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Italian internment in Australia during World War II

Kevin, C. A History of Italian Settlement in New South Wales

During World War 1, many Italians living in Australia served in the Italian or Australian armies, a number with distinction. Dr Tommaso Fiaschi, for example, earned official recognition for his service at the Australian field hospital during the Boer War and then went on to fight with both the Italian and Australian armies during World War I. These international conflicts did not impact on the status of Italians in Australia. The Second World War however, did this dramatically. The influx of Italians in the 1920s combined with the rise of Fascism in Italy provoked discussion of Italian immigration in the various Australian parliaments. Italian immigration was construed in a negative light and unemployment figures were drawn on to bemoan the rising number of Italians in Australia.

In the same period Mussolini was clear in his insistence that Italian emigrants, naturalised Australians or not, were to remain Italians. Shortly after his rise to power, the Italian Department of Emigration was supplanted by a new service within the Foreign Office. Consuls were told to ensure that Mussolini's policy was achieved and Vice-Consuls were put in place to disseminate knowledge of Fascism among Italian immigrants in Australia. Italians in Australia were to become an asset to Mussolini's political ventures. Social clubs and celebrations reifying Fascist ideals were strongly supported by Italian authorities in Australia. Some of the centres of Fascist activity in Sydney have already been discussed. Only those immigrants stationed far from towns and city centres managed to miss the effect of developing Fascism, and only those without dependents and family in Italy could afford to be openly anti-fascist, though many others took this risk.

When news of the declaration of war reached Australia on June 11 1940, most Italians had been forewarned that Italy would enter on the side of Germany, which meant that their status in Australia was liable to be jeopardised in new ways. Many were not surprised when Australian police and security officers came to arrest Italian men. The methods of identification, arrest and internment had been formulated in August 1939 just prior to the passing of the corresponding legislation. Internment was carried out on a large scale. In most areas Italian blood was considered reason enough for arrest, regardless of one's political persuasion. Even naturalised British subjects were arrested. In 1942 the number of Italians interned in Australia reached a wartime high of 3 651. But thereafter as the danger of Japanese invasion subsided, they were gradually released, and by September 1944, only 135 hard core fascists remained in the internment camps.

Political alliances and conflict among internees became a prominent part of camp life. Between 1940 and 1943, increasing manifestations of Fascist and Nazi sympathies were reported by security officers at the camps. The Australian Minister for Information carried out an inquiry which alleged that 'the influence exercised by camp leaders and their supporters over other internees operat(ed) to cause many internees of no firm political belief to continue their adherence to our enemies. And that 'the camp leaders had not shrunk even from the use of physical violence if that be necessary to maintain their dominance. At the internment camp at Hay, evidence of threats and intimidation meted out to anti-Fascists by Fascist internees lead to the separation of the two political factions by the building of a barbed wire fence across the camp. In 1942 Jewish internees were also separated from the openly Fascist prisoners.

Secondary reports repeatedly suggest that the treatment of internees was reasonable and that life in the interment camps was not physically gruelling. In his autobiography, Claudio Alcorso remembers the shock not only of being arrested at his textile factory, in spite of his expressions of support for the Australian forces and his offer to serve in the airforce. He also recalls the physical conditions at Long Bay Gaol and then at the Orange Showground where he spent a couple of very cold months before being transported to the more favourable environs of the Hay camp. He describes the latter's physical character in the following way:

The camp had just been built and was completely bare;

whatever grasses or shrubs might have been present

were destroyed during construction. There was only

beige clay, light-coloured timber huts with silvery

corrugated-iron roofs, a wide ring of grey barbed

wire and a blue immense sky. It was adequate and

functional… It was designed to house 2000 people;

the huts were arranged in concentric circles, 30 people

to a hut sleeping in tiered bunks.

At camps across Australia there was generally an infirmary and a canteen, a school hut and workshop, a devotional hut and a library. Menus had been fixed by common agreement between the authorities and the Italians, and relations between the prisoners and Australian troops in charge were cordial. At the Hay camp a healthy water supply from the Murrumbidgee meant that internees were able to establish their own-vegetable gardens in the spaces between the huts. Much of Alcorso's time at Hay was spent strolling in discussion with other interned men, playing cards and tending his garden. There is no mention of work until he was transferred to the Loveday camp in South Australia.

From the Liverpool internment and POW camp prisoners were transported daily by military trucks to and from the prison to perform agricultural work in the outlying areas. At Hay occupations included shaping bricks in the brickworks, building bridges and tending vegetable gardens. In the Cowra internment and POW camp there was a vineyard, olive groves and orchards, the tending of which constituted much of the work done by prisoners.

Many of those interned were forced to leave their wives and families to fend for themselves in a hostile Australia at war with their homeland. Maria Paoloni was compelled to abandon the family business in Balmain when her husband Gino was interned and vandalism and abuse from locals compounded the difficulties of combining motherhood and breadwinning as a single parent. Business had dropped off significantly and amidst violent racism Maria feared for her children. She was forced to travel in search of work and a place to stay, eventually finding both on a farm at the edge of the city. Maria worked hard for very little and only by soliciting the help of Catholic authorities was she able to speed up the release of her husband which brought economic and emotional relief. There are many families who had to negotiate the difficulties of wartime Australia outside of the prison camp whose stories are yet to be documented.

The second largest group of Italians to be held in captivity during the Second World War were prisoners of war captured in North and East Africa. While residing in the camps they were occupied with the kinds of tasks described above for those interned. June 1944 saw the beginning of employment of the POW volunteers, unguarded, on individual farms and in rural industry. An ABC radio interview with former POWs and former POW employers reveals that friendships often developed between the employing families and the POWs. Some of the workers were included in family holidays and many shared with them their daily evening meal. One of the former employers interviewed recounted putting together packages of dress material to send to the wives and daughters of the POWs on her property. A strong fear of the bush and reasonably comfortable living situations meant that the chances of attempted escape were minimal.

On return to Italy, many POWs who had been stationed on farms and in rural industry applied to return to Australia. One such POW was Michele Laricchia who was captured by the allied forces in Egypt in December 1940. He was held in India until the Italians surrendered in 1943 and Laricchia and his fellow prisoners went to the POW camp in Cowra. He spent three months at this camp before being sent to- North Queensland to work on farms. Here he began to learn English and develop a friendship of sorts with at least one of the men he worked for. At the war's end Laricchia, reluctantly repatriated, found himself in a war ravaged Italy where he knew virtually no one. In time he was able to borrow the money to return to Australia and establish himself in Griffith.

Reproduced with permission of the NSW Heritage Office.

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