My journey into years of research regarding the Loveday Internment Camp began nearly forty years ago when I became an accredited tour guide through the Riverland College of TAFE and began conducting tours of the region.
My initial tours were out of the Cobdogla Irrigation & Steam Museum when the Murray Princess began to tie up nearby so the passengers could visit the museum. The Princess used to travel downstream from Renmark and back. I was one of three guides who had completed a course and began conducting tours of the former pumping station, the home of the famous gas-driven Humphrey Pump.
We also took the passengers on a coach tour to Loveday to visit a massive shed where flowers were grown for the markets in Adelaide and interstate. This visit to Loveday ignited my interest in the internment camp, and I began to tell the tourists that there was an internment camp there during World War II, although that was about as much as I knew.
Shortly after the tours began, I was appointed secretary to the Cobdogla Steam Friends Society, and later, with the permission of the Department of Environment and Water, who owned the premises, I set up a display on the Loveday Internment Camp in the National Trust building.
The collection was to stay there for many years, and I assisted the trust by providing the information for the display boards which they put up, and I regularly took tours out to Loveday from there. When the National Trust members asked me to hand over the entire collection to them, I refused, so they took my key to the gate of the museum and their premises and locked me out and told me to take the display with me. Sadly, not all of the exhibits made it back into my collection.
I believed at the time that the history of Loveday belonged to the local community, not to the National Trust, and I still do.
This turned out to be a wise decision because with the help of the Berri Barmera Council, several years later we approached the Barmera District War Memorial Community Centre to have the Loveday Internment Camp Collection on permanent display at the Barmera Visitor Information Centre.
Now it is open to the public seven days a week, and free of charge. Volunteers are not required to look after the display because the Centre is fully staffed, and the premises are secure under lock and key when not open.
The Loveday Internment Camp Collection is now more accessible to the public.Since the collection has moved to its new premises, we have been able to seek funding to have a DVD produced, which shows live footage taken at the time by the late George Bolton, and includes additional information and photographs about the camp. The live footage George took is thought to be the only one of its kind in existence.
Tourists to the Riverland visit the VIC every day to look at the display and watch the DVD. It has created an enormous amount of interest. Some people with a connection to the camp come to the Riverland just to see the display on Loveday.
I have always made myself available to people who require information or a tour of the former camp sites. I don’t charge for school groups, local groups, or people who had family at the camp during the war.
I would have taken hundreds of tours of the camp since I began researching its history and have assisted high school and university students with their major assignments and I have loved every minute of it.
Over the years I have made many guest speaking appearances for community organisations and at several symposiums and conferences. My passion for this interesting subject has spurred me to write articles for magazines and newspapers, do numerous radio interviews and to make television appearances.
Being a freelance journalist with the Murray Pioneer for over a decade, and having my own column, also enabled me to promote the Loveday Internment Camp and the Cobdogla Irrigation & Steam Museum widely. Whenever I was short of interesting items for my column, I would give my readers a history lesson.
The events I treasure the most through my association with the camp were the official launch of the Loveday photographic display at the Cobdogla Irrigation & Steam Museum with the late Bruce Ruxton, the official launch of the Loveday Collection at the Barmera Visitor Information Centre (VIC) with former National RSL President Major General Peter Phillips, and the official visit by the Japanese Ambassador and his party.
Earlier in 2023 we held a symposium for the direct descendants of the German civilians, who were taken into custody in Persia during the war and transported to Loveday from the other side of the world.
Professor Pedram Khosronejad , a senior lecturer from the Western Sydney University, assisted with organising that event, which was highly successful, and our special guests thoroughly enjoyed the warm hospitality they received. We were able to exchange information, and we held a special session for primary school children on the Monday.
Other highlights while researching Loveday include taking international visitors for a tour of the former camp sites and sharing the information that I have been able to accumulate over the years. These special guests include archaeologists, anthropologists, university lecturers, Japanese descendants, and international documentary film crews.
The greatest satisfaction my research has given me, however, is the friendships which have developed as a result, and the lovely people I have met along the way.
The establishment of the website with the help and support of the Berri Barmera Council, has fulfilled a long-awaited dream of mine. Our project officer, Christine Webster, has been able to access funding to also develop an app, as well as the purchase of information signs at the former headquarters.
With the help of that funding, our committee is preparing to set up a QR code for people who want to visit the former camp sites without the need of a tour guide.
We have met the State Heritage architect at the former headquarters to assess the current state of the recreation hall, because it is at the point of collapse in several places. We are determined to save that building and are looking at all options.
In order to achieve the proper recognition, the Loveday Internment Camp warrants, the project will require a long-term plan, which will not only promote and preserve this important part of our local history, but will attract more tourists to our region. It has a fascinating history which captures people’s imagination.
Our committee has discussed the possibility of including the other Riverland councils in the project since the wood camps connected with the Loveday Internment Camp were established within their boundaries, and we share a common history.
During my studies to become a tour guide, I developed a deep love for the history of our region, the most important of that being the establishment of the largest group of internment camps in Australia at Loveday. The compounds were built to hold up to 6,000 civilian German, Italian, and Japanese prisoners who were taken into custody overseas and around Australia, for national security purposes.
One of the many features which made Loveday stand out above the rest was the growing of opium poppies for morphine in partnership with the CSIR, which was renamed the CSIRO in 1949. Loveday was the largest supplier of raw opium for the war effort, and once it was sent off for processing, it was sent to England to make up the desperate shortage in the army hospitals.
A massive 440 acres of land was attached to the camps. The land was irrigated for growing the opium poppies, pyrethrum daisies for insect repellent for the soldiers fighting in the tropics, vegetables to feed the camps, and later for the distribution of vegetable seed around the nation when the import of seed dried up because of the war.
The poultry farm supplied dressed hens and fresh eggs for army hospitals and army camps. The camp boasted a large piggery where scraps from the camp kitchens were used to feed the pigs along with fresh lucerne, until grain was introduced to fatten them up for market.
The proceeds from that and the sale of the timber from the wood camps went into the army coffers. They also mended army tents and made soap from the lard from the kitchens. This emphasises the enormous contribution to the war effort by Lt Col Dean and his staff, along with the internees who were contracted to work in the fields, or within the compounds.
Lt Col Dean introduced a program which allowed the internees to be paid, if they signed up to work because under the Geneva Convention civilian prisoners could not be made to work. They were paid a shilling a day to work for six hours, six days a week, and it gave the prisoners pocket money to buy cigarettes and other items from their compound canteens. The coins were made up of internment camp currency.
What I have been unable to find through official records was the incarceration of high ranked enemy officers in the highly secured cell block on the western boundary of Camp 14. The son of the man who originally purchased the land after the war, and converted half of the cell block into a family home, had a visit one day from an elderly gentleman who claimed to be one of the officers held there until the camp closed in 1946.
The officers did not see the light of day during their detention because they were held in small cells with thick reinforced concrete walls with only a small window out of reach, and they were only allowed out twice each day to walk up and down in the narrow exercise yard between the cells.
Mounted gun turrets held armed guards 24 hours a day. I have been inside those cell blocks with the property owner Ken Wilkinson and seen the etchings on the cell walls made by the prisoners. I have managed to take photographs of them, when Ken sprayed the wall with water so they would show up under a spotlight. Unfortunately, no one has access to those cells anymore because they are now being used for storage.
The confinement of those high-ranking German, Italian, and Japanese officers within the boundary of the internment camp was top secret. Even Major General Peter Phillips has been unable to find any documented information. Peter and his wife Ros visited the cell block with me when he launched the Loveday collection in the VIC.
When I first began my research into the Loveday Internment Camp information was non-existent, and it was only when I found the Group Commandant, Lt Col Dean’s report among my late mother’s material, that my research really began, and it has become my passion ever since then.
It was also the journey which would bring so many interesting people, with fascinating stories about their experiences, into my life that led me to record their memories, and to collect memorabilia and data which is now on display in the Barmera Visitor Information Centre.
The Visitor’s Information Centre is owned and operated by the Barmera District War Memorial Community Centre, which is very appropriate, since their first secretary was Bert Whitmore, a former World War I veteran, who joined up to serve when the Second World War broke out.
He also helped establish the Barmera branch of the RSL and a metal cut out model of a mounted soldier with the army insignia behind him has been erected within their grounds to honour Bert and his fellow members of the Light Horse Brigade.
As he waited for his call up, to serve in WWII, Bert received a telephone call with orders for him to stay in Barmera to await the arrival of an army officer so they could survey a suitable site to build an internment camp.
The army required Bert’s vast knowledge of the local area to help select sites for Camps 9 and 10 and later Camp 14. Loveday was chosen because it was inland, it was already piped for irrigation water from the river, it had telephone and electricity connected, and the main highway linked it to Adelaide and interstate.
During his time as a chief engineer at the camp Bert was asked to select a section of land attached to the Barmera Cemetery for a Soldier’s Memorial Garden, for the soldiers who died while based at the camp.
Many of the guards and the auxiliary staff at the camp were veterans from the WWI, and the camp was also staffed by soldiers who were recovering from injuries or illnesses suffered overseas, so there were casualties.
I was told by one of the former guards that when they were on guard duty it was an offense for sentries to fall asleep, so they used to place the bayonet attached to their guns below their chins to keep them awake. I don’t know if this practice was responsible for any of the deaths recorded as suicide.
The Upper Murray Garden of Memory is one of the most beautiful cemeteries and it has long since been enlarged to hold all the existing graves of World War I and World War II veterans. A dawn service is conducted there every ANZAC day and attracts huge crowds.
Bert Whitmore was buried there following his state funeral since he was the last surviving Light Horsemen to die in SA. His coffin was carried there on a gun carriage.
Bert’s grandchildren, Peter Schramm and his sister Helen Hutchinson, became members of the Loveday Internment Camp committee with me, and they are now part of a select group of people on the committee which was formed in conjunction with the Berri Barmera Council.
Our role is to assist with the collation and promotion of the Loveday history for future generations, and to preserve the remaining buildings and ruins at the former general headquarters, which is heritage listed, and in the care and control of the Berri Barmera Council.
Also on the committee are Councillor Rhonda Centofanti and her brother-in-law Mario, whose father was interned at Loveday during the war. These two amazing people have been very supportive of my work over the years, particularly when things went pear shaped.
A number of years ago, with the financial backing of the Berri Barmera Council, Rhonda and I visited the other major internment and POW camp sites in country Victoria and NSW and met with their representatives. The purpose of the trip was to learn more about the history of the internment of civilians during the war, and how the other groups had preserved that history.
We had a mayoral welcome at Cowra and a private tour of the Australian War Memorial and the Australian Archives in Canberra, which was arranged by Major General Peter Phillips, our Patron for the Loveday Internment Camp Committee and Collection. Peter’s father was a dentist in the army during the war and he was attached to the headquarters at Loveday.
Rhonda and I also established important links with the Tatura, Hay and Cowra internment camp committees, and at the AWM. Approximately twelve months later those representatives and I attended a symposium on Internment which was held at Cowra. I suggested that we establish a war trail linking each of the former camps sites and the Australian War Memorial. The suggestion was met favourably. However, in order for this to happen, we would have to seek funding to employ someone to bring it all together.
The other members of our committee are Peter Ison, who is the head librarian of the Berri Barmera Council’s libraries, along with his heritage officer Jacque Zagotsis, and Christine Webster who has been employed by the council as a part time project officer.
The former mayor of the Berri Barmera Council Peter Hunt was also on our committee until his retirement, and I sincerely thank him for being so supportive of the project over the years.
I am currently preparing to write my book on Loveday to record the many stories I have collated over the years. Some of the fascinating stories I will write about have never been recorded anywhere else.
I describe the research of Loveday as to being like a jigsaw with pieces missing. Then someone who has a connection with the camp tells me about something they know and another part of the puzzle falls into place.
Lt Col Dean will feature in the book because he was a fine officer and gentleman and a man of great vision. It was through his leadership that the Loveday Internment Camp became not only self-sufficient, but profitable.
The stories will relate to the hardships endured, some quite tragic and others very amusing, but all very interesting. I want to present an insight into the lives of the men and women whose lives were touched by the war, innocent people forced to survive under circumstances over which they had no control. I hope to present a glimpse of the individuality of both the internees and their guards, and not lump them into groups, or faceless people.
The book will be an insight for future generations about how their ancestors survived when our country was at war.
And finally, I would like to mention some of the information I have discovered in connection with the camp during the war, which is probably not well known.
One was that armed enemy soldiers captured overseas, and transported to Australia, were often sent to work on properties around the countryside, to fill vacancies left after farmers and farm workers joined up to fight overseas.
The POWs were only provided loose supervision, they had to check in regularly with the authorities, and could only leave the property with authorised permission, usually to attend church.
Every farm had a shot gun on hand to kill foxes and wild dogs or snakes which were a threat to their livestock, or rabbits or kangaroos for food, or to put down an injured domestic animal.
The POWs were battle hardened soldiers who had been captured by the allies, and while they worked on preselected properties, they had access to the firearms, while the less dangerous civilian internees were locked up behind wire for the duration.
The POWs were placed in Camp 14 at Loveday after the war, when the former internees were released into the community, although they had to work under supervision in apported locations for two years before they could go home. After the war the camp was used to house the POWs before they could be sent back to their own countries.
With very few exceptions the Japanese Internees were sent back to Japan after the war, despite many living in Australia or the Pacific Islands before war broke out. They were taken to Melbourne under guard to board a Japanese merchant ship to sail home. One of their guards told me that when the boxes containing their documents were taken on board, the captain of the ship told his men to throw them overboard because of the shame attached to being allowed to being taken into custody by the enemy.
Sadly, the Japanese men who had been living with their families on islands throughout the Pacific were denied re-entry back to their homes and loved ones after the war, and they were never to see them again. Large groups of their descendants have visited Loveday to see where their father/grandfather/uncle was held in captivity.
During the war, internees were often visited at the camp by their sons who wore army uniforms because they had joined the Australia Defence Forces. Permission could be granted to families to visit their loved ones by applying to the Keswick Army Headquarters. The relatives would catch the train up to Barmera then walk out to the camp, and their loved one would be brought to the gate.
Some of the internees at Loveday were born overseas, but had migrated here and become naturalised Australians, yet they were still taken into captivity. Many of them were non-political but were still rounded up in mass in the cane fields, the gold fields, or were market gardeners, and they were locked away until the end of the war.
Upon request some were released after their backgrounds were rechecked while others chose to work under supervision on the building of inland railways rather than remain behind wire. Many of the internees lost their former businesses or farms because they could not keep up their repayments while they were locked up, and their wives and children were left to fend for themselves.
One German Jewish internee was living in Sydney with his Kiwi wife and daughter when he was arrested and incarcerated at Loveday. While he was there, he designed a land to air missile for the allies. He was later employed at Weapon’s Research at Salisbury.
After the war, an Italian internee by the name of Agostini, was convicted of the prewar ‘Pajama Girl Murder’ and jailed for a short period of time before he was extradited back to Italy and released as a free man. It is now understood that Agostini did not kill his wife, and that it was not her pajama clad body found in a culvert near Albury, but that he was coerced to confess to her murder so that the case could be officially closed.
The police were unable to identify the body of the pajama girl, so she was embalmed, and her body put on display at the Sydney and Melbourne annual royal shows to see if anyone could recognise her. Nobody did, and to this day no one knows who she was, but the case was closed when Agnostini was arrested.
On another occasion, an Italian man, who had a political argument with an antifascist named Fantin threw a rock at him and fractured Fantin’s head. Fantin died as a result when the fascist doctor in the camp hospital refused to treat him.
Fantin had requested a move to another camp for his own safety, but it was denied. The only good thing that came out of it was that the authorities then shipped the dangerous fascist prisoners to another camp interstate, to prevent another clash with the Italians who despised the fascist regime.
The Italian fascist who fatally fractured Fantin’s head with a rock was taken into custody in Western Australia during his wedding reception and sent to Loveday.
Prince Del Drago, who was closely related to the Italian and Spanish royal families was taken into custody in Sydney and incarcerated in Tatura until he was badly beaten one night by the fascists and transferred to Loveday for his protection. He was appointed as the camp representative of the Italian internees in Camp 9, and his role was to present formal requests from the prisoners to the Camp Commandant for their consideration.
When the Italians were transferred to Camp 14D in 1943, he led the internees out of Camp 9 to their new home. The Italians in Camp 9 and the Germans in Camp 10 were transferred to Camp 14 which consisted of 4 separate compounds, and their former compounds were closed down and the buildings dismantled and sold off.
There was one wedding conducted at the camp. It was the marriage of Gwen Thompson and an Adelaide tailor, Gus Bonoguro, which was officiated by the Catholic Priest, Father Walsh. When Gwen went to board the train back to Adelaide the next day, she was denied passage because she was now classified as an alien. She had to wait for clearance from the army headquarters at Keswick before she could return home.
The wedding was arranged by Gwen’s uncle who was an intelligence officer at Keswick. The marriage was to cause a rift in the family and created a lot of resentment.
The wedding was filmed for a news clip to be shown in the picture theatres, and Gwen’s brother who was serving in the islands saw it during a film night at his army base but did not tell his mates it was his sister.
One of the Germans taken into custody in Persia and transferred to Australia jumped off the train on route to Loveday and was recaptured walking along the track back to Adelaide.
The man whose first name was Herman was wearing a maroon dyed enemy uniform at the time.
He was a merchant seaman whose ship was on the high seas, the day the Germans declared war.
His captain was radioed a message to head for the nearest neutral port. They joined other German merchant ships in the Persian Gulf, and he stayed on board for the next two years as a night watchman, while the rest of the crew took a train back to Germany to join the German navy.
When the Allies invaded Persia, Herman and all the Germans who worked for the Shah of Persia were arrested and transferred to Loveday in Australia.
He shared a hut with German civil engineers from Persia and they sought permission from the Camp Commandant to build a clay brick coffee hut, so that when they began to tunnel out of the camp, they could mix the soil they were digging out with the clay for the bricks to disguise it.
The tunnel began beneath the wood fired heater in their hut and was within the two outer fences when it was discovered.
When the coffee hut was finished Herman was placed in charge, until the authorities uncovered their escape attempt and all those involved were transferred to the Tatura Internment Camp. If the tunnel had not been discovered and a mass escape had resulted, it would have made headlines, and attracted world attention, and possibly led to a great movie. It certainly would have put Loveday on the map.
The Vienna Boys Choir had been touring Australia prior to the war breaking out. They were aboard a ship in Fremantle in Western Australia waiting to sail to America, but the ship was delayed because of strikes on the docks in New York, and was unable to sail.
They were all sent back to Victoria, the boys were placed into the care of one of Melbourne’s Cathedral Diocese and boarded out in the community, while the conductor was sent to be interned at Tatura. They lived in family homes while they attended school. One of the boys was living with an Italian family while the head of the household was interned at Loveday.
After the war, the boys chose to remain in Australia and pooled their money to pay for passage home for the two who wanted to leave, in order that they would seek out the families of those who chose to stay.
One of the Italian POWs who worked on a farm property in the Adelaide Hills prior to the end of the war fell in love with a beautiful young Australian lass who lived on the property next door. They became lovers before he was sent to another farm, and she found out she was pregnant with his child. When the child was born, the father was being held at Loveday, awaiting passage home.
They wrote to one another, and she sent him a photograph of their daughter before she was adopted out. Her father intercepted her lover’s letters when he was back in Italy, and they lost touch. He tried to immigrate to Australia, but he had health problems, so his application was denied.
I was to meet their daughter many years later. Merideth had been adopted by a family living in Berri and was now married and living in Renmark with two adult sons. She rang me and I invited her to my home to discuss her birth parents.
She told me her much-loved adopted parents had died long before and she had traced her mother to Murray Bridge. Her mother, Nancy, was a widow with two married sons. She told Merideth about her father, who she had never been able to forget because he was the love of her life.
Then out of the blue an Italian man from Melbourne contacted her mother because her lover had passed, and his son wanted to connect with his sister. It was not until his father’s death that he found out that the photo of the baby girl which always sat beside his father’s bed was his half-sister.
He always thought it was his older sister from his parents’ marriage. His mother told him about his father’s capture during the war, and imprisonment in Australia, and about his deep love for Merideth’s mother, and her daughter.
Sadly, Merideth and her mother have both passed now. I attended both of their funerals because we had developed a very close, deeply caring friendship. Nancy had given me the story she had written about her great love affair, along with photographs, and permission to put it in my book.
I shall never forget when Nancy came up to stay with Merideth and I took them for a tour of the Loveday Internment Camp. Nancy was reduced to tears and thanked me for making an old lady very happy.
These stories are among those which will be printed in my book. I have procrastinated about starting the book for so long because I did not know where to start, but over the years I have printed so many articles relating to Loveday, that most of the information is already in print so it is just a matter of time.
I have always known that I needed to record these stories so that they can be shared and not lost with me when I die. Some have been rattling around in my head for nearly forty years. Another thing which delayed my start was knowing that I could not afford to publish it when it was finished.
The financial cost of my research and travel has been hard on my pocket but it is something I have happily absorbed because it was so important, and I am just so pleased that I have been able to record so much of that history, knowing it will still be around when I am not. It is the legacy I leave behind.
This information which will go on the Loveday Internment Camp web site is the beginning of my book.
The only other thing I would like to do in the near future is to visit northern Queensland cane fields to address the descendants of the Italian civilians who were taken into custody and placed in Loveday. Many of the descendants have travelled down to visit the site over the years, but until I set up the Collection in the Barmera VIC there was nothing much to see, and no one to take them on tour.
Rosemary Gower 10/10/23