Tag Archives: Burdekin River Italian POWs

They Did Know!

Did Burdekin locals know what was happening at the POW farms during those years.  YES they did.  They knew because the POW farms were relevant and had a context.

One of the puzzles about the Q6 Prisoner of War Control Hostel Home Hill, was that very little is remembered by locals about a POW camp which housed 250 Italian prisoners of war.  My father said to me once, “Did no one see or hear 250 Italian prisoners of war in red uniform board a train in November 1945?  Did no one see the trucks carrying these men 22 mile from the hostel site to the Home Hill train station?  Why has this history been forgotten?”

Q Imagery Burdekin RiverAyr 14.4.1994  8358 Run 5 119-135    (The State of Queensland 2013 Natural Resouces and Mines Q Imagery)

Dad was 20 years old at the time and living in Jarvisfield on the Ayr side of the river, busy with farm work growing cane, cotton, pumpkins and potatoes.  Tractors were imprest items and farmers had to revert to the use of horses.  More work for my dad and his brother. The war years were a time when ears were tuned to the radio broadcasts about the war and people’s thoughts were with the possibility of a Japanese invasion and what an invasion would mean for those north of the Brisbane line.  As well, petrol rationing meant that fuel was kept for essentials.  In those times the Tapiolas family on the Ayr side of the Burdekin River did not visit the Tapiolas family on the Home Hill side. War time was a busy time.

Like many events in the past,  memories are brushed aside because they no longer have relevance.  Yes, there were POWs growing vegetables on the banks of the Burdekin River, but these Italians left, nothing remains of the buildings, so there is no reason to remember.  And sometimes a memory needs relevance and context.

Did Burdekin locals know what was happening at the POW farms during those years.  YES they did.  They knew because the POW farms were relevant and had a context.

Burdekin farmers and associated stakeholders wanted the facility to be converted into an agricultural college.  They wanted the research and development that was taking place on the POW farms to continue. These men wanted to retain the civilian supervisors who had capably trained the Italian POWs, to continue to teach and train the next generation of farmers.  What was happening at the POW farms was relevant. There were advancements in soil testing and varietal seed testing specific to a tropical climate. State of the art farming equipment was imported from USA  and different irrigation systems trialled.

Our grandfathers knew this, but their cause fell on deaf ears and the buildings were sold off.  No longer was this site important or relevant.

But the archived newspapers provides a context: 1945.  As early as  January 1945, an article in the Townsville Daily Bulletin reported that a submission had been made by the Agricultural, Pastoral and Secondary Industries Development Association for the Queensland Government to purchase the Commonwealth Farms at Home Hill and convert them to an Agricultural High School and College, similar to Gatton Agricultural College. My grandfather Mr B Tapiolas spoke at the meeting. Article mentions Burdekin war vegetable farms.

By May 1945, interested parties convened a meeting with three North Queensland Parliamentarians, Messrs. G. Keyatta (Townsville), T Aitkens (Mundingburra) and F.W. Paterson (Bowen). Burdekin locals mentioned are : Mr B Tapiolas, Mr A Coburn, Mr HV Sainsbury, Mr S Smith, Mr Reading, Mr R Gray, Mr WR Gist, Mr FJ Woods (Chairman of Ayr Shire Council) as well as Mr F Hely from the C.S.I.R who was the main adviser for the Commonwealth Vegetable Project.  There is mention of the ‘POW farm at Home Hill‘.

Further meetings reveal the names of more Burdekin men: Mr J J McDonald, Mr Wellington, Mr Beames, Mr Giffard, Mr Berryman, Mr Jackson, Mr Osborne, Mr Donavon, Mr Honeycombe and Councillor HW Irving.

By 28th August 1945, details of the POW farm at Home Hill are revealed.  “Mr Gist convened that – The facilities already existing in this area for an Agricultural College are located near Home hill which is situated on the southern bank of the Burdekin River. The present Commonwealth Vegetable farm unit which we propose should be acquired for use as an Agricultural College.  These farms have been leased by the Department of Commerce and Agriculture and development by it for the production of all classes of vegetables and some fruits by POW labour with civilian supervisors and expert assistance.  Improvements include buildings to accommodate 300 personnel with administrative, storage, canteen and recreational facilities.  Modern conveniences such as septic system, electricity, hot water systems and telephone are provided.  A workshop, machine sheds, packing sheds and several cottages are installed on this farm unit.  We submit gentlemen, that this POW farm in reality has been acting as such [Agricultural College] for the past 15 months.” (Townsville Daily Bulletin (Qld.: 1907 – 1954), Tuesday 28 August 1945, page 3)

For me, the research on the  Home Hill Hostel was all about finding out ‘what had been forgotten’.  It has been about recording the history and sharing it. And should someone from Italy arrive in Home Hill looking for information about where their grandfather worked as a POW from 1944 to 1945, then they too can have their answers.

Stepping back in time

It was almost 73 years to the day, when Nino Cippola stepped back in time to retrace his father’s journey in Queensland. Nino’s father, Francesco (Ciccio) Cippola was an Italian prisoner of war captured in Libya on 4th January 1941.  While in Melbourne on holiday from Taormina in Sicily,  Nino thought he would try to find details about the “Q6 Home Hill” written into his father’s POW Service and Casualty Form.

Cipolla Francesco Cipolla Photograph April 1939.jpg

Francesco Cippola: Roma 10.4.1939

(photographic collection of Nino Cippola)

A flurry of messagess via Messenger and emails, a flight to Townsville and Nino found himself on the railway platform of Home Hill. Francesco Cippola would have stepped onto the same platform. Not much changes in small country towns in Queensland.

Home Hill Railway Station: 1944 and 2017

Nino Cippola tracing his father’s footsteps

(NAA: M1415, 434, photographic collection of Joanne Tapiolas)

With only 1 three ton truck available the 115 Italian prisoners of war would have walked a short distance to the Home Hill Showgrounds.  Many of the buildings there had been leased by the Army and it would have taken more than one trip to transport the Italians over a muddy dirt track 22 miles up river Home Hill.

It was the 30th April 1944 and the Q6 PWC Hostel, to accommodate 255 Italian POWs and A.M.F. staff, had not been completed.  Wet weather, a tropical cyclone and delays with the septic tank, meant that the Italians ‘roughed it’ in temporary tents, without floor boards. The POWs were there to grow vegetables to supply to the Allied forces in North Queensland.

Little remains of the hostel buildings and the farming sheds. The concrete foundations were dug up years ago and the buildings sold off to Main Roads.  What does remain are the traces of ‘settlement’ found on the banks of the Burdekin: a lone banana tree, a cluster of custard apple and lemon trees. Using a hand drawn plan of the hostel complex, Nino could envisage the extent of what was Ciccio’s  home for 15 months.


1944.camp layout

Layout Plan POW Camp Homehill

(NAA: J153, T1542B, 1944)

As he stood  at the Q6 Hostel site, Nino could also make sense of the many stories his father had told him. He could also make sense of Francesco’s (Ciccio’s) obsession with growing vegetables.  Ciccio was not a farmer. He did not come from a farming background. Ciccio was a ‘carabinieri’. But time spent on the Home Hill farms had made an impression on Ciccio. His family said, he was fanatical about seeds and tomatoes. Nino explains that:

“my father’s interest in growing crops was substantial and almost at an industrial scale – he would return home from the farm with 150 kg of tomatoes in the back of the car, or grow wheat and have it ground for flour, bags and bags of it, he would have 100s of kilos of eggplants, capsicums or pumpkins. He was always asking his family about which fruit or vegetables tasted best and he would dry and save seeds of the best tasting.  He often had seeds in his pockets. He would give away his excessive volumes of fruit and vegetables to neighbours, family and friends. I never fully understood my father’s passion in this area until I visited the POW site on the Burdekin River and learnt about the work my father and other POW were doing.  My father did not come from a farming background.  Most people have a small vegetable plot, but my father grew crops on a grand scale.  I believe his time on the Commonwealth Farm at Q6, gave him this lifelong interest”.

The backdrop to this story is the purpose and operations of the Commonwealth Vegetable Project Farms: to grow vegetables for service requirements, to develop means and ways to select and grow crops suited to good yields and the tropical climate, to run seed trials and soil testing to improve productivity. Regarding tomatoes,  barrels on the Commonwealth farms were filled with tomatoes, to decompose and then be treated to extract the seeds and so began a lifelong passion of Ciccio’s centring around tomato growing and seed selection.

Ciccio’s dislike for bananas also seems to have stemmed from his time at Q6.  His children heard the recurring comment ‘I don’t eat bananas’ from their father.  If bananas were in the fruit bowl, he would reiterate his disdain for bananas.  The Home Hill Italian POWs were responsible for the cultivation of nine acres of bananas and used ground safes to ripen the hands.  Likely, the best bananas went to the armed forces and the overripe bananas, in abundance, became part of the POW daily menu.

2017 Q6 1

Nino Cippola and Christine Morriss at Q6 Site

(photographic collection of Joanne Tapiolas)

The landscape of the Burdekin is in contrast to that of Taormina.  A mountain range rises high in the background at the end of Kirknie Road as opposed to an active Mount Etna viewed through the archways of the Ancient Greek Amphitheatre.

Contrasting Landscapes of Taormina Sicily and up river Home Hill Queensland

(Trip Advisor: Taormina, photographic collection of Joanne Tapiolas)

Up river Home Hill is a long way from Taormina and the contrasts are striking. But Nino’s step back in time, to the time his father Ciccio grew vegetables on a Commonwealth Vegetable Farm up river Home Hill, offered up an understanding of his father’s years as a prisoner of war in Australia.