A Letter from Maria Antonia Bertoni

We recently received this letter from the daughter of an Italian who was held as a POW at Stanbury – it makes lovely and moving reading. Maria has allowed us to share her father’s memories. ________________________________________________________

When I was young I studied ancient history, Greek and Latin (I am gradueted in Ancient History and only later I studied Medieval, Modern, Contemporary History ), and I was not even interested in contemporary history; so I did not ask my father about  his prisony  and  he would not  remember this unhappy time of his life, and when I had finally intended to ask him some questions, he was already dead.

Pio Bertoni POW Stanbury House
Pio Bertoni POW Stanbury House

I share with you the only photo I have from England (I suppose, but I am not sure, that  the place is Stambury House German Camp  n. 135 in  Spencers Wood but before this, my father lived also in  Camp n. 88 Mortimer ,Berkshire), all other photos I have come from India. The photo represents a group of prisoners and their  “leader” (my father told us about his “boss”??he was a famous soccer player, but I am not sure he is the same man who smoke in the photo, he could be another prisoner) my father is the fifth man on the left in the line of sitting prisoners.

Also I send to you two picture of the exercise book, because my father studied English during the captivity in India and Great Britain but he never used this language for working in postwar time in Italy. In time of peace, he only spoke English with his daughters and wanted us to learn English (when me and my sisters made mistakes he used to call us: “Donkeys”!!) and when he was in love with my mother, my mother tell me he told her love’s words in English.

I send also a photo of a letter mailed from Stambury House Camp Spencers Wood and one of the music scores he brought from Great Britain in Italy: he played guitar and violin during his captivity, we have in our house the hand made violin he produced in India with teak wood. He loved English music and dances.

My grandfather Giuseppe, Pio’s father, was born in 1890, in 1905 he was a young socialist and in 1915 served as a soldier in First World War, then in 1921 he joined Italian Communist Party. During the Mussolini’s dictatorship he and his family were persecuted by fascism; when the dictatorship ended, in 1943, Giuseppe cooperated with  partisans to  lead through Gotic Line some English soldiers, who were prisoners of war escaped from captivity after 8 september 1943. Like him, some inhabitants in San Michele, my little village, gave shelter to English soldiers, escaped from Emilia Romagna detention camps.  His son, Otello, Pio’s brother, sadly, was captured in march 1944 when he was a partisan by Nazi army and interned in a German camp in Germany, and was saved by Allied Army and when he returned in Italy in 1946 he spoke English language very well.

Pio Bertoni - aged 18My father Pio was not a fascist but when English government asked italian POWS to cooperate, my father decided not to be a cooperator, due to his sense of honour and observance for Geneva Convention on POWs, I think.

 

The victories over the Italians by British forces during the initial stages of the north African campaign in late 1940  – early 1941 surprised english military commanders: the major consequence was in fact capture of 133,000 Italian prisoner of War.

Egypt was far from secure so general Wavell called a desperate appeal to evacuate Italian POW.India risponded.

My father surrended to a New Zealand soldier in Libia, in Bardia’s siege, in january 1941; he and his friends prisoners walked through the desert to Alessandria. In Alessandria they paraded on uncovered freight wagons before boarding to India. Churchill was concerned about the propaganda value of making the Italian white prisoners parade through the streets of Cairo, Alessandria and Bombay, although he also indicated that every care should of course be taken to prevent their being insulted by the population. My father and other prisoner paraded between egyptians but the local crowd insulted them and threw stones towards them.

By ship the prisoners  arrived in Bombay, where my father lived in camp N. 5, then they were transferred in another POW camp in Bangalore. The first months of prisony in India were heavy. But time after time the prisoner’s life became better. Years later the POWs were brought in England to compensate for the lack of manpower. Initially in camp n. 88 Mortimer, then in n.135 Stambury House Spencers Wood.

Pio’s mother and father didn’t  understand, while they were risking their life helping English soldiers prisoners of war (Northern Italy was occupied by Nazi army, my country was a partisan zone and Nazi made massacres of civil people in  some villages), why their son did not collaborate with English people in England: English soldiers were dying to make Italy free.

My grandmother Anna got scared when the first letter from  Spencers Wood arrived from Berkshire because on the letter adress she read “German Camp”. My father wrote to her that he had not become a Nazi or a Fascist and that he was not in danger, he was in good conditions.

My father understood that English people were suffering in time of war. He did not worked in industries but he helped working in road maintenance or other works. He admired  English technical and scientific knowledges.

He  brought to Italy some little scientifical tools and some english books  and he was sorry because he left in England a large Bible with images he had never seen in Italian Bibles.

Year after year in his letters he told his mother Anna that “he was almost accustomed to prisoner’s life” (six years!!),  and after his return, he told that he had hoped, after Cassibile armistice (1943), to return in Italy and fight for his country against Nazi and Fascist army but it had not been possible.

He was born in 31.12. 1920,when he left his town San Michele in 1939 for military service he was a young guy you see in passport photo; Mussolini declared war in june 1940 and my father went by train from Boves (Piemonte)  to Neaples where shipped to Libia. When he returned from Great Britain to Italy in August 1946 his father Giuseppe, who was waiting for his son’s arrive in Modena Station, did not recognize him among the passengers, he thought his son would not arrive and he went away. They recognized themselves only when they arrived in Sassuolo.

The war declared by fascist regime and wanted by a huge part of italians people had destroyed his youth and changed forever his life.

I have about one hundred letters from Boves and Neaples in Italy, Bardia in Libia,  Bombay e Bangalore  in India and from England camp n. 88 Mortimer and  from camp N. 135 Stanbury House Spencers Wood. My grandmother Anna gave them to me, before dying.

I am copying them down because I would like to publish them.

I am very grateful that you have mailed to me your village history book  and that Great Britain have provided safety for my father in time of war. If he were alive he would be happy of this and be grateful.

I allow you to publish to members of history group and in other way you believe this letter I write,  as you want.

Buona Pasqua

Maria Antonia Bertoni, Maria Cristina Bertoni (my sister), Nora Bondioli Bertoni (my mother)

 

MY BIBLIOGRAPHY

Prisoners of war and their captors in World War II, edited by Bob Moore and Kent Fedorowich,  Berg, Oxford*Washington DC, 1996

Lucio Sponza, Divided Loyalties Italians in Britain during the Second World War, Peter Lang,Bern, 2000

Agostino Bistarelli, La storia del ritorno. I reduci italiani del secondo dopoguerra, Bollati Boringhieri, Torino, 2007.

Isabella Insolvibile, WOPS I prigionieri italiani in Gran Bretagna (1941-1946) Edizioni Scientifiche Italiane,Napoli, 2012

And now : More from Our Village of Spencers Wood, Spencer Wood Local History Group, TJ International  Ltd, Padstow, Cornwall, 2016.