- Australian Prisoners of War – our forgotten heroes
Australian Prisoners of War – our forgotten heroes
Friday 13 May, 2016
As we reflect on the 75th Anniversary of the Battle of Crete, we remember that while that ill-fated battle cost the British Commonwealth forces 1,742 killed with 2,225 wounded, a staggering 11,370 Allied troops were taken prisoner by Nazi Germany. Of these 3,100 were Australian. They made up approximately 40% of the 7,100 Australians who were part of the British Commonwealth Forces that went to Crete. 242 died in captivity.
The battle for Crete began on 20th of May, 1941 with an airborne invasion by Nazi Germany. By the end of May, it became increasingly obvious that the Allies, despite being supported by Greek Forces and Cretan civilians, could not hold Crete. This was due to a combination of factors which included communication failures, Allied tactical hesitation and the German offensive operations that lead to the capture of Maleme airfield, enabling the Germans to land reinforcements that overwhelmed the Allied defensive positions on the North of the Island.
By the end of May, Allied commanding officers realised further resistance was pointless. Lieutenant Colonel Ian Campbell, Commanding Officer of the 2/1st Battalion and Retimo Force was one such officer. He ordered his men to surrender or to try and escape. Many took the latter option, evading capture for several months, managing to live in the mountains of Crete with assistance from the locals. Between June and September 1941, approximately 600 Allied soldiers were able to escape the island, which remained occupied by Axis forces until the end of the war.
Those captured on Crete endured long stays in unhealthy, temporary camps set up in Greece. From June 1941 they were transported to Germany, taken by rail in closed goods wagons on a journey of up to a week. One prisoner described it in his diary as “the worst days of my life”. Another described the ordeal: “A week in cattle trucks in the height of sweltering summer … No seats or other amenities. All of us weak and suffering from diarrhoea, many with bleeding bowels and no sanitary arrangements whatsoever.”
Allied prisoners of war in transit by cattle truck from Italy to Germany.
Throughout World War II approximately 8,600 Australians became prisoners of the Germans. This number included 7,110 Australian soldiers captured in North Africa and Greece, approximately 1,470 airmen (mostly bomber aircrew shot down over Germany in 1943–45) and a small number of sailors.
Prisoners were held in over 40 major camps throughout Germany, extending from Lithuania to the Rhine. Officers and men were held in separate camps – Oflags and Stalags. In Wolfsberg camp one Australian warrant officer was appointed a kind of de facto commanding officer over 11,000 Allied prisoners of war held captive there.
Most of the Australian Prisoners of War endured more than three years in captivity. Though Germany generally observed the 1929 Geneva Convention governing the treatment of prisoners of war, in the often severe climate these POWs faced spartan and increasingly harsh conditions. In the winter of 1945, many undernourished prisoners were forced to march across Europe to evade liberation by Soviet forces. Those who survived were eventually freed by the advancing Allies having survived gnawing hunger and continuous disease through Red Cross parcels they were thankfully allowed to receive.
British Commonwealth troops surrendering to German paratroops on Crete, May 1941. Over 3,000 Australians were among the 11,000 Allied troops captured on Crete. Bundesarkiv 166/509/39
After the war, Australian prisoners of war in Europe were largely forgotten, overshadowed by the experiences of the 22,000 Australians (including some civilians) who became prisoners of the Japanese in the Asia Pacific region. Approximately 8,000 (1 in 3) perished in camps that included Sandakan, Ranau and Kuching to name a few. On the notorious Thai-Burma Railway more than 2,800 Australians died at the hands of the Japanese. The prisoners’ sufferings on this railway have come to epitomise the ordeal faced by Australians in captivity. Though the railway camps produced many victims, it also produced heroes who helped others to endure, to survive, or to die with dignity.
Tragically too, over a thousand Australian POWs died when Allied submarines torpedoed unmarked ships carrying prisoners around Japan’s wartime empire.
Since the early 1950s a group of surviving prisoners of war regularly met in Ballarat to devise plans for establishment of a commemorative memorial to Australia’s Prisoners of War. Though the Australian Federal Government had given periodic undertakings that a permanent monument would be built in Canberra, no monument had been forthcoming.
The Australian Ex-Prisoners of War Memorial was dedicated on Friday, 6 February 2004. It is located on the southern approaches to the Ballarat Botanical Gardens, on Wendouree Parade, adjacent to Lake Wendouree.
Renamed the National Prisoner of War Memorial, it is now recognised as Australia’s official memorial honouring more than 35,000 Australians who were held prisoner during the Boer War, World War I, World War II and the Korean War.
The Ballarat RSL, who led the commemorative memorial project, worked with a team of volunteers to compile the first national database of Australian prisoners of war. It is believed there may be some names still missing, and the memorial has a postscript section allocated to enable further additions.
Australia’s National Prisoner of War Memorial, Ballarat, Victoria.