Italian Prisoners of War
in South Africa
The battles of North Africa during World War II brought 93,000 Italian Prisoners of War to South Africa.
These men were stationed in Prisoner of War Camps throughout the country. About 1,500 of these prisoners were transported to a camp on the farm Keerweder in the Klein Drakenstein Valley, at the foot of the Du Toit’s Kloof Pass.
Their task was was to build the pass through those mountains.
The first Italian Prisoners of War arrived in 1942, remaining there for the duration of the war. During this time they came into contact with the local farming community where they were employed as farm labourers, builders, chefs, gardeners, mechanics and various other tasks in Paarl , Worcester and Robertson area.
The friendships that they established with the South African Community was to be a very long and lasting one, many of them returning after the war ended taking up permanent residence in the country, visiting farms where they were employed, and the families they had met and lived with.
They themselves became members of the family at these places, and not treated as the enemy in labour, or like slaves.
Building of the Huguenot Peak Cross
Young Hermanus le Roux had lived on a farm near the P.O.W. camp, and from the very beginning made frequent visits to the P.O.W.
When the Italians came up with the idea of the cross on top of Hugeneot Peak, he made a promise, that there would always be a cross on the top of Huguenot Peak. The first cross was made by the surveyor Tanguara. He and three fellow prisoners manhandled the heavy seven meter wooden structure up the steep slopes.
First they had to negotiate the Miaspoort gully to reach a ridge behind the mountain. Then they had to climb to the summit, where they planted their cross. Four metal guys held it in place. This original crass lasted for 10 years, afterwhich the gale force winds and snow in winter followed by the heat of summer, by the south-easter, won the battle of the summit. The cross collapsed. First the portion above the crossbar broke away.
Hermanus true to his word repaired the cross and gave it a coat of fresh paint; but that was not enough. The entire structure came down during a storm. A new cross, covered with a metal plate and protected tar was made by Hermanus. It took six men and seven hours to get the 80kilogram memorial cross to the top of the mountain. This cross was to last 15 years on the exposed summit before it too collapsed. A few more attempts followed by local farmers by placing other crosses on top of the mountain. These too did not last long.
In 1984 it was finely decided to place a aluminium cross on top of the mountain, that would withstand the ravages of time.
Farmers, local culture organizations, the Italian Community, and many well ment members of the public started to collect funds for the project. Finally the cross was completed as stands to-day on the top of Huguenot Heights, recognised for the bound of remembering friendship it represents, in this rather unstable world of to-day.
The Cross is a reminder as well that enemies can overcome bitterness, and that good will can be far more enduring.
So if you are in the Paarl Valley and happen to be there at a particular time of the day, at a particular part of the season, and if the sun is shiningbrightly, you might be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of bright light shining from the very top of the Hugeneot mountain peak.
If you should ever see the cross, stop for a few moments and give thought to the men who laboured on the pass and the remarkable friendship that transcends the barriers created by war.
Thanks go to A. Martinaglia for generously submitting the article on Italian Prisoners of War. Please be aware that this is a slightly shortened version of the original article.