Feature Articles

Cowra P.O.W. camp

The Cowra Breakout – 235 killed

Warwick O’Neill

As the second AIF got into action in World War Two, they inevitably ended up taking prisoners, mostly Italians in North Africa.

This created a problem. What to do with them all? There were neither the facilities nor manpower available in North Africa to contain them, and England adopted a “you caught ‘em, you keep ‘em” attitude.

The answer was to ship them back to Australia and put them to good use in the fields, to replace the men who had joined up and become their captors.

Then in late 1941, Japan entered the war and now Japanese POWs joined the Italians at the POW camp in Cowra.
Watching over the camp was the Australian Militia’s 22nd Garrison Battalion. This Battalion consisted mainly old World War 1 veterans, wounded men who were unfit to be returned to front-line units, or other young fellas deemed to be not fit enough to serve elsewhere.

While conditions were generally pretty good by POW camp standards, and complying with the Geneva convention, the relationship between the Australians and the Japanese weren’t necessarily as cordial as they were between the Australians and the European prisoners.

Things carried on without much trouble. But under the surface, the Japanese prisoners were suffering in a way that the Australian’s probably didn’t fully understand. They were living with the shame and dishonour of being prisoners of war. They felt themselves to be cowards.

It was a shame that would eat away at many of them, until something came along which offered them a chance at redemption.

This chance came along in August 1944. The first link in the chain of events occurred at a town in New Zealand called Featherston in February of 1943. At Featherston the Kiwis had established their own camp for POWs but a large number of prisoners had come to the opinion that they shouldn’t be forced to work and so about 240 of them refused.

The events have been disputed, but not in dispute is the fact that Japanese Sub-Lieutenant Adachi was shot and wounded by the Camp Adjutant. In the end 48 prisoners were either killed outright or died of their wounds. One New Zealander was killed by a stray bullet.

At a court of enquiry, the majority of blame for the incident went to the prisoners, citing ‘cultural differences’.

This didn’t go unnoticed in Australia. The Garrison was issued with Vickers and Lewis Machine Guns and six guard towers were erected to provide full view of the entire camp. But there were substantial areas outside of the huts which were not fully open to the view of the guards.

There was a bit a tension between captors and captives, but generally without too many issues. But in August 1944, the authorities were tipped off to the possibility of trouble from the Japanese prisoners. It was decided to move all prisoners, except NCOs and Officers to another facility at Hay.

The prisoners decided that the time to act had come.

At 01:50am on 5th August 1944 a solitary bugle call sounded. The call was a signal for roughly 900 Japanese prisoners to burst forth and charge the fences surrounding their compound. A number of the huts were set alight.

The prisoners had armed themselves with knives, baseball bats and improvised clubs, and even a sword fashioned from a bread knife.

To protect themselves from the barbed wire fences, many wore baseball gloves, while others wrapped toilet paper around their hands. Some were carrying lengths of rope which they had fashioned out of old rice sacks.

The alarm was raised and before the Garrison reached their positions, the Japanese had broken through the compound fence in three places, with one group finding themselves on an internal road which ran through the camp. This group broke into two with one group charging north and the other to the south.

The Garrison fired on both groups who were forced to take cover in drainage ditches where they remained until daybreak. They were then rounded up and marched back to the compound.

Two other groups pushed harder. One charged directly at a Vickers gun, manned by Private Benjamin Hardy and Private Ralph Jones. The two men cut down many of the attackers, but it was obvious their position was going to be overrun. They removed the firing mechanism of the gun and threw it into scrub. Thus, they prevented the Japanese from capturing the weapon and turning it on the garrison. Moments later the Japanese were onto them, and the two men were killed. They were each posthumously awarded the George Cross for their bravery. The George Cross is the highest award for valour outside of a war situation. Like a civilian Victoria Cross.

One group of Japanese charged at the barracks which housed the garrison, but the Australians were quick into action and were able to put down heavy fire which prevented the Japanese from advancing any further.

Roughly 400 prisoners breached the perimeter. Seventy of these men took up position on a hillside overlooking the Garrison Headquarters remained there until daybreak when they were escorted back to the camp.

The remainder of the escapees headed into the bush and scattered. The prisoners had agreed that, should they be successful in breaking out, they weren’t to harm any civilians. But that was later, at the time you can only imagine how the garrison troops must have felt at the knowledge that over 300 enemy soldiers were now loose in the region.

An inspection of the barrack huts was conducted which discovered 20 charred bodies throughout the buildings. Investigations showed that eight of them had been hung, while the other twelve had died either at their own hands or at the hands of their comrades.

During the first day of the search, a party led by Lieutenant Harry Doncaster was ambushed by a group of Japanese and although the party was able to fight them off, Lieutenant Doncaster was killed.

Private Charles Shepherd was the only other Australian fatality, stabbed to death by one of the prisoners during the escape.

It took nine days for the search parties to round up 334 escaped prisoners, 25 of whom were discovered dead by their own hands.

Japanese casualties came to 1 officer and 230 other ranks killed and 1 officer 107 other ranks wounded, while total Australian casualties were 1 officer and 3 other ranks killed, with 4 other ranks wounded.

A Court of Inquiry conducted from 7 August to 15 August identified:
The conditions in the camp were in line with the Geneva Convention.
Housing, bedding and sanitary arrangements were on par with those provided for the garrison.
Food was plentiful.

No complaints concerning their treatment had been reported by the prisoners.
The breakout was a premeditated plan.
Firing was directed only at POWs actively taking part in the attack and was deemed to be at a level necessary to defend against the attack.
Firing ceased at the earliest possible moment.
The medical arrangement for the treatment of wounded POWs was satisfactory
What did the Japanese hoped to gain by escape? There was no chance of them just blending in with the locals and making their way to the coast to hop on a boat to Japan. Was it really just about trying to regain a bit of honour?
The inquiry stated that “the extensive preparations made by the Japanese, the commencement of the mutiny during the hours of darkness and the other attendant circumstances prove beyond all doubt that the onus for the incident rests entirely on the prisoners of war themselves and that it was their intention to engage in suicidal combat with the guards.”
It appears that 235 people were killed for no greater purpose than honour.

(left) Electrical switch room at Cowra P.O.W. Camp, constructed by Italian prisoners. Image: ARR

This edited article was originally published on Australian Rural & Regional News. To read the full version go to arr.news