It was in Greece
in April 1941 that Frank and John, both with the Signals 1
Australian Corps, were captured by the German troops. John
was taken to Corinth, a ‘transit’ prisoner-of-war
camp, where he saw his men for the last time and first came
into contact with ICRC delegates. “They brought with
them a supply of ‘goodies’, of which I scored
a toothbrush, a box of matches and a ‘neck to knees’
nightshirt,” says John. “I was grateful for the
first two, but I was relieved that I had disposed of my camera,
so I could not be coerced into having a photograph taken of
me wearing the nightshirt!” Rations at Corinth were
meagre, but the generosity of the local Greeks, who passed
food to the POWs through the camp’s fence, enabled John
to keep reasonably healthy.
From Corinth, John was sent to the Salonica (or Thessaloníki)
camp, where he met up again with Frank. Their memories of
Salonica, or the ‘horror’ camp as they call it,
remain vivid: “The bed bugs were huge and food was scarce.”
Their time together was brief, however, as shortly after John’s
arrival, they were moved to different camps. They both travelled
to their new camps by the same means of transportation: cattle
trucks tightly packed with up to 40 prisoners.
Frank describes the trip as “five days of sheer hell”.
“The weather was warm, and there was only one small
wire-covered opening for air,” he relates. “We
had little food, and there were only odd stops for water and
the toilet. Nearly everybody suffered from diarrhoea, and
with no means of sanitary disposal, the stench was unbelievable.”
Extremely weak, close to collapse and infested with lice,
Frank eventually arrived at Stalag XVIIIA in Wolfsberg, Austria.
There he remained for 12 months in appalling conditions and
was exposed to sights he describes today as “man’s
inhumanity to man”.
Frank’s life did not improve following yet another
move, this time to Groppenstein, a former Nazi youth camp.
Here he endured hard labour working in a road gang, carrying
out tasks that included breaking rocks with a pick and shovel.
The work was gruelling, the days long and winter’s onslaught
made life harder than ever. For Frank and the other POWs,
the arrival of Red Cross parcels at the camp brought “a
ray of light in a sad, dark part of the world”.
From Groppenstein, Frank was sent to Stalag XVIIIB, in Spittal,
Austria. A baker by profession, he was given a job in the
kitchen. However, an act of sabotage saw Frank thrown into
a brick cell, where he remained for 21 days, following which
he was forced to work in a quarry hauling rocks. The heavy
labour and harsh conditions took their toll, and he spent
lengthy periods in Spittal’s hospital. Although Frank
moved back into the kitchen, his health continued to decline
and in early 1944, on the ICRC’s recommendation and
with its assistance, he was repatriated to England, and then
John’s trip to Oflag VB in Germany took longer than
Frank’s, but he was luckier, as the German soldiers
allowed the cattle truck doors to remain open. Supplies provided
for the trip were scant, and without the food given by communities,
the prisoners would have arrived at their destination in an
even worse state than they did. “The locals did what
they could to help, and this was particularly so at Kraljevo,
Serbia, where they threw bread, wine, cake, eggs and sugar
into the trucks,” says John, likening it to “manna
From Oflag VB, John was sent to Oflag VIIB, and it was from
there in mid-April 1945, with the Allies advancing, that he
and his fellow POWs were ordered out of the camp and forced
to march for eight days to Stalag VIIA at Moosburg. “It
was amazing, but somehow during the march, Red Cross parcels
continued to arrive,” says John. “This helped
to raise spirits and keep us going.” It was at Moosburg
on 28 April 1945 that John’s war ended, when American
tanks rolled through the gates of the camp.
Home sweet home
In Australia, John, now 87, settled in Melbourne with his
late wife, Nancye, with whom he had two children. Studies
undertaken during his time as a POW enabled him to fulfil
a long-held ambition to work as a communications engineer
in the Postmaster General’s Department. Encouraged by
his family, John wrote down his wartime experiences, and his
book, My little war, was published in 2006.
Frank, 92, returned to his hometown Melbourne, and with wife
Clarice had five children. Before retiring, he worked in the
food industry and played an active role in the community,
which included serving as a councillor for 33 years. In 1981,
he was awarded the Order of Australia Medal in recognition
of his community service.
Explaining today why they felt they “owed a debt”
to the Red Cross, Frank and John said Red Cross parcels had
helped to keep them alive. “Had it not been for these
people with their packages of food, I, and many others probably,
would not have made it home,” says Frank. The visits
by Red Cross delegates checking on conditions in the camps
were also important. “These visits really buoyed the
prisoners up,” they say.
Being able to keep in touch with their families during these
dark times via Red Cross messages also helped to keep their
spirits up. However, there was a period when they were first
captured during which they had no contact with their families.
“This caused our families considerable anguish, and
you can imagine their relief when they received Red Cross
messages advising them we were alive and well,” says
Frank. It seems fitting, therefore, that the donation Frank
and John made to the Red Cross will be used to reunite families
separated by conflict or disaster around the world.
Reflecting on that time long ago, John and Frank say there
were sights they wish they had never seen: men dying where
they stood, their bodies ravaged by hunger and disease. “I
still tremble now at the thought of what transpired when Russian
prisoners started to arrive. Their condition was such that
many simply died as they were unloaded from the trucks,”
recalls Frank. These remain painful memories, and they find
it easier to talk about the kindness shown by ordinary people
and the camaraderie among the prisoners, which included sharing
what food they had — even the contents of their Red
Providing humanitarian assistance to Australian POWs during
the Second World War was one of the major tasks of the Australian
Red Cross, and Chief Executive Officer Robert Tickner says
the gesture to repay the Movement “is both touching
and magnanimous”. The friendship between Frank and John
forged in Salonica in 1941 is stronger than ever, and the
two remain in regular contact.
Repatriated prisoner of war Frank Cox (crouching) feeding
the pigeons in Trafalgar Square, London, 1944.
©FRANK COX / AUSTRALIAN RED CROSS
From left to right, Frank Cox, John Crooks and Robert Tickner,
chief executive officer of the Australian Red Cross, on 12
©AUSTRALIAN RED CROSS
Reception of Red Cross parcels at Spittal camp in Austria,
©AUSTRALIAN RED CROSS