Captured Lives

Captured Lives
Australia's Wartime Internment Camps

Captured Lives

by Peter Monteath

In his latest book Monteath explores the history of captivity and internment on Australian soil during the two world wars. He provides a fascinating and pictorial look behind the barbed wire, which defined and confined the lives of nearly 20,000 Australians and people from all over the world who were deemed a threat to Australia during these wars.

Most were Germans but there were also large numbers of Italians and Japanese. Smaller numbers of different nationalities came from Austria, Britain, Ceylon, Fiji, Finland, Hong Kong, Iran, North Borneo, Palestine, Portugal, Singapore, Soviet Union and Turkey.

The book is about the actions taken by Australian authorities to detain enemy aliens during war time. They included civilians from enemy countries, even if born in Australia, who were subjects of suspicion and locked away in gaols such as Long Bay in Sydney or Keswick and Gladstone in South Australia, or later internment camps. Many had been long-term residents and naturalised, contributed economically and culturally, and had brought new skills and know-how to the nation. For them being interned was incomprehensible, to say the least.

Captured Lives is also the first book which covers both world wars and more than 30 of the main Australian internment and prisoner of war camps, including those in South Australia. It includes the camps at Rottnest Island, Loveday, the largest in Australia during WWII with internees of 28 different nationalities, Tatura, Murchison, Hay, Enoggera, later called Gaythorne, Cowra, Orange and Brighton in Tasmania.

In the early days most of the camps had been make-shift but from 1940 onwards internees were sent on to large purpose-built camps. They were also of various sizes; from the small ones to Tatura, which accommodated 8000 people who were ‘looked after’ by 3000 guards and other personnel.

The prisoner of war camp at Cowra was used to house civilian internees as well, among them some local Italians and nearly 500 Indonesians. Naturally there were escapes from the camps. Most escapees were quickly returned. The most famous escape was from Cowra on 5 August 1944 which resulted in the death of 234 Japanese prisoners.

The author has included some 40 text boxes which focus on various civilian internees, prisoners of war, officials and others. They relate their lives and how they were affected by internment, government regulations for the safety of Australia, and their treatment in the camps. Conditions and treatment in the camps varied to a great extent. Torrens Island was one of the worst and was eventually closed with most of its prisoners transferred to Holdsworthy near Sydney.

Among the first to be interned were German seamen aboard the 15 merchant ships in Australian harbours at the start of the First World War. Among them were the crew of the German vessel SS Scharzfels on 5 August 1914 when she entered Port Adelaide. A remarkable feature of the history of the camps was the extent to which the prisoners were able to adapt and channel their energies into creative activities and make the most of a bad situation. For some it turned out to be the turning point in their lives.

The single largest contingent of German POWs sent to Australia during WWII came on the Queen Elizabeth early in August 1941. She had just delivered Australian troops to the Middle East. On her return trip the ship carried 983 captured men from the Africa Korps and the Luftwaffe. There were also a number of Templer families from Palestine. They were later joined by the surviving officers and crew of the Kormoran which had sank the Australian cruiser HMAS Sydney causing the loss of all 645 men on board.

Internment divided Australian society during and after both wars. There were those who wanted all enemy aliens locked up and those who expressed their shame at a policy of imprisoning people who posed no threat and who would be more useful to the war effort outside a camp than within. Among those against it, were welfare groups who were intimately familiar with the suffering and dislocation that prolonged detention caused people who were, after all, guilty of no crime.

Unfortunately the Australian government made little effort to separate fanatical Germans, Italians or Japanese from the more moderates or those who only supported Australia. Although nearly half of the Italians living in Australia were naturalised, it provided no guarantee of avoiding internment and almost 20% were interned. Of the Japanese people living in Australia, 97% of them, including women, children and the elderly were interned.

There were also more than 3000 Japanese transported to Australia from neighbouring countries controlled by the Allies. They included Japanese from New Zealand, New Caledonia, New Hebrides and the Dutch East Indies. Their story is told in greater detail by Monteath in his chapter about internees from overseas. The same chapter also relates the story of the little known Templers from Palestine and the Dunera boys.

As a general rule civilian internees could not be required to work. To overcome the boredom many welcomed the opportunity to do some physical labour and be able to leave the confines of the camp, even if only temporarily. Others played sports, attended classes organised by other inmates, kept diaries, started bands and gave performances, played cards or took up painting. In fact any activity was welcome as long as it offered the prospect of diverting one’s mind from the unsettling realities of the war which had turned their lives on their heads.

By 1942 the Australian Government put POWs to work as there was a severe shortage of men. It was also seen as a welcome relief from the tedium of camp life. Mentally and physically it was a vast improvement over the caged existence the men had previously endured. Italians proved themselves willing and hard workers and most were employed on farms with little supervision. When the war finished many of them wanted to stay and were supported by the local farmers.

After each war the Australian government had to repatriate most of the internees. The first group left Australia in May 1919 on the SS Willochra bound for Rotterdam. Many more ships were needed to return all of them with the same process repeated after the Second World War. Among them were many who didn’t want to be repatriated as they had Australian families but were considered a security risk.

Monteath has unearthed some fascinating stories about many of the camps and its prisoners or internees. They convey the lived experiences of POWs and those internees who found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time and paid a heavy price for it. It often left a bitter taste in the mouths of many and changed their lives forever.

Captured Lives is a most remarkable account of a delicate subject which caused a lot of hardship and pain to those inside the barbed wire as well as many on the outside. It provides a lot of information about conditions in Australia at that time, about which most of the younger generation knows very little.

Review by Nic Klaassen

Captured Lives PB, 266 pp. with numerous photographs, references,
bibliography and index is available at $39.99 from
Sales and Distribution, National Library of Australia, Canberra, ACT 2600


If you would like to find out more,
please go to HOME PAGE for more information.
Thank you for visiting Flinders Ranges Research,
We hope you enjoy your stay and find the information useful.
This site has been designed and is maintained by FRR.