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events on the night of the Cowra Breakout

Apthorpe, G. (ed) The Cowra Breakout and other POW Camp stories

The following is taken from the extract of the Official Army Report on the Prisoner of war Breakout from the Cowra Camp.

Information had been received from a Korean Prisoner to the effect that a mass escape was planned from the Cowra Camp with the intention of seizing arms and ammunition and causing havoc behind 'enemy lines'. As a consequence of this, added precautions in the form of extra firepower on the camp perimeter were taken. Arrangements were also made to call the Australian Army Recruit Training Centre if and when needed.

On 4 August, due to an urgent overcrowding problem, the Camp B Commandant summoned the Japanese Camp leader Sergeant Major Kanazawa and the Assistant Camp Leader Sgt/Pilot Minami and informed them that all Japanese prisoners below the rank of Lance Corporal would be transferred to the Hay POW Camp on Monday 7 August. This news was received by Minami with the remark "very bad business, why can't we all go!"

Nothing unusual was noticed during the rest of the day but at 0130 hours the following morning, in clear moonlight, a small group of Japanese were seen loitering within their compound, some 20 yards from the perimeter fencing.

About the same time a Japanese prisoner moved towards the compound gates leading into Broadway. He was anxious to convey a message and spoke excitedly in Japanese which the sentry could not understand.

The Guard Room was advised and arranged for an officer to come to the gateway to remove the prisoner. Before this could happen, a bugle call was heard and the Japanese opened their hut doors. Yelling and screaming they rushed the perimeter wire in lots of 200 to 300 to each of four locations.

As the wire was reached, the Japanese, with screams of "Banzai", threw blankets on the wire and either climbed over or crawled underneath. Others, who wore additional heavy clothing lay an the wire while others crawled over the top of them.

The small party of Australian Guards in Broadway were ordered to withdraw as the Japanese breasted the wire and made their way into Broadway. The Guards moved towards the south gate which they passed through. It was then closed and secured. The general alarm was given at approximately 0150 hours and the Australian Recruit Training Centre was warned by the firing of flares, as was the pre-arranged signal.

During the subsequent action the camp lighting failed when some overhead wires were severed by rifle and machine gun fire. Emergency lights were then turned on.

Two Vickers Machine Guns had been set up and were trained on Compound B. Both No 1 and No 2 Gun were manned following the sounding of the alarm and they commenced firing upon the escaping Japanese. Australian Riflemen who were firing from a position near some huts saw some POW moving underneath the Machine Gun trailer No 2 and rifle fire was brought to bare upon them. Inspite of this, some Japanese climbed onto the trailer, clubbed and killed Private Ben Hardy and stabbed Private Ralph Jones. Jones staggered toward the Company lines where he collapsed and died shortly afterwards. During the attack, Hardy removed the "lock" from the gun, rendering it inoperable and saving many lives. Both Jones and Hardy were posthumously awarded the George Cross for their gallant action in defending the camp.

Other Japanese attacked the company lines to the south east but were driven off by rifle fire. A third Australian was to die that morning. Private Charles Shepherd was stabbed as he emerged from the B Company Guard room.

Two groups of POW in Broadway each attacked the northern and southern gates. None escaped from this area. Other Japanese forced the gates in D Compound where the Japanese Officers were held. A number of those breaking in, were shot and one Japanese Officer was killed.

Throughout the whole engagement the Italian POW remained indoors and suffered no casualties. When Compound B was later checked, 138 'Japanese' POW remained, consisting mostly of Formosan and Korean Prisoners. In addition many bodies were found—some with their throats cut or wounds in the abdomen. Other Japanese surrendered after being found lying in drains. Others were walking around in a dazed condition in Broadway.

Lieutenant Harry Doncaster from the Army Recruit Training Centre was attacked and killed during the round up. During the 9 day period, 334 Japanese escapees were recaptured and 25 had either suicided or had been killed. Of those who escaped into the countryside, some took their own lives, some were shot by soldiers or civilians and others stayed on the run for up to 9 days. There was evidence that a number of the Japanese had been killed by their own countrymen.

The bodies of those Australians who were killed were interned in the Australian War Cemetery. The bodies of the Japanese were interned in mass graves and in 1964 were relocated to a newly created Japanese War Cemetery at Cowra along with all other Japanese who died in Australia during WWII. The land upon which the Cemetery is located was ceded to the Japanese Government.

Total casualties were as follows:

Total Japanese Casualties
One Officer Killed
230 other ranks Killed
One Officer Wounded
107 other ranks Wounded

3 other Japanese subsequently died from the effects of their wounds.

Total Australian Casualties
1 Army Officer Killed
3 Guards Killed
3 Guards Wounded

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