Duca d'Aosta with King Vittorio Emanuele III
Original Text in Italian by Antonio Forleo
Translated by Franco Forleo 2010
(1890 - 1941)
1937 - 194 0 Commanding Officer 9th Colonial Brigade, Italian East Africa
1940 - 1941 Commanding Officer 2nd Colonial Brigade, Italian East Africa
1941 Killed in Action Picture source: Courtesy of Franco Tarnassi
Hand Drawn Map of Zonderwater by POW Italo Cerreti 1945
Church built by Italian POW's, Pietermaritzburg
The writer of these memoirs, Antonio Forleo, years later with his wife Ida, at
the grave of Captain Maggi
(Cheren, A.O.I. 2 febbraio-17 marzo 1941 -XIX)
A newspaper cutting dedicated to Lorenzini (source
Map of action Eritrea 1941
The Memoirs of a POW (A. Forleo) May 1989
The writer of these memoirs is a former prisoner of war, who was entrusted with the
task of teaching a group of fifty illiterate comrades to read and write by Don
Napoletano and Don Abene, two Italian army chaplains. This took place during a
time when almost 100 000 Italian POWs were held captive at the Zonderwater camp
during the years 1941-1946.
The students came to me knowing nothing; I first had to teach them how to hold a
pencil between their fingers. I got them up to a Grade 3 level, which proved to be a
challenge for me, and for them too. The youngest of my group was no less than forty
years of age, and I, as their teacher, was actually the youngest in the class. My
intention was to take those men beyond that point of learning, but it proved
impossible. They lacked what was most essential - a calm mind with which to pay
attention and to study.
As bad news of the war came filtering through from the front, and letters which took
four to five months to arrive brought news from home, emotions were running high. I
remember reading a letter for one my students about the death of his son on the
Greek front; and for another about the loss of his mother. Then there were the letters
dreaded most of all - how do you break the news of a wife's betrayal? I watched these
grown men cry, and I cried with them too; we were fifty-one brothers, all of whom
respected me. Perhaps many of them, if any are still alive, still think of me today. Of
each one I could write a story; I can still remember all of their names.
One afternoon while I was in my tent correcting my students' homework I saw Nicola
Caruso approaching, letter in hand. Emotionally, with tear-filled eyes, he asked
permission to enter my quarters. His words were, 'Maestro, this is the first time I am
able to read a letter from my family. I owe you many thanks, Maestro, from the
bottom of my heart. Many, many thanks."
One day, as we finished a trial exam, we were all nervous. The following day would
be the big one, under the supervision of the officers. I was at the door of my
classroom, bidding everyone good luck with words of encouragement, when Vittorio
Brento came up to me. He was a serious man with a great will to learn. He put his
arms around me and I heard the emotion in his voice as he whispered his gratitude
for the gift I had helped him achieve. "God bless you for the rest of your life, my
son", he said. "You have done for me what my own children have not been able to
achieve in many years".
Polese, on the other hand, was the joker of the class; he came from the region of
Piedmont. His had the ability to boost the morale of his fellow prisoners with his
humour, even during times of gloom. His place in the class was up front, closest to
the blackboard, due to his short-sightedness. I remember him with chirps such as,
"Maestro, your patience with us is immeasurable, especially with me. You see,
Maestro, I have a head as hard as stone. Not even a hungry hyena would want to feed
I would never have imagined that such a bond could be formed between total
strangers. When we parted, I took down all of their addresses. However, our
internment was not yet over, and during the remaining years, with the moving from
one camp to another, all these notes went missing; the records of my loyal friends.
Yes, I say loyal friends, because towards the end of our time together we were no
longer just teacher and pupils.
As I previously mentioned, I am an ex-POW and was interned at Zonderwater camp.
I was in the 7th Block, camp No27,( marked X on the map), and this block was
commandeered by a warrant officer of the Italian Navy by the name of Caracciola.
It was in this block that the famous school of the Duca d'Aosta was established; it
was at this school that I had the honour and privilege of teaching.
I also had the privilege of meeting the Duca d'Aosta personally on more than one
occasion. Our first meeting took place before the war, in 1939. It was in Massaua
where I was at that time. The Duke was passing through, having just arrived by ship,
the Tevere, en route to Addis Ababa. He had stopped at the hotel where I was
employed, waiting for a convoy to be formed. The enterprising hotel manager took
advantage of the Duke's stay and asked him if he would inaugurate the newly
constructed swimming pool.
I was on the diving board of this new pool when I first saw the Duke. He came up to
the diving board and I passed him the scissors so that he could cut the tri-colour
ribbon. In doing so, I addressed him with the title of 'Altezza', (Highness-height), the
most respectful title to use. The Duke, being unceremonious and lanky as he was,
turned to me and as he cut the ribbon and replied, " one metre and nightly two
centimetres", referring to his 'height'. He then passed the scissors back to me and
took the first dive into the pool; mine was the second.
I met the Duke once again in Asmara, when I was recalled for active duty. The war
had just been declared and I, a radio operator, was assigned to the PAI (Italian
African Police). Initially it seemed that all would go according to plan. We occupied
Kassala and it was here that I met Ungaro, a 'paesano', (a countryman), who after
the war also made his life here in South Africa, residing in Roodeport. Sadly, he is
no longer with us today.
To get back to my meeting the Duke - I met him at a private home this time, and
during our conversation I let fly with a phrase in my home dialect. He looked at me
with surprise and said, "Don't tell me you are from Brindisi!" I told him I was,
knowing only too well his affinity with this city.
After our occupation of Kassala, our next objective was Proma, a town in Northern
Sudan, but we encountered resistance at our Eritrean front. We dug in, and I set up
my radio station, batteries, trunks and mules, which by then were mere skin and
bones. I was assigned to the commander of our forces, Colonel Lorenzini. My hand
shakes in writing this great man's name; my emotions run high as I recall these
moments. We found ourselves in an area called Tesseue, a location which was
swampland, and not conducive to encounters with the opposing forces. We had to
retreat, first to Agordat, then to Basentu and finally back to Keren.
Colonel Lorenzini was our commander of that front which we held for just under two
months. Ferocious battles followed one after another; often the enemy artillery
targeted my antenna. We were there to play the last card. During the days that
followed, the colonel would come to my dugout, inquiring whether there was any
news. Every time he came he brought with him a canister of tea, those aluminium
canisters which were regular army issue, which later we prisoners turned into
cigarette cases. On more than one occasion, the colonel would say to me, "The
enemy will break through and take Keren, but it will be over my dead body", and so it was.
When I found myself at Zonderwater I wrote the "Ode to the Prisoner", for which I
became rather well known, especially amongst the chaplain officers. Don
Napoletano acknowledged my effort and praised me by saying that my composition
should not be a song, but rather an anthem to the prisoner. My words were put to
music by an army officer who was also a music teacher and the words went like
this… "Italy so beautiful, Mussolini's Italy, avenge the name Lorenzini, a hero, who
still waits to fly the flag where he fell, in Keren."
I am certain that if the colonel were to return from the grave, he would say to me,
"You wrote that I was a hero, but you were too, going beyond the call of duty at
times I knew you had a fever; at times I knew you had no food."
Keren became a painful memory for all those who were there, and will be a lasting
memory for all Italians. So is the memory of the Duca d'Aosta, who stood at Amba
Alagi, the only one left fighting, after all fronts had collapsed.. Together with others,
and like so many who were lost and without a commander, we arrived at Adi
Ugrisenza. News arrived that Asmara had fallen into enemy hands and Massawa was
about to follow. I destroyed my radio, the second during that time. We formed a
group of approximately sixty in an attempt to reach the Duke at Amba Alagi; we
needed to travel light. Our plans were halted by a terrible storm; our mules would
not budge. We decided to return to where we had started, only to find that our flag
had been lowered and that of the enemy raised in its place.
It was here that we surrendered and our incarceration began. We were loaded onto
trucks and taken to Asmara. As we proceeded, many more prisoners joined our ranks;
we arrived at Casala where all we found was sand dunes. From there we were
transported to Aia and then Erba in the Sudan. Here we were held for six months.
We boarded a ship in Port Sudan with heavy hearts. We were leaving behind many
friends and comrades; our destination up till then was unknown. With time, we
learned that we were heading south to South Africa. The trip was not bad,
considering we were prisoners. As we arrived in Durban harbour, the enormity of the
city stunned us. I remember thinking that perhaps here we might survive, and I
would be able to take home at least my skin and bones… my mother could fatten me
From Durban harbour, we boarded trains. Once again, destination unknown; the
Zonderwater chapter in my life was about to begin.
Of our brothers who left us during that time at Zonderwater, I and a few others
buried four. I was a friend of Captain Maggi, a man well known both in and out of
the camp; and I could say much about him. He was from a small town outside of the
city of Taranto; we were almost 'paesani'.
From time to time, I volunteered to work in the cemetery. It made a change, and
made one thankful to be alive. The feeling of being out of the barbed wire
environment was also a relief, and I kept active.
Once my duties as a teacher had come to an end, I put in for a transfer; I wanted to
work outside of the camp. This took me to the camp at Pietermaritzburg, a camp
mostly used for prisoners in transit. It was here that I met a man who was to be a
friend for many years thereafter; a man who was later to become a big part of the
I was walking close to the entrance gate of the camp when I saw this man. We stood
exchanging glances for some time, and then I approached him and introduced
myself. He told me his name was Duilio and that he was from Friuli. I joked about
this, saying that if we folded the map of Italy in half, we could almost be 'paesani'.
We chatted for a while, and the foundations of a firm friendship began. Later I was
to learn that his surname was de Francheschi and that our meeting would change
his future as it did mine.
Forty-two years have passed since then; it seems like yesterday.
In that camp in Pietermaritzburg a church was being built. It seemed right at the
time that I too should have a hand in its construction. The priest assigned to this
project was from the city of Foggia, I cannot remember his name. On Christmas Eve
of that year we, as a small group, were to attend mass at the chapel. The priest
wanted us to sing as a choir, but to his disappointment our effort was pathetic. Only
Fiasconaro was able to sing; I will never forget that. And a thought came to me then
that if ever I were to be a prisoner again, I would surely have to learn to sing.
I left Pietermaritzburg and found myself in a majestic forest called Weza. I was sent
there because I heard that a qualified chef was needed in those parts. I was nowhere
near being a chef, but told the authorities I was, in order to get out. I had to prepare
dinner for South African officers, which I did to the best of my ability. The officers
ate it, but I was sent back to camp and confined to barracks, awaiting a
court-martial. Thankfully a major, I don't know how, was able to get me off, for
which I was eternally grateful.
It seemed that a miracle had occurred. I was allowed out of camp again, but where
would I be going?
My destination this time was to a convent, north of Durban in an area known as
Tongaat. The convent was known as Genazzano. My duty there was maintenance
work, as well as general construction. Again I found myself inexperienced in this
field; I had never even held a trowel in my hand. What I did have though was a great
will to work, and this I did, learning very quickly. I built three large water reservoirs,
a guest house for visitors, which was named after my patron saint, St Anthony, and
in addition I built classrooms for children in the area. All this still stands today. To
think that in building all this, the cost of manpower was a mere six pounds
sterling… a shilling a day. But I was happy at Genazzano, and stayed a year longer
than was required of me. I took away with me memories I will never forget.
There is more I could say… perhaps another time.
Antonio Forleo passed away on the 11th of August, 1991.
Antonio, Radio Operator, (bottom right)
A summery of the last days of the Duca
d'Aosta, Commander of the Italian forces
in North Africa.