Shooting through: Campo 106 escaped POWs after the Italian Armistice, a remarkable book by Australian historian Katrina Kittel, was published late last year. I have been remiss in not obtaining a copy and giving it a mention here until now. It’s a first-class piece of scholarship and a thoroughly enjoyable read.
Katrina Kittel lives in Port Stephens, New South Wales, Australia.
Since 2011, she has researched the wider cohort of some 2,000 Australian POWs in Italy during the war, while giving a refined focus to about 50 Australians who escaped from Vercelli camps on the Piedmont region of Northern Italy.
Her interest in the subject began at home. Katrina is the daughter of NX60337 Colin “Col” Booth, who escaped from one of these work camps, a rice farm. Col was to make it to Switzerland.
Campo 106 farms, located on the rice-growing plains roughly between Turin and Milan, were ‘home’ to Australian and a smaller number of New Zealander POWs. The term “shooting through” describes their escapes in days and weeks after the Italian armistice was signed in early September 1943. Local farmers, on the whole, helped them on their way.
“I knew little about my father’s POW time,” Katrina said. “I found that at the last leg of making it over the Alps on 4 October 1943, my father and his close POW friend Peter Erickson hooked up with another Australian, a Brit (John Shaw from Lancashire) and a South African. This was indicated in a photograph Dad kept of this group of men, and his caption on the photo reverse. This group exemplifies the movement and crossover of men of all Allied nations in Italy at this time.”
Katrina is trained as an historian. In 2015, she described, in a Professional Historians Association online interview, her foray into the history of Australian POWs in Italy—an endeavor that followed a career in administrative, research assistant, and librarian roles at The University of Newcastle:
“In 2011, I fell back into the discipline of history following a nonchalant search for information regarding escaped prisoners-of-war in Italy during the Second World War. My father was one of those men, and as my son desired to wear his medals, I considered it time to find out more. Late night internet cruising took me to a website publication which included several photos from my father’s collection. Within days, I spoke to the site author, former prisoner-of-war Bill Rudd. He revealed that like my father, he had been taken prisoner at Alamein in July 1942, transported to Italian camps, and subsequently escaped across the Alps into neutral Switzerland. Bill Rudd OAM, a retired geologist, had become a researcher of significant contribution; his site http://www.anzacpow.com is preserved in Pandora.
“We became regular correspondents. Bill flagged his interest in compiling a nominal roll of Australian prisoners-of-war in Italy, working from the British War Office prisoner-of-war lists of 1943. This project involved viewing the service files for over two thousand servicemen as well as other relevant primary or secondary sources as accessible. I jumped at the chance to assist a 95 year-old veteran who was a dedicated historical researcher. With only a small percentage of archival sources being digitally accessible, I made trips to Canberra and Melbourne to dig amongst the hard-copy collections. The project parameters were broadened beyond a nominal roll to include camp locations and movements, escapes, episodes of evasion, recapture and deaths. We noted details for those who were not identified as POW on the Department of Veterans’ Affairs online WWII Nominal Roll or listed on the Ballarat Prisoner of War memorial. Corrections were subsequently made.
“The history had me hooked. I set about contacting as many veterans and families of veterans, as possible. The sharing of images, memoirs and documents, still continues. From what began as an interest in my father’s experience had extended to his POW cohort. Articles have been written for regional newspapers, Unit Associations, Military Historical Society of Australia’s Sabretache journal, and Department of Veterans’ Affairs ‘Our Mob serving country’ site.”
Besides being a mentor and collaborator, Bill was a dear friend to Katrina. He died in October 2019, at the age of 101, shortly before the release of Shooting through.
In spite of the Pandemic, Katrina has gotten a great deal of publicity and high praise for her book. For past and upcoming promotional events, visit her Facebook page (facebook.com/KatrinaKittelAuthorResearcher/).
True to her professional training, Katrina has drawn from original sources in Australia and England, institutions such as the National Archives of Australian in Canberra, and The National Archives of the UK, as well as other repositories such as the Australian Red Cross records at the University of Melbourne. She had conducted countless interviews and researched on the ground in Italy, Switzerland, and Slovenia.
Katrina says, “My book illustrates the variety of outcomes that awaited these men as expressed through their reports, memoirs, and interviews—trudging south to meet Allied lines, trekking north to cross the Swiss Alps on foot and for a lesser number to be rowed across border lakes, encountering and mixing in with partisans for brief or lengthy periods (including Brit SOE operations from late 1944 under command on Major McDonald and Captain Amoore, for instance).
“Less fortunate POWs—about 10 Australian men and several New Zealanders—met a sad fate at the hands or rifles of fascists or Germans during late 1943 to mid-1944. Monuments to these men still stand within the areas where they died. Other escapers were recaptured during their time on the loose and transported to German captivity.
“Appendix 1 in the book lists 790 or so Australian men and is annotated with Swiss arrivals and those killed in Italy. Appendix 2 lists about 100 New Zealanders who made it to Switzerland.”
The 356-page book contains 40 pages of photographs and documents.
I heartily encourage readers to buy and read this wonderful book. I learned much from Shooting though, and I will go back to it again and again as a resource. Aside from the meaty information it offers, the story is artfully crafted, with a myriad tales woven into a single, seamless narrative. It clearly is a work of love and deep dedication.
Now, I am eager for the publication of Katrina’s next book!