South African Military History 

P.O. BOX 12926


It was a superbly researched topic that fellow member Dave McLennan presented to us on 11th August when he talked about the Italian Prisoners of War in Zonderwater Prison. It all began with a violin that someone had purchased just after WW II and which the family now wished to sell. They decided to find out its origin, and inside the body of the instrument discovered the name of its maker and that it had been made in Zonderwater prison. Through official army and diplomatic channels the maker, now living in Italy again, was tracked down and the violin handed back. Dave, who at that time served as an officer in the SADF, was asked to write an article about this story, and in consequence began to look through many boxes of documents stored in old archives after work. He also interviewed Italians living in Pretoria, and slowly built up a history of Italian soldiers being taken prisoner in East Africa and North Africa in the early years of the war. In East Africa the Italian troops were inexorably moved from Mogadishu, Addis Ababa and Gondar, and when it was over the Colonial Troops simply returned to their homes and only the Italian customs and police remained, unable to return to Italy. Many POWs remained behind in East Africa.

Dave described the successful battles in the desert, where eventually 135 000 Italian soldiers were captured. Some of them were sent to Great.Britain, the officers to India and about 20 000 to Australia. The considerable number of prisoners remaining were sent to South Africa - being transported by ship from Port Tewfik, bolted down in the cargo holds - where they eventually arrived. However, long before that the conditions they had to survive under were extremely bad. Living in the open desert in wire enclosures, with no toilet facilities and no shade, given one small tin of water per day and sometimes strafed by fighter planes from both sides who mistook them for enemy soldiers, they suffered a number of dead and wounded. Because they had been sent to a place located on hard, rocky ground, their living conditions were dreadful. From there they were sent by ship to Alexandria and to a camp near Cairo, once again facing poor living conditions.

When the Nova Scotia with 765 Italian POWs on board, was sunk by a German U-Boat off the South African coast with considerable loss of life, the POW transports sailed via Madagascar to Durban. At Clairwood they boarded trains for Zonderwater and there the first POW arrived on 21st March 1941. On the way they were practically unguarded and often the people along the route gave them fruit and sweets.

In Zonderwater they lived in 8-man tents with insufficient toilet facilities, the Hospital was overcrowded and kitchens in the open air. Guarding the prisoners was a problem, the fencing and lighting was poor and the NMC guards carried assegais and were sometimes the targets of stone throwers. The first commander of the camp, Col. Rennie, was not a success and was replaced by Col. De Wet. He was faced with bored and often desperate prisoners wanting to escape by digging tunnels under the fences and even from the Hospital, with the longest being 11 feet deep and 90 feet under the ground. Most escapees were recaptured, though.

Although the Geneva Convention stipulated that prisoners had to be paid, using the money to make purchases in a canteen, the prisoners were paid in cigarettes for any work performed. The records were poorly kept or not at all, the paymaster lost total control of his affairs, so much so that a very large amount was owed to suppliers of all kinds of goods including the barbed wire. Coupons were issued which the prisoners quickly replicated, adding to the general confusion.

In 1942, with close on 70 000 prisoners there, a Dr. Diogo from Brazil arrived and after long negotiations was allowed to inspect the camp but was not impressed. Morale was low.

Matters only improved when Col. H.F. Prinsloo was appointed camp commander in Jan 1943. He not only turned the Camp around increasing prisoners' morale and self-esteem by arranging picnics to break the boredom and treating them as men, but he organised building improvements, allowed visits by the Archbishop and ordered daily exercises. The Hospital, run by Major Blumberg, improved greatly in all departments. And canteens were better supervised and stocked. Col. Prinsloo was greatly liked by everybody because he treated the prisoners with respect. There was an orchestra, craft exhibitions and art classes, and more and more the prison camp showed improved living conditions, including a 10 000 book library. 11 500 prisoners attended schools voluntarily, illiteracy dropped from 30% to 2%. In short: life at Zonderwater was as close to civvy life for the prisoners, and all due to Col. Prinsloo who cared for his charges.

There was outside employment too. They worked at various locations, on farms, building and construction sites, not always behaving properly or successfully but more often willingly and industriously just to break the boredom of prison life.

Repatriation of prisoners started in September 1944 and full-scale from early 1945. But there are also many graves scattered across the length and breadth of South Africa of those Italian POWs who died in this faraway corner of the world, a long way from their beloved Italy.

Thank you, Dave, for a really different talk, spiced with short anecdotes and your personal involvement.


We regret to inform Members that Fellow-Members Derrick Dorn and Major P. Warham St. L. Searl passed away peacefully recently. Both had been active in the lecture programme of our Society and took a lively interest in our affairs. Our condolences go to their families and friends.


Future Lectures:

8th Sept THE FALL OF TOBRUK, 1942
Speaker: Colonel Lionel Crook
Speaker: Colonel Ivan Bester
A detailed, illustrated talk by Major Tony Gordon


Meetings are held on the 2nd Thursday of each month, except December, at 20h00 in the Recreation Room of the SA LEGIONíS ROSEDALE COMPLEX, Lower Nursery Road (off Lisbeek Parkway/Alma Road - Traffic Light), opposite Rosebank Railway Station. Secure parking inside the premises. All visitors welcome. Tea and biscuits will be served.


Jochen (John) O.E.O. Mahncke, Vice-Chairman/Scribe,
Tel.: 021-797-5167021-797-5167

South African Military History Society /