Break out

From 1941, Cowra in western New South Wales was the site of a major prisoner of war camp. The camp housed various nationalities, including German, Italian and more than 1000 Japanese prisoners. The Japanese, unlike many of the others who seemed to accept their fate, brooded on the dishonour they had brought to themselves, their family and their country by being taken prisoners of war. In 1944, the Australian authorities were informed of an escape planned by the Japanese at Cowra POW camp. They decided to separate the prisoners. On Friday afternoon, 4 August, as required by the Geneva Convention they notified the Japanese prisoners that the officers and NCOs were to be separated from the rest of the men. The men would then be transferred from Cowra to the Hay Prisoner of War Camp on Monday 7 August. Their leaders protested at the separation of the men and they held meetings that night to plan their strategy. A number of the men decided that this could be the opportunity to regain their honour with a glorious death. Just a few hours later hundreds of the Japanese prisoners stormed the camp defences at Cowra.

At 1.45 am on 5 August 1944, fighter pilot Toyoshima Hajime, the first Japanese to be captured on Australian soil, blew a shrill blast on his bugle. Almost 1000 Japanese POWs, armed with home-made weapons, threw themselves at the camp fences with shrieks of 'Banzai!' The surprised guards, members of the 22nd Australian Garrison Battalion, rushed to their posts when the alarm sounded. Privates Ben Hardy and Ralph Jones dragged their coats on over their pyjamas and pushed their way through the rioting prisoners to a machine-gun. The lights in the camp went out but the prisoners had set fire to the prison huts and Hardy and Jones fired at the men backlit by the flames.

The prisoners flung themselves over the barbed wire straight into the guards' fire leaving the fence line of the camp littered with bodies. During the next nine days, young recruits from a nearby army training camp assisted in rounding up the escapees. Many of the prisoners committed suicide in the surrounding hills rather than submit to recapture. Others hanged themselves in the camp. More than 100 of the prisoners were wounded and approximately 230 of them died.

Both Hardy and Jones continued to fire their Vickers gun until they were overpowered. Hardy was clubbed to death and Jones was fatally stabbed by one of the prisoners. Both men were posthumously awarded the George Cross for their actions.

Two more of the guards died during the breakout. Charles Shepherd was stabbed by one of the prisoners and Lieutenant Harry Doncaster, 19th Australian Infantry Training Battalion, was killed trying to catch a group of escapees.

Last updated: 1 February 2019

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2019), Break out, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 2 October 2022,
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