Giovanni ‘Bruno’ Casotti
Giovanni ‘Bruno’ Casotti was born on 20 October 1915 in the small, poor, marble quarrying mountain town of Gorfigliano, in Italy’s Lucca Province. Gorfigliano was a migration homeland, situated inland from the politically divided, coastal quarrying communities of Massa and Carrara in the Region of Tuscany, Italy. A grandfather had British service medals, probably a legacy of Allied support to the Italian Army thrown back to the Piave River after the disastrous rout of Caporetto in November 1917. The economically vulnerable extended family decamped from the village to ‘il nuovo paese’, the British Dominion of the Commonwealth of Australia, ‘the new country’. Casotti himself landed in Australia on Christmas Eve, 1932. The family took up a block of land at Karragullen, Western Australia, where the young Casotti began working life on the land.
In June 1940, with Mussolini’s gambling entry into the war in June as an Axis Power, Western Command implemented a mass internment intended to uproot the Italian community in the State. Casotti himself was detained on 9 November 1940. Many West Australian Italian ‘enemy alien’ internees rallied to the Fascists amongst them, partly in response to this ethnic discrimination. In October 1942, these internees were concentrated at Loveday, which had become the largest internment complex in the Commonwealth.
Within three weeks, the young and doubtless impressionable ‘Bruno’ Casotti had been recruited to enact a commission, from Francesco Ianello, leader of the West Australian Fascists, to execute Francesco Fantin, leader of the Antifascists in Camp 14A, in an assassination plot to put a stop to his political activities in the compound. The catalyst was news of the collection in the compound of donations to Lady Jessie Street’s registered War Charity, ‘Sheepskins For Russia.’ Mastermind of the plot was Dr Francesco Piscitelli, a Fascist medical doctor and businessman. Allied victories at El Alamein and at Stalingrad were in the offing. The war was coming to a crisis, particularly for Italians. Fantin was also leading Antifascist contestation of the misinterpretation of press reports of war news to the internees by Fascists at the evening mess.
On the afternoon of 16 November, an Adelaide press report of the ‘Sheepskins…’ collection in the compound was received at Loveday. Fascists were overheard conspiring to kill Fantin. Informed, Fantin moved around the camp to evade his pursuers. Casotti came upon him at a tap stand around sundown. He struck Fantin down from behind with a blunt instrument thrown point blank, probably a jarrah ironwood skittle hidden in plain view and subsequently spirited away by associates. Fantin’s head injuries were quickly assessed as fatal. He died at Barmera Base Hospital that evening.
Casotti told his family, which naturally chose to believe him, although aware that he had been hot tempered in youth, what he had told the Loveday Military Inquiry; namely that he was ‘verbally provoked’ by Fantin during a heated political argument. Fantin, normally placid enough, had been known to be angered by displays of Fascism. According to the Casotti family, ‘the majority’ of Northern Italians were nationalistic and as such pro-Mussolini. The family believed ‘Bruno’ had dealt death accidentally by a one punch retaliation, intended only to punish with no lethal intent and employing no weapon, with no premeditation or conspiracy involved. Probably Casotti came to believe this story himself. On 19 March 1943, Richards J, in the Supreme Court of South Australia, in sentencing Casotti on his ‘confession’ to two years hard labour for manslaughter, told him he could consider himself lucky not to have been given ‘a.much heavier sentence.’ Having served his light sentence, Casotti was deported, being permitted to return to Western Australia from Italy in the mid-1950s. In his declining years, suffering dementia, Casotti feared re-arrest for a capital offence.
Phone interview DF: Penny Casotti 4 April 2018; National Archives of Australia: D1901/ C3259 Giovanni Casotti; The Advertiser Wednesday 23 December 1942 ‘Italian Internee Admits Charge of Manslaughter’; The News Tuesday 22 December 1942 ‘INTERNEE ON KILLING CHARGE: Quarrel Over Aid For Russia’; The News Tuesday 16 March 1943 FRESH EVIDENCE IN CHARGE AGAINST ITALIAN INTERNEE; The Advertiser Wednesday 17 March 1943 FATAL FACTION QUARREL: New Evidence Against Italian; The Advertiser 19 March 1943 ‘2 YEARS GAOL FOR ITALIAN INTERNEE’; Friday, 19th March, 1943 Before His Honour Justice Richards. R. v. Casotti, in passing sentence; South Australian Police Criminal Offence & Modus Operandi Report, Barmera 14767 1942 MURDER SRSA GRG5/46/1942/14757. Truth Saturday 27 March 1943 ‘INTERNEE’S DEATH: ITALIAN GAOLED.
Text and Research by Dr David Faber