Somerset’s Italian POWs

Imperial War Museum image of Italian PoWs being escorted by British troops to camps in Africa

Somerset has been enriched by immigrants since the year dot. Although it’s Syrian immigrants who make the headlines today but in the 1940s it was Italians who came to the county – as prisoners of war or POWs.

Writing for the Bridgwater Mercury back in 2015 Harry Mottram reported on some of the stories of ex-patriot POWs who made a new life here.  The article sparked the memories of Linda Hocking of Bridgwater whose father came to the area following the collapse the Italian army’s campaign in North Africa.

Thousands of Italian soldiers were taken captive by the British army and sent to camps across the country for the duration including the one at Goathurst.

Giovanni Bellachioma married local girl Joyce after the war

Mrs Hocking said: “My father, Salvatore Zuncheddu, was also in the POW camp at Haswell House, Goathurst. He was captured in Tobruk, North Africa, and was shipped to Somerset for the remainder of the war. Whilst in the camp, he taught himself to speak, read and write English, knowing this would help integrate him in his unfamiliar surroundings.”

In Scotland Giovanni Bellachioma taught himself English writes Linda Mottram (née Bellachioma) of Axbridge. She said:  “He made a ring from a silver coin she said as they had time on their hands. His friends also decorated the inside on a hut with plaster which they turned into a chapel. They were really amazed by the Scottish soldiers who wore kilts, but like many of his comrades they were moved to Somerset and was in a camp somewhere near Bridgwater.”

Working on the farm in Burtle back in the day

Like Salvatore Zuncheddu Giovani settled in Somerset rather than home. Linda Hocking said: “After the war dad was de-mobbed, and he was offered work and living accommodation with the Moxey family, who lived in Burtle. Dad saw this as a perfect opportunity to perhaps make a future for himself in England, together with his wife, Rosetta, who was still back home in Sardinia at that time.

“He brought my mother over from Sardinia to join him, and ‘Nan Moxey’ taught my mother to speak English. My mother was welcomed into the family and treated like a daughter and she recalls many happy memories of helping around the house, cooking, cleaning and with the harvesting (she especially loved the cherry picking season!).”

Her father took work on the local farm and became “one of the boys”. And like many Italian POWs turned Somersetonian and joined in the local community life – by joining the Burtle Silver Band playing the trumpet.

Giovanni Bellachioma (centre) with friends after the war

Mrs Hocking said: “Some years ago, the BBC interviewed my dad (commonly known as John) and if anyone ‘googles’ his name of Salvatore Zuncheddu, a brief transcript of the interview is detailed there. My parents remained in England for the remainder of their married life. Sadly, dad passed away, aged 89 years old, five years ago, on their Diamond Wedding Anniversary. My mum lives in Bridgwater and she still keeps in touch with the remaining members of the Moxey family.”

In 2005 the BBC reported on the story of Mr Zuncheddu. They wrote: “John Salvatore Zuncheddu was born in July 1920, at Burcei, near Cagliari, in the southern part of the island of Sardinia in the Mediterranean. He left elementary school aged fourteen and worked as a labourer crushing stones for road making. Six years later, aged twenty, he enlisted in the Italian Army. He joined the 28th Regiment and went to Ravenna for his basic training.”

In north Africa his regiment was taken captive by the British army without any fighting and after spells in PoW camps in Eygpt and South Africa he arrived in Somerset to work on a farm. He returned to Italy in 1945 but after a couple of years was able to get a permit to return to Somerset where he stayed for the rest of his life.

Linda Mottram also recalls how her father found work on a farm near Wrantage during his time in captivity before settling near Taunton with a job on the railways shovelling coal.

In Somerset there were several camps including the one at Goathurst. Brockley, Yeovil, Wells, Cross Keys near Taunton and even one at Ashton Gate in Bristol helped to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of German and Italian PoWs.

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