The Italian community, families of former prisoners and military veterans have commemorated the 70th anniversary of the closure of the largest prisoner of war camp created by the Allies in World War ll at Zonderwater outside Pretoria.

Members of the Zonderwater Block Italy group – sons and daughters of former POWs and representing many thousands of families – made the journey to ensure that their memories are kept alive.

Although the war ended in 1945, the camp was only closed in 1947 because there was a shortage of ships to take the Italians back home. The President of the Zonderwater Block Ex-POW Association, Emilio Coccia, said the last 3 500 prisoners left South Africa on 1 February 1947.

Coccia explained that during their six years in South Africa, the tens of thousands of Italian POWS contributed significantly to the government’s efforts to produce food for the local population as well as the wider war effort.  At the time a quarter of a million South African men were in action first in East and then North Africa, and finally in Europe.

The Italian prisoners were deployed on a voluntary basis to work on farm settlements like the Vaalharts irrigation scheme near Warrenton and the Olifants water scheme in the north-western Cape.  Thousands of square kilometres of land were reclaimed for agriculture.  Other prisoners worked on improving existing roads and mountain passes.  Three-thousand Italian labourers, engineers and artisans built the Du Toit’s Kloof and Montagu passes in less than 4 years.  Many former prisoners later returned to settle in South Africa.

Speaking at the annual memorial service, Italian Ambassador Pietro Giovanni Donnici, remembered another tragedy involving both South Africans and Italians 75 years ago.  In 1942, the Nova Scotia, a small liner that had been converted to a troop ship, was sunk by a German submarine off Cape Saint Lucia.

On board were 765 Italian POWs as well as almost 250 British and South African guards and crew.  There were only about 190 survivors.  This has gone down in history as one of the country’s worst maritime disasters. About 120 POWS were buried in a common grave in what is now the Italian Military Cemetery at Hillary, outside Durban.

In a fitting tribute to those who gave their lives so far from their homes and families, a South African Air Force Museum helicopter scattered rose petals over the Zonderwater cemetery while Catholic clergy blessed the graves.  Wreathes were also laid by military attaches, representatives of Italian and South African military veteran’s organisations and the Department of Correctional Services.

At least 109 000 soldiers arrived in SA from early 1941 and spent as many as six years as POWS.  The remains of 277 soldiers are buried in the cemetery.

Janet Szabo