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 Italian POWs remembered at Zonderwater

By CO Maryke Lynn

On 13 November 2005 a memorial service was held at the Italian Military Cemetery at Zonderwater, which is situated some twenty miles from Pretoria, near the Cullinan Diamond Mine. This service is held annually on the first Sunday of November to commemorate the 264 Italian prisoners of war (POWs) who died in this camp between 1941 and 1947.

Under the command of Col Hendrik Prinsloo, Zonderwater was opened in 1943. At that stage there were already almost sixty thousand Italian prisoners of war in South Africa. Most of the Italians who arrived in the country during the years of war were captured in the East and North African campaigns. This camp, which can more accurately be described as a city, was the largest of the eighteen known Italian POW camps and held nearly a hundred thousand prisoners of war before it closed down on 1 January 1947.

Zonderwater had fourteen sections, fifty sub-sections, eighteen miles of road, three thousand hospital beds, seventeen theatres, sixteen soccer fields with tracks and grandstands, six tennis courts, eighty bowling alleys, seven fencing halls, as well as volleyball fields, basketball fields, boxing rings and gymnasiums, sport clubs, sport committees and committees promoting the arts.

Col Prinsloo won the affection of his prisoners and became like a father to them. His conduct was so outstanding that he was later awarded the Order of the British Empire, the Bene Merenti of the Vatican and the Italian Star of Honour. The Italians were treated with great generosity by their South African hosts.

One of the Italian POWs, Sergeant-Major Duilio de Francheschi from the Alpine Regiment, who was captured on the banks of the Jima River in Abyssinia in 1941, filled eleven diaries while he was a prisoner in South Africa. One of his entries reads: “The food at Zonderwater wasn’t very good, so we protested, and it became better. We had canteens where we could buy food. We were paid 30/- a month, so we could buy and cook spaghetti. Five or six of the deaths at Zonderwater were due to overeating. The men used to wait until the end of the month when they were paid and they would buy food and eat like camels. They died of indigestion.” Duilio de Franchschi was one of about a thousand former Italian prisoners of war who were permitted to remain in South Africa after the war.

An Impala fly-past and a jump by the Golden Eagle and Italian parachute display teams added splendour to this commemorative occasion where families and friends of the deceased made use of the opportunity to lay wreaths in memory of their loved ones. Also present at this service were the Consul General of Italy, Dr Vittorio Sandalli, the Italian Ambassador, Dr Valerio Astraldi, as well as Italian and South African military representatives.

 

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