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Italian POWs in South Africa - Zonderwater

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North Africa was probably one of the fronts most neglected both by Hitler and Mussolini during the Second World War.

The conflict began with a few skirmishes along the border in June 1940 and ended in May 1943 with the surrender of the Axis troops in Tunisia. But this theatre of war certainly was not of secondary importance given the number of soldiers involved in the fighting, the increasing number of events that took place, the consequences of these events in respect of the European scenario and finally, the fact that these arid deserts were the site of the first truly bloody battles of the war.

Rommel was recalled to the homeland by Hitler as he was trying to break through to El Alamein and reach the Suez Canal in order to arrive at the oil wells of the Middle East. But the person sent to replace him temporarily compromised the Italian-German offensive by erroneous decisions and by the time Rommel hastily returned in October, he was left with no choice other than to order German troops to withdraw. The Italians were left with the thankless task of protecting the flight of its ally. In May 1943 the dream of the “fourth flank” vanished.

After the battle of Sidi El Barrani (December 1940), as part of Operation Compass, English troops found themselves in a hostile environment. The solution, almost inevitable, was offered by its joint state of war with the Commonwealth of South Africa, whose government, headed by Jan Smuts, had rejected neutrality and even an alliance with the Kingdom of Italy and with the Third Reich, by a narrow margin.

Thus it was that many Italian prisoners in Egypt were embarked in Suez on the same ships that, in the opposite direction, had brought troops to the Mediterranean front. The prisoners were disembarked in Durban and taken to numerous prison camps in what was and still is the largest state, South Africa. The white minority in power, in part of British origin, ensured loyalty to the Crown and guardianship of the vast territory.


The largest of these camps

Actually the largest Italian prisoner of war camp anywhere during the entire conflict was Zonderwater, which in the Boer language means “without water ". It’s not easy to find on maps of the Gauteng Region, known as the Transvaal up to 1994, capital Johannesburg.

  • Beginning in the spring of 1941, the first ten thousand prisoners coming from the fronts of Ethiopia and Eritrea were brought to this desolate and arid wilderness, shaped like an amphitheatre, near the Cullinan mine (where in 1905 the largest rough diamond in the world was found, weighing 3,106.75 carats). //
  • At the time the barracks had not been built yet and the soldiers had to sleep out in the open in tents and endure harsh treatment by the guards. Food was scarce according to the super partes reports of the International Red Cross; confirmed by the diaries and letters of prisoners that had escaped censorship, prisoners whose number quickly rocketed upwards.
  • By the end of the following year Colonel Hendrik Frederik Prinsloo was put in charge of the camp. When he was a child Col. Prinsloo had been interned in a concentration camp by the English during the Anglo-Boer War and thus he had firsthand experience with the harshness of segregation.
  • Because of this he displayed a sense of strength and humanity by having the prisoners themselves build a small city of 14 Blocks, each with 4 Camps of 2,000 men each, each camp having 24 barracks with sheet metal roofs. An agglomeration destined to hold over 100,000 soldiers, with 30 km of roads, mess halls, theatres, schools, gyms, where the internees could be kept occupied and avoid hunger and despair; there were also hospitals with over 3,000 beds and churches where military chaplains tried to impose a minimum of discipline that other officers, sent to India in disregard of the Geneva Convention, could no longer provide.

Inside the Blocks

Surrounded by barbed wire fencing and guarded by armed sentries on raised platforms, the p.o.w. (prisoners of war) could circulate freely, but it was still a prison. Some POWs went literally mad and were hospitalized in a special unit of the hospital. Some attempted to escape toward Mozambique, where there was an Italian Consulate, but once recaptured they were sent to the “red house” for 28 days, where they suffered harsh punishment. // All the prisoners were counted (sometimes even two months after capture, a period during which the soldier was declared as “lost”) and a clinical record compiled for each, regardless of his health status. Copies of these cards are still preserved by the Associazione Zonderwater Block ex POW, thanks to copies that had been providentially made of cards that had been sent on a ship bound for Italy and that was unfortunately sunk.

Frequently the prisoners were transferred from one block to another. This procedure followed very specific ideological criteria after September 8, 1943, when the understandable tensions of exacerbated souls sharpened according to the various political orientations of the soldiers. Some chose to collaborate with their captors and were sent to work outside the camp, in various activities, and for them life was less difficult; others remained loyal to their oath and preferred to wait for repatriation in spite of the uncertainty of food and general conditions. But repatriation was not achieved by 252 of these prisoners: they rest in the cemetery that, together with the museum, chapel and a monument called The Three Arches (today a symbol of the camp) now represent a little corner of Italian soil in South Africa, all that remains after the departure of the last p.o.w. in 1947, when the sheds were torn down and the camp dismantled.

Here, every first Sunday of November, the Italian community comes together in the presence of diplomatic authorities of both countries to commemorate the approximately 109,000 soldiers who, ten thousand kilometers from Italy, sacrificed part of their youth as they waited and yearned for their return home.


List of POW

See List of Italian POW

Italian POW in other locations

PMB Camp, From Durban they were passed throug here to Zonderwater.

Keerwater Camp, 1500 POW for construction of Du Toit’s Kloof Pass.

Worcester Camp. From here they were placed out to farmes in the now Western Cape Province farms.


Zonderwater camp

Military History of Zonderwater

Zonderwater, a concentration camp

The Story of Zonderwater

Building of roads **