As the Axis forces swept east across North Africa during June and July 1942, the Italian Authorities had completely underestimated the flood of prisoners they would have to accommodate. Under the terms of the agreement with the German forces the Italians were responsible for all Prisoners of War captured in North Africa. Extra prisoner of war camps were hastily being erected across Italy to cope with the situation.
Work on Camp PG 54 at Fara Sabina, 40 miles north east of Rome, started during July 1942 and the first group of nearly 3,000 men arrived during the second half of August 1942, followed by another 1,000 men who arrived on 27/28 September from transit Camp PG 66 at Capua.
Initially the camp comprised of two compounds 150 m by 150 m, each containing 2,000 men. Each compound contained four rows of tents accommodating 68 men in each.
ItalianColonel Andrea Porta -Camp Commandant
Major Sala - i/c Military Police (Carabinieri)
Captain Seletti - Interpreter
Captain Albertatzi - i/c Red Cross Stores
Sgt Major Deans - Camp Leader No 1 Compound
Sgt Major Snyman - Camp Leader No 2 Compound
W/O C Mallet - Asst Camp Leader No 1 Compound
W/O C Calthorpe - Asst Camp Leader No 2 Compound
Sgt C T Schabe - Escape Committee
Cpl R J Guscott - Interpreter
Sgt B S Van Der Merwe - Camp Post Master
Staff Sgt O Fuchs - Camp Postal Staff
Sgt Nerwe - Camp Postal Staff
Pte H Pieters - Camp Postal Staff
During the Spring of 1943 Italian Dictator Benito Mussolini had removed from their positions in the Italian government several figures whom he considered to be more faithful to the King Victor Emmanuel than to the Fascist Regime. The moves were described as hostile acts to the King, who had been growing increasing critical of the poor conduct of Italy in the conflict.
Following the surrender of the Axis Powers in North Africa on 13 May 1943, the Allies bombed Rome for the first time on 16 May and invaded Sicily on 10 July 1943. The situation continued to worsen for Fascist Regime.
At a meeting of the Grand Council of Fascism held on 23 July 1943 an “order of the day” was proposed by a group of conspirators and adopted by majority vote which contained a proposal to restore direct control of politics to the King. The following day Mussolini was summoned to meet the King and dismissed as Prime Minister and substituted by Pietro Badoglio. The appointment of Badoglio did not change the position of Italy with Germany in the war. However, it was another move by the King towards peace. Many channels were being probed to seek a treaty with the Allies. Meanwhile several German divisions had been sent south of the Alps, officially to protect Italy from Allied Landings, but in reality to take control of the country.
Three Italian generals were sent to Lisbon in order to contact Allied diplomats. Initially, the Allies were not entirely happy about the proposal of a surrender of Italy. The military campaign against the Axis forces there seemed have gained steam, and a defeat of Italy was considered only a matter of time. Ultimately, though, further examination of the possibilities after the end of the War led the Allies to seriously discuss the question.
Eventually, after much negotiation between the two sides in Sicily, on 1 September the King decided to accept the armistice conditions. The signing ceremony took place at 2:00pm on 3 September and a bombing mission on Rome by five hundred airplanes was stopped at the last moment. The day of entry into force of the armistice was linked to a planned landing in central Italy by Allied Forces and it was left to Allied discretion.
On September 3, British and Canadian troops had begun landing on the southernmost tip of Calabria. The day after the armistice declaration, September 9, the Allies also disembarked at Salerno and Taranto but they failed to take full advantage of the Italian Armistice and were quickly checked by German troops.
When the armistice was announced by Allied Radio, in the afternoon of September 8, the majority of the Italian Army had not been informed and no orders had been issued about the line of conduct to be taken in the face of the German armed forces. The King, along with the royal family and Badoglio, fled from Rome in the early morning of September 9, taking shelter in the town of Brindisi in the south of the country.
It took a further twenty months for the Allied forces to reach the northern borders of Italy.
Shortly after the armistice German troops arrived to take control of the camp and immediately set about trying to recapture the POW’s who had fled from the camp. As the POW’s were rounded up they were brought back to the camp to await transportation to Germany.
Increasingly the camp was used as a collection and transit camp for Allied POW’s captured by the Germans further south. As the USA had by now also entered the war, increasing numbers of US POW’s started to appear at the camp, captured at Salerno and Tarranto.
From the camp the POW’s were marched to Fara Sabina railway station at Passo Corese where they were loaded onto trains, often 40 or more men to an enclosed cattle truck and transported north to Germany, via the Brenner Pass, and many more months of captivity in German POW camps.
One such train left Fara Sabina station on 27 January 1944 and headed north, on the second day of its journey, as it reached the viaduct over the Torrente Paglia near Allerona it was attacked by planes of the 320th Bombartment Group of the US Airforce, who had been tasked with bombing the viaduct and had mistakenly taken the train carrying the POW’s to be carrying German troops. Many Allied POW’s lost their lives, some of those who were lucky enough to survive were able to escape. For further information please see The Bridge at Allerona by Janet Kinrade Dethick.
After the war many former POW's wanted to express their thanks to the local Italian residents who had heroically helped them to hide and escape from the Germans after the armistice. Once such was South African John Brent Mills, who after the war had joined the South African diplomatic service and ended his career as Ambassador in Rome. During the 1970's John organised for a stained glass window to be installed in the Monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie near Fara Sabina, financed by donations from the South African Association of Returned Servicemen. A marble tablet below the window reads "The window above the the doorway, gift of the Ex-Servicemen's Associations of South Africa, records with profound gratitude the courage and generosity of those Italians who, during the Second World War, at risk of their lives sheltered and protected escaped South African prisoners of war." Read More .......