The case of an Italian prisoner of war shot and killed by the commandant of an internment camp in Victoria in 1946 turned out to be more than a simple attempt at escaping.
At the end of World War Two in 1946 more than 18,000 Italian prisoners of war were stranded in Australia, waiting to be repatriated.
Most had been captured by or surrendered to the Allies in Europe and North Africa.
Rodolfo Bartoli was one of them.
Before he could be released from the internment camp he was assigned to in Victoria, he found himself involved in a situation that eventually proved deadly, in which were intertwined serious allegations of assaults, the reckless firing of weapons, drunkenness, and miscarried justice.
“I was touched by the tragedy and by the terrible loss of a young life,” says author Darren Arnott, “and by the injustice.”
“Nobody knew the events surrounding Rodolfo’s death and after a while, I felt the responsibility to tell his story.”
In his book 'No Regard for the Truth', history buff Darren Arnott tries to piece together Rodolfo’s history, whose life was cut short with a single gunshot by camp commandant, Captain John Walker Waterson.
Arnott describes Captain Waterson as a “brutal man”, ready to perform violence towards the prisoners in his custody and prone to drunkenness on duty.
Nobody knew the events surrounding Rodolfo’s death and after a while, I felt the responsibility to tell his story.
Rodolfo - a 26-year-old Italian soldier from Florence - was captured in North Africa and sent Down Under, where he ended up in the Rowville camp, located 27 kilometres south-east of Melbourne,
Towards the end of the conflict, Italian POWs weren’t confined inside internment camps, but instead enjoyed some freedom and had the chance to socialise with the locals.
It was in these circumstances that Rodolfo met Nora Gearon, a 20-year-old girl who lived on a nearby farm. The Italian had become a regular visitor and eventually developed a romantic relationship with her.
Violence in the camp and the first inquiry
In March 1946, an Italian activist known as “Mother of the Italians” because of her social battles for the community, wrote a letter to the Minister of Immigration, Arthur Calwell, after hearing from different sources of alleged acts of violence in the Rowville camp.
In the letter, she took particular aim at Captain Waterston, described as a “drunkard” and a “veritable Nero”, ready to abuse prisoners and steal their possessions.
On 27 March 1946, Major Archer was appointed to lead an investigation into the allegations against Captain Waterston.
One week later, Rodolfo was shot and killed by Waterson.
“I can’t be sure about it, but it is possible that Waterson knew about the inquiry against him before he shot Rodolfo,” Darren Arnott tells SBS Italian, as he unravels what happened the night of his death.
Piecing together the events
Rodolfo had finished his dinner around 6:30 pm and was strolling along with the camp with the hostel leader, Michele Scuma.
On 27 March 1946, Major Archer was appointed to lead an investigation into the allegations against Captain Waterston. One week later, Rodolfo was shot and killed by Waterson.
According to later recollections, the conversation between the two men was about a lost card game, a mundane topic that wasn’t in any way related to future escaping plans.
Rodolfo was left alone by Michele who had to go to the latrine pits and soon after tragedy struck.
One single shotgun was heard in the camp.
Rodolfo was hit in the groin and it became apparent to the dozen POWs who came out to see what had happened that the man who fired the gun was Captain Waterston.
He was carried by car to the military hospital in Heidelberg, where he underwent surgery.
It was a useless effort though. Rodolfo had lost too much blood and died a few hours later.
The next day, his tragic story was reported in local newspapers with increasing degrees of separation from what had actually happened.
A newspaper called ‘The Truth’ speculated about a plan concocted by 5,000 POWs, trying to escape from different camps with the protection of the Italian community.
It was totally fabricated news, but it served the purpose of reinforcing that Rodolfo’s death was the consequence of his attempt to flee the internment camp.
A gunshot and other inquiries
The shooting prompted various inquiries, following Major Archer’s first one after Lena Santospirito’s letter.
A military inquiry after a few weeks ruled that Rodolfo had died as a “result of his actions” and that Captain Waterston’s conduct was correct.
The coroner inquiry in May finally started to unearth “unfiltered versions of what had happened”, as Darren Arnott describes them.
One of the most controversial issues regarded the camp boundaries in which the Italian POWs were allowed to walk during the daytime.
Before Rodolfo’s accident, the POWs were free to roam throughout a vast area, a few kilometres away from their barracks.
After the accident the area was greatly restricted, perhaps to show that Rodolfo’s was a genuine attempt to escape, no matter that the latrine pits were visible in the background of a photo that shows the precise spot in which the Italian was shot.
An alleged corruption case lurks behind Rodolofo’s death
To complicate the matter further, petty corruption allegations against Captain Waterston appeared soon after.
Following orders from Captain Waterston, many corrugated iron sheets from condemned buildings in the camp were dismantled, but “mysteriously” reappeared on a nearby farm.
How and why this had happened became a source of gossip for the POWs, and it is the base of an unproven theory about Rodolfo’s death, seen as a dangerous witness by Waterston and consequentially disposed of.
“It is a possibility that Waterston was worried about Rodolfo speaking too freely about that topic and the deadly shot could have been a consequence,, claims Darren Arnott, though the theory had never been substantiated.
Waterson’s predicament was very difficult though.
He was facing a military, an administrative and a coroner inquiry, while damaging rumours about his leadership were running wild outside the camp.
Captain Waterston was temporally suspended during the latest inquiry, which exposed a general attitude of disdain towards the POWs and a “wanton use of weapons”.
An extract during the inquiry shows how much the investigators and investigated had a flippant attitude towards the use of weapons and how much they disregarded the POWs.
One night during a dinner that also had Major Archer and Waterston as tipsy guests, a few guns appeared and were discharged upon the ceiling.
This story was told by Italian POWs in charge of waiting on the tables and it is a testament to the lack of respect for Rodolfo’s death and a reckless attitude when it came to firearms.
“It was a very flippant attitude with what had happened with the shooting of Rodolfo,” says Darren Arnott.
Rodolfo’s death was devastating for Nora Gearon. The Australian girl was notified about his death two days later by her sister, who had just read the news in the local newspaper.
The whole Gearon family was thoroughly shocked and actively tried in the following weeks to uncover what had really happened at the Rowville internment camp and for what reason.
It turned out to be wishful thinking, as in 1946 the Australian military and administrative departments didn’t have the will or the strength to be involved in an unpopular and difficult trial against a Captain.
Waterston was eventually acquitted in the first two inquiries, while the coroner’s was inconclusive.
A further inquiry on how the camp was run heavily criticised Captain Waterston, without ruling whether he was used to be drunk on service or not. It did put down on official documents that the Captain often used to shoot guns against his prisoners or nearby.
As a result, nine charges were laid against the Captain at the Martial Court.
Waterston was found guilty of one of his nine charges — common assault against a prisoner, for which he received a reprimand.
And that was all.
Rodolfo’s story was soon forgotten, remembered only by Nora, who is still alive and is now 97-year-old - until Darren Arnott’s decision to dig into the archives and unearth the story.
Arnott confirms that different hypotheses over what may have caused Captain Waterston’s behaviour have emerged over the years. They range from the cruelty of a man who used to play God with his prisoners to his attempt to cover up his involvement in a corruption case.
“It may just come down to the fact that one night he had too much to drink and fired one reckless shot too many,” concludes a slightly resigned Darren Arnott.
“At the end, the disappointing thing was that I wasn’t really able to get to a point where I found out exactly why this happened."
Rodolfo Bartoli was buried at the Springvale Cemetery on 2 April 1946.
In 1961, his body was moved to the Ossario at Murchison cemetery and laid to rest along with hundreds of other Italian POWs who lost their lives in Australia.Darren Arnott's book, 'No Regard for the Truth' was shortlisted for the Victorian Community History Awards 2020.