By August 1944 there were 2,223 Japanese prisoners of war in Australia. Of these 1,104 were housed in Camp B of No. 12 Prisoner of War Compound near Cowra, in the central west of New South Wales.
The Italian, Japanese, Taiwanese and Korean prisoners of war interned at Cowra were treated in accordance with the Geneva Conventions. But relations between the Japanese prisoners of war and their guards from the 22nd Garrison Battalion were poor, due largely to significant cultural differences.
The Japanese prisoners had made no firm plans for a mass breakout until early August, when they were made aware of plans to separate the B compound inmates, relocating the junior ranks to a camp at Hay in western New South Wales. When informed of the transfer, the Japanese prisoners of war in B compound made the decision that they would launch a mass escape the following day.
In the early hours of the morning on 5 August, 1944, Australian Army personnel in the Australian Women’s Army Service (AWAS) and Army camps were awoken by the noise of almost a thousand Japanese prisoners armed with gardening tools, baseball bats, axes and knives, breaking through the fences of the camp.