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Italian POWs in Montville: The story continues

Apr 16, 2019 | Features, History

In February 2018, the Hinterland Times published an article, Rations and Song, on Italian POWs serving on farms around Montville from 1944 to 1945. The story was written by the Montville History Group and was based on early research and incomplete information. The article concluded with a request for additional information to flesh out this largely forgotten chapter of Montville’s history.

by Doug Patterson, Montville History Group

In January 2019, Giuseppe Mazzei, contacted the historical group from Italy. He had read the Rations and Song story in the Hinterland Times and was contacting us to share information on his grandfather, Pietro Basile, who served on E.E. (Artie) Glover’s fruit farm from March 1944 to January 1945. (Congratulations Hinterland Times, you now have an international readership!)

Artie was a fruit farmer along Mill Hill Road from the late 1930s until the 1970s. He moved to Montville from Yandina in 1933. Artie worked for Cliff Dart to gain knowledge of fruit growing and farm management and purchased his own farm on Mill Hill Road from Jim Ruddy in 1939. In 1942 he married Ruth Madeline (Madge) Ruddy, so Madge returned to her childhood home at what is now 82 Mill Hill Road.

Artie applied for Italian POWs to be assigned to the Mill Hill Farm and between 1944 and 1945, four pairs of POWs were assigned to Artie with one Pietro Basile working at the farm for over nine months. 

Giuseppe’s family found Pietro’s ‘secret’ diary of his POW experiences in Australia after the death of his grandmother in 2004, and the Montville link had led him to the Hinterland Times and then to us. (Apparently it was forbidden for POWs to keep diaries.) He is translating Pietro’s diary and the information he is sharing has been invaluable.  

We now know that Pietro’s POW journey took him to India, Cowra, Brisbane and Nambour to finally arrive at Artie Glover’s farm in Montville on March 15, 1944. We also now understand that farms had to take a minimum of two POWs with a maximum of three. An Ettore Zangatesi was assigned to the farm with Pietro.

Pietro thought Mr Glover might have been disappointed because he had hoped for two “strong and skilled farmers”, something Pietro and Ettore weren’t.

In fact, Pietro writes that Ettore was a musician, so he could well have been the tenor whose powerful voice Les Farmer recalls hearing at night in ‘Tinned Peaches’: although Artie’s wife, Madge, recalls that “the two at the house at the top of the hill (probably Cliff Dart’s farm opposite the Glover’s) were real opera singers” in the Centenary History of the Montville State School. 

Pietro and Ettore lived in a small three-roomed wooden cabin with minimal furniture, most likely a worker’s cottage on Glover’s property at the end of Mill Hill Road.

On June 1, Ettore requested a transfer from Glover’s farm on the grounds of personality conflict with Pietro. Clearly, POWs had rights which were honoured by the army, including the right to request transfers. He was replaced by Francesco Telesi who only stayed until October when he was replaced with Umberto Pietronigro.

One of the reasons Pietro stayed on at Glover’s farm was because he had met and befriended a one-year-old “land army” volunteer, Ethel Lilian Love, who was also placed on the farm. 

As essentially co-workers on the farm, it is quite likely that the two developed a close working relationship despite a strict anti-fraternisation policy. Ethel’s descendants tell us that she was a shy teenager and enjoyed Pietro’s company – learning Italian from him.

However, Pietro did request a transfer due to deteriorating relations with Artie in January 1945 – being relocated to W. J. Atkinson’s farm in Palmwoods where he caught up with Francesco Telesi. He was replaced by Pascale Serafini. 

Although fraternisation was discouraged, Pietro noted that Mr Atkinson took them to the beach on January 29, 1945. He records that they had a beautiful day swimming at “Maroochydore and Mooloolah-bah” with the Atkinson family including three of their children, Thelma, Colie and Peter.

However, he also noted that Mr Atkinson was a hard task-master and enforced a strict no smoking policy during working hours despite the POWs receiving a tobacco allowance.

Giuseppe’s contact has certainly encouraged us to keep pursuing the story of Italian POWs assigned to Montville farms. For us, we still have to determine the location of the old house on the hill on Cliff Dart’s farm.

We have asked the National Archives to help us track down the missing ID cards of these men and any other relevant records. We now understand that Australian farmers may have bent the ‘rules’ regarding how they treated the POWs – sometimes to their benefit and at other times, not.

For Giuseppe and his family, the diary has allowed them to get to know a father and grandfather they never had the chance to meet. Pietro died before his daughter, Piera, Giuseppe’s mother, was born.

The family is keen to learn more about Pietro’s experiences in Montville and we are keen to learn more about this part of our history, so we are hoping older Montvilleans can fill in some of the gaps and find old photos of the people, the farms and the buildings.

Once again, if anyone can add to this story, please contact Cate Patterson at cate.patterson@jayb.com.au

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