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From burden to benefit: Italian and German prisoners of war in Western Australia, 1943-1946

McMullan, Peter (2020) From burden to benefit: Italian and German prisoners of war in Western Australia, 1943-1946. Honours thesis, Murdoch University.

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During the Second World War, Australia faced an extreme manpower shortage due to the requirements of its armed services, munitions production and agriculture. The federal government, having tried other sources of labour, was eventually forced to utilise Italian and German prisoners of war (POWs), interned in Australia, as additional workers. The option to employ POWs was allowed by the 1929 Geneva Convention, provided that this labour was not used for war purposes. The limited scholarly work available on POW employees in Australia deals predominantly with the eastern states. I analyse the decision to use almost 4000 Italian and German prisoners, transferred from POW camps in the eastern states and overseas, in Western Australia. I also show how the system worked in practice, and analyse the economic significance of the scheme. Western Australia’s greatest need for labour was in farm work and firewood supply. The army administered schemes under which POWs were employed in these tasks throughout the state’s agricultural regions. Over 3500 Italian and 300 German prisoners were used on the two projects. Army administrative centres were established in country towns, from where labour was distributed to employers after a vetting process.

The POW labour scheme proved economically and politically beneficial for Western Australia and financially advantageous for the federal government. Farmers were able to access cheap and experienced Italian labour, while the German POW workforce assisted the Forests Department in overcoming the state’s critical firewood shortage. Australian authorities accepted POW employment because it was fiscally self-sufficient and low maintenance, while country towns appreciated the army’s presence because it provided security and because money was spent in the towns The labour scheme also appears to have been relatively congenial for the prisoners, who were far removed from the war zones and were generally well treated by their hosts.

Item Type: Thesis (Honours)
Murdoch Affiliation(s): Social Sciences and Arts
Supervisor(s): Wilson, Sandra
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