Food…Sport…Work

Elio Spandonari spent eight months in the Cowra POW Camp 1941-1942 before a transfer to Murchison Camp and farm work in Victoria. In 1995 he wrote his memoirs as a gift to his granddaughter Laura. His memories of his time as a soldier and prisoner of war were remarkably crystal clear.

Elio Spandonari PWI48720 (NAA: A7919, C 104362)

His account of Cowra Camp offers invaluable insight into the daily life and routines of a prisoner of war. Elio details his arrival at camp, the buildings, working with the wood cutting gang, the sports equipment provided by the YMCA and FOOD.

Food was scarce in the POW Camps in Egypt while Cowra Camp was remembered for its abundance. Elio wrote:

“The first impression of the new guards was quite benevolent, they treated us with humanity and since we were considered undernourished, we were forced to overeat consisting of the double ration of the Australian military. A huge amount of food was delivered to us every day and we had to consume it; ironically: in Africa [Libya and Egypt] little or nothing, here too much!

Meat, salted butter, jam in quantity, dehydrated fruit of all kinds, sugar, tea, were in such abundance that, to demonstrate the complete scale of the rations, at times (and I am sorry to say it still now …) it was destroyed by throwing it in the waste incinerator furnace.

After a short time as a suggestion, we asked for a reduction in rations and, instead of sweets, we asked for spaghetti and tomato sauce.

The daily dishes that consisted of pasta seasoned in abundance with meat and tomato sauce or minestrone, were generally very abundant so that the Australian guards were almost always present at lunchtime, consuming it often and willingly among us.

This fattening cycle lasted more than three months. In the camp, various pancetta [fat like a pig], red and ruddy faces appeared, and the need arose to be able to apply themselves to some physical exercise.

Elio’s memories reflect that of primary sources. Dr Georges Morel, representative for the International Committee for the Red Cross visited Cowra Camp 11th -12th November 1941.  In his report he recorded the menu of the week.

Saturday’s menu: 15th November 1941

Breakfast: Fresh fruit, cereal and milk, fired sausages with onion gravy, mashed potatoes, bread, butter, jam, tea

Lunch: Corned beef and carrots, fried potatoes, cabbage, bread and butter pudding, bread, butter, tea

Dinner: Spaghetti, apricots and custard, bread, butter, tea

Supper: Pea Soup

Thanks to the interest of a Protestant religious organization, the Y.M.C.A., We obtained the tools necessary for the practice of various sports: football, tennis, volleyball, basket ball and even table tennis.

Guerre 1939-1945. Camp de Cowra. Le jeu de hand-ball World War 1939-1945. Cowra’s camp. The play of handball.

Cowra Camp c. 1941/42 ICRC V-P-HIST-01882-26

These sports activities were also practiced at a competitive level.

In addition to this, I also had the opportunity to be a lumberjack. Early in the morning, teams of volunteers left the camp to reach, after a long march, a large eucalyptus forest. Equipped with saws and hatchets, we cut down trees that had already been marked previously and, reduced to pieces, they were loaded onto trucks and taken to the camp for cooking or other uses.

It was a welcome pastime that broke the monotony of the camp and on that occasion I was able to see part of the Australian fauna in its environment. Possums, koalas, flying foxes, the barking lizard, the laughing bird, a multitude of parrots, wild rabbits, kangaroos, emus (ostriches) and various varieties of unwelcome reptiles moved at a safe distance around us.

COWRA, NSW. 1944-02-04. ITALIAN PRISONERS OF WAR MEMBERS OF THE WOOD CUTTING PARTY OF THE 12TH AUSTRALIAN PRISONER OF WAR CAMP FELLING A LARGE TREE AT CANIMBLA CREEK.

(Elio was not at Cowra in 1944. The photo is used for illustrative purposes)

2 thoughts on “Food…Sport…Work

  1. Marie Formisano

    What a pleasing account. Good to know that the prisoners were treated well and that the guards weren’t averse to sharing in the more “exotic” food. Have only read unhappy accounts of Cowra Camp. Are there any accounts of his time at Murchison where my Father was ?

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    1. Joanne in Townsville Post author

      If you read some of the testimonials of time in an Egyptian POW camp or the first week after capture where there was scant food and water, I think arrival in Australia was a welcome change. Over time, six years as prisoners of war, the men were weary and frustrated with the bureaucracy of war keeping them ‘prisoners’ until repatriation. Understandably, they were ‘war weary’.

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