Private Giuseppe Sansotta
Unit : 343rd Regiment Fanteria, Royal Italian Army.
Served : North Africa, Italy (captured)
POW No. : 06022
Camps : Stalag XIIF
Date of Birth : 19th June 1917
My father, Giuseppe Sansotta, started his Military service with the Royal Italian Airforce in 1938; the duration of his service was approximately 18 months to 2 years. He was attached to the 147th Squadron, based at Lero Egeo; a group of Islands situated off the coast of Greece. After being discharged from the armed services he was home for only 10 months when war broke out and was called up to serve with the Royal Italian Army; he started with the 207th Regiment Fanteria, and from there he was transferred to the 16th Regiment Fanteria, then finally the 343rd Regiment Fanteria. During his training he remembered using wooden tipped bullets and the pain that would be inflicted when they made contact with an individual; he mentioned with a smile that it was an interesting form of pay back to someone whom you had had an unpleasant encounter with.
My father was somewhere in North Africa for a few weeks or months. The story goes he was lying either on the beach shore or river bank with other colleagues when they heard a scream and splashes, one of their colleagues was gone. They believed that a crocodile took him. What action my father saw I do not know as he wouldn't mention it to me. He was transferred to the 343rd Regiment Fanteria on the Greek-Albanian front. He also said that once on parade with the unit it was inspected by Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler.
The infamous daily confrontations with the partisans. One particular day he was with a convoy of trucks driving through the mountains when the truck in front of his truck in which he was travelling in exploded. He jumped out of the truck with all the others, and everyone started to fire their rifles in the direction of the summit of the mountain. I asked him "What did you do?". His reply was simply "Nothing, I just sat down". I asked why; he said that the partisans would have been long gone and that everyone was just putting holes in the air. He mentioned that he couldn't understand how he got the courage to advance, charge or move forward under heavy fire from small arms, machine gun and artillery. He believed that they would put something in their food the night before going into action.
Then came that infamous day, 8th September 1943. He was in an Albania town called Progdec when the Germans came in, disarmed the unit, and then marched them 200 kilometres to Florina, where they were put into cattle trucks and transported to Stalag XIIF, located at Forbach String Wendel, France, close to the boarder of Germany and Luxembourg. He lived through the 10th decimation, as he called it, in which one out of ten Prisoners of War were picked to be executed. He was lined in front of a firing squad with others. When they fired, he faked his death and fell into the trench behind him. Quickly he covered himself with the lifeless bodies of his murdered comrades. He remained in the trench I believe until dusk or nightfall before he made a break for it, apparently there was another soldier from Naples who escaped the dreaded firing squad. My father was eventually caught.
There were several (three or four) escape attempts and each time he was caught, and there were those dreadful beatings. One particular time he was sent out with others on a working party detail. At the end of the day when they were heading back to the camp, he sprained his ankle and began to fall behind of the rest of the column, and the guards would hit him with the rifle butts so as to make him catch up with the rest of the column. This happened a few times until the guard forgot about him and he started to fall further and further behind the main column. It came to the stage where the column was to far and he was tired to do anything, so he just went to the side of the road, laid himself down in a ditch, and fell asleep. When he woke up it was dark and couldn't believe his luck without any plans or thought he was free and made a run for it. As fate and good fortune came his way, it was quickly was taken away from him; his sprained ankle was still there and made it very difficult to cover ground. With each escape made he was recaptured and punished for escaping. My father recalled the accounts of the dogs being sent out to look for escapers, and in one instance a fellow prisoner forced his hand down the throat of the dog, desperate for survival, and ended up pulling the dogs internals inside out. In one particular escape, he recalled that he and another colleague stumbled across a campsite containing Russian women. They stayed the night in the morning they broke up camp and were told that the front line was coming in this direction.
During his captivity he worked at a coalmine, saltmine, and munitions factory. When working in the munitions factory he would, with other colleagues, bend the brass linkages of the machine gun belt on aircraft so that they would jam. In one instance, a human chain, five kilometres long, was formed from the munitions dump to the aircraft, and bombs would be passed from one person to the other. During this process, they would sabotage the weapon; not every single one, but only the ones that could be done.
Air raids were a time of fear as you could see the bombers fly over, open the bomb bay doors, and see the deadly cargo rain down like lollies, from the small to huge ones. Down on the ground the men would be running for cover, thinking of only themselves. My father recalled one particular air raid. He was working near or on a railway line, and when they were running for cover a bomb exploded behind them and a piece of shrapnel hit the soldier running behind my father and cut one of his legs clean off. As he lay screaming, my father went back and tied his belt around the wound and carried him to safety. When he stopped for a breather the wounded man, in tremendous pain, asked for some water and called out for his mother, before passing away in his arms through loss of blood.
Prisoners were used for clean-up details. In one particular incident after an air raid in a nearby town, he was sent to clear the rubble. They disembarked from the transport trucks and were handed baskets to pick up the flesh and body parts, which would be placed in a truck for disposal, regardless of which part belonged to who and without any respect of the grieving relatives. He recalled the elderly, young men, women and children grieving out in the streets.
The thing that my father would never let us forget was the hunger that was endured during his captivity. A bond was formed with another prisoner to whom they shared everything together to survive; they had to resort to stealing potato peeling's from the German's mess bin's. He said that they were like animals scavenging through the bins, making sure not to get caught in grabbing whatever was in the bin, and running back to the barracks to hide under the table and eat what they had found. In a particular instance they were caught by the guards and severely beaten with the rifle butts.
Shortly before the Allies arrived, the prisoners rebelled against their guards and seized the camp by force. It was as if the floodgates were opened, the prisoners were running everywhere. My father went out searching for that one particular guard, the one who administered the beatings, and upon finding him he started to administer his own form of justice and returned the beatings and continued beating him; his intention was to kill him, my father made that quiet clear when he was recalling the event to me. He stopped when the guard begged for mercy and cried out that this was war. He did stop, and only took his silver watch and left him.
On the 5th March 1945, the camp was liberated by the US 2nd Battalion the 274th Regiment, 70th Infantry Division. The weight of my father was approximately 38 or 39 kilograms when liberated from the camp. He remained at the camp for a few weeks for the medical check up and debriefing by the Americans. The prisoners were given some money or coupons, taken to a railway station by truck, and told to make his own way home. He was in one of the first group of trucks to leave from the camp.
On his way home he had stopped in Naples to change trains and thought that he would buy himself some shoes and surprise his mother and father, who at this stage still had no idea that their son was still alive. The shopkeeper went to the back of the store to wrap up the shoes in newspaper and presented them to him. He went back to the station to catch the next train to his home town in southern Italy. The train was full, so in desperation he travelled on the buffers of the train for hours just to get home as soon as possible. When he got closer to home he decided to put on his new shoes, but when he unwrapped the parcel all he found was potato peelings, an ironic twist, he wasn't go back to confront the shopkeeper. My father arrived home on the 3rd Sunday of June; St George's Day 1945. His mother, father, brothers and sisters were all working in the fields and had no idea that he was alive; there was no communication between them for close to two years.
Thanks to his son, Domenico, for this story, written in Loving Memory of Giuseppe Sansotta.
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