The Italian Connection

Extract from ‘The Italian Connection’ – Living Memories from Nottingham’s Italian community – courtesy of Nottingham City Council (and typed up by Jackie Wood Nov. 2010)

Nottingham’s Italian community dates back to the 19th Century, but its size temporarily escalated during the Second World War when Italian prisoners of war were sent to the Nottingham Prisoner of War  (POW) camp situated at Bulwell Hall and later on to the German POW camp at Colwick Woods.

The Colwick Woods area was used during the First World War  by soldiers for camping and also anti aircraft guns when a searchlight was erected on the hill in the woodland. The woods were fenced before the Second World War and the concrete posts are still visible today by the path leading to the Three Hills area and on the top edge of the woods on that side.

During the Second World War, this camp was opened firstly for German POWs and later for Italians. The prisoners built concrete roads, a food store and did farm work. As the security was rather lax, locals met the prisoners, some of whom eventually married local girls after the war and settled down here. When the war ended the prisoners were repatriated back to Italy and most of the camp was dismantled. The remaining fourteen Nissan tin huts and twelve wooden huts were converted in 1949 as an emergency measure for families in urgent need of accommodation by the local authorities into family homes with a bathroom and laundry building for the women and shower baths for the men (3). All these were then demolished in 1955 and replaced by football pitches and, later on, by a golf course.

Alf and Brenda Jackson, locals in Nottingham during the war, were the only people  interviewed to have information about the POW camp located in Colwick Woods in Nottingham.  Alf remembers that the Italian POWs were no threat to the locals: when I was a lad we lived near the woods so anything going off we would know about. There was a British soldiers’ camp up there. They pulled out and I think to be honest it was the Germans who went there first and then the Italians. Either way, the reason I say that is when the Italians were there, there was no fence round them .. I’d have to say ’44 … late ’44, ’45 mainly because of my age and also I went in the army when I was eighteen – couple of years later … I think the reason there was no fence was because, either the war was nearly in its end or it had ended and the Italians were just too glad they were out of it I think. I mean no doubt the Germans were but they had a different attitude to that. So there were some soldiers there, they’d clear you off, but I never remember there being a fence there.

Well, the Italian soldiers … were allowed out, I don’t think willy-nilly but they were allowed out sort of at special times and got to be back at special times. But on a Sunday there’d be groups of them come down to church … This used to be regular, oh yes. And when the Germans were there we went to tell the Gang Sergeant or whoever it was that there would be a midnight mass down at the school on Sneinton Dale but we used the hall and made it into a church. We wanted to build a church on the land behind it. And they said if somebody would come and lead them and bring them back … so don’t laugh but there was two of us for about eighty soldiers. One in front and me at the back and we took them down to church and they all stood at the back for midnight mass. We didn’t hang about much because we didn’t know how long it would take to get back up to the camp .. and we set off, now you can imagine, eighty blokes in hobnail boots marching and we came up Greenwood Road and all of a sudden they started to sing and yeah, it was ‘Silent Night’. All the curtains moved, everything, the whole .. it was well, better than Goose Fair on the night .. One or two of the Italians got hitched up with the girls, married them, as you might say, or whatever. But I think in the main they were wanting to get home  or get away from Nottingham from the memories. Not that they got bad memories but it was just off they went.

We used to play ’em at football .. I’d say ’45 again …! It’d be a couple of years … a couple of years the end or just after ‘cos apart from them on front line it did peter out a bit didn’t it? You know towards the end and that … We used to say ‘Go on, have a game with me’ and mainly that because they were Italians the prisoners it was we played in continental teams, which was unheard of in them days, wasn’t it? …You’d go up the camp and go and see the British Sergeant or whoever was in charge and say: ‘Is it alright if we come up and play them a game, any coming?’ type of thing, you know. And he’d say ‘Don’t put any professionals in’ and ‘Only allow them in a side’ … Well, that’s an interesting episode isn’t it? Because … football is .. a common … language, isn’t it?