09 May

During the latest lockdown, my research activities have been largely restricted to what I could do at the kitchen table and in the immediate locality, so I was organizing some photos I had taken at the CWGC Cemetery in Milan last year and looking at the database of the graves  to see if I could uncover any further information.  While doing this, I was struck by some strange patterns of several deaths on the same day. The cemetery in Milan has been consolidated from War Graves in different parts of North West Italy (broadly from Lombardy and Piedmont) . Originally the dead with been buried near to where they fell and at later date try were exhumed and taken for reburial in Milan. We had already seen this in researching the dead German POWS who were exhumed from Peak Dale church and reburied at the German Cemetery in Cannock Chase. Usually, the individuals from one location would be reburied in the same plot. But they still might have different dates of death.  The Milan Cemetery contains the graves of many Commonwealth (British, Australian, New Zealand, Canadian and South African) aircrews. The aircrews were usually buried near to where their plane was grounded and then moved to Milan later. Clearly if a plane with 10 aircrew was shot down, all the crew who died are going to have the same date of death.  

For the soldiers who are buried in Milan, it is a bit more difficult to explain.  For the first part of the war, up to 8 September 1943, there is a pattern. There was no fighting in Italian territory, so you do not see large numbers of dead for the same day as you would say in the Asiago cemeteries from the First World War. In this period, the soldiers who died were Prisoners of War, taken by the Italians on the battlefields of the Western Desert in 1941 and 1942. Early in the war most Italian POW camps were further south and so those who died are more likely to have been interred elsewhere and consolidated at other CWGC cemeteries in the South of Italy. There are relatively few soldiers buried in Milan before the Armistice with Italy on 8 September 1943. From 1940 through to July 1943, there is a pattern of prisoners dying every few days as you might expect for men dying at hospitals from battlefield wounds, disease and indeed perhaps isolated executions. Many of the dead may come from Italian Military hospitals – notably the POW hospital in Bergamo. What you do not see, unless there was an accident or epidemic is numbers of men all dying on the same day. After 8 September, the pattern starts to change and even though the fighting was hundreds of miles to the South, there are small groups of British and Commonwealth Soldiers buried in Milan who died on the same day.

 Since it was coming up to the anniversary of their deaths, I was curious to find out more about five Australians buried together in Milan. Having done some research, I went back to the Cemetery on 8 May to take some photographs and pay my respects. The 8th May also turns out to be the 100th anniversary of Ernest Wolfe’s birth. 

The CWGC Cemetery in Milan, is fairly accessible, you take the Lilac Metro line from Porta Garibaldi station and get off at San Siro Stadio, it is a journey of about half an hour n the smart new automatic trains. When I got to San Siro this time it was full of a mass of Neroazzurri the fans of FC Internazionale who had, the week before clinched the scuddetto for the first time in 11 years. The tifosi were there to welcome the team who were playing a home match later that afternoon (behind closed doors of course). Leaving the San Siro, it is then about a half hour walk to get to the Cemetery, which is on the edge of the Parco Trenno, you can walk through the park to get there and find the Cemetery in a wooded area on the edge of the Park proper. Although the rest of the park was full of picnickers, and impromptu football or volleyball games. the War Cemetery was deserted. It was as usually with CWGC cemeteries impeccably maintained. Cemetery Details | CWGC The five Australians are in Plot III, Row C., all buried side by side. But how did they get there? 

BlainHarold Ryrie06.04.1916Portarlington Victoria, AustraliaA.I.F. 2/24th Bn.
NichollsJohn Richard25.05.1911Boulder Western AustraliaA.I.F. 2/28th Bn.  
WoolfeErnest Stanley08.05.1921Albany Western AustraliaA.I.F. 2/32nd Bn.  
LiddellClive Eric06.03.1919Melbourne Victoria,A.I.F. 2/32nd Bn.  
HarveyWilliam George,26.06.1906Cottesloe Western AustraliaAASC


After the Italian Armistice on 8 September, large numbers of allied prisoners escaped from Italian POW camps. Equally large numbers stayed put, on the misguided instructions of the War Office and were therefore taken into the custody by the Germans, and transported to POW Camps in Germany and  Poland, for a further 18 months of captivity. Of those who escaped, many went south to try and cross the Allied lines in Italy, some went to designated beaches to await evacuation by sea and others went North where they sought to get to neutral Switzerland, often with the help of Italian partisans. Some joined up with the partisans and stayed to fight. The first assumption for seeing five Australians who died on 8 May 1944, was that they must have died in fighting in Italy and that they were ex POWs who had left a camp and died fighting with the partisans in Northern Italy. It seemed clear that the five Australians died together, and almost certainly they had been bought to Milan from elsewhere. The CWGC database does not give that information as to where they were originally interred. Searching the Australian online, War Memorial confirmed the information on the CWGC database, but interestingly gave the extra information that the soldier’s cause of death was “Execution”. It did not specify where. 

 I then came across an article by a former Australian POW, Malcolm Webster. Malcolm’s story is interesting enough in itself, he was part of the AIF, sent to Crete. He was evacuated from Crete on the British ship HMS Hereward which was subsequently sunk and he was then rescued and imprisoned by the Italians, After being set to the notorious Italian POW camp PG57  at Grupignano, Malcolm was then sent to a work camp PG 106 at Oschiena, near Vercelli where he was put to work in the wheat and rice fields. Following the Armistice, Malcolm and his Australian comrades simply walked out of the workcamp and headed for the Swiss border. Unable to find a route across the Alps, they headed back to the Vercelli area. The article provided a possible clue regarding the possible fate of the Australians buried in Milan mentioning that while on the run, Malcolm had hears about  five Australians had been killed around the Sessera area. http://coasit.com.au/IHS/journals/IHS%20Journal0030.pdf 

With a narrower geographic area too look for, I searched for Sessera and the date 8 May in an excellent database ,

 Atlante stragi nazifasciste | Progetto di ricerca ANPI-INSMLI

which lists every massacre or reprisal killing in occupied Italy. With the approximate location and the date of death , it revealed that the five Australian soldiers had been killed at Ponte della Babbiera, Trivero, Biella, Piemonte. The dates of death are listed as 5 May, 1944, rather than 8th – but this is clearly where the five men were killed.  

scheda | Atlante stragi nazifasciste 

 The site revealed that the five men had been killed in the Sessera Valley not by Germans, but by Italians from 63 Battaglione Tagliamento.

The Sessera Valley is a valley in north-eastern Piedmont around the Sessera river; the western part of the valley leads up into the mountains of the Monte Rosa group and an eventual route to Switzerland, the Sessera River is a tributary   of the River Sesia and flows into the latter to Borgosesia, before  the Sesia heads down into   the Po Valley. The upstream part of the valley lacks permanent population centres but is only frequented, in summer, by the shepherds of Biellese who still carry out the transhumance transporting their cattle and sheep  to the alpine pastures.

Once, I started exploring this avenue, I found that a good number of the British, Australian and New Zealand soldiers who are interred in the Milan CWGC Cemetery had been executed after being caught with partisan groups and that of these the majority had been executed by the notorious 63 Battaglione Tagliamento rather than by the Germans. I shall return to this a later date. 

The background 

So how did the unfortunate Australians end up dying in a village in the foothills of the Italian Alps. From the online information, it appears that they would all have been volunteers, who joined their local battalions in Victoria and Western Australia and who were then sent to the Western Desert with the Australian Imperial Force (AIF). 

The 2/24th Battalion was an infantry battalion of the Australian Army, raised from volunteers in Victoria, , so it was Harold Blaine’s local battalion. After formation, the battalion was moved to Wangaratta, where it remained until its training facilities were ready in Bonegilla, becoming known as “Wangaratta's Own". The battalion was deployed to the Middle East, departing in November 1940, aboard the transport ship HMT Strathmore. The battalion subsequently saw action for the first time around Tobruk in April 1941, after the strategically important port was placed under siege by German forces. The battalion remained at Tobruk for eight months, occupying various positions around the perimeter before they were withdrawn by sea in late October 1941. A period of garrison duties followed in Palestine and Syria before they were moved to El Alamein in response to a German advance through the desert towards Egypt. The 2/24th was subsequently heavily involved in both the First and Second Battles of El Alamein between July and November 1942. During the first battle, the battalion fought to secure Tel el Eisa where they captured a German intelligence unit; during the second battle the 2/24th advanced from Tel el Eisa towards the sea, amidst fierce fighting around a position dubbed the "Saucer”. I am still trying to locate where Harold Blaine was captured but may well have been around that time.   

The 2/28th Battalion was raised in Perth, Western Australia, so was the local unit for John Nicholls. In July 1940 also as part of the 2nd AIF.  After training in Australia, in January 1941 the battalion was shipped to the Middle East, embarking from Fremantle and landing at Port Tewfik, before deploying to Libya. The 2/28th remained in Tobruk helping to defend the vital port for over six months, alternating between the main defence line and the rear areas, and conducting patrols, before being withdrawn via the sea to Alexandria in late September 1941. Throughout early 1942, the 2/28th served in a garrison role in Syria and Lebanon as part of the Allied occupation force that had been established in the French colonies in the aftermath of the short Syria–Lebanon campaign. In mid-1942, it was hurriedly recalled to the Western Desert, where it took part in the First Battle of El Alamein in July 1942. On 27 July, the battalion was tasked with capturing "Ruin Ridge". After taking the position in a night attack, the 2/28th was then cut off and surrounded by German infantry and armour. Suffering heavy casualties, most of the battalion – around 500 men – was forced to surrender. One would therefore imagine that there is a high chance that Nicholls was captured with the 2/28th at around this time. 

The 2/32nd was raised in the United Kingdom in June 1940, as part of the 25th Brigade, which was formed from Australian troops that had been sent to the country to help bolster the garrison after the Fall of France. In October 1940, the battalion was redesignated as the 2/32nd Battalion, to bring them into line with the other units of the Second Australian Imperial Force. The feared invasion of the United Kingdom never eventuated, and by early 1941, the two Australian infantry brigades that had been sent to the United Kingdom were transferred to the Middle East. Arriving there in March 1941, the 2/32nd Battalion, along with the rest of the 25th Brigade, joined the 9th Division. After the Allies were pushed back to Tobruk, the 2/32nd Battalion was moved forward by train to Mersa Matruh, and then by ship to the encircled port of Tobruk. By May, they were firmly established and around this time, the battalion was transferred to the 24th Brigade, joining its other two battalions in the defence of the port. They remained there, conducting patrols, and manning the line, until 23 September 1941, when the majority of the Australian garrison was withdrawn by sea. The 2/32nd subsequently served in Palestine and Lebanon until July 1942 when they too were called to El Alamein. 

During the service of the Australian Imperial Force in the Middle East between 1941-1942, a total of 7,116 officers and men were taken prisoner (including those in Crete and mainland Greece). Soldiers captured in North Africa were the responsibility of the Italians. They were sent from the front to either Benghazi or Tripoli for embarkation to Italy. The journey was usually made in trucks, in which the soldiers were packed with standing room only, exposed to the sun and dust storms, with a nightly stop at staging camps along the way. At Benghazi, they sometimes had to stay for several weeks accommodated in bombed out buildings or a transit camp on the edge of the city. On the journey to Tripoli, the first night was normally spent at a ruined aerodrome at El Aghelia, the next night at Misurata in an Italian built Arab village and then in prison camps around Tripoli. From Tripoli they would be take by sea to Naples and once on the Italian peninsula to a transit camp at Capua. Next stop was Sulmona (Campo PG78) which had been used to house Austro-Hungarian prisoners during the First World War. In the end the Italians started to concentrate all Australian other ranks in a large purpose-built camp at Grupignano (PG57) near Cividale del Friuli, in the North East of Italy. Sulmona continued to be used to imprison Australian officers. At Grupignano, the Australian prisoners were housed in wooden huts of 90 ft by 30 ft with concrete foundations, where they sept in timber framed bunk beds. As the first batch arrived, winter was setting in, in the cold NE of Italy and many of the prisoners possessed only desert clothing and suffered terribly during the long parades. The camp was run by Colonel Calcaterra of the Real Carabinieri (the Italian military police) who was an unrepentant Fascist. Calcaterra ruled the camp with fear, prisoners were awarded 30 days detention for the slightest infractions, Corporal E W Symons was shot dead at point blank range, while retreating from a confrontation. 

The 500 Australians at PG57 were joined by more prisoners including 450 New Zealanders. Conditions gradually improved as the prisoners were issued with British battledress, which was more effective against the cold, Red Cross parcels began to arrive, as well as mail from Australia and private parcels. By October 1942, there were a 1200 Australians and 1000 New Zealanders in the camp. Many of the prisoners were subsequently transferred to agricultural work camps near to Vercelli (collectively known as campo PG106, where they were used in the rice and wheat fields. 

At the time of the Armistice, the British War Office had issued an order that all prisoners in Italian Camps should stay put and not escape. By the time the order was rescinded, the Germans were already moving in to take over the camps, incusing Grupignano. The Australians who had been sent to the work in the Vercelli area fared a bit better. The Italian guards generally donned civilian clothing and went home, while there were few Germans in the area, Vercelli was reasonably near the Swiss border and around 400 Australians made it safely to Switzerland. A considerable number stayed on in the area and joined partisan groups. So, the Australians having been captured in the Western Desert would have been shipped to Italy and then up the Peninsula through different camps, before arriving at the work camps of PG106 on the plains around Vercelli. I suppose that with the Armistice, they simply walked out of the camps and headed north from Vercelli up the Sesia and Sessera valleys to try and reach the Swiss frontier. As Malcolm Webster attests, finding the route across the mountains was not always possible, so quite probably they decided to stay and continue the fight with one of the numerous partisan groups in the mountains around Biella. It was here that they were fated to come into contact with the 63 Battaglione Tagliamento. 

After the Armistice at Cassible and the release of Mussolini the Tagliamento formed part of the newly formed Guardia Nazionale Repubblicana collaborating with the German occupation forces. It was originally employed in the mountains of the Apennines hunting escaped Allied Prisoners of War, at the end of November it was sent to the province of Brescia and on 19 December 1943 to the Vercelli area. As soon as they arrived they put up posters threatening to kill 10 hostages for the killing of any German soldiers or soldiers of the RSI. The 63 Tagliamento worked its way up the Valsesia valley from Vercelli towards the mountains, here they were a responsible for a rastrellamento which saw large numbers of mountain properties pillaged and burned. During their time in this valley, they were responsible for the massacre of 10 people at Borgosesia on 22 December 1943 and at Varallo Sesia on 15 April 1944, where they killed six people ( including three escaped POWS). These men are also buried in the CWGC Cemetery in Milan and I will tell their story in a separate article. After their atrocities in the Valsesia, the Tagliamento moved up into the Valsessera and continued their brutal activities up there. Somewhere between 5 May and 8 May 1944, they encountered the five Australian POWs. 

According to the Tagliamento’s ( presumably self-serving and non-incriminating ) version of events, recorded in their war diary, the Australians ( plus another unknown individual) were killed during a firefight

 “Normal patrol activity throughout the area controlled by this Legion. Near Monte Barone, northwest of Coggiola, the presence of some Anglo-Saxon prisoners belonging to the Basso gang (recte Basso) was reported and that, after the dissolution of this, they had continued to remain in the area. One of our patrols made a stakeout and, as soon as the bandits were spotted, opened fire. All six members of the rebel group were killed and weapons captured. In the other sectors, search actions are still under way." 

According to other Italian witnesses, the Australian soldiers were ambushed and captured in the farmhouse at Ponte Babbero: 

 "It was a damned spy who brought a patrol of Nazi fascists to the hut of the Barbero Alp, just beyond the ancient bridge of the Babbiera. Some of the fugitives had in those days gone to Mosso for supplies and information. They waited for their return and killed them all  barbarically.. The Nazi fascists then set fire to the cabin and left.

In one version, killed in battle- in the other ambushed and massacred.

 The 63 Tagliamento was under the command of Merìco Zuccàri . Zuccari was born in the barrio of  Saavedra in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on 4 November, the son of Italian immigrants from  Montefano. In 1907 the family returned to Italy and Zuccari enrolled to study agriculture, Zuccari immediately joined the new Fascist party in 1922 and took part in the March on Rome. In 1930 he enrolled in the Regio Esercito, as a in the infantry. He then joined the Fascist militia  Milizia Volontaria per la Sicurezza Nazionale, serving in Libya  from 1933 to 1935, and the invasion of Ethiopia in  1936. 

Zuccari was never indicted for the killing of the five Australians, he was, however, registered as a wanted war criminal by the British in respect of the killings of British POWS at Varallo on 15 April 1944. In May 1945 Zuccari he escaped, through Switzerland and then Genova to return to Argentina. In 1947, Zuccari was tried in absentia and condemned to death by the Tribunale militare di Bologna for collaboration and war crimes, then typically Italian fashion, that sentence was overturned and he was tried again in 1952 ( still in absentia)  by the  Tribunale militare di Milano and sentenced to life imprisonment.  His sentence was subsequently reduced to ten years . In 1959 Zuccari was able to obtain the benefit of an amnesty and his case was archived by the Tribunale militare di Milano. The same year he returned from Argentina to Montefano where he did from a heat attack in December 1959. Zuccari never served one minute of jail time for his role in the brutal killings of the escaped British, Australian and New Zealand prisoners and the massacre of Italian civilians. In the Biellese alps.

 I still want to put some more detail on the stories of the five Australians and what happened to them, with some more regarding their pre-war lives and histories and would hope to expand this article into something longer picking up on the stories of the other British ad Commonwealth POWS who joined with the partisans and who having been killed in action or executed are now buried in the CWGC Cemetery in Milan. So any further information gratefully received.  

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