The Cowra Breakout - NSW mass escape of Japanese POWs

August 05, 2018

On 5 August 1944, a mass escape of Japanese prisoners of war (PoWs) occurred in the central-west of NSW known as “The Cowra Breakout.”

Of the 1,100-plus Japanese PoWs that attempted to escape from “No. 12 PoW Compound” near Cowra in the early hours of that morning, around 350 actually escaped and 231 were killed (or committed suicide to avoid recapture and indignity). One account claims the Japanese PoWs:

... threw themselves on to barbed wire fences and into the firing line of Vickers machine guns. Protected only by baseball mitts, blankets and coats and using their comrades as a human bridge to cross the tangled barbed wire.

Within ten days of the breakout, all survivors had been recaptured. Four Australian soldiers (sentries guarding the PoW camp) were killed but no Australian civilians were attacked, injured or killed (just as the leaders of the breakout instructed).

Privates Ben Hardy and Ralph Jones were posthumously awarded the George Cross for their actions during the breakout. After becoming overwhelmed by the wave of Japanese PoWs, they permanently disabled their machine gun just prior to being killed to ensure it could not have been turned against the other guards.

The official inquiry conducted by the then Curtin government after the Cowra breakout (and read out in Federal Parliament) found that the camp’s conditions were in full accordance with the 1929 Geneva Conventions and no complaints regarding maltreatment had been made. In fact, we generally treated our PoWs in this country very well. The breakout was largely due to (driven by) Japanese Imperial Military Regulation that ordered “Never live to experience the shame of being taken prisoner” – that there was no pride or honour in being captured.

Mark this day of the Cowra Breakout by:

  • if you’re near Cowra, visiting the Japanese war cemetery and/or the commemorative Japanese garden (on Bellevue Hill) 
  • if you’re near Canberra, visiting the Australian War Memorial there and absorbing the fuller context of WWII
  • watching the film “The Cowra Breakout” on DVD 
  • viewing this interview of ex-serviceman, Charles Shailer, of the Cowra breakout
  • reading more about conditions in the camp in the National Archives, and/or
  • sharing this Action Plan post on social media with family, friends, veterans, anti-nihilists and fellow proud Aussie patriots.

Further details

During WWII, Australia - like many countries - detained PoWs captured from their battlefields and other theatres of war across the globe. At the time of the breakout, Australia had 2,223 Japanese PoWs (544 of them merchant seamen), nearly 15,000 Italians (largely from the North African Campaign) and almost 1,600 Germans (mainly naval or merchant seamen).

The No. 12 PoW Compound near Cowra was a major camp and held 4,000 Axis military personnel and civilians, including the 1,100-plus Japanese PoWs, 2,000 Italians, some Koreans (who had been fighting for the Japanese forces) and some Indonesian civilians (by request of the Dutch East Indies government).

In the words of historian Gavin Long:

“[The Japanese PoWs] … flung themselves across the [prison fence] wire with the help of blankets. They were armed with knives, baseball bats, clubs studded with nails and hooks, wire stilettos and garrotting chords.”


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