POWs in Australia

It is difficult to comprehend, but  around 24,000 prisoners of war were detained in Australia during World War 2.  Captured in theatres of war in North Africa, Middle East, Europe and Asia, POWs were either shipped directly to Australia or came via staging camps in the Middle East or India.

The detainment of Italian prisoners of war became a major concern for the Allied forces due to the sheer numbers captured. Secret Cablegram from 24 April 1941 reports that “there are about 145,000 prisoners in the Middle East excluding Abyssinia and Eritrea and figures (are) still growing.” (National Archives of Australia NAA: A 433, 1945/2/6098, 1941-1943)  

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An Enormous Pile of Italian Riffles Captured During the Battle for Addis Ababa, Before the Emperor’s Return to the Liberated Capital.

(Unknown British Official Photographer, c. June 1941  ID number 007948 AWM)

During January 1941 alone, the North African campaign saw the surrender of about 40,000 Italian soldiers at the Battle of Bardia. This had been preceded by 38,000 at Sidi el Barrani in December 1940, and another 25,000 at the Battle of Torbuk in January 1941.  Additionally, some 19,000 Italians soldiers were captured in East Africa at Amba Alagi Abyssinia in May 1941.   Initially the prisoners were held in temporary tented camps in North Africa and Egypt before being processed and shipped to places around the world for detainment for the duration of the war.

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 1941-01-23. Tobruk – More Italian Prisoners Taken after the Advance into Tobruk (Hurley, 1941 ID number 005595 AWM)

Australia’s contribution to the imprisonment of Italian POWs began in May 1941 and finished with the last transport arriving in Australia in February 1945. During 1941, some 4957 Italian POWs had landed after being shipped directly from the Middle East.  Escalation of the war and particularly the war in the Pacific would have contributed to a hold on further transports from December 1941 to October 1943. Discussions surrounding further transports from India took place in 1943 with a delay due to the uncertainty of safe passage. By 20th May 1943, Australia had already committed to transfer 5,000 Italian Prisoners of War from India to Australia. This number was increased to 10,000 on 16th September 1943 when a request was made to “G.H.Q. India and War Office that early transfer of 10,000 Italian P.W. (was) desired” and a request was made to “do everything possible to expedite shipping.” (National Archives of Australia NAA: A373 11638A, 1943-1944) 

By 9th September 1943, communication from High Commission Office, London detailed that Prisoners of War had been accommodated in UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India, Middle East, East Africa, West Africa, Persia/Iraq, Jamaica and Caribbean. Australia at this time had accommodated 7,100 prisoners of war,   though a breakdown of nationalities of POWs is unknown.

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Italian Prisoners of War waiting to board a train bound for a prisoner-of-war camp  (National Archives of Australia A11663, PA189, 1943)

By March 1945 it was reported that the breakdown of the nationalities of POWs in Australia were:

  • 18,000 Italians
  • 1,500 Germans
  • 4,000 Japanese

(Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton, Qld: 1878 – 1954), 1945)

Prisoners of War in Australia were held here on behalf of U.K.  Under financial arrangements, the Australian Government charged 7/- per day per prisoner  for the maintenance of prisoners of war held in compounds in Australia.  After revised costings and negotiations, the U.K. government would receive a 1/3 rebate per prisoner per day for prisoners transferred from camps to employers as there was a savings to the Australian Government when POWs were housed with employers:

This means that in addition to receiving the total amount received from employers of P.W. at PW.C.Cs. and Hostels, U.K. will receive a rebate of 1/3 on the per capita charge of 7/- for such P.W.”  (National Archives of Australia NAA: MP742/1, 255/4/375, 1943-1950)

 Film footage available for viewing online from the Australian War Memorial and British Pathé  capture the action battles at Tobruk, Bardia and Ethiopia including the surrender and marshalling of tens of thousands of Italian Prisoners of War. The sea of humanity as the Italians file past check points reinforces the enormity of the numbers of prisoners.  Additional film footage show Italian prisoners boarding trains at Haifa, Italian prisoners arriving in Australia and repatriation of Italian prisoners at a staging point in Egypt.

The British Government, as the main allied power, was responsible for these prisoners of war and as a result of arrangements with her allies and dominions, countries like Australia accepted custody of Italian prisoners of war for the duration of the war and in turn arranged their repatriation to Italy at the end of hostilities.  Moore and Fedorowich account that by the summer of 1943 there were 500,000 Italian Prisoners of War (Moore, 2002) in British and American captivity held in 5 continents.  Initially, accommodating prisoners of war was a logistical and obligatory issue but in time, once their worth as a labour force was identified, countries accepting the prisoners turned a situation of burden into one of value.