Cowra breakout, 1944 – Fact sheet 198

On 5 August 1944, Japanese prisoners of war (POWs) housed in the detention camp in Cowra, New South Wales staged a breakout. Armed with improvised weapons including baseball bats and sharpened mess knives, they stormed the perimeter fences and overcame the machine gun posts. Never likely to be successful, the breakout resulted in the death of 231 Japanese prisoners with a further 108 wounded. All survivors were recaptured in the surrounding countryside in the days that followed.

Four Australians were killed in the breakout – Privates Benjamin Gower Hardy, Ralph Jones and Charles Henry Shepherd. Lieutenant Harry Doncaster was killed when ambushed during the recapture of the prisoners. Hardy and Jones were posthumously awarded the George Cross.

A Military Court of Inquiry investigated the incident, and a summary of its findings was read to the House of Representatives by Prime Minister John Curtin on 8 September 1944. The summary indicated the following:

  • that conditions at the camp were fully in accordance with the International Convention;
  • that no complaints regarding treatment had been made by or on behalf of the Japanese prior to the incident, which appeared to have been a premeditated and concerted plan of the prisoners;
  • that the actions of the Australian garrison in resisting the attack averted greater loss of life, and that firing ceased as soon as control was assured; and
  • that many of the dead had died by suicide or by the hand of other prisoners, and that many of the wounded had suffered self-inflicted wounds.
Curtin’s statement also noted that the attack was characterised by ‘a suicidal disregard of life’.

Record holdings

A selection of the most significant records about the breakout of POWs from the Cowra camp held by the National Archives, and by the Australian War Memorial, is provided in the table below.

Canberra

Sydney

 Title or description of recordDate rangeSeries number
ItemJapanese Cowra trials1944–45SP196/1, 1 part 1
ItemJapanese Cowra trials 1944–45SP196/1, 1 part 2
ItemJapanese Cowra trials1944–45SP196/1, 1 part 3
ItemJapanese Cowra trials1944–45SP196/1, 1 part 4
ItemJapanese Cowra trials1944–45SP196/1, 1 part 5
ItemJapanese Cowra trials1944–45SP196/1, 1 part 6
ItemJapanese Cowra trials1944–45SP196/1, 1 part 7
ItemJapanese Cowra trials1944–45SP196/1, 1 part 8
ItemBurials – prisoners of war – Cowra War Cemetery1944SP459/1, 445/1/6640
ItemAdministrative instructions, general correspondence, signals etc – Japanese prisoners of war outbreak, Cowra1944SP1048/7, S56/2/1094
ItemProceedings of a court of inquiry into the search for and recapture of certain prisoners of war who escaped from Cowra POW camp on 5 August 1944, and the death of Lieutenant Harry Doncaster1944SP1048/7, S56/2/1125
ItemJapanese prisoner of war outbreak, Cowra, 19441944SP1048/7, S56/2/1302
ItemCowra internment camp1944SP1714/1, N45633 part 6

Melbourne

Australian War Memorial, Canberra

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2016