The POW camp of Zonderwater, which can more accurately be
described as a city, was the largest of the eighteen known World
War II Italian POW camps. Commanded by Colonel Hendrik
Prinsloo, it was situated in Cullinan, some 43km north-east of the
city of Pretoria, South Africa, an area more renown for the
discovery of diamonds. Today, Zonderwater Correctional Service is
a maximum security prison.
During the Italian occupation of Eritrea, East Africa, during the
periods, 1935 and 1941, the Italian army under the dictatorship of
Benito Mussolini brought this somewhat primitive district under
the control of a better functioning country. However, the invasion
in itself came at a cost of many lives and a lot of brutality;
notorious for the use of mustard gas.
On June 10, 1940, Mussolini entered World War II and joined
Hitler as his Axis ally. As a result, the colony of Italian East
Africa proved to be short-lived. Initially, the Italians attacked
British and Commonwealth forces in the Sudan, Kenya, and
British Somaliland. In August of that year, the Italians even
overran all of British Somaliland, reaching the port town of
Berbera, forcing the British and Commonwealth forces there to
flee. But, by the end of 1941, during the East African Campaign,
Ethiopia was liberated from Italian control by a combination of
British, Commonwealth (South Africa), Free French, Free
Belgian, and Ethiopian forces.
Many Italian forces surrendered to the reinforced and regrouped
Allied retaliation, and many prisoners were taken, which became a
problem for the advancing forces. These captured prisoners from
Abyssinia and North Africa could not be transported to England
on account of the danger to shipping in the Mediterranean. Nor
could they be kept, in any great numbers, at the bases in Egypt,
which were threatened by the enemy at that time. For these and
other reasons the High Command of Great Britain and the Union
decided to construct camps in South Africa to accommodate the
stream of prisoners who had begun to pour in, in ever-increasing
In April 1941, the first foreign prisoners-of-war ever to set foot on
South African soil landed at Durban. They were Italians, captured
in Libya and Abyssinia. This contingent turned out to be merely
the forerunner of tens of thousands more.
The prisoners began to arrive in their thousands within a very
short period of time, and owing to difficulties of sea-transport and
the secrecy of movements, little notice was received of the arrival
of new batches. Hence these ready-made camp sites were
invaluable, making it possible to give the new arrivals a
reasonable amount of shelter.
Prior to Zonderwater becoming a POW camp, the area was
declared a 'Prohibited Zone' to the public. A training camp had
been set up, preparing the South African Armed Forces about to
enter the arena of war. Ships transporting troops bound for North
Africa found themselves returning filled with Italian POW's.
However, not all ships came safely through; on the 28/11/42 the
'Nova Scotia'
fell victim to a torpedo attack and went down, taking
with her 600 Italian POW's.
In the course of time, as the tide of war turned against the
Germans in North Africa, German prisoners were also shipped to
South Africa, but they only remained here for a comparatively
short time; their final destination being Canada. Everyone was
glad to see them go; unlike the easy going Italians they were
confrontational, insubordinate and uncooperative towards their
guards. There were also a small number of Vichy French
prisoners, as well as a couple of thousand Indo-Chinese, captured
on the high seas.
The early days at Zonderwater were trying ones for the
disillusioned troops. The period 1941-1943 were known as the
Tendopoli days. Eight-men canvas tents were erected to house the
prisoners. By comparison to sleeping under the stars up north at
the front, this in itself was a luxury. But with the high winds,
treacherous thunderstorms and sandy conditions, a new war had
begun for these young men, this time, against the elements. The
metal poles used to sustain these tents became magnets during
such vicious storms with many men falling victim to lightning. At
the beginning of 1942, a massive 7,000 tents had been erected; by
the time the number of prisoners had reached 63000, it had
become clear to the authorities that alternative accommodation
needed to be considered. With this began the construction of
barracks; a combination of bricks and wood was used and
thousands of eager troops got down to work to better their living
The camp was capable of holding 120000 prisoners (though the
largest number at one time was 90000) and was divided into
blocks; fourteen in all. Each block, designed to accommodate 8000
men, was further subdivided into four camps, each of
approximately 2000 men.
Each block was surrounded by two high barbed wire fences, with
sentries posted on raised platforms, overlooking the entire block;
these were strategically placed at short distances from one
another. These perimeter fences were lit all night by strong arc
lights, making this a very impressive picture from afar.
Each block was a self-contained unit, with its own administrative
officer, its own medical inspection room, store-room, sports field
and theatre; while every camp within the block had its own
separate kitchen and ablution facilities. The inmates of each block
developed solidarity; a kind of local patriotism to their own piece
of earth, and there was great rivalry between them. They planted
gardens around their huts, and erected statues and fountains in
the grounds. It was not long before this section of the Highveld
began to take on the character of an Italian village.
Schools were started in all the blocks, and there were classes in
foreign languages, history, science and literature for the more
educated men, while for those who were entirely illiterate, and
these were many, there began regular elementary schools
throughout the camp. Arts and crafts workshops were opened and
excellent work was done. Once a year an Exhibition and Sale of
Work was held which was open to the general public, and there
was much competition amongst the visitors to acquire the various
objects d'art.
Encouraged by the Welfare Officers, theatres and orchestras
sprang up everywhere in the camp. At first the musicians were
unable to obtain instruments, and the ingenuity with which they
manufactured them was unbelievable. Violins were made from
purloined lavatory seats, and drums improvised from all
conceivable odds and ends. Later the prisoners were able to buy
instruments from the profits earned from the various canteens.
From then on, morning, noon and night operas, concertos and
nostalgic Italian folk-songs filtered through the air.
But the prisoners' most notable achievements were undoubtedly
their theatre performances. Their repertoire ranged from classic
dramas such as "Cyrano de Bergerac" to modern drawing room
comedies, light opera and reviews. Their costumes were made from
anything they could beg, borrow or steal. I have seen women in the
audience gasp with envy at a superb ermine coat, which turned out
to be entirely of cotton wool (as was later discovered upon
checking the medical stores). The men's clothes, made of dyed
sacking, were the last word in cut and elegance. Occasionally, a
beauty chorus of hairy, muscular, blue-chinned sailors in almost
transparent ballet dresses convulsed the audience. Some of the
"leading ladies" were so convincing and charming that it was
difficult to keep some of the visitors away from the stage door.
There were also facilities for most outdoor sports. The most
popular game was soccer, and there were a number of
internationals among the players. Inter-block matches were held
right throughout the season. There was keen competition for the
trophies presented by the Welfare Section. The prisoners also
played tennis, handball and bowls, and there were some first-class
boxers and fencers amongst these young men.
In short, everything possible was done to keep the prisoners
healthy in mind and body. After six years in captivity, in a foreign
land, away from all they held dear, these men returned to their
country in no way degenerated. On the contrary, they were useful
and profitable years for most of the prisoners.
Much more can be said of this time in history and a brief 1400
words is barely scratching the surface. In short, this episode had a
great influence as to why the Italian population in South Africa is
so prolific.
You may ask what my interest in this chapter of history is; my father was part of
the many interned in this camp, and growing up around the stories and memorial
services I developed a keen interest in it all. My father was one of the teachers
who taught many to read and write. Read some of his memoirs by going to the
link on this page.

Research taken from the Military History Journal - Volume 1 No 4
Zonderwater I prigionieri in Sudafrica (1941-1947) by Mario Gazzini
Certain Photographs: "Perche" a book compiled by Achille Armellin

Colonel H.F.Prinsloo O.B.E., E.D.
Commander at Zonderwater
'Perche?' by C Sdoya

Italian Forces in North Africa
Columns of troops Surrender
The Long Wait Begins
Carrying Italian Prisoners
of War, Dec'1940
Italians Surrender at Sidi Barrani
Italian Prisoners from Sidi Barrani
Nova Scotia
'Tendopoli', Zonderwater 1941
The Geisha
Theatre 'Scatola della Fantasia' Block VI
3000 meter Athletics
Blessing the Graves
Commemorate Ceremony 'Tre Archi' 2-11-1946
The Gate to Liberty are Opened
Wish me Luck as you Wave me Goodbye!
La Guerra di Pietro
POW's Arrive at Zonderwater
POW's in cages North Africa
Columns of POW's Surrender
Tank Attack
Time to Reflect