The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging


by Emilio Coccia

Address to SAMHS Jhb branch on 13 May 2010

- To begin with the POW's were staying in tents and several were killed by lightning, but that was not the only problem (Brett Commission/Report - July + December 1942)
- In January 1943 Col H.F. Prinsloo was appointed [as commander] and things changed substantially. It was decided to house them in permanent barracks and the prisoners were also given beds and mattresses.
- Also in 1943, the POW's built a new hospital with a capacity of up to 3200 beds, the operating theatres and all possible back-up laboratories. A team of four Italian surgeons, one physician, one pharmacist, supervised by a U.D.F. Medical Officer was on a 24-hrs stand-by.

- The sports in the camps played a major role in keeping the POW's physically fit and occupied. There were at least 25 football fields, 10 athletic fields and 28 major football teams.

- Schools had also a top place in Col.Prinsloo's vision. Several of them were built, and 9 000 men were taught their basic literacy. The 150 Italian teachers (all POWs) also prepared hundreds of hand printed textbooks, not limited to primary school but also covering specialized disciplines (electrical eng., agronomy, science, physics etc) .

- In the Arts and Crafts, hundreds and thousands of small objects/furniture, paintings, buildings, etc. were produced of a very high standard at the H F Prinsloo Vocational Training Centre.

- Music and theatre performances also became part of everyday life. The POW's built 16 theatres (12 covered and 4 open-air) in which 18 different casts could perform.

- 22 Orchestras played classic and light music every week and a military band of up to 94 instruments would set the tempo on major occasions.

- Starting from June 1942, about 25 000 POW's were allowed to leave the camp as Outside Employees, benefiting over 5 000 farmers who needed very cheap, but skilled labourers.

- From 1942 till 1945 Italian POW's were also employed by various Gov. Dept.s (Roads, Forestry, Land and Water Affaires) for the building of mountain passes and the establishment of land settlements:
- Du Toit's Kloof (Huguenot) Pass: Nov. '42/0ct. '45 - 1 200 (up to 1 508) POWs;
- Montague (Outeniqua) Pass: Nov. '42/Aug.'45 - 500 (up to 1 041) POWs;

(UNDOCUMENTED: Sir Lowrys', Bainskloof, Hou[w] Hoek, Tradow Passes + Chapmans Peak and Tom Jenkins Drives. Camps opened in the vicinity to carry out improvements).

Churches, schools, mansions and other buildings were erected. Some of them, like the "Madonna delle Grazie" Church in PMBurg and the Olivedale Windmill (in northern Johannesburg) have been declared National Monuments.

- The POWs who died in S.A. are buried in 3 War Cemeteries:

The deaths occurred for many different reasons: disease, the major one (TBC, cancer, typhoid fever, peritonitis etc)
followed by accidents. (road, drowning) shooting by the guards and lightning [strikes].

[The number of deaths] - 312 [from a total of 109 000 POWs is a] low ratio, signifying the fair treatment by the Camp authorities.
This, combined to the acquaintance, sometime the friendship, with their employers and their families, made the POW want to stay. About 870 of them were allowed to remain in the Union after the war, while several thousand immigrated back to South Africa in the early 1950's, thus contributing to the cultural, social and structural development of this Country.

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