A prison without prisoners

Camp 9

All that remains of Camp 9 today is this sign.

When war came to Australia.

This series of posts introduces my work in progress, a research-based historical novel due out later this year.

Camp 9, the oldest compound in the Loveday Internment Camp complex, was constructed nearly a year before the first Italian-Australian enemy aliens were captured and sent to South Australia. When Mussolini made an alliance with Hitler which sent Italy to war in June 1940, the Army was instructed to prepare secure accommodation ready for an influx of internees.

The site at Loveday in South Australia was compulsorily acquired through a five-year lease arrangement, with options to extend. It was chosen because of its location far away from the major cities, yet close to a railway line and the River Murray. Moreover the land had already been cleared and irrigation pipes had been laid.

Originally Loveday was to house 6000 internees from British Palestine and 400 so-called dangerous German-Aliens deported from the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). But this never eventuated. Instead, those prisoners were taken to other internment facilities such as Hay in New South Wales.

Camp 9 was diamond-shaped, twelve chains (240 metres) in diameter from north to south, with a double row of six-foot high (1.8 metre) barbed-wire fences around the perimeter. Four twenty-foot (6 metre) guard towers were strategically placed at each corner of the diamond. At night the perimeter wire was illuminated by floodlights, while the sentry boxes where armed guards monitored activities in the compound were kept in darkness. The total area of the compound was around 10.5 acres (42,000 sq m), the size of six rugby fields.

The buildings were set out symmetrically. There were 32 sleeping huts (each for 30 men), four mess halls, two kitchens, a canteen, a hospital, an office for the camp leader (an inmate elected to represent the internees), a hobbies workshop, ablutions and laundry blocks, and latrines. By December 1940 construction of a camp for 1000 prisoners was completed, but it lay empty until that first trainload of Italians from Far North Queensland arrived in June 1941.

Imagine how the men must have felt as they marched in from that lonely siding near Barmera. It was cold and wet, the start of winter. For days they’d travelled, cooped up in railway carriages. The motley mob of 500 – of all ages and all levels of fitness and health – had yet to walk four miles (6.5 km) through flat scrublands before they reached warmth and shelter.

Then, rising like pillars from the plain, were the guard towers. Army personnel would have opened the gates, allowing them into no-man’s land, the dangerous space between two rows of barbed wire fencing. Then a second gate would have opened into the compound itself. In one of the mess halls they would have assembled. Rolls would have been called, paperwork completed, sleeping huts allocated.

How long would they be held there? No-one knew. Their fate would be determined by what happened half-way across the world. Until then, they had a roof over their heads and food on their plates. They could choose to rebel or make the best of it.

I wish to acknowledge the following source: Loveday Internment Camp Archaeological Report (1992), by Austral Archaeology Adelaide for the State Heritage Branch, Department of Environment and Planning, S.A.

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About Debbie Terranova

Debbie Terranova is an Australian author of contemporary and historical fiction. 'The Scarlet Key' published in 2016 is the second Seth VerBeek mystery. The crime-busting reporter is back with a new cast of unforgettable characters and a new puzzle to solve. It's about live, love, death, and tattoos, with a touch of the mystical. 'Baby Farm', her debut novel, is a cozy crime mystery about forced adoptions of the 1970s, and a surrogacy and baby trafficking racket. It is the first of the Seth VerBeek series. Debbie Terranova is a prizewinning author of short stories: 'Mowbray Brothers' about growing up in East Brisbane in the 1920s; and 'Mischief' about reinventing yourself and in the process falling in love ... with an adorable but mischievous cat.
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