Newborough’s ties to Aussie war hero

Remember: Paybook photograph of Private (Pte) James Campbell McCracken, 2/24th Battalion. Photograph: Virtual War Memorial Australia



A TALE that makes its way across borders, centuries, generations and wars.

A story of loss and sacrifice – the story of James Campbell McCracken.

The McCracken family from Newborough were in shock when a local military history author, Carol Smith, told them that she had found their distant relative’s grave in Italy.

“We were quite a bit surprised. We were very impressed that she had done all the research and she was able to provide us with all the facts about it. It was really lovely and exciting really,” Sue McCracken said.

“My husband is Robert McCracken, James must have been a cousin to Rob’s father.

“We have a family history tree that one of my husband’s cousins put together a few years ago, but we found James on the family tree.”

Not only had Ms Smith found his grave, she also found James’ story to pass on to his family in Newborough.

“It makes us very proud to realise that this young man was a hero,” Ms McCracken said. “I have had always had a lot of respect from our soldiers.”

The grandparents of Newborough’s Robert McCracken came from Stawell, not far from the birth place of his ancestor James, adding to the evidence of their familial relationship.

A passionate military writer, Ms Smith travelled to Italy earlier this year in research of her own family military history, but in her journey she found much more than she had expected.

“I was taken to where McCracken was shot and executed – I have always had an interest because he wrote a letter home that he would be shot and I have a copy of that letter,” she said.

“When I got home, I thought I’m going to try and contact this McCracken family because it’s important this information gets back to them.”

Looking everywhere for the McCrackens around Ararat, Ms Smith couldn’t find a connection until one day she was scrolling Facebook and came across the McCrackens in Newborough.

“It was the letter, the note to his family that got me first. How terrible for this young fella that he’s been able to write home to his family with no one to read it,” she said.

Ms Smith told the Latrobe Valley Express of the extraordinary life of James McCracken.

James Campbell McCracken (also known as Mick) was born in Ararat on April, 6, 1919.

When World War 2 broke out, James and five of his brothers all enlisted in the Army. James joined the 9th Division Unit 2/24th Australian Infantry Battalion in 1940.

In James’ time, he saw some of the heaviest fighting during the siege of Tobruk where the Australian 9th Division held Tobruk for an astonishing 241 days before being withdrawn to Alexandria to later support the British 8th Army.

This was the first time that the German general, Erwin Rommel ‘The Desert Fox’ , ever tasted defeat.

Following units’ withdrawal from Tobruk in October 1941, the 2/24th Unit was in Palestine and Syria in response to a German advance. The 9th Division took part in the three major battles for El Alamein.

James was captured on July 22, 1942 and faced the same fate as thousands of Allied prisoners in a prisoner of war – captive in (POW) camp in Benghazi, North Africa.

The POWs suffered; the conditions in these camps were appalling and the men quickly became infected with lice and many suffered from dysentery.

Food was scarce; the men were allocated just one small tin of horse meat and dry biscuits to be shared between two.

In August 1942, the POWs were transferred to Italy and James was aboard the ill-fated ‘Nino Bixio’ ship when it was torpedoed by a British submarine on the crossing to Italy.

Many POWs were killed in the ‘Attack on the Nino Bixio’ and James, along with the surviving POWs, was taken to Bari before their long train journey to a purpose-built POW Camp, Gruppignano (PG57) near Cividale del Friuli in the far north-eastern corner of Italy.

PG57 was a large camp of predominantly Australian and New Zealander POWs, so for many, it was a reunion of old mates. It was here that many of the POWs came together and exchanged stories and renewed old friendships. The commander of the camp, Colonel Calcaterra, was a fanatical Fascist who has been reported as being “a sadist and an accessory to murder”. He inspired his men to harsh treatment of the POWs, encouraging limited rations and cruel punishments. The sign above his door read ‘Cursed are the English but more cursed are the Italians that treat them well’. Calcaterra never faced legal justice as he was executed by Partisans before he could stand trial for war crimes.

In 1943, when Italy began to run short of food, it was decided to transfer the POWs across the country to work in the rice fields. Hundreds of POWs, including James, were railed across north Italy to Camp 106 Vercelli to one of the 29 work farms under the umbrella of PG106.

When Italy signed an Armistice on September 8, 1943 many of the Italian guards just packed up and went home. Italy had swapped sides; the Italians had become enemies of the Germans, and the POWs they were guarding were now their allies.

For the POWs there were three options.

One was to stay where they were with farmers, who had treated them kindly.

The other was to head south where they knew the Allies were advancing. Or lastly, cross the rugged Alps and head for neutral Switzerland.

The Germans soon flooded northern Italy and those that stayed put were soon recaptured.

James and his group headed north but had no luck in getting through to Switzerland.

While wandering in northern Italy trying to avoid capture, James and his group joined a Partisan band in Valsesia.

The following report by a Partisan leader found by Ms Smith gives a good insight into James’ character.

“The Australian (James) was a shy young man, born to be left in peace, with no warlike ambitions.”

James was accepted into the group as a helper rather than a fighter, Ms Smith said.

In April 1944, in the steep mountains around Varallo, by a large chestnut tree where he was skinning a slaughtered beast, James and his companions were captured by the Fascists.

He was unarmed and surrendered immediately. He had ditched his uniform, was ill-equipped for the cold mountains, his bare feet scraping the ground as his shoes were falling to bits.

He was sentenced to death by the Fascists and was taken to an old school in Varallo that was being used as a prison.

James and those captured with him faced significant interrogation knowing exactly what their fate would be.

A sympathetic visitor said James was known only as ‘The Australian’. He spoke very little Italian but somehow, they managed to communicate; as he ran his fingers through his long messy hair.

James dictated a note to his family that read – “Just a line to tell you that I will not see you again as I am going to be shot by the Fascists in Varallo this morning”.

“He goes on to send his love to all and hopes that his girlfriend will be happy without him – it is heart-wrenching to read,” Ms Smith said.

His visitor believed that James had accepted his fate and “turned to ice” as his last thoughts were of his family in Australia.

Around 11am, an armed patrol escorted the procession of nine men with their hands tied behind their backs through the city. It is believed that the people by the roadside were speechless with horror, unable to believe or understand what they were seeing.

“During a recent trip to Italy, I visited the Institute of the Partisans and was taken to the Varallo Cemetery to be shown where James was executed,” Ms Smith explained.

“The bullet holes on the wall told a chilling story. My guide from the Institute told me that James was very brave.”

This is backed up by another account from a witness where it was reported that “the Australian (James) with an icy gaze, gave his executors a dirty look, undaunted, without a tear, without a word spoken”.

“Nine young men were executed, victims of a world war and civil war, where the boundaries of good and bad had disappeared,” Ms Smith said.

“James Campbell McCracken, a brave son of Ararat, lost his life against a wall in the Varallo Cemetery, April, 15, 1944 in sight of the Swiss Alps.”

James was a ‘Rat of Tobruk’ who had survived the Siege of Tobruk, spent years fighting in the Western Desert, survived the British torpedo attack on the Nino Bixio and the Italian prisoner of war camps and until capture, his time in the mountains on the loose with the Partisans; always looking over his shoulder.

“I stood before James’ plaque at Varallo and as I placed a poppy, told him that he would never be forgotten and I would do my best to pass on his story to his family,” Ms Smith said.

After the war, Australian POWs who had paid the ultimate sacrifice were interred in the Australian War Cemetery in Milan.

“We visited this lush green oasis beautifully maintained and surrounded by tall trees watching over our boys. I placed a poppy and a flag on James’ grave and it gave me comfort to have come full circle with his story and to know that even for a short time he was once again under the Australian flag,” Ms Smith said.

“When I got home I searched the Ararat and surrounding area phone books for weeks but had no luck in locating his family. Through the power of Facebook, I managed to locate some family of James and was pleased to be able to make good on my promise that I would ensure his family knew his story.

“A road trip to north-east Victoria seemed most likely, but I was certainly in for a big surprise.

“All that time I had spent searching, and I had finally found some family; and they lived at Newborough, virtually on our doorstep.

“Rob and Sue are a lovely couple who were happy to know James’ story.

“Your letter has been delivered James, and your story is where it belongs – with family.”

You will never be forgotten James – Vale ‘The Rats of Tobruk – Lest we Forget’.