Cowra, New South Wales (1941–47)

The Cowra prisoner of war and internment camp was located several kilometres outside the town of Cowra in south-central New South Wales. It officially began operation in June 1941, but it was several months before the first prisoners arrived. Cowra was purpose-built to house prisoners of war, mostly Italians, brought to Australia from overseas and it operated primarily as a prisoner of war rather than an internment camp. Civilians interned at Cowra included local Italians and nearly 500 Javanese and Indonesians.

Indonesian internees and their children at Cowra, 1943 (AWM: 030150/08)

Cowra is most famous for the events of 5 August 1944 when Japanese prisoners staged a breakout during which over 300 escaped outright and more than 250 were killed. This dramatic incident has overshadowed the experiences of others interned at Cowra.

The prisoner of war camp at Cowra, 1944 (AWM 064284)

The camp was divided into four compounds, each surrounded by high barbed wire fences. Compounds A and C housed Italians, compound B housed Japanese soldiers and non-commissioned officers, and compound D housed Japanese officers as well as Koreans and Chinese from Formosa (Taiwan) who had been interned as Japanese. The first prisoners at Cowra lived in tents while their huts were being completed. Eventually, Cowra had its own stores, kitchen, mess huts, showers and latrines, recreation huts, shops, playing fields and vegetable gardens.

Most of those held at Cowra were repatriated at the end of the war. The last prisoners left Cowra in January 1947.

Records

The National Archives holds records about the Cowra camp. A selection of these is listed below.

Collection references

* These files have been digitised and are available online. Click on the reference number above to retrieve the item from the RecordSearch database. Then click on the 'View digital copy' icon to view the online file. It will appear in a new browser window.

 'Aliens and others': World War ll internment project

The National Archives of Australia is a partner in an Australian Research Council project titled ‘Aliens and others: representing citizenship and internment in Australia during World War II', headed by Dr Ilma O'Brien of the Victoria University of Technology.

As part of the project, Dr O'Brien is interested in collecting personal memories of World War II internment in Australia. If you have personal or family memories, photographs or documents about internment you would like to share, further information about the project can be obtained from Dr O'Brien at ilma.obrien@latrobe.edu.au.

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2017