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Umberto's War
Written by Pacifico Cofrancesco   
Thursday, 18 September 2008
Article Index
Umberto's War
And the story starts
The war of Ethiopia
The "Libbretta"
Umberto in Libya
The "starving life"
"Prisoner of War" in India
The correspondence with family
Back home
Downloadable PDF text


"Day 1 November 1943 embarked at the port of Bombay directed to Australia, where I arrived the day 16 November 1943 disembarking at the port of Melbourne. Sent to a camp near Murchison."
The ship that brought Umberto from Bombay to Melbourne was the SS Lurline, owned by the Matson Line Company. During the Second World War she was assigned to the U.S. Navy and used to carry troops and prisoners.

SS Lurline
The Ship SS Lurline in 1943,
as Umberto probably saw it when he embarked directed to Australia

Umberto was transferred to Australia after 8 September 1943, when Italy signed the armistice with the Allied countries. At that time Italy was divided into two parts. In the North the Italian Social Republic of Benito Mussolini was still an ally of Germany, and in the Center and South the Kingdom of Italy, which was under the control of Allied troops, and part of the Italian army who was loyal to the King. In the POW camps Italians were also divided between those who remained loyal to Mussolini and those who declared themselves to be faithful to the King of Italy. But in both cases they remained prisoners until the end of the war, and even beyond, as happened to Umberto.

We do not know very much of Umberto’s Australian captivity. In his notebook, except for Murchison which was his official POW camp, he recorded the names of other places, some of which are traceable and others are not.
 "1° Wonthaggi
  2° Dayliston
  3° Ryanton
  4° Woragull
  5° Trafaldi
  6° Taragon
  7° Cuirasi "

Wonthaggi, Warragul and Traralgon are easily identifiable with some places around Melbourne. Umberto also writes the address of a person living in Wonthaggi:
" Mrs. Lg. Baù
  King Street Wonthaggi
King Street still exists in Wonthaggi. Who knows if there are still some descendants or relatives of that person? Giuseppina says that his father Umberto was in touch with some Australians even after his return from captivity. Umberto’s "Service and Casualty Form" reports other places in the outskirts of Melbourne where he spent some time:
The existence of POW camps at Rowville and Broadmeadows is known. At Leonghata and Warragul perhaps there were some farms to which Umberto could have been temporarily assigned. Moreover Leonghata is very close to Wonthaggi, where Umberto certainly was during his imprisonment.

Melbourne surroundings
Map of Melbourne surroundings with camps and places
where Umberto has lived during his Australian captivity

From what we know, imprisonment for the Italians in Australia was not harsh. A different treatment was reserved for the Japanese and Germans, because Australians did not trusted them.
Many Italian prisoners liked this country so much that after the end of the war they came back as immigrants, sometimes with the help of the same people they had worked for as prisoners.

Murchison Camp
Murchison camp in 1943, as it was when Umberto arrived
(Australian War Memorial - 034010 -

Life in Murchison was certainly not different from other camps. Even the structure of the camps was very similar. Murchison camp had a particular polygonal structure with 12 sides, roughly circular, with four separate compounds called A, B, C and D, divided by two roads crossing in the center of the camp.
Murchison Camp         Cowra Camp
An aerial photo of Camp n.13 of Murchison (left) and a sketch of Cowra camp (right)

Another Italian prisoner, Phil Faella from the province of Benevento, recalls that the typical activities of the prisoners were cultivating vegetables and cutting wood. Sometimes they were used to load and unload freight cars. Every morning the prisoners who lived at the camp, and were not assigned to a farm, “were lined up in their work groups and the Captain did a head count before they were driven off in trucks to work sites”.

Italian prisoners at Murchison
5 March 1945. 740 Italian prisoners from C Compound, No. 13 POW Group are engaged daily in picking tomatoes on the properties in the Shepparton district.
(Australian War Memorial - 030239-09 -
Italian prisoners at work  Italian prisoners at work
Italian prisoners at work in tomato fields
(Australian War Memorial - 030239-11 and 030239-14 -

The luckiest prisoners lived in barracks. Others, especially in the transit camps such as Rowville, lived in tents. The winter was a big problem. The prisoners were not given blankets so they were forced to sleep in their clothes. Phil Faella recalls that, “The huts were unheated and unlined and on frosty nights the condensation would drip down on them from the tin roof”. Certainly these conditions were not of much help for Umberto’s pleurisy. After his arrival to Australia, Umberto did not write anything more in his notebook, nor do we have any letter from this period.

Almost four long years passed between tomato pickings and the Australian frost. They probably were very boring times. Certainly there were some “paesani” at Murchison and in the surrounding area. Corporal Major Ernesto Lavorgna from Castelvenere (Benevento); that same individual who in 1942 had testified in Umberto’s favor at the Ramgarh POW camp (India) definitely was there. He remained in Murchison from January 1944 to January 1947, as reported in his Casualty and Service Form, found in the National Archives of Australia.

The Italian prisoners remained in the POW camps well beyond the official end of the war. Italy had lost the war, and the Australians wanted to keep the low cost Italian POW labor. The prisoners received the small salary of one schilling and three pence a day for the work they did in the camp. This money could be spent at the camp emporium to buy tobacco, razors, or sweets. Both in India and in Australia some special banknotes and coins were created that could be used only in the camps. The coins used in Australian camps had a circular hole at the middle to distinguish them from those normally used by the local population.

Umberto with his friends in Australia
Umberto on the shoulders of one of his friends during the Australian captivity

Umberto had a cash account held by the Murchison camp administration. On 31 January 1947, the day before his final departure from the camp, he was credited with 115 pounds, 16 shillings and 2 pence. That was what remained from pay for the work he has done as a POW from 22 October 1943 to 31 January 1947.

Statement of account
The "statement of account" signed by Umberto
as a receipt for the money earned as POW

Last Updated ( Thursday, 18 September 2008 )
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