anzac POW freemen in europe

Summing Up


Threading together the final selection of field data gathered for this Compendium and seeking out photographs that would more graphically, illustrate the text, the Recorder was struck with the basic similarity of the physical and mental experiences resulting from the unexpected and indefinite term of imprisonment suddenly imposed on him.

This experience is not confined to the fighting soldier suddenly becoming a POW.

In Australia today, illegal refugees are virtually imprisoned under very harsh conditions while their exact status is determined and a decision made whether to accept them a genuine refugees and grant them at least probationary citizenship or to classify them as terrorists or another category of criminality. Families who have risked their savings, life prospects and have been forced to flee their homes have been held as virtual prisoners for up to three years while they are being "assessed", their fate still undetermined, their mental health endangered and their aspirations for a peaceful future almost extinguished. Can this be right?

Covered in Part 1 of this Compendium are the effects on an individual becoming a POW, how they coped and adapted to their new life, how they retained discipline and morale and how important it was to them, as POW, to have the International Red Cross protect their rights, and through their invaluable food parcels, sporting gear and books to improve their everyday welfare.

It covers their feelings and actions whether they remained in captivity or managed to escape their captives. The stories of some who escaped into the neutral country of Switzerland and how they did so and how that small country coped with the flood of uninvited guests.

Many of those Australian escapees tell the same tale - whether is was the easy way by train, by an arranged alpine escape route, by personal courage of facing unknown and unimagined Alpine conditions by themselves or by sheer good luck of timing.

Their drafting to the complex of work camps controlled by Campo 106 Vercelli, their proximity to the Monte Moro Pass, the selflessness of colleagues such as John Peck and "Butch" Jacomsen who made it to Switzerland but returned to enemy occupied Italy, but above all the incredible support given by the local Italian "contadini". This is contrasted to those Alpine airmen who crash-landed in Switzerland without technically having been POW at all and so became "internees" rather than "evades".

Part 2 picks up the specific story of the 420 AIF POW.

It lists who they were and what units they were from. It describes their "camps", how they were treated by the Swiss, how they reacted to them and vice-versa and how they were warmly accepted by Swiss civilians. It deals with being a "Free Man" still protected by the Geneva Conventions but also under the control of the Hague Conventions which governed the behaviour and war-time conduct of their temporary hosts.

Part 3 became a necessary extension to cover the stories of other AIF POW who also managed to escape from enemy captivity becoming "Free Men" without the influence of the Hague Conventions but still with the doubtful assistance of the Geneva ones.

Their stories could not always be included in Part 2. Australian partisans such as Stan Peebles of the 2/24th, Bill Waller of the 2/3rd LAA and Fred Brockel of the 2/15th, among others, left their partisans bands for varying reasons and at various times and made it to Switzerland. Later, others left their partisan groups and made it to liberated France.

But having extended Part 2 to cover the AIF POW partisans in Italy, logic demanded that it be extended also to those Australian "Free Men" fighting with partisans in Yugoslavia, the Balkans, Greece and Crete.

And while a very considerable amount of field data had been collected on AIF POW under Italian captivity, there was relatively little on those who were originally mostly German POW having been sent there directly from the Middle East. To a large extent this was due to battles that raged in different geographical areas and an earlier time. In the broad sense, they were POW of the Sixth Australian Division as distinct from the Ninth Australian Division. But a surprising number of the Australian partisans in Yugoslavia reached there, having escaped from German prison camps as well as those who had escaped from ones in Italy.

On the ground, there was very little difference in the story of Jim Paterson in Yugoslavia and say the story of his colleagues from the 2/28th, such as Danny Black and Jim McMahon remaining "free" in different areas of occupied Italy. All three suffered hunger, disease and the fugitive and uncertain life of the mountain guerilla. All three ran the risk of being summarily shot if re-captured. All three survived.

It was the same sort of life under the same harsh conditions on the ground, as that lead by Bruce Vary in Crete, Dick Turner in Greece, Don McGregor in Hungary and Lawrence Saywell in Czechoslovakia.

John Peck had originally been captured in Crete as had Lt Bob Houghton Jones. Both their stories were fitted into Part 1, as they both managed to get into Switzerland. Then again, in greater detail, in Part 2, which dealt solely the 420 AIF in Switzerland eliminating even RAAF "evades" there. But John Peck's multi-escape story has been, once again, considerably expanded in Part 3, as he was a most extraordinary "partisan" and a most effective SOE operative.

Looking back at the individual stories of AIF POW in Europe, one can see the same underlying theme, the strong drive to "beat the bastards", to carry on the fight by using initiative, experience and in the most successful cases the ability to learn other languages the better to adapt to local conditions, where their bush skills came in very handy.

Part 2 was also able to expand on the role of the SOE, whose representatives dropped by parachute into occupied territories were specifically trained to organise and supply local partisan groups into effective underground armies. They too, with their colleagues from the American OSS, shared the same hazards and tough conditions as the freedom fighters they commanded - remarkable men with remarkable military assignments.

In the dying days of the Third Reich, many AIF POW of the Germans were also faced with the same choices that faced those of their colleagues held by the Italians, when the Italian Armistice was declared- Go towards the advancing Allied Lines, head for a neutral country or sit tight and hope for liberation.

Whatever the individual choice, the current conditions and the end result were very much the same. 
The survivors could count themselves lucky and have regrets for those of their mates who were not so fortunate. For not all escape stories have a happy ending.

In addition to those in Germany, Italy, Yugoslavia, Greece and Crete, the following AIF POW escapees, from different units, in different branches of service and from different Australian states, died in the service of their country - a long, long, way from home:

VX1008 L/Bdr Oswald Henry Brown 6 Aust Postal Unit
VX10337 Drv John Sylvester Flynn 6 Div AASC

VX5102 Pte Stewart Emerson Brown 2/5th Inf Btn
VX9752 Sgt William Howard Reid 6th Div HQ

VX6461 Pte Lawrence Saywell 17th Aust Inf Bde
NX45986 Spr William Johnston Williams 2/3rd Fld Coy RAE

WX966 Pte Harold Noel Bishop 2/11th Inf Btn
WX2463 Pte Mervyn Daniel Thomas 2/11th Inf 
VX4458 Pte Wilbur David Trainor 2/6th Inf Btn

VX24900 Pte Arthur Ernest Sheridan 2/2nd Pioneers

Lest We Forget!

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