This page is dedicated to
every sailor, soldier or airman who ever tried to escape, as the
mere trying tied down thousands of enemy troops. To those that made it all
the way can I say "bloody well done".
|Late in 1943 hundreds of
locomotives drawing long lines of cattle trucks lumbered slowly into the
foothills leading to the mountain barrier between Italy and the
neighbouring countries of Austria and Switzerland.
Except for some German
troops clustered in the guard vans no sign of life could be seen. In
actual fact the trains carried thousands of men, mostly Australian
prisoners of war. In some of these trucks the chief occupation was tearing
up floorboards. As night fell and the trains, every now and then, jerked
to a halt, Australians would drop on to the tracks, climb up the truck's
side, unlock the door from the outside and rejoin those in the vehicle.
The result was that through the hours of darkness hundreds of Australians,
under the noses of their German guards, disappeared into the Italian
countryside and eventually found their way to freedom.
At one wayside station an
Australian darted from a rail truck, vaulted a fence and in full view of
everyone grabbed a startled civilian by the arm. He then walked down the
street with the man until he was able to slip away into the countryside.
Another, sighting a railway
official waving a red flag, leapt from the train, grabbed the flag and in
an act of sheer bravado casually walked down the platform and out of
sight. Yet another, seeing Italians unloading apples from an adjoining
freight train, joined the workers, seized a case of fruit and disappeared
into the night.
More than 7000 men of the
AIF became prisoners of war in Europe during World War 11, all of them
captured during various campaigns in the Middle East. About 2000 fell into
enemy hands in the aftermath of the disastrous Greek campaign while more
than 3000 were left behind when Crete was taken by the Germans. Then in
the deserts of Libya and Egypt, 1900 were captured when overrun by
Rommel's Afrika Corps at places like Ruin Ridge, EI Ridge, El Regina, the
Tobruk Salient and El Mechili.
Those captured in the
desert were held at various coastal ports before being sent to Italy.
Their camps were primitive, conditions harsh and food short. But as their
chief task was unloading stores they were often able to acquire extra
rations. While most camps in Italy were well organised, others commanded
by dyed- in-the-wool fascists were veritable hell-holes.
Such a camp was at
Gruppignani near the Yugoslav border where the sadistic commandant kept
prisoners handcuffed for days in the punishment cells. Men still clad in
light desert clothing were forced to work in freezing conditions while
several were shot as a result of altercations with the guards. Many
Australians made their escape from this camp and linked up with Tito's
partisans, some continuing to fight until the end of the war.
The other main Australian
camp was at Bologna where in 1943 after hearing rumours of Italian
capitulation, prisoners cut the encircling wire at several points in
readiness for a mass breakout. But the plan came to nothing when in the
pre-dawn darkness German SS troops moved in. Some captives made a run for
it but the Germans, with sweeping bursts of submachine gun fire, cut down
the vanguard and herded the rest back inside. Within days they were packed
tightly into railway cattle trucks bound for Germany.
It was during this journey
that hundreds escaped. Some crossed the Alps into Switzerland, some fought
with Italian partisans, others, after months of hide-and-seek, finally
made the haven of the Allied lines.
Australians captured in Greece and Crete were gradually being assembled in
appalling conditions at Salonika in Greece. In this camp with little food
and no sanitation, dysentery was rampant. Men collapsed and died, their
bodies lying in a corner of the compound until prisoners were given
permission to bury them. It was forbidden for prisoners to use the
latrines after dark and the bodies of those shot while trying to do so
were hung on the surrounding wire as a warning to others.
After a series of escape
attempts all Australians remaining at Salonika were crammed into cattle
trucks bound for various camps in Austria, Germany and Poland.
At Hohenfell in Bavaria,
Leo Murnane, of the 2/2 Battalion, made several abortive attempts to
escape. On one occasion he and his group spent months building a
100-metre-long tunnel. The men were congratulating themselves on progress
when suddenly the section of the roof beyond the wire caved in. A small
aperture at the tunnel's end could be seen and that inspired 30 men to
risk making a break. Ten had scrambled out when a guard, noticing movement
in the darkness opened fire. And that was the end of the escape attempt.
Although all 10 men were
recaptured Leo Murnane was soon free again. This time he fled from a work
party and hid on the wooded foreshores of the River Danube. It was here
Murnane met up with an American airman who was on the run after being shot
down. Deciding to escape together, they waded down the river shallows
until they came to a rowing boat. In their haste to examine it they
disturbed a flock of geese which made such a racket a nearby farmer became
suspicious and called the troops. The same day Leo Murnane was back inside
Late in the war when a
rumour spread that the camp was to be evacuated in the face of the rapid
Allied advance, Murnane and two others decided to get away before the
prisoners were moved to another location. After sprinkling carbide on the
floor to throw the camp dogs off the scent, the three men secreted
themselves under a hut floor. They stayed there for several days before
creeping out and threading a path through the loose German lines. That was
when they were picked up by an American infantry patrol.
Determined to hit back at
their captors, the Australians stayed with the Americans for some weeks,
fighting in several actions before being sent to the rear for evacuation
By this time thousands of
prisoners were on the move over all the territory still held by the Nazis.
Some were under guard but others roamed in leaderless mobs looking for the
Allies to catch up with them.
Half-starved and living off
the land as best they could, they were constantly strafed by the Luftwaffe
and the marauding hordes of American fighters who blasted anything that
moved in Germany. Consequently untold numbers of prisoners died both from
air attacks and hunger and cold.
In April 1945 American
tanks smashed the gates of Stalag VII D in Germany.
The armistice was signed a
few weeks later. Within weeks Australian prisoners had been collected from
all over Europe and were on their way to transit camps in England. Then,
as shipping became available and their health improved, they were
gradually returned to Australia.