I’m currently working on a piece which I hope will become a tour for enthusiasts wanting to learn more of the stories of ANZACs or Australian military imprisoned as POWs in WW1.
Came across this brilliant and barely told story of Capt. T.W. White of the Royal Australian Flying Corps. On 1 August 1914 he was selected for the Australian Flying Corps’ first training course at the Central Flying School, Point Cook where he qualified as a pilot the following year.
Early in February 1915, the Indian Government requested the support of an Australian air force unit for the Indian Army’s campaign in Mesopotamia. Forty five men, including White, were selected and the group was named the Mesopotamia Half Flight.
On 1 April White was promoted captain and adjutant of the Half Flight. The unit embarked for India on 20 April and after reaching Bombay were transferred to Basra (now part of present day Iraq).
On 13 November 1915 White and Captain Francis Yeats-Brown, 17th Indian Cavalry were taken prisoners of war. The following extract is from the official statement made by White on 31 December 1918 to the Administrative Headquarters, AIF describing what happened that day in the lead up to their capture. Here are some excerpts written by White throughout his arduous imprisonment and subsequent escape……..
“On 12th November, whilst at AZIZIEH, the, divisional Commander, Major General TOWNSHEND, ordered that the Telegraph lines in rear of the Turkish positions before BAGDAD be destroyed by Aeroplane, which was to land behind the enemy’s lines. Volunteers were asked for by the Flight Commander, and, with Captain F. YEATS-BROWN. 17th Indian Cavalry, (who was my observer), I volunteered for this task. I was flying a MAURICE-FARMAN Longhorn Aeroplane with a 70 h.p. Renault engine.
I left on 13th November 1915 and found that the telegraph lines ran along the main road from FELUDJAH to BAGDAD and not at some distance from it, as shewn in the Official maps. For this reason I had great difficulty in finding a place to land owing to the large number of Turkish troops of all arms that were marching along the road. I landed on a small patch of ground bounded by canals where the line was about 200 yards from the road, and where there appeared to be only Arabs and no regular troops about, but through trying to land as close as possible to the wires, and owing to the smallness of the patch of ground, I struck a telegraph pole after landing and broke the longeron and ribs of my lower left plane. Some Arabs opened fire from about 200 yards immediately I had landed and a cavalry man, whom I had passed over in landing, rode off for assistance to what we had mistaken for a deserted building, but was really a gendarmerie barracks. I filled my tanks and kept off the Arabs and Gendarmerie with the rifle which we carried in the aeroplane, while Capt-Yeats-Brown blew up the telegraph wires with guncotton. But the enemy had cover and were able to advance on us along the canal, and I was unable, not having a machine gun, to keep them off long enough to attempt temporary repairs, and though we started the engine, the aeroplane became entangled in the broken telegraph wires and we were quickly taken prisoners.”
The Arabs struck White and Yeats-Brown with their rifle butts and because White had particularly exasperated them by shooting the rifle, struck him several times on the head. One blow delivered with an adze, left a particularly bad wound. Both prisoners were then taken to Baghdad where after three weeks in hospital, including a week’s solitary confinement for White, they were sent to Mosul. White was imprisoned at Mosul for two and a half months before being sent to Afion Kara Hissar the principal concentration camp of Australian prisoners of war in Turkey. He was imprisoned there for two years and three months. #GallipoliArt @GallipoliArt
On 26 July 1918, owing to an enquiry about his health, White was transferred to a hospital in Constantinople. After being discharged, he arranged to escape with Captain Alan Bott from the Royal Air Force. The following descriptions from White’s official statement explains what happened next:
“ I succeeded in escaping from my guard during a railway collision on a viaduct at KUM KAPU, near Constantinople. I gained a start on the soldier who followed me, by jumping from a buttress of the viaduct into the street, and after a long chase through the streets, I escaped from him by running into a house, where the tenants proved to be Greeks. From them i bought a Turkish Fez and coat and went by tram to GALATA in search of a Russian, who promised to find me a hiding place. I did not find him till the second day, spending the interval in trips on the Bosphorus and in cafes and various places of amusements. Finding the man i wanted in a German beer garden and knowing him because he carried a cigarette behind his right ear (pre-arranged signal) I followed him to a deserted carpenter’s shop in a back street in GALATA. A Turkish Officer lived upstairs, and his orderly lived on the other side of the partition of the room in which i was hiding. For this reason I had to make no more noise than was made by the numerous rats which infested the place, and I could not wear my boots. Captain Bott joined me at this place on the second day. He had succeeded in giving his guard the slip whilst waiting for a boat at GALATA bridge. For various reasons the ship did not sail for a further 33 days, during which time we had to remain below, at times having to be hidden from the Turkish police in small ballast tanks below the propeller shaft tunnel. The tanks were so small that we were unable to sit up, whilst the air was always foul. Through lying for long periods in these tanks, which admitted no light and contained a certain quantity a water and mud, and through lack of exercise, we became very weak and emaciated.
To cut a very long story short he arrived in Varna Bulgaria, 8 days before the Armistice and finally made his way to Cairo. He received the DSF (Distinguished Flying Cross) for his efforts and eventually returned to Australia in 1920.
What a brilliant escape and an insight into the events leading up to the Bolshevik Revolution, the efforts of the Indians in Mesopotamia and the staunch spirit of duty exhibited during a time of war…….
Please read the entire story on the AWM site, https://www.awm.gov.au/blog/2010/10/20/experiences-of-a-prisoner-of-war-in-turkey-the-captain-white-story/