5 August 1944

Monday 5 August 2019 marks the 75th anniversary of the breakout of approximately 545 Japanese prisoners from No. 12 Prisoner of War Compound - known as the Cowra breakout.

Looking west showing the compounds of the 12th Australian Prisoner of War Camp at Cowra, with the Group Headquarter buildings in the foreground.

Looking west showing the compounds of the 12th Australian Prisoner of War Camp at Cowra, with the Group Headquarter buildings in the foreground. 064284

By August 1944 there were 2,223 Japanese prisoners of war in Australia, including 544 merchant seamen. 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. They were guarded by the 22nd Garrison Battalion.

On Friday 4 August, in response to information that the Japanese were discussing a mass outbreak, notice was given that all Japanese prisoners below the rank of Lance Corporal would be transferred to the Hay Prisoner of War Camp. About 2 am on Saturday 5 August 1944 a prisoner ran shouting to the camp gates. Soon afterwards an unauthorised bugle was heard and prisoners, armed with knives and improvised clubs, rushed from their huts and began breaking through the wire fences. Sentries opened fire but several hundred prisoners escaped into open country, while others who remained set fire to the camp buildings.

Approximately 545 Japanese attempted escape. In the following nine days 334 prisoners were retaken. In all, 234 Japanese were killed or committed suicide and 108 wounded.

Australian casualties

On the night of the breakout three Australian soldiers were killed and another three were wounded. Privates B.G. Hardy and R. Jones, who were overwhelmed while manning a machine gun post, were posthumously awarded the George Cross.

Burial of Australian soldiers killed during breakout of Japanese prisoners at camp 12B, Cowra prison of war and internment group compound, 1944-08-05.

Burial of Australian soldiers killed during breakout of Japanese prisoners at camp 12B, Cowra prison of war and internment group compound, 05-08-1944. 044119.

Closing the camp

The Cowra camp remained open until 1947 when the last of its prisoners and internees were repatriated. The camp was then dismantled, many of the buildings re-used elsewhere at government facilities and the barbed wire and fencing sold off to local farmers.

Last Post Ceremony banner

Last Post Ceremony

Commemorating the Cowra breakout - 4:55pm, 5 August 2019

The 75th anniversary of the Cowra Breakout will be commemorated in the Last Post Ceremony on the evening of 5 August 2019 with the service of Lieutenant Harry Doncaster to be remembered. The ceremony is held in the Australian War Memorial Commemorative Courtyard.

The Cowra breakout is commemorated on a war memorial cairn on the site of the prisoner-of-war camp. Image source: Henry Moulds

Cowra Memorial

Places of Pride

The Cowra breakout is commemorated on a war memorial cairn on the site of the prisoner-of-war camp. Visit the Places of Pride website to learn more about this memorial. Image source: Henry Moulds

Portrait of Lieutenant Nelly Gould, Officer in charge of AWAS Barracks, Cowra, NSW

They had to remember they were soldiers, albeit female

Memorial blog article

In the early hours of the morning on 5 August, 1944, Australian Army personnel in the Australian Women’s Army Service (AWAS) 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. Image: Lieutenant Nelly Gould, Officer in charge of AWAS Barracks, Cowra

Cowra

Killed on Duty - the death of a brave soldier

Lieutenant Harry Doncaster was an AIF officer from Victoria, who had served with the 2/8th Battalion of the 2nd Australian Imperial Force.  At the time of his death he was posted to 19 Infantry Training Battalion at Cowra.  He was leading a group of trainee soldiers attempting to round up escapees when, in the poor light of dusk, the search team came upon a group of escapees, one of whom was standing on a large rock, brandishing a knife. 

 

Sergeant Hajime Toyoshima, Australia’s first Japanese prisoner of war,

The bugle and the breakout

Just before 2 am on Saturday, 5 August 1944, Japanese fighter pilot Hajime Toyoshima sounded the bugle that signalled the beginning of the Cowra breakout.

Today, the bugle is part of the national collection at the Australian War Memorial, a poignant reminder of the largest escape attempt from a prisoner-of-war camp in Australia – and a reminder of the lives that were lost.

Dr Brendan Nelson and the bugle that sounded the Cowra breakout

Commemorative address

On 4 August 2019 the Honourable Dr Brendan Nelson AO, Director of the Australian War Memorial, delivered a commemorative speech in Cowra for the 75th anniversary of the breakout.