Breakout short stories: Construction begins on prisoner of war camp

An aerial photo of the Cowra Prisoner of War Camp during WWII.
An aerial photo of the Cowra Prisoner of War Camp during WWII.

Each week until August this year, the Cowra Guardian will feature a short story from the Cowra Prisoner of War camp in the lead up to the 75th anniversary in August this year.

The Anniversary from August 2 to August 5 has two components - 1940s Cowra and the Commemoration of the Breakout, 1940s Cowra will be remembered on Saturday, August 3 and the Breakout events and commemorations and wreath layings will take place on August 4 and 5. The Cowra Regional Gallery has a special exhibition from Guns to Gardens

The Cowra Prisoner of War Camp was built on its site because the town already had a military training camp which could be called upon should there be a security need.

The Cowra Prisoner of War Camp commenced in 1941 and was part of a nationwide system of POW confinement and enemy alien containment and to hold Italian POWs captured by Allied Forces in North Africa during WWII. In all, twenty-eight major camps were established in Australia by the British Military Board during this period.

The Cowra camp was to consist of four compounds, two with permanent amenities and two temporary. Although officially operating from June 1941, the first internees were marched into Cowra nearly four months later, on 15 October 1941.

Efforts were made to halt construction by the Department of the Army Branch in charge of Rifle Clubs. The long standing Cowra Rifle Club which had as part of its charter the training of civilians in marksmanship was to the south of the POW Camp areas. Its designated danger zone, where stray bullets might fall was the POW Camp. There was a bureaucratic tussle but the POW Camp won and the Rifle Range was moved to Whistle Waa.

The major building program was still underway at this time and was not completed until well into 1944.

Both POW and local labourers were used to complete construction, the prisoners living in tents until April 1942 when accommodation huts became available.

When the camp opened, the four 'compounds' - imaginatively named A, B, C and D - housed Italians (most captured North Africa) and Indonesians (usually merchant seamen or people who had upset their Dutch colonial rulers) as well as Japanese.

By December 1942 over 2000 mainly Italian, prisoners and internees were housed in the camp. Between January 1943 and August 1944, over one thousand Japanese POWs and internees arrived at the camp.

Some diverse groups spent time at Cowra; Indonesians, Albanians, Chinese and Koreans as well as Japanese and Italians.

As the war turned in the Allies' favour, Japanese troops were captured along (Papua New Guinea's) Kokoda Track and elsewhere in the Pacific.

By the end of June 1944 the Japanese Compound camp was seriously overcrowded. The decision in August to move 700 Japanese PW to Hay was the event that triggered the Breakout.

After the breakout many of the Japanese were transferred to the camp at Hay. At war's end the camp increased in activity due to Italian POW being returned to Cowra from farm work around NSW.

While the Japanese departed Cowra in March 1946 the Italians had to wait until late 1946 to return home. Over a three-day period in March 1947 an auction of all assets was held at Cowra and the POW camp's role in Australia's history was over.

Next week - what was going on in Cowra in the 1940s?