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Category: Discipline

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Soon after entering World War 11 Australia was asked by Britain to accept and guard large numbers of 'enemy aliens' and prisoners of war. The British government felt that it could not afford to feed large numbers of prisoners and it was believed that once in Australia the internees would have no chance of escape.

Eager to show solidarity with Britain's cause, Australia readily agreed and decided to place the prisoners in a number of different camps scattered around the country and guard them with reservists and soldiers too unfit to serve overseas. Part of the enormous cost of housing and guarding the prisoners would be borne by Britain.

Click to enlarge Click to enlarge

Hay, NSW. 1944-01-13/14. 46604 Corporal B. Rivola, an Italian prisoner of war stacking wet bricks on a barrow at the brick making plant operated by the Italian prisoners of war at the 16th Garrison Battalion prisoner of war detention camp. 

Yanco, NSW. 1944-01-31. A Jersey cow and her one day old bull calf being shown by Italian prisoners of war (POWs) at No. 15 POW Camp.

The prisoners came from everywhere. There were large numbers of Italians captured in the various North African campaigns, there were Japanese taken in the Pacific region, as well as an indistinct group known as 'enemy aliens'. These latter prisoners included many German Jews who had fled to Britain to avoid persecution under the Nazis. They were imprisoned in response to a widespread fear that they included German spies; ironically, many had originally hoped to join the allied war effort where their many skills would have been fully utilised.

The first large group of 'enemy aliens' arrived in Sydney on 7 September 1940. They were taken to a camp erected near Hay in the south of New South Wales. Here they found conditions far more tolerable then anything they had so far endured. Realising that their prisoners wanted to fight the Axis powers as much as they did many of the Australian camp officials allowed the prisoners a large degree of liberty.

Very swiftly a school was organised and a theatrical group formed. Like prisoners everywhere, the 'enemy aliens' felt a desperate need to keep busy, They received much help and encouragement in their efforts from various Jewish groups in Australia.

When, eventually, the imprisonment of these Nazi refugees was seen as a costly blunder, they were given a choice of either working in Britain or staying in Australia until a more acceptable location was found. By the end of 1941 few of the original enemy aliens' from Germany remained in Australia.

provosts-search.jpg (24082 bytes) El Alamein, Egypt. 1942-07-18. Italian prisoners of war being searched by a provost of the 9th Australian Divisional Provost Company. These prisoners were captured by units of the 24th Australian infantry brigade during operations on the night of 1942-07-16 to 1942-07-17, in the battle area west of El Alamein.

By far the largest group of POWs held in Australia were Italians. These included actual soldiers captured when fighting in North Africa and merchant seamen who were interned when war was declared. Altogether some 18 500 Italians were imprisoned in Australia from May 1941 to December 1947 when the last group was returned to Italy. A small band of escapees remained at large until 1952.

The first batch of Italian POWs was also sent to the internment camp at Hay. Later further camps were built everywhere from Gaythorne in Queensland to Brighton in Tasmania. The Italians' initial response to their capture varied. Many were simply glad to be out of the war zone as they had been conscripted into the army and had no interest in Mussolini's plan for an Italian empire.

Others took their capture more seriously. Some prisoners had been members of the Fascist Party and believed it was their duty to Mussolini to try and escape. These differing attitudes occasionally led to conflict.



tomato-pickers.jpg (38882 bytes)

Murchison, Australia. 5 March 1945. View of Italian prisoners of war (POWs) interned in C Compound, No. 13 POW Group, picking tomatoes on a property in the Shepparton district where 740 Italian POWs work daily. An Australian Military Officer is seen, middle background, on a visit to the pickers to ensure maintenance of output.


Early in 1943 it was decided to use the large number of Italian POWs in Australia to supplement the rural workforce which had been depleted as a result of war service. The prisoners were to be paid 10 shillings a week and their keep in return for which they would work for a farmer. Even there the prisoners remained under military discipline and were warned that any breaches of regulations, such as sleeping with Australian women or not wearing their prison uniforms, would be punished.

An army notice informed participating farmers that the 'Italian prisoner of war is a curious mixture, in that he can be made to give of excellent work if certain points are observed;

1. He cannot be driven but he can be led. 

2. Mentality is childlike; it is possible to gain his confidence by fairness and firmness. 

3. Great care must be exercised from a disciplinary point of view or he can become sly and objectionable if badly handled.'

Click to enlarge These Italian Prisoners of War are working on installing a new filtration trench for the septic system at their POW Camp.


The Italians turned out to be generally keen and intelligent workers. Many rural Australians had never met Italians before and found the experience enlightening. Some began to learn Italian while others developed a liking for Italian food. Many prisoners offered to cook at least one Italian meal a week.

One prisoner wrote to his family in Italy: 1 am with a family of four: parents, a boy and a girl. I am being treated just like in my own home. 1 have a room for myself with all the comforts. 1 use their bathroom and basins, I eat with them and they do the cleaning. In other words I am considered the third child of the family.'

With the end of the war in August 1945 most of the Italian prisoners believed they would be sent home immediately. But the first batch of repatriated prisoners did not sail until July 1946 due to a lack of shipping and the very confused political situation in Italy. Understandably, the vast majority were keen to see their families and homes again, some of whom they had not seen for six years. A large number, however, decided to return to Australia and settle in areas they had seen or lived in as prisoners.


Of all the prisoners housed in Australia during the war the Japanese were undoubtedly the most bitter and resentful. Under the Japanese rules of war (known as the Bushido code) prisoners were disgraced persons. Every soldier had an obligation to die for the Emperor and if the enemy succeeded in capturing him he was expected to kill himself.

The Australian guards could not even pretend to understand this attitude and saw most of the Japanese prisoners as surly and fanatical. Things were not helped when late in the war information reached Australia about the way the Japanese were treating Australian prisoners.

It was this mutual incomprehension between the two races which led to the 'night of a thousand suicides' when the Japanese in the Cowra prison camp attempted a mass breakout on 5 August 1944. As a result, 231 Japanese and four Australians were killed. The Australian guards thought the Japanese were attempting to take over the camp. Actually, they were attempting to kill themselves.

The Australian guards could not even pretend to understand this attitude and saw most of the Japanese prisoners as surly and fanatical. Things were not helped when late in the war information reached Australia about the way the Japanese were treating Australian prisoners.

Yet there is no evidence to suggest that the Australian authorities treated the Japanese prisoners any differently to any other group. Unlike the Italians they were not permitted to leave the camps to work on the farms but otherwise they received the same rations and were subject to the same discipline. At no time was there any attempt to wreak revenge on the Japanese for their treatment of Australian prisoners. Unfortunately this attitude was misinterpreted by some of the Japanese as weakness and on several occasions they pushed matters as far as they could by refusing to work when ordered, refusing to turn up on parades and refusing to salute Australian officers. Had Australian prisoners acted in the same fashion in Japanese POW camps their punishment would have been severe.

Some of this page is an extract from Front Line Dispatches. Bay Books. ISBN 1 86256 287 3



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