Fact sheet 198 – Cowra outbreak, 1944

On 5 August 1944 Japanese Prisoners of War (POWs) housed in the detention camp in Cowra, New South Wales staged an outbreak. 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 outbreak 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. Privates Benjamin Gower Hardy, Ralph Jones and Charles Henry Shepherd were killed in the breakout. 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. This summary indicated that:

  • conditions at the camp were fully in accordance with the International Convention;
  • 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;
  • 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
  • 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 outbreak of POWs from the Cowra camp held by the National Archives, and by the Australian War Memorial is provided in the table below.

For more information

You can obtain more information about the record series listed above (and the items within the series) from RecordSearch, the Archives database. Follow the links in the series lists to go directly to information on that series. You can also use RecordSearch to find out about the agencies that created the records and to locate more records on your subject. You might also explore PhotoSearch to find out if there are photos pertaining to your subject.

RecordSearch and PhotoSearch are available online or in all Archives reading rooms. Reference staff are available in the reading rooms to help you, or email ref@naa.gov.au.