Italian soldiers reinterred in PMB

2008-10-23 00:00

In July the remains of Italian soldiers and civilians who died during World War 2 and who were buried in Durban’s Hillary Cemetery were exhumed and reinterred in the grounds of the church built by Italian prisoners of war in the Pietermaritzburg suburb of Epworth. Consequently the annual memorial service in honour of

Italian prisoners of war who died in KwaZulu-Natal will take place in Pietermaritzburg this Sunday.

The remains of 35 Italian soldiers now rest in the grounds of the church, along with the remains of those who died following the sinking of the Nova Scotia in 1942 which resulted in the greatest loss of life in South African maritime history.

The Nova Scotia was a hired transport and in addition to her crew was carrying 765 Italians, mostly civil internees from Eritrea, along with 134 South African servicemen returning home.

On November 28, 1942, 30 nautical miles off Cape St Lucia the Nova Scotia came into the sights of German submarine U-177 commanded by Kapitänleutnant Robert Gysae. Three torpedoes from the U-boat struck the Nova Scotia which caught fire and began to sink.

It has been suggested the U-boat commander mistook what was effectively a civilian boat for a naval cruiser. What is not disputed is that Gysae was shocked at discovering that he had sunk a ship carrying Italian allies. He radioed for help and a Portuguese sloop Alfonso de Albuquerque from Lourenço Marques, picked up 192 survivors.

As a result of the tragedy 750 lives were lost. Many of their bodies were later washed up along the north and south coast. According to one source “the people of Durban were shaken into horrified awareness of the closeness of danger when no fewer than 120 corpses were washed up on their city’s until this time, gay holiday beaches”.

It was not possible to identify the corpses after such long immersion in the sea and mutilation by sharks. Neither was it possible to determine the nationality of the bodies so it was decided, as the majority of casualties were Italian, to assume these were Italians. The remains were buried in three mass graves in Hillary Cemetery.

During the course of the war 13 Italian POWs were buried at Hillary Cemetery and in 1956 they were joined by the remains of other POWS exhumed from various locations and reburied at Hillary where, until now, an annual requiem mass has been celebrated.

The exhumation and reburial undertaken in July was supervised by the Commissariat to Honour the Fallen in War (Onorcaduti) of the Italian ministry of defence and marks the end of a process rationalising the Onorcaduti sites in the province with a view to providing a single site of remembrance. It is envisaged that a museum will also be constructed in the church grounds.

On Sunday, mass will be celebrated at the Madonna delle Grazie church at 10.30 am after which wreaths will be laid

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