Singapore Internees

Queen Mary at the Singapore Graving Dock August 1940. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial A:128444

Originally refugees from their German and Austrian homelands, the Singapore Internees had arrived in Singapore holding German passports, fleeing their own Government’s policies and actions. With Britain’s declaration of war against Germany on 3 September 1939, they became a potential problem for the Straits Settlements authorities. While initially registration and the keeping of curfews seemed sufficient monitoring, as the war situation deteriorated the question of security in ‘Fortress Singapore’, as this outpost of the Empire was known, became more urgent. In June 1940, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill famously ordered internment of foreign nationals in Britain, sweepingly declaring, ‘Collar the lot!’ The political imperative to be seen to deal with the potential threat was paramount.

In July 1940 all German and Italian ‘enemy aliens’ then resident in Singapore, were told they were to be expelled. A choice of travel to a neutral country was also offered. However, based on the assurances given to the families by British authorities that they would be treated well in Australia and allowed similar freedom of movement to that which they had enjoyed in Singapore, this was the destination, ‘under British protection on British soil’, chosen by the group. (G. Seefeld, L. Duldig and P. Schlesinger, Letter to the Governor General, Lord Gowrie, 2 March 1941, copy, Duldig Studio Archives).

It is believed 295 internees – 232 Jewish refugees and 63 Italian or German nationals – left Singapore on the 18 September, guarded by 42 soldiers of the Gordon Highlander Regiment. The voyage to Australia on a luxury cruise ship, the Queen Mary, recently converted to carry troops, may have appeared a reassuring start to their period of internment. They were treated to the facilities and services, including dining, available to second class passengers. The menu for dinner on the 23rd September started with Fruit Cocktails, followed by Potage Gervais, and Poached Brill with Anchovy Sauce. Croquettes Romaine, Quarter of Lamb with French beans and boiled and roasted potatoes were then served and finally, Souffle pudding Rothschild and ice cream with wafers!

Queen Mary Sydney October 1940. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial A:004297

Their arrival in Sydney on the 25th September was featured in newspapers around the country. Photographs show the cheerful ‘Well-dressed Sydney arrivals’ disembarking the following day and while the reporter from The Sun mentioned the ‘professional’ status of some members of the company, he also emphasised their status as enemy aliens ‘too dangerous to be left in Britain’ – obviously under the impression they had travelled from there, rather than Singapore.

The Singapore Internees were immediately transported to Internment Camp 3 at Tatura, near Shepparton in northern Victoria. This was one of four new camps purpose built in 1940 with funding from the British Government. There were four compounds, each with 8 barracks. Each compound was surrounded by barbed wire, the areas between patrolled by armed guards. Watchtowers and searchlights overlooked the camp. The Singapore Internee families were housed in D compound and the single men in C.

Despite its newness, conditions in the camp were basic and shocked the new internees:
‘We were . . . utterly surprised to find ourselves upon arrival in an ordinary camp for prisoners of war – which was not even completed – and to see that nothing did correspond with those assurances given to us in Singapore. The huts built from corrugated iron are not able to give shelter from the cold and heat (Appeal to Camp Commandant from Internment Camp Leader Gerhard Seefeld, 29 September, 1940, NAA: MP385/4, 1940/242)

There was a makeshift hospital, with nurse, and a shared kitchen, wash blocks for males and females, mess hut and laundry. The cold was a shock for the new arrivals from Singapore, but extra clothing had been provided. The older children were sent to Melbourne to board at Larino, run by the Australian Jewish Welfare Society, while 25 children under 12 remained in the Camp. A kindergarten, run by internee kindergarten teachers, was set up for the younger ones. While government policy may have said they were the enemy, the staff of the camp generally treated the internees ‘extremely well’.

A class of interned German children and their teacher, Mrs Gudrun Heider, at Tatura No. 3 camp. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial A:030245

There were births, a death and even a marriage. The days were filled with activities and duties to pass the time. The daily chores were allocated, the men did heavier work, the women washed and cooked. Food was plentiful and good. In quieter periods, the women played netball, the men played football – ‘Football Sensation, 3.30 p.m. Saturday 7 VI 1941, Rheumatism versus Gallstones (Inv. no. 3207, Duldig Studio Archives).

There were lectures on different subjects as there were in the Dunera compound and light entertainment, including two concerts. The first, ‘Tatura Melody’ was held only two months after their arrival and ‘Laugh & Forget’ was held the following year. Internees from Compound C, the single men’s compound were allowed to take part as musicians and the concert program was printed by a Tatura printing firm.

Efforts to obtain release were immediate. An appeal was lodged two days after arrival, written by Camp Leader Gerhard Seefeld to the Camp Commandant. But the position of the internees in Australia was clear – release into the community was not an option.

According to a list of 174 names submitted with appeals, there were amongst the group twenty degree holders, seven Doctorate holders and one Professor of Dentistry. There were musicians, artists, accountants, engineers and manufacturers as well as teachers, nurses, radio technicians, stonemasons, hat makers and hoteliers, watchmakers and dressmakers.

In the last months of 1941 a political crisis led to a loss of government by the United Australia Party – (UAP). This change meant a more sympathetic attitude and serious consideration to the plight of the internees and ultimately agreement that they be released. In addition and legally, the Nazi decree of 25 November ‘declaring all Jews who had left ‘Greater Germany’ no longer citizens’, meant that as ‘stateless’ Jews, the internees could, in theory, now no longer be defined by their nationality. Finally, the increased threat from Japan, which had entered the war in December 1941, prompted a further review of the internees’ status – all manpower was needed to be deployed to support the war effort. By early January 1942, a labour unit in the Australian Army was planned and after the fall of Singapore to the Japanese on 15 February 1942 a number of the men from the internment camps was allocated to work on farms picking fruit. Later they were allowed to enlist in a Labour Company of the AIF and their wives and children were also permitted to leave internment.

About sixty of the Singapore Internees joined the 8th Employment Company. Its popular commander, Captain Edward ‘Tip’ Broughton, took a personal interest in the welfare of his troops. Most of the work of the Company was hard labour on the wharves.

In December, 1943 these ‘enemy aliens’ were granted recognition as ‘refugee aliens’. The reality of their situation had finally been acknowledged by authorities and their claims, made three and a half years before, recognised as valid.
After the war nearly all the Singapore Internees decided to remain in Australia. Although many could not work in their original professions, as their qualifications were not recognised, they found other means of support. They applied for Naturalisation and their children and grandchildren grew up as proud Australians.

Edited from an essay by Melinda Mockridge in ‘Art Behind the Wire’ © 2014 Duldig Studio