Cowra is probably the most recognised Prisoner of War and Internment Camp due the memory and history of the Japanese outbreak in 5th August 1944.
For many Italian families who find the word Cowra on the Service Card of their relative, it is also a name they remember from the stories their fathers and grandfathers told them.
A little of Cowra’s establishment and history….
The first prisoners of war to be accommodated at Cowra Prisoner of War and Internment Camp arrived in camp on 14th October 1941. While the camp has been established in June 1941, facilities had to be put in place before the first intake’s arrival.
On 11th and 12th November 1941, an independent international delegate visited the Cowra Camp to inspect the conditions and make his report. This report offers a unique snapshot into Cowra Camp life and the Italian prisoners of war residing there.
Cowra Camp was divided into four groups: Camp A, Camp B, Camp C and Camp D. Only Camp C and Camp D were in operation in November 1941.
The group of Italian prisoners of war consisted of 964 – Army, 367- Navy, 1 – Airforce, 453 Health Personnel (medics, doctors, orderlies), 3 – priests = 1788.
Cowra November 1941 Daily Routine
With the camp still in its construction phase, barracks with galvanised sheeting and windows had been constructed for the following purposes: dining room, detention block, ablutions, toilets, laundry, administration, kitchens, infirmary and canteen.
Cowra November 1941 Camp C: Ablutions
Until barracks were constructed for dormitories, the Italians lived in tents. The tents sat atop a base of wooden planks with impermeable canvas separating the mattress and floor and also used for sides and roof. A mattress and three covers were provided for each man. The tents slept six men and they were swept daily and three times a week cleaned with soap.
Cowra November 1941 Camp D: Tents
Camp Leaders were assigned for Camp C and Camp D. Camp C: Sgt Major Ugo Porta (Medical), Sgt Major Alfonso Angeli (Combatant). Camp D: Sgt Major Giovanni Fimiani (Combatant). The two camps were separated by a barbed wire fence and contact between camps was not allowed. Each tent had a tent leader and each group of 28 tents had a company leader assigned.
There were four refectories for each camp, with each refectory set up for 250 men. They were furnished with long tables and bench seats.
Cowra November 1941 Camp D: Dining Hall
The canteen was well provisioned with items available for purchase such as food, treats, chocolate, condensed milk, jams. The men were issued with coupons to use at the canteen.
Cowra November 1941 Camp C: Canteen
The Italian prisoners of war were offered work outside the camp eg building roads, irrigation and collecting wood or inside the camp eg as butchers, barbers, tailors, cooks.
The men also kept busy building a chapel, altar and making musical instruments such as guitars, violins, tambourines and cymbals. A school barracks had been built but classes were yet to be set up, but would offer a range of courses.
Cowra November 1941 Camp D: Orchestra
Both camps had a sports ground where football and handball was played. New sport and gym equipment consisted of footballs, basket balls, medicine balls. Camp C established a marionette theatre while Camp D set up an orchestra with 12 musicians.
Cowra November 1941: The Play of Handball
Rapport between the garrison soldiers and officers was reported to be cordial, treatment of the Italian prisoners of war excellent. In general, the Italians did not know English, but Australian military interpreters are attached to each camp. Each morning at inspection, Camp Leaders present their requests to the Commandant of each camp.
A number of requests made by the Italian POWs were noted: purchase of harmonium for church services, books to start a library, daily newspapers, gramophone and records eg lessons in Italian/English, purchase of indoor games eg cards, chess, checkers, transfer of money relinquished in Egypt to Australian accounts.
Objections were made regarding the burgundy colour of their clothes.
Most importantly, the Italian prisoners of war expressed their concerns for their families as they wait anxiously for news from Italy.
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The photo of “Camp D: Tents” could well have been taken at a school cadet camp at Singleton in the 1960s. Thousands of NSW secondary school students who were members of their school’s Army Cadet Corps were accommodated in tent lines identical to those in the photo for a fortnight each May school holidays probably – if the truth be known – in the same tents. The main difference is that we (boys playing at soldiers before our first shave) were issued with fully functional Lee Enfield .303 rifles (albeit WW1 vintage) which were kept in our tents
The ” base of wooden planks” (4 to a tent) were known as “Duck-boards” and the mattresses as “Palliasses”. Neither usage is strictly speaking correct but the items served the same purpose as the same named items on the Western Front.