Some History
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 numbers.
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 conditions.
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 1939-1945
'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!
Duca d'Aosta
Zonderwater Gallery
Memoirs of a POW
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
LÍtalia Lontana Vi Benedice
YouTube Video RAI
Visit My Zonderwater Pinterest Board for Rare and Historic Pictures dedicated to this Chapter of History