Cowra breakout

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Cowra breakout
Cowra POW Camp, 1 July 1944. Japanese POWs practicing baseball near their quarters, several weeks before the Cowra breakout. The photograph was taken for the Allied Far Eastern Liaison Office, with the intention of using it in propaganda leaflets, to be dropped over Japanese held islands and Japan itself.
Date5 August 1944
LocationNear Cowra, New South Wales, Australia
Coordinates 33°48′41″S148°42′14″E / 33.81139°S 148.70389°E / -33.81139; 148.70389 Coordinates: 33°48′41″S148°42′14″E / 33.81139°S 148.70389°E / -33.81139; 148.70389
Outcome~545 Japanese POWs escape

The Cowra breakout occurred on 5 August 1944, when at least 1,104 Japanese prisoners of war attempted to escape from a prisoner of war camp near Cowra, in New South Wales, Australia. It was the largest prison escape of World War II, as well as one of the bloodiest. During the escape and ensuing manhunt, four Australian soldiers and 231 Japanese soldiers were killed. The remaining escapees were captured and imprisoned.

Empire of Japan Empire in the Asia-Pacific region between 1868–1947

The Empire of Japan was the historical nation-state and great power that existed from the Meiji Restoration in 1868 to the enactment of the 1947 constitution of modern Japan.

Cowra Town in New South Wales, Australia

Cowra is a town in the Central West region of New South Wales, Australia. It is the largest population centre and the council seat for the Cowra Shire, with a population of 10,063.

New South Wales State of Australia

New South Wales is a state on the east coast of Australia. It borders Queensland to the north, Victoria to the south, and South Australia to the west. Its coast borders the Tasman Sea to the east. The Australian Capital Territory is an enclave within the state. New South Wales' state capital is Sydney, which is also Australia's most populous city. In March 2018, the population of New South Wales was over 7.9 million, making it Australia's most populous state. Just under two-thirds of the state's population, 5.1 million, live in the Greater Sydney area. Inhabitants of New South Wales are referred to as New South Welshmen.


POW camp

Cowra, a farming district 314 km (195 mi) due west of Sydney, was the town nearest to No. 12 Prisoner of War Compound, a major POW camp, where 4,000 Axis military personnel and civilians were detained. The prisoners at Cowra also included 2,000 Italians, Koreans who had served in the Japanese military, and Indonesian civilians detained at the request of the Dutch East Indies government. [1]

Sydney City in New South Wales, Australia

Sydney is the state capital of New South Wales and the most populous city in Australia and Oceania. Located on Australia's east coast, the metropolis surrounds Port Jackson and extends about 70 km (43.5 mi) on its periphery towards the Blue Mountains to the west, Hawkesbury to the north, the Royal National Park to the south and Macarthur to the south-west. Sydney is made up of 658 suburbs, 40 local government areas and 15 contiguous regions. Residents of the city are known as "Sydneysiders". As of June 2017, Sydney's estimated metropolitan population was 5,131,326, and is home to approximately 65% of the state's population.

Axis powers Alliance of countries defeated in World War II

The Axis powers, also known as "Rome–Berlin–Tokyo Axis", were the nations that fought in World War II against the Allies. The Axis powers agreed on their opposition to the Allies, but did not completely coordinate their activity.

Korea Region in East Asia

Korea is a region in East Asia. Since 1948, it has been divided between two distinct sovereign states: North Korea and South Korea. Korea consists of the Korean Peninsula, Jeju Island, and several minor islands near the peninsula. Korea is bordered by China to the northwest, Russia to the northeast, and neighbours Japan to the east by the Korea Strait and the Sea of Japan.

By August 1944, there were 2,223 Japanese POWs in Australia, including 544 merchant seamen. There were 14,720 Italian prisoners, the majority of whom had been captured in the North African Campaign, and 1,585 Germans, mostly naval or merchant seamen.[ citation needed ]

Kingdom of Italy kingdom on the Appenine Peninsula between 1861 and 1946

The Kingdom of Italy was a state which existed from 1861—when King Victor Emmanuel II of Sardinia was proclaimed King of Italy—until 1946—when a constitutional referendum led civil discontent to abandon the monarchy and form the modern Italian Republic. The state was founded as a result of the unification of Italy under the influence of the Kingdom of Sardinia, which can be considered its legal predecessor state.

North African Campaign military campaign of World War II

The North African Campaign of the Second World War took place in North Africa from 10 June 1940 to 13 May 1943. It included campaigns fought in the Libyan and Egyptian deserts and in Morocco and Algeria, as well as Tunisia.

Nazi Germany The German state from 1933 to 1945, under the dictatorship of Adolf Hitler

Nazi Germany is the common English name for Germany between 1933 and 1945, when Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party (NSDAP) controlled the country through a dictatorship. Under Hitler's rule, Germany was transformed into a totalitarian state that controlled nearly all aspects of life via the Gleichschaltung legal process. The official name of the state was Deutsches Reich until 1943 and Großdeutsches Reich from 1943 to 1945. Nazi Germany is also known as the Third Reich, meaning "Third Realm" or "Third Empire", the first two being the Holy Roman Empire (800–1806) and the German Empire (1871–1918). The Nazi regime ended after the Allies defeated Germany in May 1945, ending World War II in Europe.

Although the POWs were treated in accordance with the 1929 Geneva Convention, relations between the Japanese POWs and the guards were poor, due largely to significant cultural differences.[ citation needed ] A riot by Japanese POWs at Featherston prisoner of war camp in New Zealand, in February 1943, led to security being tightened at Cowra.[ citation needed ]

The Geneva Convention (1929) was signed at Geneva, July 27, 1929. Its official name is the Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War, Geneva July 27, 1929. It entered into force 19 June 1931. It is this version of the Geneva Conventions which covered the treatment of prisoners of war during World War II. It is the predecessor of the Third Geneva Convention signed in 1949.

Featherston prisoner of war camp

Featherston prisoner of war camp was a camp for captured Japanese soldiers during World War II at Featherston, New Zealand, notorious for a 1943 incident in which 48 Japanese and one New Zealander were killed. The camp had been established during World War I as a military training camp and had also been used as an internment camp from 1918 to 1920, when 14 German internees remained there.

Eventually the camp authorities installed several Vickers and Lewis machine guns to augment the rifles carried by the members of the Australian Militia's 22nd Garrison Battalion, which was composed mostly of old or disabled veterans or young men considered physically unfit for frontline service.[ citation needed ]

Vickers machine gun 7.7 mm medium machine gun

The Vickers machine gun or Vickers gun is a name primarily used to refer to the water-cooled .303 British (7.7 mm) machine gun produced by Vickers Limited, originally for the British Army. The machine gun typically required a six to eight-man team to operate: one fired, one fed the ammunition, the rest helped to carry the weapon, its ammunition, and spare parts. It was in service from before the First World War until the 1960s, with air-cooled versions of it on many Allied World War I fighter aircraft.

Rifle firearm designed to be fired from the shoulder

A rifle is a portable, long-barrelled firearm designed for long-range precision shooting, to be held with both hands and braced against the shoulder for stability during firing, and with a barrel that has a helical pattern of grooves ("rifling") cut into the bore walls. The term was originally rifled gun, with the word "rifle" referring to the machining process of creating grooving with cutting tools, and is now used for any long handheld device designed for aimed discharge activated by a trigger, such as air rifles and the personnel halting and stimulation response rifle. Rifles are used in warfare, law enforcement, hunting and shooting sports.


Japanese POW cap, which was originally maroon, is the only known clothing relic from the Cowra POW camp The 'Jap Cap'.jpg
Japanese POW cap, which was originally maroon, is the only known clothing relic from the Cowra POW camp
The Japanese Garden in 2004 CowraJapnaeseGardenSpring2004.JPG
The Japanese Garden in 2004

In the first week of August 1944, a tip-off from an informer at Cowra led authorities to plan a move of all Japanese POWs at Cowra, except officers and NCOs, to another camp at Hay, New South Wales, some 400 km (250 mi) to the west. The Japanese were notified of the move on 4 August.

Non-commissioned officer Military officer without a commission

A non-commissioned officer (NCO) is a military officer who has not earned a commission. Non-commissioned officers usually obtain their position of authority by promotion through the enlisted ranks. In contrast, commissioned officers hold higher ranks than NCOs, have more legal responsibilities, are paid more, and often have more non-military training such as a university diploma. Commissioned officers usually earn their commissions without having risen through the enlisted ranks.

Hay, New South Wales Town in New South Wales, Australia

Hay is a town in the western Riverina region of south western New South Wales, Australia. It is the administrative centre of Hay Shire local government area and the centre of a prosperous and productive agricultural district on the wide Hay Plains.

In the words of historian Gavin Long, the following night:

At about 2 a.m. a Japanese ran to the camp gates and shouted what seemed to be a warning to the sentries. Then a Japanese bugle sounded. A sentry fired a warning shot. More sentries fired as three mobs of prisoners, shouting " Banzai ", began breaking through the wire, one mob on the northern side, one on the western and one on the southern. They flung themselves across the wire with the help of blankets. They were armed with knives, baseball bats, clubs studded with nails and hooks, wire stilettos and garotting cords. [2]

The bugler, Hajime Toyoshima, had been Australia’s first Japanese prisoner of the war. [3] Soon afterwards, prisoners set most of the buildings in the Japanese compound on fire.

Within minutes of the start of the breakout attempt, Privates Ben Hardy and Ralph Jones manned the No. 2 Vickers machine-gun and began firing into the first wave of escapees. They were soon overwhelmed by a wave of Japanese prisoners who had breached the lines of barbed wire fences. Before dying, Private Hardy managed to remove and throw away the gun's bolt, rendering the gun useless. This prevented the prisoners from turning the machine gun against the guards.

Some 359 POWs escaped, while some others attempted or committed suicide, or were killed by their countrymen. Some of those who did escape also committed suicide to avoid recapture. All the survivors were recaptured within 10 days of their breakout. [4]


During the escape and subsequent round-up of POWs, four Australian soldiers and 231 Japanese soldiers were killed and 108 prisoners were wounded. The leaders of the breakout ordered the escapees not to attack Australian civilians, and none were killed or injured.

The government conducted an official inquiry into the events. Its conclusions were read to the Australian House of Representatives by Curtin on 8 September 1944. Among the findings were:

Privates Hardy and Jones were posthumously awarded the George Cross as a result of their actions.

Australia continued to operate No. 12 Camp until the last Japanese and Italian prisoners were repatriated in 1947.

Cowra maintains a significant Japanese war cemetery. In addition, a commemorative Japanese garden was later built on Bellevue Hill to memorialize these events. The garden was designed by Ken Nakajima in the style of the Edo period. [5]

Depictions in film and literature

See also

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  1. "The Story of Italians at the POW Camp". Cowra Council. Archived from the original on 11 May 2013. Retrieved 6 August 2016.
  2. Long, Gavin (1963). "Appendix 5 – The Prison Break at Cowra, August 1944" (PDF). The Final Campaigns. Australia in the War of 1939–1945. Series 1 – Army. Volume 7. Canberra: Australian War Memorial. pp. 623–624. OCLC   1297619.
  3. S Thompson. Exhibit - Objects through Time: COWRA bugle, c1930s Archived 5 August 2012 at , Migration Heritage Centre, New South Wales, 2006
  4. Wendy Lewis, Simon Balderstone and John Bowan (2006). Events That Shaped Australia. New Holland. pp. 175–179. ISBN   978-1-74110-492-9.
  5. Tam, Tracy, "Australian town commemorates 1944 POW camp breakout", The Japan Times , (Kyodo News), 19 August 2014
  6. "Dead men rising / [by] Kenneth Seaforth Mackenzie". National Library of Australia . Retrieved 11 August 2010.
  7. "Die like the carp : the story of the greatest prison escape ever / Harry Gordon". National Library of Australia . Retrieved 11 August 2010.
  8. "The Cowra Breakout - Curator's notes + clips & credits". National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA). Retrieved 24 November 2011.
  9. "The Cowra Breakout (TV mini-series 1984)". IMDb . Retrieved 24 November 2011.