WWII in Australia


The War Diaries of Nurse Taylor

The War Diaries of Nurse Joan Taylor

The four War Diaries of Joan Taylor cover the period from 1941 to 1944. On the opening cover of the first, Joan makes her intention quite clear: her diary is a record of the progress of the war.

Barely a pen stroke is written about her personal life. Not even her age is revealed. However, we can deduce that in 1941 she resided with her parents in the Brisbane suburb of Annerley. By January 1943 she had moved into the nurses’ quarters at the Brisbane General Hospital.

True to her word, every day is filled with headlines about the war, filtered through the eyes of a young woman. As well as invasions, military manoeuvres, battles, casualties, there are personal observations, remarks, and explanatory notes.

In March 1941, we learn that an American fleet has arrived in Brisbane to a “great welcome”. In April, “10,000 were killed in the Belgrade massacre”. In June, Germany declares war on Russia and Mr Churchill says “we will help Russia all we can”.

On 2 November 1941, “Even clothes are rationed in England now. Stockings can’t be bought so they use “liquid hosiery”, which is popular even over here.”

The entry for 5 November 1941 hints at the Holocaust to come. “Jews killed by thousands in Roumania.”

On 8 December 1941, Joan records “At 3.30 this morning, Jap planes bombed Hawaii and Manilla (Philippine Islands) killing 135. Japan declared war on U.S. and Britain.”

As the war in the Pacific ramps up, Australia’s very shores become threatened. In January 1942, she records “thousands of U.S. soldiers are arriving here”. In February there is a “big enemy alien round-up in Qld”, “SINGAPORE the invincible has surrendered”, and “Japs bomb DARWIN!”.

Some items are prefaced with a note, “not in newspapers” or “private information”, and reveal incidents that might not have passed wartime censorship in Queensland. Information might have come to her through word of mouth … and may, or may not, have been true.

On 15 April 1942, “private information” reveals that “Two black soldiers were shot, one at Nasco House[1], the other at the Grand Central Hotel for attacking women.”

In July she writes, “Despite official report of no casualties in Townsville raid, witnesses say many killed”.

On 16 August another shocking incident of violence is recorded. “Allied soldier shot and seriously wounded girl at Lyceum Theatre, then killed himself.[2]

Later in 1942 there is “air raid practice”, a “surprise blackout”, the introduction of sugar rationing (“1lb[3] to each person per week”), a decision to employ “100 women tram conductresses”, and “more people stabbed in Brisbane in quarrels”.

On 31 December, Joan writes that “Australian women, released from German concentration camps, tell their story”. She concludes the year with a note about the battle of Buna in New Guinea. “Many crosses line the way but our men have not died in vain.”

In 1943, the war brings new challenges to Australian shores. In March, “Japs raid Darwin. Two Jap transports sunk off N. Aust. coast” and “Enemy plane sighted over Kembla near Sydney. Fired on by Allies”. In May, “238 typhoid cases [are] reported in Melbourne” and the hospital ship Centaur is sunk by Japanese 40 miles east of Brisbane. The survivors are brought quietly to the Ear, Nose and Throat (ENT) ward, next to where Joan works. “Quietly so as not to cause panic[4]”.

Later that year, there are “more cases of Scarlet Fever in Brisbane”. On voting day, Mr Curtin is “returned with a great majority”, the “Italian armistice was signed” (3 September), and there is an “extreme shortage of meat” with “hundreds turned away from butchers daily”.

The 1944 diary begins with the (inaccurate) report of the death of Mussolini. “He is supposed to have died in a German clinic from stomach ulcers”[5]. Also in January there is “terrific raid damage in every part of Berlin”, followed three weeks later by “Luftwaffe makes determined attack against London. Many casualties, big damage”. On 7 June, Joan writes, “D-DAY! Pouring into France from greatest Armada assembled in history. Allied forces establish beach heads, make swift advances”.

The tide of the war, it seems, has turned. So too has Joan’s diligence in recording events. Perhaps this is indicative of her workload as a nurse, or she has personal matters to deal with, or perhaps she is weary of a war without an end. Whatever the reason, weeks go by without a word, followed by ever more abbreviated entries.

In July, she writes “removal of coastal blackout announced” and “Attempt to assassinate Hitler by bomb fails. Members of his staff arrested – some shot”. On 31 August, “PARIS is free!”. In October, “Archibald Prize award contested in court[6]”. In November, “Roosevelt wins fourth term as U.S. President” and “Tokyo blazes after Super Fortress strike”.

Joan’s final entry, on 31 December 1944, suggests perhaps a little cynicism. “Sniper’s bullet just misses Churchill in Athens. Hitler’s speech – ‘Germany will not lose the war’ (oh yeah!)”.


[1] Nasco House, located near All Saints Church in Ann St Brisbane, was a welfare centre for members of the fighting services, providing meals and entertainment. According to The Courier-Mail on 23 April 1941, a petition to the City Council alleged that Nasco House was “an intolerable nuisance”, that “drunken brawls had occurred frequently in the street … and almost every night beer bottles were thrown from the upper windows.”

[2] This incident of unrequited love and jealousy was reported in several Queensland newspapers. It involved a U.S. serviceman and an attractive theatre usherette who had refused his persistent advances. On 23 August, the Truth ran a feature article on page 14, calling for “an open enquiry into the whole circumstances of the shooting”. Source: Trove.

[3] Lb is an abbreviation for pound, a weight of approximately 455 grams.

[4] Joan Peeters Taylor. “Nursing During the War Years, 1943-1945”. Unpublished memoir, 1996. OM Box 14302, SLQ

[5] Mussolini’s actual death on 28 April 1945 was far more brutal. He, his mistress, and his former Propaganda Minister were executed by Italian partisans. In the presence of a jeering crowd, their bodies were strung up by the ankles and left dangling, head-down, in the Piazzale Loreto in Milan. It was reported that Mussolini’s headless body was later buried in an unmarked grave. Source: Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate, 3 May 1945, p3. Source: Trove.

[6] William Dobell’s portrait of artist Joshua Smith was accused of being a caricature, not a portrait.

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From Brisbane trainee nurse to US war bride

Excerpt from the diary of Elvie Geissmann, nurse trainee at Brisbane General Hospital, 1941

How different was the life of a young woman in Australia during World War II? Personal diaries are a wonderful way to rediscover the day-to-day activities of our past.

In this 1941 diary, twenty-year-old Elvie Geissmann records her first year as a trainee nurse at the Brisbane General Hospital. She has had to trade the comforts of her childhood home on Tamborine Mountain for cramped nurses quarters at the hospital, where she will train for three long years.

Her first months are not easy: she bucks at the discipline, gets into trouble, and spends way more than she earns. But, above all, she perseveres. To read more, visit my guest blog post at the website of the State Library of Queensland.

Finally, a suggestion. If you’ve inherited personal diaries about life in Queensland and don’t know how to preserve them, consider donating them to the collection of the State Library of Queensland.

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The 1941-42 journals of Mrs Ellen Humphreys, grazier

The diaries of Ellen Humphreys, grazier, 1941-1944

Ellen Maria Humpheys owned and operated a cattle property called ‘Hutton Park’, situated in the central-west of Queensland near Injune. In 1941, she was a 63-year-old widow with six adult children, several grandchildren, an elderly mother, and a working dog called Tigar.

Les, the youngest, was the only one living at home. At 23 years of age, he did all the heavy farm work, such as fencing, ring-barking, chipping suckers, and droving the steers to the sale yards. All of his siblings were married with children. Fred, the eldest, had his own “selection” in the district. Bill and Ellie lived with their respective in-laws on nearby properties, while Daisy and Elsie had moved to Queensland’s south coast.

Each day of the war and for many years beyond, indeed right up until the 1960s, Ellen wrote journal entries about life on her “selection”. In her journals she recorded weather conditions and rainfall, daily activities on the property, headlines about the war, stock numbers and sales, events that affected her family, neighbours, and friends. Her writing was straightforward and matter-of-fact, exactly what you’d expect of a hardworking woman of the bush. Isolated, she was not. She spoke with her daughters on the telephone, caught lifts into town, corresponded by mail. Most weeks, people she knew came to stay, or she visited other farms about the district, often to help when help was needed.

On 21 May 1941, Ellen arranged for a neighbour to drive her to Injune. The main purpose of the trip was to help out a pregnant friend, who had gone to hospital in Roma to prepare for the birth.

As usual, a visit to town was action-packed. While there, she cleaned out her friend’s shed for a race meet, attended a birthday dinner for her 86-year-old mother, and cut sandwiches for the farewell party of a young soldier going to the battlefields of Europe. At the bottom of the journal page, scribbled in haste, was one last entry. “Elsie’s baby born today. Wilfred Gary, they named him.” Thus she recorded the arrival of her newest grandson.

Back at “Hutton Park” a week later, Ellen made journal entries about the war. “The battleship Hood was sunk by the Germans in the ocean. A terrible loss to Britain. The war is awful …I heard R.G. Menzies’ speech tonight. He is home after four months overseas. His speech was great to hear.”

The next day it was “cold and cloudy, misty, little rain during the night. Britain sunk the big German battleship Bismarck so that is good, as the British ship Hood was sunk by the Germans.”

After a long stretch of hot dry weather, much-needed rain arrived in January 1942. Ellen wrote that the grass was growing and looked nice and green. “Got the cows to milk again. Put in eight calfs [sic] and four are going to separate in the morning. I saw two hungry dingoes close to the house and took off. Could not get a shot at them so we set out dingo baits.” On 22 January, “The Japs has [sic] bombed Singapore and the war is not so good for us.”

At the cattle sale in February they “sold 14 head. Heifers at £4-2-6[1]. Did not sell the steers. They were not fat enough to sell. Fat cattle brought a high price. Les and Joe’s bullocks raised £12-2-6[2] and cows £9-17-6[3].” While in Injune, she received word that “four of Mrs Smeeton’s children … are coming out to safety in case the Japs bomb Brisbane.”

16 February 1942. “Singapore has fallen into the Japs’ hands, a sad blow to our country and people. Australia is now in danger.” Other entries of the day mentioned carting “ant bed[4] to the dairy for the floor and some manure for the garden vegetables”. Ellen also washed clothes and baked bread.

Despite the war, the operation of the farm did not alter much and daily chores continued as usual. Les went away to muster cattle. Alone on the property, Ellen heard news on the wireless that “Darwin was bombed by the Japs twice. Killed some people including the postmaster, his wife and daughter. It is an awful war.” Later she received a telegram from daughter Daisy to say that she and two friends – Mrs Robie and Shirley – would be on the next train to Injune. “I am glad they are coming away from the coast as the Japs are sure to bomb Southport.”

Heavy rain swept in overnight and the trio arrived on Roy Glasby’s truck. “It took six and a half hours to come through the bog and mud but landed safe at last about 12 [midnight]. Roy stayed the night.”

The visitors from Southport were in for a bit of bush excitement. “A big brown snake came onto the tank and came close to Mrs Robie, who called out to me, and I shot him in the stomach. But he ran away and the dog, Tigar, killed him.”

The dog came to the rescue again when Ellen “went to pull a pumpkin in the cultivation and Tigar killed a brown snake that was just inside the gate. Only for Tigar, I may have been bitten.”

The visitors left at the end of March. Thankfully the Japanese never bombed Southport.

Early in the winter of 1942, frosts blanketed the paddocks. Graziers and stockmen, droving their cattle, stopped by for a cuppa and sometimes stayed overnight. There was seldom a shortage of passers-by and drop-ins to keep Ellen company.

“Fred[5] came along with 65 head steers and six horses. Stayed the night. Put the cattle in the yard as he wants to get an early start in the morning. He is taking them to his place. They are the rejects he could not sell at the last sale [at] Injune. There has [sic] been cattle ticks found on the cattle at Injune so a dip has to be made there and all cattle has [sic] to be dipped before being sold there.”

In June 1942, rationing was introduced. “Les went to Mt Hutton and got his and my ration book.” Ellen noted that she “did some mending and darning of clothes as we have to make them last since the Ration came in.” She extended her thrift to making house-wear from offcuts and hessian. “I made myself two work aprons out of two sugar bags and trimmed them with bright material and they look nice and tidy.”

The progress of the war was also concerning her. On 18 June she wrote, “Darwin bombed four days running. Can’t be anything left of Darwin and overseas is not good. Hardly holding their own in China and the Japs seem to take what they want.”

On 24 June 1942, Les cut his finger with an axe. It was a serious cut, right down to the bone on the first joint of his left forefinger. He drove himself into Injune where the nurse stitched it up. Within a short while he was back at work. On 29 June, Ellen recorded that “Les shot two kangaroos. Had a job to skin them with one hand. His left finger is [sic] still got the stitches in.” His finger became worse and the pain was intense. In order to see a doctor, he got a lift with a neighbour to Injune and then caught the train to Roma. He phoned Ellen to say “he thinks they may make a job of his finger.” Whatever procedure was done in the hospital, the finger was saved. Les returned, riding a borrowed horse.

To “do his bit” for the war, Les joined the Volunteer Defence Corps[6]. He passed the medical and was issued a “hat, rifle and coat”. Every week he would travel to Injune to attend training.

The weather turned colder and the water froze in the pipes. Ellen sent her daughter Elsie, who lived on the coast, “five marsupial skins for her air raid shelter.”

Meanwhile Ellen’s elderly mother had become ill and needed care. The plan was to share her around the family, each taking her in for a few months. Ellen was second on the list. A sale of furniture and chattels was held in Injune, but it was not particularly successful.

Mother, along with her furniture, arrived at “Hutton Park” in August and was installed in the front room. It seemed that Mother liked to talk and knit, possibly because her mobility was restricted. Ellen wrote, “I made four pillowslips by hand as I have no machine and it puts my time in as I can’t go out on account of Mother.” Instead, Ellen busied herself about the house and home yard. She hatched “ten nice turkey chicks and the foxes took them all in one night.” Tigar killed two more snakes.

Months passed. With an unheard sigh of relief Ellen wrote, “Mother went to Henry’s place today.”

Mother – Mrs Maria Elizabeth Jackson – passed away two years later at the age of 88. Known as “the grand old woman of the west”, she was survived by 8 children, 40 grandchildren, 56 great-grandchildren, and 2 great-great-grandchildren.

Life at “Hutton Park” continued and Les took over the running of the farm. In old age, Ellen moved to the close-knit community of Injune. She died in 1970 at the age of 93. Her journals open a window to a life of hard work, resilience, and community cohesion that is little known to city dwellers today.

This collection, 6333 Ellen Humphreys Papers, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, can be viewed onsite at State Library of Queensland.

Debbie Terranova was a QANZAC 100: Memories for a New Generation Fellow in 2018-19. Her research project was Queensland women and war: a multicultural perspective of the experiences of female civilians during World War Two.


[1] £4-2-6 Sterling is $8.25 in Australian dollars.

[2] £12-2-6 is $24.25.

[3] £9-17-6 is $19.75.

[4] Ant bed, a fine earthen gravel made of crushed termite mounds, was used as a floor base and tennis court surface.

[5] Ellen’s eldest son.

[6] As a cattleman, which was considered an essential occupation, Les would have been exempt from compulsory military service during the war.

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The ‘Battle of Brisbane’

battle of brisbane
Repairing broken windows outside the American canteen (Image SLQ)

Using true events as the backdrop for stories can take writers on an amazing journey, which was the case for me when I embarked on writing WWII historical fiction.

Aside from anecdotes told by my parents – which may or may not have been true – I knew little about life on the home front. I had heard of the so-called Battle of Brisbane but details were scant.

The Battle of Brisbane was not a battle between enemy armies, but a bloody brawl between American and Australian servicemen that went on for two nights in November 1942.

My initial research consisted of reading newspaper reports of the day on Trove. The battle was largely hushed up to prevent further animosities between allies, so the reporting was somewhat bland and abbreviated. Suffice to say that I gleaned enough to paint one scene in a 250-page novel.

To mark the 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.

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Leadership at Loveday

Prince Alfonso del Drago at the gates of Loveday Camp 9

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:

Extremists: Hercksen – 5 votes; Globig – 6 votes; Meyer – 252 votes; Plate – 1 vote  

Moderates: 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).

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The long journey to internment

Steam train at a siding near Barmera, SA

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.

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The Loveday Internment Camps, South Australia

Site of Camp 9 at Loveday amongst the vineyards.

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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What was it like in the Loveday camps?

Cell blocks at the former Loveday internment camp, South Australia

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.

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