During World War 2, Southern Rhodesia interned over 12,000 German, Austrian and Italian ‘enemy aliens’. In addition, they also hosted Polish and Persian refugees. The internees came in two waves: first wave were Camps No.1 & No.2, and second wave were the other camps. The first were nationals from the Axis nations, and second were the Italian internees and Polish refugees.
Initially, the Union of South Africa was to be the largest host of internees including those taken from Southern and Northern Rhodesia, and Nyasaland. However, General Smuts was cautious of the large local support of Nazi Germany and eventually compromised on only taking men. Southern Rhodesia welcomed the role of interning women and children and had been secretly preparing for the role in the mid-1930’s.
At the outbreak of war, 709 enemy aliens were identified in Southern and Northern Rhodesia. This role was administered by the Ministry of Justice and Defence through the Police Criminal Investigations Department (CID) and a small ‘Agricultural’ army unit. Inmates were sent from Tanganyika and on the night of 3 September 1939, the CID rounded up 508 prisoners in Southern Rhodesia and placed them in Chikurubi Prison. Many were released on parole although 52 were placed on restriction. These inmates were later moved to the internment camps along with 64 persons from Northern Rhodesia.
Sites chosen for internment camps and refugee camps were considered to faster development of rural towns along rail lines, as well as to contribute to commercial farming and construction projects. The sites were managed by The Southern Rhodesia Internment Camp corps drawn exclusively from Medical Category B and supported by African Askaris. The camps were run under guidelines sent from Britain. The camps were directed to be cheaply made – similar to camps used for the mines and were intended to each hold 500 inmates. The first camp was opened on 12 October 1939.
Early in 1941, London instructed Salisbury to prepare to receive some 5,000 Italian internees from Abyssinia and Somalia as well as 1,000 refugees from Poland. Following this request, the Rhodesian Treasury authorised the establishment of another three internment camps and three refugee settlements.
In October 1943, the Mussolini regime collapsed and repatriation began by ship through South Africa and as the defeat of Germany loomed closer, it became a torrent. By 1945 Treasury began closing camps and dispersing the remaining inmates and refugees.
After the war in 1946-1947, Southern Rhodesia inherited the benefits of these camps including Vengere Township in Rusape, Diggleford School near Marondera, Beatrice Cottages in Mbare, certain structures in the King George VI Barracks in Salisbury, a government farm in Gatooma (later converted to the Cotton Research Board Training Institute), fully equipped workshops in Umvuma and buildings outside Masvingo (including an Italian church).