In the European spring of 1940, after seven months of ‘Phoney War’, the German Wehrmacht invaded and occupied Norway, the Low Countries and France. Britain feared it would be next. In May and June 1940, Winston Churchill’s government detained thousands of ‘enemy or dangerous aliens,’ previously determined not to be a risk, in the belief that this would stop any spies among them from forming a ‘fifth column’ in the event of an invasion. They were to be interned in Britain or deported to Canada or Australia, where they would be held for the duration of the war.
On 10 July 1940, 2546 of these men, ranging in age from 16 to 66, were herded aboard the Hired Military Transport Dunera at Liverpool and transported, under abject conditions, to Australia. Most were German or Austrian, and most were Jewish. Many had fled to Britain in the 1930s to escape Hitler’s Reich. Churchill later described the arrest and internment of these men, now commonly known as the ‘Dunera boys’, as ‘a deplorable mistake’. Italians, German merchant seamen and others were also among the 2546. Their story is different and remains largely unexplored.
The Dunera left Liverpool at midnight with one destroyer as an escort. Less than 24 hours out of Liverpool the Dunera was attacked by a German U-56 submarine, a torpedo hit the Dunera with a loud bang but did not explode. “A second torpedo was fired,” recalled Peter Eden 70 years later in a BBC interview, “and because the waves were heavy, the ship went up just as the torpedo passed underneath.”
The 57 days of the voyage were in appalling conditions. The lower decks of the ship were very over crowded.
As one refugee, A. Abrahams, recalled:
“For weeks, hatches were kept down. Neither daylight nor natural air ever reached the decks. . . the upper parts of the ship, where one would have been in the fresh air, were out of bounds, being barred by barbed wire and sentries with bayonets.”
Only ten toilets were available which meant long queues and ‘toilet police’ who would call up people as vacancies arose. Another refugee Peter Eden recalls,
“Men slept on floors and benches, and if you wanted to go to the toilet at night, you were walking on bodies.”
Robbed of their luggage by the British guards, the refugees had only the clothes on their backs, most of them had no toothbrush, toothpaste, comb or soap. Fresh water was only supplied two or three times a week and razors and shaving equipment had been confiscated. Later, the guards gave one piece of soap to every 20 men to share for 2 weeks.
Food consisted of smoked fish, sausages, potatoes and a spoonful of melon and lemon jam a day on bread that was usually maggoty and butter that was rancid.
Despite the horrific conditions on the ship, many internees endeavoured to preserve some semblance of intellectual life whilst on board. One internee, Professor Peter Meyer, composed a Mass and organized a choir to sing it. Debates and lectures were often held on a wide range of subjects including: music, economics, literature, language, geography and agriculture among other subjects. One of many accounts from internees is that one internee constructed a sextant and, with the aid of a school atlas and a watch, plotted the course of the ship. This revealed to him that the Dunera was travelling towards Australia not Canada!
The Dunera made three stops in Australia: first at Fremantle, Western Australia, although no passengers disembarked; secondly at Melbourne on the 3rd of September 1940, where some internees disembarked and were sent to an internment camp in Tatura, Victoria; and finally, around 10am on the morning of September 6, 1940, 57 days out of Liverpool, the Dunera entered Sydney Harbour, where the remaining passengers disembarked and were sent to an
internment camp in Hay, New South Wales.
Captain Heighway, Australian army, boarded the Dunera at Fremantle and stayed on board to Sydney. He spent days compiling records and completing paperwork. There is evidence that Heighway was troubled by what he saw. At Sydney, a medical army officer called Alan Frost boarded the Dunera. Frost was appalled by the conditions that greeted him. Frost’s report led to the court martial of the officer-in-charge, Lt. Colonel William Scott.
Informed of the poor conditions aboard the ship, the British government quickly investigated the mistreatment of the internees. Along with disciplining three Dunera officers, the British government made an official apology to the internees and established a compensation fund for the internees who had lost their belongings or had been hurt aboard the ship.
After leaving the Dunera the internees, many pale and emaciated, were transported through the night on four steam trains to the rural town of Hay in South Western NSW, 750 kilometres South West of Sydney.
The treatment on the trains was said to be in stark contrast to the horrors of the Dunera; the men were given packages of food and fruit and Australian soldiers offered them cigarettes. There was even one story of a soldier asking one of the internees to hold his rifle while he lit his cigarette.
Behind barbed wire in rural camps in Hay and Tatura, the Dunera Boys made the best of their situation. They created communities which encouraged education and culture. Activities included producing theatrical productions including revues, musicals, plays and instrumental performances and conducting school classes. Each camp ran different activities according to the skills and interests of the internees living there.
At the Hay camp, the Internees set up a university, with varied disciplines that reflected the variety of professional backgrounds of the internees. They also established their own garden at the Hay Racecourse which made the camp virtually self-sufficient and provided kosher food for the orthodox Jews.
There was an impetus among the internees to establish an internal system of democratic government to run internal camp affairs, this was allowed and encouraged by the army officers who ran the camp. This led to the introduction of the camps own currency.
After a period of time, the injustice of the internees’ situation was realised and they were permitted to return to England. Most of the internees were released by early 1942, many of them returned to Britain and some 700 or so remained in Australia.
Of the internees who remained in Australia many volunteered for service in the Australian Imperial Force, in the 8th Australian Employment Company.
The internees’ arrival is regarded as one of the greatest influxes of academic and artistic talent to have entered Australia on a single vessel.
Initially treated as a scandal, the story today is a significant chapter in the history of Jewish immigration to Australia. About 700 of the ‘Dunera Boys’ stayed in this country, some of these were intellectuals, economists and artists and some where hardworking men looking for a fresh start in a new country. Regardless of their background many made a significant contribution to the emerging multicultural Australian society.
Looking back years after their ordeal, one of the Dunera Boys, Horst Jacobs, who was at the time the president of the Hay-Tatura Association (now the Dunera Association), said:
“We who arrived in Sydney on HMT Dunera on September 6th 1940 have indeed been lucky. Had we travelled in peacetime on a scheduled P&O liner, our shipboard friends, who became our extended family, would have been but acquaintances; we would have been more shallow and narrow-minded. The experience was a great leveller — we were all equal in misfortune.”