We rarely have the opportunity to hear about the wartime experiences of a family member in their own words. You can imagine my surprise, and pleasure, to discover that Trove’s digitised newspapers included interviews with Pte Hugh Moran (my mother’s cousin), about whom I wrote on Anzac Day this year.
Settle in, grab the drink of your choice, and follow his story.
What worked in my favour was the fact that (1) Hugh had been a Prisoner of War (POW) and (2) had been among the early troops repatriated to Australia. He was obviously not bashful about being interviewed and provides quite a lot of detail on his POW experiences. This story is from Brisbane’s Courier Mail newspaper (26 July 1945, page 3):
ITALIANS USED P.O.W’s TO BOLSTER MORALE
THREE hundred Australians, the first captured by the Italians at Derna, in 1941, were used as ‘propaganda prisoners’ ‘ and marched through every large town in Italy. Their photographs were taken thousands of times, superimposed on top of each other, to make their numbers appear the strength of several divisions.
Pte. H. A. Moran, of Charters Towers, one of the 16 repatriated prisoners of war, who returned to Brisbane yesterday, told of his experiences as a propaganda prisoner with the first captured Australians. ‘When our group arrived in Italy we became a great novelty. We were photographed incessantly the day we landed, and issued with brand new Italian P.O.W. uniforms,’ said Pte. Moran. ‘For propaganda reasons, the Italians treated us very well in the first six months. ‘We were fed well, kept tidy and healthy, because the tougher and fitter we seemed the harder it made the task of capturing us. The Italians moved us from one camp to another, and marched us through all the large towns. These marches were always accompanied by a blare of publicity, in which the Italians announced that they had captured thousands of Australians and would march a section of them through the town’.
‘Later we saw the photographs in the papers, and realised they had superimposed group snaps of us in all different positions so that our numbers appeared multiplied many hundred times. After six months of this roadshow life our publicity value began to wear off. We were herded into a camp at Bolzana (sic) [Bolzano], near the Brenner Pass, and treated like ordinary prisoners. This was a concentration camp guarded by the Carabinieres [Carabinieri] — the Italian equivalent of the German Gestapo. The guards were frightened of Australians, and punished them severely for petty offences.’ Pte. Moran was taken to Germany on Italy’s capitulation and liberated by the Americans early this year [my emphasis]. With 1000 Dominion ex-prisoners of war he was entertained by the Royal family at an afternoon party at Buckingham Palace during his recuperation in England.
That last little snippet was a “Wow!” moment but I notice that there was no mention of the Death March/Long March west from Stalag VIIIB.
However, let’s press the pause button on that for a while. Knowing that men were often feted in their home communities when they enlisted I went looking for any such news. The Townsville Daily Bulletin of 12 June 1940 revealed that:
A meeting was convened last Thursday for the purpose of forming a committee to farewell the men resident in this district who had enlisted. Owing to lack of time it was found necessary to hold the send -off on Sunday night as volunteers were leaving on Monday. During the evening eulogistic speeches were made by Messrs. K. Hort, W. Watkins. T. Jamieson, K. Johnstone and M. Graham, and the volunteers: Messrs. J. Doyle, H. Moran, D. Turpin and H. Axelsen jnr., were each presented with a fountain pen as a small token of esteem.
I wonder if Hugh found that pen to be handy over the coming years? Perhaps not, as ink would have been hard to come by. Did it too survive the war?
Twelve months after this eulogistic evening, the papers were displaying long lists of POWs including the name of Pte HA Moran from Cardwell. In my research I learned the significant role played by the Vatican in coordinating this news and in assisting men, and their families, to communicate with each other. Vatican representatives visited the camps and documented the men’s names which were then broadcast. Ironically the news could be received more promptly this way than through official channels.
A lengthy Christmas radio broadcast from the Vatican reveals the Pope’s care and concern for the POWs, which is endorsed in reports from prisoners, many of whom were not Catholics. We can only imagine these words would have provided consolation to Catholic families in Australia, like that of Bridget Moran nee McSherry whose son had been taken prisoner only a month after her husband’s death that same year. I’ve included much of the report as it reveals a variety of things about the prisoners and the Pope’s concern for them.
Christmas Message Concerning Australasian Prisoners of War in Italy Broadcast by the Vatican Radio Station[i].
In the name of the Holy Father Pope Pius XII. the Papal Nuncio to Italy has once more visited the Prisoner of War Camps, visiting thus those who are near arid dear to you. His commission is the outcome of the Holy Father s paternal Interest in the prisoners and of his unceasing solicitude for their welfare. It is his task to bring the men the Holy Father’s greetings and as his representative to help alleviate in every way possible their necessarily irksome lot. In the past fortnight he has seen your dear ones, commissioned this time in particular to convey to them the Holy Father’s Christmas Greetings and to present them with Christmas cards and gifts from him. To every prisoner he has brought a card on which is a reproduction of Raphael’s Adoration of the Magi, and this greeting in English— a greeting sprung indeed from the heart, of the common Father: ‘Christmas, 1941’.[ii] With ever greater paternal solicitude we turn our thoughts to each one of you who in your separation from distant. homes at this Christmas Season feel very keenly the absence of your loved ones. They are prayerful and affectionate good wishes. May they sweeten the bitterness of that separation and be to you all a source of Divine comfort and Christian hope. Pope Plus XII.’
With the paternal wishes go the presents which the Holy Father’s generosity has provided — cigarettes, books, games of all sorts, and as prizes for Christmas raffles, handsome leather bound clocks (sic) [query books?]. This have (sic) the Holy Father’s representative and those who accompany him to tell of the men and their conditions. Your dear ones cannot but feel the dreariness that go with their lot as prisoners of war, but they are not unhappy and they are keeping their spirits high.
It continues with the following description of life in an Italian POW camp, which doesn’t quite coincide with Hugh’s recollections, but then in December 1941 perhaps things had not yet deteriorated. (see below for more details)[iii]
See, now, the picture of what is actually happening. In the person of his representative the Holy Father is among your dear ones, to wish them a Happy Christmas and brighten the celebration for them as far as ever he may. Their thoughts are directed to other Christmases celebrated in the intimacy of their homes. They think of you and so seize on the chance of the Nuncio’s visit to beg him to send you a Christmas message, and that message, still warm from their hearts, this marvellous gift, of God — the radio — enables us to give you now before it has time to cool.
They greet you all — parents, wives, children, relatives and friends, assuring you of their thought for you and for you they pray, through the Saviour’s coming, every blessing, spiritual and temporal, in the New Year. And may we join our wish to theirs, praying that the Prince of Peace may shorten the scourge of war, hasten the coming of a just and universal peace, and reunite you and your dear ones.
After Hugh’s transfer to Germany in 1943, he was shuttled through Stalag VIIIA near Gorlitz (now Zgorzelec, Poland) before being sent on to Stalag VIIIB.
Since my last post I’ve done further reading and found out a little more about his conditions and where he worked as an Arbeits Kommando. He was allocated initially to Paris Grube, at Sosnowitz (now Sosnowiec) near Dombrowa (Dabrowa) with Kommando group E543 of which nothing seems to be known. The fact that it was called Paris Grube suggests to me it was a mine called, ironically, Paris. Hugh was there for seven months from 2 November 1943 until 5 June 1944.
It is sickening to realise that Hugh was essentially slave labour at Sosnowitz soon after the massed deportation of its Jewish community to Auchwitz (Oswiecim). Had he been transported from Łambinowice to Sosnowitz on these same trains which would have carried the despair like a miasma. It’s highly likely he was unfortunate enough to witness at least some of these horrifying trains en route to concentration camps from which few would return.
There had been considerable underground activity among the Jews in Sosnowiec. The uprising, which began on 3 August 1943…The last Holocaust transport to Auschwitz-Birkenau with Jews forced to bury the dead, left Sosnowiec on 15 January 1944.[iv]
Hugh was apparently kept at Stalag VIIIB for five months until 7 November 1944 (perhaps this is when he was sick?). This time he was with Arbeits Kommando E42, working at a paper mill at Rothsfest (Rudawa). Hugh’s isolation in the work camps may explain why he did not receive either personal mail or Red Cross parcels.
There is no indication of when Hugh returned to Lamsdorf but it seems likely that it predated the evacuation of the prisoners from VIIIB with the oncoming march of the Russian army. It is at this point that Hugh Moran and his fellow prisoners commenced the Death March that would take the lives of so many. It’s pertinent to notice that at no point does he make mention of it in his interviews – a typical soldier’s response to largely play down the true horrors of war.
Just imagine the excitement among his family when the news came through that he had been repatriated and was safe!
Pte Hugh Moran (Charters Towers): English politicians have been battling against fraternisation, but they have reckoned without the human element. You can’t stop it. A soldier is a soldier no matter where he is. When I left England letters from English soldiers in Germany were appearing, in the Press urging relaxations. The Nazis had severe punishments for any German civilians who fraternised with us but some still talked to us. The older Germans have had their lesson, but we still have to watch the young Hitlerites.[v]…… Pte Moran was among 1,000 Empire troops who were invited to Buckingham Palace to an afternoon party. The King and Queen [and the Princess Elizabeth and Margaret] moved among them in the palace grounds. “I was very impressed by the informal way that our Royal hosts greeted us and spent so much lime talking to the men” he said.
His family, and Hugh himself, would have been buzzing with excitement at a garden party at Buckingham Palace.
There must surely have been times when he was overwhelmed by the change from being a POW, German slave labour and the long Death March. Perhaps the men were grateful for the sea voyage home, giving them a buffer between these extreme experiences and before meeting up with family. The excitement continued with Hugh’s repatriation to Australia when the car he was travelling in was mobbed by enthusiastic friends and perhaps relatives.
So far, little is known of what happened to Hugh on his return to Australia, other than that he visited family in Charters Towers and Bundaberg on demobilisation. Further research is needed, and no doubt we’ll never know what his true thoughts were about his experiences as a POW.
We are very fortunate that Australian service records include both the German POW records and the soldier’s repatriation statements. The British (UK) service records have to be applied for under Freedom of Information (FOI) conditions.
For further reference you may be interested in reading some or all of the following: Hitler’s British Slaves by Sean Longden (available as an e-book), is excellent in revealing the horrors and degradation the men faced.
[iii] Continued: The food supplied them is good and sufficient, corresponding to what is given to the same rank in the Italian Army, and since the men run their own canteens and do their own cooking they can add to it something of the relish that comes from this serving in the ways they have known at home. They are well clothed and recently received an adequate supply of winter clothing. They are in fine health, and the visits have shown little or no sickness in the camps. For their recreation they have theatres where they stage concerts practically every week. For the past, month preparations for Christmas shows have been under way. Small libraries are gradually being built up in each camp. There are language classes for those who wish them and many have become proficient in Italian already [perhaps helped by the fact that Mass was said in Latin at the time]. Every facility is given for religious services for the men, and an Australian Anglican Minister, a prisoner, is allowed entire freedom in providing religious assistance for the men of his camp. Catholics, if they have not Sunday Mass, in the Camp itself, are given the opportunity of hearing Mass outside.