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The Deadly Cowra Mass-Breakout (1944): Largest Prison Break of World War 2

During the Second World War, a PoW camp in southeast Australia nearby the township Cowra housed mainly Japanese and Italian prisoners. During the night of August 5th 1944, a bugle sounded in the dead-quiet night. As the camp’s guards would soon find out, this sound was the signal for hundreds of Japanese prisoners to storm the outer-fences and six guard towers, brandishing nothing but makeshift weaponry. That night, the largest and single-most bloody POW prison break of the entire Second World War commenced. All of it happening nearby that middle-sized quiet township of Cowra, Australia. 

Cowra PoW Camp

Background

By August 1944, Australia housed a bit over 12000 POWs. On Australia’s mainland, a significant POW camp was located near the middle-sized town of Cowra, situated in the central west of New South Wales, inhabited by around 3000 Australians. Its location is a bit over 300 kilometres to the southwest of Sydney. 

As for the prisoners, the camp housed approximately 2200. A little over half of them were Japanese, captured during the brutal fighting in the Pacific. A significant number were Italians, either captured in the Middle East or merchant sailors, picked up by the Royal Australian Navy patrolling the Pacific. 

The prison complex was a relatively large near-circular compound. It covered an area of over thirty hectares, which is the equivalent of around 56 football fields. Encompassing the compound were three barbed-wire perimeter fences, and in between these fences lay more barbed wire. As the map shows, it was subdivided into four different compounds: A, B, C and D. They were divided by two roads, the so-called No Man’s Land moving from west-to-east, and Broadway moving from north-to-south. On the northern point of Broadway was the main gate, and lights brightly illuminated the entire road during night-time, hence the name. Six guard towers and Vickers machine guns surrounded the entire camp. Surely, if there would be an outbreak, it would have to occur in secret by digging a tunnel, the much-preferred method of Allied and German escapees. Storming the fences would be no more than a suicidal mission.

Cowra Camp Map (courtesy of the Australian War Memorial)

Compound A and C housed Italians. According to some personal testimonies, besides Japanese officers, Compound D housed Formosans, but even some Koreans and Chinese prisoners. Presumably, the Japanese Kwantung army drafted these men from occupied territories. Compound B was reserved for Japanese non-commissioned officers and junior ranks. 

Australia’s 22nd Garrison Battalion guarded them. The 22nd was mainly composed of old or disabled veterans of the First World War, or younger men considered unfit for frontline service. An interpreter, working in Compound D, later reminisced that he didn’t feel safe because most of the prisoners comprised young men, while most armed guards were old and could easily be overpowered. 

During the day, Italian prisoners were allowed to work outside of the compound on the neighbouring farms. There are many stories of Italians returning with heavy containers, and guards and other staff soon realised they smuggled vegetables into the camp. As such, Italians tended to have a better diet than the guards themselves. According to historian Charlotte Carr-Gregg, Italians didn’t necessarily see an inherent problem with being captured in terms of dishonour or personal failure. It was a part of waging war, and they even somewhat appreciated the Australians closely adhering to the Geneva Convention. They were fed, clothed, and treated with dignity.

The Japanese perceived this in a wildly different fashion, though. Carr-Gregg collected statements of both prisoners and people schooled in Japan right before the Second World War broke out. Without going too much into depth, it is safe to say Japanese prisoners generally interpreted their capture as a personal failure. They should have instead taken their own lives. Accounts of Australian guardsmen reiterate this sentiment. Japanese prisoners often gave a fake name when they were arrested in the hope their families would think they died during battle. The fact the Australians adhered closely to the Geneva Convention was perceived as laughable and seen as weakness on the Australian’s part. Undoubtedly, they must have feared the might of the Japanese Empire. Why else would they treat their prisoners with dignity?

In another study by Carr-Gregg, she claimed that the Japanese prisoners were likely aware of Japan losing the war. Cowra camp had newspapers readily available to prisoners and a few prisoners would often read and translate them to the rest. 

Still, a breakout seemed unlikely. After all, Australian guards treated their prisoners well, and at most the prisoners had cutlery but no real weapons. Due to the three barbed wire fences, guard towers and the Vickers guns the guards weren’t too worried. In fact, in June 1944 after guards learned of a mass breakout in the making, Army Officials upped Cowra’s security. Two more Vickers machine guns, additional Owen and Bren guns, and more rifles were distributed among the guards. 

The Breakout

The breakout wasn’t necessarily planned far in advance. It was hastily orchestrated after Camp B prisoners learned of relocating junior ranks to a different POW camp on August 4. According to the Anzac Day Commemoration Committee, Sergeant Major Kanazawa called a meeting of twenty hut leaders. Each hut leader had to test the waters among their men for the willingness for a mass escape. Although not all hut leaders agreed, eventually, the decision was made to launch the mass breakout, no matter the cost.

Other Japanese prisoners that were either too sick or too weak to escape, were ordered to take their own lives to ‘regain their honour.’

In the middle of the night on August 5 1944, at least 545 Japanese Prisoners of War launched their breakout of the camp. At around 2 AM that night, amidst utter darkness and quiet, a Japanese bugle sounded. Another prisoner ran towards a guard tower and started shouting at the well-defended machine gun emplacements. And if some guards weren’t aware of what was happening yet, the subsequent loud shouting of ‘Banzai’, and general screaming of over 1000 prisoners storming out of their huts certainly alerted them. Armed with baseball bats, iron pipes, improvised clubs and sharpened kitchen knives, they stormed the outer perimeter fences and attacked guards.

This map shows what happened next. Two mobs of prisoners stormed the north and eastern fences, attempting to cut the wire. Another group stormed the main gate and guard posts which had machine guns installed on them. They used improvised weaponry and launched suicidal charges at the Australian camp guards, in line with the suicidal charges G.I.s saw all around the Pacific. 

A fourth group crossed Broadway and attempted to link up with Compound D, where the Japanese officers, Formosans, Koreans and Chinese were housed. 

Guards and sentries at first fired warning shots, accidentally cutting the main electricity cable. The rest of the escape occurred in utter darkness. The first sentry to be overrun was manned by privates Benjamin Hardy and Ralph Jones. Realising the mob was too large, they began firing into it as it was coming right at them. But the prisoners were with too many, and they were overrun . Private Jones’ final act was to hide the Vickers machine gun’s lock, so that it was rendered useless to the Japanese. This most likely prevented them from killing many more guards. Private Shepherd too was slain near the main entrance of Broadway. Four other Australian guards suffered injuries. 

Meanwhile, the two groups storming the outer perimeter fences managed to break through. Using blankets, prisoners climbed over the barbed wire fence. The groups that entered Broadway were taken under fire from Australians on both ends, pinning the escapees down. None of the escapees attempting to link up with Compound D where the Japanese officers resided managed to get out. Yet 334 prisoners managed to break through the fences and disappear into the night. It wasn’t until the next morning that the Australians could assess the absolute bloodbath that had taken place here during those short moments after 2 AM.

Aftermath

Immediately, the Australians called in every military branch’s help to recapture the escapees. The Royal Australian Air Force, Military Force trainees, the Women’s Battalion and regular police officers all joined the manhunt. But often, when escapees were about to be arrested, they decided to go out on their own terms. 

Examples are two escapees that jumped in front of a train. Others hanged themselves when they realised there was no escape, and others that failed to finish the job begged their captors to kill them. Yet official records reveal local civilians shot only two prisoners. The military shot around a dozen.

The final death toll on the Australian side was four. Three guards died during the escape attempt, and Lieutenant Harry Doncaster was killed during the manhunt. Details are a bit vague, but it is assumed he was ambushed by escapees a bit over 10 kilometres north of Cowra. No civilians appear to have been harmed during the breakout, something the Japanese leaders ordered. 

It took the Australian military nine days to rearrest all escapees. The furthest away was an escapee captured at Eugowra, over 50 kilometres away from the camp. In total, Australian troops rearrested 334 escapees. Either 231 or 234 Japanese prisoners died, and 108 were wounded. At least 31 among the dead took their own lives.

After the events, Australian premier John Curtin described the breakout and Japanese POWs conduct as showcasing ‘suicidal contempt for life.’ In 1950, Privates Benjamin Hardy and Ralph Jones were awarded the George Cross posthumously. 

The Japanese troops that died in the escape attempt were buried in a specially designated Japanese War Cemetery, opened in 1963. It is the only one in Australia. Besides Japanese escapees, several casualties of the Darwin bombings are buried there as well. In 1979 Australia’s government established the Japanese Gardens, emphasising the good relationship between Japan and Cowra. 

Graves at the Japanese War Cemetery

After the war the Cowra escape wasn’t that well-known to the outside world. Historian and journalist Harry Gordon popularised the breakout when he published Voyage of Shame, a detailed study into the escape. With over 200 deaths, this deadliest escape attempt ever by Japanese POWs was quite different from German POWs’ escape attempts in the United Kingdom and United States. I’ve created videos of those events and several other escapes if you’re interested. One of them should appear on-screen shortly, and otherwise, have a look at my channel. 

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