Italian prisoners of war made SA home

2009-01-30 00:00

Franco Caruso, Fellipo Farina, Salvatore Fardella and Diogene Valentini were four of the prisoners of war who participated in the building of the Italian church, Madonna delle Grazie (Our Lady of Graces), at Epworth from 1943 to 1944 .

They were among thousands of Italians taken prisoner when Tobruk was captured by forces under General Wavell, commander-in-chief of the Middle East, on January 22, 1941. They had prayed that they would be captured by South Africans and not by the Australians or Scots. Their wish was granted and they were among those brought to the prisoner-of-war camp at Hay Paddock, a tented camp alongside the old main road (at the end of Alan Paton Avenue).

Considering that they came from all walks of life and were not builders, the completion of the church was a real accomplishment. Now, 64 years later a service is still held on the first Sunday of the month at 10 am. The shale used in building the church came from a quarry on the corner of Murray Road and the old Durban Road.

After the war, the men remained in South Africa and married. Family members are still here, except for Maria Caruso who, after living in Greytown, has returned to Italy. Fellipo Farina had four sons and two daughters. The youngest son, Joss, and a daughter, Angelina, live with their families in Pietermaritzburg and Durban, respectively.

Many of these prisoners of war were paroled and worked on farms. Salvatore Fardella worked for the owner of Maizelands Guest Farm near Camperdown and later was asked to build a house at Merrivale. This he accomplished, but as he was a prisoner on parole, he received no payment. Fardella eventually lived in Howick where he opened the F&F Hardware shop, which is still operating today. He has since died, leaving his wife, Georgia, two sons and three daughters.

Valentini was a member of the Carabinieri, the elite corps of the Italian Police Force. Recruits to the Carabinieri were hand-picked and had to be of “exemplary character”. No one in their extended family, going three generations back, was to have had any flaws such as a criminal record.

Valentini was 18 when he joined the Carabinieri and took part in the Italian war against Abyssinia in 1935.

As they were returning home afterwards, they watched their homeland fading into the distance as they sailed past in order to take part in the Spanish Civil War, which Valentini said was a horrifying experience. This ended in April 1939 and when Italy entered World War 2 in June 1940, the Carabinieri corps was called up again.

From the Hay Paddock camp, Valentini was among those sent to the Sonderwater prisoner-of-war camp near Pretoria where he said that several prisoners were struck by lightning on occasions because of “blue stone” (iron rock) in the vicinity.

When paroled he worked on several farms before being granted a permanent residence permit at the end of hostilities, eventually managing, then owning, a farm in the Inhlamvini district near Highflats in southern Natal. Some years later, with his wife and small daughter, Valentini moved to Pietermaritzburg where he died in 1985.

During the war he wrote a book of poems which has never been published. This photo is all that remains of his early life. He invited a friend to see all his photos and memorabilia, but when the trunk was opened all that remained was a small heap of dust. White ants had devoured the lot.

Perhaps the Italian Consulate could supply names of other prisoners of war who were involved in the building of that church with a view to having a memorial plaque erected.

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