Marrinup POW Camp
Lessons of War
One POW camp and 30 control centres were located in WA. The POW Camp, Number 16 Prisoner of War Compound and Garrison, was built at Marrinup, near Dwellingup, to provide farm labour and cut firewood for the State capital, Perth. It was approximately 1 hectare in size and some of the building foundations can still be seen today.
The Camp took its first prisoners in August 1943 and released its last in April,1946. It was built to accommodate 1,200 men, including Army personnel, and thousands of prisoners passed through its gates. Most were Italian and German, who were put into separate compounds in accordance with the Geneva Convention. The camp was basically a transit stop for workers on the way to farms or rural control centres. Prisoners stayed for long periods only for medical or disciplinary reasons. The compounds were surrounded by a high barbed wire fence with triple concertina wire strategically placed outside. High powered floodlights encircled the area and six watch towers were built; one at each corner.
Within the compound, things were not as harsh. Huts had a wooden bed, a mattress, blankets and a locker for each POW. Most of the buildings were constructed of material scrounged from disbanded internee camps and Army depots. Buildings included POW sleeping huts (six men to each), hospitals, latrines, hot and cold showers, wash houses, messroom, administrative office, a "drying room" for wet winter clothes and an education hut. Gardening was a favourite occupation, and a fine example of their skills and initiative, is a fish pond and garden beds built in the shape of the playing card suits. These can still be seen adjacent to the powerhouse foundations.
The Geneva Convention governed treatment of the prisoners and was closely followed to avoid reprisals against Australian POWs overseas. Because of the lack of work supervisors, extensive screening of prisoners occurred before they reached Marrinup. No escapees, "super-nazis", "super-patriots", troublemakers or medically unfit were accepted at the camp. Most of the Italians were chosen for their rural working background and less troublesome nature, while some Germans were taken because of their skills as woodcutters. Their average age was 30. The prisoners were popular with the local people, and it has been said that some of the ‘enemy’ could be found drinking with locals at the Dwellingup Hotel.
On arrival, each POW was issued a secondhand Army uniform that had been dyed maroon and was allowed to wear his insignia of rank. Conditions were comfortable but monotonous and the work was hard. There was little foreign literature; a booklet was issued explaining the meaning and pronunciation of English words. Delays in mail were up to two years, and there was nothing to remind the men of home. With little to read, being able to talk only to other prisoners, and surrounded by an unfamiliar landscape, life was very isolated and lonely.
Camp life followed a strict routine with the day beginning at 6 am. work finishing at 3 pm and lights out at 10 pm. Italian prisoners were sent via control centres to farms from Geraldton to Albany, where life was strenuous but less authoritarian. For the most part they were willing workers. Unless discipline was required or they were unwilling to work, accommodation was supplied at the farm.
The German woodcutters worked in the forest and supplied Perth with 2 500 tonnes of firewood every week; enough to fill the whole of Hay Street Mall knee deep in wood! This fuelled Perth's power generators, water pumping stations and industry. Marrinup provided half of Perth's annual need of firewood.
Prisoners were expected to work eight hours a day whether inside or outside the camp. Imagine how harsh the heat and our very different forest must have seemed to these men.
A Catastrophic Toll
Despite this massive multiple fire situation, Dwellingup forces had almost controlled the 9 strikes on Thursday, before the next 10 strikes outflanked much of their established firelines. Fire crews were recalled to Dwellingup on Saturday after the Torrens 10 fire crowned and spread very rapidly with intense spotting. Three more strikes were reported on that day. With so much smoke around the region, the tower-based fire detection system became almost useless.
On Sunday the weather eased, but by this time the fire size had increased to 45,000 ha and the perimeter was estimated to be 100 km, giving suppression forces a huge task. On Monday good progress was made with fireline construction, but the Wells fire broke away. On Tuesday the weather worsened again, with the temperature exceeding 40°C and winds swinging north west at increasing strength. A severe evening thunderstorm caused a massive southerly spread that resulted in catastrophic damage to property at Dwellingup, Holyoake and Nanga Brook. Fortunately no lives were lost due to very experienced fire crews and competent managers. However, towns were beyond salvation.
The fire was eventually brought under control on Wednesday after heavy rain fell and the weather cooled considerably. Final fire size was about 150,000 ha. Of all the towns destroyed in the 1961 fires, only Dwellingup was rebuilt.
A Personal Story
Banksiadale 27th January 1961
Dearest Mother & All
How good it is to be able to say we are all safe & sound, after a week of horror. The papers give anything but the correct idea of things. It all started after that awful fortnight of extreme heat, with lightening on the Thursday night which started about 20 different fires in a wide area. By Friday night the Forestry Dept, could not control them all & the men were called out to help from the Mill till Wednesday night hardly a man had more than a few exhausted hours rest Bill went from 9 a.m. Saturday till 11p.m. Sunday when he came out for a spell, that is how they worked back at it again by 6p.m. till midday Monday a couple of hours rest & off again first one place & then another where ever it seemed worst. Sometimes miles from home & sometimes near we never undressed for three nights, could read outside at midnight with the glow.
Tuesday found fires ragging all, round us but a few miles off men flat out burning back to them. When Richard and Allan came about 2.30 I think it was I hustled them off & not any too soon. Shortly after that all hell was let loose, when tornado like wind came from nowhere. The fires raced towards here from Dwellingup way then all of a sudden dead calm absolutely eerie in the dense smoke & red glare then the wind started again in the opposite direction & was another glare & the fire just raced into Dwellingup & they never had a chance. How any one was saved is nothing short of a miracle. Yet not a casualty any where, people got in ditches & wells & lavatory pits with a wet bag over them, others huddled on the footie aground with wet blankets over them & the ones in the Post Office & School kept spraying and breathed through wet rag, this gave us here a little respite, though the fire was coming from out the bush way, about 9.30p.m.
Bill came home & said things were grave, get a blanket a spot of food & change of cloths & any money ready & if the whistle blew to go to the Mill & they would keep the hose on us, it must have been about 11.30p.m. when he came home again to say we had to go by car, any one who hadn’t a car had to go by Mill bus & trucks. We had 10 minutes to assemble at he Mill before this we had all watered the outside of our houses & had buckets of water at teach corner & the stirrup pump etc everything was red with the glare, could see flames leaping feet into the air in every direction & the terrible roar of the fire nearly drove us all crazy. I can still hear it & still see it. I still can’t get to sleep.
Well we moved, off from the Mill cars etc bumper to bumper Bill leading the way as Mr. Husetable said he wouldn’t panic when going into the burning parts to get through to safety. We went round the back way to the Dam, fires right and left from here on we had to have a bulldozer in front to push the burning trees that had fallen out of the way, about 2 mile of this trees every chain or less. We halted while trees were pushed off fires everywhere – was it hot – then the bulldozer conked after that Len King had to come up front & cut the trees through with his chain saw & 4 or 5 men rolled then aside & we moved on, eventually got to Huntley which had been burnt out on Sunday still plenty of trees etc burning though it was safe was about 1.30 a.m. the men just dumped us & got in the Bus & trucks & came back & they never left again or stopped for one minute they burnt back in all directions, after that it seemed forever before daylight about 7 a.m.
A couple of men came through from Dandalup, arranged to bring us food etc, we started organising & feeding kids & elderly folks, then at ten they decided to shift us all the women and kiddies & old folk down into the Dandalup Hall. I could write a book on what happened during those hours at Huntley, then I sent Pam & Helen on, & stayed behind to help feed our men as they were supposed, to come out & have a couple of hours rest as soon as the soldiers came. I worked flat out from dawn till 12 noon as did the small band of us about 8, I don’t mean I alone worked, we had a bit of a spell waiting & time seemed longer than ever. After the 2p.m.news “we had a wireless in the car”.
We decided the Army were not coming & we had better take some food back into the men & see what was happening, so 8 of us with two big cartons of sandwiches we had made Kettle tin of tea & a milk can of iced water ( the ice came from Dandalup) & cordially got into a ute & away we went back to Banksiadale through burning trees etc, the poor men had been flat out from the time they went back, we drove right round the edge of Banksiadale where they were fighting & gave them drinks & sandwiches, were they glad, tho’ they reckon we were mad. We caught one man on the verge of collapse, pulled him round by dipping a tea-towel we had over the sandwiches in the iced water & wrapping his head in it, you could not see two yards in front of you, the place was so dense with smoke & hot was like being in an oven.
They were very scared there would be a sort of combustion explosion & set the place into an inferno, well we went from point to point walking right up to the fires where the men couldn’t come out to us, we got up to the Mill last of all to find the good old Salvation Army with a canteen there, but not knowing the layout they couldn’t move away. At the time the fire was roaring into the back of our place beyond the footie ground, they told us to get, they didn’t think they would hold it & that is when the Army came in, but they never went near that section of the place, only patrolled the streets, we had run out of eats & drinks & decided to go. Went out under flames on that stretch from the last house to the dam on the new road, I never thought we would make it or see our men or Banksiadale again. We were about a mile past the dam on the way to Huntley when the rain started.
We just yelled for joy, we got wet through sitting in the back of the ute.
That’s the story of Banksiadale yet the papers say we all evacuated & the Army saved the place – do I see red and it’s not smoke & flames now, well to continue the rain was even freakish it simply fell down in buckets in Banksiadale valley, yet when we got to Huntley was only a light sprinkle. Just as we got back Lynette & Bob arrived we had been told to get down to Dandalup with the rest when we left Banksiadale & we never knew how hard it really rained, till later, so I threw out things out of the car into Lynette’s as I couldn’t take our car on & we all left. When we got to Dandalup, Lyn & Bob took the girls & went on, I wouldn’t leave till I knew what had happened to Bill & the others. We were all filthy & weary it was 5p.m. then & we went to the Hotel to have a shower.
The people of Dandalup were very good, had hot meals & etc for us, but I couldn’t eat was far too worried & tired, time we had showered some of the men had arrived to say we could go home. It had poured & though the fires were not out, it was safe. Bill sent me word to say he wouldn’t leave. Some of them had to stay, so I came home with Mrs. Perham. Still a thick pall of smoke. Our house full of it & every thing inside & out smothered in ash as it had been since last Friday night, but ok. What a welcome sight to see them still intact. I had a dreadful night, couldn’t sleep, got up, coudn’t eat had a cup of tea & went to a meeting in the Hall. From that we went to Dwellingup & Holyoake etc & what a sight, it’s unbelievable. How anyone escaped is hard to tell so it’ nothing short of a miracle as there were no fatalities at all, some burns & everyone with burnt or sore eyes, but that’s all.
We got home at 3.30p.m. couldn’t eat after what we had seen so just had a cup of tea, talked & went to bed at (p.m. but another restless & sleepless night. Bill has been to work today, there is so much to do, lines to clear & mend, roads to clear, stock to be buried. Grogan had 500 sheep burnt & 200 lambs, its dreadful, dead animals every where. I sent word to Lynette to keep the children till the weekend & give us a rest. But they need helpers in Dwellingup each day so I’m down for a couple of hours tomorrow. I don’t know how long we will be needed, but it is good to be able to help. Mum dear, when you have read this send it on to Bessy as I cant write it all again & then she can send it on to Freda. Hope you are all well will write a normal when I get time & feel less weary. Love to all, your loving daughter. Myrtle
Believed to be Mertle Jones, husband Bill and children Pam, Lynette, Owen and Richard. Information provided by Phyllis Johnson (Allen) originally from Banksiadale.