BEING an Australian prisoner-of-war in Italy in World War II was no bed of roses.
While food might be better than elsewhere, there were attempted escapes and some Allied prisoners were shot dead.
For the many Aussie vets, however, who survived the earlier desert war campaign against German general Rommel, it was the aftermath, the homecoming experience in the wake of their Italian POW camp days which rankled the most.
In the words of Italian POW historian and now author Katrina Kittel, of Port Stephens, such WWII veterans were not always applauded for their sacrifices in war.
Nor could their welfare organisation, the Returned Services League (or RSL), be counted on as a haven.
For some returned soldiers were treated shamefully. Kittel writes in her new book of the unexpected reaction veteran Len Holman received on return to his Queensland RSL.
Here, some RSL members considered being a POW in Europe, particularly of the Italians, an inferior POW experience to being prisoners of the Japanese and Germans.
"The reaction made Len Holman clam up and he never went back. He did not march on Anzac Day," Kittel reports.
So, today being Anzac Day, let's examine the era of these neglected Aussie war veterans who served their country faithfully, but were then almost expected not to talk publicly about it.
Kittel knows the subject matter better than most because she has a personal stake in it all, having devoted the past eight years to painstakingly assemble the whole, largely-neglected tale.
The inspiration to begin her massive research project, trawling through war archives and drawing on hundreds of first-hand accounts to shine a light on the plight of Australian POWs in wartime Italy, came from within her own family - from her reticent father, the late Col Booth, of Nelson Bay.
The idea grew in 2011 when Col's grandchildren wore his medals on Anzac Day.
"Then when they asked me about his war, I could not fully answer their questions," she says.
To learn more about the grandfather her children had never met, she opened Col's brown Globite case where he had stored his papers, photos and paraphernalia from the days when he had been a fresh-faced soldier.
In a family photo album full of tiny black-and-white pictures emerged unfamiliar faces and places stuck in time.
Col's handwriting on the reverse of some snaps and postcards hinted at people, places and events from his war. But they only added to the mystery. How much more was there to know and how many other Aussie families faced a similar puzzle? She decided to investigate.
What she gradually uncovered was insightful, highlighting the lives of ordinary individuals caught up in hazardous times.
As she writes in her new book Shooting Though (Campo 106 escaped POWs after the Italian armistice) escape for most after the 1943 Italian surrender was easy. What followed was hard.
Trying then to escape Germans instead, the month on the loose, foot-slogging to the frontier, trying to scrape up food in hostile territory, facing betrayal while trying to find shelter daily was an worrying ordeal.
"In all likelihood it was more taxing and nagging on post-war resilience than his 13-month phase of captivity," Kittel says.
Looking back, her father's eventual arrival in neutral Switzerland, along with his follow POWs, was of enormous relief, but their journey from El Alamein to the Alps meant war neuroses ticked under the surface.
Nightmares persisted among the survivors, especially their earlier experiences in the front lines before being captured; of fellow soldiers being killed or maimed before their eyes in the crucible of battle.
In all likelihood it was more taxing and nagging on post-war resilience than his 13-month phase of captivity.Katrina Kittel
One such survivor was haunted by the vision of a mate at El Alamein running past with his head missing, cut clean off by an enemy shell which failed to explode.
Later followed the harrowing POW ordeal of life on-the-run, begging for food and mindful of the dangers their Italian helpers faced if caught.
"Ordinary Italians were risking their lives to feed and shelter these escaped POWs. I never expected to find any of this when I first began researching," Kittel says.
Gunner Col Booth of the 2/3 Anti-tank Regiment, AIF, was captured in Africa in 1942. He never spoke to his adopted daughter about the war and especially events that happened after Italy capitulated to the Allies in September 1943. That's when hundreds of Australian and New Zealand POWs walked out of now unguarded Italian rice farms dotting the Piedmont plain west of Milan.
Kittel was later aided in part during her history sleuthing by an article, long thought lost, in The Newcastle Herald from 1967, when her ex-POW father was interviewed.
Her father had bought the original Bella Vista flats at Shoal Bay and here he told how after he and others were engaged in a hide-and-seek game with Germans before finally reaching neutral Switzerland and safety.
IN THE NEWS:
Here there were about 1000 escaped troops billeted at different hotels, now empty of tourists. Many volunteered to learn snow skiing with lessons and accommodation paid for by the British government. One estimate was that 700 skis were provided with the idea of "reconditioning" the POWs as soldiers after their long periods in captivity.
Kittel says the Herald article was invaluable in helping fill in gaps of her father's life in Switzerland.
During research, Kittel came across former Italian POW Bill Rudd. What followed then was an eight-year collaboration in finding what happened to the 2000 Australians held captive in Italy. Rudd (pictured here with the author) died last October just weeks short of his 102nd birthday.
What emerged out of their joint research were some fascinating tales, including stories of POWs engaged in subtle sabotage of the enemy war effort, by disabling machinery at great risk.
Kittel says these later 'silent' veterans deserve to be more widely recognised, especially on Anzac Day 2020, 75 years since the end of WWII.
One reason why many other families also know little about the war experiences of their soldier relatives today is that by 1945 the world was sick of war.
Soldiers were often suspected of exaggerating their wartime lives and were disbelieved.
Shooting Through by Katrina Kittel, is available through Echo Books $35.
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