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You are here: HomePrisoners of warOther war prison campsPietermaritzburg

Associazione Zonderwater Block ex Pow

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 10 - 11 Settembre 2023 Raduno annuale del gruppo ZONDERWATER Block ex P.O.W.  – Roma

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    During World War II many Italian soldiers captured by the English in North and East Africa were embarked on ships headed to Durban in South Africa.

    Once disembarked they were loaded on trains with Zonderwater concentration camp as final destination.

   The camp is located near Cullinan in Transvaal (nowadays  called Gauteng) 50 km from Pretoria. Before reaching their destination the prisoners stopped in the Pietermaritzburg transit camp, located 75 km from Durban  which was opened on 4th April, 1941 to host the 1st contingent of Italian prisoners The camp acted  as a first aid, medical examination, washing, disinfection and refreshment structure. In some periods the camp hosted up to 8000 men.

    Before putting them again on a train, the English officers used to divide them into 13 groups of 64 prisoners corresponding to the number of carriages making up a train with 64 seats each. The pows left behind lodged in “Cage 4” waiting for their turn.

    However, many prisoners stayed in Pietermaritzburg for all their confinement period.

 In Attesa - Pietermaritzburg 1941 - 1947

click on the image to open the file

“IN ATTESA” was written up by Liutenant Chaplain Father Giacomo Conte as a memory of an important event of the Durban Road prisoners of war camp, Pietermaritzburg.


   The building of the church dedicated to Our Lady of Graces began Church dedicated to Our Lady of Graceson 2nd February 1943, it was completed on 11th March, 1944 and was sanctified the following 19th March, 1944 by the South Africa Nuncio, the Polish archbishop Van GIJLSWIJK. During the second half of the same year the  booklet entitled “In Attesa” (On the Wait) was issued. It contains a summary of the most important events of the pows life and the activities of the confinement camp known as “Camp 4 Durban Road” (nowadays: Epworth Road-Scottsville) in Pietermaritzburg.

   Our Lady of Graces Church AltarThe purpose of Camp 4, opened in March 1942, was to act as a recovery center for the Italian prisoners coming from North Africa.

   The above mentioned booklet also reports some prisoners thoughts. The camp chaplain, Liutenant Giacomo Conte in his inaugurationChurch dedicated to Our Lady of Graces today speech also said: “Your Most Reverend Excellency, this church you have blessed has been described as the greatest and best accomplishment by the Italian prisoners in South Africa.

Madonna del Cardellino di Raffaello copia 2013 - come dipinto del 1944 di V. OttocardiThis church was also built for our posterity. In the next years, parents, taking a stroll with their children will stop and tell them: “ this church was built by the Italians”.

   At the end of 1946, when the camp was closed, the acreage and the church went to the municipality but being off town and isolated it went through hard times. It was desecrated, vandalized and burnt down. But somebody, in 1962 took the initiative to restore it and, in 1977 has been declared listed building and the city authorities donated it to the National Heritage Trust. In 1990 it was put up for sale but the Italian community who risked to lose it forever, had a prompt reaction and the offer was cancelled.

   However, from 1962 to 1992 the church remained exposed and often used a shelter by drifters and tramps. This led to the building of a fence ad a gate which assured its protection, while the Italian Our Lady of Grace Churchcommunity had  begun negotiations to acquire its property. This was achieved in 1995 with the Trust registration and the following property and right of use transfer, to the Italian State, in May 1998. Finally, after years of negotiations, in 2003, the agreement with the Italian Defence Ministry arrived and with the presence of its representative, General Vittorio Barbato,  the restored church was inaugurated.

   In July 2008 the remains of the 118 bodies recovered from the sinking of Nova Scotia were moved from the cemetery of Hilary-Durban to the sacred area of Our Lady of Graces in Pietermaritzburg. Also the bodies of the 35 soldiers died during their confinement from 1941 to 1946  in the Pietermaritzburg camp, previously buried in Hilary, were transferred to the sacred area of the church.

  Nova Scotia Memorial On 28th November 1942, the 7000 ton English landing ship Nova Scotia,  sailing in the Mozambique Channel, Indian Ocean, was torpedo hit and sunk by a German submarine, the U Boat 177 commanded by Captain Robert Gysae.

   The SS Nova Scotia was carrying 772 Italian prisoners of war, soldiers, civilians and 300 including crew, guards and South African troops injured in El Alamein. Most of these people died in the shipwreck. A Portuguese military ship rescued 120 and took them to Lourenco Marques (nowadays called Maputo).

655 Italian prisoners died and the remains of 118 of them were pushed by the tide on the Zululand coasts. Their bodies were found dismembered by sharks and partly decomposed and unidentifiable.

  The layout of the new burial recesses has a cross shape. Each remainsSacred area behind Our Lady of Graces Church has been recomposed and sealed in a small container each carrying a numbered plaque also showing the name when known. Some items found with the corpses are now kept by the Zonderwater museum.


 The exhumation and the transfer of the remains from Hilary to Pietermaritzburg were executed by Italian volunteers under the supervison of “Onorcaduti”.

  At the Hilary cemetery there is now a memorial stone with a plaque as a memory of the event.


The Chairman of the Trust Body and custodian of the church  "Our Lady of Graces"  is Mr. Franco Muraro.   Grande Ufficiale dell'Ordine della Stella d'Italia (già Stella della solidarietà italiana) - Data del conferimento: 01/08/2007   *  

 * (Grande Ufficiale dell'Ordine della Stella d'Italia - data del conferimento: 01/08/2007)

 Diciassette - Raffaello Cei POW 337577

  Memorie di Raffaello Cei - POW 337577 a Pietermaritzburg 1942-1947



Pietermaritzburg overview 

Epworth Road-Scottsville in Pietermaritzburg

 Overview of the Church of Our Lady Of Graces

 Our Lady Of Graces Church in Pietermaritzburg

 127 Epworth Road, Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal, Sud Africa



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