The transports carrying more than 800 Italian and British war prisoners made the activity start at 9 in the morning in the Alcântara Maritime Station, at the Tagus River, Lisbon. It was at that time that the hospital ship “Newfoundland” arrived. It had left the UK and was waiting for two days on the entrance of the Tagus, for news about two trains, coming for Italy, and that should arrive there also.
On the ship were 409 Italian prisoners while on the train travelled 448 British. On the 18 April 1943, Lisbon, under the surveillance of the International Red Cross, was the stage for the exchange of 857 prisoners, mostly sick or incapacitated men.
The newspaper descriptions of the time leave no doubts about the health situation of those expected that morning in Portugal. Between the Italians, a group of 33 officers (two of them chaplains) and 376 sergeants and soldiers, were, as the newspaper “Diário de Lisboa” states, “11 madmen, 84 mental affected and nervous, some with tuberculosis and many mutilated”. They were being accompanied by one team of 135 doctors, nurses and stretch carriers.
In the trains, between the British prisoners, were “289 that could not walk, 3 blinds, 2 madmen and 2 seriously wounded, explains the “Século Ilustrado” another Portuguese newspaper. Between them was a General Willis captured by the Italians in North Africa.
The “Newfoundland” was received by the Portuguese authorities, and representatives from the Italian and the German governments. The ambassador from Mussolini in Lisbon made a welcome speech and so did the German representative, in the building of the Portuguese Cod Fish Comission, where the prisoners lunched.
The first train with British prisoners arrived before mid-day and the other one hour latter. The most serious cases were transported directly to the ship and those “that could walk were sent to different British organizations”, explains the “Século Ilustrado”. The “Diário de Lisboa” is more specific and writes that they went “in busses to the English Club, to the Seamen Institute and the British Repatriation Office, for lunch”.
By the end of the afternoon the Italians were sent to the trains, for home, with a package containing “cognac, vermouth, chocolate, tobacco, soap” and other products offered by the Italian colony in Portugal.
Another British soldier leaving the train in a stretcher.
(Século Ilustrado/ Arquivo Histórico de Portimão)
The British ex-prisoners, with “sweets and tobacco” offered by the British community, sailed in the “Newfoundland” at 22 hours, ending – as the Diário de Lisboa called it – “one more admirable chapter of the humanitarian action of Portugal and the Red Cross in this war”.