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Experiences of War : Prisoners of war : Prisoners of war overseas

Little has been recorded of the experiences of Australian prisoners of war in the South African War and First World War. In the First World War an estimated 4,000 Australians were taken prisoner, mostly at Gallipoli and on the Western Front. Patsy Adam-Smith's Prisoners of War; from Gallipoli to Korea includes personal accounts of some of those First World War prisoners. Their experiences varied greatly, depending on their captors (Turks or Germans) and where they were interned.

An estimated 28,756 Australians were taken prisoner during the Second World War; of these 21,467 were captured while serving in the Asia-Pacific area. The hardships endured by Australians captured by the Japanese, and the prisoners' responses, have been described in published sources, such as The war diaries of Weary Dunlop: Java and the Burma-Thailand Railway 1942-1945, From Wayville to Changi and beyond, Neville Shute's novel A Town Like Alice (and the film derived from it) and the ABC television drama Changi.

The experiences of a number of South Australians taken prisoners are recorded in diaries, letters and records, which are now kept in the archival collection of the State Library. They tell stories of great courage, loyalty to comrades and the ability to retain a sense of humour even under the most extreme circumstances. One such record is Mates in Hell, the diary of Don McLaren, written while captive in Changi prison, and later in Burma and Japan. It contains many examples of the use of humour, for example Don's entry for 22 March 1942 reads,

I just can't believe the Japs. Today was the first time we had any food. None of us had a scrap to eat for three days. It's funny though, we just go past being hungry. We did grab some tufts of grass and chew on them, and equally amazing it tasted nice and sweet. This has also given us something to laugh about. Someone said, 'Where is Donny McLaren?' The answer was 'He's down the back paddock feeding.'

The experiences of approximately 7,000 Australians who were captured in North Africa and Europe are not as well known as those taken prisoner by the Japanese. The rise, fall and regeneration of the 2/7th Australian Field Ambulance, A.I.F. in World War II compiled by Gordon Hoff includes details of the experiences of members of the 2/7th Field Ambulance (many of whom were South Australian) when taken prisoner by the Germans.

Keith Dodd was one of the 1,476 members of the Royal Australian Air Force taken prisoner during World War Two. A summary of his diary kept during captivity by the Italians, and later the Germans, begins with a description of the events that led to his capture, and his initial hospitalisation in Astea, Tripoli,

The sisters in the hospital were rather strange, the orderlies lazy and useless, and the food consisted simply of rice with no flavouring whatsoever. We were issued with bread but nothing to spread it with, and so I was very discontented. There were Tommies in the ward, who had been captured in the desert. Of course, the Iti's went mad with delight upon hearing the day after we arrived, that Tobruk had fallen to the Axis troops.

In September 1943, when the Italians signed an Armistice with the Allied powers, Keith expected to be released. However, the Germans evacuated him, along with many Italians (also taken by the Germans as prisoners of war), to a succession of camps in Germany, where he remained until the conclusion of the war.

A boxing match at Ruhleben Concentration Camp
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Bridging the gap between two wars : reminiscences of Ke
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Diary of Keith Dodd
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From Wayville to Changi. [Extracts]: Part 1 of 2
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From Wayville to Changi. [extracts]: Part 2 of 2
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Group of internees at Ruhleben Concentration Camp
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Interview with John Bowditch
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Mates in hell : [extracts]
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Pass issued to Harry Swift while a resident in Berlin d
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Ruhleben Concentration Camp. 'Bond Street' looking west
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Ruhleben Concentration Camp. Wooden Barracks. East End
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Sketch of a cell door at the Ruhleben Concentration Cam
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