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Italians in wartime Cockburn: internment and enemy aliens

At midnight on 11 June 1940, Italy entered the Second World War on the side of Germany. Police in several Australian states were waiting outside the homes of Italians deemed to be threats to Australian security to take them into custody on the strike of the clock - 7 A.M. Western Australian time. Police in Kalgoorlie presided over an orderly roundup of Italians living on the goldfields, with many men arriving in taxis with bags packed to turn themselves in.

Once considered simply ‘aliens’ - foreign nationals permitted to live and work in Australia, but who had not applied for naturalisation (citizenship) - they were now officially ‘enemy aliens’, and their political and military leanings condemned them. Naturalisation had been prohibitively expensive for a working-class Italian family, and as there was no pressure to apply, many had never bothered to do so.

In many cases being a naturalised Australian had no bearing on arrests, and there were several examples of men who had been naturalised for years, with Australian-born children in the Australian armed forces, who were nevertheless arrested and interned without explanation.

Italians in Western Australia

In Western Australia in 1939, Italian nationals were heavily concentrated in the goldfields area, working on mines or on the woodline cutting firewood, in Geraldton and other rural towns as farmers, and in the Perth and Fremantle areas where they worked as shopkeepers, restaurateurs, fishermen, farmers, woodcutters, and market gardeners. In Cockburn they were living mainly in Bibra Lake and Spearwood, cutting firewood or working on market gardens, supplementing their income with fishing at Fremantle or Woodman Point.

Western Australian roundups

Two days after the official declaration, around 700 Italian men had been interned in Western Australia, though some who had been arrested initially were let go when they were assessed to be of no threat to Australia’s war effort.  

Police and intelligence agents, who had kept dossiers on many Italians in the months leading up to Italy’s entry into the war, focused on those who had expressed support for Mussolini and fascist ideologies, as well as those men who were eligible for military service in Italy. 

Peaceful arrests

Reports agreed that there had been ‘no trouble’ during the roundup of Italian nationals, and the general opinion in the press was that the Italians in Australia were mostly anti-Fascist and not particularly threatening. 

Italian-run shops in Victoria Park and Maylands had their windows smashed the day after the announcement, but police ‘deprecated the act of vandalism and stated that inquiries would reveal in a big percentage of cases that the foreign shopkeepers were not in sympathy with the Italian military measures.’
 

Cockburn Italians

In 1933 there were 100 Italian people, over 70% of them men, recorded living in the Cockburn district, and by 1947 this number had risen to nearly 400. Because of their proximity to Fremantle, many Italians in Cockburn had close ties to those living in the town itself. Sometimes this caused trouble, as associations with the Italian Club in Fremantle were considered political. The club espoused the virtues of Fascism and Mussolini’s Italy, and anyone who went there could be accused of Fascist sympathies.

Exempted from internment

Many of the long-serving market gardeners, woodcutters, and other workers of the Cockburn district seem to have escaped internment. This seems to be largely because of their work on market gardens and in cutting firewood, which served the dual purpose of being integral to the Australian war effort, and generally keeping them too busy to become politically active. 

Many were also uninterested in politics, preferring to live quietly and build a better life for themselves than had been possible in Italy. There were never political gatherings of Italians in the way there had been of Yugoslavs in the Spearwood area, though this may have been because the focus of Italian cultural life in the district was in Fremantle instead.

Cockburn internees

Some Italian men living in Cockburn were interned. Oreste Vitali arrived in Fremantle in 1939 and moved to Spearwood with his wife Agnese, where they presumably had work on market gardens, although he gave his occupation as ‘miner’. Vitali was arrested on 17 June 1940, sent to Rottnest Island in July, moved to the internment camp at Harvey in October, and released on parole in November.  

During her husband’s internment, Agnese’s address was given as ‘c/o G.
Paganoni family at Bibra Lake, 1932
Marchese, Spearwood’. It was common for the wives and families of Italian internees to have to rely on the goodwill of other Italians during these difficult times. Many Spearwood and Coogee Italian households found themselves taking in the families of interned Fremantle men, who had no means of earning the money required to live. The close-knit communities, sharing a language and a cultural heritage, drew together to support one another.

At least two other Italian men living in the Cockburn area, Giuseppe de Ceglie and a Mr. Catalini, were also interned. 

Alien registration

What was more common amongst market gardening and woodcutting Italians in Cockburn was to be registered first as an ‘enemy alien’, complete with registration card and fingerprints, and then later as a member of the Civil Aliens Corps, a non-combatant workforce under the Allied Works Council. In Western Australia much of the work for aliens in the Corps was forestry and road building.  

Theoretically any ‘alien’ male could be called up to work for the council, though in practice those who were employed on market gardens and in other food production were usually exempted. Florence Gherardi (nee Paganoni), who was born in northern Italy and moved to Bibra Lake as a small child with her family, remembered her father Guglielmo Paganoni being sent to work on a farm near Williams. He was well treated, and his family used to visit him and spend time with the farmers as if it were a holiday. Nevertheless, he was prevented from working on his own market garden and supporting his family during the war, despite the fact that he had become a naturalised Australian in 1928.

Fines and breaches of the National Security Act

Many Italian men living in the Cockburn district found themselves in court for breaching national security regulations. As ‘enemy aliens’ they were registered as residents of their police district, and were not supposed to travel outside that district without express permission from the authorities. This remained the case throughout the war, even after Italy surrendered in 1944. The following breaches of the National Security Act were all reported in newspapers at the time:
  • Lucia Moreschini, registered alien at Spearwood, was fined £3/ 4 shillings for failing to get written permission before travelling to Harvey to visit her friends in the Italian internment camp there in January 1942. 
  • Anselmo Monaco was fined nearly £10 in August 1942 when a plainclothes policeman caught him driving his own truck on his Bibra Lake property; as an enemy alien, he needed a permit to drive any vehicle, and he had not arranged to get one. 
  • Later the same month, Nicola Perfetto, another Bibra Lake man, was fined £3 for travelling outside of his police district.
  • Conversely, Michele Rotondella, an Italian man from Spearwood was fined £2 for failing to enrol for military service in October 1942, though as he had not been born in Australia this is something of a mystery.
  • In July 1943 Biago Lopresti, a Bibra Lake woodcutter, was cautioned and charged court costs for not having his Alien Registration certificate on his person when he was caught in a controlled military area.
  • Travelling out of Bibra Lake, Luigi Cacetta moved to James Street in Perth, and was fined £1 for failing to notify the authorities of his move.
  • George Glisenti, a market gardener at Bibra Lake, was caught in August 1945 after having been jailed once for changing his address without permission, then absconding immediately upon his release. In court, he said he would do it again if necessary.
Gherardi family at Spearwood, late 1950s

Anti-Italian sentiment

Florence Gherardi recalled the atmosphere of the time. She was in her early 20s when war broke out, and her brother, who was born in Australia, was called up into the army. There was a friction in being Italian in Australia at the time, as there was a lot of admiration for Mussolini within the Italian community, and many Italian women were called on to make contributions to Italy’s war effort, by donating their wedding rings or joining their children up to the Fascist youth organisation Balilla, organised by Mrs Funazzi in Fremantle. The Funazzi family ran a popular tea room and boarding house on South Terrace, and both Mr and Mrs Funazzi were interned for their Fascist sympathies.

The war affected Florence mostly when it came to the actions of strangers: when speaking English to someone at a bus stop she was fine, but when she switched to speaking Italian to her friend the attitude changed abruptly. They were sworn at and told to stand at the back of the line. She could also feel a definite shift in her treatment from shopkeepers and other non-Italian service providers. However, she did not recall any change in treatment from her non-Italian neighbours in Spearwood.

The relative prevalence of foreign-born Europeans in the Spearwood district meant that popular opinion was often kinder to them than in other, less diverse, neighbourhoods. A letter printed in the West Australian in February 1941 reads: 
The Italians are good, honest, hard working people who have done a lot of good to this country. One just has to look around such districts as Spearwood, Coogee, and Upper Swan, and see how they have improved the country.  

For Italian and Yugoslav market gardeners, in an era when they had often been systematically and socially discriminated against, this kind of publicly-expressed attitude was a welcome relief from the prevailing sentiments of ‘British first’ that pervaded much of the Western Australian bureaucracy and media. Even then, the wholesale internment of Italian men during the Second World War left some deep scars on individuals, families, and communities.

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