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.