Scattered across India is an intriguing wartime legacy that connects a church in Dehradun, to airfields near Bengaluru and a memorial in a Mumbai cemetery. All these places are linked to Italian Prisoners of War (POW) brought to India during the Second World War (1939-45), to live here in captivity.
During the war, the deserts of North Africa were a battleground between the Axis and Allied forces. By December 1940, when the Italian soldiers on the Axis side began running out of arms and transport, British and Australian troops, on the Allied side, launched an offensive and captured the port of Tobruk in Libya, among other prominent targets. Along with the territories they won, the Allies also captured around 2 lakh Italian POWs and some of their Axis compatriots.
These prisoners were taken to Britain, the United States, North and South Africa, India and Australia. Around 68,000 of them were shipped by the British to India and they were housed in camps across the country. By early 1941, ships bringing POWs arrived at Bombay and the soldiers were paraded in the city’s streets. They were then sent to 29 camps in different parts of India.
The camps were set up according to the soldiers’ rank. They were surrounded by fences and armed sentries, and the prisoners were never kept in one camp for too long. They lived in open tents and thatched hutments, and tended to pigs and sheep. Many became ill and died due to tropical diseases.
To avoid counterfeiting, a coupon system was introduced to replace currency in these camps. The coupons were of the following denominations: ½, 1,2, 4, and 8 annas, and 1, 5, 8 and 10 rupees.
Life In The POW Camps
In 1943, when Italy surrendered to the Allies during the war, these POWs in India were allowed a fair bit of freedom outside their camps. They mingled with the locals, and often sold them their rations. Sometimes, they cooked in the kitchens of their Indian friends and even gave them medicines when needed.
These camps created business opportunities for local Indians, who bagged contracts to screen films brought across from Europe for these POWs. The films were screened in ‘open-air theatres’, which essentially consisted of a white cloth stretched between two army trucks. Supplies were mostly sourced from two South-based shopping conglomerates, Nilgiris and Spencers. To keep the prisoners abreast of news and to also provide some entertainment, many printing houses took up contracts to deliver newspapers and magazines to them, in European languages.
The camps in Bengaluru and Dehradun were the largest. In Bengaluru, they were situated in what is now known as Parade Grounds. When the Royal Air Force needed to create airfields to address flying operations during the Burma Campaign and in the Middle East, the Italian Auxiliary Pioneer Corps consisting of Italian POWs was raised to build airfields in Bengaluru, at Jalahalli, Jakkur and Yelahanka, with roads till Hebbal.
Interestingly, the POWs introduced the locals in Bengaluru to football. While the locals played barefoot, the Italians wore boots. The POWs also learnt to embroider and make musical instruments, which would be displayed at exhibitions held by them in their camps.
A new army base workshop was also created in Bengaluru, where heavy machinery and tank engines of the Allied troops were repaired by the prisoners. They also went on to contribute to the building of railway tracks, bridges and trenches.
In Dehradun, the prisoners were housed in two separate camps – Clement Town and Premnagar. Interestingly, Clement Town began as an Anglo-Indian settlement founded by an Italian priest, Father R C Clement, in the mid-1930s. Who knew that, after a couple of years, soldiers from his own country would be living in captivity in that very settlement!
But what’s truly fascinating is that, in 1945, when the St Francis Church in Dehradun was being built, the parish priest visited the POW camp at Premnagar, where he discovered the artistic skills of a prisoner named Nino La Civita. The POW was invited to paint the walls of the under-construction church, and Nino went on to depict St Francis of Assisi and the four evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. These paintings can still be seen on the walls of the church in Dehradun.
Fleeing Across The Himalayas
Some fascinating tales of escape also unfolded at these camps. Although some of the prisoners were either shot dead or re-arrested when they tried to escape, the famous Austrian mountaineer, Henrich Harrer, escaped from the Premnagar camp via Tibet, where he lived for seven years. Harrer later wrote about these years in his book Seven Years In Tibet (1952). Likewise, Hans Kopp documented his escape in Himalaya Shuttlecock (1957) and Peter Aufschnaiter in Eight Years In Tibet (1997).
With the Burma Campaign intensifying and Bengal being hit by famine, the Italian POWs and their Axis compatriots were relocated to countries like Australia, South Africa and Britain. After the war ended in 1945, many of them remained in these countries while some returned to their homeland.
When India became independent in 1947, places like Ahmednagar (Maharashtra), Yol (Himachal Pradesh) and Ramgarh (Jharkhand), where Italian POWs had been housed, had prominent Indian Army bases. Similarly, bases in Hebbal, Jalahalli and Yelahanka in Bengaluru, which had been partially constructed by the Italian soldiers, turned into training grounds for the Indian Air Force. The repair workshop built by the Italians is now the 515 Army Base Workshoplocated inside Bengaluru city.
The barracks of Premnagar, now on the outskirts of Dehradun, are a part of the present-day Indian Military Academy.
There is another reminder of the time these prisoners spent in India. The names of Italian POWs who died either due to sickness or while escaping from captivity are inscribed on a memorial in the Sewri Cemetery in Mumbai. A plaque inscribed with the words ‘Sacrario Militare Italiano’ (Italian Military Memorial) is fixed to a tall structure that contains a chapel and the remains of the POWs who perished in India. The memorial, along with the living legacy of the POWs in cities across India, are reminders of an era whose memory still lingers today.
Cover image: Raffaele Lacopini