In the previous article on the Milan CWGC cemetery I looked at fie Australian POWS executed by Fascist Italian Militia at Ponte della Babbiera on 8 May 1944, while I was researching them, it became clear that they were not the only ex- prisoners of war who had escaped from Italian Prisoner of War Camps after the Armistice between Italy and the Allies on 8 September and joined with partisan units in the Biellese Alps above Vercelli In another section of the cemetery is buried Private James Campbell McCracken of the 2/24th Battalion 2 AIF together with two British soldiers Corporals William Brown of the Highland Light Infantry and Fred Miller of the Royal Artillery. All three were executed together on 15 April 1944, at Varallo a village in the Valsesia in the Italian region of Piemonte.
It is so far proving difficult to find out much about Corporals Brown and Miller, but McCracken’s journey from Australia to his death in a small Italian Alpine village is easier to trace. McCracken was born in Ararat , Victoria on 6 April 1919. Ararat is around 200 km west of Melbourne and famous for being the centre of the 1857 Victorian gold rush and these days for wine, agriculture and as a gateway to the Grampians National Park . McCracken enrolled in his local battalion, the 2/24th aged 21 on 10 July 1940 in Caulfield, The battalion was deployed to the Middle East, departing in November 1940, aboard the transport ship HMT Strathmore, subsequently saw action for the first time around Tobruk in April 1941 remaining there for eight months, occupying various positions around the perimeter before they were withdrawn by sea in late October 1941 along with most of the 9th Division. A period of garrison duties followed in Palestine and Syria before the 9th Division was hastily 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. James McCracken is recorded as having been captured on 22 July 1942, during the attack by the 26th Brigade on German positions immediately to the North East of Tel el Eisa – probably around Trig point 25.
Although he may have been captured by the Germans, it was their practice to hand over prisoners captured in North Africa to the Italians. James was one of the many thousands of Allied prisoners being held in awful conditions in North Africa, By August 1942 there were some 37,000 Allied Prisoners of War in Libya. 33,000 had been captured following the fall of Tobruk on 21 June 1942, including 10,722 South Africans from the 2nd South African Infantry Division. Italian POW camps around Benghazi housed over 15,000 allied POWs in conditions of unbelievable squalor where they suffered lack of food, from scurvy, dysentery, desert sores and untreated wounds. The situation was not helped by the continuous Allied Bombing of Benghazi, which was of vital strategic importance as the main port for supplies to the Ais forces fighting in North Africa. Ironically, the Allied bombing of Benghazi worsened the already desperate food situation for the prisoners in Italian amps. n most transit camps POWs were accommodated in tents, but in Benghazi some of the camps used converted barracks which were equipped with electricity. Hygiene, however, was a problem in all camps and POWs quickly became infested with lice and infected with dysentery. The toilet facilities were hopelessly inadequate and at some camps POWs were not allowed to go the toilets at night; instead, they had to use small tins, a completely inadequate measure. In an attempt to solve the problem, a trench of about four meters was dug and a box with holes was placed over the trench. Toilet paper was simply non-existent, and any paper found was reserved for those suffering from dysentery. Opinions varied on the treatment received by the Prisoners, South African soldiers seemed particularly contemptuous of their Italian captors, although among South Africans who later escaped and went to ground in Italy with the assistance of the local population. Opinions changed. There were numerous complaints of the maltreatment received from the local Senussi tribesmen who the Italians used to guard the camps. On the other hand, many Senussi helped escaping Allied prisoners get back to their own lines. Food was especially short, although in the end some of the prisoners realised that conditions for the Italian soldiers in Libya, left a lot to be desired. The Italians had been caught unprepared by the number of prisoners they had taken and did their best of a bad job. The Italians had been caught similarly unprepared in WW1, when they had started taking thousands of Austro- Hungarian prisoners- which had led to the deaths of many prisoners from typhus, especially on the island of Asinara.
In mid-August 1942, the Italians began embarking some 6000 POWs in Benghazi Harbour to be taken to camps in Italy. The two ships used were the Sestriere and the brand new cargo ship the Nino Bixio, prisoners with surnames between A-L were allocated to the Sestriere while those from M to Z were to the Nino Bixio, including James McCracken. By 16th August 1942 embarkation was complete and the two ships left Benghazi escorted by two Italian destroyers and two MTBs. Neither ship was marked as prison ships or carried any Red Cross markings. The Italians may or may not have told the British that the ships were carrying Allied POWs. On the same day the Royal Navy submarine “Turbulent” was patrolling the zone off Navarino in Greece. Around 3:00 PM in the afternoon the Turbulent sighted the Italian convoy and attacked, firing a salvo of three or four torpedoes, these narrowly missed the Sestriere but hit the Nino Bixio. One torpedo struck directly on the number one hold which was being used to transport the Allied POWs. Following a terrible night, the Nino Bixio was beached in Navarino. Teams of Germans and Italians came aboard to supervise the evacuation of the ship and the unwounded Australian and NZ POWS were put to work cleaning up the ship, moving the dead and identifying the bodies. They were then transported by another ship from Corinth in Greece to Bari. In total 41 Australians 116 New Zealanders 16 British eleven South Africans an unknown number of Indian Army POWs were killed on the Nino Bixio.
Having landed at Bari, the surviving prisoners were taken on a long train journey to camp Grupignano, near Cividale del Friuli in the extreme North East of the country, where a large purpose-built camp had been set aside for ANZAC POWs. The camp was built near the village of Premariacca on the plain of the River Natisone. Prisoners arrived by rail at the station of Cividale del Friuli and were then marched to the camp. In June 1942. PG57 held 2,000 ANZAC POWs of Other Ranks, which after the transfer of prisoners from Libya rose to over 4,000. Looking north from the camp through the perimeter fence , there was a spectacular view towards the Dolomites and the Carnatic Alps.
In April 1943, a a number of Australian an New Zealand POW from Grupignano were sent across the country to work as agricultural labourers in the farms around Vercelli. In early 1943, the Australians had started to use Italian POWs for Agricultural labour and the Italians reciprocated by doing the same. The HQ of PG106 was based in Vercelli near to the railway station. There were between 1400 and 1600 prisoners in 22 subcamps dotted around the area ( serving between one and three different farms) and holding between 25 and 50 POWs in each one. Most of the farms were involved in rice cultivation.
PG 106 and its subcamps was commanded from Vercelli by Major Silvio Rossi of the Alpini with a a guard force of about one thousand seven hundred men. The complex was visited by an official of the International Red Cross, Leonardo Triffi, who inspected Camp 106 in early June 1943. Unable to visit all the farms he was forced to limit his visit to only three subcamps. He gave a detailed description of the accommodation and services at the Petiva estate (San Germano) (A), Tronzano (B) and the Veneria estate (Lignana) (C). While in the latter subcamp the prisoners were housed in huts, in subcamps A and B there were stone buildings judged to be fully satisfactory even if, lacking light and overcrowded. The food, according to the testimonies collected by the official during his brief inspection, was considered sufficient by the prisoners, provided that it was supplemented by a regular distribution of packages from the Red Cross. Quantitatively, each prisoner had 400 grams of bread, 120 grams of pasta or rice, 13 grams of fat, 10 grams of grated cheese, 15 grams of tomato sauce, 15 grams of sugar, 30 grams of legumes, 20 grams of salt and 7 grams of coffee. Weekly, they also received 240 grams of meat, 250 grams of cheese and, finally, they could count on a discount of 1 lira for the purchase of fresh vegetables. The official, after this detailed description, pointed out that conditions were identical to those reserved for the guards. Triffi wrote that a working day lasted 8 hours or a little longer, depending on whether or not the time required to go to the camps was counted, and in any case, it was no longer than that of civilians. For their daily activity, allied soldiers received compensation of 4 lire and 50 cents, which was in addition to the fee of 1 lira due for their state of captivity. In these three detachments for prisoners there were no work clothes but, given their good equipment, this did not turn out to be a major problem. Each week, usually on Sundays, they were entitled to 24 hours of rest. The negative aspects noted by Triffi concerned delays in the distribution of mail, the non-allocation of cigarettes, the inadequacy of Red Cross packages, which arrived in smaller numbers than that of the prisoners present, overcrowding in the shacks of subcamp A, the suspension of the allocation of soap to prevent it from ending up on the black market and, finally, the total lack of adequate health service in the detachments. The general situation, concluded the official in his report, was therefore not as satisfactory as at other camps he had visited.
Australian POW Ted Faulkes remembered the journey from PG57 to Vercelli.
“Sometime in April 1943, several hundred prisoners were taken by train (again in cattle waggons) across the North of Italy to the Vercelli area, which is about midway between Milan and Turin in the province of Piedmonte. This was only virtually an overnight journey. At several small villages in the area groups of 100 prisoners were taken off the train and walked to previously prepared POW camps. The group that I was with de-trained at Brianco. In this area of Italy, a lot of rice was grown under irrigation from the rivers Po and Sesia and I believe it still is. Our job was to wheelbarrow soil to make the paddy field embankments. This was done under the supervision of an elderly Italian foreman. We had to walk about two miles each day to and from the work area accompanied by armed guards. There were quite a few civilian farm workers also working on the farm we were on” Of working life in the camps, another former POW, Ted Kent recalled. “Then the spring came, the days started to get longer. The snow starts to melt on the mountains, everything gets green- Springs here Then in May work starts again on the farms and they need farm labourers., there's a lot of men away in the army you see, so the prisoners of war had to work on the farms. I didn't want to go but it turned out better in the long run. The wounds in my leg were crook, anyway they put us on a train one night and took us right across the top of Italy to a place halfway between Milan and Turin. All plains it was a big irrigation area. Well we got to this place about then or eleven o'clock in the morning and we got off the train there, and there were all these men- soldiers and civilians -on the railway yards and lots of horses and dray. They were picking us out in groups of about 50 and put our gear into the drays and off they’d go up the road and another 50 up another road. And then they came round came up to us an officer said, “you're coming to my farm” and off we went. We had guards all around us and big red patches in the middle of our backs and on the seat of our pants:The officer he was riding in the cart beside us. We had to walk about six miles to the farm we went to., real hot day and we never stopped once to have a spell.Four or five o'clock they showed us where to sleep - a big room, double decker bunks in there and some bales of straw and some bags, so we made some mattresses and pillows for ourselves and a couple of blankets each and a pair of sheets each. At about five or six o'clock there was no activity in the cook house, a little cook house was out the back and I said to them “what about something to eat” and they said “you'll get something tomorrow ”He says you’ve supposed to have had something to eat today” and I said “we ate that yesterday” “Well too bad” he said “too bad” so we're all extra hungry that night”
Although, it was back breaking hard work, the POWs were relatively safe in that rural part of Italy. Allied Forces landed in Sicily and on 8 September on the Italian mainland at Salerno. For some weeks prior to that the Italians had been seeking armistice terms with the Allies. One of the key points to the Armistice talks was that Allied POWs held in Italy should not be handed over to the Germans. The Italians largely tried to keep to that side of the bargain, but contradictory orders from MI9, (the British Intelligence agency responsible for POWs) led to most Allied prisoners being told to stay in their camps and not attempt mass breakouts, so they were still there waiting when the Germans arrived to occupy Italy.
The Australian and New Zealand prisoners in the small work camps around Vercelli were lucky to the extent that their Italian guards mainly let them wander off into the surrounding area, often with helpful directions as to how to get to the Swiss border. From Vercelli, the route of the valley of the River Sesia leads up into the mountains from the rice growing plains, through Serravalle Sesia, Borgosesia, Varallo Sesia taking on a “S” Shape as the valley leads up to Alagna Valsesia and the Parco Naturale del’Alta Valsesia. There are numerous valleys leading off it, Val Mastallone , Val Sermenza; Val Sorba, Valle Artogna, Val Vogna e Val d'Otro, and from Borgosesia, the Valsessera. The valley is renowned as one of the greenest area s in Italy, with particulrly high rainfall in the lower parts. The mountains, valleys and firests provided a perefe hiding place for the partisans. They also provided a good escape route for Allied POWs towards Switzerland.
At the HQ of Camp 106, news of the armistice caused "confusion and bewilderment". Sergeant Major Sergio Rigola, after donning civilian clothes as a precaution, spent part of the day of 9 September contacting the outlying subcamps with instructions to free all the prisoners. The guards did so and promptly disappeared and allied soldiers had no difficulty in simply walking out of the camps . The Australian Phil Loffman, for example, recalled that, the Italians told them: "The war is over ... You, the English, would do well to take the road to London." So most of them did, usually they were helped by the peasants with whom they had worked in the previous months, or even by the owners of the estates themselves, or Italia officers, At Monticelli (Crescentino), the fifty prisoners of the subcamp were taken over by Captain Paolo Torta who settled them with local families. Six months after the armistice, according to Allied data, there were still a thousand former prisoners in Piedmont, just under half of whom were in the provinces of Novara and Vercelli. In October, their number dropped to 400 and, in with about 250 settled in Biella and Valsesia. According to the same report, in Piedmont alone, there were 5,000 civilians involved in the effort to remove the former prisoners from capture, five times as many as the number of carers. The civilian engagement, therefore, did not end in the first few weeks, but continued to unfold in the following months.
While the fugitive allied POWs were trying to get to the Swiss border, the local Italian partisans were starting to organise themselves. The partisans in Valsesia were led by a Gino Moscatelli (Cino) and Eraldo Gastone ( Ciro). Moscatelli was a veteran communist who grew up in the workers district of Sant’ Andrea in Novara, where he attended the Circolo Ferrovieri –“a den of Reds and revolutionaries”. Throughout the 1920s he had been involved in strike actions in Novara and Milan (where he worked at Alfa Romeo) so much so that in 1927 he was forced to flee to Switzerland then to Berlin, Moscow and Paris. He returned to Italy under a false name was arrested and imprisoned several times in the 1930s. In 1937 he was arrested on suspicion of having written subversive graffiti on the wall of a paper mill in Serravalle, and then under s strict police supervision he was then released and returned to Borgosesia. After the fall of the first Mussolini regime Moscatelli organised demonstrations in Borgosesia and directed the anti-fascist movement in Valsesia. After 8th of September, he was among the promoters of the Valsesia resistance which would later become part of the CLN organising resistors and guerrillas he was arrested again on the 29th of October by the Carabinieri but was released when the carabinieri ballocks was besieged by local citizens and his comrades, Following his release he headed up for Monte Brasco and teamed up with Eraldo Gastone to form the Gramsci detachment. Gastone had been a career military officer in both the Alpine artillery and the Air Force, serving as part of a contingent of the Italian Air Force at Maldegemp in Belgium. After the Armistice he was on his way a mission to Pescara when he was arrested in Bologna he escaped to captivity and returned to Novara where he liberated a quantity of weapons from the Air Force warehouse and joined up with local partisans. Gastone was part of the group which forced the release of Moscatelli from prison in Borgosesia. Together the two men continued the resistance in the Valsesia and by 1944 February 1944 their small detachment had become the 6th garibaldi brigade. The Garibaldi partisans in Valsesia, also assisted many of the allied POWS to escape over the frontier into Switzerland. As the German tightened up border security and the mountain passes became too difficult to cross in winter, it was not surprising that many of the escaped Allied POWs chose to hide out with the partisan groups for the winter and to stay and fight with them.
Partisan activity in the Valsesia was an increasing problem to Mussolini’s rump state in Northern Italy, the Repubblica Sociale Italiana. On 19 December 1943, the 63 Battaglione Tagliamento which formed part of the newly formed Guardia Nazionale Repubblicana was sent to the Vercelli area to hunt the growing partisan groups. 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. They soon demonstrated that they meant what it said on the posters On 21 December, two Fascist militiamen were killed by partisans. Following this, the 63 Battalion rounded up a few “suspects “and took them to its HQ in the Municipio of Borgosesia, where they were beaten and tortured. The suspects were identified by a local informer, Pietro Ciceri (who was hooded to protect his identity while he did this.) On the morning of 22 December 1943, 10 people were taken out into the piazza Fiascotti, lined up against a wall and shot. Their bodies were left exposed as a warning to others. Although German Alpenjager were present in the area, they did not actively participate in the massacre, their role being to hand over their prisoners to the Italian Fascists.
On 5 April, units of the Tagliamento set off up into the valleys around Branco, Valstrone and Varallo for a huge rastrellamento ( raking) of the partisans. The Italian Military Tribunal which investigated the actions was late to remark, that these actions carried out by the Italians to their own territory were on a level with those “that the Germans had carried out in foreign countries”- Mountain houses and barns were burned down , having been comprehensively pillaged first, animals were seized and slaughtered. The mountain people lost everything. The destruction was premeditated and systematic., the Battaglione’s preferred method being to detonate an incendiary device in a house and detonate it. Families were rounded up and beaten, often on the pretext that that their sons were draft evaders or partisan supporter. Following the rastrellamento in the Valsesia, the Tagliamento turned its attention to the town of Varallo higher up the valley. It appears that McCracken and the two British POWs had the misfortune to be in the area at the same time. On 15 April 1944, the 63 Battaglione executed nine people in the cemetery at Varallo Sesia, six Italians and the three escaped POWs. According to later court proceedings, the author of this atrocity was Rastelli, a centurione in the Tagliamento who commanded the detachment at Varallo. The victims were;
Campbell James McCracken
As a result of the killings of the soldiers on 15 April 1944, the names of Zuccari, two of his lieutenants Fabbri and Ventorini and the Chaplain of the 63 Tagliamento Chaplain Mon. Antonio Inttreggiagli ( his name was Intreccialagli and seems to be misspelled in Allied documents were entered on CROWCASS (Central Registry of War Criminals and Security Suspects)as being wanted by the British for murder. The case against Intreccialagli seemed interesting – it is not so often you see a Chaplain being accused of War Crimes. Not surprisingly he turns out to have been a rather controversial) figure. Padre Antonio Intreccialagli was a former chaplain in the Italian Air Force, the Regia Aeronautica who after 8 September volunteered for the 63 Tagliamento. According to his version of events. On 6 April 1944 he witnessed a massacre by partisans of a unit of the 63 Tagliamento. The partisans attached their truck using a high voltage cable and of he 20 militiamen aboard, those who were not electrocuted were afterwards bayonetted to death by the partisans (allegedly also dismembered).Fearing reprisals the locals, then handed over three fugitive allied soldiers, two Britons and one Australian who had allegedly participated in the attack. There is no implication or evidence that McCracken, Miller and Brown were involved in the attack or the alleged atrocities. The men were not in military uniform and therefore not protected by the Geneva Conventions, so they were sentenced to death by an Italian Military Tribunal. On the night before their execution, Intreccialagli stated that he celebrated Mass for two of the men, who were Catholics and that the third who was a Protestant had asked for first communion and absolution. Intreccialagli took care of their last letters to their families (which he subsequently deposited with the Cardinal of Bologna) , these were to subsequently to be of help to him when “false” accusations about his role in the killings was made by partisans to the investigating Allies. Whatever his role, padre Antonio Intreccialagli went into hiding after the war, but was never prosecuted by the either the Italians or the British.
Responsibility fr the killings at Varallo is attributed to Zuccari, the leader of th 63 Tagliamento and to Nello Rastelli, who was is charge of the garrison at Varallo. In the end after a series of trials, reduced sentences and an amnesty, Zuccari and Rastelli faced no further proceedings, since then the had been fugitives throughout the whole period they did not spend any time in either Allied or Italian prisons. James McCracken’s long journey from Ararat in Victoria ended against a cemetery wall in Varallo, northern Italy. He had survived years of fighting in the Western Desert, the desert prison camps, the British torpedo attack on the Nino Brixia . Unfortunately, he never made it to Switzerland, but met his end in a quiet Italian Cemetery within sight of the Alps. Apparently his last letter to his folks back in Bendigo, Australia was suitably laconic.
“Just a line to tell you that you won’t see me again as I am going to be shot”.
If you have any further information about James McCracken, William Brown or Fred Miller, I would be happy to hear from you and include in an updated version of this article.
Now that lockdown is ending, I am hoping to get up to Varallo and the Valsesia to find where they died and take some photographs. If you are a relation, I am more than happy to leave some gesture of remembrance in Varallo or at the CWGC Cemetery in Milan.
I acknowledge the valuable material contained at