December 2008

P.O.W. Camp - No 29 (Royston) and “The Chianti Raiders”

Howard King

How many readers are aware that there was, in World War 2, a Prisoner of War Camp, specifically for Italian’s at P.O.W. Camp 29 Therfield Heath, to the west of Royston – which could house 300 prisoners. The prisoners would have travelled to their new home along the Old North Road, which follows the line of Ermine Street – built by their Roman forebears. It was intended that 20% of the initial intake would work on erecting Nissan Huts and outbuildings in which they would live.. The rest were sent out to work on local farms.

punchcartoon1940bThere was also a larger Italian P.O.W. Camp (capacity 500) at Barton Fields, in sight of Ely Cathedral.

To quote historian R. Douglas Brown:

“Fraternisation between the Italians and locals was ruled out by the authorities – but this proved extremely difficult to impose, and, up to a point the authorities turned a blind eye…. There appears to have been little ill-feeling towards the Italians by the locals, and the ready smile and relaxed attitudes earned the Italians a great deal of sympathy, especially among the women, many of whose men had been called up into the services.”

Question 1: Did any of them stay on after the war?

Question 2 : Are any of their descendants living amongst us today?

Where did I come across this story?

Well… there is a little known fact about the Second World War. The Corpo Aereo Italia (The Italian Air Force) mounted Air Raids on East Anglia.

I have known bits of this story for some time, especially as I am an active member of The Martlesham Heath Aviation Society.  RAF Martlesham Heath, to the east of Ipswich played a key role in this story…. And my Father, Leslie William Henry KING was based there (working as Ground crew) for a while during The Battle of Britain period.

One raid they did carry out (on 21st December 1940) hit Ipswich, just up the road from where I now live… dropping (amongst other things) incendiary bombs on to The Coplestone School playing fields where our children more recently went to school.

The Corpo Aereo Italia presence, fighting with their Luftwaffe allies, can best be described as being a bit of a disaster.

Their presence, fighting with their Luftwaffe (German Air Force) allies, nearly always went wrong. For instance, when the Luftwaffe fighters were meant to send up escort fighters for the Italians, to protect them from the R.A.F., they invariably missed the rendezvous, or did not turn up at all!

The Italians also found flying and fighting in our more northerly (and wintry) climate very difficult – so different from flying in the blue skies around Italy! Also the Italian Biplane fighters of some of their Squadrons were open cockpit and seriously under-gunned.

Whenever they appeared over our shores they often got a severe mauling from our Boys in Blue – particularly from those based at Martlesham Heath, Hornchurch, and Stapleford Tawney (Essex)

The German pilots were much more experienced at fighting the R.A.F. and often made fun of the Italians, with their seemingly antiquated equipment. They christened the Italian’s Life Jackets “Wursts” (sausages) ,as they were made of striped cork, and not up to the ravages of a North Sea ditching.

Some of the surviving captured Italian pilots, who crashed on the East Coast ended up in the P.O.W. Cages in Ely and Therfield.

Once there the prisoners realised that conditions were better than they had expected – there had been horror stories on the continent about what the British P.O.W. Camps might be like!

The prisoners and their guards received the same amount of rations:

  • 42oz of meat.
  • 8oz of bacon.
  • 5 ½ lb of Bread.
  • 10 ½ oz of margarine, as well as vegetables, cheese, cakes, tea and Jam – better rations than the general public.

The prisoner’s working day started at 5:30 a.m., with a wake up call, followed by breakfast, and roll call, in time for those working on the outlying farms to reach their work area. The working day finished at 6 p.m. – with free tea, and free time until lights out.

To read more about this whole episode in the Second World War story, I suggest you read:

"The Chianti Raiders" by Peter Haining 
ISBN 1 86105 829 2
Published by Robson Books, 2005


Royston and District Family History Society


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