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)
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.
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.
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)
For a list of Italian prisoner of war facilities in Australia : POW Camps in Australia
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.
Prisoner of War Facilities in Australia
There were three levels of camps or facilities for prisoners of war in Australia:
- Prisoner of War & Internment Camp (PW & I Camp)
- Prisoner of War Control Hostel (PWCH)
- Prisoner of War Control Centre: Without Guard (PWCC)
Reading a Service and Casualty Form for an Italian POW can be difficult if one can’t read the abbreviations.
The documents (links below) list the Prisoner of War facilities by State. The information has been reproduced from NAA: A7711 History of Directorate of Prisoners of War (PW and POWS) and Internees.
Clarification on certain data has been sourced from individual Prisoner of War Service and Casualty Forms.
Service and Casualty Forms often list an abbreviation eg Q6 but NAA:A771 does not give the identifying numbers for a PWCH or PWCC eg Q6 PWCH or V1 PWCC.
Information in A771 has been cross referenced with service records to build up a profile to make individual searches easier.