Skip to Main Content

WWII & Australia: Prisoners of War

Investigate Australia's role in WWII with these resources

File:Australian 2-29th Battalion ex prisoners of war (AWM photo 117112).jpg  - Wikimedia Commons

Source: WikiMedia Commons

Throughout World War II, thousands upon thousands of soldiers, nurses and civilians were taken as prisoners of war. These prisoners often faced horrific conditions, battling against violence, starvation, disease and overcrowding. Read through the resources below to learn mroe about prisoners of war during World War II.

Australian prisoners of war 1941-1945 (ANZAC Portal, 2007, March)

This is a part of the series, Australians in the Pacific War. It gives a narrative and pictorial account of life in POW camps north of Australia during World War II. Includes Changi, the Burma-Thailand Railway, Sandakan, Timor, Ambon, Rabaul and Japan, and the prisoners who died at sea.

What life was like for POWs in Europe during World War II (Imperial War Museums, n.d.)

More than 170,000 British prisoners of war (POWs) were taken by German and Italian forces during the Second World War. Most were captured in a string of defeats in France, North Africa and the Balkans between 1940 and 1942. They were held in a network of POW camps stretching from Nazi-occupied Poland to Italy. Read through this article to learn more.

Stolen Years: Australian prisoners of war - prisoners of the Japanese (Australian War Memorial, n.d.)

Over 22,000 Australian servicemen and almost forty nurses were captured by the Japanese. Most were captured early in 1942 when Japanese forces captured Malaya, Singapore, New Britain, and the Netherlands East Indies. Hundreds of Australian civilians were also interned. Read through these resources to learn more.

Experiences of a Prisoner of a War: World War 2 in Germany (Journal of Military and Veteran Health, 2010, April)

This is as an account of one soldier's experience as a prisoner of war in Germany.

Prisoners of war in Britain during WW2: where were they held? (History Extra, 2021, May 17)

Richard Smyth and Professor Bob Moore visit Eden Camp in North Yorkshire, where captured German and Italian soldiers were held prisoner during the Second World War. Read through this article to learn more.

Remembering POWs in the Pacific, WWII: two stories from 2/10 Field Regiment (State Library of NSW, 2020, November 9)

Of the 30,000 Australian service personnel who became prisoners of war (POWs) in World War Two (WWII), 22,000 were captives of the Empire of Japan. These POWs and other civilians were detained in camps or used as forced labour across the Asia-Pacific region, from Burma to Japan, Singapore to New Britain, Formosa to Timor. By the end of WWII, almost a third of these Australian POWs in the Pacific had perished and many of those who survived would live with lifelong scars, both physical and psychological. Their stories often feature brutal conquest and suffering, yet POWs did more than just endure traumatic experiences; they also demonstrated resourcefulness, a spirit of defiance and camaraderie. Ultimately, through their service and fight for survival, they inculcated an imperative to value our shared humanity and the dignity of life, even in times of war. Read through this article to learn more.

Prisoner of war camps (The Holocaust Explained, n.d.)

Allied military officers and personnel who were captured by, or surrendered to, the Nazis were also imprisoned in camps. These camps were called prisoner of war, or POW, camps. Over one thousand prisoner of war camps existed throughout the Third Reich during the Second World War. Read through this website to learn more.

Australia's largest World War II POW and internment camp marks 80th anniversary (ABC, 2021, March 24)

The Loveday Internment Camp, built near the town of Cobdogla, was established in 1941 and became the largest establishment housing internees and prisoners of war in Australia.  During the conflict, the Australian and United Kingdom governments arrested citizens born in enemy countries, even if they had done nothing wrong, and housed them in camps, like Loveday, across the country.  Up to 26 men slept in makeshift cabins, with POWs joining the internees as the war progressed. Read through this article to learn more.

Major Arthur Moon (State Library of Victoria, n.d.)

One man who did much to improve the survival rate of prisoners in POW camps was the Australian Army doctor Major Arthur Moon. Moon was captured in Java when he refused to abandon his patients. For the rest of the war, he was moved to many different work camps in Thailand, but stayed longest in the Tamuang camp, near the Bangkok end of the railway. Read through this article to learn more about Major Arthur Moon and the conditions in POW camps in the Pacific.

Australian prisoners of war (Sir John Monash Centre, 2018, June 30)

When enlisting, few soldiers, sailors and aircrew would ever expect to become a prisoner and spend the war at the whim of the enemy. Yet just as death and disease are an inevitable part of warfare, so too is captivity. Read through this article to learn more.

Changi (Australian War Memorial, n.d.)

The name Changi is synonymous with the suffering of Australian prisoners of the Japanese during the Second World War. This is ironic, since for most of the war in the Pacific Changi was, in reality, one of the most benign of the Japanese prisoner-of-war camps; its privations were relatively minor compared to those of others, particularly those on the Burma–Thailand railway. Read through this article to learn more about the Changi camp and prison.

Sandakan 1942-1945 (Department of Veterans' Affairs, 2008)

Sandakan is today a large city on the north-east coast of the island of Borneo. In 1945 Borneo was still occupied by the Japanese, and at the end of the Pacific war in August, Australian units arrived in the Sandakan area to accept the surrender of the Japanese garrison. Just 16 kilometres out of Sandakan, in a north-westerly direction, was the Sandakan POW Camp. Here, between 1942 and 1945, the Japanese had at different times held over 2700 Australian and British prisoners. The POWs were brought from Singapore to Borneo to construct a military airfield close to the camp. By 15 August 1945, however, there were no POWs left at Sandakan Camp. Read through this book to learn more.

The treatment of Soviet POWs:starvation, disease and shootings, June 1941 - January 1942 (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, n.d.)

From the very beginning, German policy on the treatment of Soviet prisoners of war (POWs) was determined by Nazi ideology. German political and military leaders regarded Soviet POWs not only as racially less valuable but as potential enemies, obstacles in the German conquest of "living space." The Nazi regime claimed that it was under no obligation for the humane care of prisoners of war from the Red Army because the Soviet Union had not ratified the 1929 Geneva Convention on Prisoners of War, nor had it specifically declared its commitment to the 1907 Hague Convention on the Rules of War. Technically both nations, therefore, were bound only by the general international law of war as it had developed in modern times. Yet even under that law, prisoners of war were to be protected. Read through this article to learn more.

Nurse POWs: angels of Bataan and Corregidor (National WWII Museum, 2021, May 5)

The “Angels of Bataan and Corregidor,” 77 American military nurses taken prisoner in the Philippines, provided lifesaving care to the civilian POWs in the Santo Tomas and Los Banos Internment Camps where they were held from 1942-1945. Read through this article to learn more.

Pacific POW witness (National WWII Museum, 2021, April 28)

POWs were a major focus of the war crimes trials in the Pacific. Former POWs like Sgt. Peter Dzimba were called on to speak for those who could no longer speak for themselves. Read through this article to learn more.

The fate of Japanese POWs in Soviet captivity (National WWII Museum, 2020, April 28)

The Soviets inflicted terrible brutality on their Japanese captives. Read through this article to learn more.

The liberation of Stalag Luft I (National WWII Museum, 2020, April 30)

When POWs awoke at Stalag Luft I on May 1, 1945, the German guards had disappeared and a hand sewn Stars and Stripes replaced the swastika on the flagpole. The Red Army arrived a day later. Read through this article to learn more.

Australian nurses in captivity (Australian War Memorial, n.d.)

The first six Australian nurses were captured at Rabaul in January 1942. Shortly before Singapore fell, 65 sisters were evacuated on the Vyner Brooke. Twelve died when the ship was sunk off Sumatra and 21 in the Banka Island massacre on 16 February 1942.

Thirty-two of these nurses became prisoners of war, held with civilian internees in camps on and around Palembang, in Sumatra. Conditions were grim, and over three and a half years of captivity the women suffered from tropical disease and the effects of malnutrition. Read through this article to learn more.

Burma-Thai railway (National Museum of Australia, n.d.)

From October 1942 to October 1943 the Japanese army forced about 60,000 Allied prisoners of war (POWs) – including 13,000 Australians and roughly 200,000 civilians, mostly Burmese and Malayans – to build a railway linking Thailand and Burma.

The railway has entered the Australian consciousness as a byword for courage and resilience in the face of extreme hardship and cruelty. About 2800 Australians died building the railway. Read through this website to learn more.

Life and death on the Thai-Burma railway (ABC, 2016, October 3)

Seventy years after he was freed, an Australian prisoner of war looks back on his harrowing experience in the jungle in World War II.

Hellfire Pass (ANZAC Portal, n.d.)


Hellfire Pass (Konyu Cutting) was the deepest and longest cutting along the entire length of the Burma-Thailand railway which over the years came to symbolise the suffering and maltreatment of Australian prisoners of the Japanese across the Asia–Pacific region.

The name 'Hellfire Pass' came from the appalling working conditions at and around this site, some 150 kilometres from the start of the railway at Nong Pladuk. In mid-1943, when the Japanese introduced a 'Speedo' to meet tight deadlines for completing the railway, prisoners were forced to work long hours into the night. Their work site was lit by oil lamps and bamboo fires. This flickering light, the noise from the drilling of the rock and the shuffling of hundreds of poorly fed prisoners seemed the very image of hell. Read through this website to learn more.

Treatment of prisoners (ANZAC Portal, n.d.)

Japanese soldiers are widely remembered as being cruel and indifferent to the fate of Allied prisoners of war and the Asian rǒmusha. Many men in the railway workforce bore the brunt of pitiless or uncaring guards. Cruelty could take different forms, from extreme violence and torture to minor acts of physical punishment, humiliation and neglect. However, it should be recognised that Japanese behaviour varied from place to place and from person to person. Some prisoners recounted instances of compassion by the Japanese and even a sense of sharing a burden. Read through this website to learn more.

Australians attend the funeral of a mate who died during construction of the Burma-Thailand Railway in 1943. One-third of the Australians who became prisoners of war under the Japanese died in captivity, most under shocking slave labour conditions.

Three prisoners at Shimo Songkurai in 1943 suffer the effects of malnutrition.

The photograph was one of the last to be taken by George Aspinall on the camera he smuggled up to the Thai–Burma railway from Changi.