When war broke out in September 1939 Australia did not hesitate to join Britain in her opposition to Hitler and Nazi Germany. The second AIF or Australian Imperial Force, comprised like its predecessor solely of volunteers, was immediately formed and one of those men who were quick to offer their services was Walter Henry Steilberg. He volunteered aged 21 on 7 November 1939 and served as NX1164 in the 2/1st Field Company, Sixth Division. The Sixth Division progressively captured Bardia, Tobruk, Derna and Benghasi in January in the first Libyan campaign before being sent to Greece in March of that year to support the Greeks against the Germans invading from Yugoslavia,  from the start a hopeless task. The inevitable defeat and evacuation, for Australia alone resulted in the loss of 320 lives and the capture of 2,065 men. One of these prisoners was Walter Steilberg. He refused to accept his situation and in the following years escaped seven times from POW camps and work parties. He recalled his motivation and determination later in life when he said ‘I made up my mind I’d beat them in the end and I’d be a free man by the end of the war’ (quoted by Paul Rea in Neave Aussie Soldier Prisoners of War p.280). To punish his continued attempts to seek liberty he was sent to the Nazi concentation camp Terezin in Czechoslovakia. His experience and the brutalities he witnessed there have been documented in newsprint, film and books.

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Walter Steilberg 1939 , NAA B2458: 262002

After the war he was amongst those who received the British Empire Medal in 1947 for their attempts to escape from German custody. However his experience in Terezin was unrecognised for forty years because the camp was not accessible to the Red Cross and no records existed of the presence there of prisoners of war. Finally in 1982  the Australian Government granted individual compensation of $10,000 to him and the few others like him.

Writing on the prisoner of war experience in 2011 Peter Monteath (POW: Australian Prisoners of War in Hitler’s Reich p.312) reports an exchange between Steilberg and a German officer early in his captivity: ‘Australian aren’t you? Why aren’t you black?’There was a considerable degree of irony in this question. What is today not well known is that Walter Steilberg was a direct descendant of Yarramundi chief of the Boorooberongal clan of the Darug – traditional owners of the Sydney basin. A meeting between  Yarramundi and  Arthur Phillip, Governor of New South Wales was recorded by Watkin Tench on 13th April 1789.(Sydney’s First Four Years pp.229-30). His Aboriginal family’s record of service was an extensive one. His great uncle Jerome Locke was a member of a colonial unit, the Windsor Volunteer Corps – and with two of his sons served in France with the first AIF. Walter Steilberg’s great uncles Walter and Norman Sims were also members of the AIF – in fact in total 27 members of his Lock and extended Lock family volunteered for the First World War and most went on to serve in the Middle East, France and Belgium. Not only this but William Stubbings, son of his great grandfather’s sister Martha Lock, was a member of the 3rd New South Wales Mounted Rifles and served in the Boer war.

The  Greek campaign was the first time Australian and New Zealand units had fought together as an Anzac force since Gallipoli. In 1915 Walter’s cousins Henry James Locke and Alfred Frederick Bolton were part of the first Anzac force. In 1941 Walter Steilberg became part of its second incarnation.

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Walter Steilberg , 2013 wearing his campaign medals. His British Empire Medal is on his right.

Courtesy Karen Steilberg

Walter Steilberg was not the only member of the Lock family to serve in the Second World War. Others included his brother Charles. However few after reading about what he saw and endured could argue that his experiences were not amongst the most challenging.

Philippa Scarlett

29 May 2016

Thank you to Walter’s daughter Karen Steilberg for permission to write about her father and to Walter’s niece Liz Locke, daughter of Charles, who first told me about Walter’s history.

About Indigenous Histories

Author & Publisher of Australian history, art and culture.
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  1. Damien Seden says:

    From memory these are the nanes of other Aboriginal Prisoners of War in Europe WW2.

    *Flight Officer Dave Valentine Paul DFC
    *Pte Jimmy Brennan
    *Pte Harold Davis
    *Pte Edgar Pell
    *Pte Tommy “Negus” Green
    *Pte Eddie Gilbert
    *Pte David Harris

  2. Eddie Gilbert could be Eddie Albert. You may be interested in Garth O’Connell’s research
    Katrina Kittel may also have information Her book is forthcoming.

  3. brett newton says:

    Hello my name is Brett Newton and i am the person who uncoverd Fredricks Military medal near Kalgoorlie WA.I am thinking of placing the medal with the Australian war museam ,would love to here any other sugestions before i do.I struggle with mental health and find it hard to comunacate properly on the net,but not to bad at digging up stuff ha ha Medal reads 2597 L/cpl F.Prentice !/PNR BN AIF .The medal turned 100 years old on my step daughters 9th birthday witch was pretty cool and I would love to be involved in any more research on his time in the WA goldfields as i have a pretty good knowledge of the area.Hope this finds the right area regards Brett

  4. Thank you Brett I ‘ve replied to you in more detail by email I think the War Memorial is the best place for this medal – as it is a place which combines Museum and Remembrance .and Memorial. I’d be happy to include you in further research..Your discovery of the medal (and the sharing its discovery) is of great importance to the story of Aboriginal war service.

  5. David Harvey says:

    I have been doing some research on the service of my Grandfather Sapper Gerrard Pollock and from what I have found so far it appears he was captured with a SPR Steilberg RAE. I am guessing that as my Grandfather was captured in Greece as was SPR Steilberg and that there appears to be no other similar names then this is the very man my Grandfather was in fact captured with.

    • Hello David Harvey, I am assuming that SPR is not his initials, but is initials for Sapper.
      On that basis, perhaps this man was him – Walter Henry Steilberg, Sapper, born 1919, NX1164 (or other service numbers for him as listed DVA online nominal roll).
      I have viewed several B2458 files, and these are quite big files, held Melbourne (State Archives). The B503 files have a form which asks where and when captured, so this could be another option, getting that POW Trust Fund form digitised.
      Hope this helps, let me know if it does, or does not. Are you certain as to spelling of surname?
      Katrina Kittel

      • David Harvey says:

        Katrina, yes sorry – the SPR does stand for Sapper.

        I believe it is him as my Grandfathers repatriation record asks who the person was captured with, he states he was captured with “SPR. Steilberg R.A.E.”. I checked out various listings of Australians in the area and who was captured and the only one with a name similar was Walter Steilberg. They were also in the same unit, 2/1st Field Coy RAE, so they would have known each other prior to being captured.

        My Grandfathers records are digitized on the NAA site so you can have a look at them:


  6. I’ve just looked at Gerrard’s Statement on his service file. It says the same regiment that this Walter Steilberg was in. I would think he is your man.

    • David Harvey says:

      Katrina, as I am confident that it is the same man that my Grandfather was captured with it opens a bit more of this history. Gerrard actually mentioned that he was captured while trying to escape on a small fishing boat that had a two cylinder engine. He and (assuming it was) Walter, had stripped off to swim to the boat and were trying to start it when a German Patrol boat went past and heard the engine. They shot a few rounds in to the fishing boat and gave them the option to surrender or die. This was a bit awkward as they were both naked at the time having swum there nude. They did end up surrendering to the Germans who I guess had a laugh.

  7. David can you tell me the date so we can know which escape this was and also where he was escaping from.

  8. Gerrard Pollock reports in Section 1 of his Statement by a Repatriated Prisoner of War (on his NAA B883 service file) that he was captured 5 May 1941 during the evacuation of Greece. He says on that report he was captured with Steilberg. (Note that the statement form asks for date of report being given, at very top of the first page of the Statement form, but instead of putting the date he was writing his report (prob mid-1945) in this section, he has assumed it requires his date of capture and writes that there as well as in section 1).
    By the way, I am nearing completion of my book, and it will be published mid-2019, and will include Frank Page, Jim Brennan and Eddie Albert.

    • I have recently had access to Steilberg’s recommendation for the British Empire medal in the UK National Archives which gives his date of capture as 6 May – but this was compiled well after the war. . A brief piece by me on Steilerg is scheduled to appear in AWM’s Wartime magazine in January
      Great news about your book!

      • As you are so aware, it is not a fully accurate science…even though 5 May is the date noted by the veteran, it could have been late at night on 5 May, tipping into early 6 May; or a 1945 recollection is incorrect. I have spoken to veterans who say something happened on a certain date or certain place but another source, even a companion’s account, differs. In my book in section re Albert and Brennan’s recapture, there is one-day variation in recollections of a date in April 1944. Our memory can play tricks, and that can be exacerbated if a diary was not kept. Wonderful news re a piece in January Wartime, congratulations on bringing more of this history forward to that popular magazine. In my book I note that my father was eligible for soldier settlement property in 1951, but according to the Albert family, Eddie Albert was not. I wonder why…do you know how army authorities knew which veterans were of Indigenous heritage, considering that service files carry no ‘tick box’ for that background.

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