John McWilliams

Phil McWilliams of Australia has sent me the following account of his father John McWilliams' experiences as a POW in Austria. It is part of a much larger account of John's wartime experience. Phil has produced a CD of this account which includes audio clips of several ex-POWs. Copies of this CD may be obtained from Phil.

The train took them to the town of Spittal situated on the river Drau in southern Austria, near the Italian border, where they camped in a field  surrounded with barbed wire. The camp at Spittal was a large sprawling place where most of the 28th Battalion men spent some time before being transferred to other work camps.

Within a day or so of arriving in Spittal at Stalag XVIIIB, the camp commandant had the prisoners paraded in front of him. Speaking in perfect English (many Germans could speak English) he announced,

"You men have all been segregated by the Italians as trouble makers and were brought to a camp as close to the border as possible. We think that Italy will soon be invaded and as you have proved yourselves to be troublesome, and as we don't want the possibility of you causing trouble behind our lines, we have brought you into Germany" (Austria then being considered part of Germany).

"Now" he continued, "We have something else to explain. Many of you refused to work when asked in Italy. In Germany it is somewhat different. You won't be asked to work, you will be ordered. Should you disobey the order, you will be shot. Now, is that clear?"

"Yes, " thought the men" we understand that quite well".

The soldiers with no rank (O.R's), were sorted out and shipped to work camps all over Austria and Germany. Some went to villages, forestry camps or camps in major towns and cities. Many of the 2/28th Battalion men including Bill McCaughey, Ray and Harold Gaby, were sent to Lamsdorf (Stalag VIIIB) in Silesia, which was in Poland, to work in coalmines and petrochemical works. 

Among the men of the 2/28th, Bob Hall was probably the youngest, having enlisted before his 16th birthday. His father was also a member of the 2/28th and a POW with him. The men of the 2/28th decided that the father should take Bob to a place likely to be away from fighting where the boy's survival would be given the greatest chance. This action was taken because the men were aware of the results of malnutrition for the boy in Italy. As a consequence, the Hallsí names were placed on a list which resulted in them being sent to a forestry camp in the Austrian Alps, away from any bombing, where they remained until the end of the war.

On arrival at the camp in Spittal, Les was in trouble almost immediately for insubordination and was sentenced to 7 days solitary confinement in the bunker. Six days later, Ed called a German, whom he thought was a camp guard, a "square headed old bastard". The "Guard" turned out to be the camp interpreter who took offence and started to pull out his revolver. Ed and the other arrivals had been warned by the camp padre that the German guards did not hold grudges like the Italians - they just shot you. Consequently, Ed, on seeing the guard reaching for his revolver, felt obliged to hit him as hard as he could on the chin with the aim of knocking him unconscious. Ed was promptly arrested by the other guards and sent for his first seven days in solitary. When he arrived someone else was in solitary already, which placed the guards in a quandary. They decided that as the person already in solitary only had one day to go, they would let him out. That person was Les Shardlow. On his release from solitary confinement, Ed was moved to a different hut to John and Les.

Les was out of solitary a day or so when word came through from a work party:

"Is there a Les Shardlow here in camp?".

"Yes", cried out Les.

About four miles away, in another camp, Fred Wilson had heard of Australian prisoners coming from Italy. Fred was a friend of Les's from Cannington, Western Australia, who had been in the 2/11th Battalion and had been captured in Crete. He had heard from home that Les had been captured and wondered if there was any chance of meeting up with him. Fred sent a message inquiring if Les was in the camp and Les sent word back that he was and that he was well.

The next day a man came up to Les and said, "I am on a working party in this camp for today. Here, take my dog tags, it's been arranged for you to take my place tonight". So Les marched back with the working party to the other camp. 

Fred Wilson was in a hospital camp and in two days time was to be repatriated to Switzerland. The men in the camp were receiving special milk parcels because they were all very ill. Les told Fred he had held Fred's little daughter whom Fred had never seen as he had left Western Australia before Les and before his daughter's birth. All the news Les could think of was passed on, which seemed strange at the time because much of it was years old. Fred shared news that he had received by mail. Towards the end of the visit Fred gave Les all the food he could stuff into his pockets. When it was time for the working party to go, Les took his place and returned to the other camp. Eventually Fred was repatriated to Australia and was able to pass news on to Les's parents. They knew Les was a prisoner of war but had no idea as to how he was really faring. Fred was admitted to the repatriation hospital, Hollywood, Western Australia suffering from all sorts of chest and stomach problems which had developed as a result of being a prisoner.  Sadly he was to die from these problems without leaving hospital.


In the process of sending the men to POW camps throughout Germany and German occupied countries, a small group of 2/28th Battalion men were transferred to Graz in Austria. The group consisted of John McWilliams, Ed Riebeling, Les Shardlow, Charlie (Chook) Payne, Ken Cowdell , Ern Wahl , Stan and Horrie Jarvis .

The Stalag at Graz consisted of 3 compounds - one for N.C.O.s,  one for soldiers with no rank and the other for Austlanders who were effectively civilian slaves - Austlanders was the name given to civilian workers from outside of Greater Germany. The camp was part of a military training camp and nearby was an SS training camp. The men were housed in huts sleeping 24 men in one large room, typically on 3 double bunks, each bunk sleeping 8 men and two single bunks each sleeping 4 men. The bunks were wooden platforms about 400mm from the floor and 1500mm wide by 3600mm long. The platform was then divided into four equal parts with wooden rails down the middle of each side creating four sleeping positions. Double bunks had an additional layer about 1500mm above the lower bunk. Mattresses consisted of a hessian cover filled with straw.

Most of the camp guards were Austrians of World War 1 vintage who had been conscripted into the army, not the Nazi fanatics who were to come at a later stage. In comparison with Spittal, and especially Gruppignano, it was an easy camp.

John and Charlie went to work on a large water tank in the centre of the city.  Their duties were to prepare the formwork and then concrete the sides of the tank.  After several weeks they were moved to work near the crematorium, repairing the sewerage network and installing an overflow system. They had to place special inlets into the manholes along the river bank so that if the river was blocked (by bombing) and the water level rose, water would not go into the sewerage system but would be diverted around the camp avoiding a flood. Ken Cowdell, with whom John had been mates in Lebanon, was to join John's work party throughout the time in Graz.  

Les was sent to Weinstrasse (Vine Street) in Graz to repair roads. A group of about fifty men were housed above a boot repair shop. Bunks had been put in an empty space for them. They were to stay there until the first air-raids. Later Les was moved to the main camp in Graz. In the prison camp at Graz, John and Les were put into the same hut, but were in different work parties. Because they were working different shifts they sometimes went for days and even weeks without seeing each another. The men were getting Red Cross parcels regularly which continued to be their main source of food.

During the first months in Graz, John found it relatively easy to abscond from work parties to trade items from the parcels sent by Wynne.  Because of the large numbers of Austlanders roaming around Graz blending with the crowds was a simple matter. John's favourite trading places were under the city clock tower and on a corner near the entrance to the air raid shelter for civilians where blending with the crowds was a simple matter. By this means, he and his close friends were able to supplement their camp rations with a variety of foods. 

On the way back to the camp John noticed a hold-up at the entrance to the camp. As he came closer he could see how the men had been herded into queues and were being searched before being allowed into the camp. John picked a queue which was being searched by a guard that he knew and with whom he had become a little friendly. When John's turn to be searched came he approached the guard and asked him what was going on. The guard explained one of the prisoners had robbed a bank and that as a result everyone was being searched. John moved up very close, opened his greatcoat at the last moment so that the coat edges were behind the guard. The guard frisked John, feeling his pockets, body and legs before allowing him to proceed. John quickly closed his coat and entered camp. 

In central Graz there was a castle on a hill called Schlossberg - meaning castle hill. It reminded the Western Australians of Kings Park when seen from the river side, although it was probably higher. It rose abruptly from the surrounding ground and was composed of limestone. The Germans had built air raid shelters into it at the start of the war. It was found to be such good rock for tunnelling and very safe for making air raid shelters that the Germans extended the excavations. The aim was to build factories underground away from the bombing.

The concept of underground factories never came into being. It appeared that the only machinery on Schlossberg was that used in excavating. The prisoners were normally given Sunday off work but, as punishment for minor infringements of the rules, men were sent to work in the tunnels during their day off. On the other days of the week, the excavations proceeded around the clock by means of two twelve hour shifts. As the tunnels were getting nearer to completion, Les got into trouble with the guards. He had escaped a few times, finding he could get out of the tunnels on one pretext or another. Once outside, he was more or less in the centre of Graz from which it was easy to get to the market places.

"Take it easy. He will be back. Don't create a fuss because you will be in more trouble for letting him go. He will be back and when he gets back we will give you a few cigarettes".

" Yes, Yes.  I don't know how long I'll have him".

The guard would say, "Oh, Oh, Oh, you are a good man for coming back", and accept his cigarettes to ease his anxiety. Later, Les would share his goods equally among his work party. 

Eventually Les was caught a few times, in fairly quick succession, which meant that an increasing amount of his time was spent in the bunker in solitary confinement. This made business very difficult as he had contracts to fill in Graz and customers wanting to have their hair cut. The men in his group decided that Les should continue going out and if he was caught, someone from the group would swap dog tags and spend the time in solitary confinement for him. As a result, Les's time in solitary confinement was spread between four or five men and as a consequence no one suffered too much. The guards knew what was happening but were able to be bribed into silence.  

While Les was away trading, John took the opportunity to see what was available to steal, particularly food, within the railway yards. This involved avoiding being shepherded into the air-raid shelters during an air-raid and searching railway carriages or warehouses. During one of the raids, John was able to gain entry to a warehouse which was full of crates and sacks of various items. He found some bags of macaroni and stuffed as much as possible into the hem of his greatcoat as well as in his pockets. Suddenly, a guard came into the warehouse, presumably looking for him. There followed a tense period of cat and mouse with John quietly moving behind crates to keep out of sight. John felt sure that the guard knew he was in the warehouse. He knew also that if he was caught he could be executed for stealing food. The guard continued his search until the air- raid was over. With the confusion of the men spilling out of the air-raid shelters and the guards trying to get them back to work, John was able to rejoin his work party. The weight of macaroni in his coat forced John to be very careful in his work movements for the rest of the day, lest he give himself away. That evening, the macaroni was shared out among his group.

At this time it was obvious to all that the Germans were losing the war and that if prisoners obeyed the rules they would have a good chance of surviving. Consequently, when ordered to work, many men did exactly that. John's work party consistently attempted to be the slowest and least efficient in Graz. It became a matter of some pride that they could give the appearance of working hard while achieving little. Often their guards would take over to finish the task so they could return to camp.

At one morning parade before the work parties went out, the guards asked for two lift mechanics. An English soldier volunteered. John thought, "If he is a lift mechanic, so am I", and also stepped forward. They were taken to a seven storey factory on the outskirts of Graz which was producing paint for the military. A lift inside had become jammed as a result of shock waves from bombs exploding nearby. John busied himself pretending to work while the Englishman tried to fix the lift. Towards the end of the day it became a matter of concern to John that the Englishman appeared to be actually fixing the lift. Eventually the task was finished and ready for testing. For most of the time they had been working on the top of the lift where the lifting mechanism and controls were located. As the Englishman was clearing the tools away, John said, "What would happen if I hit this pin out?".

The lift would crash to the basement", replied the Englishman.

"Stand aside!" said John.

"You cannot do that", cried the alarmed Englishman.

"Can't I hell", said John, as he swung a sledge hammer at the pin. With the pin out the lift crashed to the basement shattering into a twisted jumble of broken metal. Within seconds their guard, who had been partly obscured from view, rushed over screaming sabotage. He swung his rifle butt hitting John in the mouth, splitting his lip, breaking his nose and knocking him sprawling onto his back. Pointing the rifle within centimetres of John's face, the guard cocked the rifle and threatened to shoot him in the head. "Wait a minute!", said John. "It was an accident".

"Sabotage" screamed the unbelieving guard, "you will be shot".

"Wait," said John, "Shoot me if you like, but think first. Every day you can see more American bombers in the sky and you know that the Americans will be here soon. Think what the Americans will do to Germans who have killed prisoners. If you kill me, what do you think the Americans will do to you?"

With that the guard hit John across the face with the barrel of the rifle, told him to get up and marched them back to camp in silence. At the camp the Englishman was sent back to his barracks while John was escorted to the bunker for 28 days on bread and water.

One day Charlie Payne, an English soldier, two guards and a foreman left Graz by train for Salzburg to get some bags of screws, bolts and nails. Apparently, someone in command thought that if they were ordered through the normal channels, they would never reach the camp. The train trip took 4 days because the allied planes were bombing the rail lines. During the trip to Salzburg, British Mosquito fighter bombers flew low along the length of the train. The train stopped and everyone ran and hid in the trees before the plane returned to attack and destroy the train with rockets and cannon fire. This resulted in a 24 hour delay in which the train passengers (mostly German troops) bivouacked over night until a replacement train could be scheduled. After a pleasant day in Salzburg the 40 kg of nails were collected and the two day return trip commenced. Travelling 2nd Class and eating in army transit lounges was a very pleasant change from prison life. Not long after this trip, towards the end of summer 1944, Charlie's confirmation of rank arrived through the Red Cross and as a result he was transferred back to Wolfsberg where he was not required to work.

Eventually, the prisoners felt as if they controlled the camp and could bribe the guards into doing anything. 

Wynne stayed up late every night during winter of 1942-43 knitting a fisherman's jumper for John. It had double thickness sleeves, double front, and a roll collar. She made it extra long as she was very conscious that John had had a kidney removed. Her sister Ethel made a sleeveless cardigan to go under the jumper while his mother knitted woolen socks. John never received the parcel.  Whether it was stolen or on a ship which was sunk  was never  discovered.

After John had been a POW in Graz for a while, he got frostbite on his feet. He wrote to Wynne asking if she could find him some fur-lined boots. Wynne enquired in a few shoe stores in Perth but to no avail. John's mother went into a furrier's and had them make up a pair of fur booties to go over his socks. Being made of fur, there was almost no weight to the parcel. John reported that they were marvellous and very warm. John also asked for a jacket. Wynne walked up Barrack Street in Perth, past a shop selling leather goods. Hanging up on a rack in the middle of the shop was a sheepskin waistcoat. Wynne thought it could be just the thing for John. It was priced at 28/6 which amounted to more than one weeks wage. At the time Wynne was getting 26/- a week from the army and her weekly wage was 24/- a week. She went home, thought about it and bought it on the following day. Although it was a waist coat, it was buttoned almost to the neck and the back and front extended down in a big scoop like a shirt. It had no sleeves but had wide shoulders which covered right across the back. John later wrote to Wynne saying that it was the warmest garment he had ever had.

At the time, John had an overcoat (army greatcoat), which he gave away to an American Negro aircrew man who had been shot down over Austria. The American had no appropriate clothing for the cold weather. His profuse expressions of appreciation embarrassed John, but both men knew that it would ensure the American's survival. When John arrived in England, he gave the waistcoat away, but he bought the booties home. Wynne thought it a terrible waste after her paying so much.

Another time, John wrote to Wynne asking her to send as many cigarettes or chocolate bars as she could. There were no chocolates or cigarettes in the shops in Western Australia. It was like asking for gold! Wynne made a point of travelling into Perth for work by train with some young fellows, below Army age, who worked in Plaistowes Chocolate Factory in West Perth. One day, after explaining her situation, they said they would get her some chocolate. They bought her some, but not as much as she needed. She then met a Victorian soldier who was too old for overseas duty and was spending the war guarding Italian POW's in Harvey. He told Wynne that the POW's canteen had a huge quantity of chocolate and that he would try and get some for her. It annoyed Wynne that the POW's could so easily obtain chocolate when ordinary civilians couldn't buy any in the shops to send to Australian POW's. The only varieties sold here to the Italian prisoners were the finest quality Cadbury and Nestles chocolate.

She also sent cigarettes through the Australian Government representative in England. This service was organised through Boans Department Store which cabled the money to England where the order was packed. John would get English cigarettes regularly as they had a better chance of reaching him than those being sent by sea from Australia.

Every parcel sent through the Red Cross whether it contained clothing or food was required to weigh 1lb less than the 9lb allowance to allow the Red Cross to insert a block of chocolate. On one occasion Wynne was able to send a whole 9 pound parcel of chocolate, which made John richer than a millionaire. John did not eat any. It was far too valuable and was used in exchange for food and for bribing guards. He would often break up a block so that he could trade anything from a few squares to a full block. Prior to the war John used to smoke but he had told Wynne that he had given it up. He had in fact vowed that he would not smoke again until he was free. So Wynne was angry when he asked her to send him cigarettes. However, the cigarettes were used as currency for bribing guards and getting food and not for smoking. At that time white bread was almost impossible to get, it being reserved for invalids and high ranking party officials. John was able to trade for almost anything, including white bread, with the right amount of cigarettes. 

Wynne was allowed to send one parcel every three months. Nan, who was very good at knitting socks, would always have three or four pairs of woolen socks ready for each parcel. The weekend on which they were told that they could send the first parcel, Nan never left the lounge chair and knitted almost continuously from early morning to late at night. They wanted to send their first parcel as soon as possible, because they did not know how long it would take to reach John but they felt that it would certainly be a few months. They were worried that if they missed a ship they could wait months for the next one. As soon as one parcel was sent, Wynne would start looking for things to buy for the next one. It was hard to buy underclothes for men, nearly always one had to know somebody who knew somebody else to get something. Wynne knew a woman who worked in Foy and Gibsons Department Store who would put things aside when they came in. This way Wynne would often have a parcel ready before time so, as soon as she was allowed, it was sent.

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