Members of the Italian ex-prisoner of war (POW) association, the Italian ambassador, South African authorities and veterans groups have paid tribute to all involved in the Zonderwater POW camp near Pretoria at the weekend.
Emilio Coccia, President of the Zonderwater Block ex-POW Association, pointed out that Zonderwater was the largest Allied Prisoner Of War camp in WW II, where some 109 000 Italian POWs spent up to six years. The Allies endeavoured to place Axis prisoners as far from Europe as possible, in places like Australia, Canada and South Africa, to prevent them escaping and returning to fight.
Coccia recalled the death of 21 year old corporal Michelangelo Campesi who was buried in July 1941. He was the first of 312 POWS to be buried in South Africa; 277 in Zonderwater and 35 at the Pietermaritzburg war cemetery.
He also paid tribute to Paolo Ricci, who was the last surviving World War ll POW from the camp, aged 96. He added that the number of deaths was low due to humane conditions in the camp. He praised Colonel Hendrik Prinsloo, the man chosen by Prime Minister Jan Smuts to run Zonderwater for achieving these conditions.
South African Air Force Major General Johan Pelser said Prinsloo had followed the Geneva Conventions strictly and improved conditions greatly. As a result of this, after the war, many former Italian POWs opted to stay in South Africa.
Pietro Giovanni Donnici, Italy’s Ambassador to South Africa, described his attendance at the memorial service as very emotional, as he had recently taken up his post and attended for the first time.
A Roman Catholic service was held after which Catholic clergy blessed the graves and a SAAF Museum Alouette III helicopter flew over the site, dropping flower petals.