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04/23/2014

Knitting a in WWII POW Camp

This is based on one of my first articles for Piecework magazine. I thought about putting it into Stories In Stitches 3, but decided to keep my stories focused on my own family history.

But this story is too amazing not to share again, so here it is.


Knitting with Pot Handles Isn’t for Sissies

Add two cups of Crocodile Dundee, one cup of TopGun, and a dash of your favorite grandmother. Shake well, and you’ve got Jim Simpson.

Jim Simpson was born an Australian bushman. By the time he was five years old, he was hunting rabbits and trapping foxes. And when he was just thirteen, he chased down and killed a dingo (a wild Australian dog considered a threat to livestock). “They don’t believe in children working these days,” Jim says in a thick Aussie accent, but hard work was a normal part of rural life in early 20th-century Australia. Even so, Jim’s time wasn’t all filled with “man’s work.” His mum taught him how to knit before he started school. The skill would come in handy throughout his life.

Jim went to a small country school in the Nariel Valley in southeast Australia. Projects were assigned to the students along traditional gender lines – the girls worked on knitting and needlework while the boys did the yard work. Unfortunately, with two boys and nine girls, the work was not evenly divided. “The females, you know,” Jim said, “they can be awfully harsh when they’re in the dominant position and we [boys] had to do all the gardening.” After the boys toiled in the heat tilling the soil, planting seeds, weeding, and watering, the girls would come out and pick their pansies. Jim saw it as thievery. “We objected to doing the gardening and having these females coming and robbing us,” he complained.

Already a pragmatist, Jim schemed up a way to equalize the work load. He cut a deal with the school mom. They girls would help with the gardening, if the boys would do knitting with the girls. Since Jim already knew how to knit, this sounded like a fine solution to him. “So we had a victory,” he reckoned. That wasn’t the last time Jim would use knitting as a solution to an unusual problem. And it wasn’t the last time he bent the rules to suit his own sensibilities.

After he finished school at age seventeen, Jim led a life of hunting, trapping, and farming until the start of World War II. Although he joined the RAAF (Royal Australian Air Force) early in 1940, Jim had to wait eighteen months in the reserves before he was called in. Twenty-seven years old and “sick and tired of being dictated to by old schoolmasters,” Jim wanted to be a pilot so he could be on his own. But that’s not the way the military works. The flight instructors were used to dealing with young kids right out of school. Jim was a bit too old – and much too independent – to fit easily into the chain of command. Because he felt compelled to follow his own common sense instead of his instructors orders, he was considered too dangerous to be at the controls of a plane. Jim didn’t make pilot. In 1942, he finally left for Europe as a navigator and bomber.

Keeping warm during Winter in Europe is never easy. For soldiers during wartime, it’s even harder. One night while warming up in a pub, Jim noticed a woman knitting a balaclava. She was making the standard type of cap, with one large opening for the face. “Listen,” Jim told her, “you want to knit a face in the darn thing. The coldest part of a man is his backside and his nose.” A balaclava couldn’t help with the rear end, but Jim designed a helmet that  definitely worked well to insulate noses.

Jim showed her the helmet he’d knit on a boat en route from Australia. (One of the other soldiers, bemused by the sight of a grown man knitting, called Jim a “sissy.” It was a wrong assessment, and the wrong thing to say. “This fellow gave me a bit of cheek,” Jim remembered, “so I up ended him and dumped him on the deck in front of everybody.”)

“Do you have a pattern?” she asked. Jim didn’t use a pattern; he was no more suited to following rules in knitting than he was in school or flight training. His basic recipe went something like this: To knit a balaclava for a human being, knit a sock heel for the nose, another for the chin, and add holes for the eyes. Of course, the most important part (next to keeping the nose warm), is to make sure there’s a place to have a cigarette.

Jim promised to come back so the lady could show him the finished balaclava she was knitting, but it was not to be. The next day his squadron left for a flight over Germany.

After taking out their target, they were pitted against German fighters with guns that had four times the range of their own. Still angry at the “clown” of an instructor who determined he was too dangerous to be a pilot, Jim wasn’t shy about sharing his unorthodox ideas. “Dive starboard!” he hollered to suggest evasive maneuvers to the pilot, “…go either one way or the other, as long as you get out of the line of fire.” Just as his instructors had in flight training, the pilot “set to work and gave [Jim] a bloody lecture.” His idea was too dangerous to be an acceptable solution.

“We’ll bloody well get shot down then!” Jim yelled. Unfortunately for the pilot and the six crewmen aboard the plane, he was right. They were shot down, interrogated, and taken to a POW camp.

Afraid that his new wool Naval pullover would be stolen by the prison-camp guards, Jim unraveled the sweater, rolled the white yarn into balls, and stored them away in Red Cross boxes. Everyone thought he was crazy, wondering “what the hell he had all that stuff for.”

Jim was planning to knit a rug, an item that would keep him warm but be less tempting to thieves than a sweater. He needed more wool, so he went on a scavenger hunt in the camp. For $50 he bought another Naval pullover. He knit a new pair of white socks and traded them to a Canadian airman for his multicolored hockey socks. He traded cigarettes for other wool items that could be unraveled. And he used a few balls of sock yarn his mother had sent him.

Even with all of this, getting enough yarn for the rug was a challenge. The only sweaters Jim could get were either wearing out or full of lice. Parts of the sweaters had to be discarded because they were threadbare. Jim also had to boil the yarn to get rid of the lice.

Finding knitting needles was no easier. Jim had to make his own. He took the handles off of Italian Army “dixie cans” (cooking pots), straightened them out, and sharpened the tips to points by rubbing them on cement. Amazingly, he was allowed to keep these sharp objects.

With the recycled yarn and homemade needles, Jim knit a large (6 ft. / 2 m) rug with a map of Australia and the state coats of arms as a design, all done from memory. In Australia, rug often means blanket, and Jim’s rug certainly kept him warm during his time as a prisoner of war.

Jim Simpson and his Knitted Rug

After 19 months and 10 days in the POW camp, the “Ruskies” liberated the prisoners and Jim and his blanket started on their long journey back to Upper Nariel, where they still live today.


Want to know more about knitting in WW2? Check out Stories In Stitches 3 — coming soon!

Knitting, Old Blogs, Travel, Writing

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