Stories of Loveday: Artists and Artisans

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Parquetry box made at Loveday

The internees of Loveday came from all walks of life and with a vast array of skills and abilities. Some were farmers, some were university professors, some were tradesmen, some were musicians. All had the same issue: how to survive the mind-numbing boredom.

Commandant Dean offered them payment of one shilling per day to work in and around the camp. There was plenty to do: tending the vegetable gardens, cutting firewood, working in the kitchens. However this was small incentive for those who supported Mussolini’s Fascist movement. They argued that working would contribute to the Allied war effort. Why, they might as well take up a rifle against the motherland as help boost enemy resources.

Dean also knew that idleness would fuel discontent. An alternative had to be found.

To that end, he had a hobbies workshop built in each of the six compounds. It was essentially a shed where the men could learn crafts such as woodcarving, parquetry or basket weaving from those skilled enough to teach.

Here, in my own writing space by the computer, are several striking timber artefacts made by my father-in-law, an internee of Camp 9. On the bookshelf behind is a framed black-and-white photo which shows him in middle-age, greying at the temples. He is gazing wistfully beyond the photographer. The shadow of a smile plays upon his lips. He seems a kindly man.

I never met my father-in-law (he passed away in 1963). But I try to imagine him as he shaped a jagged lump of mallee wood with improvised tools fashioned from wire, kerosene-tin, and cutlery into a carved picture frame or a trinket box.

How did he feel? Was he angry or accepting of imprisonment? Did he bemoan the fate of his cane farm in far north Queensland? Did he worry about his mother and siblings, trapped in the thick of the war in Italy?

Another of the internees, Lamberto Yonna, was an artist and cartoonist who captured camp life on paper. His sketches focus on Valerio, a fellow prisoner whom he met and befriended at Loveday. Valerio must have been a bit of a larrikin, for he is depicted as rather cheeky and conniving. One cartoon shows him dressed as a dandy with spats, a bowler hat and cane. The caption is in English. ‘They made a new man of me’. Valerio shall one day go to Canberra and thank them for having interned him!

Another unnamed Italian in Camp 14 sculpted huge statues of Adam and Eve. The couple are naked, reclining on stone cushions, looking relaxed. They seem to be having a casual discussion. About life? Love? The Universe? Whether to have apple pie or snake stew for dinner?

When the internees were released at the end of the war, the Adam-and-Eve artist smashed his creation to pieces. All that remains are amateur photographs, one of which is shown in Bert’s Story compiled by Pat Noyce.

Posted in Internment, Italian internees, Italians in Australia, Loveday, World War 2 | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Loveday stories: Escape Plans

Of the thousands of men interned at Loveday – Italians, Germans, and Japanese – perhaps it’s surprising that few escaped. Admittedly all had been captured as ‘enemy aliens’, in Australia or overseas, rather than on the battlefield. Many had never experienced military service, neither in the Great War nor in the Second World War, and were not duty bound as officers to escape.

Apart from one prisoner who made a dash for it while working outside the camp and subsequently drowned in Chamber’s Creek, all other escapees were swiftly recaptured, thanks to the keen eye of Aboriginal tracker, Jimmy James.

However, there would have been a quite different outcome had a bold and ingenious plan by the German internees of Camp 10 come to fruition.

It started with a request to the Camp Commandant to build a Kaffeehaus within the compound. The men were homesick, they argued. A Kaffeehaus, a lovely brick building with a big fireplace where prisoners could go for coffee and conversation, would make them feel more at home.

Commandant Dean’s philosophy was that busy minds and active bodies made a peaceful camp. He encouraged the prisoners to beautify and personalise their allocated space. The Italians had vegetable gardens and flower beds around their sleeping quarters. They kept birds in cages and made a pigeon loft. The Japanese built shrines with water features, carvings and temple lanterns.

Where was the harm?

At Loveday, situated on the ancient floodplains of the Murray River, clay for brickmaking was plentiful. A clay pit was opened at the lower end of the German compound and the internee engineers pegged out the site. Soon there was a small stack of hand-made bricks, waiting for the bricklayers to cement into place. The grand fireplace and chimney were to be the showpiece, dominating the structure. The bricklayers were fastidious; poorly-formed bricks were rejected or sent back to be remade.

Months passed and construction continued at a steady pace. The coffee house itself was finished and opened for business. Everyone, it seemed, loved coffee. Even the guards were treated to a cup as they went about their rounds.

At one end of the building, the massive fireplace was still under construction. The chimney soared above the compound, almost complete. There must have been a thousand bricks in that structure alone. That amounted to a huge amount of clay, all from one smallish pit at the end of the yard. The size of the pit never altered. Like magic, it seemed to replenish itself.

One of the guards grew suspicious.

At midnight he went to the compound to take a closer look. Outside one of the huts he saw a small wooden platform which had not been there earlier. He put his ear to the boards. The sound of burrowing was not made by termites.

In the morning, the guards raided the sleeping huts. They found dried food, water bottles, and a well-constructed tunnel that ended beyond the perimeter fence. It was ventilated using pieces of drain-pipe at intervals along its length. A crude pulley system allowed the removal of soil from the shaft. It was mostly clay.

The mass breakout was prevented. The tunnel was destroyed. The Kaffeehaus continued to do a roaring trade.

For this story, I acknowledge the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, and ‘Bert’s Story’, memoir of the late Bert Whitmore, long-time resident of Barmera and a guard at Loveday Internment Camp, compiled by Pat Noyce.

Posted in German, German internees, Internment, Loveday, World War 2 | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Leadership at Loveday

The man appointed to run the Loveday Internment Camps was Lieutenant Colonel Dean. As it turned out Edwin Thayer Dean was an inspired choice. He was an experienced and decorated military leader, having served in France in the Great War. As a civilian he was a grazier with an excellent knowledge of farming in South Australian conditions. When the Second World War erupted, he was 55 years old and unfit for overseas service.

From the outset it seems Commandant Dean’s aim was to set up and run a model camp. Early in the piece he recognised that men who were productively occupied were less likely to be troublesome. Although prisoners of war could be made to work, the Geneva Convention prevented forced labour for internees. If he wanted the inmates to contribute to the running of the camp, which was necessary for survival given their vast numbers in comparison to the soldier-guards, they had to be enticed into working.

Within six weeks of the first internee’s arrival in 1941 Dean had instituted a ‘wage’ of one shilling per day for anyone who put their hand up to work. Payment was made initially by means of a paper ‘chit’ that could only be used within the camp. Later the Government issued internment tokens in five denominations which could be traded at the canteen or used to buy items or services from other internees. Regular Australian currency was prohibited within the compound for security reasons.

Over several months, outside contractors were replaced with internee labour. For example, in September of 1941 internee workers took over camp sanitation and removal of the night soil, a service previously provided by the Barmera District Council.

By the end of the war, the Loveday camps were not just self-sufficient, they were profitable rural enterprises. More of that in another post.

For his services Dean was awarded a Member of the British Empire (M.B.E.). He died on 3rd June 1970.

 *

In each of the six camps one inmate was elected to represent the internees. Prince Alfonso del Drago of Sydney, and formerly of Rome, was elected as the leader of Camp 9.

Initially he’d made a visit to Australia in 1924. According to the Perth newspaper The Sunday Times, his mother was a sister of Queen Charlotte of Spain. While in Fremantle, the young Italian nobleman said, ‘Mussolini is a very wonderful man.’

Del Drago migrated permanently in 1926. He settled at Potts Point in inner Sydney where he continued his proud association with all things Italian. He was president of the Italian Returned Soldiers Association and the Dante Alighieri Society, in addition to being a senior member of the Fascist party in Australia.

His occupation was listed as ‘gentleman’. It seems he was a man of independent means with friends in high places. Soon after his arrest in 1940, the Italian Ambassador in Tokyo wrote to the Australian government requesting a prisoner exchange. The request was denied.

He was moved from Long Bay Gaol to the internment camps at Orange and then Hay (both in New South Wales), before being transferred to Loveday as part of the second contingent that arrived on 12th June 1941.

At the age of 58, he cut an impressive and capable figure.

*

The process of the election for Camp Leader at Camp 9 is unclear. However, an interesting outcome was recorded of a subsequent election for a Camp Leader for Camp 10, which housed German internees.

Eight candidates were listed and duly voted for in a secret ballot. The Australian Commandant of Camp 10 classed the candidates and results as follows:

Extremists                                                         Moderates

Hercksen                5 votes                                 Erler                   3 votes

Globig                    6 votes                                 Mensdorff       196 votes

Meyer                 252 votes                                 Meckler             21 votes

Plate                       1 vote

2 votes were informal. Number who voted 486.

The Commandant goes on to argue that 42 of the votes for Meyer were made by young boys of 18 to about 21 years of age, who were operating under the influence of a very strong Nazi (named) who was removed from the leadership of his previous Camp in Tatura and is a well known trouble maker.

For that reason, 42 votes were declared invalid. In addition, the Commandant claimed that he ascertained this day that many who voted for Meyer did so because of promises made in his campaign and which now they do not believe.

Consequently the role of the Camp Leader was awarded to Mensdorff.

For the above material I am indebted to the Australian War Memorial (including photo of Prince del Drago) and National Archives of Australia (including the Trove website).

Posted in Internment, Italians in Australia, Loveday, World War 2 | Leave a comment

A prison without prisoners

Camp 9, the first of the Loveday camps to be built, was constructed nearly a year before the first prisoners arrived. When Mussolini made an alliance with Hitler which sent Italy to war, the Army was instructed to build secure accommodation in preparation for an influx of Italian internees and prisoners of war.

The site at Loveday was compulsorily acquired through a five-year lease arrangement, with options to extend. It was chosen because of its location far away from the major cities, yet close to a railway line and the River Murray. Moreover the land had already been cleared and irrigation pipes had been laid.

Originally Loveday was to house 6000 internees from British Palestine and 400 so-called dangerous German-Aliens deported from the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). But this never eventuated. Instead, those prisoners were taken to other internment facilities such as Hay in New South Wales.

Camp 9 was a diamond-shaped space, 12 chains (240 metres) in diameter from north to south, with a double row of six-foot high (1.8 metre) barbed-wire fences around the perimeter. Four twenty-foot (6 metre) guard towers were strategically placed at each corner of the diamond. At night the perimeter wire was illuminated by floodlights, the sentry boxes were kept in darkness. The total area of the compound was around 10.5 acres (42,000 sq m), the size of six rugby fields.

The buildings were set out symmetrically. There were 32 sleeping huts (each for 30 men), four mess halls, two kitchens, a canteen, a hospital, an office for the camp leader (an inmate to represent the internees), a hobbies workshop, ablutions and laundry block, and latrines. In 1940 the camp was finished and ready for 1000 prisoners, but it lay empty until that first trainload of Italians from Far North Queensland arrived in June 1941.

Imagine how they must have felt as they marched in from that lonely siding near Barmera. The day they arrived, at the start of winter 1941, it was cold and wet. They’d travelled for days, cooped up in train carriages. The motley mob of around 500 – of all ages and all levels of fitness and health – had yet to walk four miles (6.5 km) through flat scrublands before they reached warmth and shelter.

Then, rising like pillars from the plain, were the guard towers. Armed army personnel would have opened the gate, allowing them into the no-man’s land between rows of barbed wire fencing. Then a second gate would have opened into the compound itself. In one of the mess halls they would have assembled. Rolls would have been called, paperwork completed, sleeping huts allocated.

How long would they be held there? No-one knew. Their fate would be determined by what happened half-way across the world. Until then, they had a roof over their heads and food on their plates. They could choose to rebel or make the best of it.

I wish to acknowledge the following source: Loveday Internment Camp Archaeological Report (1992), by Austral Archaeology Adelaide for the State Heritage Branch, Department of Environment and Planning, S.A.

Posted in Internment, Italians in Australia, Loveday, Uncategorized, World War 2 | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

They Marched into Loveday

From Brisbane it took three days by train for the internees to reach the Riverland District of South Australia.

The exact route from Queensland is not clear. According to Max Scholz, long-time resident of Barmera and eyewitness to the establishment and operation of the Loveday camps, the final leg brought them from Adelaide to a siding close to the town of Barmera, known to the locals as ‘Ebb Farmers’. From there, the men marched the remaining four miles to Camp 9. They wore the distinctive burgundy-coloured uniforms that branded them prisoners.

The first trainload of 458 Italian internees arrived on 11 June 1941, after having been transferred from the camp at Hay in western NSW. The following day a further 502 Italians arrived from Hay, including the captain and crew of the Italian ship, Romolo.

The Melbourne newspaper, The Argus, reported that the Romolo was the last Italian liner to sail from Brisbane before the war began. She had 116 crew, 21 passengers, and a valuable cargo of wool. RAAF aircraft and Australian navy ships shadowed her after she deviated from her planned course to Thursday Island. Instead she navigated a gap in the Great Barrier Reef and sailed off into the Pacific. To prevent her from being captured by the Australians and used as a warship against Italy, the crew set her alight in the middle of the ocean. She burnt and sank. The crew and passengers were picked up from lifeboats and sent to Hay Internment Camp.

The Brisbane contingent of internees arrived several days later, on 20 June 1941. Overnight the site was transformed from a ghost camp into a bustling barbed-wire town of more than one thousand men. It marked the start of an operation that by January 1943 would house 5,000 internees.

You can only wonder at the logistics of constructing accommodation and facilities for a vast number of men within a short period of time. Luckily some of the internees were experienced builders while others volunteered to work as construction labourers. So the subsequent camps (Camp 10 and the four compounds of Camp 14) were built for internees by internees, using materials supplied by the military and whatever was on hand.

The land at Loveday was stony and dry. Walls and gardens were edged with stone-pitching and irrigation pipes were run from the nearby River Murray. As with many arid areas of Australia, the soil was so rich that artificial fertiliser had little effect. Add a little water and anything would grow.

Lieutenant-Colonel Edwin Thayer Dean, a South Australian grazier, was appointed as Loveday Group Commandant. He had been awarded a D.S.O. (Distinguished Service Order) for his service in the Great War with the Field Artillery Brigade. The combination of farming know-how, vision, and respect for the men under his command made Loveday not only tolerable for the inmates, but also financially viable. But more of that later.

Sources I wish to acknowledge are: As I Remember by Max Scholz; Internment in South Australia by the Committee appointed to record the history of internment in South Australia (foreword by E.T. Dean); the Trove website; and the Australian War Memorial website.

Posted in Internment, Italians in Australia, Loveday, World War 2 | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Guilty Until Proven Innocent

From behind barbed wire at the Gaythorne camp in Brisbane, Giuseppe wrote a letter of appeal against internment, a one-pager covering six points. In brief, he argued that he’d been a law-abiding citizen for eighteen years, was not a member of any political organisation, and needed his freedom to take care of their business. It was dated 13th February 1941. At that time his brother had already been interned for several months, leaving him to run the cane farm, the ‘Italian Boarding House’, and their other properties alone.

The appeal hearing took place on 28th March 1941 in the bankruptcy court in Brisbane. The advisory committee appointed by the Minister consisted of a judge (Justice Philp) and two others, plus the services of an interpreter.

The briefing paper to the committee provided the following summary of evidence:

  • a report from the police that said Giuseppe was ‘a bad class of Italian and a dangerous type’
  • two police searches of his house that produced books and documents in Italian, some of which had been brought back from Italy by his brother in 1939
  • a M.R.O.* report that ‘this man is a Sicilian and prior to the war with Italy was a frequent visitor to this Boarding House where the majority of the boarders were Sicilians and he was the main spokesman at meetings there’.

*M.R.O.s (Military Reporting Officers) were civilians in key positions who reported suspicious activity to the military. They included harbour masters and railway station masters. The boarding house owned by the brothers was situated on the main road, across from the railway station.

During the hearing, Giuseppe was quizzed at length about his family in Italy, the property he owned, and the items confiscated from the house he shared with his brother.

When asked if he had a short wave wireless set (a banned item for enemy aliens), Giuseppe replied, ‘Yes … but the valves are burnt out.’

The interrogation continued. ‘Has he ever worn a black shirt?’ (Black was the colour worn by Mussolini’s fascist organisation.)

The interpreter replied on his behalf. ‘No, only when his father died.’

‘Did he wear a fascist badge when his father died?’ The snide remark, recorded in the court transcript, was duly translated.

‘No, he has never worn that.’

Four days later the committee sent the following recommendation to the Minister:
That objector be kept in internment as he has failed to satisfy us that it is neither necessary nor advisable for the public safety or the defense (sic) of the Commonwealth that he should continue to be detained.

On 13th April 1941, the Minister himself (Percy Spender) signed a one-sentence memo that committed Giuseppe to almost three more years of imprisonment.

Dejected, he wrote to his brother in Hay internment camp. It was intercepted by military security and translated into English.
… I have been told the result of my appeal. It was negative. They put us in for jealousy and nothing else. In spite of our being proud of living here, they had the audacity to intern us after our having been good English citizens …

A comment is written at the bottom of the typed page, possibly by an army administrator at Hay. ‘Brother’s case recently heard and leave refused. The direct evidence of the policeman explodes good citizenship claim.’

For the above content, I am indebted to the National Archives of Australia.

Posted in Internment, Italians in Australia, Loveday, World War 2 | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Under military guard

When the trains – loaded with Italian captives from the north of Queensland – arrived in Brisbane, responsibility passed from the police to the military.

It is unclear how the internees were transported through the Brisbane suburbs to Gaythorne, where an internment camp had been set up adjacent to the existing army barracks. Most likely the internment trains were diverted onto the Ferny Grove line and their human cargo was deposited at the Gaythorne Station, directly opposite the campsite.

Once under military control, life improved immensely. Internees were covered by the Geneva Convention (1929), which set out rules and standards for the treatment of prisoners of war (PoWs). In short, their accommodation and rations had to be of similar quality and quantity to their captors. They were to be treated respectfully and allowed to keep possessions of a personal nature. They could be offered employment (such as food preparation, wood-cutting) for an agreed daily rate of pay, but working was not compulsory.

At Gaythorne camp (now part of Gallipoli Barracks Enoggera), the men were issued with second-hand army uniforms, dyed the colour burgundy for the sake of security. They were given access to interpreters and scribes who helped them write letters of objection against their internment orders.

On 15 June 1940, just four days after his capture, Angelo was amongst the first Italians to arrive at Gaythorne. Nine days later his letter of appeal – handwritten in pen-and-ink by a scribe and signed by him in a faltering hand – was delivered to the camp Commandant.

Sir,
I hereby beg to appeal against my internement (sic) to this Camp on the following reasons: I have been in Australia for the last 18 yaers (sic), I am a partner with my brother on a Sugar Farm, I have always been a good law abiding Citizen, I cannot read or write even in the English language. I never interfered in any politics which I do not undestand (sic). As to my references I will refer you to the following persons … (a list of five non-Italian residents was provided) …
Hoping to be succsesfull (sic) in my appeal I thank you.

Five months later he was transferred to Hay internment camp in the dry central west of New South Wales. In May 1941, he sent a letter (intercepted and translated into English) to his brother Giuseppe, who was by then interned at Gaythorne.

Apropos of my appeal – Yesterday I was sentended (sic) to internment for the duration of the war. They did not even accept my application. I expected all this. I was the last of whose (sic) who came from Babinda to receive my sentence. Now, however, we resign ourselves to spend the whole period patiently and tranquilly and comfort ourselves in the destiny that is coming. Let us hope it will not last long and that we shall be together again forever.

On 12 June 1941 Angelo was transferred to Loveday internment camp, where he was reunited with his brother. He remained there until his release at the end of Italy’s war in October 1943.

Posted in Internment, Italians in Australia, Loveday, World War 2 | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment