Prisoners of War in Norwich in the 1940s
It was in the summer of 1968 when we recounted how a former Italian POW returned to Norwich to visit family who befriended him while he was in a camp in Mousehold Lane towards the end of World War II.
His name was Ercole Voltan and he arrived with his wife JosÃ©phine, formerly Guiseppina (Pina) Rizza, and their daughter Sonia, to meet Sam and Edith Berry and their daughter Myra.
â€œThey were real friends when I needed them most,â€ Ercole told us at the time.
Today, this friendship continues between Myra and Sonia after all these years.
Now she is Myra Hawtree, who received a national honor earlier this year – the Unsung Hero Award for her outstanding contribution to netball for many years.
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And Sonia lives with her family in Canada.
Grandmother Myra, who lives in Sprowston, takes up the story.
â€œAround 1945/6 there was a German POW camp on Mousehold Lane. I lived on Pilling Park Road and most Sundays my parents would walk on Mousehold Heath and we would see the prisoners walking around on the driving range next to the huts.
â€œEventually the Germans were displaced and Italian prisoners of war were housed there. As they were not considered a threat, having changed sides and fought with the Allies at the end of the war, they were allowed to leave the camp for a walk.
â€œOne Sunday my parents started talking to a soldier who spoke good English. Then, every Sunday, he, Ercole, watched over us and I remember that he and his friend came to our house for tea.
â€œSome people didn’t think fraternizing with the prisoners who had been our enemy was a good thing,â€ Myra admitted.
It was around this time that Ercole befriended a girl of Italian descent who, according to Myra, lived with the Valori family, well known for their fish and chips and ice cream.
Her name was Guiseppina (Pina) Rizza, one of five children born in Inverness. Her father had died when she was two and she had a hard time. Her mother suffered from depression and she was placed with her sisters in a children’s home run by nuns in Aberdeen.
Pina won a scholarship and moved to a boarding school in Hampshire before joining the Woman’s Land Army during the war. She met the love of her life while working in Norwich as a bus driver.
Ercole was repatriated to his home village in Italy, working as an interpreter for the Allies, and kept in touch with his Norwich friends, the Berry family.
By this time Pina had moved to London to work for Barclays Bank, but they continued to correspond and in July 1947 she made what would have been a difficult journey, with everything still chaotic after the war, for him. to visit him and his family in Italy.
The love affair at a distance continues and in April 1949 they get married in the Cathedral of Milan.
First, they moved to Scotland where Ercole worked on the hydropower systems being installed at the time.
â€œThen,â€ said Myra, â€œin 1950 they decided to move to Toronto because Canada was encouraging workers to move there. After struggling at first, they both found jobs.
â€œAll this time my parents were still corresponding with them and I remember Pina becoming an Avon rep and sending my mom and I some Avon lipstick that was not known here at the era.
â€œThey had two children, Edward and Sonia and Ercole worked in real estate.
“In 1968 Ercole, Pina (she changed her name to Josephine) and Sonia visited the UK and spent a few days in Norwich visiting my parents and an article appeared in the Evening News,” a Myra explained.
By the time Myra’s mother died in 1984, they had lost contact. But that was not the end of the story, far from it.
Browsing through old photographs in early 2019, Myra saw their friends from all those years ago and figured she would google the name – to see what came up.
â€œI was pleasantly surprised to find a lot of information about Pina (now Josephine) in the local Toronto newspaper. She was 97 years old and the article said that she had received an award from the local hospital oncology department in recognition of raising funds for them, following her treatment for stomach cancer in the age of 87.
â€œThe article said she was living at the Humber Heights nursing home, so I found the address and sent her a letter-card from Norwich Cathedral. Soon I was delighted to receive a letter from her daughter Sonia saying how delighted they were to hear from me after so many years, â€Myra added.
â€œEven though Sonia was only eight years old when she visited us in Norwich, she remembered it well enough. I even found an entry in my July 1968 diary saying I took her to see Elvis in “Clambake”.
Ercole passed away in 2001 and in May 2019 JosÃ©phine (Pina) passed away. â€œI was so happy to have been able to get in touch with her. “
Sonia and Myra stay in touch. She has a son and a daughter. Josephine had written her life memoirs and Sonia sent her a copy. A fascinating story of a very eventful life.
Thank you Myra for sharing this story with us.
Prisoners of War in Norfolk
In September 1946, there were over 400,000 prisoners of war across the country.
There were camps in Mousehold and across Norfolkâ€¦ in Aldborough, Diss, Hempton Green, near Fakenham, Marham and various RAF stations.
The officers could not be forced to work, but many did so while the men mainly worked on farms, repairing roads and other jobs.
They were paid up to one shilling a day, and when Italian prisoners worked more than eight hours a day, they were given cigarettes as a bonus. A maximum of 30 per week.
Did your family take in a prisoner of war in the 1940s? Get in touch. E-mail [email protected]
POWs helped clear deep snow from Norfolk’s roads during the long, harsh winter of 1947 that crippled the county.
The repatriation was completed in the summer of 1948.