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Above: Maurice French (at center) on top of the Pyramid at Giza. (This photo from the online Cenotaph Database (Auckland War Memorial Museum) was provided to the database by Maurice French).
I received a note on July 9 from Miriam McDonald. “I came across your website looking for more information on my grandfather’s experience in the war,” she explained.
“His name was Maurice Ernest French (known by his army friends as ‘Snow’), a New Zealander in the 27th machine gun battalion 2NZEF.”
Miriam wondered if I knew of her grandfather and if I had any record of his time spent in Camp 59.
I had never heard of Maurice French. In fact, this is the first evidence any New Zealanders in the camp I had come upon.
Part of the difficulty in documenting New Zealanders was the fact they are not listed separately in WW II prison records from that time.
Giuseppe Millozzi, in Allied Prisoners of War in the Region of the Marche and Prison Camp at Servigliano, notes that the Italian military authority list of internees did not distinguish between British and other nationalities (the general breakdown listed only British, Americans, and French). Irish, Canadians, Cypriots, New Zealanders, Australians, Poles, South Africans, Palestinians, Maltese, Rhodesians, and Norwegians, he explains, were included in the British total.
New Zealand WWII veteran and historian Ken Fenton told me he was unaware of any New Zealanders who were interned at Camp 59, although his main research was concerns the Italian camps where most New Zealanders were held.
Ken goes on to explain:
“I have also looked at the only known and Official War Office Roll of NZ POWs held in Italian camps, a roll prepared between April and June 1943. It lists each POW by camp of imprisonment. There is not one NZ POW listed as being at PG 59, in fact PG 59 is not mentioned anywhere in the document.
“There is a faint possibility that some NZ POWs may have passed through PG 59 at some stage prior to the preparation of the Roll and ended up at PG 57 as most NZ POWs did. In these circumstances, if there were few involved, PG 59 might have escaped mention in the official history, but I am inclined to doubt it.”
And yet here we have the Cenotaph Database record indicating Maurice French’s presence in Camp 59. Perhaps additional information will surface over time about Maurice French and any other New Zealanders who either passed through Camp 59 or who were present at the time of the breakout in September 1943.
For now, here is a biography of Maurice French, based on the information available on the Cenotaph Database:
Maurice Ernest French
Private Maurice Ernest “Snow” French
Serial No. 36248
27 (Machine Gun) Battalion
Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force (2NZEF)
Maurice Ernest French was born in Hamilton, New Zealand on November 9, 1918.
His record in the Cenotaph Database lists his mother, Mrs. Ella Sarah French, (24 Paterson Street, Sandringham, Auckland, New Zealand) as his next-of-kin during the war.
Maurice enlisted the day he turned 21—November 9, 1939. He was single at the time he served.
He received military training in Trentham and Palmerston North, both in New Zealand.
His ship, the Nieuw Amsterdam, left Wellington, New Zealand on February 1, 1941 for Port Tewfik, Egypt.
In North Africa, Maurice served in the Western Desert, Minqar Qaim, and El Alamein campaigns.
His “action prior to capture” is given in the database as front line soldier. He was captured at Ruweisat Ridge, El Alamein—according to the database—in May or June, 1942.
Maurice was interned in Campo 42 (Italy), Campo 59 (Italy), and Campo in Bay of Venice (Italy). He was free for 7 months before being recaptured and sent to Germany, where he spent another year as a POW in German camps.
In Germany, he was held in Stalag VIIA Moosburg (Germany), Stalag IVB Muhlberg (Germany), and Stalag Esdenmein.
Following his release, he was returned to England in March 1945. He was discharged from service in October 1945.
He later married and had four children.
He received the following awards: 1939–1945 Star, Africa Star and 8th Army Clasp, New Zealand War Service Medal, War Medal 1939–1945, and the International P.O.W. Medal.
Maurice’s postwar occupations listed on the database are “carpenter per rehab” and zookeeper.
A category of “wounds and diseases” in the database lists these injuries: prolapsed invertebral disc, hammertoes (2 and 3 on left foot), and sensory neural deafness.
The database also indicates that Maurice was admitted to New Zealand General Hospital at Sweet Water Canal, Egypt.
The Cenotaph record was prepared with Maurice French in 1999.
Maurice French is No. WW2 3 in the New Zealand Nominal Roll. (The Nominal Roll is a list of all soldiers who embarked for active service overseas.)
A page in Robert Dickinson’s journal,”Servigliano Calling,” is dedicated to “next-of-kin” parcels received.
Relatives of Allied prisoners were allowed to send one package four times a year to their loved ones. How this process was conducted in Canada was described in an Ottawa Citizen article about the services of the Canadian Red Cross Enquiry Bureau on April 26, 1944:
“There are 6,365 [Canadian] prisoners and internees on record whose next-of-kin are issued quarterly labels for personal parcels by the Department of National War Services….
“As soon as a man is officially declared a prisoner of war, another pamphlet is sent [by the Red Cross Enquiry Bureau] advising the next-of-kin what to do about parcels and enclosing the latest postal regulations.
“The bureau also receives reports from the supplementing committee of the Red Cross by which it is enabled to keep in touch with the next-of-kin who have difficulty in making up their quarterly parcels. One of the duties of the Red Cross is to see that the parcels are up to their full weight and it is through these reports that the liaison officers of the Red Cross branches are able to offer help to those in need of it.”
Red Cross Parcels distributed in Axis camps during the war were essential to the Allied POWs’ survival.
Robert Dickinson describes the eagerly awaited parcels in his diary; it’s clear that interruptions in parcel distribution were times of anguish.
Italian historian Giuseppe Millozzi, in his dissertation, Allied Prisoners of War in the Region of the Marche and Prison Camp at Servigliano, notes the following:
“English, Canadian and also New Zealand Red Cross sent to POWs various parcels some that contained clothes, tobacco and other necessities but the most important ones were food parcels that helped POWs to survive with the meagre Italian rations. Parcels coming from Canada and New Zealand were the richest as in those countries there was no food rationing such as in England that was under the constant threat of German bombing.
“Food parcels that had reached the camp were not enough for everybody and therefore they were divided among POWs. During the distribution of them, the Italian authorities usually punched food tins to prevent any the POWs from storing them for use in an eventual escape. POWs use tins of food, tobacco etc. as exchange goods; furthermore they recycled all the empty tins as the metal was very useful to construct a great variety of utensils.”
Robert Dickinson recorded parcels of cigarettes received in his “Servigliano Calling” journal.
His girlfriend Ida was the primary supplier of cigarettes. Others came from his family and from his regiment in Lincoln, England.
Player’s brand tobacco was manufactured by John Player’s tobacco company in Nottingham, England. Higgs Bros. was a tobacconist shop in Lincoln.
Comments below in italic are from Robert’s diary.
No. 1. Received July 23rd. 200 Players From Ida.
Jul 23rd  First big parcel, just right have got no cigs. 200 Players from Higgs, no senders name.
Read the rest of this entry »
Received 21st. August 1943.
Girl in the Dark.
Murder for Christmas
Grapes from Thorns
The following passages from Robert Dickinson’s diary in “Servigliano Calling” convey the importance of books to the prisoners. The nighttime reading aloud of books in Robert’s hut was welcome escapism—even worth risk of punishment!
Denis and I bought a Penguin book “Crump Folk going Home” costing 20 Lira. A good investment, have now access to practically all the books in the camp. Reading aloud at night because of the bugs not letting one sleep; starting at 10pm till midnight.
Daily Ration Scale W.E.F. 22nd. December 1941. (In grammes per head daily 50 grammes = 1¾ oz.}
Daily Ration Scale W.E.F. 13th. March 1942.
This page with two charts from Robert Dickinson’s journal, “Servigliano Calling,” shows Robert’s awareness of basic nutritional needs and his meticulous effort to ensure those needs were met.
The food categories in the first chart (December 22, 1941) are:
Meat, rice or macaroni, oil or fat, tomato, grating cheese, table cheese, vegetable, sugar, coffee subs., biscuit, bread, and wine.
The food categories in the second chart (March 13, 1942) are slightly different. Vegetables listed are in dried form, and the chart lacks biscuit and wine categories.
On March 12, 1942, Robert wrote in his diary, “News of drastic cut in rations.” And on the following day he recorded, “Rations cut by more than half!!” The second chart reflects that severe cut.
It’s alarming to see the drop in rations for several categories from one chart to the next. The second chart, for instance, lists a reduction of meat from servings on five days a week to only two, and the portions on those two days are smaller. Rice or macaroni servings and bread are substantially reduced in the second chart. Oil or fat are a little reduced, but quantities of tomatoes, cheese, vegetables, sugar, and coffee are similar in the two charts.
Do the charts reflect what Robert actually consumed in a given week in the camp, or the balance he hoped for, given the scarcity of food in the Camp 59? The reference to “grammes per head” suggestions that he had his “chums” in mind as well as himself.