After the fall of France, in June of 1940 Benito Mussolini of Italy declared war on Great Britain.
Benito Mussolini – 1883 – 1945
Mussolini ordered his general in N. Africa, Marshal Rodolfo Graziani, to attack the British, which he did reluctantly in September 1940.
Marshal Rodolfo Graziani 1882-1955
The British, supported by Commonwealth troops from Australia, New Zealand and India, under British general Lt. Gen. Sir Richard O’Connor, had defeated the Italians by the third of January 1941 and captured 130,000 troops and all their equipment. The British had lost 555 dead and 1400 wounded
In all 400,000 Italian troops were sent to POW camps around the world. Australia received 18,420 and the small town of Cowra was allocated about 2000. These prisoners arrived in Cowra in October 1941.
There were 28 POW camps across Australia and Cowra was number 12.
In 1941 the camp had been created as an internment camp for civilians, but it soon became a POW camp for Italian prisoners captured during the North African campaign.
By December 1942 the camp had grown because in addition to the Italians, there were 490 Javanese sailors, 1104 Japanese POWs and 1200 Indonesian internees.
The internees were a mix of merchant navy sailors and exiled nationalists from Dutch New Guinea (which is now part of Indonesia) who had taken part in the 1926 uprising against the Dutch. The Dutch Government was concerned that the Nationalists might join the Japanese.
There were also a number of Koreans from Korea and Chinese from Taiwan because Korea had been under Japanese rule since 1910 and Taiwan had been under Japanese rule since 1895 – these non-Japanese had served with the Japanese military.
Australian War Memoria photograph of camp 12.
The relationship between the Australians and the Italians was easier than the relationship with the Japanese. The Japanese considered that being a prisoner of war was humiliating and many gave false names so as not to bring shame on their family in Japan.
The Japanese soldier carried a copy of Senjinkun, which was the military code for a Japanese soldier that he would “Never live to experience shame as a prisoner”, which is why some gave false names. The code forbids the Japanese soldier to retreat or being taken prisoner by an enemy.
This indoctrination of the Japanese soldier caused ‘festering’ within the ranks of the Japanese.
The camp itself was large at over thirty hectares (74 acres) in size.
Australian War Memoria photograph
as you see there were three lines of barbed wire, plus six guard towers
A guard tower –
it is not an original, but a replica of what they looked like in the 1940’s.
In August of 1944 there was in intention to move all Japanese prisoners below the rank of Lance Corporal to another POW camp in Hay, which is in NSW.
This was the ‘spark’ that generated the breakout.
The Japanese commander of ‘B’ compound Sergeant Major Kanazawa called a meeting of the commanders of the twenty Japanese huts and told them to inform each hut that the transfers were about to happen. He also wanted each hut to hold a ballot for or against a breakout. There where arguments on both sides for and against the breakout, but in the end, it was decided that the breakout would be that night.
It was decided that any injured or wounded prisoner could restore their honour by committing suicide before the breakout, plus those who manage to escape would not harm local civilians.
As the Japanese waited for the signal for the breakout they made weapons from cutlery, baseball bats, plus baseball mitts and blankets were made ready for scaling the barbed wire.
It was 2.00 am when the bugle sounded for the mass escape.
Australian War memorial photograph
The above is a picture of the bugle that signalled the beginning of the breakout.
On the 5th August 1944, at 2.00 am the Japanese breakout began with the sound of the above bugle.
The prisoners ran with their newly made weapons shouting and screaming towards the camp gates. They threw themselves at the barbed wire while yelling Banzai (which means “Long live His Majesty the Emperor”).
The Australians opened fire, but hundreds of Japanese escaped into the country, while others set fire to buildings within the camp.
In all 234 Japanese were killed and 105 wounded. Five Australian died due to the breakout.
Some Japanese committed suicide or where killed by other Japanese, remember Senjinkun “Never live to experience shame as a prisoner”.
359 Japanese escaped, some committed suicide rather than be recaptured, but all were recaptured or accounted for within ten days.
There isn’t any record of any civilian being injured or killed by the Japanese.
The above is a map of the whole camp, and the red area is the Japanese part of the camp. The green arrows show the various directions of the breakout.
The two yellow areas were the Italian prisoners, and the blue area indicates Japanese officers, Korean and Chinese prisoners, the Indonesians and Italian fascists.
I took the above two photographs of PoW Camp 12 today . . . just a few ruins left in a beautiful country view.
At the camp site today there is a memorial to remember the Australian solider, the Japanese baseball player, the Italian musician and the Indonesian mother and child.
The memorial was erected in 2019 to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the breakout.
The Japanese prisoners were repatriated between 1946 – 47. It is thought that many of the ex-prisoners never spoke of the war, or their time in captivity on their return to Japan.
There is more to this story, but this will have to wait for the next posting.