Loveday’s Internees – the other prisoners of war
Photo supplied by Rosemary Gower
South Australia’s Riverland is well known for its sun-ripened apricots, juicy oranges, sprawling vineyards and, of course, its high quality opium poppies. Okay, maybe not these days, but during the Second World War the fields around the small settlement of Loveday, near Barmera, produced much of the country’s raw opium. This was processed to make morphine for Australian troops.
To add a twist to the tale the opium crops were tended by prisoners - though in the context of their incarceration they were referred to as internees. Still, when you’re surrounded by armed guards and barbed wire fences the difference is really just semantics.
This was all part of a much larger story.
When war broke out in Europe, many German-born men living in Australia were rounded up and placed in internment camps throughout the country. When Italy declared its allegiance to Germany, Italian men suffered the same fate.
When France fell, and an invasion of Britain seemed imminent, German and Italian internees from Britain, and British-occupied Palestine and Iran, were shipped to Australian camps, including camps 9 and 10 at Loveday.
When Japan entered the war in 1941, Japanese men from around Australia and the Pacific also found themselves interned, at the newly completed Camp 14.
Japanese internees working on the farm. Photo supplied by Rosemary Gower
By 1943 the internee population at Loveday had reached nearly 5,500.
Compared to the brutality Australian POWs endured overseas, conditions at the Loveday camps were relatively comfortable. The Australian authorities observed the conditions laid down by the Geneva Convention and the camps were visited regularly by the International Red Cross.
Internees were issued the same rations as the guards and were able to choose kitchen and hospital staff from among their own ranks. As some of the top chefs from Paris and London had been interned, gruel rarely appeared on the menu.
Under the Geneva Convention there was no compulsion to work but those who did received ten cents a day, which they could spend in their canteen.
Many of the men were keen to make their lives as normal as possible, so immersed themselves in pursuits such as agriculture, construction, administration and arts and crafts.
Photo supplied by Rosemary Gower
These activities no doubt helped distract them from homesickness and the sadness of being separated from wives and children, who required written permission from the army headquarters at Keswick before they could visit.
In a slightly ironic twist, men dressed in their Australian Defence Force uniforms were often seen visiting their interned German fathers at Loveday.
One reason the area was chosen was because it had already been piped for irrigation. Vast gardens were planted to produce tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, leeks, peas, beans, rhubarb, pumpkins and a variety of other vegetables.
Pyrethrum daisies were grown for use in insect repellent.
When supplies of imported seed from the US were interrupted due to the Japanese conflict, 440 acres of land around the camps was used to grow vegetables for seed, which was then distributed around the nation.
A piggery and chook-runs further contributed to self-sufficiency, and in fact the camps at Loveday were the only ones in the country to turn a profit.
By late 1943 all of the internees had been transferred to Camp 14 and the other camps were closed down.
Most of the buildings were dismantled and auctioned off.
When the war ended, the Japanese were all shipped back to Japan while the others internees were found supervised jobs for two years, before being released back into the community.
Looking out across the area now, there’s virtually no sign that this little-known chapter of South Australian history ever occurred. But if you have a keen eye, or travel with Rosemary Gower, who has spent the last 30 years researching Loveday’s role in the war, then it’s possible to spot the odd remnant.
At the former general headquarters, the recreation hall used by the guards remains in place, as do the nearby cells where misbehaving Aussie troops could find themselves locked up.
Recreation hall, cells
Like a concrete bunker with narrow slits for windows, the tiny pay office also sits in this area that was once an administrative compound. Not too far away are the ruins of the piggery.
Pay office, piggery
Several buildings were relocated and re-purposed. An original mess hall stands almost completely intact just beyond the township of Loveday, and Barmera’s current SES and RSL buildings had former lives inside the camps.
Mess hall, Barmera SES
At the Cobdogla Irrigation & Steam Museum the National Trust has exhibits of work tools used by internees, a scale model of Camp 9, which housed the Italians, and some examples of their clever handiwork, including a set of hand-made wooden bowling balls.
With her vast knowledge and impressive collection of recorded interviews, live footage, photos and artefacts, Rosemary was able to play a major role in establishing a display inside the Barmera Visitor Information Centre.
Here you’ll find photos, artefacts, and information panels covering all aspects of Loveday’s war role.
Nuts and Bolts
- The Loveday internment camp sites are just south of Barmera (see map below)
- The Barmera Visitor Information Centre is on Barwell Ave, Barmera
Opening hours: Monday-Friday, 10am to 4pm, Weekends & public hols, 10am to 1pm, Closed Christmas Day and Good Friday
Barmera Visitor Information Centre
Cobdogla Irrigation & Steam Museum
RAA Travel Planner