This is the story of the military camp established in Rowville when it was believed that invasion by Japanese forces was imminent.
The Camp had a relatively short history as a military camp and was only in use from 1942 until 1946. During that time it was first used by the 3rd Motor Brigade Group on 18th May 1942. The troops stationed there included signallers, ambulance drivers and engineers. Units of these groups were engaged in training and exercises. The troops were stationed in the Rowville Camp because of the concern at the time that the Japanese might land in the Westernport Bay area. They were to be used as a mobile tactical reserve to reinforce troops defending the coast between Westernport Bay and Point Nepean. The Units stationed in the coastal area were under the command of Brigadier George H. Knox after whom our city is named and the Units at Rowville were under the command of Brigadier K.A. McKenzie.[*]
When the probability of a Japanese attack diminished, the 3rd Motor Brigade Group were moved to Seymour on 25th September 1942. After this the camp became a training and reception depot for American troops who were later shipped for service in the Pacific Region.
Whilst the Rowville area never really felt the ravages of the war, the local residents did at least have their fair share of ‘frights’ caused by the activities of both the Australian and American soldiers who were constantly on manoeuvres in the area. During their stay in the Camp, the Americans could often be seen trooping all over the hills, where their strange looking uniforms and unusual equipment were continual sources of interest to the small farming community of Rowville, many of whom were women left at home to carry on whilst their men were away fighting overseas.
In 1944 the American troops moved out of the camp and in December 1944 the Rowville hostel was established with one hundred Italian prisoners of war, one officer and seven other ranks. The number of prisoners was increased to one hundred and fifty in January 1945. Although there was no increase in the number of military staff, later that year the number of prisoners grew to approximately three hundred. The role of the camp was changed to that of a staging camp on 5th June 1945, with an increase in military staff which consisted of one officer and fifteen other ranks. This meant that all prisoners being moved from centre to centre around Victoria were dispatched through the Camp at Rowville. Prisoners were kept until there was sufficient justification for them to be sent to other camps around the State and used as farm labourers. According to the Australian Archives, Italian prisoners of war were also used on military works at salvage depots, Fisherman’s Bend, the Engineers Depot at Oakleigh and the Military Camp at Watsonia. Altogether a total of two thousand six hundred prisoners of war passed through the Rowville Camp until the government inquiry in 1946.
The Rowville Camp was a very low security area in semi-rural uncleared land. Around the perimeter was an ordinary wire fence, a little over a metre high, capable of keeping grazing cattle out rather than prisoners in. The camp had no sentries on the gates and there was nothing to stop an ordinary individual getting in or out, either by jumping over or crawling under the wire fence or just walking through the unguarded entrances of which there were four off Stud Road and one off Wellington Road.
Local residents’ recollections of the prisoners varied greatly. Those who used them as farm labourers found them friendly, harmless men, other locals were not so happy with them working along the country roads in their ‘crimson pyjama suits.’ Many false stories were made up to discredit and make trouble for both the prisoners and the Italian farmers who had moved into the area. The latter were always raided whenever there was an escape as it was suspected that the prisoners were hiding there.
During January 1945 with about three hundred prisoners of war in the camp and only fifteen guards to control them, six prisoners of war escaped. As these men were without weapons, they were not considered to be a threat to the local community, but their escape caused considerable controversy because of the lack of security at the camp.
A newspaper article in the Dandenong Journal on 21st February 1945 recorded that residents at a public meeting of the Council were perturbed by the wanderings of the prisoners of war from the Rowville Camp. It was mentioned that groups of prisoners had been seen wandering the roads at 10 o’clock at night, and on one occasion fourteen prisoners had approached the doorkeeper and sought to be admitted to the dance at Mulgrave.
The degree of supervision of the prisoners was not unduly restrictive. They were allowed to go within one mile from the camp but were not supposed to cross over the Dandenong Creek. They were also forbidden to have any personal contact with local residents and to generally conduct themselves beyond reproach.
Because of the general lack of supervision prisoners continued to escape believing that by doing so they could remain in Australia instead of being repatriated to Italy. This belief was offset to a certain extent by some camp Commanding Officers who pointed out that prisoners of war who escaped and were found after repatriation had been carried out would also be deported from Australia because at that time they would be regarded as prohibited immigrants.
In March 1946, the Minister for Information and Immigration, Mr A.A. Caldwell, made representation to the Minister for the Army, Mr F.M. Forde, to hold an investigation into the Rowville Prisoner of War Camp near Springvale. He suggested this action after receiving the following letter from Mr L. Santospirito of Carlton:
“At the prisoner of war camp at Springvale there is a certain Captain Waterston who is a veritable Nero. He is always drunk and treats the POW shockingly. They are not free to have any possessions of their own, all articles of any value being taken out of their cases such as shirts.
He makes a clean sweep of anything they manage to purchase out of their small earnings even to cigarette papers, razor blades, shirts and shoes etc.
Apparently he gets intoxicated every day; then he goes brandishing a revolver in mid-air. The prisoners are belted and given bread and water once a day and their money taken from them whenever they attempt to escape because they cannot tolerate the conditions any longer. A few months ago one man was taken to hospital and had to have seven stitches in his forehead. Several have gone out of their minds and been taken to Receiving Homes.
The food is very scanty. In fact they are all very unhappy. There seems to be a lot of Jews there. I have been told that these facts have been verified from various sources but it should be easy enough to have an inquiry. I was also told that this Captain is a protected person that is someone with influence.
As this has been going on for some time I would be very happy if some move were to be made to end this affair at the earliest possible moment as it has caused a terrible lot of discontent.”
On 30th March 1946, an Italian prisoner, Rodolfo Bartoli, was fatally shot while trying to escape from the camp by Captain Waterston, Camp Commandant.
On 3rd April 1946, a government inquiry was held into the running of the camp and on the 5th April an inquiry began into the killing of the Italian prisoner by Captain Waterston who was found unfit to command the camp and removed from duty. Mr Justice Simpson, in handing down his report on the Rowville Camp on 26th August 1946, was highly critical of the administration of the camp, the main criticisms being the method of inflicting punishment and the type of punishment handed out. Also the fact that legitimate complaints from the prisoners put forward by their camp leaders were neither forwarded to the authorities nor were they redressed.
All of these unfortunate events took place in 1946 after the end of World War II. Despite the fact that Italy had changed sides in the conflict and declared war on Germany in October 1943, Captain Waterston, in 1946, was treating the Italian prisoners of war as if they were dangerous enemy soldiers. They were prisoners only in a technical sense because of a delay in obtaining shipping to repatriate them to their homeland. It is clear from Mr Justice Simpson’s inquiry, that Captain Waterston was temperamentally unfit to be in charge of a prisoner of war camp in wartime and more so after peace was declared. During the life of the military camp at Rowville, many soldiers passed through its gates, Australian, American and Italian. It was a sad and unnatural situation for young men to find themselves in – carried away from their homes and families for five or six years, many never to return. Compared with the greater horrors suffered by prisoners of war in Europe and Asia, the Australian experience was preferable. The Australian authorities and people, in the main, except for isolated examples of bigotry and intolerance, treated the prisoners of war well, and it seemed that common sense prevailed over jingoism and racism, those vocal and inseparable allies in war-time.
All that remains of the camp today are the concrete foundations of some one hundred and forty buildings. The site is overgrown with trees and scrub, virtually left undisturbed since the last prisoners of war departed on their long journey home. The camp closed in 1946.
Scandal 1947 SCANDAL AS MELBOURNE GIRL WEDS ESCAPEE FROM ROWVILLE POW CAMP
On 20 September 1947 the Melbourne Truth newspaper ran a front page story in which it raged against the granting of a leave pass to a detained Italian POW escapee, Francesco Ponzoni, to enable him to marry his Australian sweetheart, June Peterson.
Despite the fact that hundreds of Australian war brides had left our shores to live with their G.I. husbands in America, the Truth attempted to whip up a scandal about this isolated case thus showing that anti Italian prejudices were still running deeply even though the war had ended more than two years previously.
June Ponzoni, now aged 80, lives in a retirement village in North Balwyn. The walls of her unit are adorned with the many paintings created by her talented husband Frank with whom she enjoyed 43 years of a happy marriage.
June is now able to laugh about the Truth’s crude attempts to whip up war-time hatreds but it must have been no laughing matter for her – at the age of 22 and on the eve of her wedding – to be confronted by the Truth hoarding outside her local news agency announcing: CANTERBURY GIRL AND P.O.W. ESCAPEE IN ROMANCE.
June Meets Frank
June was the daughter of Fred and Avis (“Wardie”) Peterson and grew up with her sister Avis in the family home in Rochester Road, Canterbury. Both girls attended MLC and, after leaving school, worked as secretaries in the city. Fred Peterson had established his own business as a painter and decorator employing several workers and he was sufficiently successful to be able to own a race horse that he spelled at the property of a family friend named Burrows. The Burrows’ property was situated on what is now the former site of the AFL’s Waverley Park. When Fred drove out to check on his horse June accompanied him and was allowed to ride the family’s pony on which she explored the district getting to know the D’Andrea family of Heany Park Road.
One warm day in 1946 she rode up to the lake at Heany Park for a swim and it was there she met Frank. She knew he was a POW because of his burgundy uniform but he spoke excellent English and soon they had struck up a conversation. Although Frank was fourteen years older than June that didn’t seem to matter and they soon became friends.
Frank told June about life in the camp where, although the food and their treatment by the guards were good, all the inmates were bored and frustrated by the delay in their repatriation to their homes in Italy. Their only other source of complaint was the behaviour of the commanding officer, Captain John Waterston, who was often drunk and aggressive towards the POWS, even, on occasions, firing his pistol into the ground at their feet. After the trauma of the shooting of one of the inmates, Rudolfo Bartoli, by Captain Waterston, Frank was determined to leave the camp no matter what the consequences. Frank was the assistant to the camp doctor, Dr Joseph Galli, who attended the dying man so Frank would have witnessed the distressing aftermath of the shooting.
Fred and Wardie Help Frank to Escape
June had previously introduced Frank to her parents and they were very impressed with him, recognising that he was an intelligent, talented and decent man. Fred and Wardie decided on an extraordinary course of action – they devised a plan to assist Frank to escape from the camp.
They drove out to Rowville at midnight and picked up Frank from a prearranged bushy patch of roadside outside the camp and drove him back to their home in Canterbury where Frank spent the night. The following day Fred drove Frank to his warehouse at 33 Lonsdale Street in the city where Frank set up one of the back rooms in the building as his living quarters. Not only had Fred assisted Frank in his escape and provided him with sanctuary but he now employed him as a painter-decorator. Frank shaved off his moustache and wore glasses (with clear-glassed lenses) but knew that it was only a matter of time before he would be discovered because the photographs of all escapees were displayed in the post offices at that time. As it happened, Frank avoided discovery for over twelve months before the police finally caught up with him.
Fred was questioned by the police but no charges were ever laid against him.
Frank was detained at Attwood Detention Centre at Broadmeadows where the Petersons were able to visit him on Sundays.
Truth Announces Their Romance
By this time June and Frank knew that their friendship had developed into a loving relationship and they decided to marry. Fred was able to obtain the permission of the authorities at Victoria Barracks to allow their wedding to be solemnized but somehow the Truth got hold of the story and ran a front-page story that opened with this headline: “ENEMY POW, SOCIALITE WON’T WED – YET” and the full page article opened with: “Inmate of a detention camp awaiting deportation, Francisco Ponzoni, 28-year-old Italian prisoner-of-war and escapee, was this week granted a two-days’ leave pass to marry a well-known Melbourne socialite, Miss June Peterson, beautiful 22-year-old daughter of a wealthy Canterbury family.”
June can laugh now about the inaccuracies and distortions in the article – for example, she was no socialite and her family was not wealthy – but at the time the scandal that the Truth tried to create was distressing.
To avoid a media circus June and Frank were married a day earlier than originally planned. They were wed by Fr Moran in the sacristy of St Patrick’s Cathedral on 23 September 1947.
After the wedding Frank had to return to the camp. He was finally sent back to Italy aboard the Kanimbla in December of that year.
June decided not to accompany Frank on the Kanimbla but flew to Perth where she stayed with an aunt before joining Frank aboard an American liberty ship, the General Heintzleman at Fremantle. .
Aboard the ship June shared a cabin with two German women who had been internees in Australia but she and Frank were at last able to enjoy their honeymoon – under the upturned life boats on the ship’s deck.
There were a number of German prisoners aboard but they tended to keep to themselves. However, there was one internee whom they got to know well. He was an Austrian, Dr Gruber, who had been the leader of the Viennese Boys’ Choir whose members had been on a tour of Australia when WW2 broke out. (Archbishop Mannix arranged for the boys to be billeted with Melbourne families throughout the war and many of them remained on in Australia when hostilities ceased.) Dr Gruber was a member of a very musical family and his grandfather was the composer of the most famous of all Christmas carols, “Silent Night”.
Life in Italy Proved to be very Difficult
The Italians disembarked at Naples leaving the ship to the Germans who sailed on to Hamburg.
June had been not been issued with a passport in Australia because by marrying Frank she had forfeited her Australian citizenship. Instead she had been given a Document of Identity which was only valid for the trip to Italy.
After struggling ashore with their luggage they were greeted with refreshments – bread rolls and wine – before catching a train to Rome.
The journey to Frank’s home town of Brescia (near Milan in Northern Italy) was a nightmare taking three days with frequent change of trains – including a stage in a cattle wagon. They finally arrived at Brescia railway station on Christmas Eve to be very warmly welcomed by Frank’s family who had not seen him for twelve years. June has a vivid recollecton of her arrival at Brescia as snow was falling – it was the first time in her life that she had seen snow.
Frank’s father was Arturro who was skilled ebonista, that is, one who makes inlaid decorative furniture. Sadly, Frank’s mother Maria. had died while he was in the army in Africa. Frank had two sisters, Elena and Rina, and a brother, Paride. Rina’s husband and Frank were fresco artists but there was very little work in that line after the war.
The family were cultured and had been comfortably off but their fortunes had suffered badly during the war.
Frank had been conscripted into the army in the 1930s when Mussolini invaded Eritrea. When the truce was finalized he stayed on in the capital, Asmara, and worked there as a commercial artist. However, when WW2 broke out he was conscripted again and sent to the western desert area in North Africa where he was captured by the British. He was sent to India for two years before heading to Australia aboard the Mariposa. It was while in India that Frank had studied English.
He disembarked at Melbourne and was sent for a short time to Murchison before coming to Rowville. On his arrival Frank was asked by the camp doctor, Dr Galli, to become his assistant although he had no medical training. Frank was happy to comply and was never required to go out on any of the daily work parties.
Return to Australia
Within a year of their arrival in Brescia, Frank and June decided to apply to return to Australia as there was no work at all in Italy.
They sailed from Genoa on the Napoli and were greeted by June’s family (who had sponsored their immigration) when they landed at the Melbourne docks. They went to live in a small house in Hawthorn and Frank obtained work as a commercial artist. Eventually they were able to buy their own home in Mont Albert. After they had established themselves in Melbourne, they flew home every five years or so to visit the family and when Frank retired at the age of 65 in 1976 they returned to live in Brescia. June was very happy to live in Italy where she liked the people, the culture and the food. “Some of the happiest days of my life were spent in Italy,” said June.
Frank died in 1990 and is buried in Brescia. June lived on in their apartment in Brescia until 1997 before returning to Australia. Her will stipulates that after her death her ashes will be taken to Italy to be interred with Frank.
Interviewed by Bryan Power
R-L Military Camps In 1955, a councillor researching her book has this letter from G.H. Knox (after whom Know City is named) concerning the military camp.
In 1955 Councillor Violet Lambert, who was one of the councillors representing the South Riding of the Shire of Ferntree Gully, was the chairperson of the council’s Historical Records Committee. The committee was responsible for the publication of the history of the shire, “Story of the Dandenongs”, and assisted its author, Helen Coulcon in her research. Cr Lambert was particularly active in chasing up information for the book and the article below records the response from Sir George Knox to her enquiry about his wartime role in the Rowville and Lysterfield district.
Sir George Knox had served with distinction in WW1 as commander of the 23rd A.I.F. Battalion at Gallipoli and in France. When Japan entered WW2 in 1941 he was appointed – with the rank of Brigadier – to command the military forces deployed in the area from Point Nepean to Western Port.
The City of Knox was named in his honour.
Dear Councillor Lambert,
This is a short item on the camps at Lysterfield and Rowville. To us, this period had some significance possibly worth recording in our Shire History – but in the overall war effort it was a very small matter and quite unrecorded in our war history.
The tactical position referred to briefly in the attached small article is well known as I was in command of this coastline at the time. Perhaps one day, an American mother may enquire where her dead son stayed while in Australia. Many of these Americans from Lysterfield were killed in action.
Kind and good wishes,
Rowville and Lysterfield: The War (second World War) 1939 – 1945
Establishment of Military Camps
The departure of the 2nd A.I.F. overseas, left Australia dependent upon its militia forces, then very much depleted in trained personnel. Existing training camps were few and many more were required and had to be hastily provided. In 1941 a “tented” camp was laid out in the Churchill National Park on a slope of the Barry Ranges some two miles from Rowville, and some short time later in that year a more permanent “hutted” camp was built on the rising ground along the Stud Road and close to Rowville. This was used as a training centre for the Australian Military Forces. It also had a tactical significance in that the troops there could be utilised as a highly mobile tactical reserve to reinforce troops already in position along the coast from the Heads at Point Nepean to, and including, the whole of Western Port Bay.
It was considered that if a landing by Japanese troops came, then this coastline was a likely area for an attack on Melbourne. When this possibility did not materialise, the Rowville camp was utilised as a training and reception depot for American troops. These troops went north as the American bases moved further away in their victorious “island hopping” campaign.
Later in the war and for sometime after the armistice, Rowville camp was used as a depot for Italian prisoners of war pending their repatriation. Lysterfield camp was abandoned sometime beforehand.
The passing out of both camps however left a memorial for the all time use of district residents and farmers, that was, the large water pipeline which served Rowville camp in particular – as it now serves many of those engaged in the peaceful avocation of primary production.
Reprinted with the permission of John Knox, son of Sir George Knox.
First published in the May 2006 edition of the Rowville-Lysterfield Community News.
Fitzgerald, Alan. The Italian Farming Soldiers, 1941-1947. Melbourne University Press 1981.
Coulson, Helen. Story of the Dandenongs. Longman Cheshire 1959.
This article by Shirley Franklyn is reproduced from ‘The Knox Historian’, Vol. 4, No. 2 September 1992 with the permission of the Knox Historical Society. Republished in the October 1993 edition of the Rowville-Lysterfield Community News.
From John V Phillips (22 Feb 2005)
In 1944 / 1945 my parents Vincent & Annie Phillips of 44 Glen Orme Ave Ormond SE14 on
Sundays in summer took their sons John, Barry & Denis swimming to Heany Park in Rowville in
the family car which had blackout lights and a
gas producer on it. Quite often Dad would give
a lift to Italian POW’s / internees from
Huntingdale to Rowville, and would drop them at
a gate near the SEC Power Lines.
On one occasion one of these POW’s gave Dad & Mum a purple army blanket for being so kind.
This blanket was used for many years afterwards to cover the dining table, and in the 60’s it was discarded.
From Bryan Power (24 Feb 2005)