Bob Mallett had been captured, along with 33,000 others, when Tobruk fell to Rommel’s latest attack. The Germans handed them over to the Italians to deal with. It took time for the Italians to organise facilities for them and to find transport to take them back to Italy. When the ship did arrive it was very basic:
A motley crowd was herded onto the quay. We were now on our way to a prison camp, somewhere in Italy. Guards stood around us, dirty and unshaven, leaning on their rifles. We numbered about 400 English, South Africans, Indians, Australians and a collection of nationals from almost every European country. We were all dirty, hungry, lousy and miserable.
A freighter was tied up in front of us, lifting gently in the light swell that was rolling across the harbour. This was our ferry for the trip across the sea to Italy. We were going back to Europe, but not the way that we would have wished.
At last, we got the signal to embark and as each man reached the gangway he was presented with a packet of Italian cigarettes and a tin of corned beef. This was to last us until we reached Taranto and together with a quantity of rusty water all we had until we landed.
We were packed into the holds of the vessel and given to understand that nobody would be allowed on deck in any circumstances. A number of buckets were then passed down and the Italian interpreter indicated that these were our loo for the trip. Some of the men already had dysentery and after two hours below, the atmosphere could almost be leaned upon.
The ship had been carrying barrels of tar, and some had leaked as the whole floor had about an inch of tar over it. We had about two square feet of space each and when the ship got out into the heavier swell, sickness added to our troubles.
One of the guards lounging above the hatch shouted. We looked up and saw an Italian army padre peering down at us. He had a poor command of English and not a lot of tact. “Englishmans,” he called, “You have been conquered,” and got no further. From somewhere in the hold a tightly knotted tarry rag rose and caught him fairly in the face. Exit padre. We never saw him again.
For over two days we sat in that hold. The floor was soft and slimy. I had laid an overcoat on the floor, but the tar oozed through. Most of the men had nothing but shirts and shorts on when they were captured andthe state of them can best be left to the imagination.
Once anything was placed on the ground, it was impossible to remove it. The men’s watches had all been taken off them when captured so we had no idea of time. It just got light and it got dark; that was all we knew.
After what seemed a lifetime in this hell, one of the guards above shouted. We looked up. He waved his rifle, pointed and yelled ‘Taranto’ so we took it that we had not much further to go. The ship stopped rolling and slowed. The activity on deck increased and we guessed that we were through the boom into Taranto harbour. We just sat, sweated and stank while waiting our destiny.
Bob Mallet was to twice escape from Italian prisoner of war camps before finally crossing over to the British lines in Italy in 1943. See War’s Long Shadow: 69 Months of the Second World War