This account was compiled from a series of conversations with Doug by his friend, Jim Ottaway.
Doug Nix (NX3365) was one of the many thousand Australian Servicemen who were captured and imprisoned by the Axis forces during World War II. Doug was a Kriegie… a Kriegsgefangener, German for Prisoner of War (POW). Doug was incarcerated in Austria by Hitler’s Army.
Doug, a resident of Paddington in Sydney, and his mates, locally known as “the Sunshine Boys”, enlisted in Militia in 1938 when they were only 17 years of age. They enlisted because they would receive a pay and accommodation, be clothed and be issued with a pair of boots. Doug and his mates were asked to obtain a letter from their parents prior to being accepted as Cadets, as they were underage. Doug’s father signed the letter on the proviso that Doug would not be posted overseas. Doug and his mates were assigned to the 109th Battery at Victoria Barracks.
When volunteers were sought to go overseas to fight the Germans, Doug volunteered straight away. The day was 3 November 1939. Doug’s father had no recourse as Doug had “volunteered” for overseas service.
Doug was assigned to the 2/1st Field Regiment, 6th Division, Australian Imperial Force as a Gunner. Doug, along with others of the Division, departed Sydney on 10 January 1940 aboard the S.S. Orford.
Doug saw action in North African and Greek campaigns prior to being captured in Kalamata, Greece on 28 April 1941.
Doug was captured with three other Allied personnel (including his mate Gunner Teddy Barnes). All four, along with others, attempted to board a boat near Kalamata after being given the command… “every man for himself”. As the boat was being bombed by the Germans, some of the men jumped overboard. Many were injured including those who were in the water due to the pressure from the bombs exploding in the water. Doug, Teddy and two other Allied servicemen (both injured) found shelter in a cave on the beach. Eventually Doug and Teddy went looking for food and were captured. Doug heard the now familiar saying… “For you the war is over”. The injured men were eventually found by the Germans and treated. Unfortunately, one of the injured men died a little time later.
Doug, along with thousands of other Allied servicemen, was held prisoner in a field camp for about two weeks on the beach at Kalamata. There were many Olive trees about but Doug did not like olives. When fed, the men only received hard Greek biscuits and a splash of olive oil. There was no shelter other than shade from the Olive trees. Bugs, lice and dysentery were rife. Conditions were atrocious. The German’s intention was to drain any remaining strength out to the men to enable complete dominance over them.
After a few weeks most of the men were crammed into animal carriages on a train destined for Salonika. Towards the last part of the journey they were ordered out to the carriage and force-marched to Salonika, as a section of the tracks had been destroyed by bombing raids.
Salonika was another transit camp which was formerly a Greek Army Military Base. Again the conditions were atrocious. Food was very poor, if received at all. Huge bed bugs, lice and other vermin were ever present. Dysentery was the norm rather than the exception. Malaria was also prevalent. Parades were ordered four-five times a day to enable head counts to be performed. Doug was in the Salonika camp for about three to four weeks.
Doug was again placed in a recently used animal train carriage along with other Allied servicemen and transported to a then unknown destination. It ended up being Wolfsberg, Austria. The journey took about six days and was absolutely horrendous. On the side of each carriage was the sign “Hommes 40 Chevaux 8” (i.e. 40 men 8 horses). Well over fifty men were crammed into each carriage with very little water and only a few openings to allow in air. During the long journey the doors of the carriage were sometimes not opened for two days. Similar inhumane train journeys around this time are graphically described in such books as “A Kind of Cattle” by Barney Roberts (2/12th Bn) and “Forty Men, Eight Horses” by Douglas Arthur (106th Lancashire Hussars). Unfortunately, many men did not survive these torrid journeys.
Doug’s mate from North Africa and Greece, Teddy Barnes, who was in the same carriage as Doug, escaped from the moving train by removing some of the floor boards. Doug considered escaping at this time but thought better of it. Many years later Doug found out that Teddy had eventually made it to freedom with the help of local partisans.
After arriving totally depleted at Wolfsberg Railway Station, the men were force-marched to Stammlager XVIIIA (Stalag XVIIIA). Official German documents indicate that Doug arrived at Stalag XVIIIA on 20 June 1941.
Doug was assigned POW No. 197. Doug wore his POW ID bound to his left wrist, rather than the usual habit of hanging the ID around the neck. This was a give-way to me when I saw a photo of a group of Allied POWs in the book “Prison Camp Spies” by Howard Greville (Royal Signals). I immediately recognised a young Doug in the photo. The visible tattoo was another give-way.
Doug was in the Stalag XVIIIA for about six months. He did, however, return to the camp on a number of occasions over the course of the next four years, generally to receive punishment (i.e. being locked in solitary confinement for “21 days bread and water”) for escaping from various work camps.
Doug was given the nick name “Abo” (in those days a slang term used for an Aborigine). This name was given to him by a Scotsman, in the first instance, and that name stuck with him. The Scotsman explained that he was surprised to see a white Australian as he thought all Australians were Aborigines.
It was during these early days in Stalag XVIIIA when Doug and over 200 other Allied POWs signed a “home-made” Crown and Anchor mat which was used for gambling (cigarettes and potatoes). This mat now stands pride of place in the World War II - European POW section in the Australian War Memorial.
Even though he was in a camp with about 20,000 other men from all nationalities, surrounded by barbed wire, guard towers and armed guards and horrible food, Doug was very pragmatic about his confinement. Doug realised that there was not much that could be done other than for him to create as much havoc as possible for the Germans, thereby keeping valuable troops away from the fighting. He set about doing this almost from the word go.
Doug also recognised early in his incarceration the usefulness of learning the German language. He set about this task and took every opportunity to expand his vocabulary. It was to come in very handy throughout his years as a POW and also in later years. Doug can still speak fluent German to this day!
Doug is kneeling on far right
(This photograph is taken from the book 'Prison Camp Spies' by Howard Greville.)
Doug’s first “arbeitskommando” (work camp/labour camp) was a paper factory in Frantschach St Gertraud. He was moved there in early 1942. The work at the factory involved moving logs and different types of factory work. It was during this time that Doug attempted to burn down the factory. It would have been a success if not for the flames being seen by an Austrian worker on a cigarette break. Arson was suspected and the Gestapo were called in to investigate. This incident is recorded in Howard Greville’s book “Prison Camp Spies”. Doug was suspected of involvement but no proof could be found at the time. However, a few years later the German’s eventually caught up with Doug with evidence against him for sabotage.
Some of Doug’s mates during this time include George Rushton (2/12th Bn) from Tasmania, John Tasker (4th Queen’s Own Hussars) and an Englishman with the surname Oakes (or Oates) (RAVC).
Also, during his time at the paper factory, Doug and two other POWs escaped and jumped a train (not knowing where it was heading). As it turned out it was on route through Italy. They got off just short of Trieste and hid in the bushes. They eventually walked into town at night looking for food. Unfortunately, they were unaware that a curfew was in place and they were picked up by the Italian Police. They were questioned and returned to Stalag XVIIIA and given 21 days bread and water in solitary confinement. However, they, like others in their predicament, did manage to get a little more (e.g. cigarettes) through the ingenuity and sleight of hand of other prisoners.
After a short stint back in Stalag XVIIIA Doug was moved to a work camp in Graz. In this camp the POWs were made to unload coal from trains at a railway siding. In Graz the POWs resided in work sheds close to the marshalling yards. It was not a compounded prison.
The International Red Cross eventually closed the camp down because of threat of bombing raids due to its proximity to the marshalling yards. Doug spent about three months in this camp.
Eventually Doug was moved from Graz to Waldenstein (Schloss/Castle) because he had a reputation as being “geflüchter” or “diziplinär” (i.e. an escapee/troublemaker). Waldenstein was set up for the more difficult POWs. It was known as a straflager where heavy work, such as road works, was required to be undertaken by the prisoners.
Doug tells of one story when approximately 21 prisoners escaped from the castle by tying together pieces of bedding materials and lowering themselves down behind the toilets into a creek below. They marched back to the main camp (Stalag XVIIIA) to the dismay of the camp guards and Commandant. The senior ranking POW made a complaint on their behalf about the heavy work that they had to perform and the terrible conditions they had to put up with.
All the escapees were given 21 days bread and water in solitary confinement at Stalag XVIIIA. After this time they were let loose in the camp. There was an order at the camp that certain POWs (including Doug) were not to go out to work again because they were considered “geflüchter”. Many of the rebel POWs changed IDs with those who wanted to stay in the main camp so that they could go back out to work and cause as much strife as possible. Doug was one of these.
Shortly thereafter Doug was posted to a glass factory in Leoben. Doug was there only a short time. A young guard, who had just returned from the Eastern Front (frost bitten) and whose parents had been killed in air raids on Dresden, came up to Doug and another fellow with a loaded pistol and said he would leave one of them “lying in the snow”. As a result of this threat Doug escaped two days later and was picked up by the civilian Police in Obdach. Doug was interrogated and he explained why he had escaped. He was then handed over to the military and interrogated and he was returned to Stalag XVIIIA. Again, 21 days bread and water!
Prior to being captured Doug and John Tasker (4th Queen’s Own Hussars) were moving through a very muddy paddock on a dark wet night. Doug said that he thought someone was following them. It turned out to be paddock which housed mares and a stallion. It was the stallion on their trail. They moved a lot quicker once they realised the stallion was stalking them.
From Stalag XVIIIA Doug was moved to St Lambrecht. This was around mid-1944. Doug remained there until around May 1945. At St Lambrecht the POWs performed road works, bridge work and repairs to rail lines (e.g. at Mariahoff Railway Station) etc. They also unloaded bags of copra from the rail trucks at Mariahoff and placed them in storage sheds for the nearby dynamite factory. Doug vividly recalls seeing the Mariahoff Station being strafed and bombed by the Allies. Doug, some other prisoners and their guard dived for cover under the train as bullets and hot bullet casings fell around them.
At this camp there were generally 10-12 men in each working group.
The POWs were held in an old mill on the Mur (tal) River located about 2 km from St Lambrecht.
Doug became very good friends with John Connor, a Sapper with the Royal Engineers. Doug had met John previously but had not had time to forge a close friendship.
During one of their work assignments Doug remembers removing his worn out slouch hat and placing it in the concrete mix used to repair a old stone dam near St Lambrecht. Doug was hoping that eventually the hat would disintegrate and the dam would collapse.
As a footnote to this incident, a few years ago Doug was talking with the then Chief of the Defence Force, Major General Peter Cosgrove at the official dedication of the Australian Ex-Prisoners of War Memorial in Ballarat. Doug asked Major General Cosgrove why he always wore a slouch hat. I understand his answer was that he wanted to show respect for all those who had worn and currently wear the slouch hat in the protection of Australia. During the discussion Doug explained what had happened to his original slouch hat all those years ago in Austria and the reason why he had done it. A month or so later Doug received a new slouch in the mail from Major General Cosgrove.
During his time at St Lambrecht, the Gestapo, still investigating the paper factory in Frantschach St Gertraud, caught up with Doug and they were going to move him back to Stalag XVIIIA to face court martial. However, before this could occur, the guards advised the prisoners that they could leave the camp. The prisoners thought it may have been a setup so that stayed put. However, after a little time they realised that the guards had gone, obviously fleeing the advancing Allied troops. Doug, John Connor and one other POW joined up with some locals and drove their “charcoal burner, six-seater” car towards the advancing troops, with a Union Jack flag over the front of the car. They eventually came upon a British tank in the middle of the road, south of St Georgen. One of the occupants of the tank called out for them to identify themselves. They yelled back that they were POWs. Eventually this car was handed over the Brits.
The British troops looked after the POWs with food, showers, medical treatment and new clothing.
After the British troops advanced into St Lambrecht, around June 1945, Doug, being fluent in German, was appointed as an interpreter to assist the British Field Security to weed out those Austrians who had supported the Nazis. There was a long list of names to track down and question. Doug undertook this job for about one month.
Those POWs who were still in Stalag XVIIIA when the Allies were advancing up through Austria were marched by the Germans from Wolfberg to Markt Pongau (now St Johann im Pongau), a march of around 215km. The march took about thirteen days through snow in bitterly cold conditions. A number of men died on this journey.
Around August/September 1945 Doug and fellow ex-POWs were trucked over the Austro-Italian Alps to Naples. Doug met up with John Connor again in Naples. The men were issued new clothing, had a shower and were medically checked over. About a week later, they were loaded into the bomb bay of Halifax bombers (seated on school plank seats) and flown to the R.A.F. Base in Bicester, England.
In September 1945 Doug arrived in England. Doug said his farewells to John Connor for the last time. He was billeted at Eastbourne. The ex-POWs were well looked after and well fed in an attempt to get some weight on them and to get them back to good health.
Doug remembers staying at Luton on the occasion and attending dances at Arncourt Hill, where the Women’s ATS Camp was located.
During a visit to London Doug bumped into his younger brother, Bob, in Sloane Square (near Buckingham Palace). While having a few ales Doug found out that Bob had also been a POW, but in a camp in Germany.
Doug eventually received orders to board a ship for his return to Australia. Doug caught a train from London to Liverpool.
Doug boarded the Mauretania and the whole voyage, including stops, took about three weeks. The Voyage home took them through the Panama Canal. They stopped at Pearl Harbour, Hawaii for about four days to refuel. Another stop was Wellington, NZ for about four days to drop off NZ troops. During his stay in Wellington Doug was billeted with a NZ friend’s family.
Bob Nix was also on the Mauretania, however neither knew the other was on board.
Doug arrived back in Australia October/November 1945. The men were bussed to the Sydney Showground and Doug was met by his mother, father and younger sister. At this time he was given a chit for money.
In 1991 Doug returned to Austria accompanied by his eldest son Alwyn. They met up in Munich and travelled by car throughout Austria visiting many of the places where Doug had been incarcerated during World War II, including the site of Stalag XVIIIA (now a motor vehicle factory), St Lambrecht and Graz.
Doug managed to meet up with a number of locals who were sympathetic towards the POWs during the war and whom he had got to know quite well.
One of things that stands out when I talk with Doug about his POW experiences is the camaraderie which existed between the POWs. In Doug’s words, the rule which he and his mates lived by was… “what is mine is yours – what is yours is mine”. That is how they survived.
Doug said that the living conditions varied depending on where he was located. Some places were liveable, others were atrocious. The food, when supplied, was a small quantity and usually tasteless. Doug like many of the other POWs ended up looking like a walking advertisement for the United Nations. Clothing was scarce and one made do with what one could get. For example, a POW could be wearing pants from a Frenchman, a Belgium soldier’s shirt and wooden clogs. What a sight! Doug was never issued with a new uniform from well before he was captured in April 1941 until after meeting up with the British in St Lambrecht in June 1945.
Doug remembers only ever receiving one or two Red Cross parcels during his entire stint as a POW. The rest of the time he and his fellow POWs had to make do with what was provided by the Germans or the well-meaning locals.
Doug had and still has a great respect for many of the local Austrians, particularly those who assisted the POWs in some way. Many of them took great risks to aid the POWs.
Doug recognises that there were differences between incarceration by the Germans and incarceration by the Japanese. However, all those who were captured were incarcerated… cut off from their families and loved ones, starved, treated as slaves, threatened and generally maltreated. The lives of the POWs were put on hold for up to five years. Doug stands by his conviction that a POW is a POW.
By the way, Doug is also a veteran of the Korean War where he originally served with the 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment. Doug was later transferred to the Royal Australian Army Medical Corps, 1st Battalion.
I feel very privileged to have Doug as a mate. One can only admire Doug and the thousands of other young Australian and Allied servicemen, like my father, Harry (Hab) Ottaway (19th Field Ambulance) who fought to defend our freedom during World War II (and all wars for that matter). I can only imagine the pain and suffering experienced by those who were taken prisoner by the Axis forces during World War II.
I believe all POWs should all be treated with the honour and respect they are due.