Australian prisoners of war in Europe did not sit around planning their escape as film and TV commonly portray them. Instead many were treated cruelly and a few even found themselves in concentration camps, a new book by a Flinders historian has revealed.
Associate Professor Peter Monteath’s book P.O.W.: Australian prisoners of war in Hitler’s Reich, is to be launched by the Governor of South Australia, His Excellency Rear Admiral Kevin Scarce AC CSC RANR, at the Torrens Parade Ground in Adelaide at 10 am on July 6. It is the result of more than six years research in which the author tried to understand the experience of captivity from both sides of the wire.
Of some 8,500 Australians who were incarcerated in Europe, more than 300 are still alive. The picture that has emerged is a complex one. Associate Professor Monteath found that many were starved and beaten and, when the Red Army invaded Germany from the east, large numbers were subjected to gruelling marches to the middle of Germany in the depths of winter to prevent them falling into the hands of the Soviets. Numerous Australians did not survive captivity, yet it is commonly believed they were treated well.
“When European POWs came back from the war they looked relatively ‘normal’, unlike prisoners of the Japanese, who were emaciated. That was because before they were repatriated, they had spent time in the UK where their diets had improved,” Associate Professor Monteath said.
“That led to the perception they hadn’t really suffered. Yet according to the Geneva Convention only officers could not be put to work. Officers did have a relatively easy time, but the real experience of ordinary soldiers was that they did work, in farms, factories and coal mines, and frequently in difficult and dangerous circumstances.”
Associate Professor Monteath studied German archives and spoke to former POWs and said he was often surprised by what he discovered.
“There was a hierarchy of prisoners that determined how they were treated in the camps. The Russians were at the bottom of the pile and suffered in miserable conditions, and at the top were the British. The Australians were relatively privileged, even though they were anti-authoritarian and known to shirk their work obligations. Their attitude was that they were not going to fall in line and exert themselves to help the enemy.”
The research also uncovered the stories of some Australians who found themselves outside the POW system.
“When POWs tried to escape, most were recaptured and some fell into the hands of German security forces. This was very dangerous because they could end up under the control of the Gestapo. In the book I tell the story of a number who ended up in the Buchenwald concentration camp,” he said.
Associate Professor Monteath’s interest in POWs in Germany arose through his passion for European modern history which he teaches at Flinders University. He says the Australians’ role in the war in Europe has been largely overlooked and the POW issue has until now been pushed aside.
“The book aims to redress that balance and provide an opportunity for those forgotten voices to be heard,” he said.