Italian POWs remembered at Zonderwater
By CO Maryke Lynn
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.