Kiwi soldier faces firing squad

28 February 1945

David Russell
David Russell (National Army Museum, 1998.954)

After more than a year on the run in northern Italy, New Zealand prisoner of war David Russell was recaptured and executed. His courage in the face of death earned him the first George Cross awarded to a member of New Zealand’s military.

Captured by German forces in July 1942 at Ruweisat Ridge in Egypt, Russell spent a year in an Italian work camp before making his escape after Italy’s surrender in September 1943. As the Germans occupied the territory of their former ally, Russell joined a local partisan group and began moving around northern Italy.

Despite having opportunities to escape to safety, Russell chose to remain in Italy to find and assist other escaped Allied prisoners. After a series of narrow escapes, Fascist troops caught up with him in February 1945. Despite brutal interrogation, Russell refused to reveal the whereabouts of other escaped prisoners and partisans. He was executed at Ponte di Piave, near Venice, on 28 February.

For his heroism Russell received a posthumous George Cross in 1948. The following year, the David Russell Memorial Ward at Napier Hospital was opened.