The WW2 Battle of Crete

The WW2 Battle of Crete


In May, 1941, the Greek Island of Crete was the only part of mainland Europe holding out against advancing Nazi forces whose Blitzkrieg had overrun the continent.

As the huge wave of German aircraft approached, the Island of Crete was defended by a poorly equipped allied force.

Such a huge airborne invasion had never been attempted before or since in war.

In May, 1941 the German invasion force consisted of 14,000 elite paratroopers who’d be dropped on the Island. The aim was to take it from 30,000 allied soldiers from Britain, Australia, and New Zealand and 12,000 Greek soldiers tasked with defending it. The airborne invasion would be successful after just two weeks, but the campaign was bloody with both sides suffering huge losses. For Germany, they would lose more troops on the first day of battle than they lost in 18 months of the war.

Crete is an Island familiar with bloodshed and invasion throughout its long history, but the invasion and four year occupation of the Island by German forces marked one of its most violent chapters.

Today, war graves of both allied and German soldiers are scattered across Crete along with memorials to Crete and civilians and resistance fighters either killed or massacred by the German occupiers

Souda Bay Allied Cemetery

Souda Bay Allied Cemetery

Build up to the Battle

In the months previous, German troops had pushed down through the Balkans and just a few weeks earlier had taken mainland Greece. The capital Athens fell on April the 27th and the swastika was raised over the Acropolis. The Italians under Mussolini had launched the invasion of Greece the previous year, but it was widely seen as a failure. German involvement had turned it around.

Thousands of allied soldiers had been defending the mainland until its fall, but had been hastily evacuated to Crete along with members of the Greek government and the King of Greece. Churchill needed to delay any further German expansion into North Africa and the middle East and decided to make a stand against impending invasion in Crete.

To lead the defence of Crete, Churchill turned to a New Zealand general Bernard Freyburg, a Gallipoli hero, and old friend.

Crete is 160 miles long, between seven and 30 miles wide, and has 8,000ft mountains dividing the North coast from a very steep Southern coastline. In 1941, there were only three main roads connecting North and South; other routes were no more than tracks and mountain paths.

The German invasion would involve an airborne division of the Luftwaffe developed by Goering a few years before the war. It was known as the Fleigercorps, and the paratroopers were known as the Fallschirmjager or ‘sky hunters’.

Paratroopers and aeroplanes in the sky above Crete during airborne invasion - Courtesy of The Alexander Turnbull Library

Paratroopers and aeroplanes in the sky above Crete during airborne invasion – Courtesy of The Alexander Turnbull Library

The Fallschirmjager were very effective when used in commando style raids. Many were drawn from old elite Prussian military families and were famous for their willingness to give it every effort unwaveringly even in the grimmest of situations.

From above the island, the Luftwaffe could strike the South at the British sea routes to Egypt and Cyprus.

By contrast, the allied forces defending Crete were poorly equipped. There had been about 50,000 troops involved in the Greek campaign. Two thirds of them from Australia and New Zealand. The Australian Imperial force was a volunteer one, the first to be raised since the first world war.

There was a shortage of weapons among the defending troops. The 10,000 evacuees from the Greek mainland had been forced to leave a lot of their equipment behind.

As the German Luftwaffe buzzed the skies above Crete, preparations were made for the evacuation of the King and Greek government to Egypt, an indication as to the diminishing prospects for a successful defense.

Considering this, New Zealand’s Freyberg was a reluctant commander. He wanted to return to Egypt with his troops. After the defeat on the Greek mainland, he contacted his HQ in Egypt requesting the removal of troops that he regarded as useless, unwanted personnel who did not have weapons and had little or no employment other than getting into trouble with the civilian population and subsequently most were removed from Crete before the battle began. The Australians were amongst those accused of behaving badly.

Allied Air forces were confined to only a handful of planes. Most were destroyed on the ground by German fighters. There would be no reinforcements as Churchill had prioritized Libyan defenses in North Africa and for the British base in Malta. This then was an army with no air defense.

The British Navy was effective in neutralizing any invasion by sea, but its ships faced a serious challenge from the German air force.

In the weeks before invasion only 2,700 of 27,000 tons of supplies shipped from Egypt arrived. The rest was lost after ships carrying it were attacked by the Luftwaffe. In the days leading up to the invasion, Germany’s massive air arsenal was employed to ruthless effect to soften up allied defences.

The Luftwaffe

Hundreds of aircraft took part including 200 elite Stuka dive bombers otherwise known as Junkers Ju 87s. This aircraft’s distinctive and frightening noise emitted when diving earned it the nicknames ‘the sirens of death’, ‘the flying swastika’ and ‘the Jericho trumpet’. The Stuka could dive bomb at an angle of almost 90 degrees, and at a speed of almost 400 miles per hour.

The backbone of this Blitzkrieg style operation however was the fast bomber, the Messerschmitt Bf 109. Almost 35,000 of these were produced by Germany during World War II, fully half of its air fleet, and they were heavily involved in the Cretan air invasion. Also involved was the twin Heinkel He 111, one of the Germans’most important bombers. It was distinguished by its greenhouse nose complete with rotating machine gun turret to allow greater and more precise visibility above targets.

There was also The Dornier Do 17 known as the flying pencil on account of its unique sleek design.

The actual airborne invasion was set to take place on May 20 1941. It was a unique high tech enterprise of its time — the brainchild of World War I German fighter ace General Kurt Student, the head of the air Corps and architect of a successful and highly innovative air campaign in Holland a year earlier.

Young German Paratrooper on Junkers troop carrier before takeoff for the invasion of Crete - Courtesy of The Alexander Turnbull Library

Young German Paratrooper on Junkers troop carrier before takeoff for the invasion of Crete – Courtesy of The Alexander Turnbull Library

Code named Operation Mercury, over 500 Junkers Ju 52 transport planes would drop the 14,000 paratroopers from the skies above Crete. They would be supported by another 570 aircraft made up of the Stukas, Junker 88s, Dorniers, Henkiels and Messerscmitt 109s and 110s. The invasion was a showcase of supreme and innovative German airpower – perhaps the single greatest example during the entire war. In the days preceding the invasion, these were the aircraft that had been used to soften up Allied defenses on the island.

Hitler, like the army, was actually opposed to the plan believing it was too costly but was persuaded by Goering, head of the Luftwaffe. He, like Student, was a World War I fighter ace and the Fallschirmjager paratroopers were his elite force.

The Battle

Leading up to the battle and throughout it, General Freyberg had access to German plans through Britain’s secret Codebreakers at Bletchley Park, in England. But despite this apparent advantage, Freyburg was heavily criticised for not using the information more intelligently.

In the first wave of the air invasion, 8,000 paratroopers were landed. In another first in aerial warfare, the lead troops were carried aboard DFS 230 gliders, towed by Junker JU52s. The gliders were released a good distance before target so the sound of towing aircraft would not alert the allied forces, allowing them to silently descend upon Crete.

One of the first German objectives was to knock out Allied anti-aircraft warfare. In all, 70 gliders, each carrying ten paratroopers would land in the first few hours of the battle, many along the dry Creek bed, west of the strategic Maleme airfield in the north west of the Island. The paratroopers came very well equipped-but on their initial descent they carried only a pistol, knife and hand grenades for weapons. They were also kitted out with knee pads and some carried cameras. Their heavy equipment was parachuted separatedly.

These well-equipped paratroopers, or sky hunters, became known to the Allies as the green devils.

The German mission was first to take three airfields along the Northern coast at Maleme, Rethimno and Heraklion, paving the way for the giant transports to land more troops and supplies in order to take the Island.

The key airfield was Maleme. This would be defended in a series of bloody and costly encounters, often involving hand to hand combat with allied troops, mainly new Zealanders and, surprisingly for the invaders, with the local Cretan population who had formed themselves into militias.

In all drop zones, the paratroopers were dropped in between and around allied troops, making for a confused battleground with no front lines. At Maleme, the paratroopers were dropped on top of and among battalions of New Zealand troops. At Rethimno, they were dropped either side and on top of Australian and Greek defenders protecting the airport and the city. It was a similar story in Heraklion where the paratroopers were set down amongst Australian, Greek and British troops. also defending both the city and airfield.

It wasn’t all plain sailing — The German aircraft had to come low and slow in front of prepared positions.

 “We were delighted to leave the aircraft because we thought they couldn’t hit us as easily as they could in the aircraft. But that was not so. In the air I heard this whistling of bullets around me, but the whistling is not so bad to hear because you know, everything you hear is already past you, it can’t hit you anymore. “

— Felix Gaerte, German paratrooper

New Zealand Maori troops attacked paratroopers as they landed with the bayonets.

Maori soldier courtesy of The Australian War Memorial

Maori soldier courtesy of The Australian War Memorial

One German unit dropped on the 23rd New Zealand battalion lost 800 out of a thousand men in just a few short hours. Cretan peasants even took the parachutes which were made of silk and made them later into dresses and other garments.

The key moments of the battle would unfold at the Maleme airfield.

Due to the slow Allied response to the attack on the airfield, at the end of the crucial first day, the German paratroopers had secured a foothold on the airport perimeter and the battle was balanced on a knife edge.

Despite the German advances, a New Zealand brigade still occupied the olive groves on what was known as Hill 107, which had an elevated position overlooking the airstrip. What happened next was critical.

The New Zealand officer commanding the Hill 107 position liuentant Colonel Leslie Andrew who won a Victoria Cross in World War I said the bombing incurred by his troops on May 20, made what he’d witnessed in the Battle of the Somme appear like a picnic.

Andrew then decided to pull the New Zealanders off the hill giving the Germans the advantage.

Then on the morning of day two the German commander General Student took a huge risk, turning the course of the battle in his favour. He crash landed Ju 52 transporters – allowing troops to get off and onto the contested airfield.

Within a day or two and with the airfield secure, the Germans had landed up to 10,000 troops and made up for the huge losses on the first day. From this point on, the Allies had lost the Battle of Crete.

Freyberg was heavily criticized for continuing to plan for a Seaborne attack and for spreading his forces too thinly across Crete’s Northern coast. British historians said it would prove the most costly and strategic miscalculation of the brief campaign which gave way to the lengthy German occupation of Crete.

But New Zealand historians say Freyberg’s planning was correct, and rather that he was let down by his brigade commanders at Maleme.

Despite a bold counter attack at Maleme involving brave fighting from Freyberg’s New Zealand brigades, it came too late and the allies were unable to retake the airfield, allowing the Germans to begin building a crucial bridgehead. This enabled the landing of more paratroopers and hardened fighters from the seventh mountain division.

With the Maleme airbase finally secure it took each JU52 just over a minute to touchdown, drop their troops and take off. As the reinforcements arrived, the invaders began spreading out.

Despite looming controversy, the allies would begin a series of dramatic rear guard and counter attack actions. 20,000 of their troops were still on a now German held Crete. The job now was how to protect them and get them off the Island.



As the allied troops fell back from the Maleme airfield, a series of bitter battles occurred, the first of which was in the village of Galatas.

The narrow lanes and streets of Galatas were the site of bitter close quarters combat, given its strategic location atop a small hill between the lost airport at Maleme and the allied lines between Channia and Suda Bay to the East. It was the first of several rear guard positions taken by the allies.

The historic city of Channia occupied by the Venetians for 450 years was heavily bombarded. Thirteen Venetian palaces were destroyed in a brutal bombing campaign.

Chania after bombing

Chania after bombing

The first of many thousands of POWs were already being rounded up. In addition, there was the gruesome task of burying the dead. There were atrocities on both sides.

The Battle at Sea

The Royal Navy’s role in the unfolding battle would be crucial. Initially tasked with intercepting German reinforcements arriving by sea, the fleet had needed to sail from Egypt and was repeatedly attacked by dive bombers. For the British, there would be more casualties at sea than on land. Admiral Cunningham, the commander of the Mediterranean fleet, had nearly 30 ships off Crete on the morning of the invasion- two battleships, eight cruises, and 17 destroyers. But over the course of the battle, two thirds would either besunk, damaged, or lost.

One of them, HMS Gloucester would lose 715 out of a crew of just over 800.

Her sister ship, HMS Fiji, lost 250 hands when she too was sunk on May 22nd whilst attempting to help rescue crew from the destroyer; HMS Greyhound.

The HMS Kelly, a destroyer commanded by a great grandson of Queen Victoria and future Viceroy of India, Louis Mountbatten, was also among the ship sunk. Mountbatten lost half his crew of 200; the others, including himself, rescued from the sea while being machined gunned by some of the 27 Stukers that had attacked.

Soon the Royal Navy’s role would change from stopping German reinforcements from landing on Crete, to a rescue mission with the sole aim of getting allied soldiers off the Island before further bloodshed.


On May 26th, six days after the invasion, the commander on Crete, General Freyburg let his commanders in the Middle East know the battle was over and that the evacuation was beginning.

The route chosen for more than 15,000 troops was from the battlefields around Chania up over the central mountain range to the small port of Khora Sfakion known as Sfakia, where Royal Navy ships would spirit the survivors across the Mediterranean to Alexandria in Egypt.

Crucial in delaying advancing German troops, moving East from the Maleme airfield was an action fought on a sunken road that ran Southeast from Channia to Suda Bay, the giant Naval port and Harbor that had been crucial for incoming supplies delivered by sea. 42nd street would become the last hoo-rah for the defenders of Suda Bay, mainly New Zealand, and some Australian troops who would undertake most of the land combat operations on Crete.

As the two sides slugged it out, Maori soldiers from New Zealand even reverted to traditional methods with their war cry known as the Haka.

More than 80 German troops were killed in the action.

The Battle at Rethimno

Further east, the Germans had been met with stubborn resistance, trying to take the airfields at Rethimno and Heraklion. The Rethimno area had been defended by two Australian battalions, commanded by Colonel Ian Campbell, but they were now cut off from their commanders to the west.

The Germans were unable to take both the town of Rethimno and its airport. Overlooking the airport on what was known as Hill A, the Australians were able to keep the Germans at bay.

The Germans retreated to the high ground offered by the church of St George where bullet holes in the church facade and the damage to the cemetery can still be seen .

During the fighting, local villagers who lived near the coast were herded onto the beach, suspected of collaborating with the allied soldiers. They were executed.

Meanwhile, Freyberg’s evacuation order hadn’t been picked up by Colonel Campbell’s Australians. The Australian battalions were effectively abandoned, but carried on defending the airport. They would eventually ssurrender .

Today, commemoration ceremonies in Rethimno honor the battle here, which involved both Australian and Greek troops. Here, Greek and Australian dignitaries attend annually, reflecting the special bond that formed here between the two.

The Battle at Heraklion

Further east in Heraklion the German paratroopers had been dropped on and around the city. Heraklion today still has a busy sea and airport, but on the 28th of May 1941, it was dedicated to evacuating sorely pressed troops.

A force of nine Royal Navy ships, including six destroyers had been sent from Alexandria, but during the rescue two ships out of the nine ship convoy had been sunk and three more badly damaged, including the flagship, Orion. More than 600 lives were lost.

The Road to Sfakia

While many allied soldiers on the North coast were surrendering or being evacuated, thousands were heading for the South coast in hope of an evacuation by the Royal Navy as Sfakia.

On this treacherous march across the Island, weary soldiers were constantly exposed to overhead attack by German fighters, which left them abandoning their equipment along the way.

In 1941, the road over the central mountains of Crete was little more than a dirt donkey track. All along the road to Sfakia, rear guard troops were installed at strategic points to slow down the German pursuit, as almost 20,000 fleeing troops tried to get off the island.

Once over the mountains the fleeing troops reached a high plateau, known as The Saucer, where they were once again exposed to attack forcing them to abandon yet more equipment. Some of this can still be found in local museums today.

The road to Sfakia then descended down precipitous gorges and mountainsides. The hair pin bends today give an indication of the journey thousands of soldiers had to make by foot. The road stopped 500 feet above the villages of Sfakia and the coast.


Over several nights at the end of May 1941 the British Navy successfully evacuated over 10,000 troops from Sfakia. The operation was described as a mini Dunkirk.

Of the thousands who made it to Egypt, there was one Australian office and offered a place on the boats who was not among them opting to stay instead with his men. Colonel Theo Walker then walked several kilometers along the coast from Sfakia where he would officially deliver the allied surrender.

5,000 allied soldiers became prisoners of war. Others either took to the hills to fight or tried to escape or get off the island by any means. The Germans began four long years of occupation.


For the Anzac forces, the battle of Crete represented a reminder of their famous defeat at Gallipoli a quarter of a century earlier, a campaign that ironically had made heroes of the battle commanders on Crete.

New Zealand commander general Freyburg, another Gallipoli hero who in the end had spent 10 years of his life fighting the Germans, would spend the rest of his life defending his decisions and tactics, which his critics maintained lost the Island.

For the man that commanded Australia’s ragtag Creten forces, Australia’s most decorated soldier General Thomas Blamey, also a Gallipoli hero, Crete was a blemish on a glittering career that had spanned two world wars. He was accused of evacuating himself off the Island before his troops. He and other World War 1 veterans could not escape the criticism that they were old and out of step with modern day warfare.

Despite the huge losses for Germany, these were papered over and the battle was marked with victory parades.

The German boxing champion, Max Schmeling who had beaten Joe Lewis in 1936 to become world champion became a Nazi pinup. He jumped with the paratroopers but hurt himself landing.

But Nazi propaganda announced a triumph as awards for the paratroopers were dished out by the commander in chief Hermann Goering.

German commander General Kurt Student would dub Crete “the graveyard of the German paratroopers”, and a disastrous victory. Almost 2000 German troops were killed on the first day of the invasion alone. Out of 4,400 dead, another 2,600 were wounded, in less than 12 days of fighting. Dead and wounded meant half the paratroopers fighting force became casualties.

Hitler would never again approve the use of paratroopers in such large scale operations. More than 250 aircraft including 150 of the JU52 transports, were lost.

On the allied side, 3000 were dead and a dozen warships lost. More than 12,000 allied soldiers would be taken prisoner of war — one third of the defending force.

The loss didn’t go down well in some parts of the British Empire. Australian prime minister Robert Menzies lost power in August, 1941 in part due to his conduct of the war in Europe and in particular in Greece and Crete.

New Zealand prime minister Peter Fraser was in Alexandria welcoming his evacuated and exhausted troops and urging the British to go back to Crete to get more, but Menzies was nowhere to be seen.

Australian historians blame Churchill for deceiving the ANZAC forces. He was accused of committing ANZAC forces to a hopeless cause which didn’t square with their national interests.

They were also wider consequences on the greater war effort. The devastated British Mediterranean fleet had been expected to head East into the Pacific, but could only muster a handful of ships in an unsuccessful attempt to counter Japanese aggression. 

But the cost of the battle to the Germans had higher strategic value for the allies. It was credited with delaying the ultimately ill-fated operation Barbarossa, the invasion of Russia later that year, and German aggression in North Africa and the Mediterranean stalled as a battered Royal Navy interrupted supply routes.

General Kurt Student , the world war one fighter ace who’d built the German paratroopers into such an innovative, feared and daring airborne fighting force, went on to salvage his reputation to some extent with a daring and successful raid, also using gliders that rescued Mussolini from a remote mountaintop in Northern Italy after he’d been deposed and captured by Italian royalists. But Student never recovered from the huge losses in The Battle of Crete, and after the war served a prison sentence for war crimes on the Island.


After an historic invasion by air and 10 days of fierce fighting. In May, 1941 German forces were in effective control of the Island of Crete.

With the majority of Allied troops captured, evacuated or literally escaping into the hills, in the last days of May, 1941 with the Germans victorious, the remaining allied troops had streamed South from the battle zones around Chania, heading to Sfakia and their evacuation point.

Cretan irregulars had put up fierce resistance during the battle, and they continued this resistance as the occupation began to take hold.

This would lead to brutal and bloody reprisals.

Early Village Massacres

German commander, General Student ,would stand trial for war crimes, for ordering German responses to Cretan resistance. The reprisals endorsed by the head of the air force ,Goering, were numerous and alluded to in notices distributed by the Germans.

Greek villager arrested by German troops

Greek villager arrested by German troops

In Kondomari, on June 2nd , 1941, 22 men were shot by German paratroopers. They were commanded by Lieutenant Horst Trebes, a former Hitler youth member and the only officer of his battalion to survive the invasion unscathed. A German journalist who took photos of the execution and helped a villager to escape was court marshalled.

In Kandanos on June 3rd, the very next day, just two days after the surrender,  villagers were punished for holding up German motorcycle divisions that were heading south along the mountain road to the village of Paleochora to stop the Allies landing reinforcements on the island’s south coast. Twenty five German soldiers had been killed in the action. The villagers would pay dearly for their actions. A few days later, fearing retaliation, they had taken refuge in the surrounding hills. The Germans entered the village and raised it to the ground.

Allied Escapees

The Cretans would also pay dearly for protecting Allied soldiers who were left behind after the evacuation. Several thousand had been taken prisoner, but hundreds took to the mountains in Southern Crete where they were protected for months, or even years by Cretan families.

German authorities knew the Allied soldiers were on the run and issued leaflets demanding they surrender . In the coming months, several individual groups of these escapees would make their way in small craft across the Mediterranean to Africa.

One of the first was Australian Stan “Tidge” Carroll, who later demonstrated how he made the final leg of the journey with just a steel can to keep him afloat. After spending several weeks on a solo escape trek on a small boat he found on the South coast, he finally reunited with his battalion in Egypt, alerting the Allies about the number of stranded soldiers still on Crete.

Australian soldier Tidge Carroll demonstrates how he floated across the Mediterranean sea

Australian soldier Tidge Carroll demonstrates how he floated across the Mediterranean sea

A number of other groups also made daring escapes. A group of Australians sailed to Egypt in a craft powered by sails made from army blankets stitched together with boot laces.Another group who had manned the rear guard against advancing Germans but were left behind, also escaped by small boat and were picked up at sea.

Hundreds of other soldiers were protected by Cretan families or hid out in the hills and caves awaiting rescue.In Sfakia Today a memorial still contains the remains of 26 Cretans executed the aiding Allied soldiers.

The Preveli monastery in particular played a crucial role in getting Allied soldiers off the island. Abbots from the Greek Orthodox church have a tradition of protecting Greek independence. dating back to the Turkish occupation.

Forced Labour

In 1941, after their victory, the Germans had named the island Fortress Crete. By 1943 there were 75,000 soldiers on the Island. This constituted a sixth of the entire Cretan population.

Crete became an important air staging post for the resupply of German forces in North Africa where General Rommel wreaked havoc until late 1942.

Concerned about a British sea invasion, the Germans embarked on an ambitious series of public works, including defenses and the rebuilding of air strips to further fortify the Island.

Cretans were the clear choice for a labor force. All Cretans from the age of 16 until the age of 50, were obliged to offer work on a regular basis.

The obviously unpopular forced labor project involved half the Cretan male population at its peak.

British Intelligence

The Germans also took over and occupied iconic Cretan sites. They established their headquarters first in Chania where they occupied the home of the Greek and statesman Venizoulas.

Then later they set up their headquarters further east at the Villa Ariadne next to the historic Minoan site ofKnossos. This was the former home built by Sir Arthur Evans, the eminent British archaeologist responsible for uncovering so much of the ancient Minoan city.

Not all massacres or executions were of Cretans. John Pendlebury, Evan’s protege, had taken over from his boss in the years proceeding the war. But with the outbreak of war, he became a British agent.

Working undercover and injured just a day after the invasion, he was discovered in civilian clothes, regarded as a partisan and executed by the Germans. This brilliant archeologist was age, just 36.

The British intelligence network on Crete, part of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), would become one of the most successful intelligence networks in occupied Europe. They were responsible for the surveying of enemy positions and movements, and for planning sabotage operations. These intelligence operatives would be landed on remote South coast beaches with their supplies and radio sets where they would then dress as Cretans. Operatives included colorful characters such as Patrick Leigh Fermor who became known for one of the most daring undercover operations of the war — the capture of German Major General Heinrich Kreipe in 1944.

As early as 1942, raids were undertaken against airfields, which were critical to the resupply of German forces in North Africa. A particularly bold one at Heraklion airport destroyed more than 20 aircraft, but sadly resulted in the execution of 50 prominent Cretans.

The Italian Sector

During the occupation, the Germans had effectively divided the island into East and West. They ran the West themselves and put their Italian allies in charge of the Eastern zone.

After Mussolini was overthrown in September 1943, the Italian commander on Crete, Angelico Carta, a royalist not fascist, contacted Patrick Lee Fermor and arranged to be smuggled to Egypt along with the defense plans for the rest of the Island.

After abandoning his car near the divisional headquarters at Neapoli as a diversion, Carta and his comrades were than guided Southwest across the Island, evading German patrols and observation planes, before being taken by a British motor torpedo boat to Egypt.

Italian POW Tragedy

There had been more than 20,000 Italians stationed in Eastern Crete. After the Italian armistice, most had surrendered. Hitler had instructed that they should be taken as POWs and sent to the Reich as military internees.

The fate of many of these Italian POWs from Crete would become one of the great forgotten tragedies of the War incurring a loss of life greater than the Allies on the island In 1941.

Just a month after the surrender, a German merchant ship, the Sintra, carrying 2000 Italian POWs, was sunk. Most POWs were loaded in the hole below and drowned.

Then another merchant ship, the Petrella, carrying 3000 Italian POWs suffered a similar fate and was torpedoed and sunk by a British submarine, the HMS Sportsman. 2,600 perished. In both these sinkings, the German guards were accused of locking the holds when the boats sunk.

Abducting a General

German reprisals would worsen in 1944 with return of General Frederick Muller as Commander. He was already known as the Butcher of Crete. Muller was to be the target of the most daring operation carried out by British intelligence, led by Fermor, but he’d just been replaced by another commander General Kreipe.

Over a period of several months, Fermor and his fellow SOE agent William Moss had assembled the kidnap party involving several Greek partisans. Fermor had been parachuted into the Island earlier in the year and the party set off from high in the mountains of Crete. They had already staked out a kidnap spot at a road junction near Kreipe’s headquarters near Heraklion.

Fermor and Moss had dressed up as German army corporals as Kreipe’s car headed down a quiet road with just a driver and no escort.

A Memorial at the kidnap point marks the spot where Fermor and Moss dressed in their German uniforms and manning a fake checkpoint stopped Kreipe’s car. The general was bundled into the backseat and his driver knocked unconscious.

The general’s car, the general and the kidnappers continued the journey back to Heraklion where they were to pass through more than 20 checkpoints even including the gates of the old city. The car was purposefully abandoned by Moss and Fermor as a red herring, designed to indicate that Kreipe had escaped the island. The car’s pennants can now be found in the Rethyminon folklore museum.

Kreipe was then spirited away in an arduous, three-week trek across the Island. The party would hide out along the way before reaching the coast near Rodakino where Kreipe was picked up by boat and taken to Egypt where he would begin his captivity for the rest of the war.

The British then produced leaflets in German bragging that they’d just kidnapped their commanding officer.

In 1972 the participants of this real life escape drama, including Fermor and an ailing General Kreipe were reunited on Greek television in a bizarre “this is your life “encounter.

Resistance Stories

The successful kidnapping of Kreipe sparked further German reprisals later in 1944. The vast Omari Valley had been a favored thoroughfare for escapees and the resistance and the Kreipe party had passed through here. Resultingly nine villages here were destroyed, and 164 killed.

Southwestern Crete with its dramatic and impenetrable coastline, rugged mountains, cliffs and gorges was home to numerous groups of resistance fighters. Tiny villages like Koustogerako were targeted by the Germans. It was home to Manolis Paterakis, the most trusted Cretan colleague of Paddy Fermor. The village was rebuilt afterwards, but during the occupation it was declared a dead zone.

The most famous resistance group operating in these mountains was known as the Selino gang. A leading member was Manolis’s brother, Vasilis Patarakis. The gang were be joined by a New Zealand Sergeant, Dudley Perkins.

The gang was eventually tracked down by German counter agents and Perkins was killed in a firefight in 1944. Perkins is buried in Souda Bay cemetery.

End of occupation

By the end of 1944, German morale was dissipating and desertions were becoming a problem. As it became clear that the Germans would withdraw, British agents met at the Acardi monastery and near the ancient site of Knossos of to plan the transition.

As World War 2 entered its final phase and with German defeat looming, the Germans pulled back. In the end, the Germans remained in control of only a small pocket of the island around Chania and Souda Bay.

Crete was among the last German positions to surrender at the end of the war. Fearful of surrendering to Cretan militias, the German commander was secretly flown to meet the British at the Villa Ariadne, their former headquarters at Knossos and signed an unconditional surrender document on May 9th, 1945.

Fearful of revenge from Cretans, the British established a perimeter and arranged to escort the Germans off the Island.


The Cretans’ fierce defense of their Island led it to being regarded as one of the most successful resistance movements of the war.

Patrick Lee Fermor, the most famous British SOE agent on Crete, became an acclaimed travel writer and only died in 2011 age 96.

Today, memorials to Cretan, Greek, German and Allied soldiers who lost their lives in this conflict can be found all over the Island. Cretan bitterness at their treatment by the Germans lingered for decades after the war.

Two generals who were commanders of the German forces during the occupation — Generals Brauer and Muller, the so-called Butcher of Crete — were handed over by the British and tried by a Greek military court for war crimes. They were executed by firing squad on May 20th, 1947, on the sixth anniversary of the invasion.

Brauer is buried in the German military cemetery here, but it took decades for him and others to be laid to rest. Greek claims for war reparations dragged on for years with the dispute preventing the remains of German soldiers killed in the Battle of Crete being interred in a permanent cemetery on Cretan soil.

After being removed from their original burial place, they were stored in a monastery for almost 30 years, while negotiations continued.

It wasn’t until 1974 that a military cemetery containing the remains of more than 4,300 German soldiers was established on Hill 107 overlooking the Maleme airfield, the site of their crucial victory, but also where so many paratroopers lost their lives in the name of war.

Even today, Cretan claims for compensation from the German government drag on.

German cemetery at Maleme

German cemetery at Maleme


Epidemics Throughout The Ages

Epidemics Throughout The Ages

In an increasingly interconnected and peaceful world, disease remains one of the greatest fears of the modern age, especially the outbreak of a ‘superbug’ from genetic mutation and antibiotic resistance. Despite the medical advances of our time, diseases such as Coronavirus or Ebola have spread across nations and have caused the deaths of thousands. Throughout history, outbreaks of diseases on a major and international level have been rare but at times disastrous, especially in the poor living conditions and medical standards of previous ages, often made worse by times of war or other hardship.

Undefined Epidemics

We find recorded several cases in history of particularly deadly diseases, which may be termed now as epidemics, but the cause, nature and extent of the diseases are difficult to discern.

Plague of Athens 430-426 BC

Plague of Athens by Michiel Sweerts, c. 1652–1654

Plague of Athens by Michiel Sweerts, c. 1652–1654

The first major account of an epidemic was the Plague of Athens in 430-426 BC, recorded by the eyewitness and survivor Thucydides in his The Peloponnesian War (2.49-54). The plague was facilitated by the Peloponnesian War, as a result of which many Athenians had crowded behind the city walls to wait out a Spartan siege. Thucydides reported that the plague spread from Ethiopia into Piraeus, the city port, a very international centre in the ancient world, that spread rapidly. Many possible diseases have been proposed as the cause: bubonic plague, smallpox, typhoid or an ebola-like disease. However, the truth remains a mystery. The death toll is estimated at 75-100,000 people or 25% of the city’s population.

Antoine Plague 165-80

Another major epidemic was the Antoine Plague, described by Galen, which struck the Roman Empire in 165-180 AD. It was first recorded in the Roman siege of Seleucia, in modern Iraq, and spread throughout the Empire as far as Germany and Gaul. The disease is thought to have possibly been either smallpox or measles and at its height killed 2,000 a day in Rome. The estimated death toll is 5 million. The disease may also have spread from Han China, where reports of a similar disease date from the same period. It may have spread along the Silk roads or via the Roman embassy of 166 to Vietnam. Even the thought of this, true or not, may have hampered trade relations between East and West which could have greatly changed history.

Bubonic Plague

Bubonic plague has led to history’s most deadly pandemics, with three major and disastrous outbreaks, despite its relative rareness and preventability now. It is caused the bacterium Yersinia pestis which attacks lymph nodes, swelling to form painful ‘bubones’ which can turn black and burst. The bacterium can also cause pneumonic plague in the lungs and septemic plague in the blood. It is carried most often in fleas and infected small animals or flea-carrying animals, particularly rats. The bacterium is then transferred into the human body via bites or consuming fluids from an infected body. Symptoms include high fever, painful swelling of the lymph nodes, and if it spreads to other parts of the body leads to gangrene and blackening of limbs and facial features, vomiting, diarrhoea, coughing blood, delirium and death.

Plague of Justinian 541-2

Saint Sebastian pleads with Jesus for the life of a gravedigger afflicted by plague during the Plague of Justinian. (Josse Lieferinxe, c. 1497–1499)

Saint Sebastian pleads with Jesus for the life of a gravedigger afflicted by plague during the Plague of Justinian. (Josse Lieferinxe, c. 1497–1499)

The first major outbreak was in 541 affecting much of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Byzantine Empire. It was transmitted via rats that existed on the trade ships moving throughout the Mediterranean, especially grain ships travelling from Egypt to Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire. At its peak some estimates conclude there were around 5,000 deaths a day in Constantinople with 40% of the total population dying and that in total up to 25 million fell victim to the disease, a quarter of the population of the Eastern Mediterranean. However, more modern scholars have concluded on much smaller estimates. It was regarded as the first pandemic and had great effects on European history. The devastation in the Byzantine empire meant agriculture was ruined, with grain prices soaring, whilst tax revenue plummeted due a reduced population. Recent gains in Italy and around Carthage, briefly reuniting the Roman empires, were reversed as the Goths, Vandals and Lombards retook much Byzantine territory.

Black Death 1346-53

The deadliest outbreak of disease was the second major case of bubonic plague, commonly known as the Black Death. Likely originating in the East and China, the disease spread West along the Silk roads reaching the Black Sea and Mediterranean. Trade ships then spread the disease to the rest of Europe, hitting Italy first in Sicily and Venice in 1347, and the rest of Europe over the next three years. The disease would wipe out entire rodent populations, requiring repopulation before another outbreak would occur, recurring frequently over the next few centuries although never so badly. Estimations of a death toll are difficult but range between 75 and 200 million, 45-50% of the population and in the hot and connected areas of the Mediterranean, mortality rate was even higher. Populations would take years to recover and Florence not until the 19th century. The change in population changed the agricultural workings of many areas and the labour force reduced. Some even claim the decline in population led to a ‘mini Ice age’. Fanaticised and fearful, many blamed minority groups, especially Jews, resulting in many massacres, one at Strasbourg killing 2,000. This led many Jews to relocate to Poland where they were welcomed, leading to the large population there until the Holocaust during the Second World War.

Third Plague (Bubonic) Pandemic 1855-1960

A Plague doctor and his typical apparel

A Plague doctor and his typical apparel

The third major outbreak began Yunnan province on the Southern border of China, among the local rodent population. The influx of Han Chinese people to the area for mining, urbanisation, increased trade, and the Panthay rebellion which entailed refugee and troop movements, meant the plague spread rapidly throughout Southern China. Particularly damaging was the spread to the Canton area in 1894 and from there British-held Hong Kong, a centre of world trade and from where the plague spread to every continent.

In India, the plague was particularly severe due to the poor living conditions and packed urban centres of British imperial rule. Moreover, British measures to control the virus such as restriction of movement and the banning of Indian cultural medicines were seen as oppressive and culturally invasive and were hence disobeyed. 10 million died in India, and further 2 million died in the rest of the world. The World Health Organisation only declared the pandemic over in 1960. Bubonic plague still exists in much of the Chinese and East Asia rodent population. In 2019, a couple died of the bubonic plague after eating raw marmot in Mongolia.

Epidemics in the New World

The Spanish conquest of the Americas began with Mexico in 1519. The conquest was deadly in its sacking and massacring of cities, but far more so for the diseases it spread. A merchant ship to Hispaniola, an island in the Caribbean, first brought smallpox to American shores, against which the local population had no immune defence. It devastated the local populations. It reached Tenochtitlan in 1520. Bernard Dial, a Spanish chronicler, wrote “We could not walk without treading on the bodies and heads of dead Indians”. The death toll is estimated at over 5 million

On top of this, a native disease named Cocolitzli by the Aztecs led to millions of deaths. The disease returned several times, baffling native and Spanish doctors. Symptoms included high fever, black tongue, dark urine, dysentery, severe abdominal and chest pain, head and neck nodules, neurological disorders, jaundice, and profuse bleeding from the nose, eyes, and mouth. It usually killed within 3-4 days, leading to 5-15 million estimated deaths.

Subsequent Old World disease epidemics persisted in the Americas such as chicken pox, diphtheria, typhus, influenza, measles, malaria and yellow fever. A century after the arrival of the Spanish, some estimate over 90% of the New World population had died, the vast majority from disease.


Influenza, or ‘the flu’, is a common viral disease, which regularly mutates leading to the usual seasonal epidemics seen annually. A flu jab is developed annually to combat such mutations but due to the rapid changes in the virus, this will not be effective in subsequent years. Annually, there are three to five million cases of severe illness and about 290,000 to 650,000 deaths, usually in vulnerable groups such as the old, pregnant, or those with an existing health condition such as asthma or heart issues. Symptoms include high fever, runny nose, sore throat, muscle and joint aches, headache, coughing, and feeling tired. Complications can lead to viral or bacterial pneumonia, or bacterial infections in the sinuses that can spread throughout the body, as well as worsening previous health conditions.

These mutations are usually guarded to some extent by previous immunity among people. However, large influenza pandemics can occur when a new strain is developed in animals and spread into the human population. Their novelty means there is little to no immune protection existing in humans. The virus is spread rapidly between people in the air via droplets in coughs and sneezes or by touching contaminated surfaces. These pandemics occur when such a new strain infects human populations across the world, and occur irregularly, with 9 happening in the past three centuries.

Spanish Flu 1918-20

The deadliest pandemic was the so-called ‘Spanish Flu’ involving the H1N1 virus, the only Category 5 influenza pandemic, meaning a mortality rate of over 2% amongst those infected. It is unclear from where the disease originated, but crucially it did not start in Spain. The disease coincided with the end of the First World War, with fighting still ongoing. Participant countries censored press to minimise reports of the disease and maintain morale. Spain, however, was a neutral country, and so press covered the spread of the disease here accurately, making it seem as if Spain was suffering particularly, and so creating the name ‘Spanish Flu’.

British Red Cross

1919: American Red Cross volunteers carry a Spanish flu victim, 1919.
It is estimated that anywhere from 20 to 100 million people were killed worldwide, or the approximate equivalent of one third of the population of Europe, more than double the number killed in World War I. British Red Cross.

The timing of the flu was particularly apt for facilitating a pandemic. War meant the focus of governments and press was on other matters. Similarly, large parts of Europe had been devastated and both civilian and military populations were weak. Large troop movements facilitated the spread. The virus also mutated resulting in a more virulent strain developing leading to an even more lethal second wave. The more lethal strain was also spread more than usual: in a usual flu, a mild strain still allows someone to work and so move about and spread the strain, whereas a more severe one will incapacitate and keep the sufferer at home, preventing transmission; in war the more mild sufferers remained at their posts and the more severe sufferers were transported to hospitals to transmit the virus.

The disease spread to all parts of the globe, will 500 million estimated to have been infected and 20-50 million estimated to have died as a result. The disease was particularly deadly in its higher mortality among the young population, whereas deaths from most flus occur disproportionately among the elderly. The death toll for the disease was higher than the First World War, and the deadliest since the Black Death, yet it received little impact in the arts of the time. Virginia Woolf wrote in 1926 in her essay ‘On Being Ill’: “English, which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear, has no words for the shiver and the headache”. It did appear among the work of some artists of the time, and Egon Schiele’s ‘The Family’ has come to embody the disease. Schiele depicts himself, his wife, and daughter, all three of which would die from the illness before the painting could be completed.

Other Influenza Pandemics

There have been 8 other influenza pandemics in the last 300 years, although none have passed beyond a Category 2 pandemic i.e. beyond 0.5% mortality amongst those infected. The ‘Asian Flu’ of 1957-8 and the ‘Hong Kong Flu’ of 1968-9 were two particularly deadly outbreaks, spreading all over the world and both resulting in the estimated deaths of 1-4 million. Their victims were more typically prevalent in more vulnerable population groups, especially the elderly.

The most recent pandemic was the ‘Swine Flu’ pandemic of 2009-10, originating in Mexico. This pandemic likely infected, according to the WHO, 11–21% of the global population, or around 700 million–1.4 billion people. Mortality was no more than the usual seasonal flu, but the characteristic feature was that the elderly were not disproportionately affected, much like the Spanish Flu.


HIV/AIDS 1981-present

AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) is caused by the infection by two species of Lentivirus, commonly known as the HIV (human immunodeficiency viruses). The virus is usually sexually transmitted, but also occurrs through the transmission of bodily fluids such as from mother to child

in pregnancy and breastfeeding or between people via the sharing of needles or blood transfusions. The virus results in flu-like symptoms 2 to 6 weeks after infection but can remain symptomless for many years after this, whilst still destroying the infected person’s immune system. Left untreated, the virus leads to the condition AIDS, describing when the individual is susceptible to a variety of diseases a healthy immune system would normally defend against. These include tuberculosis, cancers, and other ‘opportunistic infections’. This is the final stage and can quickly cause death if left untreated.

HIV is believed to have originated from chimpanzees in the Democratic of Congo, likely from the bushmeat industry. The disease was discovered in the USA in 1981, when an increasing number of gay men, but also a smaller number of injected-drug users, gained unusual diseases such as rare lung infection called Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP), usually only found in people with severe complications in their immune system. This led to the disease being initially known as ‘GRID’ (Gay Related Immune Deficiency).

World AIDS Day - Red Ribbon on the White House. The red ribbon is the symbol of solidarity for people infected with AIDS. Photo by Ted Eytan.

World AIDS Day – Red Ribbon on the White House. The red ribbon is the symbol of solidarity for people infected with AIDS. Photo by Ted Eytan.

As organisations struggled to identify the cause, transmission and treatment of the disease, over 2.5 million cases had been confirmed by 1993. In the US, the death rate began to slow by 1997. However, in Africa, where homosexuality was illegal in many countries and the existence of a large homosexual population not acknowledged and persecuted, politics hampered response. AIDS activists were often arrested due to the disease’s associations with the gay population. In 2003, over 40% of adults in Botswana had the disease. Heroin addiction in Asia also led to over 2 million cases in India alone. Response still improved but the current death toll still stands at over 32 million and is constantly rising. In 2018, there remained around 37.9 million cases, with 20.6 million of these in Eastern and Southern Africa.

No cure of HIV exists, but treatment via highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) can be very effective, and at present two people have been cleared of the disease.

Ebola 2013-16

The West African Ebola epidemic was a widespread outbreak of Ebola virus disease (EVD) in predominantly Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. It is spread via the contact with the bodily fluids of those infected, and is now known, though not at the time, to be also sexually transmitted. The disease is a haemorrhagic fever causing fever, head and body aches, and a sore throat before developing into vomiting, diarrhoea, internal and external bleeding, and the decreased function of the liver and kidneys. The mortality rate was extremely high at somewhere around 40%, usually due to lack of fluid pressure.

Ebola outbreaks had happened before, but this 2013-6 epidemic was especially lethal as it spread out of isolated rural areas to the capital cities of the three affected countries. The poor health and surveillance systems of the area facilitated the spread of the disease. In total there were 28,646 cases, with 11,323 deaths. The impact of the epidemic had knock-on effects on other diseases by absorbing resources and damaging the healthcare workforce. In Liberia, 8% of doctors, nurses, and midwives died. This meant other diseases such as malaria, HIV, and measles grew worse. The Public Health Emergency of International Concern status was lifted by the WHO in March 2019.

COVID-19 2019-Present

COVID-19 is a disease caused by the Coronavirus. Symptoms are similar to the flu, including fever, cough, and shortness of breath which can lead to pneumonia, acute respiratory distress syndrome. The disease is caused by droplets often spread via coughing or the touching of contaminated surfaces or people. The disease was first discovered in Wuhan, China in December 2019. Many believe it originated in the Huanan wet market which sold live animals.

Coronavirus Surgical Mask

Surgical Mask, Paul Sableman, Flickr Creative Commons

The severity of the pandemic is caused by the virus being especially contagious, the little immune defence to its novel form, and the fact it is asymptomatic for up to 14 days. The disease was spread via global travelling between countries and has been particularly deadly amongst the elderly generation. As of the 20 March there have been over 267,000 cases in 183 countries with over 11,000 deaths. But the majority (80%) of deaths have occurred in those over 60, and 75% in those with pre-existing conditions. Countries such as Italy, densely populated and with a high elderly population, have as a result been especially badly hit. Efforts to manage the pandemic have included quarantines, border closures, the closing of schools and universities, and the closing of bars, restaurants, cinemas and other social venues. The economic and social effect has been vast, with many businesses closing due to lack of business, and hysteria causing panic-buying and xenophobia, especially against Chinese individuals and businesses. The pandemic at the time of writing is ongoing and on the rise.


These epidemics were particularly impactful and frightening due to their fast and novel spread and the condensed nature of their effect. However, other diseases can be as deadly on a regular basis. There have been 7 Cholera pandemics, the worst being that of 1852-60 claiming over 1 million lives; there were 228 million cases of Malaria in 2018 with 405,000 deaths; over on quarter of the world’s current population have been infected with Tuberculosis and last year there were 8 million cases with around 2 million deaths. The threat of disease and epidemics has been a constant of life throughout the ages. And the current COVID-19 pandemic has shown the still real threat of epidemics to all nations even today.

More information:

Read: World’s Deadliest Plagues

Read: Where in the Wild has the Coronavirus Come From?

Worldometer: Live COVID-19 Updates

GOV.UK Guidance

Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Guidance

Australian Department of Health Guidance

By Wilfred Sandwell

WWII in the Pacific

WWII in the Pacific
Raising the flag on Iwo Jima. Photograph by Joe Rosenthal

Raising the flag on Iwo Jima. Photograph by Joe Rosenthal


Japan in the decade preceding World War Two had become increasingly imperialistic, with worship of Emperor Hirihito on the rise and the army becoming an increasingly political body. Expansion begun as early as 1931, with the invasion of Chinese Manchuria, making it a puppet state. This was seen as brazen disregard of the League of Nations, a precursor to the UN, increasing tensions between Japan and the West.

Japan looked further, identifying the Dutch Indies, now Indonesia, as a key target due to their oil reserves in 1935. Another puppet state was created in Inner Mongolia in 1936, and a full invasion of China began in 1937. In 1939, Japan invaded the Soviet Union but was soundly defeated in the Battle of Khalkhin Gol. In September 1940, Japan seized French Indochina (modern Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam), and singed a treaty with the Axis forces of Germany and Italy. To stop this imperialist expansion, America, Britain, Australia, Holland and China banned the export of oil to Japan, known as the ABCD (American-British-Chinese-Dutch) lines. These imports made up 80% of Japan’s consumption; they were essential and hence in Japanese minds, war was guaranteed.

Japanese Plan

The Japanese plan of war depended on a weak reaction from the UK, Soviet Union, and other European powers due to their ongoing war with Germany. Accordingly, a neutrality pact was signed with the Soviet Union in 1940. The Japanese believed the USA would inevitably become involved (although this has since been debated) and so planned for a fast, strategic war.

Total victory and occupation of the USA was impossible. Instead, Japan hoped to take key targets in two operational phases. The first focused on the South-East Pacific and the capturing of the Dutch Indies, British held Malaya Hong Kong, and Singapore and the US held Philippines, to escape the crisis of the ABCD lines. They then planned to expand as far as Fiji, Samoa, Midway and the Aleutian Islands. To do this, a shock attack on Pearl Harbour, America’s main Pacific military base in Hawaii, would paralyse the US Navy whilst the perimeter was secured. By holding all major islands in the Pacific, the Japanese hoped to block any attempt to launch a counter-attack and could squeeze the US into a surrender.

Japanese Invasion of China

"Bloody Saturday" by H.S. Wong. baby Ping Mei amid the destruction of Shanghai South Railway Station

“Bloody Saturday” by H.S. Wong. Baby Ping Mei amid the destruction of Shanghai South Railway Station

Japan controlled Manchuria after their invasion in 1931 but had also increased influence into Northern China. Puppet states had been set up in areas such as Tongzhou, a district of Beijing, with a Japanese garrison. China was also subject to a number of ‘Unequal Treaties’ in which several nations were granted occupation of parts of Chinese cities. Japan was allowed to station guards along the railway to Beijing, as were other European nations, but had increased that number to over 7,000, well beyond the limits set the in the Boxer Protocol.

An incident at the Marco-Polo Bridge near Beijing, led to an escalation and Japanese invasion and occupation of Beijing and Tianjin. Despite Japan’s contentment with occupation of Beijing, China had had enough. Chinese resentment is shown in the mutiny of the troops of the

Japanese puppet state in Tongzhou and the setting fire to the Japanese section of the city, in which 200 Japanese civilians died. The KMT, Chinese Nationalist government, also surrounded the Japanese section of the Shanghai Occupied Area, and on August 14, accidentally bombed it, resulting in 3,000 civilian deaths.

A full-scale invasion of China began, but Japanese casualties were much higher than expected. The Civil War between the KMT and Communists in China had been suspended to face the common Japanese threat. 200,000 men, several war vessels and strong airpower was needed to take Shanghai in a 3-month long siege. Japan flooded China with men, committing 350,000 to the taking of the Chinese capital, Nanjing. Following its fall, there occurred the ‘Rape of Nanjing’, in which the Japanese are estimated to have killed up to 300,000 Chinese, mostly civilians, whilst also committing extensive rape and looting.

The advance continued with great momentum, as Wuhan, the new KMT capital, Kaifeng, capital of Henan province, and later French Indochina fell. The KMT retreated to Chongqing, and to stop the Japanese advance destroyed the Huayuankou dike on the south bank of the Yangtze. Up to 800,000 civilians and soldiers on both sides drowned; 10 million became homeless. Here most of the Japanese advance halted. Japan struggled to hold a Chinese territory so full of resentment and the Chinese managed to launch a counter-offence with minor success. A stalemate was reached but Japan held most of the Chinese coast and North.

Outbreak of War with the West

USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbour

USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbour

On the 7 December 1941 (8 in East Pacific), Japan launched attacks without warning with both its navy and army on Hong Kong, Malaya, the Philippines, Hawaii, Wake, Guam and Thailand. The largest attack fell on the US Naval base of Pearl Harbour on Hawaii. Casualties were substantial: 8 battleships, 188 aircraft and 2,403 American soldiers. However, the crucial aircraft carriers were at sea, and most of the base facilities weren’t damaged. Far from disabling the US fleet into submission, Japan had sparked fury in the US at the unprovoked and undeclared attack.

The US, UK, Canada, Holland and Australia declared war within two days. Germany and Italy in turn declared war on the US, even though Japan would give little aid to the European war whilst America would be of vital importance.

South-East Asia Advance

Despite the relative failure of the Pearl Harbour attack, Japan’s speed of expansion was extremely effective. Thailand surrendered within 5 hours, even allying with Japan on 21 December, allowing access to European colonies in Malaya. By Christmas 1941, Hong Kong, Wake, Guam and Penang had all fallen.

On 1 January, the Allied forces were united in the American-British-Dutch-Australian Command (ABDACOM), under the leadership of Sir Archibald Waver, a British general. But the Japanese momentum continued with invasions into Burma, the Dutch Indies, New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.

Lieutenant-General Arthur Ernest Percival leads the British forces to surrender to the Japanese in Singapore

Lieutenant-General Arthur Ernest Percival leads the British forces to surrender to the Japanese in Singapore

On 15 February 1942, Britain suffered what Winston Churchill called ‘the worst disaster’ in British military history as its major base in the Pacific, Singapore, surrendered, in which 80,000 British, Indian and Australian troops were captured.

Japan expanded further even bombing Darwin in Australia in the largest attack on Australia by a foreign power in history, killing 243 people. It would be the first of over 100 air raids. In the Battle of Java Sea, Japan defeated the main allied navy and as a result the forces in Malaya surrendered on Java and Sumatra. Japan raided into the Indian Ocean, sinking the HMS Hermes aircraft carrier and targeting bases in Ceylon, pushing the British Navy out of South East Asia.

Burma had become occupied as Britain retreated to the Indian border but the territory would remain disputed, with the Chinese aiding the British, for example at the Battle of Yenangyaung, where 7,000 trapped British soldiers were rescued by the Chinese.

Fall of the Philippines

In March, America suffered a great defeat in losing Manila the Philippines. The islands were under the command of General Douglas MacArthur, a charismatic figure famous for his corn-cob pipe. He felt a strong personal duty to the Philippines and so when Roosevelt ordered his smuggling out of the islands in order to be able to continue his command of the American forces in the South-West Pacific, he delivered the famous words “I came through and I shall return”, which he refused to change to ‘we will return’ despite being asked to do so by the government. On April 9, Bataan, the last US holding in the Philippines. 76,000 Allied soldiers were captured and were forced in the ‘Bataan Death March’, an 106km march to Camp O’Donnell in which it is estimated between 5,000 and 18,000 Filipinos and 500 and 650 Americans died.

Failure of the Second Operational Phase

With the fall of the Philippines and British colonies, Japan had completed its first operational phase, and begun to move toward its second. The Allies had begun something of a counter-attack, making use of their aircraft carriers, bombing the Marshall islands, Wake and Marcus Island and Rabaul from land-based aircraft.

Japan desired to cut off Australia as a possible base for an offensive. Some generals in the Japanese Navy proposed an invasion but the Army refused as they were too committed in Manchuria and afraid of a Soviet invasion. Instead, the option was taken to cut off Australia by taking New Caledonia, Fiji, Samoa, eastern New Guinea and the western part of New Britain (together now Papua New Guinea), and from there threaten Australia by air. Midway Island and the Aleutian Islands were also targeted to pressure America and their Navy by removing possible advance bases.

However, Allied morale was slightly restored in April by the Doolittle raid, an ineffective but symbolic bombing raid on Tokyo by 16 bombers. In May, the battle of the Coral Sea, despite the Japanese sinking one US carrier and disabling another, was a victory for the Allies and they repelled the Japanese invasion of Port Moseby, capital of New Guinea. Moreover, none of the three Japanese carriers

involved could be used at Midway. In this battle, neither fleet sighted each other but fought from range and with aircraft, indicative of how important carriers would become.

Allies Regroup

The Japanese cancelled further attacks on Fiji and Samoa and focused all attention on the North Pacific, aiming to take Midway, pressuring the US Navy into surrender. The Japanese outnumbered the Americans with 4 heavy carriers to America’s 3, 3 light carriers to none, 11 battleships to none, 44 destroyers to 18, but America fielded 19 submarines to Japan’s 15, and could use land-based aircraft from Midway. Despite this, American carrier bombers sunk all four of the Japanese heavy carriers, only losing the Yorktown carrier in return. Midway is commonly held as the turning point of the Pacific War, with the Japanese momentum dramatically halted and her naval offensive capabilities nullified by her loss of her carriers, though her defensive air capabilities remained via land-based aircraft.

Coastwatcher aptain W.F. Martin Clemens with members of the Solomon Island Police Force

Coastwatcher Captain W.F. Martin Clemens with members of the Solomon Island Police Force

The war now became a series of bitterly contested conflicts. In July 1942, Japan landed on Guadalcanal in the Southern Solomon islands and started building an airbase but were spotted doing so by Allied Coastwatchers. These were intelligence officers stationed on Pacific islands, sometimes aided by the locals, who supplied information to the Allies, especially later in the battle giving early warning of Japanese air raids.

On 7 August, the Allies launched their first major offensive and took the airfield and the strategic Tulagi harbour within a day via an amphibious landing. However, the Japanese countered decisively on the night of 8-9 August during the naval battle of Savo Island. Five allied cruisers and two destroyers were lost whilst only mildly damaging one Japanese cruiser. This would start a long battle of attrition in which, by January, Allied losses rose from around 14,000 to 44,000, Japanese from 7,000 to 22,000.

Wrecks in the Ironbottom Sound, W.wolny, Wikimedia Commons

Wrecks in the Ironbottom Sound, W.wolny, Wikimedia Commons

So costly was the battle to both sides that the sea north of Guadalcanal became known as ‘Ironbottom Sound’ as so many ships (an estimated 50+) were sunk there during the battle. The US Navy commemorates the area annually by laying wreaths, and many sailors still pass the area in silence. In the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, the only two US admirals lost in a surface engagement in the entire war died. In total, the Allies lost 2 carriers and 22 other vessels, but the Japanese lost over 20,000 men and after losing the vital Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, decided to withdraw from the island. Momentum was now with the Allies.


China Regroups

In China, the Japanese had also slowed, with their first major defeat of the war occurring at Changsha in Hunan. The conflict was bloody. Operation Sei-go was a mission launched by the Japanese in July 1942 to capture the Allied pilots of the Doolittle raid who had parachuted into the provinces of Zhejiang and Jiangxi and were mostly hidden by Chinese civilians. The Japanese launched a campaign of retribution, burning Chinese towns and using biological warfare by spreading cholera, typhoid, dysentery pathogens and contaminating food and wells with paratyphoid and anthrax. Around 10,000 Japanese soldiers fell ill from their own biological weapons, and 1,700 died, but Chinese civilian casualties numbered around 250,000.

The British continued to flounder in Burma through the embarrassing defeat of the Arakan offensive, not helped by a famine in Bengal causing up to 3 million deaths. But China continued to succeed in the Battle of Changde. The Japanese captured the city on December 6 but only after over a month of tough fighting, and the Chinese 57th Division held the Japanese pinned in the city for enough time that other Chinese forces were able to surround the city and forced a Japanese withdrawal. It was a victory in particular for the Chinese air-force, previously too easily defeated, who had been helped by Witold Urbanowicz, the second highest-scoring Polish Ace in the Battle of Britain.

A Turning Point in India and Burma

The Allies regrouped under Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, and with US troops, began constructing the Ledo Road to link India with China. In reaction, Japan launched Operation U-go in March 1944, a large offensive on Allied positions at Imphal and Kohima in India. The British were bolstered by the firm Indian divisions of XV Corps and the Japanese attack on both targets was repelled. Without an early victory, supplies over the forested and mountainous terrain failed. Japan lost over 50,000 troops, her greatest defeat yet, but mostly to disease and starvation. The US troops advanced north in Burma, aided by the Chindits, a unit of British, Burmese and Ghurkha battalions, that worked deep behind enemy lines in difficult conditions. The Chinese invaded Northern Burma and over the course of 1944- 5, would link up with American forces. Allied advance was then gradual but consistent, capturing Rangoon in May 1945 and preparing to advance to Malaya when surrender occurred.

Allied Island Hopping 1943-4

After Midway, the Allies and especially America turned to a policy of mass-industrialisation, replenishing their navy and air force. Japan lacked the industrial base to do the same. The Allies began a policy of ‘Island-Hopping’, taking islands one at a time, or at least neutralising their offensive capabilities without capturing in examples such as Truk or Formosa. First to fall were the Gilbert and Marshall Islands, in which the Allies greatly improved their tactics of amphibious invasions and exposed the over-extended Japanese island garrisons.

The Allied forces now targeted the Mariana Island and Palau. It involved an ambitious amphibious operation, juxtaposed by the D-Day landings in the same month (June 1944), over 1,000 miles from a permanent US base. Despite heavy bombardment, the Japanese forces were largely unaffected, and victory was won by a hard-fought infantry engagement. American troops were armed with flame-throwers and demolition charges to maximise damage but in doing so unleashed horrific conflict. On the night of 6-7 July, the pocketed groups of Japanese banded together in the largest Bonsai attack of the war, a 4,000 strong suicidal charge. The Japanese civilians on the island of Saipan committed suicide by jumping off cliffs to the north.

The capture of the Marianas allowed B-29 bombers to be stationed within range of Tokyo and, when the news arrived, the Japanese Prime Minister and his cabinet resigned. It was viewed by many as the last Japanese defence before the homeland.

Re-Occupation of Philippines

General MacArthur walks ashore at Palo, Leyte.

General MacArthur walks ashore at Palo, Leyte.

Holding Saipan was seen as a priority by the Japanese and so followed in June 1944 the largest carrier battle of the war and history in the Philippine Sea. It was a catastrophic defeat for the Japanese. 3 of its 9 carriers were sunk to none of the American 15. Even more damaging though was the loss of around 90% of its air-force from strong anti-air guns, and effective American bombing of their land air-fields.

It was decided to make one more all-out attack in October 1944 in order to prevent the Allied occupation of the Philippines. The aim was to draw out the US carrier group with 4 of their remaining carriers by sailing North to open sea. Two strong fleets of the remaining battleships and heavy cruisers would then converge on Leyte Gulf and destroy the American beachhead there. The diversion succeeded, and the Japanese carrier aircraft inflicted some damage through the first use of kamikaze aircraft, but in the end the entire force was sunk. The sacrifice did not work. The two main forces failed to take the beachhead, and suffered heavy losses including the Musahi, one of Japan’s two flagship battleships. The Battle of Leyte Gulf, argued by some as the largest naval battle in history, was a catastrophic loss for Japan.

Occupation of the Philippines was now near inevitable but progress was still bitter and slow. Luzon, the largest island in the Philippines, involved ten US divisions and five independent regiments, more US troops than any other conflict of the war, and 250,000 Japanese troops, of which 80% died. Hiroo Onoda, an intelligence officer, only surrendered on 9 March 1974 after hiding out for 29 years, relieved by his former commander after an order from the Emperor Showa. Despite MacArthur’s refusal to allow aerial bombardment in order to protect civilians, Manilla fell on 4 March 1945 and MacArthur kept his promise to return and liberate the Philippines.


Japanese-Americans arrive for internment processing.

Japanese-Americans arrive for internment processing.

During the war, around 120,000 Japanese-Americans who were residing on the west coast of America were “interned” in ten different camps. Families were kept together but conditions were hard with internees staying in military style barracks that were over-cramped and unsuitable for family living. Incidents of internees being shot were rare but did happen, such as the case of James Wakasa.

However, Japanese-Americans still played a great role in the American services. 33,000 served, of which 20,000 joined the army. The Japanese-American units achieved great success: the Military Intelligence Service was vital in deciphering the ‘Z Plan’, the Japanese plans to defend Saipan; the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion liberated the Dachau concentration camp in Germany; and the 442nd Infantry regiment became the most decorated unit in US history earning more than 18,000 awards in two years.

In 1988, President Reagan opened an investigation of the legality of internment, which concluded there was insubstantial evidence of any security risk posed by these Japanese-Americans, and interment was instead a product of racism. $20,000 dollars was agreed as compensation to each internee and the US government eventually dispersed more than $1.6 billion.


The war was now entering its final stages. The final major campaign in the South-West Pacific was the capturing of Borneo. Australian troops invaded the nearby island of Tarakan on May 1 1945, and over the course of June and July attacks were mounted on the island proper. The campaign was criticised as unnecessary, but it did break the Japanese supply of oil and liberate several POW camps, including Sandakan in which only 6 of 2,500 prisoners survived.

Iwo Jima and Okinawa

Attacks moved onto Okinawa and Iwo Jima, two Japanese home islands to the south of Japan itself. Both were key for stationing planes in order to defend against the American B-29 bombers aimed for Japan. And Okinaway was selected as the vital staging post for an eventual invasion of Japan. Japan resorted to forcing unacceptably high casualties for the Allies in order to discourage further advance.

Raising the flag on Iwo Jima. Photograph by Joe Rosenthal

Raising the flag on Iwo Jima. Photograph by Joe Rosenthal

At Iwo Jima, the Japanese dug in, their command being under 10m of concrete, rendering preinvasion bombardment ineffective. They also resorted to kamikaze tactics as the air-force began to run out of skilled pilots. Despite the inevitability of defeat, the Japanese were fierce and this was the only battle in which American casualties at over 26,000 (killed and wounded) totalled more than Japanese at around 18,000. On February 23, 1945 six American soldiers raised the US flag over Mount Suribachi marking victory and the photo taken of them would become one of the most iconic of the entire war.

Okinawa was even fiercer. Referred to in Japanese as etsu no bōfū (“violent wind of steel”) due to ferocity and high number of vehicles in the conflict, it was one of the bloodiest of the war. Half the total civilian population of 300,000 went missing, died or committed suicide, and there were over 160,000 combined casualties on both sides. Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr. was commander of the US infantry on the island, and was killed in action, being the highest-ranking US officer to do so until the 9/11 attacks. The Japanese made wide use of suicide tactics, including bomb laden gliders and the one-way mission of the battleship Yamato. On July 2 1945, the island was declared as won. 94% of the Japanese defenders died.

Atomic Bombs

The campaigns of Iwo Jima and Okinawa showed invading Japan would be a very costly affair. Since 1942, partly due to Einstein’s warning in 1939 of the dangers of Germany doing the same, the Manhattan Project had been started to develop nuclear weapons. Fire-bombing became widespread, one napalm strike on Tokyo in March 1945 killing over 100,000 people, more than either later atomic bomb, but Japan would not surrender and so the Potsdam Declaration by Churchill, Truman and Chiang Kai-shek was issued in July 1945: surrender or face “prompt and utter destruction.”

The Hiroshima atom bomb cloud 2–5 minutes after detonation

The Hiroshima atom bomb cloud 2–5 minutes after detonation

On 6 August 1945 the US dropped an atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima, and on 9 August on Nagasaki. An estimated 140,000-290,000 would eventually die of these attacks due to the effects of radiation, of which 120,000 died immediately. The site is now a Peace Memorial Site.

End of War

The devastation of these bombs stunned the Japanese leadership and it took the second bombing for their repercussions to truly be believed. On top of this, on 8 August, the Soviet Union invaded Manchuria. On 10 August, Japan agreed to accept the conditions of the Potsdam Declaration, and on 15 August, known as V-Day in the East, victory was finally declared. The official treaty was signed onboard the USS Missouri, docked with more that 250 other allied ships in Tokyo Bay, on 2 September.

MacArthur took over the occupation of Japan, of which the Soviet Union was allowed very little influence. Emperor Hirohito remained on the imperial throne but his powers were strictly limited by law, the Japanese cabinet was completely changed and became a democracy. Initially, Japan was treated as a dangerous enemy and America tried to undermine any chance to regain strength. But with the growing cost of occupation and the Cold War, American perception of the enemy changed. The occupation ended in 1952 and sovereignty was fully restored.

European power in the Pacific had also been irreversibly dented, and the colonial powers would gradually withdraw nearly entirely.

War Crimes

The International Military Tribunal for the Far East took place in Ichigaya, Tokyo from 29 April 1946 to 12 November 1948. This was to try and condemn Japanese war criminals in the Pacific conflict.

American and European powers suffered the undeclared attacks on 7 December 1941, and the Japanese POW camps were notorious. The infamous Burmese Railway cost 12,000 allied prisoners, and 90,000 civilians their lives subject to terrible conditions, disease, and execution. The death rate of POWs was 27%, 6 times that in German or Italian camps.

The Chinese suffered even worse. Some 200,000 ‘comfort women’ were forced into prostitution for the Japanese army, a fact denied even by the Japanese Prime Minister in 2007. The Rape of Nanjing resulted in 300,000 civilian deaths and widescale rape. Biological and chemical warfare was estimated to have killed 300,000-400,000 civilians. Unit 731 was a research unit that conducted various experiments of Allied and civilian prisoners, including vivisection, biological weaponry, forced impregnation, syphilis, and frostbite. Perhaps most shocking of all, the researchers of the unit were given immunity by the US government in secret, in exchange for their results.

The Lost World Of Joseph Banks

The Lost World Of Joseph Banks

Sir Joseph Banks, naturalist, explorer, collector, patron and President of the Royal Society for more than 40 years was one of Australia’s founding fathers.  As a young botanist, he accompanied Captain Cook on his circumnavigation and voyage of discovery to The South Seas, and yet a true picture of Banks’s life has never emerged.

Early Life

Joseph Banks was born in London in 1743. His youth was spent on “Revesby,” the Banks’ family estate in Lincolnshire, England. Banks inherited the estate from his father, who died when Banks was 16 years old. Banks was to oversee the management of the 10,000-acre estate for the rest of his life.

Eton, Oxford & Cambridge

Banks was sent to the traditional finishing schools of the aristocracy and the English upper class. Bored with lessons at Oxford, Banks hired a tutor from Cambridge to assist in his self-taught study of Botany. At the end of his life, he bestowed some of his massive collection to Christ Church, his Oxford College.


The Swedish Connection: Linnaeus, His Apostles & Daniel Solander

joseph-banks-1773-reynolds-by-joshua-reynoldsBanks’ life and achievements are closely linked to the work and discoveries of Swedish Botanist, Carl Linnaeus.

Linnaeus was responsible for a plant naming system still in use today, a vastly devastating impact that has only recently begun to be seriously critiqued by scholars and thinker around the world. He worked as a Professor in the Medical Department of Uppsala University, and it was initially for medical purposes that Linnaeus cultivated his garden there. Even today, the garden is laid out to the same specifications.

Linnaeus’ disciples or apostles, as his followers were known then, were dispatched around the world to collect plants. Linnaeus’ favourite disciple was Daniel Solander, whom Linnaeus had sent to England to learn more about English horticultural methods.

Solander met Banks at the British Museum, where Solander was curating the works of Sir Hans Sloane: the Chelsea Physic Gardens and a massive collection of plants, which Sloane had left to the Nation when he died in 1739.

The sociable and well-liked Solander never returned to his native Sweden, much to the disappointment of Linnaeus.

The ‘Endeavour’ Journey

Banks paid an equivalent of ten million dollars to secure passage with his entourage on “Endeavour,” a ship commanded by Captain James Cook. Banks’ team included Solander, artists, Sydney Parkinson and James Buchan – a draftsman, James Sporing, plus three servants and his two greyhound dogs.

The Journey Begins

The object of the voyage was to track the “Transit of Venus” in Tahiti, and thereafter, to head further west to explore and chart what was thought to be a great southern land.

However, only Banks, Solander, and one of the servants survived the journey, which lasted more than three years.

Death In Chile

After crossing the Atlantic, Banks and Solander went botanizing, when the boat anchored in Rio de Janeiro. Thereafter, they headed south to Cape Horn and at Tierra del Fuego, they landed at a site that Cook named the “Cape of Good Success.”

But when caught in a freak snowstorm, the expedition proved to be disastrous, taking the lives of Banks’ two servants.

Soon thereafter, Banks’ draftsman, Robert Buchan had an epileptic fit and died at sea. No other deaths among the crew were recorded for more than a year until the “Endeavour” landed on the shores of the East coast of Australia.


Tahitian Landscape

Tahitian Landscape

Banks and Solander noted more than a hundred new plant species native to Tahiti, including the Gardenia, the national flower of Tahiti, and the Breadfruit Tree, which was to obsess Banks for the next thirty years, culminating in the ill-fated Bounty expedition.

Banks’ botanic artist, Sydney Parkinson, sketched some of the first images of the natives and their way of life, another job that he inherited after the death of Banks’ artist, James Buchan.

Cook relied on Banks as the mediator with the natives. Banks led the trading efforts, bartering the “Endeavour’s” collection of iron nails and axes in exchange for much-needed supplies, such as coconuts and hogs.

Many of the crew, including the adventurous Banks, had sexual relations with the Tahitians, a fact that troubled Cook.

On leaving Tahiti, after a stay of three months, Banks persuaded Cook to bring onboard a Tahitian Chief and skilled navigator, Tupai, who was instrumental in guiding the “Endeavour” on its westward journey across the Pacific.

New Zealand

New Zealand was one of the last lands to be colonized. The Polynesian Maori arrived there after migrating across the Pacific in the 15th century. There they hunted to extinction the giant flightless bird known as the Moa, a Jurassic creature only found on the island.

Banks and Solander collected more than three hundred plant species, including many unique, giant tree ferns, and the flax plant, another species that obsessed Banks, given its suitability for rope making and sailing cloth.

Unlike the Tahitians, the fierce and warlike Maori provided an intimidating welcome to the Europeans. Despite the presence of Tupai, who understood the Maori language, there were frequent misunderstandings between the crew and the Haka, who interpreted them as invaders and therefore, a threat. On the first landfall at the site of modern-day Gisborne, on the east coast of the North Island, several Maori were shot and killed by Cook and his crew. Cook later renamed the site, “Poverty Bay.”

Cook spent six months circumnavigating the islands and producing a map that is still used today. Intrigued by the customs and cannibalism of the Maori as noted in his diary, Banks collected samples of the Maoris’ weapons and their intricate woodcarvings.


Australian Wattle

Australian Wattle

The “Endeavour” made landfall on the eastern coast of Australia on April 28th, 1770, at a place Cook named Botany Bay, located just a few miles south of modern-day Sydney.

Banks and Solander’s plant hunting on the undiscovered eastern seaboard of Australia produced the most significant part of their collection gathered during the three-year expedition.

Less successful, however, were their encounters with the indigenous Aborigines, who were either disinterested or hostile to the visitors for whom they regarded as invaders.

On April 28, at Botany Bay, musket shots were fired at first contact, in order to deter the Aborigines. Spears and shields were seized. One of the Aborigines’ shields, now an artefact, is held today by the British Museum and regarded as one of the most important objects of its collection.

The “Endeavour” and its crew sailed northwards following and charting the coast until the ship ran aground, near modern-day Cooktown on the Queensland coast. The six-week layover for repairs at a place later renamed after ship, the Endeavour River, provided Banks and Solander with their best opportunity for plant hunting expeditions. Many of the most valuable samples from the journey came from there. Parkinson sketched the kangaroo, the first known western image of the creature, and also documented further exchanges with the Aborigines.

The Journey Home

After repairs to the ”Endeavour” were completed, Cook set course northwards through the East Indies on the long journey home. But in Batavia, disaster struck. More than a third of the crew died. Banks’ artist, Parkinson, Tupai, and the astronomer, Green, all lost their lives as disease swept through the crew in a matter of weeks.


When the “Endeavour” finally made it home three years after it left, it was big news. The journey made Banks famous, as he was soon being courted and celebrated in London society.

Banks’ circle of influence included famous names in London, during the 1770s and the following decade, such as Boswell and Johnson, an artist, Sir Joshua Reynolds, who, along with Samuel West, painted his portrait. Banks became a member of several societies, including the intriguingly named “Dilettante Society,” as was custom at the time for rich aristocrats, enjoying the Grand Tour. Banks was lampooned in the press, and caricatured as “The Botanic Macaroni,” and the “Great South Sea Caterpillar.”

Banks set up residence at 32 Soho Square in the heart of London. For the next thirty years, he played host to explorers, naturalists and botanists, who came to marvel at his collection, which he willingly shared. Solander moved in, combining the role of the colleague and personal secretary, until his untimely and early death of a stroke in 1783. Solander’s death devastated Banks; it is often thought that it was the reason for his massive pictorial record of the “Endeavour” journey, known as the “Florilegium,” which was never finished.

Banks: Patron Of Artists

Banks patronage of artists before, during, and after his epic journey of discovery was a common thread in his career. In an age before photography, artists were critical of visualizing far away places. Yet Banks searched out the best artists to join his many missions, organizing them for more than fifty years.

Sydney Parkinson was the most famous and prolific of Banks’ artists, on account of his magnificent work onboard the “Endeavour.” Banks also promoted the Austrian artist, Ferdinand Bauer, who accompanied Matthew Flinders on his famous circumnavigation of Australia, along with William Westall. Banks was also close to the French artist, Zoffany, whom he sought to join the Flinders mission, though unsuccessful.

Ironically, Banks’ greatest artistic achievement was the production of more than seven hundred lithographs from copper plates made from Parkinson’s drawings. They were to remain incomplete, seemingly abandoned after Solander’s death.

Science & The State: Banks and the Institutions

Kew and the King

Banks’ discoveries brought him close to King George III, as they both shared a mutual love of farming and agriculture. Banks would visit the King at his Palace at Kew for many years, touring the palace gardens. Banks was even instrumental in turning them into “Botanical Gardens” and becoming their first Superintendent.

Royal Society

Banks remained the longest serving President of the Royal Society, remaining in that post for more than forty years.

British Museum

Banks persuaded George IV, after the death of his father, George III, to bequeath his huge natural history library to the British Museum. The Kings Library is still in the museum today.

Natural History Museum

Resolution & Discovery

Resolution & Discovery

In addition to Banks’ botanic collections held in his Herbarium, it is thought that the custom built shelves and cupboards made for Banks’ Soho Square home are also in the Museum.

The Natural History Museum is also home to the famous “Florilegium” lithographic prints, made from the more than seven hundred copper plates produced by Banks of Parkinson’s famous botanic drawings. Given the immense volume of work, Parkinson often just sketched, and partially coloured his work. Because of Parkinson’s death, artists in London finished the work. But Banks never finished producing the copper plates; he didn’t even begin the final phase of the work, creating the colour lithographs from the plates themselves. This was finally done almost two hundred years later in the 1980s, when a joint venture between the Natural History Museum and Alecto Historical Editions, produced a hundred sets.

Linnaean Society

Banks was behind the deal that brought Linnaeus’ library and collection to Britain after his death. In 1786, after Linnaeus died, his family made contact with Banks in London seeking a home for his collection. Banks persuaded Smith, a wealthy landowner, to buy it. But the last minute attempt by the Swedish royal family to save the collection for the nation failed.

Royal Horticultural Society

Banks also had a role in the setting up of the RHS.

Convict Australia

Banks, more than any other individual, influenced the British Government’s decision to establish a penal colony in Sydney, known at the time as “Botany Bay,” after the American War of Independence put an end to the practice of sending convicts to the southern state of Georgia.

In the 1780s, Banks was one of the few people to have actually seen what was then known as New South Wales.

Re-Distributing The World’s Crops

Banks’ knowledge of plants, climate, and growing conditions in the newly discovered parts of the world, meant that he was perfect to oversee a government-sanctioned scheme of plant exchanges, designed to for the sole purpose of empowering and benefiting the British Empire.

Banks was behind the introduction of sheep to Australia, and many fruit and vegetable plants, which significantly altered the landscape of the country. He corresponded regularly with early Governors, exchanging notes on all aspects of the development of agriculture in the nescient colony, including how to keep plants alive on long sea journeys.

Banks And Race

One of Banks’ lesser-known activities was his role as an agent, assisting in the collection of heads of native peoples of the Pacific, including Aboriginal and Maori heads. Banks was a friend of the German anatomist, Johannes Blumenbach, who wanted the heads to assist in his study of race. In this pre-Darwinian age, naturalists, such as Linnaeus, believed there were different species of humans. Linnaeus, who introduced the words “Homo sapiens” to the world, speculated on the existence of a species he called “Homo Troglodytes,” which had a tail.

Blumenbach and others maintained there were different races, not species. Banks had heads of Aboriginal warriors delivered by royal courier to Blumenbach in Germany. An early Governor of NSW, Phillip Gidley King, sent Banks the head of Pemulwuy, a famous Aboriginal “freedom fighter,” who attacked British settlements and troops until he was captured and slain in 1803.

Banks: Patron Of Explorers


Banks was the organising force behind many missions of discovery. The most famous was that of William Bligh, an accomplished sailor and navigator, who had been on Cook’s third and fateful journey when he was hacked to death in Hawaii. Banks nominated him for an expedition on board the “Bounty,” which would transport breadfruit plants from Tahiti to the West Indies, where it would be grown to feed the slaves.

The mutiny by the disgruntled crew led by Fletcher Christian is famous. The mutineers sailed the Bounty to distant Pitcairn Island where it was scuttled. Bligh was cast into an open boat with his colleagues, where he navigated and survived a perilous course across the Pacific to the East Indies.

When Bligh returned to England, he cleared his name, and was dispatched by Banks again to complete his mission; this time it was successful. The breadfruit plants landed in the East Indies, although its cultivation was never the success that Banks had hoped for.


Mathew Flinders

Mathew Flinders

Like Banks, Captain Matthew Flinders was from Lincolnshire. After a successful role on Bligh’s second mission, he was nominated by Banks to undertake a mission to circumnavigate Australia. In 1803, he successfully charted its coast. It was Flinders who gave the country its name. Tragically, Flinders was detained by the French in Mauritius on his way home at the height of the Napoleonic Wars and kept a prisoner for seven years. Finally released in 1811, he returned to London. He published the famous journal of his Australian discoveries, only to die days later; he was around forty years old.

Banks: The Collector

Banks was one of Britain’s greatest collectors of the 18th and early 19th centuries. Banks’ botanic collection was bequeathed eventually to London’s Natural History Museum. Banks’ collection, together with Sir Hans Sloane’s, which plants Sloane had established for the Chelsea Physic Garden, both formed much of the museum’s founding collection.

But Banks’ collections spanned interests far beyond botany, as Banks was a keen patron of the arts. Banks commissioned artists, such as Parkinson on the Endeavour mission, and Bauer and Westall on the Flinders’ mission that circumnavigated Australia, to depict the country’s nature and its inhabitants.

Banks’s also collected and looted cultural artefacts and objects from his encounters with Pacific Islanders, the Maori of New Zealand, the Australian Aborigines, and the natives of the East Indies.

Banks wanted to join Cook on his second mission to the Pacific in 1773, but fell out with the Admiral over his grand plan for the voyage; Banks insisted on an enlarged party, which included musicians. The Navy said Banks’ proposed redesign of “The Resolution,” would render the ship and the journey, unsafe. Banks had even made brass plates, and replicas of Maori clubs to give as gifts to iron hungry Pacific Islanders.

Final Years

In his later years, Banks was severely affected by gout that crippled him; he even had to be carried around. But he kept working to the end, fulfilling his duties as President of the Royal Society and promoting plant hunting expeditions across the globe.

In 1820, he died at his home in Spring Grove, at his mini estate on the outskirts of West London.

Lost Legacy

Banks died childless, which undoubtedly contributed to the breaking up of his Estate, in the decades after his death. A grandnephew on his wife’s side attempted to sell Banks’ private papers, almost a hundred thousand letters, to the British Museum, but the offer was declined. Thereafter, they were disbursed.

Banks manor house on his 20,000-acre estate at Revesby, in Lincolnshire, was destroyed by fire, and the estate passed out of the family.

Banks’ famous home at 32 Soho Square, London, which was an epicentre for scientific, cultural and social life in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, was demolished in the early 20th century. The new owner of his house in Spring Grove, near the Royal Botanic Gardens, a home where had Banks spent more than forty years, demolished it after it was sold.

Banks wanted neither monument nor anyone at his funeral. He was buried in a vault underneath St. Leonard’s Church at Heston Cemetery, in the outskirts of west London.

Colonial Australia: The Gold Rush And Ned Kelly

Colonial Australia: The Gold Rush And Ned Kelly

The Gold Rush

The Victorian gold rush was quite a significant part of Australia’s history, which began in 1851 when one of the earlier discoveries by Thomas Peters, a hut-keeper found fragments of gold near Specimen Gully.  After this monumental discovery, more gold was found in additional cities throughout Australia, including Ballarat, Beechworth, Bendigo, Stawell and Melbourne.  With the draw of gold, the population inevitably increased as well, with everyone wanting a piece of the pie.


Ballarat was known as Victoria’s largest inland city during the gold rush, which earned it the name, The Golden City. Gold was discovered here in August 1851 by John Dunlop and James Regan.  They found a few ounces in the Canadian Creek.  Ballarat saw an enormous population boom and by the end of September, almost 1,000 miners were drawn here with the hopes of discovering gold.  Within just two years, in 1853, more than 20,000 miners of varying nationalities inhabited the area and were working in the mine fields.

With the discovery of gold and the many people who flocked to the area to search for it, the Government in Melbourne decided to set up a system of Gold Licenses to allow miners to search for gold on a specified piece of land.  Whether or not the miners found gold, they were still required to pay the license fee.  If a digger was found without a license, the consequence was to pay a fine or be chained to a log until the fine was paid.  The diggers had no say in whether or not they thought these fines were unfair and the government gave the police power to accept checks and due to the shortage of manpower, many police were ex-convicts who operated in a callous way.

June 10th, 1858 marked a momentous day with the founding of the enormous Welcome Nugget, weighing 68,956 grams and contained approximately 68,272 grams of pure gold.  At Ballarat’s zenith, the goldfield supported 300 companies and the population reached in the region of 64,000.

Eureka Stockade


The gold miners of Ballarat did not back down easily from authority.  They organized a rebellion against the colonial authority of the United Kingdom.  This battle is widely known as the Eureka Stockade.  On November 30, 1854, Peter Lalor led the miners to the Eureka diggings, where they erected the famous stockade.  It was a makeshift wooden barricade, which surrounded approximately an acre of the gold fields.  Over the next two days inside the stockade, 500 diggers took an oath on the Southern Cross Flag.  They accumulated firearms and built pikes to defend the stockade.  In the early hours of the day on December 3rd, the authorities initiated an attack on the stockade.  The battle lasted a mere twenty minutes. The diggers were outnumbered by the police troops, who claimed victory over the diggers.  Twenty-two diggers and five troops lost their lives that day.

Lalor, the leader of the group escaped the scene, although he too was injured and his arm was later amputated.  December 6th saw the implementation of martial law and a committee was selected. In February of 1855, thirteen diggers were sent to trial and all of them were acquitted.  The lone person that was imprisoned was Henry Seekamp, the editor of the Ballarat Times, who was found guilty of fictitious libel.  Through this trial, all of the demands of the diggers were met and they were given rights that were more appealing to them than what was previously imposed.  A bill was passed, where diggers who owned a miner’s right that cost one pound were now allowed to vote.  This twenty minute battle led to huge changes in Australian democracy and is noted as the only example of armed rebellion that lead to reform unfair laws.


Old equipment left at the New Chum Hill site near the old gold rush town of Kiandra in the Kosciuszko National Park - Mike Stanic Flickr Commons

The second largest goldfield, in terms of production was claimed by the city of Bendigo.  1851 marked the discovery of gold here along the banks of Bendigo Creek.  Naturally, this resulted in a major gold rush.  The discovery of gold known as alluvial gold (found beneath the surface at the bottom of a creek or stream. It usually takes the form of dust or thin flakes or nuggets), was attributed to two women.  Mrs. Kennedy and Mrs. Farrell were the wives of two workers on the Mt. Alexander North pastoral property.  The growth of miners within less than one year was astronomical.  In December of 1851, there were 800 people on the field, and a mere six months later, 20,000 diggers had been drawn to the alluvial field.  Alluvial gold took over the first ten years of the field until 1860 and it’s estimated that it accounted for approximately four million ounces or nearly one fifth of the total gold from the Bendigo Goldfield.

Chinese Population In Bendigo

Chinese people, specifically, were attracted to the Bendigo goldfields in large numbers.  They established a large Chinatown on a plentiful gold run to the north east of the city at Emu Point. Within ten years the Chinese miners and merchants made up 20% of the Bendigo population, reaching a high of 40,000 people by 1858.

Due to the soaring Chinese population growth, there was a fear that the Chinese would outnumber the white people and would be the dominant race.  Additionally, there was extra competition on the goldfields and in the labor market.  This fear led to discrimination by the white miners and therefore, the Chinese miners were forced to pay a poll tax in 1855, which equaled twice the amount of a weekly wage of a skilled worker.

They were involved in other activities on the goldfields that ranged from herbalists and merchants to restaurateurs. As a cultural group they stood out because most preserved their identity and customs.  Although rioting didn’t happen very often, there were some instances where full-scale rioting resulted as angry Europeans attacked Chinese diggers at places such as: Buckland River in Victoria in 1857 and Lambing Flat in NSW in 1860-1861.

During the decline of the alluvial gold fields, most of the Chinese gold miners returned home, with only a small population remaining to form the Bendigo Chinese community. This community has continued to influence the city until today.  Other ethnic communities also developed including the Germans at Ironbark Gully and the Irish at St Killian’s.



A small amount of gold was discovered in Stawell, formerly known as Pleasant Creek Victoria, in May of 1853 by William McLachlan.  Although the find was made known, not many people came here then. It was a very isolated area, then where water was scarce and there were no supplies of food while the gold fields of Ballarat, Bendigo, Clunes etc. were operating with stores already established. Some people did come and there were also people passing through here from South Australia to the Victorian gold fields that stopped and found small quantities of gold.

In 1857 the big rush swept in at what became known as Commercial Street, Pleasant Creek. This rush spread across to Deep Lead and was reported at the height of the rush to be 25,000 to 30,000 people there.  At the same time, shafts were being sunk around Big Hill and gold was found in the quartz there.

Much alluvial gold was found in the Illawarra/Deep Lead area. The diggers took their gold and left and the field had dwindled away by 1859, lasting less then two years with a very diminishing numbers of diggers.  The Quartz Reefs became a stable gold field and companies were created to purchase the machinery needed, which employed many miners. This gold field was known as “Stawell’s Golden Mile” although it extended for a mile and a half or more from the Wonga, along the foot of Big Hill and down Newington Road out to the Three Jacks.

The miners in Stawell wanted more free time and therefore created more entertainment.  Stawell is known for The Stawell Gift, which was formed in 1878.  It is a fun race between miners at the end of the gold rush and has been raced every year since, except for four years during World War II. Originally it was the townspeople putting together an entertainment package to happen over Easter, complete with ‘special trains’ to the event. Today it is the most prestigious footrace in Australia with a $40,000AUD first prize. The event is sponsored by Australian Post and the finals are televised live around Australia.

Shipwreck Coast


The Limestone coast of South Australia and the south west coast of Victoria is known as the Shipwreck Coast.  This particular area of coastline is made up of cliffs, reef, islands and outcrops of rocks. The combination of the coastline, the winds of the ‘roaring forties’ and the often stormy seas, sailing and navigating these waters could be very treacherous.  There were over 80 shipwrecks along a 130 Kilometre or 150 Mile stretch of the Victorian coast from Port Fairy to Cape Otway.

The Australian gold rushes of the early 1850s had created increased demand for imports and emigrants.  The Australian gold fields’ demand for passenger ships led shipowners such as Duncan Dunbar to order the construction of a clipper from the English shipbuilding firm of James Laing and Sons at Sunderland in 1852.  This ship took 16 months to build and was launched in 1853. The Dunbar was wrecked during a period of immense social and economic growth in Australia.

It was not until 1856 that the first visit was made to Australia and by May 1857 the vessel and crew were ready for a second voyage to the colony.  However, the return voyage was not as successful.  On August 20, 1857, the ship arrived in dreadful conditions.  Due to the heavy rain and squalls, visibility was reduced to a few hundred meters and instead of entering the safety of the harbour, the Dunbar crashed onto boulders at the foot of South Head. The impact brought down the masts, huge waves sank the lifeboats and the Dunbar was dragged by the waves. While the ship was lying on the side of the cliffs, the vessel broke up almost immediately.  There was one sole survivor, seaman James Johnson, who was washed onto a ledge on the cliff face.  Sadly, the remaining 58 crew and all 63 passengers drowned.



Melbourne also saw a huge increase in their population when gold was first discovered there.  The town’s population doubled within a year.  In 1852, 75,000 people arrived in the colony and this, combined with a very high birthrate, led to rapid population growth. The accelerated population growth and the enormous wealth of the goldfields stimulated a boom, which lasted for forty years and lead to the era known as “marvellous Melbourne.”

In less than a decade, the gold rushes transformed Melbourne from a chaotic colonial service town to a great metropolis with the poise of a modern city.  But in the early years of the gold rushes, Melbourne had trouble keeping up with its newfound wealth. By mid-November 1851, Melbourne was deep in the hold of gold-fever.  News spread of unimaginable riches being unearthed from Mount Alexander.  As the diggers washed handfuls of soil, they found varying sizes of particles of gold, the biggest being the size of a grain of mustard.  Gold continued to be uncovered in places such as Emerald Hill, the Melbourne Gaul, in the footpath of Hoddle Street, at Prahran railway station, on Batman’s Hill, on Richmond Hill again (in sinking a cellar), at Templestowe and Heidelberg.

The Royal Arcade And Block Arcade

Two historical and significant structures that were created originally in 1869, represent the gold rush era.  For instance, Melbourne’s Golden Mile heritage walk runs through the Royal and Block arcades.  The Royal Arcade is beautifully designed and very pleasing to the eye, with high glass roof and windowed stores.  The arcade also contains statues of mythical figures Gog and Magog as well as a clock that sounds each hour.

On the other hand, the Block Arcade was known for its well known young hoodlum  gang called the “barracade boys” who dealt drugs all day and hired prostitutes at night.  This arcade was constructed between 1891 and 1893, which was designed by architect David C. Askew.  The inspiration for his design was the Galleria Vittorio Emmanuele in Milan.  The result turned out beautifully, with mosaic tiled flooring, glass canopy, wrought iron and carved stone finishings.  The exterior is one of the greatest examples of Victorian Mannerist style.

The End Of The Gold Rush

The gold rushes left the legacy of picturesque Victorian towns in the Goldfields tourist region like Maldon, Beechworth, Clunes, Heathcote, Stawell, Beaufort and many other cities With the exception of Ballarat and Bendigo.  During the gold rush period, many of these towns were significantly larger than they are today, as the population boom, eventually dwindled down when the people left after the rushes. Most populations moved to other districts when gold ceased to be the driving force to stay in a given region.  In contrast, some ghost towns emerged, such as Wakhalla, Mafeking and Steigkitz, which still exist today.

The last major gold rush in Victoria was at Berringa, south of Ballarat, in the first decade of the 20th century. The end of gold mining in Victoria was largely attributed to the depth and cost of pumping. WWI also drained Australia of the labour needed to work the mines. However, the dominant reason was due to the prohibition on the export of gold from Australia in 1915 and the abolition of the gold standard throughout the Empire saw many gold-towns in Victoria die.  The decline in gold production never fully recovered. However, as of 2005 the recent increase in the gold price has seen resurgence in commercial mining activity with mining resuming in both of the major fields of Bendigo and Ballarat.

The Ned Kelly Story

Ned_Kelly_in_1880 - Wikimedia CommonsThe Early Years

Ned Kelly was born in June of 1855 in Beveridge, Victoria to an Irish family and is known as the most famous bush ranger in Australia’s rich history. His family home is the beginning of the Ned Kelly trail and some would say he was a common hero, while others proclaim he was a common murderer.  It was evident that crime ran in the Kelly family.  His father was a convict who was arrested for stealing pigs and spent seven years in prison, while his step-father stole horses, in which Ned accompanied him in doing.  Additionally, his brothers spent time in prison for crimes and thievery.

A Lifetime Of Crime

Ned attended school at Avenel until his father died on December 27, 1866. With his mother and siblings, they moved to a hut at Eleven Mile Creek, about half-way between Greta and Glenrowan in northern Victoria. It didn’t take very long for Ned to get into trouble with the law.

In 1869 Ned was arrested for alleged assault on a Chinaman and held for ten days on remand but the charge was dismissed. Next year he was arrested and held in custody for seven weeks as a suspected accomplice of the bushranger, Harry Power, who was also Kelly’s mentor, but the charge was dismissed again.

Kelly’s crimes didn’t end there.  In 1870 at just fifteen years old, was convicted of summary offenses and sent to prison for six months.  On top of that Kelly accepted a mare that he knew was stolen and sentenced to three years in prison. He somehow was always released from prison and in 1874, the same year he was set free from prison, his mother got remarried to George King.  Kelly found another partner in crime with his stepfather, King and in 1876, the two assisted each other in stealing horses in an area that was notorious for it.

Another incident occurred in April of 1878 when a police trooper named, Fitzpatrick arrived at Mrs. Kelly’s home and claimed that Ned Kelly shot him.  The real facts of the case were never uncovered but nonetheless, family members, including: Mrs. Kelly, her son-in-law, William Skillion, and a neighbour, William Williamson, were arrested and charged with aiding and supporting the attempted murder of Fitzpatrick.  They were convicted.  Mrs. Kelly was sentenced to three years, while the men were sentenced to six.  Ned and Dan Kelly were nowhere to be found, as they had gone into hiding in the Wombat Ranges, but they were still fervently sought after, even offering a reward for information leading to their capture.

In October of that same year, a search was put into place to find Ned Kelly at Stringybark Creek. Next day Kennedy and Scanlon went out on patrol, leaving Lonigan and McIntyre at the camp. The Kelly gang surprised the camp and when Lonigan drew his revolver Ned shot him dead. McIntyre surrendered. When Kennedy and Scanlon returned, they did not surrender when called on, and in an exchange of shots Ned killed Scanlon and mortally wounded Kennedy. Ned later shot him in the heart, claiming it was an act of mercy. McIntyre escaped to Mansfield and reported the killings. This is known to be the biggest mass murder of police in the state even today. Ultimately, this fueled the Ned Kelly fire even more, increasing the reward amount and motivating the police to be merciless in their search to capture these outlaws.  To honor the policeman that lost their lives (including Police Sergeant Michael Kennedy, and Mounted Constables Thomas Lonigan and Michael Scanlan), a monument was erected.

 Ned Kelly Fights For Justice

Later that same year in December, the Kelly gang was at it again.  They committed scores of more crimes, from taking over a sheep station to holding up a bank in Euroa.  They continued forward and in February of 1879, the gang took possession of a police station in Jerilderie and then went on to hold up a bank while wearing police uniforms in New South Wales.

Kelly, however felt justified in what he was doing. Ned had given a written statement of over 8000 words to a bank-teller. It is unclear what happened to the original and an earlier statement that Kelly sent to Donald Cameron, M.L.A. (1877-1880), but long after Kelly’s death, copies made by a clerk in the Crown Law department became available. Known as the ‘Cameron letter’ and the ‘Jerilderie letter’, they are Kelly’s explanation and justification of his conduct. This was seen as Kelly’s manifesto and plea for justice for his families and other poor Irish settlers.

The Last Days Of Ned Kelly

1880 marked the final year of Ned Kelly’s life.  In Glenrowan, Byrne and Dan joined Ned and Hart, where they took possession of the hotel run by Mrs. Ann Jones and detained approximately sixty people.  They schemed to ruin the railroad tracks to derail a special police train coming into Glenrowan and declare a republic of North East Victoria. However, before anything happened, Thomas Curnow, a man that Ned Kelly let leave the hotel with his wife child and sister, leaked the information to the train crew. Under Superintendent Hare, the police encircled the hotel and shooting began. Hare was shot in the arm and Ned was wounded in the foot, hand and arm. Dan, Byrne and Hart took sanctuary in the hotel and Ned went into the bush.

In Melbourne on October 28th-29th 1880, Kelly was tried for the murder of Constable Thomas Lonigan at Stringybark Creek. He was found guilty and the judge, Redmond Barry, sentenced him to death.  Kelly was hanged at the Melbourne gaol on November 11th, 1880.  His last words uttered were “such is life.” Ned Kelly was only twenty-five years old.

The Ned Kelly Trail

Today, for those who wish to explore Ned Kelly’s life in person and in more detail, the Ned Kelly trail was created to explore all of the various towns and cities he visited and lived his life, starting all the way back to the home he was born in, in the town of Beveridge.  Along the trail, there are stops in Euroa, where Kelly held up a bank, Glenrowan, where the Kelly gang made their last stand against the police.  Then it goes on to Beechworth Gaol, the area where Ned, his mother Eileen and Kelly supporters served sentences.  The Kelly trail continues on to reach the Kelly Tree at Stringybark Creek, where the gang became known as Australia’s most wanted outlaws after three policemen were killed.

Other historical sites can be viewed along the way, such as the graves and memorial in honor of the three policemen who lost their lives, the bootmaker’s shop in Arundel Street where Ned hid to escape the police, the Costume and Pioneer Museum, Benalla cemetery, where many of the people part of the Kelly period are buried and The “Echoes of History-Historical and Cultural Precinct,” which includes The Gold Office and Treasury, Warden’s Office and Bourke Museum to name a few.

The last few places on the trail are Power’s Lookout, where Kelly’s mentor Harry Power hid himself away from the police.  It’s known to have incredible views across the mountains and it’s obvious why Power chose this place to hide away. Finally, the end of the trail is The Old Melbourne Gaol, where Ned Kelly was hanged, as well as 135 more inmates. Although there were 30,000 people that signed a petition against Ned Kelly’s hanging, his fate was inevitable.

A Short History Of Convict Australia

A Short History Of Convict Australia

Who Were The Convicts?

The late 18th century was a period of immense social and political change. France was reeling from revolution and America had just gained her independence.

In Britain the industrial revolution had driven thousands of poverty-stricken country folk to the cities. As a new underclass dependent on crime emerged, the prisons were overflowing and the hangman had his work cut out dealing with the perpetrators of serious offences.

In 1787 the establishment urgently needed a new solution to the problem of the burgeoning prison population.

The botanist from Captain Cook’s discovery expedition 18 years earlier eventually hit upon the idea of Botany Bay, Australia. It wasn’t the ideal choice because the place had only been glimpsed once and the 15,000 mile voyage would take more than 8 months.

Punishment-of-convictsNevertheless, between 1788 and 1868 165,000 British and Irish convicts made the arduous journey to an unknown land we now call Australia.

The majority of the 165,000 convicts transported to Australia were poor and illiterate, victims of the Poor Laws and social conditions in Georgian England. Eight out of ten prisoners were convicted for larceny of some description.

However, apart from unskilled and semi-skilled labourers from Britain and Ireland, transportees came from astonishingly varied ethnic backgrounds: American, Corsican, French, Hong Kong, Chinese, West Indian, Indian, and African.

There were political prisoners and prisoners of war, as well as a motley collection of professionals such as lawyers, surgeons and teachers.

The average age of a transportee was 26, and their number included children who were either convicted of crimes or were making the journey with their mothers. Just one in six transportees was a woman.

Depending on the offence, for the first 40 years of transportation convicts were sentenced to terms of seven years, 10 years, or life.



When prisoners were condemned to transportation, they knew there was little chance they’d see their homeland, or their loved ones again. Even if they survived the long, cruel journey they didn’t really know what fate awaited them in a land on the other side of the world.
Relatively few convicts returned home – partly because the system of reprieves extended to so few and partly because they tended to settle in Australia. Three quarters of the convicts were unmarried when they left home, so those who found a partner during the voyage or once they arrived in Australia weren’t likely to leave them behind.

Nevertheless, transportation was a terrifying prospect. As they awaited their fate, prisoners were detained in the rotting hulks of old warships, transformed into makeshift prisons and rammed up against the mud at Portsmouth Harbour and London’s Royal Docklands.

Convict_lovetokensHulks And Love Tokens

Holed up in the hulks awaiting the dreaded voyage to begin, it was common practice for transportees to spent their days engraving love-tokens which they would give as last mementos to friends and relatives. Many used the 1797 copper cartwheel penny, and the inscriptions range from just the name and date of deportation to elaborate poems and etchings of convicts in chains and boats. Professional engravers were even allowed on board the hulks, and prisoners would commission them to craft a poignant keepsake on their behalf.

The Voyage

convicts in a prison ship

The journey was long and hard. For the first 20 years, prisoners were chained up for the entire 8 months at sea. The cells were divided into compartments by wooden or iron bars. On some ships as many as 50 convicts were crammed into one compartment.

Discipline was brutal, and the officers themselves were often illiterate, drunken and cruel. Their crews were recruited from waterside taverns. They were hardened thugs who wouldn’t shrink from imposing the toughest punishment on a convict who broke the rules.

Disease, scurvy and sea-sickness were rife. Although only 39 of the 759 convicts on the first fleet died, conditions deteriorated. By the year 1800 one in 10 prisoners died during the voyage. Many convicts related loosing up to 10 teeth due to scurvy, and outbreaks of dysentery made conditions foul in the confined space below deck.

Convict ships transporting women inevitably became floating brothels, and women were subjected to varying degrees of degradation. In fact, in 1817 a British judge acknowledged that it was accepted that the younger women be taken to the cabins of the officers each night, or thrown in with the crew.

Australia-Day-Flags-by-Nir-Sinay---Flickr-CommonsAustralia Day

The first fleet entered Botany Bay in January 1788. On arrival, however, the bay was deemed unsuitable and the transportation tarried 9 miles north, landing at Sydney Cove six days later.

The night the male convicts were landed, January 26th 1788, the Union Jack was hoisted, toasts were drunk and a succession of volleys were fired as Captain Arthur Philips and his officers gave three cheers.

Australia Day is an annual celebration commemorating the first landing of white settlers in Australia. These days there’s fireworks, parades, arts, crafts, food and family entertainment. It’s seen as a celebration of Australian culture and way of life.

For those convicts who disembarked in Sydney Cove in 1788, however, the first Australia Day was a bewildering experience. Unused to their land legs, they stumbled cursing through the uncultivated wood in which they had landed. It was two weeks before enough tents huts had been constructed for the female convicts to disembark, and in the midst of a gale they held the first bush party in Australia – dancing, singing and drinking while the storm raged and couples wedged themselves between the red, slimy rocks.

Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park - Flikr Creative CommonsThe Aborigines

The aboriginal people had lived in Australia undisturbed by white men for sixty thousand years before the arrival of the first fleet. For them, the arrival of the convicts was catastrophic.

Their first encounter with their new neighbours was the sight of one huge orgy on the beach. Nevertheless, at first the Aborigines pitied the prisoners and couldn’t understand the cruelty of the soldiers towards them. Gradually the convicts began to resent the rations and clothing the Aborigines received, and they took to stealing their tools and weapons to sell to the sailors as souvenirs.

In May 1788 a convict was found speared in the bush and a week later two more were murdered. Between 2000 and 2500 Europeans and more than 20,000 Aborigines were killed in conflicts between convicts and aborigines.

The convicts felt the need to establish a class below themselves. Australian racism towards the Aboriginal people originated from the convicts and gradually percolated up through society. This marked the beginning of a bitter, painful battle for the survival of Aboriginal culture which has raged for than 200 years.

convict-punishmentConvict Life

A convict’s life was neither easy nor pleasant. The work was hard, accommodation rough and ready and the food none too palatable. Nevertheless the sense of community offered small comforts when convicts met up with their mates from the hulks back home, or others who had been transported on the same ship.

Convict Work

Male convicts were brought ashore a day or so after their convoy landed arrival. They were marched up to the Government Lumber Yard, where they were stripped, washed, inspected and had their vital statistics recorded.

If convicts were skilled, for example carpenters, blacksmiths or stonemasons, they may have been retained and employed on the government works programme. Otherwise they were assigned to labouring work or given over to property owners, merchant or farmers who may once have been convicts themselves

convict food from the Sydney Living MuseumsConvict Diet

A convict’s daily rations were by no means substantial. Typically, they would consist of:

Breakfast: A roll and a bowl of skilly, a porridge-like dish made from oatmeal, water, and if they were lucky, scrapings meat.
Lunch: A large bread roll and a pound of dried, salted meat.
Dinner: One bread roll and, if they were lucky, a cup of tea.

As if this wasn’t enough to turn your stomach, the officials had an unpleasant cure for hangovers and drunkenness, which they imposed on convicts who were overly fond of rum. The ‘patient’ was forced to drink a quart of warm water containing a wine-glass full of spirits and five grains of tartar emetic. He was then carried to a darkened room, in the centre of which was a large drum onto which he was fastened. The drum was revolved rapidly, which made the patient violently sick. He was then put to bed, supposedly disgusted by the smell of spirits!

Ian-Wright-in-Convict-OutfitConvict Clothing

Until 1810 convicts were permitted to wear ordinary civilian clothes in Australia. The new Governor, Lachlan Macquarie, wanted to set the convicts apart from the increasing numbers of free settlers who were flocking to Australia.

The distinctive new uniform marked out the convicts very clearly. The trousers were marked with the letters PB, for Prison Barracks. They were buttoned down the sides of the legs, which meant they could be removed over a pair of leg irons.

Convict Class System

A class system evolved amidst the convict community. The native born children of convict couples were known as ‘currency’, whereas the children of officials were known as ‘sterling’.

A wealthy class of ‘Emancipists’ (former convicts) sprung up when the Governor began to integrate reformed convicts to the fledgling society. These Emancipists, who often employed convicts in their turn, were very much despised by the soldiers and free-exclusives who had come to Australia of their own free will.

Convict Housing

For those convicts who remained in Sydney, lodgings were available in a neighbourhood called The Rocks. It was a fairly free community with few restrictions on daily life. Here, husbands and wives could be assigned to each other and some businesses were even opened by convicts still under sentence.

The Rocks became notorious for drunkenness, prostitution, filth and thieving, and in 1819 Governor MacQuarie built Hyde Park Barracks, which afforded greater security.

Those sent to work in other towns or in the bush were often given food and lodging by their employer. The road projects and penal colonies offered far less comfortable accommodation, often with 20 sweaty bodies crammed into a small hut.



When convicts arrived in Australia, detailed reports were compiled of their physical appearance, including distinguishing marks. At the beginning of the 19th century one in four convicts was tattooed, and although it’s hard for us to fully understand what these may have meant to the individual, some are interesting, even witty comments on convict life.

Some tattoos appear to be poignant love tokens and permanent reminders of the life and loved ones they left behind.

Some are cheeky remonstrations with the officials, such as the words ‘Strike me fair, stand firm and do your duty‘.

Similarly, a crucifix tattooed on a convict’s back would give that impression that Christ himself was being flogged, and angels were standing by with a cup to catch the blood. This implies that it is the authorities that are sinful.

Women Transported LrgConvict Women

Women made up 15% of the convict population. They are reported to have been low-class women, foul mouthed and with loose morals. Nevertheless they were told to dress in clothes from London and lined up for inspection so that the officers could take their pick of the prettiest.

Until they were assigned work, women were taken to the Female Factories, where they performed menial tasks like making clothes or toiling over wash-tubs. It was also the place where women were sent as a punishment for misbehaving, if they were pregnant or had illegitimate children.

Other punishments for women include an iron collar fastened round the neck, or having her head shaved as a mark of disgrace. Often these punishments were for moral misdemeanours, such as being ‘found in the yard of an inn in an indecent posture for an immoral purpose‘, or ‘misconduct in being in a brothel with her mistress’ child‘.

As women were a scarcity in the colony, if they married they could be assigned to free settlers. Often, desperate men would go looking for a wife at the Female Factories.

Ticket-of-leavePardon And Punishment

Tickets of leave were normally granted after four years for those with a seven-year sentence, six years for a fourteen-year sentence and eight-years for life. The principal superintendent looked at the applications and depending on how much extra punishment the prisoner had received he’d make a decision to recommend the ticket or not.

A ticket of leave would exempt convict from public labour and allow them to work for themselves.

After this a prisoner may receive conditional pardon, which meant he was free but had to stay in Australia, or absolute pardon, which meant he was free to return to England.

If a prisoner was uncooperative or committed further crimes there was an equally well defined scale of punishments he would receive: first working on a road gang, then being sent to a penal colony, and finally capital punishment.

There were also a number of incidental punishments a prisoner could receive: flogging, solitary confinement, treadmill, the stocks, food depravation and thumbscrews.


A prisoner had to be sentenced to flogging by a magistrate. There would be a scourger present, a surgeon and a drummer to count the beats. Often floggings were carried out in public, as a warning to other convicts not to commit the same offence.

There are Australians alive today who remember the horrific scars borne by their grandparents as a result of brutal floggings.

On Norfolk Island an instrument called a cat’o nine tails was used to flog the convicts. This was a whip made of leather strands, with a piece of lead attached to each thong. The lead would tear deep into the flesh with each stroke, and the only effective relief from the agony it inflicted was to urinate on the ground then lie the open wounds on it.

Australian Penal Colonies

The conditions in the penal colonies were exceptionally harsh. Prisoners who re-offended were sent to the colonies, and it was unlikely they’d ever be freed under the system of reprieves.

Penitentiary_ruin_on_Sarah_Island-smallMacquarie Harbour Penal Station

The natural prison built in the middle of Macquarie Harbour, known as Sarah Island, was meant to be escape proof. It was surrounded by impenetrable rainforest and very few escape attempts were recorded.

The convicts who were sent to Sarah Island were often escapees from other penal colonies. Others were skilled men whose task it was to build ships.

The convicts were cut down the massive Huen Pines, lash the logs together and raft them down the river. They would work twelve hours a day in freezing cold water, in leg-irons, under the continual scrutiny of the guards. Not surprisingly their main objective was escape.

Norfolk Island - Flickr creative commonsNorfolk Island

Fifteen hundred miles off the coast of New South Wales was the most brutal prison of the convict period. Its name was Norfolk Island. The British wanted an institution that would act as a deterrent in the colony, which would terrify even those in Britain who heard its name.

Sir Thomas Brisbane wrote ‘I wish it to be understood that the felon who is sent there is forever excluded from all hope of return‘.

Indeed a high number of prisoners preferred suicide to enduring the abominable conditions. Others poisoned, burned or blinded themselves in attempts to avoid work.  Their physical and mental health suffered due to interminable hard labour, poor diet, overcrowding, coarse, uncomfortable clothing and harsh punishments such as flogging with a cat’o nine tails and being chained to the floor.

The men lived forever in the shadow of the ‘Murderers Mound’, where twelve of the convicts who participated in an uprising in July 1846 were executed.  Tales from Norfolk Island filtered back to the England and the colony was eventually abandoned in 1855. Arthur

After the closure of Norfolk Island, offenders were sent to the southern tip of Tasmania, to a colony called Port Arthur.

Prison reformers back in Britain wanted to experiment with new forms of punishment. The centrepiece of the new institution was the Model Prison.

The idea was to replace flogging and corporal punishment with complete sensory deprivation, which would break their spirit and turn them into good citizens. The guards wore slippers and carpets in the hallways deadened all sounds. When the convicts were allowed out of their cells, they were made to wear masks to they couldn’t recognise one another. There was very little verbal communication.

If you’re going to escape from prison, Australia’s hardly the easiest place to hitch a ride home from. Nonetheless, theres some incredible tales of the few who made a break for it.

John Donahue And The Bushrangers

Bushrangers are seen as heroes in Australia, representing rebellion and and triumph over authority. The most celebrated bushranger of them all was John Donahue, a young Dubliner who was sentenced to transportation for life in 1823.

After his escape he roamed the bush, besieging the settlers and living off a life of plunger. He used to hang out in the caves near Picton.

John Donahue was eventually shot dead in 1830 by a policeman and his tale is immortalised in the Ballad of Bold Jack, banned at the time as a treason song.

Sarah Island

The penal colony at Sarah Island was meant to have been impossible to escape from. More than 180 escape attempts are known to have been made but few were successful: most escapees perished in the rainforest and many returned voluntarily after a few days.

Some did make it. Alexander Pearce escaped Sarah Island twice, and only survived by eating his companions. He later told his companions that he preferred human flesh to normal food.

Another great tale is of the convicts who stole the Cyprus, a supply vessel carrying a group of convicts to Macquarie Harbour. They seized the vessel on route, dumped the officers and crew on shore and sailed off to Japan where they pretended to be ship wrecked British mariners. They were sent all the way back to Britain as poor starving shipwrecked sailors. Unfortunately one of them was strolling through London town when who should he meet but the ex-police constable from Hobart town who recognised his tattoos.

William_BuckleyWilliam Buckley

William Buckley escaped from Sorrento in Victoria in 1803. He spent 30 years living with the aborigines and wore a long beard and kangaroo skins. When he returned to civilisation he had completely forgot the English language and had to learn to speak again. He was completely pardoned and became a respected civil servant.