Tag Archives: Cowra PW & I Camp

Cowra 1941 – A Snapshot

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.

Daily routine

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

 

Cowra Chess Set

Artefacts made by Italian Prisoners of War are rare. While there are many memories of the gifts made by the POWs such as rings, engravings and wooden objects, there are few items still in existence.

So an email from David Stahel in Brisbane is very exciting. David owns a boxed chess set made by Italian POWs in Cowra.  It is not only beautiful but it is special because of the story behind the board.

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Badge on Chess Set

( from the photographic collection of David Stahel)

The Italian prisoners of war were making chess sets in 1944, when Geoffrey McInnes captured them on film.  And quite possibly David’s chess set was one such set made by the Italian POWs. The photo below shows five Italian POWs working on a lathe built from salvaged timber and metal to produce chess pieces. The sets were sold for 35/- to Army Amenities Section.

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(AWM Image 064356 Photo by McInnes, Geoffrey Cowra, NSW. 1944-02-07)

David’s chess sets adds detail to the history of the chess sets being made by Italian POWs at Cowra.  “My father had a chess board that he told me he bought from an Italian POW for some packs of cigarettes.  I grew up with this board and learnt to play draught and chess on it with my father… the painted watercolour scene (unsigned) is very reminiscent of the Italian countryside.  The workmanship of the board and pieces are of a very high standard. Inside is quilted with a satin like fabric. Pawns, rooks, bishops, kings, queens, draught have been turned on a lathe which the knights are carved from a turned base… My father was a lieutenant in the artillery, specifically in the anti aircraft arena,” writes David Stahel.

Boxed Chess Set

( from the photographic collection of David Stahel)

The concept of Italian POWs selling boxed chess sets for 35/- raises a few questions.  POWs were not allowed to have in their possession Australian currency, so what happened to the proceeds of sales.  Quite possibly funds were deposited into the canteen fund.  Profits from the canteen were used by POWs to purchase books for the camp library. Prisoners of war were allowed access to books and music to further their studies and libraries were established in camps. Additionally, access to books and music was a way for POWs to usefully occupy their leisure time.