02 Sep

In the blog on the rice fields of Vercelli On the track of PG106  , I visited to the village of Carpeneto which was the site of a labour detachment for Australian POWs. Carpeneto was the site of the killing of Australian POW, John E Law  (NX16597), the details of which are contained the a file at the British National Archives WO310/17

On 15 July 1943, Private John E Law  of the 2/17th battalion AIF was shot dead at Camp Pg106/III. The location was a work camp detachment of the Italian POW Camp PG106 Vercelli. There was no central camp at Vercelli, it was a series of some 30 small work detachments spread out among the farms and agricultural estate in the rice growing area of Vercelli. Laws was born in Stafford, England in 1917. On his enlistment he gave his occupation as clerk, and his next of kin as Arthur Ernest Law  of 43 Glebe Street, Glebe ( Glebe is a suburb of Sydney). He embarked in Australia on 10 October 1940, disembarked in the Middle East on 23 November 1940. 

Law was captured at Tobruk on 14 April 1941, (a witness statement in his Australian records) reports him as last seen being captured by the Germans and taken to the rear area sat on the back of a German tank) subsequently the Red Cross confirmed that he was a prisoner. In January 1941, British and Empire forces had taken the strategic port of Tobruk from the Italians and then set about reconstructing the defences and reinforcing the garrison mainly with Australian brigades. Churchill exhorted General Wavell to hold Tobruk. British and Dominion forces held at 28-mile perimeter which stretched in an arc of around 9 miles from the port of Tobruk. By that time the Germans had arrived in North Africa to reinforce their Italian allies and on 9 April, German General Erwin Rommel commenced his plan of encircling and besieging Tobruk. One sector of the defensive perimeter was held by the 2/17th Battalion AIF. On 12 April, German tanks made exploratory raids against the secret held by the 2/17th Battalion. On the night of 13/14 April 1941, a party of about 30 Germans broke into the Australian position and set up eight machine-guns, a couple of mortars and two field guns. The Australians   launched a counterattack with a small party of men consisting of one corporal and five soldiers, for his part in this action Corporal John Edmondson,  was later posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. In the morning of the 14th German tanks managed to penetrate the Australian lines and caught several groups of Australians , who had been engaged in mopping up operations from the nigh before , were taken  prisoner. Presumably, Private Law was in one of these groups. Although this first German attack on Tobruk ended in failure, the 2/17th Battalion suffered casualties, including 32 dead from all causes, 127 wounded and 14 captured. 

It is not clear how long Laws was held in the dismal North African Transit Camps, but it must have been some months or almost a year. He was later reported as passing through Camp P.G. 59 Servigliano, in August 1942 and then P.G. 57 Grupignano – (he was reported as being there in October 1942). He was then transferred with the other Australian Prisoners to the work camps in the rice fields of Vercelli in April 1943. Law’s Australian military records are online, they include reference to him having been Mentioned in dispatches (London Gazette no 37310 18.10.1945). 

Law ended up at one of the Vercelli work camps P.G 106/III at the small village of Carpeneto. Carpeneto was in the centre of Vercelli’s rice growing area. When the Australians arrived in April 1943, the rice growing season was just getting under way. Although, Australian prisoners were not actually involved in working in the  rice fields, they were engaged in the manual labour necessary to prepare the rice paddies: clearing irrigation ditches; repairing the embankments that separated the paddy fields and so forth. It was arduous back breaking work. Around 40 Australian prisoners were sent to Carpeneto, they then split up to work in the various farms around the village.  

A view of the rice fields around Carpeneto

Rations were the same as for the Italian army, around 400 gms of bread; 120 g of rice or pasta; 13 g of fat; 10 g of grated cheese; 15 g of tomato sauce; 7 g of coffee substitute; 15 g of sugar ; 50 g of legumes , 20 g of salt ; and an allowance of 1 lire to purchase fresh vegetables. The respective meat and cheese rations were 240 g and 250 g per week. For men like Law had been held prisoner for close to two years without preforming any work,  being expected to do hard manual work on such low rations must have been hard indeed.

 The facts of what happened to Law are set in an affidavit given by a fellow POW, Private Dudley Sedgwick (VX43003) of the 2/23rd Battalion AIF, who shared a hut with Laws. Sedgwick had also been taken as a POW in May 1941 and had followed a similar route through camp P.G.57(Grupignano) before ending up in Vercelli. On 15 July they were sleeping in their barracks. Private Law had come to an arrangement with one of the Italian guards to acquire some extra bread. (Presumably to supplement the pitiful rations) . At around 1130 pm, the guard called Private Law that he was outside the hut with the extra bread. Law left the upstairs living quarters and went downstairs to meet the guard, In front of him was a 14ft high wall Law scaled the wall and got to the top. As soon as he did so, the guard shot him at point blank range. According to Sedgwick was that the sentry had recently been caught sleeping on duty and punished. The allegation was that he had arranged the “ploy” with the bread, so that he could deliberately shoot Law, while escaping and get back into favour with his superiors. 

Typical accommodation at Carpaneto

The Italian Authorities investigated and prepared a summary memo for the Ministry of War in Rome (dated 16 July 1943) “At around 2300 on the 15th of last month, the sentry on duty inside the courtyard of the farm house, noticed that a prisoner was appearing over the top of the stockade which divides the courtyard from the prisoner’s camp, he had the obvious intention of escaping. The Sentry Fante (Infantryman) Pelizzari shouted several times, the instruction “HALT THERE” and in order to frighten the POW he fired a shot in the air. The prisoner instead of stopping, lowered himself from the stockade into the courtyard. The guard then immediately fired another shot which hit the prisoner on the right side at the back of the head causing him to fall to the ground, The Medical Officer and the civilian doctor from Bianze went to the place at once, but the POW was already dead” 

Major Rossi, the Italian Commandant for all the Vercelli Camps reported that on the morning of 16 July at around 3 a.m., he was coming back from organizing a search for some PWs who had escaped from another detachment 106/XXVII when he was informed of the killing of Laws over at PG106/III. The Adjutant of the Camp had ordered Medical officer to go to Carpeneto where they had been joined by a civilian doctor and the local Carabinieri (Military Police) commander. At around noon, Rossi had himself reached Carpeneto in the company of General Zaccaria, the district commander in order to question Sottotenente Carlo Chelotti, who commanded the detachment, the sentry Pellizzari and Caporale Olivo Antonini who was in charge of the stockade where the incident occurred , The British opened a file on the shooting of Private Laws as a potential war crime and on 4 July 1945 filed charges with the United Nations War Crimes Commission (charge UK  1/B62) . At the time they had no idea of the names of the individuals involved, so the charges were filed against 

  • The commandant of the Camp
  • The Adjutant or Second in Command
  • The officer in charge of the sentry
  • The sentry who had done the shooting

 Only the sentry was accused of murder or manslaughter, the other officers were wanted for questioning no breaches of the Geneva Convention. What particularly troubled the British investigators was the very close range at which Law had apparently been shot. According to the British case notes:

 “It is difficult to envisage circumstances which would justify the AccusedNo.4 in shooting to kill ( or indeed shooting at all) at such close range. A heavy onus is on Accused No.4 to show hat recourse to the “last means of violence” was justifiable”.

It was suggested that the accused was likely to use a defence of superior orders, , which would not in itself absolve him, butt which would make those superiors equally responsible. For that reason, the British were particularly keen to talk to the camp commander and adjutant about the orders which were given. The British took up the case with the Italian authorities and by October 1945, a Memo from the War Office to the Treasury Solicitor identified at least three of those wanted for questioning 

  • The Camp Commandant -Silvio Rossi
  • The Adjutant – still not known
  • Office in charge of the Detachment – 2nd Lieutenant Chelotti, Carlo
  • The Sentry – Private Pellizzari, Giovanni

 The British then set about trying to trace them, which was not highly successful. By December 1945, Italy was  no longer  occupied by the Allies, so they had to deal with the Italian authorities for all their requests. The initial attempt to interview Silvio Rossi was with the wrong, person- but they eventually found the right one. The Italians then indicated where to find Carlo Chelotti, again this turned out to be the right name, wrong identity. British Military Police made a fruitless trip to La Spezia ,to interview a Carlo Chelotti who has been imprisoned after the war., He turned out to have spent the whole war  in la Spezia, but he did recall a man of the same name who had been in his POW Camp. The other Carlo Chelotti was apparently never terraced, 

The second British attempt to interview Silvio Rossi, was rather more successful. He was traced to his home in Brescia, in Lombardy and swore an affidavit in March 1946. He confirmed that he had d been the camo commandant of PG106 from 29 March 1943 to 30 June 1943, with overall responsibility for all the work detachments. and that in matters of discipline and treatment of the PWs, he was directly responsible to the Territorial Defence HQ in Turin. Orders issued by HQ in Turin were that any POWs attempting to escape should be challenged with the words “HALT, HALT”, and then a warning shot fired in the air. If the POW still refused, the order was that he was to be fired on. Each work detachment was commanded by a Tenente or Sottotenente and they had some discretion in the following of orders. As far as Rossi was aware the orders for dealing with escaping POWs were never exceeded. In his statement Rossi identified the other staff responsible for running the camp. Rossi confirmed that the shooting had been investigated by the Carabinieri (in their role as Military Police) who were satisfied that the appropriate warning shoots had been fired before law was fatally shot. Rossi agreed that he had given Pelizzari fifteen days leave after the shooting, although he denied that any monetary reward had ben given. It appears that the main reason the British wanted to interview Rossi and the Adjutant was to establish what the orders were for dealing with escapes. In fact, from the file it appears that they never managed to trace Chelotti or indeed Pelizzari. There were another two prisoners mentioned in Sedgwick’s affidavit, who the SIB / JAG wanted to talk to but they were back in Australia, as was Sedgwick. The JAG was reluctant to pursue the case based just based an affidavit and it seemed they did not want to bring all the witnesses back from Australia. 

Apparently, nobody ever reached a conclusion as to whether Law was unlawfully killed and none of the camp staff were ever prosecuted. By 1947, the case of John Ernest Law had ground to a halt and no further correspondence was added to the file. In context by 1947, Italy had a democratically elected Government, was aligned with the allies and  the British had all but given up on prosecuting Italian War Criminals anyway. In fact very few Italian War Criminals were prosecuted for atrocities against British & Commonwealth personnel. Perhaps the most notorious case was that of General Bellomo, he was found guilty by a British Court martial of murdering two British Officers , Captains Payne and Cooke at Bari. Bellomo was executed by the British in July 1945, amid some controversy since the Italians had by then abolished the death penalty. Although Bellomo was guilty of a cold-blooded murder, he also happened to be an Italian war hero an anti-Fascist, who had successfully defended the port of Bari against the Germans after the armistice in September 1943. His execution remains controversial. The British also successfully tried and executed Piero Musetti for killing three escaped New Zealand and Australian POWs at the Cascina Casuinei, near Tavigliano on 24 April 1944 ( Privates Clark, Batt and Smedley- all buried in the Milan Cemetery). By 1947, the Italian Prime Minister Alcide De Gasperi and the Vatican were asking for death sentences to be commuted, which the British agreed to, By that time, they seemed t have lost interest in the active pursuit of suspected Italian War Criminals. 

Private Pelizzari seems to have vanished without trace . Private Law is buried in the British cemetery in Milan.

Sedgwick was in fact transferred to Germany a, where he ended up being imprisoned in Stalags 4B, 4F & 4G,, before being liberated on 23 April 1945. He departed the UK for Australia on 23 August 1945

 The full story of the 2/17th Battalions role in the defence of Tobruk on 13/14 April can be read at https://s3-ap-southeast-2.amazonaws.com/awm-media/collection/RCDIG1070055/document/5519384.PDF

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