Using real events as the backdrop for stories can take writers on an amazing journey into the past. This certainly was the case for me when I wrote Enemies within these Shores, which is set in wartime Australia.
Aside from anecdotes told by my parents about their antics during that era – and which may (or may not) have been true – I knew little about what life on the home front was actually like. For example, I had heard about the so-called Battle of Brisbane but the details were scant.
To be clear, the Battle of Brisbane was not a field battle between enemies, but a bloody brawl between American and Australian servicemen that continued, on and off, for two nights in November 1942.
For the novel, my research into this snippet of WW2-related history consisted of reading newspaper reports of the day. Of course, the battle was largely hushed up to prevent further animosities between military allies, so the reporting of it was somewhat bland and abbreviated. Suffice to say that I gleaned enough information to paint a sketchy backdrop to one scene in a 250-page novel.
To mark the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Brisbane, the John Oxley Library (SLQ) published a blog post, written by Dr Judith Powell which sets out the chain of events that lead to the conflict. In her references is a link to a 168-page report by the American Military Intelligence of the day (part of the CIA) which was declassified and released in 2013.
Pages 6 to 9 of the CIA report set out a ‘general discussion’ with J. Edward Angly, an American war correspondent who was on assignment in Australia between February and December 1942. Mr Angly comments on mounting resentment felt by Australians toward the Americans and resulting friction. In his opinion, contributing factors were the Americans’ higher wages, their sex appeal, that American servicemen could buy cigarettes duty-free in Australia at a quarter of the price paid by Australians.
The brawl that became known as the Battle of Brisbane is reported in Mr Angly’s words.
Last Thursday and Friday, November 26 and 27, in Brisbane, this resentment flared into the open. One of our (American) MPs corrected an American soldier who was with some Australians who took offense at this reprimand to their friend and began to argue with the MPs. Soon they had knocked him down and mauled him to such and extent that he drew his gun and fired. Soldiers from both countries joined in, several shots were fired by both sides and several men of both sides were injured from gunfire and beating. This fracas occurred in the evening and as a result the blackout restrictions in Brisbane had to be relaxed and the city lit up the next evening to prevent any soldiers of either side being attacked by the opposite. Feeling on both sides ran rather high and a sharp word was all that was necessary to start a fight between members of the two armies. From my observation, this ugliness is spreading in the larger garrison towns.
The full CIA report can be accessed here.
The man appointed to run the Loveday Internment Camps was Lieutenant-Colonel E.T. Dean. As it turned out he was an inspired choice. He was an experienced and decorated military leader, having served in France in the Great War. As a civilian, he was a grazier with an excellent knowledge of farming in South Australian conditions. When war in Europe broke out in 1939, he was 55 years old and unfit for active duty.
From the outset it seems Commandant Dean’s aim was to set up and run a model camp. Early in the piece he recognised that men who were productively occupied were less likely to be troublesome. Although prisoners of war could be made to work, the Geneva Convention prevented forced labour for internees. If he wanted the inmates to contribute to the running of the camp, which was necessary for survival given their vast numbers in comparison to the soldier-guards, they had to be enticed into working.
Within six weeks of the first internee’s arrival in 1941 Dean had instituted a ‘wage’ of one shilling per day for anyone who put their hand up to work. Payment was made initially by means of a paper ‘chit’ that could only be used within the camp. Later the Government issued internment tokens in five denominations which could be traded at the canteen or used to buy items or services from other internees. Regular Australian currency was prohibited within the compound for security reasons.
Over several months, outside contractors were replaced with internee labour. For example, in September of 1941 internee workers took over camp sanitation and removal of the night soil, a service previously provided by the Barmera District Council.
By the end of the war, the Loveday camps were not just self-sufficient, they were profitable rural enterprises. More of that in another post.
For his services Dean was awarded a Member of the British Empire (M.B.E.). He died on 3rd June 1970.
In each of the six camps one inmate was elected to represent the internees. Prince Alfonso del Drago of Sydney and formerly of Rome (pictured above), was elected as the leader of Camp 9.
Initially he’d made a visit to Australia in 1924. According to the Perth newspaper The Sunday Times, his mother was a sister of Queen Charlotte of Spain. While in Fremantle, the young Italian nobleman said, ‘Mussolini is a very wonderful man.’
Del Drago migrated permanently in 1926. He settled at Potts Point in inner Sydney where he continued his proud association with all things Italian. He was president of the Italian Returned Soldiers Association and the Dante Alighieri Society, in addition to being a senior member of the Fascist party in Australia.
His occupation was listed as ‘gentleman’. It seems he was a man of independent means with friends in high places. Soon after his arrest in 1940, the Italian Ambassador in Tokyo wrote to the Australian government requesting a prisoner exchange. The request was denied.
He was moved from Long Bay Gaol to the internment camp at Orange and then to Hay (both in New South Wales), before being transferred to Loveday as part of the second contingent that arrived on 12th June 1941.
At the age of 58, he cut an impressive and capable figure.
The process of the election for Camp Leader at Camp 9 is unclear. However, an interesting outcome was recorded of a subsequent election for a Camp Leader for Camp 10, which housed mainly German internees.
Eight candidates were listed and duly voted for in a secret ballot. The Australian Commandant of Camp 10 classed the candidates and results as follows:
Hercksen – 5 votes; Globig – 6 votes; Meyer – 252 votes; Plate – 1 vote
Erler – 3 votes; Mensdorff – 196 votes; Meckler – 21 votes
Other results: 2 votes were informal. The number who voted was 486.
The Commandant went on to argue that 42 of the votes for Meyer were made by young boys of 18 to about 21 years of age, who were operating under the influence of a very strong Nazi (named) who was removed from the leadership of his previous Camp in Tatura and is a well known trouble maker.
For that reason, 42 votes were declared invalid. In addition, the Commandant claimed that he ascertained this day that many who voted for Meyer did so because of promises made in his campaign and which now they do not believe.
Consequently the role of the Camp Leader was awarded to Mensdorff.
For the above material I am indebted to the Australian War Memorial (including photo of Prince del Drago) and National Archives of Australia (including the Trove website).
From Brisbane it took three days by train for the internees to reach the Riverland District of South Australia.
The exact route from Queensland is not clear. According to the late Max Scholz, long-time resident of Barmera and eyewitness to the establishment and operation of the Loveday camps, the final leg brought them from Adelaide to a siding close to the town of Barmera, known to the locals as ‘Ebb Farmers’. From there, the men marched the remaining four miles to Camp 9. They wore distinctive burgundy-coloured army uniforms that branded them internees.
The first trainload of 458 Italian internees arrived on 11 June 1941, after having been transferred from the camp at Hay in western NSW. The following day a further 502 Italians arrived from Hay, including the captain and crew of the Italian ship, Romolo.
The Melbourne newspaper, The Argus, reported that the Romolo was the last Italian liner to sail from Brisbane before the war began. She had 116 crew, 21 passengers, and a valuable cargo of wool. RAAF aircraft and Australian navy ships shadowed her after she deviated from her planned course to Thursday Island. Instead she navigated a gap in the Great Barrier Reef and sailed off into the Pacific. To prevent her from being captured by the Australians and used as a warship against Italy, the crew set her alight in the middle of the ocean. She burnt and sank. The crew and passengers were picked up from lifeboats and sent to Hay Internment Camp.
The Brisbane contingent of internees arrived several days later, on 20 June 1941. Overnight the site was transformed from a ghost camp into a bustling barbed-wire town of more than one thousand men. It marked the start of an operation that by January 1943 would house 5,000 internees.
You can only wonder at the logistics of constructing accommodation and facilities for a vast number of men within a short period of time. Luckily some of the internees were experienced builders while others volunteered to work as construction labourers. So the subsequent camps (Camp 10 and the four compounds of Camp 14) were built for internees by internees, using materials supplied by the military and whatever was on hand.
The land at Loveday was stony and dry. Walls and gardens were edged with stone-pitching and irrigation pipes were run from the nearby River Murray. As with many arid areas of Australia, the soil was so rich that artificial fertiliser had little effect. Add a little water and anything would grow.
Lieutenant-Colonel Edwin Thayer Dean, a South Australian grazier, was appointed as Loveday Group Commandant. He had been awarded a D.S.O. (Distinguished Service Order) for his service in the Great War with the Field Artillery Brigade. The combination of farming know-how, vision, and respect for the men under his command made Loveday not only tolerable for the inmates, but also financially viable. But more of that later.
Sources I wish to acknowledge are: As I Remember by Max Scholz; Internment in South Australia by the Committee appointed to record the history of internment in South Australia (foreword by E.T. Dean), Trove, and the Australian War Memorial.
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.
I’ve taken a short break from writing crime mysteries to write a novel that has been bouncing about my mind for about fifteen years. It began with an exploration of my husband’s family history: as a story of migration, the struggle to adapt to new ways, and finally acceptance. Research for this project took me to Queensland, New South Wales, Canberra, and South Australia, where I visited libraries, historical societies, museums, and State and Commonwealth archives, and the Australian War Memorial. Over the years I have amassed boxes of documents, books and photos. But who wants to read yet another family history?
Rather than let all that material go to waste, I have used it to form the backdrop of a novel about World War Two in Australia. This was a fascinating period of our history. A time of innocence and wisdom and crazy paranoia, when so-called enemy aliens (including naturalized Australian citizens of German, Italian, or Japanese origin) were arrested in the name of national security and imprisoned in internment camps for the duration of the war. No evidence, no proof, no trial.
Researching the life and times of Australia between 1939 to 1945 was an unparalleled joy. And in doing so, I’ve come to realise that the living history, the stories of first-hand experience that make names and dates come to life, will soon disappear. People who remember the headline PEACE! – printed in three-inch letters in the Telegraph on the 15th August 1945 – are now in their dotage. In a few short years, they will be gone.
Lest we forget.
Loveday Internment Camp in the Riverland District of South Australia was one of many internment camps set up by the federal government in World War Two to detain so-called ‘enemy aliens’.
An ‘enemy alien’ was a person of German, Italian, or Japanese origin who was living in Australia. Most were migrants, some were born here.
In the case of the Italians of Far North Queensland (FNQ), many were sugar cane farmers who’d left dirt-poor provinces such as Sicily or Calabria for a better life. They’d lived here for decades and renounced their old country to become naturalised British subjects. (All Australians were called ‘British subjects’ at the time.)
The Italians of FNQ joined cane-cutting gangs and toiled hard under a punishing sun to raise enough capital to buy land of their own. As well, they sent regular sums of money to Italy to support the wives and parents they’d left behind.
Theirs was a meagre existence. Home was a tiny space in a cane cutters’ barracks, or a tin hut in the jungle, or a shared room in a boarding house. The land they bought was virgin rainforest. Before the first stick of cane could be planted, they had to clear the natural vegetation – giant rainforest trees, stinging vines, an impenetrable understorey – using axes, machetes, cross-cut saws, and horse-drawn implements. No tractors or chainsaws in those early days.
When the war came, the Italian farmers were systematically rounded up by the police, imprisoned without a trial, and transported from one end of this vast continent to the other, to remote camps run by the military.
At Loveday they were treated well. They had decent food, and the iron-roofed huts kept them warm and dry. They were offered employment about the camp for payment of one shilling (ten cents) per day, and were encouraged to provide their own entertainment. There was a canteen where they could buy small luxuries such as writing paper or fruit, and a hobbies workshop where they could learn woodworking and metalworking skills.
In all, 2200 Italians, 2000 Japanese, 500 Germans, and 600 men of other nationalities spent the war years in the six compounds that made up Loveday Internment Camp.
Today, all that remains of the camp are the hall at Group Headquarters (now a disused barn) and a few concrete footings amongst the vines.
On Thiele Road, lonely signs mark the site of each compound. In the nearby towns of Loveday, Barmera, Cobdogla, a handful of passionate locals volunteer their time and energy to keeping this little-known aspect of Australian history alive.
The hall at GHQ was converted into a barn sometime after the internment camp was closed. Today it stands close to Thiele Road, Loveday and is surrounded by vineyards. Unfortunately many of the ruins are on privately-owned property. If you stop at the old GHQ building and walk around the back, you will see a cell block and a few other footings close by.
Read more about Loveday and the men who were interned there on my internment blog, Italians@loveday.