Jim Simpson’s Knitted War Trophy
Film by Malcolm McKinnon, featuring James O. Simpson at Corryong
Project Director: Malcolm McKinnon.
Production and Project Coordinator: Karlie Hawking.
Camera Assistant: Simon Goss.
Archival still images of Stalag-IVB reproduced with kind permission of Anne Jans and Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
Thanks to Nick McKenzie & Edie Kurzer and to Bob Kaighin for assistance at Corryong.
This video was created as part of the Murray Arts “Stories of the Upper Murray” project, with assistance from the Commonwealth Government’s Regional Arts Fund, Regional Arts Victoria, National Museum of Australia, City of Wodonga, Shire of Towong, and Museums Australia (Victoria).
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Murray Collections Network, and the artists.
"I knitted a few pairs of socks for some who were eager to escape, but they all seemed to return rather crestfallen, but with socks intact.” J.O. Simpson, 1995.
James O. Simpson enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force in 1940, aged 26. On his first mission, his aircraft was shot down. Captured by the German Army, he was transported to a prisoner of war camp, where he spent the rest of World War II.
As a prisoner James knitted an extraordinary memorial to this time in Australia’s military history: a rug depicting a map of Australia and the Coat of Arms.
JIM: We went over to Hanover the first trip. We got up to 21,800. And the one got shot down. I reckoned we were next.
I got out at about 6,000 feet. Just as the tail came off about two seconds after. I was-- I landed in Germany by parachute.
The next day I walked onto a fellow sitting in the bush. He put up his gun and yelled out, and I had to stop. And he took me and the Frenchman, said he was an Englander, and that was it. You'll be in prison for the rest of the war, he said, Stalag IV-B.
I said, I come from the mountains, and I'm a farmer, and I run cattle in the mountains. And I didn't think I'd have to come over and sort you blokes out after the first ANZAC's did. Well, they thought I was cheeky, you see.
The Germans used a souvenir woollen wear to send to the Russian front. When I was in a room with all these Yanks, they said, they're going to have a field day with you, with your naval pullover. It was new. And they'll take it to the Russian front.
JIM: And I said, by God, they can't do that. So I went in the toilet, and I was there about 20 minutes, and they wondered where I'd got to. So when I come out, the Yankee says, well, the Jerry's got your jacket. No, no, I said. I've got it. Where is it? I said here. I said, I've pulled it undone, so they can't have it. If they want it, they can make it up again.
That's how my rug got made-- was able to get made. Because I'd pulled it to bits and wouldn't let them have it.
There were 14 of us. Well, they had no socks, and it was cold. And I couldn't knit for the lot of them. I said, well, they might not get to be warm and dry. No, they soon learned they were very good, quick learners.
And the boys that I taught to knit, they were pretty good messengers. They came in with worn out guernseys - the best - the back of a guernsey is the best. The front is generally a bit motley in the arms. Had to boil the darn things before I could pull them to bits, because there were lice on them, you see. But they got enough wool for me to start the rug. After 13 months of gathering the wool, I had all these boxes with wool in them. I started knitting, and it took 6 weeks knitting time to knit that.
All night I did a pair of socks for a Canadian to get him some new-- He got to some new hockey socks, and I got the colors out of that. It's pretty good red there, too. And that thing is thousands of little bits, only a few feet long, a yard or so long.
I was always pretty good at geography and I drew the map, but I made a bit of a mess there on-- from Byron Bay up near the Queensland border, down to about Newcastle. I should have had it out a little bit wider. But other than that, it's pretty right.
Now you might wonder how I got the knitting needles. Well, they were already cut that length, because they had Italian Dixie panhandles.
JIM: And I had to straighten them out with a stone on the cement, and the cement sharpened them. And that's what the needles are. They were ideal. And the Jerries had a look at them, and I said, well, don't cut-- don't get your paws on them, because they're my knitting needles, you see.
I like to remember that I did something. I got shot down on the first trip. After all the education that I had, I did nothing. But to do a thing like that, I suppose the memorials and mum for teaching me.
And well, it was something I can look back on and think of all the, not the unpleasant days, but the pleasant ones. And I'm surprised, the Jerries allowed me to do what they did. So they weren't as bad as we thought they were.