VE 1945 – the roadmap out of lockdown for one Australian soldier

75 years ago Europe was just coming out of ‘lockdown’ after Victory in Europe was declared on 8th May 1945. After nearly six years, the war in Europe was finally over. On 16th May 1945, my great uncle Private Donald Davies was officially declared in his Australian war record a ‘Recovered POW’. As a Prisoner of War for four years in total, first in Campo 57 in Italy and later the notorious Stalag-344 near Lamsdorf, Germany he experienced the ultimate lockdown. VE Day 2020 commemorations of the defeat of the Nazis in Europe have been muted due to the devastation across Europe brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. As nations around the world are currently struggling to develop the road out of COVID-19 lockdown it is worth reflecting on the road out of POW lockdown for one ordinary Australian soldier 75 years ago.   

Donald Walter Davies

Following the outbreak of World War II on 3rd September 1939, the Australian government announced the decision to raise the Second Australian Imperial Force for overseas service.

The 2/15th Battalion was an Australian Infantry Battalion that consisted predominately of rural workers from central western Queensland, drawn from 11 Brigade CMF – 26 Battalion (Longreach, Hughenden and Cloncurry), 31 Battalion (Townsville region) and 42nd Battalion (Capricornia). John Mackenzie-Smith documents:

They were scarcely trained and severely deprived of arms which consisted of antiquated .303 Enfield rifles and bayonets, one Tommy gun, one-clapped-out 2 inch mortar, one Bren gun and probably grenades.

My great uncle Donald Walter Davies was a single labourer who enlisted in the 2/15th Australian Infantry Battalion on 1st June 1940 in Cairns, north Queensland. He was 21 years and 2 months old. By 7th June 1940 he was undertaking basic training at Redbank, Brisbane. On 26th December 1940, Private Davies embarked from Sydney arriving in the Middle East on 3rd February 1941. He was not to return to Australia until 8th August 1945. He was to be enlisted for 1956 days, which included 61 days active service in Australia and 1687 days in active service overseas.

The Italian Army had occupied the North African port of Tobruk until its capture by Commonwealth forces in early January 1941. The Italians were driven back across Libya, where the Australian 6th Division captured Bardia, Tobruk and Benghazi. More than 130,000 demoralised Italian troops surrendered

As the Italians collapsed in North Africa, Hitler was forced to intervene. In February 1941 General Erwin Rommel and his Afrika Korps arrived in North Africa to support the Italians. Rommel was a remarkable and brilliant commander. The British advance had continued until Rommel’s counteroffensive on 31st March drove the British and Commonwealth troops back to the borders of Egypt, although a defiant force of 14,000 Australian troops as well as a smaller number of British troops held the port of Tobruk against the Germans in a siege that lasted for eight months.

In April 1941, things were going well for the German armed forces. Yugoslavia and Greece were falling, and plans for the conquest of the Soviet Union were moving forward. In a series of earlier campaigns, they had conquered Poland, the Low Countries, Norway, and France. Though tentative plans to invade England had been shelved after the desperate and heroic British defense in the Battle of Britain, U-boats were now trying to slowly starve the stubborn British into submission.

As British and Commonwealth forces fell back, the Australian 9th Division, only recently called to the front from Palestine, was ordered to move to Tobruk from its position in Derna to the west. By dawn on 7th April 1941, most of the Ninth Division was east of Derna. During breakfast the 2/15th Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel R.F. Martin, along with his headquarters staff and part of the 8th Light Anti-aircraft Battery, had been surprised by a company of German panzers. After a short sharp fight, nine officers and 215 men from the 2/15th became the latest prisoners of the Third Reich. It is most likely one of these was Private Donald Davies.

By the evening of 9th April 1941 the Ninth Division, accompanied by a multitude of supporting troops and stragglers, withdrew stoically into the Tobruk perimeter. General Lavarack’s orders on 8th April 1941 included:

Your main task will be to hold the enemy’s advance at Tobruk, in order to give time for the assembly of reinforcements, especially of armoured troops for the defence of Egypt … To gain time for the assembly of the required reinforcements, it may be necessary to hold Tobruk for about two months.”

Private Donald Davies’ official war record states he was reported ‘Missing in Action. Believed POW’ on 13th April 1941. He was believed to have been captured at Derna on 7th April 1941, one week before the important Easter Monday Battle.

On 14th April 1941, Private Donald Davies’ comrades still in the field from A Coy, 2/15th, 9th Division were headquartered as the brigade reserve less than four miles behind the Red Line, where the roads to El Adem and Bardia intersected. In 2014, John Mackenzie-Smith documented the pivotal role A Coy, 2/15th, 9 Division of scarcely trained and basically equipped soldiers from Queensland’s western and provincial areas had against the superbly armed, battle-hardened unit of the Wehrmacht that had recently been involved in the blitzkrieg which brought Western Europe to its knees. that delivered the final blow.

In 2014, John Mackenzie-Smith documented in Tobruk’s Easter Battle 1941 : the forgotten fifteenth’s date with Rommel’s champion how the initial Australian and British victory over Rommel’s Afrika Korps on Easter Monday 1941 (14th April 1941) at Tobruk was Germany’s first defeat in World War 11. In the desert sands outside the coastal city of Tobruk the Axis juggernaut would learn of the tenacity and maturing skill of their British and Commonwealth opponents.

It was not until 10 July 1941 that there was official confirmation that Private Donald Davies a ‘Prisoner of war’, or POW.

Uncle Don Davies

Some 8591 Australians became prisoners of war of the Germans and Italians in the Second World War. They included airmen and soldiers of the 6th, 7th and 9th Divisions. Most of these were infantry captured in 1941 during the campaigns against the Germans and Italians in North Africa, Greece, Crete and Syria. Unlike the thousands captured in Singapore, these men were usually taken in small groups, and sometimes as individuals, such as shot down RAAF aircrew. Those POWs captured in North Africa were sent to Italian, Greek or German camps. Most remained captive for more than three years and endured cold, hunger and a spirit-crushing boredom. Private Donald Davies’ POW captivity was to last a little over four years.

In the first year it was unclear where he was held. But by January 1942 he was in the Italian internment camp, Campo 57 at Gruppignano. From late 1943 until early 1945 he was in German Stalag 344 at Lamsdorf. His was to be a long war.

When most Australians today think of POWs, they will probably recall stories of the men and women who were prisoners of the Imperial Japanese Army during the Second World War. There are some understandable reasons for this: they represented the highest number group of Australian POWs of any conflict, then or since; and their experience was of unprecedented brutality and horror.

Conflict Australian POWs captured Mortality Rate
Boer War (1899-1902) ~104* Unknown
World War One (1914-1918) 4,070 9%
World War Two (1939-1945) 22,376 (Pacific)

8,591 (Europe)

36%

3%

Korean War (1950-1953) 29 3%

There were two main reasons why Australian POWs in Europe died in such low numbers compared to their Japanese counterparts: they were generally better treated by the Germans and Italians, and they had access to regular Red Cross parcels as well as medical supplies. There was also the possibility of being repatriated well before the war was over, due to reciprocal prisoner exchanges between the Allied and Axis countries. POWs were also allowed to regularly send and receive mail – an important morale booster and a way of keeping in touch with loved ones at home. While there are elements of truth in these generalisations, comparisons between the two groups only serve to diminish the genuine suffering of European POWs. They also returned to a public that was focussed on the stories of Australian POWs in the Pacific and, apart from the stories of the escapes from the German camps, knew little about life in captivity in Europe.

There is little known officially of Private Donald Davies’ first few years as a POW. It is likely that at first he was held in a temporary camp in Greece. The first mention in his war record is on 2 September 1943 as being held in Italian Internment Camp 57. Australian POWs who were not officers were held in Campo 57, at Gruppignano near Udine in north-east Italy. The camp was commanded by the very harsh Colonel Vittorio Calcaterra. This Italian officer died before he was able to be charged with war crimes.

The first evidence of where Private Donald Davies was being held captive was a letter written in January 1942 from Campo 57 to his mother in north Queensland. In this first letter he refers to Audrey who he would marry after the war and Nell, his sister. He talks here of not yet receiving any parcels from home but tries to keep the letter with a hopeful tone. This would have been his first white winter – as a north Queensland boy he would never have experienced the cold from snow before.

January 31 1942

Dear Mother

There is still very little I can say in a letter but here goes to do the best I can. Up to the time of writing I have not received any parcel but am still hoping. I have had one letter from Audrey and one [?] message. Twice this week it has snowed in noticeable quantities. I have only had one message from Nell. I can’t write to everyone as I only get paper for one letter per week and it is better for one to get all and pass the news on. Then I love to write to occasionally to Audrey. Then to add to my tale of woe I have a very bad cold which makes things pretty bad but still I’ll see it out as I fail to see how this can go much longer. Well this is about all so I must close with

Love

Don

In the second letter to his mother he again refers to not receiving any packages from home. However he does receive regular food parcels from the Red Cross. This letter also has been censored with 2-3 lines blacked out. The context of the letter suggests it was a critical comment about the Italian authorities holding up Red Cross parcel deliveries.

February 22 1942

Dear Mum

Just the usual note to show the usual. I am as usual quite well. I have not received any parcel from you yet. The worst of the winter is now over and I think I have weathered it quite well. The chilblains are a bit painful though. I had my first letter from Nell this morning. It has taken a long while to reach me being several months old. Wrote to Agnes last week. I only remember one girl of that name and believe me she is easy on the eyes. Yes we get a parcel of food from the Red Cross weekly. Theoretically that is. Sometimes owing to a hitch somewhere or other they don’t turn up. [Black censored 2-3 lines] This is about the lot so I’ll say cheerio.

Love

Don

In the third letter to his mother he discusses social activity at Campo 57 and some of his health problems. Food was poor in the Italian internment camps, and housing was crowded and insanitary. Although there is reference to a dentist in the letter the prisoners usually had to improvise their own medical treatment to cope with both pneumonia and kidney disease. There is a sense of his growing depression and frustration at the lack of contact with family and the outside world.

19 May 1943

Dear Mum

Things have all quite a lot improved recently. Since I last wrote you I have had a slight attack of dysentery. Nothing to worry over though and I am as well as ever again. Also I am having a spot of trouble with my teeth. The dentist says that most of it is due to that fracture I had at college. I am not getting very much mail these days but I am glad of what little I do get. I have taken on the boxing again. I have a chap teaching me who has been in with most of the good men at home. My boxing sense is as good as ever but I am fearfully slow with my hands. That can be easily rectified though. Since my capture I have had two letters from Nell. Not a bad average is it. I am getting a little tired of writing and getting no reply. You might mention it to her next time you write. This is all for this time so will close with kind regards to all.

All love

Don

The final surviving piece of correspondence is a postcard to his sister-in-law, Ann. Although it is brief the message suggests that parcels and messages from family was now getting through to the POWs in Italy.

5 July 1943 [Postcard]

My Dear Ann

Had a letter from you a while back. Thanks for the card of the kid. He sure is a fine boy. Had a parcel from Mum dated 4th January. Am doing quite well at present.

See you soon

Love

Don

In September 1943 Italy surrendered to the Allied forces. Some prisoners were able to escape to Allied lines in the confusion. Those unable to get away were rounded up and sent to Germany. Private Donald Davies was one of the Australian POWs who was to eventually find himself in a German POW camp.

When Italy capitulated in 1943, all POWs in Italian hands were transferred to German control. POWs were held in over 40 major camps all over Germany, from Lithuania to the Rhine. About 8,600 Australians became prisoners of the Germans. They included 7,115 Australian soldiers captured in North Africa or Greece; 1,476 airmen, mostly bomber aircrew shot down over Germany in 1943–45; and a few sailors.

Private Donald Davies’ official war record reports on 10 May 1944 he was interned as a POW in STALAG 344 at Lamsdorf, Germany. While officers and other ranks were rarely separated into different camps in Japanese captivity, in the German case this was the rule: officers went to ‘oflags’ and all other ranks to ‘stalags’. Men accepted unaccustomed responsibility: one Australian warrant officer became the de facto commanding officer of 11,000 Allied prisoners of war in Wolfsberg camp.

Guardroom at entrance to Stalag 344

Stalag VIII-B was a notorious German POW camp, later renumbered Stalag-344. It was located near the small town of Lamsdorf in Silesia. The camp initially occupied barracks built to house British and French prisoners in World War 1. It was opened in 1939 to house Polish prisoners. There were approximately 100,000 prisoners from Australia, Belgium, British India, British Palestine, Canada, France, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, South Africa, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, the United States and Yugoslavia pass through this camp. By 1943, the famous camp for Allied flight personnel in Sagan Stalag Luft III had become so overcrowded that about 1,000, mostly non-commissioned flight personnel, were transferred to Lamsdorf. In 1943, the Lamsdorf camp was split up and renumbered Stalag 344.

 

In January 1945, the Soviet armies advanced into Germany and reached Stalag 344 on 17th March 1945. What was the chain of events at this time for Private Donald Davies is unknown except that by 27th May 1945 he was back in the United Kingdom. It is a good assumption that he was one of the fortunate POWs in that during the months of March and April 1945 he must have got far enough to the west to be ‘liberated’ by the American army. When the Soviets ‘liberated’ the eastern German POW camps many of the POWs still present were marched westward in groups of 200 to 300. This was the so-called ‘Death March’. As a result many POWs died from the bitter cold and exhaustion.

Private Donald Davies from north Queensland had a long war comprised of 8 weeks and four days active duty in North Africa followed by over four years in Italian and German POW camps. Family legend has that he was valuable in the Italian POW camps due to his understanding of Italian having grown up around the large communities of Italian immigrants who had around the cane fields of north Queensland in the 1930s. The legend continues that because of his linguistic expertise he was involved in a number of escapes. As a result of this he was sent to a more secure German POW camp. This seems a little fanciful as not only does the Italian peninsula contain so many different dialects but he was actually transferred to Germany as a result of the capitulation of Italy in 1943. What is intriguing though is the events that led from him being ‘liberated’ from Stalag 344 to his arrival in the United Kingdom. On this we have no information.

It states in his war record that Private Donald Davies was officially declared a ‘Recovered POW” on 16th May 1945 – eight days after VE Day on 8th May 1945. He spent time in England where the photograph of him in Scottish dress was taken on 28th May 1945.

Uncle Don 2

However, on 4th July 1945 he embarked from the United Kingdom for Sydney arriving on 2nd August 1945. On 8th October 1945, Private Donald Davies was discharged from the 9th Division. He went on to have a long and successful life.

On this 75th anniversary of his official notification of being declared a ‘Recovered POW’ from the Battle for Tobruk it is worth spending a moment and reflecting on the service of one ordinary Australian soldier and his long road out of POW lockdown.

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