James (Jim) Brennan
Prisoner of war, Repatriated
James 'Jim' Brennan was born on 9 October 1917 in Laverton in Western Australia's Goldfields region. He was born into one of the Wangkatha language peoples.
After the death of his mother, a Laverton blacksmith, James Daniel Brennan, and his wife, Ellen 'Nellie' Jago, adopted and renamed the orphaned infant. The couple had twins, Herbert John and Henry James, born in 1905 and had lost an infant girl in 1912.
At age 5, Jim was taken from the Brennans and sent to the Moore River Native Settlement. It was a period when the Chief Protector of Aborigines controlled the lives of First Nations people under the Aborigines 1905 Act (WA). It is not clear how long he remained at the settlement.
Jim worked as a stockman at Tarmoola Station near Leonora when he enlisted in the Australian Military Forces (AMF) on 1 August 1940. He listed an uncle, Bert Thomas of Mount Margaret Mission, as his next of kin. He was 22 and single.
Jim served with the 2/28th Australian Infantry Battalion. The unit deployed to the Middle East, arriving in Egypt in June 1941.
In 1941, during the Seige of Tobruk, the 2/28th Battalion patrolled the seaport of Libya, defending against German and Italian forces. Jim and his fellow soldiers gained the nickname 'Rats of Tobruk' as many remained underground in small dugouts and trenches.
On 23 September 1941, the men of 2/28th were evacuated to Alexandria. Then they transferred to the camp at Kilo 89 in Palestine before moving to Syria and then Lebanon for rest and further training.
First Battle of El Alamein
By July 1942, the Axis forces had reached El Alamein in Egypt. Jim's unit led an attack against the German and Italian advance.
On the night of 26 July 1942, the 2/28th Battalion and other units prepared to attack the Axis-held Ruin Ridge. The action was part of Operation Manhood.
It was a disastrous night for Jim and his fellow soldiers. The Germans were attacking from behind, and 3 company commanders were wounded, creating confusion. Many of the vehicles that should have brought forward ammunition were destroyed or damaged. The battalion suffered heavy casualties, with many wounded or killed. Nearly 500 were captured and taken prisoner.
On the morning of 27 July, Jim was amongst a group of captured Australian prisoners of war (POWs). He was held in various POW camps in North Africa and Italy, including the notorious Campo 57, a large camp at Gruppignano in north-eastern Italy.
Conditions at Campo 57 were harsh. Food quality was poor, and the housing was crowded and unsanitary. Pneumonia and kidney disease were common, and medical treatment was scarce. Over the course of World War II, some 1,200 Australians and 1,000 New Zealanders were interned there.
In April 1943, he transferred with hundreds of other Australian prisoners to work in the rice farms between Turin and Milan.
In September 1943, after the Armistice, Jim and an Aboriginal POW, Edward 'Eddie' Albert from Queensland, escaped the Lombardy rice fields. Alongside other escaped prisoners, they stayed on the run over winter.
Germany occupied parts of Italy during the war. While the Allies were fighting against Germany, Italian resistance fighters were fighting their own war against German occupation. In a newspaper article much later, Jim was said to have fought alongside the Partisans in northern Italy.
Jim later recalled the hospitality and kindness of Italian civilians in providing food and shelter. In Biella, a town in the north-west of Italy, he and 6 other Australian escapee POWs took shelter in a remote farmhouse. In late April 1944, Italian soldiers found Jim and the other escapees. Told to line up, one by one, 3 of the men were shot and killed. An Italian officer identified the men as Allied soldiers and halted the killings. Jim and Eddie survived. Jim was transferred to Stalag VII in southern Bavaria, the largest POW camp in Nazi Germany.
At the war's end, Jim was removed from captivity in Europe and transferred to the 3 AIF Reception Camp in England. The camp was used to transition the recovered soldiers from POWs back to military personnel. Individuals were medically checked and treated or hospitalised as necessary. They were given new uniforms and granted their pay and leave entitlements before being repatriated to Australia.
Jim made his journey home to Western Australia on 30 May 1945 aboard the SS Arundel Castle, arriving in July 1945.
Jim discharged from the AMF in November 1945. He'd served a total of 1,545 days of active overseas service and captivity and 84 days of active service in Australia. He was 28 and already married.
Indigenous rights activist after the war
In November 1945, Jim married Myrtle Goodilyer at St George Cathedral in Perth. They moved back to the Goldfields, where Jim spent 19 years working at Leonora's Sons of Gwalia gold mine. Jim and Myrtle had 4 children, Hector [James], Gloria, Joan and Ronald.
Jim may have felt some equality fighting alongside his non-Indigenous mates. Unfortunately, back home, it was a different story. The status of First Nations veterans and their families did not improve after their discharge. It took until the 1960s for significant civil rights changes to occur.
In 1965, Jim founded the Eastern Goldfields Aboriginal Advancement Council. He raised enough money to create a regular meeting place on Cassidy Street, Kalgoorlie, by asking for donations on the street and selling cakes. He was president of the Council until 1971. During that time, he was also the chairman of the Aboriginal Council, Aboriginal Consultative Committee and Aboriginal Advisory Council in Kalgoorlie.
Later on, Jim and another Indigenous veteran, Ken Colbung, were advocates for introducing the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972.
In 1984, Jim was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia Medal (OAM) in recognition of service to Aboriginal welfare.
Jim passed away on 31 December 2000, aged 83. He was buried at Kalgoorlie Cemetery alongside his daughter Gloria who passed away 15 years prior. After his passing, the City of Kalgoorlie-Boulder renamed part of the city as the Ninga Mia village, after Jim.
The Yininmadyemi: Thou Didst Let Fall memorial in Hyde Park, Sydney, was unveiled in 2015 to honour Aboriginal service personnel. The memorial was conceived and created by Aboriginal artist, Tony Albert. Tony’s grandfather Eddie Albert escaped with Jim during the war.
In 2017, City of Kalgoorlie-Boulder Mayor John Bowler unveiled a plaque for Jim Brennan in Kalgoorlie’s Walk of Fame.
Jim's children and descendants continue to share his story and praise him for:
fighting for free rights, justice and as a force for Aboriginal people in his own right without gain for himself
[Nathan Morris, ABC Goldfields-Esperance news, 17 October 2016]
2001 'James Brennan's fight for justice', Kalgoorlie Miner, 13 January 2001, p 18.
Australian War Memorial, 'Forgotten Heros', accessed 15 May 2023, https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C2091808
Department of Veterans' Affairs (2015, 26 August), 'WX7218 Private James "Jim" Brennan, OAM 2/28 Battalion', archived webpage captured 21 October 2015, TROVE, accessed 11 May 2023, https://webarchive.nla.gov.au/awa/20151021193120/http://www.dva.gov.au/i-am/aboriginal-andor-torres-strait-islander/our-mob-serving-country-100-years-and-beyond/wx7218
James, Jan (Kabarlie) (2010), Forever Warriors, Northam, Western Australia. ISBN 9780959413526 https://www.austlit.edu.au/austlit/page/6113585?mainTabTemplate=workPublicationDetails
National Archives of Australia: BRENNAN JAMES: Service Number - WX7218: Date of birth - 09 Oct 1917: Place of birth - LAVERTON WA: Place of enlistment - CLAREMONT WA: Next of Kin - THOMAS BERT
Morris, Nathan (2016, 17 October) 'Meet James Brennan, an Aboriginal stockman turned guerrilla fighter' ABC Goldfields, accessed 11 May 2023, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-10-17/aboriginal-stockman-turned-guerrilla-fighter/7934792
Murphy-Oates, Laura (2015, 20 April) Living Black, NITV SBS, 'The story behind Sydney's bullet sculpture' accessed 15 May 2023, https://www.sbs.com.au/nitv/living-black/article/the-story-behind-sydneys-bullet-sculpture/qnbgf2s1a
Morris, Nathan & Moore, Tim (2016), Tim Moore interviewed by Nathan Morris for 'James Brennan: from Goldfields stockman to guerilla soldier', ABC Goldfields-Esperance Vimeo, accessed 10 May 2023, https://vimeo.com/163518833
Tomlin, Sam (2016, 22 April), ABC News, 'Prison breaks, brothers and runaway horses: The stories of your Anzacs from across Western Australia', accessed 11 May 2023, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-04-22/stories-of-your-anzacs-from-western-australia/7339486
Preston, Monique, (2017, 29 January), 'Paving the way to recognise the past', Kalgoorlie Miner, The West Australian, accessed 15 May 2023, https://thewest.com.au/news/paving-the-way-to-recognise-the-past-ng-b88367998z
Sovereign Union podcast (2016, 18 October) 'James Brennan: Aboriginal stockman turned resistance fighter', Audioboom, accessed 11 May 2023, https://audioboom.com/posts/5176780-james-brennan-aboriginal-stockman-turned-resistance-fighter