Archaeological Assessment and Conservation Management Plan

 for the site of Prisoner of War Camp 12

Cowra, NSW. October 2003.



The document Archaeological Assessment and Conservation Management Plan for the site of Prisoner of War Camp 12, Cowra, NSW. October 2003  and this article are copyright. Apart from any fair dealings for the purposes of study, research, criticism or review as permitted under the Copyright Act, no part may be reproduced by any means without permission. Enquires should be made to the Publisher or Author.




Heritage Archaeology, Canberra was engaged by Heritage Council of New South Wales, to undertake an Archaeological Assessment and Conservation Management Plan for the area known historically as ‘Prisoner of War Camp 12, Cowra, NSW’ [POW Camp 12].The projects, initiated by the NSW Heritage Office and funded by Cowra Shire Council, Cowra NSW., were completed in October 2003.


The Archaeological Assessment was undertaken in 2002 – 2003 and contributed to the Conservation Management Plan noting artefacts, structures and archaeological landscape features that may be impacted upon during conservation works / adaptive reuse of the area.


Site Location and Landscape Description

Cowra is situated in Central West of New South Wales. The historical site of POW Camp 12 is included within Lot 305 - DP823438, Lot 1 – DP196204 and the Crown Land Common Reserve designated as that part of Lot 300 – DP 726980 defined in the Plan approved by the NSW Heritage Council for the Permanent Conservation Order  No. 619 - 1989.


The site of POW Camp 12 is marked on the Cowra 8630-S First Edition 1:50,000 Topographical Map at coordinates 6256825 N., 657300 E. The site covers an area in excess of 144,000 square metres and is located within an undulating rural landscape. The surrounding hills provide a natural visual barrier to the site on which the land slopes gently to the south-east.


Cowra Shire is dominated by the Lachlan and Abercrombie rivers and is predominately a pastoral and agricultural landscape within the gently undulating Lachlan Valley.


Heritage Status

The site of POW Camp 12, Cowra, NSW was listed on the New South Wales State Heritage Register 2nd April 1999 and the Register of the National Estate on 27th March 2001. The site was listed on the Register of the National Estate. Cowra Shire Council listed the site on the Heritage Schedule of the Local Environmental Plan on 26th October 1990.


Archaeological Assessment Aims and Methodology 

The principal aims of the archaeological assessment were to identify archaeological evidence and landscape features within the area as the basis for the Conservation Management Plan.


The Archaeological Assessment included:

  • perusal of relevant archival material including historical reports and photographs;

  • on-site field observations of landscape features, selected structural and landscape features;

  • photography of surface /eroding artefacts on-site;

  • artefact analysis and description;

  • graphic reproduction of artefacts;

  • photographic detail of the current condition of the site;

  • photography of extant remains;

  • recommendations regarding the management of artefacts in situ considered significant to the heritage of New South Wales;

  • recommendations for further archaeological research.


Historical Overview 

European expansion in Cowra Shire began in the 1830s with the introduction of pastoralism into the area. Rural settlement was highly dependant upon the rivers and this was intensified after the 1850s when a regular trade passed through Cowra township as a result of its location on the Lachlan River. The first known European in the area was George Wilson Evans, after whom Evans Street is named. Evans named the area the Oxley Plains after his superior, the surveyor-general. John Oxley, guided by Aborigines, investigated a portion of the Lachlan River and the adjacent lands in 1817, deeming it 'unfit for white settlement'. He named the river after the governor, Lachlan Macquarie.


In 1831 cattlemen Arthur Rankin and James Sloan from Bathurst became the first white settlers on the Lachlan. Initially, the townsite was a river crossing known as 'Coura Rocks' a cattle station established by Reverend Fulton in subsequent years. The land acquired by the Commonwealth of Australia for the construction of POW Camp 12 was originally granted to George Dennis Pack.


In May 1941 the Commonwealth Government of Australia made an agreement with Britain to ‘undertake to receive custody of 50 000 Prisoners of War from the Middle East’.  The Australian Army chose a site 2 miles north east of the town of Cowra obscured from the road by a steep hill with granite outcrops. The POW Camp 12 consisted of four separate 17 acre compounds each designed to hold 1000 prisoners. The four compounds were enclosed within a 12 sided perimeter.  A thoroughfare known as ‘Broadway’, separated camps B and C on the eastern side from camps A and D on the west. A and C  Compounds held the Italian prisoners; B Compound held Japanese private and non-commissioned officers; and D Compound held a composite of Japanese officers, Formosans, Indonesians, Taiwanese and Koreans.

Entrances to the four compounds were in the centre of Broadway and through the double gates at each end of Broadway which was guarded by two guard towers and two sentry boxes. Surrounding each compound was a separate perimeter fence consisting of three barbed wire fences, 30 feet apart.  The Camp was under the guard by soldiers of the 22nd Australian Garrison Battalion. The Headquarters area was located outside the fenced perimeter adjacent to D compound, south-west of the compounds.


The first POW, Italians, arrived at Cowra on 15th October 1941. Prisoners were accommodated in tents until April 1942, and building of weatherboard accommodation huts was not completed until 1944. Both POW and local labourers were used to complete construction. Approximately 21 huts were completed by late April 1942 with an additional 27 huts being erected in the following 5 weeks. Each hut could accommodate 48 persons.

By December 1942 Cowra camp held 1644 Italian, prisoners and internees, and 490 Javanese detainees. Between January 1943 and August 1944, 1,104 Japanese POW and internees were confined in the Camp. By the end of June 1944 the camp was overcrowded beyond its intended capacity.

POW Camp 12 comprised service facilities with stores, kitchen, mess huts, ablution blocks and latrines, canteens, theatre, recreation huts, barber and tailor shops, and medical and dental centres. There were large playing fields for baseball and other sports. Vegetable and formal gardens were tended by the Italian prisoners.


By the end of 1943, Japanese morale in the Camp was low. On 3rd June 1944 a Korean prisoner reported a conversation relating to the intention of the Japanese to attack the Garrison, seize arms and ammunition and escape. As a result security was increased. By June of 1944 POW Camp 12 was overcrowded beyond its intended capacity. Rumours of an intended break-out had been noticed by Australian military authorities. By August with rumours of mass escape circulating, the Camp Commandant decided to move all Japanese Prisoners below the rank of Lance Corporal to Hay POW Camp. This move, which under the terms of the Geneva Convention required twenty four hours notice to POW, was arranged for Monday 7th  August 1944 and announced to Japanese leader Sergeant Major Kanazawa and others on Friday 4th August 1944.


A meeting of hut leaders was held on the night of the 4th August. Kanazawa made a decision to oppose the separation and a breakout was planned for the morning of 5th August. At 2 am, 5th August 1100 Japanese prisoners broke out from POW Camp 12.  Approximately 378 escaped and 231 Japanese and 4 Australians died as a result of the breakout, 108 Japanese and 4 Australians were wounded. Three Japanese and 1 Volunteer Defence Corp Soldier subsequently died from wounds associated with the breakout. Buildings in B Compound were burnt to the ground, except two sleeping huts. Escapees, counted as 334, were recaptured by authorities and civilians during the following 9 days. Some escapees were killed and some committed suicide. A Military Court of Inquiry was established immediately and heard evidence continuously from 7th to 15th August 1944.

The Japanese breakout at Cowra was unique in the Australian wartime history. During 1945, most remaining Japanese POW at Cowra were sent to Victoria. Following the cessation of hostilities in the Pacific on 15th August 1945, POW and Internees in Cowra and other establishments were either repatriated or freed. The Cowra POW Camp 12 officially closed at the end of February 1947. The Commonwealth Disposals Commission auctioned the camp buildings along with associated miscellaneous items in March 1947. The Department of Agriculture purchased 130 acres with the official transfer occurring after November 1950 although they had occupied the land since 29th August 1948.


Archaeological Assessment 2003 

Following the archaeological assessment there can be no doubt that artefacts of considerable importance to Australian and international history are extant on the site of POW Camp 12 & the adjoining the AMF Compounds. The surface artefact assemblage comprises a variety of items the majority of which date from the mid-1940s and are highly relevant to the operation of the area as a military camp. The most intact structure on the POW Camp 12 site is a single ruinous, above ground stone pitched structure, located at the north-western end of the AMF Compound No. 2 area. It comprises four walls constructed from a variety of materials including stone rubble, broken terracotta, salvaged bricks and concrete blocks with some wood and metal incorporated into the structure. During the operation of POW Camp 12 the building was used as an electricity switch room and emergency electricity supply. The structure is unroofed and is in urgent need of stabilisation.  


In contrast, are the remains of formal gardens established by the Italian POW are extant within the area of the Italian Compound A. They illustrate the transfer of cultural actives by the Italian prisoners into their new enforced environment. The construction of fountains using methods, possibly of ethnic origin, is of exceptional research interest and reflects the prisoner’s expressions of their homeland and culture.


Items of equal importance and supporting the archaeological data and interpretation consists of a body of cultural material in the form of original newspapers, original photographs, original negatives, original letter and other correspondence, and unique paintings. The artefactual and cultural material in question has far reaching importance beyond the history of the operation of POW Camp 12. The material is representative of some of the earlier events that exposed Australians to international affairs and to persons of other nationalities. The cultural material and the interpretation of the archaeological evidence has considerable relevance to the birth, rise and successful adoption of multiculturalism in Australia.



Conservation Management PLAN 2003


The CMP sets out the key opportunities and constraints for the site of POW Camp 12, Cowra. Opportunities and constraints on the future use and management of the site stem from the recognition of its state and national heritage values. The significance of the place is strongly reflected in its ability to convey a sense of uniqueness through its setting and historical events. The need to conserve these aspects of its heritage value places fundamental constraints on future management.


The aims of the Conservation Management Plan for the site of POW Camp 12 were:

  •       to develop principles and policies for managing the physical aspects of the site;

  • ·     to develop principles and policies for maintaining the heritage significance of the site and its individual elements and components;

  • ·     to identify any planning and management frameworks and mechanisms, as well as legislative and other stakeholder requirements;

  • ·     to recommend amendments of the above to appropriately manage the heritage significance of the site and its components;

  • ·     to develop policies that recognise and meet public expectations for the site as well as positive management practices.


 Since the end of World War II there has been gradual urban encroachment upon the site’s historical boundary. There is a need for planned, cyclical and on-going maintenance. Opportunities and constraints were identified as part of the process for developing conservation policies for POW Camp 12. These include:

  • ·     Opportunities identified from the detailed analysis of the history and fabric;

  • ·     Constraints arising from significance;

  • ·     Physical constraints of the place;

  • ·     External factors, including relevant council statutory and non-statutory controls;

  • ·     Feasible uses and requirements.


The essential remaining character of POW Camp 12 needs to be retained.  Community awareness should be raised particularly in relation to the conservation of vistas in, through and around the site. There is an opportunity to maximise under-utilised areas through adaptive reuse. There is an opportunity to interpret the site as place for historical reflection and encourage higher visitation numbers.


Currently the site is considered significant for the horrors of mass suicide and the forced response of the Australian military personnel including those who lost their lives. Such a commemorative attitude cannot change and the recognition of that catastrophic event is the basis for the listing of the site on NSW State Heritage Register and the Register of the National Estate. However, that does not mean the site has to represent the cruelty of the actions that occurred. To the contrary, it is considered that Australians would show total abhorrence to the possible repetition of a similar event on Australian soil. Such action and the taking of any lives cannot be argued to part of the national psyche of Australians. Therefore while retaining the memory of the catastrophic event of 5th August 1944 and having great care that the tragic event is not glorified, an adaptive reuse proposal of peaceful reflection should be considered for the site.




Heritage Archaeology ~ Historical, Archaeological & Genealogical Research Consultants

 (Copyright 2013)

Saturday, 09 May 2015