Changing Attitudes among South African Prisoners of War towards their Italian Captors during World War II, 1942–1943

Karen Horn


The Battle of Sidi Rezegh in November 1941 and the fall of Tobruk in June 1942 were disastrous for South Africa.  At Sidi Rezegh, the entire 5th South African Infantry Brigade was lost and at Tobruk the following year more than 10 000 South Africans were captured by German forces.  As if the shock of becoming prisoners of war (POWs) was not bad enough, most South Africans were horrified when the Germans promptly handed them over to the Italians, who were to deal with the logistics for the thousands of POWs, first housing them in temporary camps in North Africa, and then transporting them to Italy.  Once on the European continent, the South African POWs found themselves in better-organised prison camps, although most POW accommodation was a far cry from what the Geneva Convention required.  Some were fortunate to be assigned to labour detachments, where they were in a better position to take control of their circumstances with regard to living conditions and food and even gaining a degree of freedom of movement.  During each of the stages of their captivity under the Italians, the South African POWs displayed changing attitudes towards their captors.  For the most part, the Italian forces in North Africa were viewed with disrespect and sometimes with cynical amusement.  The antagonism towards Italians quickly changed to intense hatred when POWs suffered severe deprivations in the cargo holds of the boats that transported them to Italy.  Once in Italy, however, the POWs came into contact with Italian camp guards who, in many cases, displayed a remarkable lack of interest in the prisoners and in the war.  The changing attitudes of South African POWs towards their Italian captors reflect to an extent their changing circumstances as captives; however, their behaviour towards their captors also reveal how the POWs adapted to and accepted their POW identity.  Ultimately, the POWs contact with the enemy captors changed the way they viewed their part in the war, and this article looks at examples of the shifting mind-sets until the Armistice in 1943 once again changed the state of affairs for the POWs.


Prisoners of war (POWs); World War II; South Africa; Italy; Sidi Rezegh; Tobruk; Lieutenant General Erwin Rommel; Major General H.B. Klopper

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Copyright (c) 2018 Karen Horn

ISSN 2224-0020 (online); ISSN 1022-8136 (print)

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