This story was told to me today by a local farmer (and stamp collector). His father had the farm next door to the one in Kyneton where this soldier was placed.
I don't know the soldier's name so I'm going to call him Giovanni. When the war started he was working on a lathe at the Fiat factory in Milan in Northern Italy. Shortly afterwards, the army came to the factory. They walked through the machines and selected every third person working there and took them away. There was no chance to notify his wife and children at home. He was put on a train heading south. After two weeks basic training, he was shipped to North Africa.
Before the battle of Bardia, the officers went round their men and explained how the coming battle was going to be an easy victory. You are only facing soldiers from the British colonies, from Australia, they were told. Our artillery will wipe them out. Giovanni and his friends thought they meant they were to face Aboriginal warriors, armed with spears.
Giovanni and his comrades stood their ground, armed with rifles as they saw the approaching Australians coming over the dunes. The Australians wore long greatcoats but had added leather jerkins over them as it was bitterly cold. They were yelling and screaming war cries that unsettled poor Giovanni who was no soldier at heart. The Italian officers, seeing them coming, mistook the jerkins for bullet- proof vests and ordered their men to aim for the legs, a much harder target which probably saved a lot of Australian lives.
As they got closer, the Italians were amazed to see that these were white men coming towards them very fast and before they knew what was happening, the Australians were among them bayoneting men left and right. As they got closer, Giovanni and his comrades threw down their weapons and raised their hands.
Thousands of prisoners were taken in North Africa and were shipped all over the world to different parts of the Empire and to the United States. Men in Giovanni's camp were told they would be given a choice to be sent to Canada or Australia. A rumour went round that Canada was a cold place so Giovanni asked for Australia and was sent to Melbourne to be classified and sent to work or an internment camp.
A farmer from Kyneton came in looking for someone to help on his farm. Giovanni put his hand up and said that as his parents had been farmers, he could milk a cow. He could also drive and repair a tractor as he was an "engineer". He got the job.
The farmer in Kyneton treated him well and he in turn worked hard and soon he became treated as one of the family. Working prisoners of war were dressed in Australian army uniforms that had been dyed pink so that they were easy to see and recognise. After a while, the farmer bought him a normal suit which he wore on weekends when he accompanied the farmer's family to church and to Saturday night dances. This went on for two years.
One day a visitor from the government department in charge of prisoner allocation came round. Prisoners were not normally left with one farm for long. The policy was to move them around. The farmer argued that he could not run the farm without Giovanni as he had become such a valuable worker but like many bureaucrats, this one was inflexible and Giovanni was driven away and put on a farm in Tatura, near Shepparton.
This farmer was not so friendly and treated him very harshly but all was not lost.
The farmer in Kyneton was a local councillor and he knew quite a few people in high places. A few words in the right ears were spoken and Giovanni was shipped back to Kyneton where he spent the rest of the war.
When the war ended, Italian prisoners were repatriated back to Italy. Since the day he had been taken away, he had not been able to contact his family. He did not know whether they were alive or dead and he assumed they knew nothing of his fate either. As he said goodbye to the Kyneton family (and my friend's father who lived next door) he promised he would write as soon as he got back to let them know what happened.
No letter came. They tried to trace him through the Red Cross but he had disappeared without a trace. They felt sure he would have written if he had been able to but Northern Italy at the end of the war was a dangerous place, if he even got there. Did he survive? Was there anything waiting for him when he got back to Milan, a city that had been heavily bombed by the allies? Unfortunately, we will never know.
There were many Giovannis. Most would not have been so lucky in the places to they which they were assigned but some stayed in Australia. Even more took the opportunity to migrate back to Australia. Their children became part of the next generation of Aussies.
I'm John. I collect Italian, particularly the Mussolini years.