It's not easy being away from family and friends while serving overseas. Missing out on special occasions like Christmas makes it more challenging. Now, imagine back to a time without email, mobile phones and video calls. Letters to and from home were very important during World War II, as were food parcels. Explore Christmas through the eyes of Australians who served in wartime.
Letter from a POW camp on Christmas day
Bombardier Herbert Huie Armstrong was a prisoner of war between October 1942 to May 1945. He spent 2 Christmases in captivity in Germany.
At the end of the war in Europe, Armstrong was recovered and discharged from the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) on compassionate grounds in September 1945. He returned to Australia, married and started a family. Settling down in Campbelltown, New South Wales, he worked as a wool classer.
Like many serving abroad, Armstrong wrote home when he could. His letters and postcards between 1944 and 1945 share a glimpse into his time at Stalag 344 and Stalag 357 prisoner-of-war camps.
On 25 December 1944, Armstrong wrote a letter to his recently widowed mother, sharing his experience of Christmas that day:
Dear Mother I hope you have had a fairly good Christmas, and that the coming year will be a happy one for you and I have great hopes that it will be for all of us ... Today has been a very nice day, the ground was frozen hard so we had a rest from walking around in a mud puddle, and the sun was shining all day so although cold it was quite nice. Our Christmas parcels did not get here, although we received word that they have been sent. However we had other parcels, and quite good feeds, including a pudding made out of biscuits and fruit and stuff. The spirit in camp was very good, and it has been a good Christmas.
Many prisoners of war were particularly grateful to the Australian Red Cross. The organisation sent food parcels, which made the Christmas period feel special during very difficult times.
Australians around the world
Each Christmas, soldiers were hoping it would be the last spent away from family, friends and home.
While the war wasn't something to celebrate, Christmas was a time that could bring a little joy, a decent meal and some more leisurely moments with comrades-in-arms.
Service men and women observed Christmas in different ways.
Many Australians in the Pacific spent Christmas in the tropical heat and humidity, but it didn't stop them from enjoying traditional hot dinners. Historian Karl James wrote that for Christmas 1944 in Bougainville, the senior command of the Australian II Corps enjoyed:
turkey, ham, fresh potatoes peas and onions, followed by plum pudding and sauce. The 26th Battalion held a Christmas Eve concert party that included a jazz performance, and went swimming on Christmas Day; and the 27th Battalion ate fresh fish and roast pork from wild pigs.
[The Hard Slog, Karl James, 2012]
The Middle East in 1941
Australian war correspondent Frank Hurley captured film footage while in Palestine in November 1941. He intended it to be a lighthearted Christmas story for friends and family back home. For reasons unknown, the final film edit was never finished. The short video includes:
- the narration of a letter from a father to his family
- snippets of soldiers enjoying card games together
- funny footage of soldiers making pudding
- singing 'Merry Christmas' to Australia.
Watch the 3-minute video 'Christmas greetings from the Middle East c1941':
Papua in 1942
In Port Moresby, airmen from a Royal Australian Air Force Squadron (RAAF) toasted the health of their families back home.
Egypt in 1943
In El Daba, a serviceman finishes writing up the menu board for a special Christmas dinner for No 451 Squadron RAAF.
New Guinea in 1943
In Ramu Valley, Captain Frank Dudley Smith played Santa to the wounded soldiers.
Bougainville in 1944
On Bougainville Island, troops enjoyed a Christmas dinner together.
New Britain in 1944
On the island of New Britain, not long after the Allied landing at Jacquinot Bay, Royal Australian Navy (RAN) personnel received their Christmas parcels from the Australian Comforts Fund.
Christmas time back home
Many Australian families were celebrating Christmas while their loved ones were serving overseas. While planning their own Christmas, many people also volunteered to make gifts and hampers to send overseas.
One charity, Australian Comforts Fund (ACF), was formed in August 1916 to send parcels to the troops during World War I. It was disbanded after the end of the war but reformed during World War II.
ACF parcels included donated personal items, such as clothing, cigarettes and tobacco, razor blades, soap, toothbrushes, newspapers and magazines. At Christmas, hampers included plum pudding, cake, a tin of fruit, razor blades and tobacco.
Many of the Australian volunteers for the ACF were women who would organise the hampers and collect donations. By 1946, some 1.5 million parcels had been dispatched to troops overseas.
Meanwhile, people back home in Australia were gathering Christmas ideas from the latest newspapers.
The Australian Women's Weekly shared comforting Christmas recipes that could be made to help say Merry Christmas to troops serving around Australia and the Pacific. Recipe suggestions would pack and keep well, such as Christmas mincemeat (an adaption of traditional pastry mince pies), orange Madeira cake and candied whirligigs.
Cookies should not be the easily-crumbed variety; sweets should not be the type that ooze and cakes should be rich enough to stand journey delays.
['FESTIVE FOOD for FIGHTERS', The Australian Women's Weekly, 28 November 1942]
Another article offered low-budget recipe suggestions to celebrate at a time when some ingredients were difficult to get. A last-minute pudding made from breadcrumbs rather than flour was a good option for a warming Christmas dessert. And leftovers should be repurposed and enjoyed, ensuring no wastage.
This year cakes, puddings and mince meats will be less rich, and so should not be made more than a week or two beforehand ... On the day after Christmas there should not be a crumb of pudding, not a spot of sauce, not a shred of chicken that cannot be glamorised in a second service dish.
['Planning For Christmas', The Australian Women's Weekly, 12 December 1942]
Christmas fruit mince pie
A recipe adapted from The Australian Women's Weekly, 19 December 1942.
Shortcrust pastry cut to fit
1 1/2 cups grated apple
2 1/2 cups mixed dried fruit
3 tablespoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon mixed spice
1 teaspoon grated orange rind
1/2 teaspoon grated lemon rind
2 tablespoons orange juice
2 tablespoons sherry or brandy (optional)
A few chopped cherries fresh or preserved
Preheat oven to 230 degrees Celsius. Combine ingredients and stand in a warm place for half an hour. Line a large pie plate or two smaller dishes with half the pastry. Filled with the fruit mixture, brush pastry edges with a little milk and cover pies with the remaining pastry. Trim edges and decorate. Brush with milk or sugar syrup and then bake for 10 minutes. Reduce heat to 180 degrees Celsius and bake for another 20 minutes.
- Campbell, Emma (2012). At war for Christmas, Australian War Memorial Blog, viewed 26 November 2021 https://www.awm.gov.au/articles/blog/at-war-for-christmas
- Denadic, Hannah (2011). Australian Comforts Fund, World War II, 1939-1946, Museums Victoria Collections, viewed 26 November 2021 https://collections.museumsvictoria.com.au/articles/10608
- 1942 'FESTIVE FOOD for FIGHTERS', The Australian Women's Weekly (1933 - 1982), 28 November, p 27, viewed 26 Nov 2021, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article47225802
- 1942 'PLANNING FOR CHRISTMAS', The Australian Women's Weekly (1933 - 1982), 12 December, p 27, viewed 26 Nov 2021, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article46447123
- 1942 'CHRISTMAS MENUS ... with a minimum of work', The Australian Women's Weekly (1933 - 1982), 19 December, p 22, viewed 7 Dec 2021, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-page4720444
- James, Karl (2012). The Hard Slog: Australians in the Bougainville Campaign, 1944-45, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.