POWs in Eritrea

During 1940, Australian ships were involved in two operations off the mainland of Africa. The first of these was in August 1940 when HMAS Hobart, then part of the Red Sea Force brought British troops from Aden to reinforce the beleaguered British garrison at Berbera in British Somaliland. On 8 August, some of the Hobart men flew the ship's RAAF Walrus amphibian aircraft into action. After successfully bombing the Italian headquarters at Zeila, as well as some enemy machine gun posts, the crew landed safely in Berbera harbour.

On 9 August, three volunteers from Hobart went ashore in response to an urgent request for artillery support for the hard-pressed garrison. Petty Officer Hugh Jones from Kalgoorlie, Western Australia, Able Seaman William James Hurren from Sydney, New South Wales, and Able Seaman Hugh Charles Sweeny from Dalby, Queensland were landed with a 3-pounder Hotchkiss saluting gun on an improvised mounting, a reinforced 44-gallon drum.

By early the next morning they were in position, manning the gun and dressed in military uniform on the main British defence line at Tug Argan Gap, some 60 kilometres south of Berbera. The fighting continued during the next five days but when the British evacuated between 15-19 August, the three Australian sailors were reported missing believed killed in action 15/8/40. Instead, they had been captured by the Italians, the first members of an Australian unit taken prisoner of war (POW) during World War II.

Meanwhile Captain Howden, who had been put in charge of the evacuation from British Somaliland, mustered all vessels at his disposal to evacuate more than 7,000 soldiers and civilians from the path of the Italians. After Berbera had been cleared and anything of value demolished, Hobart's guns pounded the shores before departing and leaving British Somaliland temporarily in Italian hands.

The three POWs from HMAS Hobart were recovered from Adi Ugri in Eritrea on 29 April 1941 after Italian East Africa fell to the British. Able Seaman Hurren's personnel file records the advice of their release:

released and now safe in Massawa. Passage to Australia will be arranged first opportunity.

[W J Hurren, A6770 NAA]

HMAS Australia at Dakar

Australians were involved in an operation on the western side of the African continent during 1940.

On 6 September 1940, HMAS Australia sailed from the UK for Sierra Leone to join the Dakar expeditionary and naval force, which had sailed for Freetown five days beforehand. The large British naval force intended to land some 7000 troops in French West Africa. General Charles de Gaulle, the leader of the Free France movement, accompanied the expedition hoping to persuade the Vichy French garrison at Dakar to transfer its allegiance without bloodshed. The British would then occupy Dakar and rally local French colonial forces behind General de Gaulle.

During the voyage, Australia encountered three Vichy French cruisers sailing towards French West Africa. The Australian ship was asked to re-direct the three French cruisers, including Gloire, and escort them northwards to Casablanca in Morocco. The Official RAN Historian, G Hermon Gill reports that Commodore RR Stewart, RN, the vessel's commanding officer, left the departing French ships as they neared Casablanca by signalling to the captain of Gloire:

'Bon voyage. Je vous remerci pour votre courtoisie dans une situation difficile.'

[Royal Australian Navy 1939-42, AWM, Canberra, p 217]

Last updated: 12 February 2019

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2019), POWs in Eritrea, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 14 August 2022, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/wars-and-missions/world-war-ii-1939-1945/events/little-known-operations-1939-1945/pows-eritrea
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