In September 1939, when Britain declared war on Germany, alien tribunals were established to ascertain which Germans living in Britain were to be categorised as ‘friendly’ and which were to be deemed ‘enemy aliens’. Around 65,000 were initially categorised as ‘friendly’. When France fell, however, the government became nervous about invasion, and many Germans, Italians, and Austrians came under suspicion. The decision was made to intern in the UK or to deport (for internment) to Canada and Australia.
Around two hundred of these deportees had believed they had found refuge when they had arrived in 1939 at Kitchener camp in Kent. (Editor: this figure to be confirmed)
In July 1940, HMT Dunera sailed from Liverpool, UK, to Sydney, Australia.
On board were around 2,500 men (records vary) who were deemed to be ‘enemy aliens’; some were boys as young as sixteen: “Many of the internees were boys in the 16-19 years age group, one boy of 16 years being badly crippled through Jew baiting by Nazi boys in a country town in Germany. Others belonged to the Boy Scout movement in England” (Commonwealth of Australia, Prisoners of War, Information Bureau, 12 September 1940, National Archives of Australia, NAA: B3844, 1; barcode 411713). There was also a crew of around 14o on board the ship (Samuel Totten, Paul Robert Bartrop, Dictionary of Genocide: A-L, Greenwood Press, 2008). The troop ship Dunera was built to hold around 1,600 people.
Among these passengers were 200 Italian fascists and 250 German Nazis. The vast majority – around two-thirds – were Jews who had fled the Third Reich territories. Some had been in Kitchener, a few had been on SS Arandora Star, and others had been interned on the Isle of Man, among other places.
The Dunera arrived in Melbourne in September 1940: five hundred deportees were transferred to Tatura internment camp. The others continued on to Sydney, from where they were transferred to internment in Hay.
Conditions on board the Dunera were notoriously brutal. The men and boys were kept for most of the long voyage below decks in over-crowded conditions without even enough hammocks for all to sleep in.
According to many witness reports, guards assaulted the prisoners, for example, breaking glass bottles on the decks, which the men were then forced to run across, barefoot.
Punishments were extreme for minor offences, including two instances when men were bound with chains and put in the ship’s gaol for insubordination.
The men were given meagre food rations and insufficient water, especially for the climate in which they sailed. Much of the food was rancid; on one occasion the water ran out.
Sickness, diarrhoea, and dysentery were rife under such conditions, but the sick were retained below decks with the healthy, with the result that the sickness spread.
Because the men’s luggage was not made available to them, there were no changes of clothes: there was almost no soap or washing facilities, and the inadequate numbers of makeshift latrines soon flooded. There is a report of a man attempting to access the latrines at night, who was bayonetted in the stomach and hospitalised for the remainder of the voyage.
I haven’t been able to find the numbers yet, but have seen reports of deaths from heart attacks, for example, and one of our Kitchener descendants has documented a suicide during the voyage.
There was a group of Orthodox Jews on board who were only able to eat kosher food; they suffered particularly badly. One witness recounted, “It was a miracle they survived the entire voyage on prayer and cheddar cheese” (Professor Hugo Wolfson, National Archives of Australia, NNA: B3844, 1; barcode 411713).
Fighting broke out from time to time among the starving men – one died fighting for a small piece of fruit: “I consider the treatment metered out to these internees on the voyage was very unsatisfactory. The Medical Officer, Lt. Brooks, was continually at variance with the other officers in regard to the treatment of old men and the sick” (Commonwealth of Australia, Prisoners of War, Information Bureau, 12 September 1940, National Archives of Australia, NAA: B3844, 1; barcode 411713).
The men’s luggage was repeatedly ransacked, bayonetted open by the British soldiers guarding the detainees and prisoners. Valuables were stolen in a series of raids and many of the remaining items were thrown overboard: “It was reported to me just prior to leaving Sydney that the internees had arrived at Hay … The condition of this baggage was far from satisfactory. It was reported to me that the loading at Liverpool took place in the rain with the result that on disembarkation, a large quantity was found to be musty and damp. I have to report that during the journey this baggage was badly damaged by the escort. The O/c troops ordered the baggage to be opened and any clothing and food to be distributed amongst the internees, it is quite possible that other articles have been removed at the same time. This may form the basis for complaint by the internees; another complaint will be the damaged state of the baggage, in many cases locks were forced open, and the sides out … The actual tonnage of bags given to me by the O/c troops at Fremantle, was far below the actual tonnage on board … With regard to money that was alleged to be taken from internees and held on their behalf, the DFO Eastern Command made provision to collect many thousands of pounds, and was surprised when the O/c troops informed him that he did not hold any money belonging to internees” (Commonwealth of Australia, Prisoners of War, Information Bureau, 12 September 1940, National Archives of Australia, NAA: B3844, 1; barcode 411713).
The men were to be disembarked at Sydney and Melbourne. One man disguised himself as a Sergeant Major and crawled through a porthole on to the wharf in an effort to escape. He was discovered and arrested and placed in the ship’s cells: “the treatment metered out to this internee was contrary to Brtish justice and fair play, he was deprived of blankets and was brutally assaulted in the cells by a member of the escort, the damage inflicted being so severe that it was fortunate that the man did not succumb to his injuries. An inquiry was held … but I have no knowledge that any disciplinary action was taken. I have to report the death of one German internee between Melbourne and Sydney, this man died as a result of a blow administered by another internee” (Commonwealth of Australia, Prisoners of War, Information Bureau, 12 September 1940, National Archives of Australia, NAA: B3844, 1; barcode 411713).
When reports soon began to circulate of the brutal conditions in which so many were transported overseas, the Home Office sent Major Julian Layton (who had been instrumental in the establishment of Kitchener camp), to assist. Charges were brought against some of the Dunera guards, and compensation payments were allocated, although many claim to have received little in the end.
The men were offered repatriation back to the UK, but by this stage both the initial journey and U-boat attacks put many off setting sail again. Some of the Dunera men went on to join the Pioneer Corps, and overall, around 900 decided to stay in Australia. A substantial number served in Australia’s armed forces, notably in the specially formed Eighth Employment Company. At the end of the war, this service meant that they qualified for permanent residency status in Australia, where many remained.