Early this year I was in search of information about any New Zealand POWs interned in Camp 59. Bill Rudd, a former Australian WWII POW and creator of the excellent web resource ANZAC POW Freemen in Europe, referred me to New Zealand WWII veteran and historian Ken Fenton.

Ken wrote to me:

“I served in Italy during WW2 in the 2nd NZ Division, but was never captured, although there were occasions when I might have come close when on recce [reconnaissance].

“In the last six years I have become interested in the fortunes of NZ [New Zealand] and Aust [Australian] POWs, as I was asked to write a book about those who were detained at Campo 57.

“Most of the NZ and Aust POWs were sent to PG 57 soon after arrival in Italy, following brief stays in transit type camps, but a few drifted in over a period of time as they left Italian hospitals or for other reasons.

“My book was not confined just to POWs, as it looked into partisans in both the NW and the NE, and to the escapes of many NZ and Aust POWs, the plight of Italian civilians, and the 2nd NZ Division at Trieste.

“I never looked into other POW camps such as PG 59, confining myself mainly to PG 57 and the farm work camps of the PG 106 series around Vercelli rice fields in the NW, and the PG 107 series to the NE in the Veneto and Friuli Venezia Giulia. These farm camps took 2NZEF [2nd Division New Zealand Expeditionary Force] and AIF [Australian Imperial Force] men from PG 57 commencing in the spring and summer of 1943, but no Aussies were sent to the PG 107 series.

“Also, some NZ men were sent to build a hydro-electric plant near the headwaters of the Tagliamento River, where the camps were numbered PG 103/6 (Ampezzo) and PG 103/7 (La Maina). That plant was completed in the immediate postwar years and still operates today.”

Ken later wrote to me:

“I have looked at the Official History of NZ POWs and have been unable to find any reference at all to PG 59 or Servigliano. That is not to say that there were never any New Zealanders there, but it seems pretty unlikely, as the Official History is comprehensive.

“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.

“In the absence of names of NZ soldiers, there appears to be no further paths to follow.”

To readers who may not know the term ANZAC, it is an acronym for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. Ken explained, “The word ANZAC has an honored, almost spiritual status arising initially from the landings on the Gallipoli Peninsula during WWI by Aussies and New Zealanders who faced great odds in their endeavors to capture the high ground held by the Turks.”

To learn more about Ken Fenton and his book ANZACs at the Frontiers 1941-45, Northern Italy, read “Behind the wire” on the Nelson Mail online news site.

You can order the two-volume history from Ken Fenton direct (viking1@maxnet.co.nz) or from The Copy Press.

A review of the book on the site begins:

“What happened in northern Italy over the years from 1941 to 1945 affected the lives of thousands of New Zealand and Australian servicemen, caught up in the events that were taking place in the Mediterranean Theatre of Operations. Ken Fenton has been able to draw on many recollections of ANZAC ex-servicemen, along with his personal knowledge of northern Italy during World War 2, as a young soldier with the 2nd NZ Division. His two volumes give a detailed insight into the varied fortunes of those initially imprisoned, and into how escapers from among them later coped with the challenges of war-torn Italy. They were confronted by many difficult situations resulting from the actions of the warring regimes.”

Also, for more information on New Zealand’s WWII prisoners of war, visit New Zealand History online.

The 12 pages describing prison camp life and conditions include rare photographs taken in the camps where New Zealanders were kept.

Some of the many homemade devices for cooking shown on the “Camp cookers” page are remarkably like the little fan-driven “blowers” described by many Camp 59 POWs. These designs were likely passed from camp to camp as prisoners were transferred.

Note that the long list of camps where New Zealanders were interned does not include PG 59.

I am most grateful to Ken Fenton for allowing me to share this information.

At the moment Ken has another title awaiting publication. Titled Alamein to the Alps, it focuses entirely on events occurring the Piedmont Region of NW Italy during the period September 1943 to May 1945. During that period many escaping POWs, in the main from the Commonwealth but also some US servicemen, passed through the Piedmont. Most of the ANZACs had been captured at the 1st Battle of El Alamein, hence the reference to El Alamein in the book’s title. Some ex-POWs became involved in a brutal civil war when Italians fought Italians, and the partisan bands of the Italian communist party (Partito Comunista Italiano, or PCI) were predominant. Quite a number of ex-POWs joined communist bands, some for lengthy periods.

The following description of the book is from its back cover:

“When the first units of the 2nd New Zealand Division landed at Taranto in October 1943, a rebellion against Fascism was already under way. Following the unilateral Italian Armistice made known in September 1943, much of Italy was quickly occupied by German troops, and the Italian Army of the then Rome Government was soon being disbanded. This gave an impetus to the developing civil-type war, in which Italians fought each other over a period of twenty months, while New Zealanders fought up the Italian Peninsula in a conventional war against the German Divisions.

“Most of its members were unaware of the nature of a much smaller civil war taking place beyond the front lines, one that came to affect thousands of Commonwealth servicemen. This book is about those Commonwealth POWs who escaped the prison work-camps of the Piedmont Region, and then endeavoured to reach Allied Lines or cross the Alps into Switzerland or France. Some quickly got out of Italy, others remained until the summer of 1944 or later. Some served with the rebels for short, or in a few cases, lengthy periods. Some found refuge in the pre-Alps and valleys of the Piedmont, but were eventually captured by Mussolini’s Republicans or by the Germans. Some evaded their hunters and came out of hiding in 1945. This book is also about the very successful British Mission Cherokee sent by the Special Operations Executive (SOE) to support and direct the partisans and to connect with the evading POWs. Having had almost no contact with Allied authorities, these evaders had become a ‘Lost Legion’, and prior to Cherokee’s arrival, many were witness to the intensity of the local civil war in the Piedmont. The interwoven stories of the evaders, Mission Cherokee, and the populace provide an insight into an armed political and class struggle that did not cease at war’s end, but carried on in a diminished form for another couple of years.”