From 1941 to 1946 Australia was captive home to some 400 Italian military officers, from lieutenants up to army and air-force colonels and naval commanders, encamped for most of that time near Myrtleford in Victoria. Their files exist in the National Archives of Australia (NAA), and the Australian War Memorial (AWM) has their group photographs, taken in late 1943, twelve men per photograph, six standing behind, six seated in front, to be sent home to Italy as reassurance that they were in good health.
Contemporary newsreels pan along endless bedraggled ranks of surrendering Italian infantry, but these officers wore tailored uniforms. Though their files and photographs exist, no one until now has explored their backgrounds, their lives before their capture, or their post-war achievements. They were part of us. Their life in the camp was a hole in their lives and I’m not presently interested in that. This article is about the achievements, as free men, of people who for several years were part of us here.
This article appears in the latest Quadrant.
Click here to subscribe
Almost none chose to emigrate to Australia after returning to Italy. They were middle-, upper-middle and upper-class people. There were two categories of officer, the career officers and the called-up reserve officers who previously (and post-war) were barristers, businessmen, bank managers, journalists, surveyors, engineers, professors and school-teachers, doctors and veterinarians. Some of these men had been decorated for valour in action, at least a dozen had Italian knighthoods, many had significant social and career backgrounds, and many went on to notable achievements post-war, becoming generals and admirals in Italy’s NATO forces, running for political office, or making their mark in business and finance. This article sets out for the first time the backgrounds and deferred destinies of some of the most interesting of these men.
Through the second half of the 1930s Italy’s military resources were being expended on the Spanish Civil War and the invasion and occupation of Abyssinia. When in June 1940 Mussolini entered Hitler’s war it was on the necessary assumption that it would be short and successful. The Regio Esercito (Royal Army) had an overly-large infantry inadequately trained and equipped and insufficiently mechanised. Its medium tanks were among the worst in Europe, its small tanks thinly-armoured death-traps, its anti-tank weapons of insufficient calibre to penetrate the heavier armour of the latest British tanks arriving in North Africa. The Regia Aeronautica (Royal Air Force) had out-of-date ground-attack and fighter planes, including Breda Ba.65s, FIAT G.50 monoplanes and agile FIAT CR.32 and CR.42 biplanes, none of them a match for Hurricanes and Spitfires (state-of-the-art Macchi C.202 Folgori and Stukas were still on the wish-list); the bombers were mainly three-engined SM.79s, impressive in the mid-1930s but decreasingly so. The Regia Marina (Royal Navy) was in better shape, but the impressive speed of its mostly up-to-date or upgraded battleships and cruisers was bought at the expense of relatively thin armour—fast, low and sleek, they were excellent for attack but vulnerable to incoming shells, and of course they lacked radar.
So when Mussolini pressured Marshal Rodolfo Graziani, governor-general of Libya, into invading Egypt from Cirenaica (eastern Libya) on September 13, 1940, Graziani was reluctant. He advanced his forces into Egypt beyond Sidi Barrani, then waited for re-supply. The British counter-attack from December 9 routed the Italian Tenth Army, rolling it back to Benghazi and beyond. Over 130,000 Italian soldiers surrendered along the way. Rommel was sent to reinforce the Italians and the tide turned again. The officers mentioned here were captured in fighting all around the Mediterranean but mostly in Libya between mid-1940 and late 1941, the majority arriving in Sydney on the Queen Mary on August 16, 1941. To keep things in perspective, 35,000 British and Allied troops surrendered to Italian General Enea Navarrini when Tobruk finally fell on June 21, 1942; 85,000 British troops surrendered to General Tomoyuki Yamashita and his much smaller force at Singapore in early 1942 with barely a shot fired; many thousands of British troops were rescued who would otherwise have surrendered at Dunkirk in June 1940; while in the summer and early autumn of 1941 310,000 Soviet troops surrendered at Smolensk and 600,000 at Kiev.
Stereotypes are based on something, but applied as templates to individuals they dissolve in their exceptions. Subverting stereotypes begins with individuals. It’s a valuable exercise, perhaps a moral exercise, particularly in Australia, the third-most-Italian country outside Italy, after Argentina and the United States.
The naval officers included a number decorated for valour or mentioned in dispatches. The second-highest bravery award Italy had to offer was the Medaglia d’Argento al Valor Militare (MAVM, Silver Medal for Military Valour). This medal was awarded to Capitano di Corvetta (Lt-Cdr) Giovanni Pane from Castellammare di Stabia (Napoli), second-in-command of the cruiser San Giorgio. Commissioned in 1919, she was refitted with modern anti-aircraft guns before being sent to defend Tobruk harbour, where she held out from the start of hostilities (June 10, 1940) till the British and Australians entered the town on January 21/22, 1941. First she was unsuccessfully attacked by HMS Gloucester and HMS Liverpool, then on September 9, 1940, two torpedoes were fired at her by HMS Parthian, detonating prematurely. She was also bombed from the air at that time. Through the final months of 1940 San Giorgio supplemented the air defences of Tobruk, downing attacking planes and ultimately firing on approaching Australian forces on January 21, 1941, before scuttling herself. I do not have space to quote all the citations for the decorated officers at Myrtleford, but I will quote this one for the record.
The award of the MAVM to Giovanni Pane (right) translates:
In continual and fearsome attacks by the enemy from the outbreak of hostilities, he gave to the entire crew a singular example of self-sacrifice, promptitude and courage, infusing in the personnel all that spirit of tenacity and daring that creates corps heroism. During the concentrated air attacks of September 9, at the time when the vessel was being hit by several incendiary bombs, under persistent enemy action and intense reaction of the anti-aircraft fire of the local defences, he spent his energies safeguarding the crew and promptly secured the extinction of fires discovered on-board, giving magnificent proof of absolute self-command, profound sense of duty and high contempt of danger.
Unless I’ve missed something, Giovanni Pane was the highest-decorated of the Italian officers at Myrtleford.
Other Italian naval officers at Myrtleford had outstanding records. There were no fewer than seven who had survived the Battle of Cape Matapan on March 29, 1941, five from the heavy cruiser Zara (sunk with the loss of 799 men) and two from the heavy cruiser Pola (328 lost). Of the five from Zara two were awarded the third-highest medal, the Medaglia di Bronzo al Valor Militare (MBVM), for conduct during that battle: Sottotenente di Vascello (Junior Lt) Umberto Cavanna from Genova, and Guardiamarina (Navy Guard) Alberto Vittorio Ortali from Bologna. A third, Aspirante G.M. (Midshipman) Sergio Fiani from Livorno, became an admiral post-war: ammiraglio di divisione. Of the three officers at Myrtleford who had survived the Battle of Cape Spada (July 19, 1940), two, Tenente di Vascello Eugenio Bellini of Capua and Tenente del Genio Navale (Naval Engineer Lt) Fernando Voltolini of Massa Carrara, were mentioned in dispatches (and decorated?) for their conduct on the stricken cruiser Bartolomeo Colleoni, sunk by HMAS Sydney and other warships. Voltolini had reactivated part of the ship’s motive power and kept it going until ordered to abandon ship, while Bellini, though gravely wounded in an arm, only abandoned ship after seeing his men off in their lifeboat.
Another naval officer at Myrtleford, Tenente di Vascello Ulrico Laccetti from Camerino (Marche), captured in action on the Red Sea on April 6, 1941, had a notable career post-war, serving from 1963 to 1964 as Capitano di Vascello (highest rank below admiral) on Italy’s most prestigious training vessel, the tall ship Amerigo Vespucci.
Tenente Colonello Armando Piragino, aged thirty-six, of the Regia Aeronautica was the first combatant among the military officers at Myrtleford to have been captured, on June 19, 1940, nine days after Italy entered hostilities. At 8.40 a.m., in command of 84ª squadriglia (part of 10° Gruppo), Piragino took off from Tobruk in Cirenaica with four other FIAT CR.42s. In combat that morning with British fighters the Italians claimed six victories for the loss of two of their own including Piragino, who was wounded in the leg and crashed at Sollum (just across the border in Egypt), spending the rest of the war a prisoner. From December 1944 to May 1945 he accepted the opportunity to leave camp and work on a farm, exceptional for any of these officers above the rank of lieutenant—unseemly perhaps, but he didn’t care. Though the claimed victories were listed as shared, he counts in the records as an ace fighter pilot. His home address, where his wife waited, was Antonio Canova 7, Gorizia, on an elegant street of art-nouveau and art-deco apartments overlooking a park. (As Google Street View clearly shows, most of these officers were from attractive apartments on elegant streets.) In the 1950s, as full colonel, he commanded 5° Stormo (F84Gs and F104G Starfighters) in the post-war Italian Air Force.
Interesting in a comical way were the four Italian Stuka (Ju87B) pilots at Myrtleford who landed in the desert after running out of fuel. The planes had been flown in from another base and the ground staff slipped up. From squadriglia 209ª of 102º Gruppo, they were Tenente Laerte Crivellini (from Senigallia, where the family owned the waterfront Albergo Regina, still there), Tenente Giulio Giunta (Porto Maggiore), Tenente Eriodante Domizioli (Macerata) and Sottotenente Alessandro Palamidessi (Firenze).
Palamidessi, with others, had won the Medaglia di Bronzo al Valor Militare (MBVM) for action over the central Mediterranean near Malta on July 24, 1941, his group diving on a well-escorted enemy convoy, inflicting severe losses and returning to base in neat formation.
Crivellini was an ardent Fascist, orator and wit. At Myrtleford he had multiple detentions for disobedience, and in 1946 escaped for a few days (the war had been over for months). On a bus in Rome after his return to Italy he heard some passengers complaining, with the benefit of memory loss, how only Mussolini had wanted Italy to enter the war. “We were led into it by the folly of just one man. It was the ruin of Italy.” Crivellini politely interrupted them: “Permit me to correct you: The war was not willed by just one Italian, but by two: one’s me, the other was Mussolini.” He stood unsuccessfully for election to the Camera dei Deputati in the Italian Parliament on June 7, 1953, as a candidate for the neo-Fascist Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI), and later, in the 1970s, headed MSI-DN Pavia, standing as that party’s candidate for the Senate on June 20, 1976.
Eriodante Domizioli was, in addition to his role of fighter pilot, a violinist and, after the war, a noted poet and playwright in Maceratese dialect: three-act comedies, an operetta and more (all downloadable from the internet).
Other Regia Aeronautica officers at Myrtleford deserve attention in any longer treatment, including Sottotenente Aldo Conti from Alezio, who had flown with the Corpo Aereo Italiano in bombing missions against England, and Sottotenente Raimondo Uda from Bolotona (Nuoro), who had the complex misfortune of having to ditch his seaplane in Greek waters before the Italian attack on Greece, which, after it was forced into war, passed him on to the British, who passed him on to the Australians, who sent him halfway around the world.
The professional army officers and called-up reservists at Myrtleford comprised the great majority there, and I’ll identify notable examples. Most were captured across North Africa, but some in border areas between Albania and Greece, in a series of sometimes catastrophic battles that contrasts with the impressive actions of Italy’s armies against Austrian and German forces in the Great War.
Italy’s rash invasion of Greece from Albania on October 28, 1940, was fiercely resisted and had little success in subsequent months of fighting back-and-forth through mountainous terrain, though the Alpini fought well. Some thirty-odd Italian officers at Myrtleford had been captured in these actions, most leaving no internet-searchable life histories, but there are exceptions. One was Sottotenente Adone Zoratto, with the 8° Alpini Regiment. His father Roberto (d. 1953) owned a textile firm in Udine, and Adone was being readied to take effective control when he was called up, not to return for over six years until finally sailing for home on the Strathmore on November 7, 1946. Subsequently he founded his own firm in Udine, Zoratto Commerciale, and from 1981 was president of the Associazione Commercianti della provincia di Udine. I mention him because he was awarded the highest knighthood Italy has to offer, Commendatore, Ordine al Merito della Repubblica Italiana on December 27, 1978, and died in Udine on June 25, 2010.
Another of these Alpini was Sottotenente Renzo Vergani of Montebelluna (Treviso), agricultural expert. Post-war he worked for the rights of ex-servicemen and was made Commendatore on December 27, 1996. He was still writing letters to the Tribuna di Traviso until a few years ago, berating the government for allocating large sums to victims of war in Iraq while providing a pittance to Italy’s own war widows. He wrote a diary, Prigioniero in Australia, which I have seen in the Archivio diaristico nazionale at Pieve Santo Stefano (Arezzo). At Myrtleford he refused to consider farm work because he saw it as collaboration, but a new camp commandant persuaded him to go out and live with a farming family of Scottish Australians, and two women he met helped him get his sanity back.
Cavalry also fought in Greece, among them Tenente Adolfo Baldissera, one of those who accepted the offer to work with a farming family (in the Corryong region). His family at Padova were major players in the insurance business and he ended up on the board of directors of one of Italy’s largest insurance companies, Alleanza Assicurazioni SpA (Milano), in the 1980s.
Another diarist, captured in Egypt on December 9, 1940, was Sottotenente Luigi Pratesi from Ciggiano (Arezzo), who subsequently became a generale di brigata (brigadier general) in the post-war Italian Army. Pratesi was the first of the Myrtleford officers to have been captured in North Africa (at Fort Nibeiwa in Egypt, fiercely defended by the Maletti Saharan Desert Group which lost 800 killed including General Pietro Maletti, with 1300 wounded)—the first action of Operation Compass, which rolled the Italian Tenth Army back into Libya.
The British entered Sidi Barrani on December 10, 1940, some Italian units holding out into the next day, among them Tenente Carlo Felloni, who had been awarded the Croce di Guerra for military valour with the 10th Colonial Infantry Battalion in Italian East Africa. Some twenty of the officers at Myrtleford were captured in and around Sidi Barrani, and almost as many in proximate battle sites including Buq Buq, among those Cav. Capitano Silvio Messena from Reggio Calabria (knighthoods at the level of Cavaliere were awarded in large numbers through the 1930s—he received his while still a lieutenant, in 1934), and, perhaps more notably, Capitano Mario Pellissetti, construction engineer, son of Naval Captain Oreste Pellissetti (1863–1932). Mario Pellissetti had directed the construction of the Mestre–Venezia bridge, which many readers will know (opened by the Prince and Princess of Piedmont in the presence of Mussolini on April 25, 1932). Post-war he was primo ingegnere of Pordenone from 1948 to 1954 before moving on to other regions.
Several of those captured at the Battle of Bardia (fought over several days in early January 1941), and subsequently confined at Myrtleford, had outstanding military careers in front of them. Examples include Tenente Aligi Torsoli of Monticiano (Siena), post-war generale di brigata (1966) and then generale di divisione (1974); and Cav. Maggiore Domenico Panvini of Sestri Levante (Genova) post-war colonello, comandante of the Armed Forces Telecommunications School, 1954 to 1957. Notable too among officers at Myrtleford who were captured at Bardia was Sottotenente Ettore Romito, awarded the Medaglia di Bronzo al Valor Militare (MBVM) for bravery in this battle. Others had distinguished themselves pre-war (Cav. Maggiore Gaetano Di Grazia, for example).
Of those at Myrtleford captured at or around Tobruk when the Italians lost it (January 21–23, 1941) several are of special interest. Sottotenente Ferrer Busignani, from Rimini, was the brother of Francesco Busignani, killed in action in Abyssinia and posthumously awarded the top decoration for valour, the Medaglia d’Orio al Valor Militare (MOVM), but that is not the most interesting thing about Ferrer Busignani. Their father was Pellegrino Busignani who, in the 1910s and 1920s, was a socialist revolutionary and then an anarchist. Around late 1940 or early 1941 the entire family was inscribed in the Fascio riminesi as full members of the PNF (Francesco’s posthumous MOVM helped the process). It was uncommon, though by no means unheard of, for former socialist revolutionaries and anarchists to seek to join the PNF, and be accepted.
Another was Sottotenente Alfredo Scribani Rossi. His second-degree nephew, Count Luca Scribani Rossi, currently head of Beretta Australia, is a friend of mine. Alfredo, captured at Tobruk on January 21, 1941, was born in Piacenza and was a Milano barrister and reserve officer before his call-up into the artillery. His grandfather was Alfredo Scribani Rossi, Conte di Cerreto (1844–1920), tenente generale in the Regio Esercito. His great-uncle, Stefano Scribani Rossi, Conte di Cerreto (from 1920), was also a tenente generale. After returning to Italy in August 1945 Alfredo Scribani Rossi published books on law such as his 1991 Giustizia e civiltà, ten years after his intriguing Adultere, untori e streghe: la giustizia attraverso i secoli (Adulteresses, Plague-spreaders and Witches: Justice Across the Centuries).
Also captured at Tobruk, the following day, was Capitano Gianfranco Tamaro, lawyer from Trieste, later president of the Trieste Rotary Club. He was a veteran of the March on Rome (October 22–29, 1922) and one of the earliest Fascists in Italy, inscribed in the PNF on September 1, 1919.
Others of note included the military historian Tenente Colonello Nicola Pietravalle; prominent Genova barrister Tenente Augusto Bellotti-Bon; candidates for post-war Italian national elections Capitano Burrelli-Scotti for the Partito Nazionale Monarchico in June 1953, Sottotenente Giamberto Zampolli for the MSI in April 1948 and June 1953, and Tenente Laerte Crivellini for the MSI in June 1953; Tenente Gregorio Castigli, professor of the University of Bologna; and particularly the following post-war recipients of the order Commendatore or knight commander: Tenente Aristide Prenna (December 27, 1975), Sottotenente Adone Zoratto (December 27, 1978), Sottotenente (later Generale) Guido Vazon (June 2, 1979), and Sottotenente Renzo Vergani (December 27, 1996).
Further research on these men would include their activities and correspondence while prisoners in Australia. Because many of their achievements as Italians were significant, and because they lived here, it’s appropriate to know something about them.
Philip Ayres’s most recent book, Private Encounters in the Public World, was reviewed in Quadrant‘s July-August issue
 Most went to Murchison at first, then in mid-1942 to Myrtleford, a camp for officers and their batmen, where the great majority remained until repatriated. In 1943 the camp was divided into a compound for those loyal to the King and another for those professing continued attachment to Mussolini and the Salo-based Repubblica Sociale Italiana.
 NAA, Security and Intelligence Records, principally series A7919 and MP1103/1&2. These files, individually searchable on-line using the individual’s name, are used throughout this article. They contain such details as date and place of birth, next of kin, address in Italy, occupation there, date and place of capture, date of arrival in Australia, places of internment, any details of hospitalisations, disobedience, farm work, etc. while prisoner in Australia, and date and vessel of repatriation.
 AWM Collections 030152-030155 (group photographs taken in November 1943, Myrtleford Prisoner of War Camp).
 Gazzetta Ufficiale del Regno d’Italia, No. 122, 23 May 1942, p. 2100. The Gazzetta is the principal source used in this article for information on pre-war and wartime awards.
 http://www.marinai.it/marinai/stabiesi/cattaneo.pdf accessed 5 October 2015.
 http://necrologie.repubblica.it/necrologi/2004/465572-fiani-sergio accessed 22 July 2015.
 http://www.congedativespucci.it/campagne/campagna1964.html accessed 24 September 2015
 Google Street View, as in subsequent similar observations.
 Håkan Gustavsson, “Biplane Fighter Aces: Italy,” http://surfcity.kund.dalnet.se/italy_piragino.htm accessed 15 September 2015, citing multiple sources including Annuario Ufficiale delle Forze Armate del Regno d’Italia, Anno 1943, III: Regia Aeronautica (Istituto Poligrafico dello Stato, Roma, 1943); Håkan Gustavsson and Ludovico Slongo, Desert Prelude: Early Clashes, June-November 1940 (MMP Books, Helsinki, 2010); same authors, Fiat CR.42 Aces of World War 2 (Osprey Publishing, Oxford, 2009); and Italian war diaries. Other biographical details here: NAA series MP1103/1&2, PWI47008, barcodes 8627298 and 9916198.
 Search “Crivellini Aristide” (his father), then “Scheda Completa.” Sourced 3 October 2015. A nephew, Marcello, was member of the Camera dei Deputati (Partito Radicale) from 1979.
 A well-known fiasco. Discussion of details: http://forum.12oclockhigh.net/archive/index.php?t-16955.html accessed 16 June 2015.
 Gazzetta Ufficiale del Regno d’Italia, No. 103, 30 April 1942, p. 1740.
 Luca Telese, Cuori Neri (Sperling & Kupfer, Milano, 2006).
 Ministero dell’Interno: Archivio Storico delle Elezioni: Camera del 7 Giugno 1953, Milano-Pavia, MSI, on-line, accessed 3 October 2015.
 Ministero dell’Interno: Archivio Storico delle Elezioni: Senato del 20 Giugno 1976, Collegio Vigevano, on-line, accessed 3 October 2015.
 Friuli nel Mondo, No. 393, July 1987, p. 13.
 La Tribuna di Treviso, 14 December 2003.
 Springer, Major Companies of Italy, ed. R. M. Whiteside et al. (Graham & Trotman, Netherlnds, 1989), on-line citation: http://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-94-011-3022-6_9#page-1 accessed 1 October 2015; see also companycheck.co.uk/director/904701835 accessed 1 October 2015.
 I have arranged for these diaries at the Archivio diaristico nazionale to be copied for the library of the Italian Historical Society and Co.As.It. in Melbourne.
 Clear from his diary. For confirmation see the reference to him, and the signed statement by him, in Fiamme d’Oro, Mensile, anno X, N. 3 (March 1983), p. 17.
 There are so many war histories covering these well-documented actions that anyone with Internet connection can check the basic facts; it would be misleading to list any one source.
 Gazzetta Ufficiale del Regno d’Italia, No. 239, 11 October 1940, p. 3754.
 Gazzetta Ufficiale del Regno d’Italia, No. 155, 4 July 1934, p. 3075.
 www.marinaipordenone.net/#loreste-Pellissetti/c7gg last accessed 20 July 2015.
 http://luciesuoni.blogspot.com.au/2007/10/la-famiglia-torsoli-di-monticiano-tempi.html and http://luciesuoni.blogspot.com.au/2007/10/la-famiglia-torsoli-di-monticiano-parte.html both accessed 20 March 2016.
 www.comune.campana.cs.it/index.php?action=index&p=229 accessed 29 June 2015.
 Gazzetta Ufficiale del Regno d’Italia, No. 306, 30 December 1941.
 Inventario: Indice alfabetico degli iscritti al Fascio riminese di combattimento, inv. Elettronico at Archivi: Sistema Informativo degli Archivi di Stato: Ricerca. Also http://www.informazionecorianese.net/2014/05/14/sovversi-corianesi-di-paolo-zaghini-notarelle-storiche-corianesi-10/ accessed 20 March 2016.
 Il Giornale dell’U.N.U.C.I. Lombardia, double number, XVII, no. 3 (October–December 2004) and XVIII, no. 1 (January–March 2005), p. 7.
 La Porta Orientale: Rivista mensile di studi sulla guerra e di problem giuliani e dalmati, Trieste, January/February/March 1940, p. 179, under “Vita culturale e politica.”
 Le distruzioni nell’ultima Guerra e nel future: loro influenza sulle operazioni campali (1933).