AMAZING World War II photographs, that probably should never have seen the light of day, are being prepared for the first special exhibition at Singleton’s new $10million army museum.
An unbelievable tale of daring, subterfuge and luck lies behind about 20 images that will form part of The Battle of Greece and Crete Photographic Exhibition at the Range Road museum in May and June next year.
In 1941 Frank Hibbard was the official photographer for the 2nd/5th Australian general hospital in Athens, Greece.
As the German army advanced down the Greek peninsula, most of the hospital’s 1200 staff were evacuated, while Frank and 166 others were left to care for Australian, New Zealand and British soldiers and sailors injured in the region.
One of the German’s Austrian mountain units arrived in April, captured the hospital and all those in it became prisoners of war.
The hospital was relocated to an old former orphanage in another part of Athens and allowed to function for eight more months caring for wounded Germans along with Allies.
Frank and the rest of the hospital staff were then sent to stalag prison camps in Poland and Germany.
Using black and white film, Frank took photos of Australian soldiers and nurses being evacuated, the German occupation and even some while working in the hospital as a prisoner of war.
One of the Australians in the hospital was a plumber who made Frank a replica water bottle with a false bottom that allowed the top section to be filled with water.
In the bottom, Frank put as much of his used film as he could, and packed it with paraffin oil to preserve it.
He kept that water bottle, survived four years in the stalags and in 1945 he was rescued by American forces and repatriated to England.
While in London he had his film developed as negatives, but never printed any of the photos.
He popped the film in canisters, returned to Australia, got on with life in Sydney and forgot about it.
Then, last year the state government gave $25,000 to a committee to commemorate the 70th anniversary of The Battle of Greece and Crete.
One of the committee, retired colonel Graham Fleeton, put a small advertisement in two Sydney newspapers to see if anyone had photographs that could be used in an exhibition.
Frank, then 90 and living in a nursing home, saw the advertisement and asked his son Chris to check a cupboard in the garage of the family home to see if there were any old canisters there.
There they were alright.
So in August last year the negatives were printed for the first time – almost 500 of them.
“We were lucky to get any photos at all from Greece and Crete in 1941, the Allies were retreating, most of their gear had to be left behind and here we have some perfect, clear shots taken by a good photographer,” Colonel Fleeton said.
“Until last year they’d never been seen before.
“There’s even one of some of the Aussies at the hospital with the Austrian mountain unit on the day they were captured, everyone was smiling because the Aussies thought they’d be released under the Geneva Convention instead of being held as prisoners of war.”
Colonel Fleeton eventually received 15 phone calls and 24 emails in response to his advertisement from people with old photographs.
He chose 50, including 10 of Frank Hibbards, for an exhibition that commemorated last year’s 70th anniversary.
But for the special Singleton showing he is looking to include about 60 shots, including about 20 of Franks.
“They’re remarkable in themselves and they depict some remarkable things,” he said.