tend to the huge numbers of British and Indians injured from the Burmese battles.

As such, the original tent town had been transformed by the Italians in the two years they stayed there - The original camps consisted of rather hastily erected huts, with walls of native basha  (Basha: the ubiquitous Indian building material of pliable dried palm fronds – thatched roof made of coconut palm leaves) work.

Their foundations, roofs, and timber were retained, but the walls were stripped and brick walls erected. Timber supports were embedded in concrete to prevent destruction by white ants. The huts thus completed were light and airy, attractively painted, and had wide verandas on either side. Each accommodated some 40 patients and contained duty rooms, sanitary annexes, and ward kitchens as well. Covered ways connected the surgical wards and operating-theatres, and there were flower gardens between the wards, which made the outlook for the patients more attractive.

Rene Thompson a nurse records - The Maharajah of Mysore had been building as a leper colony, before the army took over Jalahalli. We started to get returned prisoners from Japan, who were being assessed for the journey home. One man had inserted a piece of airplane in his leg himself, so he could walk. So it was, in the beginning of 1944, in order to accommodate casualties expected from South-East Asia, this camp was chosen as the site for a complex capable of taking about 10,000 patients at a time, both British and Indian (you will recall that in those days they got different treatment, just like different rations). Rather than build a large unit anew it was decided to convert these Italian POW camps to hospital buildings. The site was ideal from the medical point of view, while buildings and essential services (electric power, water, and sewage disposal) were already in existence. When built, eight hospitals and ancillary units occupied the area with each camp having a hospital of 1000 or 1200 beds. These units took in weary and wounded soldiers, almost dead from the death march across Burma and into India.

Some Italians hung around, Fred’s letters mention an Italian music troupe which played a band at the hospital and did well for a time. Many others took up odd jobs such as washing dishes and so on. The hospital town continued for some time and one Englishman who worked there poignantly records the words of his orderly at the end. "War finis," he asserted with an all-embracing wave of his hand, "English sahibs go: you sahib, you sahib, all go. Tig hai. Leave army."

The hospital complex became home to an Indian air force base and training school after independence in 1947. BEL, HMT and other organizations moved in to the area and the Italians who once lived there were soon forgotten. Perhaps some of them reminisced about that not so tropical sojourn during the war years, of the Indians and the funny places named as such by the English like Brigade, Residency, St Marks and so on, of the Funnels dancing floor and bouts with the great gunboat jack. Some Italians mention it as a horrible period of their life, but naturally, for they were prisoners of war. Some changed for the better, some lived the rest of their lives quietly and bit the dust. One did better than all of them.

So we now zoom rapidly into the story of that internee from one of these Bangalore camps. This bloke was named Fillippo Casella and he spent six years or thereabouts in Bangalore. His days in Bangalore are not well documented or retold, I can only hope that his now famous family may step forward and provide details, but from what I read, the brief snapshot below is his astounding story of perseverance, hard work and foresight.

When Filippo was born in 1920 to Guiseppe and Rosa, Italy was certainly not doing well and as the world war enveloped all of Europe, Filippo volunteered for military service in 1939. He was selected to serve in the Bersaglieri, the elite of the Italian Army, as a radio operator. The Bersaglieri were of above-average size and stamina, endured intense physical training and had to qualify as marksmen. 

Whilst fighting in Libya, he was captured and after journeying across North Africa eventually became resident of a prisoner of one of the war camps in Bangalore, India in 1941. It is said that Filippo put his alcohol-making talents to use, making a still and producing spirit using local fruit, such as papaya and raisins, for his fellow prisoners at Bangalore. He also used the opportunity wisely to study and learn English, French, math and history.

In Nov 1946, returning home after six long years, Filippo found a Sicily changed by time and war. Filippo the blue eyed, eventually married blonde haired Maria Patane of Sciara and took to tending vines in order to contribute to the family income but then again, life was even harder in war torn Sicily. The White Australia program allowing white Europeans to migrate to Australia was a golden opportunity which beckoned Filippo.

He immigrated to Australia in 1957 and worked hard for the next five or six years, with his wife and two children joining him later. After years of share-farming, cane-cutting and tobacco growing, the Casella family made a permanent home in Yenda in 1966, starting their own little vineyard (they purchased this property # 1471 for $19,000) called Casella wines. They supplied wine to bottlers in Queensland for the next 20 years. In 1990 Filippo suffered a heart attack and underwent a triple bypass. At this juncture, the family were faced with a crucial decision, whether to dispose of the business or not. As it happens in many an entrepreneurial family, the responsibility was passed on to John Casella, Filippo’s son.

John, Filippo’s son who had studied wine making at Wiggi Wagga and was trained with Australian wine makers such as Riverina wines, joined the family business in 1994. The legendary Yellow tail (The Yellow Tail logo incidentally depicts the yellow-footed rock wallaby, a relative of kangaroo) wine from the Casella vineyards at Yenda was formally created in 2001, for the US market, and 225,000 cases were sent out the first year. By 2006 sales rose to 8 million cases and the rest is history. The yellow tail is the signature brand and I myself can testify to the fine properties of their Shiraz and Sangria wines and I have a few in the wine cabinet at all times.

Today the Casella legacy has grown from the original fifty acre property to over thirty five wine-growing regions across Australia, including some of the best vineyards down under. It is a multibillion dollar business today.

Casella’s Yellow Tail is, I believe, savored in Bangalore these days and with that I must conclude that Fillippo’s circle of life is complete. His fellow Italians who drank his hooch at Bangalore would have been be the first to cheer. Perhaps Filippo himself, looking from up above would be smiling at the people of that land which gave him some relief during a war, a war in which he could indeed have lost his life.

References

The British Empire and its Italian Prisoners of War, 1940–1947 - Bob Moore and Kent Fedorowich
Enforced Diaspora: The Fate of Italian Prisoners of War during the Second World War - Bob Moore
From Tobruk to Clare: the experiences of the Italian prisoner of war Luigi Bortolotti 1941-1946 - Desmond O’Connor
English for Nurses - Nitin Bhatnagar
Official history of the Indian Armed Forces in the Second World War 1939-45. Medical Services B L Raina ( Volumes - Preventive medicine and Administration)
A Toast to Bargain Wines: How Innovators, Iconoclasts, and Winemaking Revolutionaries Are Changing the Way the World Drinks - George M. Taber
Currencies at the camps 1, 2
Italian families who want to track down internees can refer to this link – 1,
Hindu articles 1, 2


Notes

The pictures posted are the property of ICRC, the international committee of Red Cross. Please do not copy and reuse without permission or share