Thursday, 20 December 2018

WHITIANGA WEATHER

An emotional and eye-opening journey around Italy

By Jordan Gower

Kuaotunu residents, John and Robin Twemlow, have recently been on an eye-opening and emotional journey around Italy.

Robin’s father, Stanley Butson, was a soldier in World War II, but Robin didn’t know much of his experiences as a serviceman. “I wasn’t allowed to ask my father too many questions about his younger days,” says Robin. “I only heard bits and pieces from him directly and occasionally I overheard things he said about World War II to his friends.”

Some time ago, Robin decided to find out more about Stanley’s three years of service and she contacted the New Zealand Defence Force. “Originally I thought I was just contacting the defence force about my father’s medals,” says Robin. “But they were so helpful and gave me so much information. I learned a lot more than I had expected to from them.”

After some thought, Robin and John decided to visit Italy in an attempt to retrace some of Robin’s father’s steps. John did most of the research and planning for the trip as Robin found it very emotional. Together they managed to put together the locations of four very significant places Stanely experienced during the war.

Private Stanley Butson was reported missing in action in December 1941. It was later discovered that he was captured and taken prisoner by the Italians. More than 2,000 New Zealand soldiers would become prisoners of war during the early 1940s. Stanley was captured in Egypt and taken across the Mediterranean to Italy. During the crossing, the ship he was on, was torpedoed by a British submarine and more than 500 men were killed. Stanley lived through the ordeal and was to spend the next 14 months of his life in four different prison camps across Italy.

John and Robin are both heavily involved in St Andrew’s Community Church in Whitianga. Their journey through Italy, looking for the prison camps Stanley was held in, was a journey of discovery and, what they called, “God moments.” It also enabled Robin to put her father’s life in a different perspective.

The first camp Robin and John visited was near Bari in southern Italy. This was the second camp that Stanley was imprisoned in. They were taken to the camp by Domenico Bolognese, with whom John had established contacted before he and Robin departed New Zealand. “Domenico’s family hail from Eastern Europe and his father was also held in this camp as a prisoner of war,” says John. “He was, and still is, keen to hear from other people with connections to the camp.”

Domenico wasn’t just John and Robin’s tour guide, he also became a friend as he showed them the ruins of what was once a prison camp. “When I walked through the gates of what remained of the camp, it all hit me,” says Robin. “It was big moment. All the horror that my father and so many men went through. I could feel it.”

The second camp John and Robin visited was in Brindisi, also in southern Italy. It was the first camp Stanley was taken to after his capture. The camp was difficult to find as none of the locals seemed to know anything about it. “Robin and I kept ourselves very fit, walking around and around in circles,” says John.

“We went into a pharmacy to ask for help, but none of the ladies behind the counter knew anything. Then in walked this man who was picking up a prescription and he knew! What a moment! His name was Biaggio and he packed us into his old Toyota Corolla and drove through fields and potholes to take us to the camp.”

This camp was ruined, so John and Robin couldn’t go inside and only walked around the outskirts. “We talked to Biaggio and we were communicating clearly,” says John. “But we weren’t even speaking the same language.”

Biaggo was a great help to John and Robin, even going out of his way to pick them some fresh figs from an orchard. “Biaggio refused any money or repayment from us and was just happy to be helpful,” says Robin. “I think he was sad that no one was remembering the history of the war. He really was ecstatic to be showing us around.”

Next John and Robin travelled to Gruppignano in northern Italy, to the third camp Stanley was transferred to. The camp was notorious in its day for being one of the toughest, as it was run by a commandant who was determined to please Hitler as best he could. The commandant was later trialed for various war crimes.

“There were no ruins at this camp,” says Robin. “There was only this beautiful chapel that was initially torn down by the Italians, but was later rebuilt by Australian and New Zealand soldiers. It just hit me, all what was left of one of the worst prisoner of war camps in Italy was a beautiful chapel with a crucifix inside and a panel with all the names of the men who rebuilt it. It was another moment that left an indelible impression on me.”

Finding the fourth camp Stanley was held in was a challenge. The camp was apparently located in Padova in northern Italy, but John and Robin never found any remains, despite having a confirmed address. “We ordered a taxi at the local library, but the address we had took us to a rural area with all these enormous, almost palatial looking houses,” says Robin. “It didn’t look as if there was anyone around, but soon we found an old lady gardening out the back of her house. Our taxi driver asked her if she knew about the camp, but she said there was never a prison camp in the area. We never found the camp, but we felt it. We knew it had been there.”

Stanley’s time as a prisoner of war ended when he escaped from this fourth camp. The story of his escape is one of a very few stories of the war he told Robin. “Apparently it was all thanks to a Roman Catholic padre,” says Robin. “The padre invited my father and some others to church and insisted even after my father declared he was not religious. As they were walking to the church, the padre said there was a fork in the road coming up and if some of the men wished to take the other path, they wouldn’t be missed until rollcall later that night. My father took the other path.”

From the fourth camp, Stanley and some other soldiers who escaped with him spent months in the mountains of Italy, hiding and being fed and sheltered by kind Italian families. He was reported safe in the UK in June 1944.

“I think I’m still processing everything that I felt and learned while I was in Italy,” says Robin. “My father was such a soft hearted man, even after everything he went through. He was a gentle man and a gentleman. I loved him very much.”

Robin and John encourage anyone wishing to find out more about family members who were prisoners of war in the camp near Bari in southern Italy to email Domenico Bolognese at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. They also recommend contacting the New Zealand Defence Force Personnel Archives and Medals Research and Entitlement Advisor, Julia Fink, to anyone would like to find out more about family members who served in World War II. Julia can be emailed at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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