Christmas for Australians away from home during World War II

 

It's not easy being away from family and friends while serving overseas. At special times, such as birthdays and Christmas, it can be even 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.

Letter from Herbert Huie Armstrong to his mother, Stalag 357, Germany, 25 December 1944

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.

Allied prisoners of war cook the contents of a Red Cross food parcel they received in captivity, POW Campo No 65 Gravina Altamura, Italy, 1942. AWM P00866.001

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.

Wearing Christmas party hats sent by mail from Tasmania, airmen from a RAAF Squadron toast a drink of lemon juice cordial to the people back home in Australia, 25 December 1942, Port Moresby, Papua. Some of the men pictured left to right are 42821 Leading Aircraftman (LAC) Arthur Derrick Walpole Loane, 38866 LAC Ewen Thomas Blackman, 37052 LAC Donald David Angus, 50865 LAC Reginald Ernest Fay, 28906 Corporal Ross Stanley Roberts and 13937 LAC Norman Sinclair Graham. AWM OG0329

Egypt in 1943

In El Daba, a serviceman finishes writing up the menu board for a special Christmas dinner for No 451 Squadron RAAF.

At an airfield on the Egyptian coast, a member of No 451 Squadron RAAF puts the finishing touches to a menu board he has painted for the squadron's 1943 Christmas dinner. The squadron was involved in the defence of the Nile Delta and in protecting Allied convoys in the Mediterranean Sea. 25 December 1943, El Daba, Egypt. AWM P00712.013

New Guinea in 1943

In Ramu Valley, Captain Frank Dudley Smith played Santa to the wounded soldiers.

Captain Frank Dudley Smith dressed as Santa Claus hands gifts to patients of the 2/6th Australian Field Ambulance on 25 December 1943, Ramu Valley, New Guinea. Some of the men pictured from left to right are NX10473 Corporal William Alexander Verney Smith (2); Corporal R Roessler (5) and VX16177 Warrant Officer 2 Bertram Keith Case (6). AWM 062770

Bougainville in 1944

On Bougainville Island, troops enjoyed a Christmas dinner together.

Troops of the 9th Infantry battalion enjoying a specially cooked festive meal on 25 December 1944, Bougainville Island. AWM 077714

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.

Australian naval personnel receiving their Christmas parcels at the Australian Comforts Fund tent at the 5th Base Sub Area, Palmalmal Plantation near Jacquinot Bay, eastern New Britain, 25 December 1944. AWM 078018

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.

Ingredients

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

Directions

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.

Sources

  • 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.

Last updated: 29 July 2022

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2022), Christmas for Australians away from home during World War II, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 12 August 2022, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/wars-and-missions/world-war-ii-1939-1945/resources/christmas
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