Brisbane in the late 1930s was a sleepy town more reminiscent of a country town than the capital of the state of Queensland in the land Down Under. That would change in 1939 when Australia entered World War II and men and munitions were despatched forth for embarkation to the European front.
Japan entered the war by bombing Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 and then made swift and steady progress south through Asia. After this attack by Japan, America entered the war with specific concerns about the Japanese focus on the Philippines where the USA had significant military and naval interests. The Pensacola Convoy of ships was heading to their Philippines base prior to Pearl Harbor but were re-routed to sleepy Brisbane. As with a US naval visit in 1941, the troops were welcomed with great excitement especially by the women of the town. Already the seeds of disenchantment, frustration and anger were being sown.
Australia’s new Prime Minister, John Curtin, was forced into a conflict of wills with Britain’s Winston Churchill to bring our troops back from the European front, north Africa and the Middle East. The Fall of Singapore in February 1942 and capture of Australian (and other) troops and evacuation of civilians and nurses certainly caused great anxiety in Australia. Britain had refused to believe Singapore could be defeated, assuming any attack would come from the sea not through the back door overland. With the determined and steady approach of the Japanese military, there was a fear that Australia was in the line of attack. No doubt the bombing of Darwin on 19 February 1942, of Broome on 3 March 1942, and Townsville on 25 July 1942 could only have exacerbated that fear.
There is a strong belief, at least in Queensland, that, during the war years, our national policy was to defend the country below the Brisbane line. The rest of the state, to Brisbane’s north, was to be considered expendable. This strategy has been widely disputed over the decades but only detailed historical research would confirm or deny it.
I have often wondered whether it was a coincidence that my grandfather relocated his family from Townsville to Brisbane in mid-1941. He was a supervisor in the carpentry workshop with the railways, an essential service during the war. I can only imagine how relieved he must have been to be miles away when Townsville was bombed, but perhaps less thrilled to have three teenaged daughters in Brisbane with the presence of so many Australian or US troops.
Just imagine Brisbane at the time: a country-town sized capital of some 330,000 people firmly entrenched in the idea of Britain as home and with very British attitudes. The architecture was peculiar to this sub-tropical town with many wooden houses built on stilts and hotels with wide verandahs – it probably all looked a bit “wild west” to the incoming troops. Sadly, today much of that diverse architecture no longer stands having been wilfully demolished to make way for grander, taller, more modern buildings.
During the years 1941-1945, around 90,000 US military (including the much-debated General MacArthur) would pour into the town. If we put a rubbery 1:3 ratio on the men in the local population, they were matched 1 to 1 by the new arrivals although many Australian soldiers (Diggers) were already posted elsewhere. There was also resentment between the two forces about their relative fighting “performances” in the highly challenging Papua New Guinea confrontations with the Japanese, even though the first land battle defeat of the Japanese had occurred in Milne Bay in August 1942.
The local mantra during the war was that the US men were “overpaid, oversexed and over here”. Their uniforms were smarter, their pay was higher, and they had access to goods not available in the city’s shops through their Post Exchange or PX, and they were “exotic”. Perhaps unsurprisingly they were a big hit with the young Brisbane women. The sad thing is how the behaviour of the women is reported – as if they were floozies, “no better than they ought to be”, tarts or amateur prostitutes. It seems that, as so often happens, the women got the blame for social behaviour. Add to that their Australian men weren’t socialised to just hang out with women and generally spent their spare time with their mates. Even today Aussie barbeques are famous for the division of the sexes. It can be argued that there was little difference between the Diggers in England during the war(s) when they were the exotic overpaid troops. The reality is that wherever men were stationed, they fell in love (or lust) with local women, and some married and the new-minted wives moved back to the man’s home country, as war brides.
It’s pretty easy to see in retrospect that there might be trouble brewing in sleepy Brisbane, but it seemed to have escaped the attention of the powers that be. On top of the social tensions, it was quite likely that tempers might well have been short simply because the heat and humidity of the approaching Brisbane summer.
Tensions would erupt with a vengeance on Thanksgiving Day in 1942. Come back tomorrow and learn what happened in sleepy downtown Brisbane. (pronounced, btw, as Bris-bin not Bris-BANE).
One of the major influences in my life for which I’m very grateful has been the presence of many acquaintances and friends who’ve immigrated to Australia. As a child, my Catholic primary school saw an influx of Europeans in the years after World War II. This mix of Czechs, Yugoslavs, Poles, Maltese and others became part of my daily school life. After school I would visit some of my friends at home and stand by while they communicated in their original language with whichever parent or grandparent was at home. These young kids had to bridge the linguistic and cultural differences between their old lives and their new – not an easy task for youngsters. At one point we had so many Dutch immigrants in our parish that we had two or three Dutch priests. At high school one of my best friends was of Italian origin and again I was exposed to a different culture. So you can see why migration, its causes and effects have been important to me over the decades. And all this long before I had a real appreciation of my own immigrant families.
We are focusing too much on the problems and forgetting about the opportunities of immigration. Let us learn from our history. Immigration has been great for Australia in the past. Frank Lowy, Australian businessman.
Xenophobia and Ancestors
Xenophobia seems built into the Australian character. In the early days it was the Irish who were demonised and often alienated, treated as second class people. However, it was during the years of World War I that xenophobia reached new depths.
Let me share the story of my 2xgreat grandfather, George Mathias Kunkel.
If the family story is true that he left Bavaria to escape the wars of Europe it is ironic that he found himself on the “wrong” side in Australia in 1914 when war broke out between Germany and the British Empire. Patriotic Australians, irrespective of name, rushed to defend the “Mother Country”, Britain – or just to have a bit of an adventure, as so many of them have told us. Those with German names were not exempt from this military fever and at least six of George and Mary’s grandchildren enlisted to fight against the Germans. One, James Paterson, paid the supreme sacrifice in the fierce fighting in northern France in April 1917. On some attestation papers, comments can be seen about ancestry of those with German surnames.
New measures were introduced to cope with the “menace” within Australia from its foreign-born residents, especially German-born people. George became subject to the new legislation, despite the fact that he was now, fortunately, a naturalised British citizen.
All persons who are subjects of the German Empire resident in the Commonwealth are to forthwith report themselves to police nearest to place at which resident and supply certain particulars to police, also before changing place of residence to notify nearest police officer of such intention and on arrival at fresh place of residence to notify their arrival to police nearest same.
Germans who are naturalised need not be called upon by police to report once a week but only when changing addresses. Applies only to Germans exempt from military service.
It should not be taken for granted that because a German/Australian has become naturalised, he is therefore a loyal subject of the British Empire, on the contrary cases which have come under notice, indicate that the known sentiments of not a few are distinctly pro-German.
Proclaimed 10 Aug 1914. Commonwealth Gazette 6 Aug 1914.
Under this legislation, Australians of German birth were required to supply their place of residence and occupation or business and such other matters as police officers saw fit. Although naturalised Germans were initially required to report to police weekly this was later changed, however the requirement to notify change of address remained. Police had the right to place people under surveillance or arrest them if they acted suspiciously.
It seems bizarre that an eighty year old man who’d been resident in Queensland for sixty years might truly be regarded as a security risk.
Reported “evidence” of disloyalty could result in incarceration in detention camps. Fischer believes that farmers “who were self-employed and who enjoyed a comparatively greater degree of autonomy, had a better chance to survive the war without being challenged or bothered by the authorities, provided they kept a low profile” and didn’t become the “subject of denunciations by jealous neighbours or business rivals.”
Another factor contributing to the safety of the Catholic German-born residents in the Toowoomba and Murphy’s Creek areas may have been that they were not part of a tight-knit German community keeping exclusively to themselves, speaking German, and within their own Lutheran religion. Being Catholic, speaking English, and so being more assimilated into the Irish-born community may have meant that they were at less risk of suspicion. Anne Kunkel told me that there was little discrimination against them at the time in Murphy’s Creek. Perhaps the fact that they had lived in the area for many decades, and were well known, may have also given them some protection from the hysteria of the time.
Decades ago I searched the Commonwealth Archives Enemy Aliens (ie foreign nationals) files for any reference to the Kunkel name, but I could find no indication that George was listed. However, other Germans were not so fortunate, and it seemed the climate was ripe for misdirected envy of a neighbour’s good fortune. In one document a German resident was reported for having bought a new piano because there was no evidence that he should have had the money. The conclusion this citizen reached was that the German-named neighbour must have been supplying weapons! Letters to the editor both defended loyal sons of German born residents and exhorted them to do their duty to the land they had chosen to call home.
In a letter to the newspaper of the day, an unknown author “CS”, writing on 18 September, suggested that “the Germans have the best of it in the colonies”. He called on them to be brought before their particular police court and asked “all present naturalised and holding landed property whatsoever in the colonies to come to the front,” then “all who are willing to go to the front (if required) and fight on the side of the British to stand to the right; and all those who do not, stand to the left. Those not willing to go to the front should give a definite reason or should be interned and any of their property should be confiscated by the Crown”. Similarly the chair of a Dalby Patriotic Meeting in September 1915 expressed the view that Germans living in Australia should have their names removed from the electoral rolls, presumably with the loss of associated rights as citizens.
Newspaper articles were similarly hysterical as is so often the case in wartime. Germans were portrayed in a wide array of diabolical representations.
How painful it must have been for George and for his fellow New Australians to have their original homeland and families pilloried as vicious and violent savages. It is sad to think, after all the hardship George had experienced in carving a new home for himself and his family, so far away from the place of his birth, that his last years were tainted by this terrible angst over loyalties. Anne Kunkel remembers her grandfather being a cranky old man by this time, which is hardly surprising.
When I think of what George Kunkel went through during the last years of his life, I feel quite sad. It would have been quite impossible for him to imagine today’s Australia where foreign-born residents and their families continue to play such a huge part in the life and development of the country. Perhaps he would feel proud of his early contribution to the emergence of a unique nation whose people have come here from so many countries. Sadly, it may be because he died during war time that we have no obituary for him.
George and his wife Mary have given Australia many descendants to contribute to the country’s well-being. I am certainly very grateful to them.
If you would like to read a little about the Anzac enlistments among the descendants of the immigrants from Dorfprozelten, Bavaria to Australiayou can read it here.
 Queensland State Archives: PRV8687- 1- 1. COL/155: 28/10/1914
 WR Johnston, The Long Blue Line, Boolarong Publications Brisbane 1992, pp. 193-194
 G Fischer, The Darkest Chapter: Internment and Deportation of Enemy Aliens in Queensland, 1914-1920 in The German Presence in Queensland,. M Jurgensen & A Corkhill (eds). The University of Queensland, Department of German, 1988, p. 24.
The Toowoomba Chronicle, 23 September 1915, p. 2 c. 4.
 The Brisbane Courier, 10 September 1915, p. 9.
Today is Anzac Day Down Under and many genealogy bloggers from Australia and New Zealand will be writing about their families’ military history. This year I was inspired to write about my mother’s (Joan McSherry) civilian service during the war, after listening to an excellent talk from Caloundra Family History member, Ian Edwardson via Zoom. Sometimes we focus so much on members of the military forces that we forget that civilian life continued on the home front and many people contributed to support the military in some way. As my direct line family members were railway workers, they were regarded as essential services and so did not join the forces. It makes me feel like a bit of a fraud when it comes to Anzac Day services. When they called for experienced railway workers to service the trainlines at the Western Front in World War I, my paternal grandfather, Denis Kunkel, enlisted in late 1917. You can read his story here.
My mother’s service was civilian but with military overtones. She joined the Volunteer Air Observer Corps (VAOC) when she was about 16, or close to 17. She served with them for two years until the end of the war. I’ve read that there were interviews and tests before people were admitted but Mum doesn’t recall this and says she joined after seeing an advertisement – perhaps the one included here? The purpose of the VAOC was to monitor the skies for enemy aircraft and alert the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) if they were seen. Recruitment for the VAOC was undertaken through the Women’s Air Training Corps (WATC) and it was through this organisation that observers were trained to identify different types of Japanese aircraft based on profile, engines etc. The training was done at Archerfield aerodrome in Brisbane’s south-west. The WATC was also regarded as a training ground for women who later might wish to join the WAAAF, the Women’s Auxiliary Australian Airforce. Goodness, all these acronyms – it might even be the military!
Perhaps unsurprisingly (because it’s about the women after all and they were civilians), it’s hard to find detailed information. There is a book about the VAOC that looks pertinent but it’s in the Queensland State Library, and so currently in lockdown. So, turning to Trove (again) is the solution. In addition to which I’ve tried to pick Mum’s memory and that of a friend who was also in the VAOC.
These are Mum’s words which she’d written down a while ago:
Volunteer Air Observers had to have a thorough knowledge of all types of Japanese planes. You went to a beautiful old home on the hill in the Clayfield (a suburb of Brisbane), overlooking Eagle Farm Aerodrome, then the only one in Brisbane. Archerfield was the Air Force base. This beautiful home had a particular area, separate to the house, which was laid out with required facilities for observing. This included a pair of binoculars to watch the airport and a telephone. If a Japanese plane landed at the airport (or presumably was sighted), you immediately notified Head Quarters via the phone set up in the room.
In conversation Joan told me that she’d catch the tram from Buranda to Clayfield every Sunday after Mass, then walk up the hill to the house, and would be on duty for two hours. It must have been tiring peering out through binoculars or looking at the sky consistently for two hours. Fortunately, they were spared the anxiety of an enemy aircraft, though as the North was bombed in 1942, it must have seemed entirely possible. Mum would be dressed in civvies when “spotting”, not her uniform, which would only be worn for meetings or special events. When she was promoted to sergeant, she was required to wear her khaki uniform for these events.
The WATC held a stall on Saturday morning selling a variety of things including small hand-made toys. This raised money for the free lunches they served to the WAAAFs at a canteen at Old Courier House (corner of Queen and Edward, which is now a bank, I think). A special relaxation area had been fitted out and made available for the WAAAF women when off duty – a place to just relax. Mum’s friend, Donna, who was a bit younger and hadn’t been trained to do the plane spotting was very involved in this side of the activities of the WATC.
Apart from learning about identifying planes, mum also went out to Archerfield to see some of the WATC work there and learn a little about motor car engines. We didn’t own a car until the late 1960s so it’s a shame she never got to put that to use.
It wasn’t all work and no play. Occasionally the WATC and VAOC would have balls or dances to raise funds. They also had some picnics and we’re lucky enough to have a couple of photos taken at one of these. The WATC celebrated their 5th Birthday week from 9th-15th July 1944 and Mum has a souvenir booklet from the day on which there are many signatures including that of the Queensland Commandant, Yvonne Jones, and Australian flying ace, Nancy Bird Walton, who was the Australian Commandant . I wonder if any of my readers will recognise the names of any of the women who also signed. Two of mum’s long term friends are included in the list, Joyce and Donna.
On 15 August 1945, Victory in the Pacific Day, when the war ended for Australia, there was great excitement in Brisbane and mum and her friend were allowed to leave work to go and celebrate. Dad was less fortunate, as the shift workers were required on duty and missed out on the day’s exuberance.
After the war finished, life returned to normal, but Mum missed the verve of those years. They were given a celebration at Victoria Barracks after the war, but apparently it wasn’t written up in the paper. How rarely does Trove let me down?
In December 1995, surviving members of the WATC were invited to a morning tea at the United Services Club in Brisbane to receive an “Australia Remembers” commemorative certificate for serving with the WATC during the war years. The event was hosted by Senator Warwick Parer[i], Mrs Yvonne McComb King (formerly Jones) and Mrs Nancy Bird Walton were honoured guests and co-hosts. Both Mum and her friend Donna were able to attend, and I was surprised to discover when reading the advertisement for the event, that mum had been a sergeant, which she had never mentioned previously.
You can click on any of the images to make them large enough to read.
An example of the VAOC from the Australian War Memorial.
[i] Liberal Senator for Queensland and Shadow Minister for Tourism, Aviation and Customs.
It may be that, on a daily basis, I take our country’s peace for granted rather than give thanks for it. Yes, it has things that could be done better or differently, but overall we are indeed the Lucky Country when it comes to peace. Yes, I am aware that our Indigenous Australians paid a high price when the country was settled and since. However, many people have come to our shores to find peace and safety, escaping persecution or wars. I certainly don’t subscribe to the “if you don’t love it, leave” philosophy. I often wonder whether people with those bumper stickers would immediately leave their spouses/partners the minute they had a disagreement. So, yes, I give thanks that we live on an island continent far from many of the world’s trouble spots.
Since we became a nation in 1901, and even before, our people have been involved in wars, largely to support the Empire of which we were a part. Many of our people paid a high price: loss of life, incapacity and physical handicaps, loss of family members, post-traumatic stress, domestic violence, loss of human potential. As so many were lost on foreign battlefields with little chance that family members would ever be able to visit their graves (where they even exist), the role of war memorials has played a huge role as a locus of bereavement and recognition of service. Is there a town in the country where one can’t be found? I suspect not.
Maintaining peace can be as strenuous as winning a war. Margaret MacMillan, Canadian Historian.
Ancestors and the Price of Peace
It seems likely that most Australian families have members who volunteered to serve or were enlisted. Perhaps mine is somewhat unusual because with so many railwaymen in protected or essential service, branches of the family tree had little or no representation. It’s for this reason that I’ve been less inclined to engage with Anzac Day ceremonies because I feel like a fraud.
It wasn’t until I lived in Milne Bay in the early 1970s that the full sense of the war in Papua New Guinea became clearer to me despite previously reading books and poetry about it. I wrote about that here. Similarly touring the Western Front in Europe brought the loss to humanity overwhelmingly evident.
Each year the Australian and New Zealand genealogy bloggers typically post a story about ANZAC Day and Remembrance Day. You can see some of mine by searching in the box in the top right.
The price of peace paid by my families include the deaths of James Paterson[i] (grandson of George and Mary Kunkel) and James Gavin[ii] (grandson of Denis and Ellen Gavin) during World War I. Hugh Moran[iii] was taken Prisoner of War in Italy and Germany during World War II for several years. William Rudolph (Robert) Kunkel was Missing in Action in the Korean War and his family never knew what happened beyond the firefight when he was captured.
It’s hard to imagine what their families went through both during the war and afterwards. Letters found in the service records can be heartbreaking.
My paternal grandfather served in World War I, however I have no memory of him ever attending an Anzac Day service, although he was a member of the Returned Servicemen’s League/
As a child, I remember seeing men with war injuries (missing arms or legs), selling newspapers on the street corner. Or men hitting the bottle or drunk – drowning their memories no doubt. We came to a better understanding of the Bombing of Darwin once we moved to the Northern Territory to live. Or realising that my husband would have “won” the national service lottery for Vietnam if his official place of abode during university hadn’t been Papua New Guinea.
I remember Dad telling me that he couldn’t attend the Victory in the Pacific celebrations in Brisbane because he was on shift with the railways at the time. Or hearing a (very) little about his knowledge of the Battle of Brisbane.. the conflict between Australian servicemen and the Americans who were based here and thought to be “overpaid, oversexed and over here”. I’ve also realised I need to ask mum what she did on VP day.
It’s also interesting to observe that the practice of having cadet corps in high schools seems to have largely disappeared over the decades. When I was at high school many schools, and I’d suggest all private schools, had their own army or air force cadets.
Those families with serving men and women across the decades will have quite a different experience from mine. It doesn’t change that I am very grateful indeed to live in a peaceful country, thanks in part to the high price that has been paid.
You can read some of my past posts for Anzac Day or Remembrance Day by using the search bar on the top right of this blog, or the drop down categories box– something else to do in our covid-isolation?
What is your families’ tradition of military service and what price was paid to gain peace?
For some sources to use when searching for Australian Military History and service.
In exciting news received via Facebook genimates, I learned yesterday that the University of Melbourne holds the Australian Red Cross cards for World War II until 1973. They’ve now been digitised and indexed and can be seen on the University of Melbourne’s Archives site. They also maintain a blog which has two posts about these records here and here (it’s a blog worth following).
“In 2016 Red Cross Australia donated its historical collection to the University of Melbourne Archives (UMA) as a ‘Gift to the Nation’. Part of this collection included the Missing, Wounded and Prisoner of War Enquiry Cards dating from World War Two to 1973. Since the transfer, UMA has been working to make all of the cards relating to World War Two available online. There are now over 58,000 cards available through UMA’s online catalogue. To find a card, just type the surname into the search box”[i]
You can search by (surname) only, (surname, initials) or (service number). All of these options have worked for me.
When the list (or single item) comes up, just click on the name (underlined) and it will give you another image, with an Acrobat icon on the left. Click on that to see the digitised card(s). I’ve found cards for Hugh Moran, about whom I’ve been writing recently as well as my dad’s cousin, Robert Kunkel, who was MIA in Korea, later presumed dead.
The file on Hugh Moran[ii] gave me additional information to what I had already found so that was useful. For example, it confirmed that he was at Campo Isarco at Capua[iii] prior to Campo 57 at Grupignano. It also confirms that Hugh did not receive parcels sent to him – possibly because he wasn’t actually in Stalag VIIIB most of the time, but far away in the work camps (Arbeitskommando).
NOTE: You need to be aware that the copyright to the Red Cross documents is owned by the University of Melbourne and can only be published with permission.
Another discovery I’ve made is that the Vatican Secret Archives has indeed maintained records for its interactions with World War II Prisoners of War, their families, and the camps. They hold an astonishing 3 million cards in 2500 archive boxes[iv]. Sadly, and frustratingly, they are only accessible to postgraduate students or academics with a referring letter from their university[v]. Just imagine the wealth of data in there, the tragedies, the heartache and the joys.
We rarely have the opportunity to hear about the wartime experiences of a family member in their own words. You can imagine my surprise, and pleasure, to discover that Trove’s digitised newspapers included interviews with Pte Hugh Moran (my mother’s cousin), about whom I wrote on Anzac Day this year.
Settle in, grab the drink of your choice, and follow his story.
What worked in my favour was the fact that (1) Hugh had been a Prisoner of War (POW) and (2) had been among the early troops repatriated to Australia. He was obviously not bashful about being interviewed and provides quite a lot of detail on his POW experiences. This story is from Brisbane’s Courier Mail newspaper (26 July 1945, page 3):
ITALIANS USED P.O.W’s TO BOLSTER MORALE
THREE hundred Australians, the first captured by the Italians at Derna, in 1941, were used as ‘propaganda prisoners’ ‘ and marched through every large town in Italy. Their photographs were taken thousands of times, superimposed on top of each other, to make their numbers appear the strength of several divisions.
Pte. H. A. Moran, of Charters Towers, one of the 16 repatriated prisoners of war, who returned to Brisbane yesterday, told of his experiences as a propaganda prisoner with the first captured Australians. ‘When our group arrived in Italy we became a great novelty. We were photographed incessantly the day we landed, and issued with brand new Italian P.O.W. uniforms,’ said Pte. Moran. ‘For propaganda reasons, the Italians treated us very well in the first six months. ‘We were fed well, kept tidy and healthy, because the tougher and fitter we seemed the harder it made the task of capturing us. The Italians moved us from one camp to another, and marched us through all the large towns. These marches were always accompanied by a blare of publicity, in which the Italians announced that they had captured thousands of Australians and would march a section of them through the town’.
‘Later we saw the photographs in the papers, and realised they had superimposed group snaps of us in all different positions so that our numbers appeared multiplied many hundred times. After six months of this roadshow life our publicity value began to wear off. We were herded into a camp at Bolzana (sic) [Bolzano], near the Brenner Pass, and treated like ordinary prisoners. This was a concentration camp guarded by the Carabinieres [Carabinieri] — the Italian equivalent of the German Gestapo. The guards were frightened of Australians, and punished them severely for petty offences.’ Pte. Moran was taken to Germany on Italy’s capitulation and liberated by the Americans early this year [my emphasis]. With 1000 Dominion ex-prisoners of war he was entertained by the Royal family at an afternoon party at Buckingham Palace during his recuperation in England.
That last little snippet was a “Wow!” moment but I notice that there was no mention of the Death March/Long March west from Stalag VIIIB.
However, let’s press the pause button on that for a while. Knowing that men were often feted in their home communities when they enlisted I went looking for any such news. The Townsville Daily Bulletin of 12 June 1940 revealed that:
A meeting was convened last Thursday for the purpose of forming a committee to farewell the men resident in this district who had enlisted. Owing to lack of time it was found necessary to hold the send -off on Sunday night as volunteers were leaving on Monday. During the evening eulogistic speeches were made by Messrs. K. Hort, W. Watkins. T. Jamieson, K. Johnstone and M. Graham, and the volunteers: Messrs. J. Doyle, H. Moran, D. Turpin and H. Axelsen jnr., were each presented with a fountain pen as a small token of esteem.
I wonder if Hugh found that pen to be handy over the coming years? Perhaps not, as ink would have been hard to come by. Did it too survive the war?
Sydney Morning Herald, 28 July 1941, p728 July 1941, p7
Twelve months after this eulogistic evening, the papers were displaying long lists of POWs including the name of Pte HA Moran from Cardwell. In my research I learned the significant role played by the Vatican in coordinating this news and in assisting men, and their families, to communicate with each other. Vatican representatives visited the camps and documented the men’s names which were then broadcast. Ironically the news could be received more promptly this way than through official channels.
A lengthy Christmas radio broadcast from the Vatican reveals the Pope’s care and concern for the POWs, which is endorsed in reports from prisoners, many of whom were not Catholics. We can only imagine these words would have provided consolation to Catholic families in Australia, like that of Bridget Moran nee McSherry whose son had been taken prisoner only a month after her husband’s death that same year. I’ve included much of the report as it reveals a variety of things about the prisoners and the Pope’s concern for them.
Christmas Message Concerning Australasian Prisoners of War in Italy Broadcast by the Vatican Radio Station[i].
In the name of the Holy Father Pope Pius XII. the Papal Nuncio to Italy has once more visited the Prisoner of War Camps, visiting thus those who are near arid dear to you. His commission is the outcome of the Holy Father s paternal Interest in the prisoners and of his unceasing solicitude for their welfare. It is his task to bring the men the Holy Father’s greetings and as his representative to help alleviate in every way possible their necessarily irksome lot. In the past fortnight he has seen your dear ones, commissioned this time in particular to convey to them the Holy Father’s Christmas Greetings and to present them with Christmas cards and gifts from him. To every prisoner he has brought a card on which is a reproduction of Raphael’s Adoration of the Magi, and this greeting in English— a greeting sprung indeed from the heart, of the common Father: ‘Christmas, 1941’.[ii] With ever greater paternal solicitude we turn our thoughts to each one of you who in your separation from distant. homes at this Christmas Season feel very keenly the absence of your loved ones. They are prayerful and affectionate good wishes. May they sweeten the bitterness of that separation and be to you all a source of Divine comfort and Christian hope. Pope Plus XII.’
With the paternal wishes go the presents which the Holy Father’s generosity has provided — cigarettes, books, games of all sorts, and as prizes for Christmas raffles, handsome leather bound clocks (sic) [query books?]. This have (sic) the Holy Father’s representative and those who accompany him to tell of the men and their conditions. Your dear ones cannot but feel the dreariness that go with their lot as prisoners of war, but they are not unhappy and they are keeping their spirits high.
It continues with the following description of life in an Italian POW camp, which doesn’t quite coincide with Hugh’s recollections, but then in December 1941 perhaps things had not yet deteriorated. (see below for more details)[iii]
See, now, the picture of what is actually happening. In the person of his representative the Holy Father is among your dear ones, to wish them a Happy Christmas and brighten the celebration for them as far as ever he may. Their thoughts are directed to other Christmases celebrated in the intimacy of their homes. They think of you and so seize on the chance of the Nuncio’s visit to beg him to send you a Christmas message, and that message, still warm from their hearts, this marvellous gift, of God — the radio — enables us to give you now before it has time to cool.
They greet you all — parents, wives, children, relatives and friends, assuring you of their thought for you and for you they pray, through the Saviour’s coming, every blessing, spiritual and temporal, in the New Year. And may we join our wish to theirs, praying that the Prince of Peace may shorten the scourge of war, hasten the coming of a just and universal peace, and reunite you and your dear ones.
After Hugh’s transfer to Germany in 1943, he was shuttled through Stalag VIIIA near Gorlitz (now Zgorzelec, Poland) before being sent on to Stalag VIIIB.
Since my last post I’ve done further reading and found out a little more about his conditions and where he worked as an Arbeits Kommando. He was allocated initially to Paris Grube, at Sosnowitz (now Sosnowiec) near Dombrowa (Dabrowa) with Kommando group E543 of which nothing seems to be known. The fact that it was called Paris Grube suggests to me it was a mine called, ironically, Paris. Hugh was there for seven months from 2 November 1943 until 5 June 1944.
It is sickening to realise that Hugh was essentially slave labour at Sosnowitz soon after the massed deportation of its Jewish community to Auchwitz (Oswiecim). Had he been transported from Łambinowice to Sosnowitz on these same trains which would have carried the despair like a miasma. It’s highly likely he was unfortunate enough to witness at least some of these horrifying trains en route to concentration camps from which few would return.
There had been considerable underground activity among the Jews in Sosnowiec. The uprising, which began on 3 August 1943…The last Holocaust transport to Auschwitz-Birkenau with Jews forced to bury the dead, left Sosnowiec on 15 January 1944.[iv]
Hugh was apparently kept at Stalag VIIIB for five months until 7 November 1944 (perhaps this is when he was sick?). This time he was with Arbeits Kommando E42, working at a paper mill at Rothsfest (Rudawa). Hugh’s isolation in the work camps may explain why he did not receive either personal mail or Red Cross parcels.
There is no indication of when Hugh returned to Lamsdorf but it seems likely that it predated the evacuation of the prisoners from VIIIB with the oncoming march of the Russian army. It is at this point that Hugh Moran and his fellow prisoners commenced the Death March that would take the lives of so many. It’s pertinent to notice that at no point does he make mention of it in his interviews – a typical soldier’s response to largely play down the true horrors of war.
Just imagine the excitement among his family when the news came through that he had been repatriated and was safe!
Pte Hugh Moran (Charters Towers): English politicians have been battling against fraternisation, but they have reckoned without the human element. You can’t stop it. A soldier is a soldier no matter where he is. When I left England letters from English soldiers in Germany were appearing, in the Press urging relaxations. The Nazis had severe punishments for any German civilians who fraternised with us but some still talked to us. The older Germans have had their lesson, but we still have to watch the young Hitlerites.[v]…… Pte Moran was among 1,000 Empire troops who were invited to Buckingham Palace to an afternoon party. The King and Queen [and the Princess Elizabeth and Margaret] moved among them in the palace grounds. “I was very impressed by the informal way that our Royal hosts greeted us and spent so much lime talking to the men” he said.
His family, and Hugh himself, would have been buzzing with excitement at a garden party at Buckingham Palace.
There must surely have been times when he was overwhelmed by the change from being a POW, German slave labour and the long Death March. Perhaps the men were grateful for the sea voyage home, giving them a buffer between these extreme experiences and before meeting up with family. The excitement continued with Hugh’s repatriation to Australia when the car he was travelling in was mobbed by enthusiastic friends and perhaps relatives.
So far, little is known of what happened to Hugh on his return to Australia, other than that he visited family in Charters Towers and Bundaberg on demobilisation. Further research is needed, and no doubt we’ll never know what his true thoughts were about his experiences as a POW.
We are very fortunate that Australian service records include both the German POW records and the soldier’s repatriation statements. The British (UK) service records have to be applied for under Freedom of Information (FOI) conditions.
For further reference you may be interested in reading some or all of the following: Hitler’s British Slaves by Sean Longden (available as an e-book), is excellent in revealing the horrors and degradation the men faced.
[iii] Continued: The food supplied them is good and sufficient, corresponding to what is given to the same rank in the Italian Army, and since the men run their own canteens and do their own cooking they can add to it something of the relish that comes from this serving in the ways they have known at home. They are well clothed and recently received an adequate supply of winter clothing. They are in fine health, and the visits have shown little or no sickness in the camps. For their recreation they have theatres where they stage concerts practically every week. For the past, month preparations for Christmas shows have been under way. Small libraries are gradually being built up in each camp. There are language classes for those who wish them and many have become proficient in Italian already [perhaps helped by the fact that Mass was said in Latin at the time]. Every facility is given for religious services for the men, and an Australian Anglican Minister, a prisoner, is allowed entire freedom in providing religious assistance for the men of his camp. Catholics, if they have not Sunday Mass, in the Camp itself, are given the opportunity of hearing Mass outside.
After Pte Hugh Moran enlisted in 1940 he was sent first to Darwin then north Africa where he was captured and taken as a Prisoner of War to Italy from 1941 to 1943. You can read about his experience in Part I.
As the Italians signed the Armistice of Cassibile in September 1943, the Germans took over the prisoners of war and promptly relocated them north. There is a website, drawn on the NZ Official History of WWII, which reveals the reality of this transfer and what it means to POWs like Hugh[i]:
From those camps that were taken over by German troops in September 1943, all except the few who succeeded in hiding were marched to the nearest railway station. The Germans took what precautions they could to prevent escapes-a strong guard along the route, threats before setting out of the dire consequences that would follow any attempted breaks, even a demonstration with a flame-thrower at Campo PG 57.
Most of the trains went north via Verona, through the Brenner Pass to Innsbruck, though a few took the more easterly Tarvisio Pass to Villach…They were almost entirely made up of cattle-trucks and closed goods-wagons with a very few third-class carriages… Into these trucks the prisoners were packed, as many as fifty in each…The sliding doors were closed and bolted, and prisoners were left for the journey with at most two small openings in the sides of the truck for air and light, no provision for latrines, and only such food and water as they had been able to carry with them….There were occasional halts on the journey north, often not long enough for every truckload to be allowed out. On the longer journeys there were considerable halts at stations and sometimes meals from the German Red Cross.[ii]
Those from Campo 57 were the first large party from Italy to reach Stalag XVIIIC at Markt Pongau in Austria, a transit camp …roughly 25 miles south of Salzburg, the camp was very dirty and the barracks infested with vermin… For the first time they tasted the typical German stalag fare – vegetable soup and ‘black’ bread, boiled potatoes and mint tea. After a fortnight or so most went north to Stalag VIIIA at Görlitz in Saxony.
Hugh was among those transferred to Stalag VIIIA on 24 September 1943 thence to Stalag VIIIB on 2 November 1943 and in June 1944 to Stalag 344 (my understanding is the latter two were essentially the same). These prisons were in Lamsdorf in then-Upper Silesia, and now called Łambinowice in Poland.[iii]
This huge camp (VIIIB/Lamsdorf) which had started to show improvement since the appointment of a new German commandant, now became still larger through the sudden influx from Italy and numbered well over 30,000, 10,000 of them in the stalag itself … Those who had come from Italy, more especially those from Campo PG 57, wondered at the comparative lack of discipline in this camp and at the activities that could go on inside it unknown to the enemy… Sooner or later the newcomers, who had all been graded byGerman doctors according to the type of labour they were medically fit for left for coal mines or other places of work in Silesia.
It is Hugh’s German Prisoner of War record, included with his AIF personnel file, that reveals more details about his experience. He has plainly completed the basic details, as the rest is written in German. The photograph included shows the impact of the preceding years as he is plainly gaunt and has acquired the typical McSherry baldness (inherited through his mother). It also tells us he blond (really?) and 177cms tall (70 inches), approximately the same height as me – which makes him short for a male with McSherry genes.
However, in his debriefing on return to the United Kingdom in 1944, Hugh describes the Stalag/prison rations, accommodation, bathing and hygiene as “bad” and the recreational facilities as “poor”. While he had not been required to work while in Italy at Campo 57, Hugh states that in Germany he did hard manual labour, pick and shovel work, for 12-14 hours a day. All of which no doubt contributed to his gaunt frame in the photograph taken in Germany, or exacerbated it.
His troubles were far from over, however. As the war ground towards its conclusion, and the arrival of Russian troops became imminent, the German forces made the decision to move their prisoners west. And so started what was to become known as the Long March[iv], The Black March, The Bread March or the Lamsdorf Death March but most survivors just called it “The March”. In the depths of winter under freezing conditions, with minimal food, the men walked hundreds of kilometres, between January and March 1945[v] with the Lamsdorf men heading north via Dresden. (You can see a map here of POW movements). It was an exhausting, hazardous and debilitating experience for the men, drawing on reserves of strength both physical and mental.
With the surrender of Germany, on 4 May 1945 RAF Bomber Command implemented Operation Exodus, and the first prisoners of war were repatriated by air in aircraft. Bomber Command flew 2,900 sorties over the next 23 days, carrying 72,500 prisoners of war.[vi]
Private Hugh Augustine Moran was one of the prisoners recovered by Bomber Command, and for me it’s interesting to ponder whether a friend of ours, Don Curnow, was part of this relief effort. Hugh’s personnel file records that on 19 May 1945, he was deplaned UK as recovered PW (Prisoner of War) M/I and taken on holding strength at 1AIF Transit Camp. This is presumably where his debriefing took place. In this statement, he records that he had been captured on 7 April 1941, with a portion of HQ and including Lt Col Marlan and Major Barton as well as Private L Milne (2/15Bn).
After capture, Hugh had been held at Campo 57 from 15 May 1941 to 15 September 1943 then Stalag VIIIA from September to November 1943 before transfer to Stalag VIIIB/344 from May to November 1944. There are a number of photos of the camp on the Imperial War Museum site, but many are copyrighted. While in Germany he was given “reasonable” treatment for stomach pains and bronchitis. He states he had not received Red Cross parcels or mail during his time there. Had his parcels or mail been blocked or did his family not know where he was?
On 7 June 1945, Hugh once again had a stint AWOL…for a whole three hours. Who could blame him after being confined for four years? Apparently the Army didn’t feel the same as he was docked a total of 12 days pay…I suppose they didn’t want these men to get delusions of independence, or insubordination. It’s ironic that he told the Germans his former occupation was “timekeeper” which is pretty odd for someone who seemed to miss returning to barracks by mere hours on most occasions.
On 19 June Hugh was repatriated to Australia on the ship “J12” and on 24 August, he was taken on strength in Queensland. Apparently while in Sydney he was taken to the Camp Hospital with scabies. I imagine it was quite some time before his health returned to normal, if ever. He was discharged from the Army on 13 September 1945, leaving him to continue life as a civilian. I can’t help wondering if he wished he’d joined the railway, a reserved occupation, and one held by most of the McSherry men over some generations.
Hugh died on 8 February 1995, when he was 88 years old, which is amazing considering what he’d gone through. He is buried in the Martyn St Cemetery in Cairns.
It was a revelation to me to unearth this story of my first cousin once removed, Hugh Augustine McSherry[vii]. I hope this post serves as a memorial to his contribution to Australia’s military history.
You can read other posts about Pte Hugh Moran here and here.
LEST WE FORGET
Thanks to my cousin Bev for sending this photo of Hughie in later life at his cousin’s birthday. Isn’t it lovely to see him looking happy and healthy? If I’m not mistaken, he’s wearing his RSL pin. Thanks Bev.
It has become a tradition among Australian and New Zealand genealogy bloggers to remember our ANZAC family members and others on Anzac Day each year. This is my contribution for 2017 – a man I knew nothing about until this week.
Hugh Augustine Moran was my mother’s first cousin, born in Ingham, Queensland on 6 April 1906[i] to James Hugh Moran and Bridget McSherry.
On 11 June 1940, Hugh enlisted to join the Australian Imperial Forces (AIF) in Cairns, Far North Queensland. His age is given on enlistment as 33 years 11 months, though he had only recently celebrated his 34th birthday[ii], had brown hair, blue eyes and a scar on his forehead. Hugh had been working as a labourer in Kirrima, Cardwell and had served 7 years with the citizen military forces (CMF). He was taken on strength with 2/15th Battalion.
The importance of reading the war diaries becomes apparent when we find that the 15th served garrison duty in Darwin for three months which is not noted on his file…you need to look at the big picture of the unit to discover the overall action plan.
Hugh’s file notes that he was marched out to East Command in December 1940, embarking for overseas on Boxing Day 1940. Meanwhile Hugh had treated himself to a pre-Christmas excursion without leave from Redbank on 22nd-23rd December for 28 hrs. He was duly fined, which probably didn’t bother him much if he had someone he wanted to see, or even if he wanted to have a drink or two, or more, to calm his jitters before heading overseas to battle.
The Australian War Memorial’s (AWM) brief history of the 2/15th tells us they sailed “aboard the Queen Mary with the 20th Brigade to Palestine via India, transhipping to the Rohna at Bombay. (OIC of the 15th, Lt Col R F Marlan was Officer Commanding Troops on the voyage).
The 20th Brigade transferred from the 7th to the 9th Division en route to the Middle East. It arrived at El Kantara in Egypt at the start of February 1941 and moved to Kilo 89 in Palestine for desert training.”[iii]
In March 1941 Hugh was attached briefly to the 2/23rd Battalion, 9th Division, for a month between 2 and 29 March when he returned to the 2/15th.
The 2/15th moved to Gabel El Gira on 27 March and then Barce. German forces had landed at Tripoli and were advancing east. It was involved in the withdrawal of British forces to Tobruk, referred to as the “Benghazi handicap”. The withdrawal cost the battalion heavily: the commanding officer (Lt Col Marlan), second in command (Major Barton), and 154 men were captured at El Gazala.
It was during this dash to take and hold Tobruk that Hugh was taken prisoner of war, between Derna and Barce in the Cyrenaica region of Libya. He was one of the 154 mentioned above. They had been caught in the aggressive attack by the great German soldier, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel aka the Desert Rat.
Rommel launched his assault on March 24, 1941, sending three mechanized columns rumbling northward and eastward. The fast-moving Germans chased the retreating British along the coast road, rolled into Benghazi, and swept on to Barce and Derna. One panzer column captured inland fuel dumps and burst out onto the coastal plain at Gazala. Another column executed a wide flanking movement to try to capture British units evacuating from Cyrenaica. The Allies were in full retreat, and it seemed as if nothing could halt Rommel’s advance[iv]. However Rommel was to later get his come-uppance at El Alamein at the hands of the British forces.
Hugh was reported Missing in Action, presumed Prisoner of War, effective 7 April 1941, and this was confirmed on 30 June 1941. Unfortunately, the WWII personnel files don’t include notifications to next of kin, and in fact we’re fortunate that this document had already been digitised.
It’s initially unclear whether Hugh was held as POW locally or taken directly to Italy. Once again he was unfortunate, because the camp to which he was sent, Campo 57 Gruppignano near Udine in north-east Italy, was under the command of former Italian Carabinieri officer,[v] Colonel Vittorio Calcaterra. He had been described by one prisoner as “a sadist and a beast and an accessory to murder”(no reference provided).
Thanks to Calcaterra, conditions in Campo 57 were extremely harsh. Food was poor, and housing was crowded and insanitary. The prisoners had to improvise their own medical treatment, coping with the “57 twins”, pneumonia and kidney disease…The number saved by Red Cross aid, he wrote, “is beyond computation”. Calcaterra died before he could be tried as a war criminal.
There is a wonderful sketch in this story, The Stolen Years, which graphically portrays the life of POWs at Campo 57. This article argues that soldiers may have been (somewhat) resigned to death or injury, but rarely thought about what they’d do if taken Prisoner of War and the psychological impact of that[vi]. It quotes one soldier’s experience but we have no idea whether this tallied with that of Hugh Moran:
When he finally reached his permanent camp of detention at PG 57 Gruppignano, where nearly all Australian and New Zealand other ranks had been concentrated, Ted Faulkes too, had to make a monumental change of attitude to different standards of hygiene, diet, discipline and organisation. But at least he was among his peers, and within the camp, responsive to the discipline of his own Australian NCOs as he basically he had been in battle. To some extent his individual temperament and personality had already been moulded by the structure and esprit de corps of his AIF unit – the 2/32nd Infantry Battalion.
The initial transport of POW from the battlefield is by military truck from a holding pen to a rear transit camp, where officers are separated from other ranks[vii]….They were moved either by boat or train (or presumably both in the case of those captured in North Africa).
We have no direct evidence of Hugh’s life in Campo 57 but the above stories and images reveal some of the experience.
Read Part II to learn more about phase 2 of Hugh’s war service and what happened to him after Italy.
And to learn about Hugh’s war in his own words, readhere.
[i] Military file on naa.gov.au and Queensland Birth registration C1750.
[ii] His medical inspection was on 1 June so perhaps that explains it.