The Dunera Boys
Theirs is a
story worth telling. They came to be called “The Dunera Boys.” It wasn’t their intent or desire to migrate
to Australia. They did so unknowingly and unwittingly. It was done for them by
the British Government; and it was done before they knew of it. Migrants they
became. Interned on arrival in Australia and kept in isolated detention camps. Ultimately
they would become proud and respected citizens of Britain and Australia.
A Secret of Hay
in Southern NSW
introduction to the Dunera Boys came while riding back from The Darling River
Run. I stopped the night in the NSW country town of Hay at the end of a hot,
windy 38⁰C ride from Wentworth. It’s
remote – in the middle of the vast Hay
little time on my hands, I spent a few hours next morning delving into some of
Hay’s history. One of these ventures was a museum in a couple rail carriages
permanently parked at the Hay Railway Station, which saw its last train in 1983
after 101 years of railway service. I was expecting a rail museum; but instead
discovered the Dunera Boys: the accidental immigrants.
accidental participant itself in this story was the Second World War troop
carrier HMT Dunera, which served in several war situations. That’s it in the
adjacent picture; and this is the caption attached to the picture in the
Australian War Memorial archives:
Starboard side view of the British troopship MV Dunera II 1940 which
transported Australian and New Zealand troops to the Middle East as part of
convoys US.1 and US.2 in 1940-01 and 1940-04 respectively. In 1942-01 she was
escorted by RAN units when bringing reinforcements to Batavia. She achieved a
measure of fame for transporting from Britain to Australia a group of German
and Austrian internees in 1940-09, many of whom went on to achieve prominence
in Australian life. (Naval Historical Collection)
It took me a while to work out that the
double digits after the years refer to the month.
to the Dunera include MV Dunera, SS Dunera, MS Dunera and HMT Dunera. In the
context of the transport of the internees, it’s mostly referred to as HMT
Dunera, which gets described as His
Majesty’s Transport [ship]; His
Majesty’s Troopship; or Hired
Military Transport. All of these alternatives appear in authoritative
sources so it’s a bit presumptuous of me to arbitrate; but the last one seems
to have the most credibility.
As a bit
of trivia, the MS Dunera,
presumably named after the town of Dunera in the Punjab, was owned by the
British India Steam Navigation Company, along with sister ships similarly
So, Who Are the
you’ve probably figured by now, they’re the German and Austrian detainees
referred to in the Dunera photo caption. Here is their story (drawn from exhibits
in the Hay museum, the National
Wikipedia and bits
and pieces from other Internet sites.)
It was 1940
– some ten months into the Second World War. France had fallen to the Nazi
juggernaut. The Dunkirk evacuation had just taken place (remember The Snow
There was much panic in Britain fed, in part, by suspicion over ‘enemy aliens’
in the country. That lead to the internment of mainly German and Austrian
nationals, most of whom had, in fact, fled their homelands to escape political
and religious persecution.
along with Canada, agreed to take in some of these detainees for the duration
of the war. As part of this process, in July 1940, 2,542 “enemy aliens” were
forcibly embarked on the HMT Dunera and shipped to Australia.
aliens consisted of 200 Italian and 251 German prisoners of war, as well as
several dozen Nazi sympathizers, along with 2,036 anti-Nazis, most of them Jewish
refugees. (This from Wikipedia but without a source quoted.)
Dunera Boys were essentially the 2,036 anti-Nazis in the complement of the
ship’s hapless passengers.
the numbers quoted above, the maths suggests that the “several dozen Nazi sympathisers”
two-thirds of the 2,036 anti-Nazis were Jewish. Most were noted in various
professional, cultural or artistic fields; and many would later become
prominent and eminent in their fields. They weren’t security threats. They
were, in effect, refugees seeking protection from Nazi persecution. It seems
they didn’t even know they were being deported to Australia. There are
suggestions they thought they were heading for “America” (probably confusing
America and Canada; and not appreciating the range of pros and cons of any of
the destinations – but’s that’s my speculation).
criticism of the deportation and incarceration of the Dunera Boys (not that
they were called that at the time) was voiced both in Britain and Australia;
and resulted in the British Government expressing regret for the incident as
early as October 1940. An army officer
of the Home Office was sent to Australia to assist with the repatriation
process. Compensation payments were later paid to the detainees.
Churchill would later describe the Dunera affair, as it would be referred to,
as "a deplorable and regrettable mistake.”
Australian to board the ship, medical army officer Alan Frost, was appalled by
the conditions that greeted him. His report led to the court martial of the
officer-in-charge, Lt. Colonel William Scott. Several of the guards on board
were also charged. Many of the subsequently told stories starkly contrasted the
humane and respectful treatment received from the Australian guards.
As if their
forcible detention and deportation to the other side of the world wasn’t
injustice enough, the 57-day
on the Dunera, in retrospect, might well have been seen as the nadir of their
addition to the passengers were 309 poorly trained British guards, as well as
seven officers and the ship’s crew, creating a total complement of almost twice
the Dunera’s capacity as a troop carrier of 1,600.
from the risk of enemy attack, it was the physical conditions and ill-treatment
that were most deplorable.
I found a
report of sorts written by someone with whom, coincidentally, I had a marginal
professional contact some years ago. He was a very young boy in England whose
father knew some of the men who would become the Dunera Boys. He came to write:
“The ship was an overcrowded Hell-hole. Hammocks almost
touched. Many men had to sleep on the floor or on tables. There was only one
piece of soap for twenty men, and one towel for ten men, water was rationed,
and luggage was stowed away so there was no change of clothing. As a
consequence, skin diseases were common. There was a hospital on board but no
operating theatre. Toilet facilities were far from adequate, even with
makeshift latrines erected on the deck and sewage flooded the decks. Dysentery
ran through the ship. Blows with rifle butts and beatings from the soldiers
were daily occurrences. One refugee tried to go to the latrines on deck during
the night – which was out-of-bounds. He was bayoneted in the stomach by one of
the guards and spent the rest of the voyage in the hospital."
lots of inconsistencies in the sources especially about numbers, although one
number that appears consistently is 2,542 – the number of aliens who were
embarked on the Dunera at Liverpool on 10 July 1940. I was told by the curator of the Hay museum
that the numbers are unavoidably “rubbery” owing to deficiencies in record
keeping aggravated by whether people were classified accurately and responding
to individual health and security issues. All this is a bit marginal and
doesn’t detract from the enormity of the injustice done to the Dunera Boys.
Dunera, having stopped at Fremantle in WA, arrived in Melbourne on 3 September 1940.
Sources alternatively indicate that “the POWs were disembarked in Melbourne”
and “on arrival in Melbourne…., 500 deportees were disembarked and transferred
to the Tatura [northern Victoria] internment camp.” The 500 would seem to
include, in addition to the 451 German and Italian POWs, some 50-55 of the Nazi
it was the remaining 2036 who were later, on 6 September 1940, disembarked in
Sydney. Sources alternatively indicate there were 2 or 3 deaths on the voyage.
That would suggest 2033 or 2034 arrivals in Sydney. The Hay museum exhibits
don’t specifically refer to the Nazi sympathisers and so have 451 POWs
disembarked in Melbourne with the remaining of the total complement of 2,542
(less three who died on the voyage), namely 2,088, disembarking in Sydney.
disembarked in Sydney were put on four steam trains for an overnight trip to
the southern NSW town of Hay. The curator of the Hay museum told me that their
records indicate that 1,984 detainees were countered off the trains on arrival
imagine the scene of four trains pulling into Hay Railway Station presumably in
fairly close succession and disgorging some two thousand detainees who had to
be recorded, counted, housed etc. It was suggested that even the 1984 number
might not be accurate.
seen references to passenger lists so somewhere the records might show better substantiated
discrepancy between arrivals in Sydney from the Dunera and the arrivals in Hay
by train would seem to be due to some of the detainees being sent to Orange
because of health issues and some being sent elsewhere for various reasons.
the early recognition of the injustice of the forcible detention and
deportation of the detainees, they were still kept as if they were POWs. They remained
in the Hay camp until May 1941 when they were moved to the POW camp at Tatura
in northern Victoria, where the POWs from the Dunera had been sent following
their disembarkation in Melbourne. The reason for their transfer to Tatura was
to make room at the Hay camp for increasing numbers of Italian and Japanese
Boys made the best of their ill-fated lot. At the Hay camp they set up their
own university with disciplines that reflected the variety of professional
backgrounds of the detainees. They produced theatrical productions including
revues, musicals, plays and instrumental performances. They made improvised carpentry
tools for crafting wood. They established their own garden at the Hay
Racecourse which made the camp virtually self-sufficient and also provided
kosher food for the orthodox Jews.
encouraged by the army officers who ran the camp to establish an internal
system of democratic government to run internal camp affairs.
undertaking was the introduction of their own currency.
George A Telscher designed unique and intricate banknotes. An exhibit at the
Hay museum advises :
If you look closely at the
reproduction in the exhibition you will see that the barbed wire around the
edge of the note conceals the words “we are here because we are here because we
You can see the name “Eppenstien”
woven into the wool of the sheep on the coat of arms. Sheep on the reverse side
of the note have names of the hut leaders and “HM Dunera Liverpool to Hay”
camouflaged in their wool.
The local newspaper
the Riverine Grazier printed the
money. However, the notes were printed in only a single print run before the
editor was contacted by the government to inform him that he had broken the Commonwealth Note Issue Act and the Commonwealth and State Stamp Duty Act.
months after the removal of the Dunera Boys to Tatura, when the Japanese
attacked Pearl Harbor in December, 1941, the prisoners were reclassified as
"friendly aliens" and released by the Australian Government, although
this would seem to have happened in dribs and drabs.
sources refer to some 900 or so who stayed in Australia after their release
while the remainder returned to Britain.
Hundreds were recruited into the
Australian Army and about a thousand stayed when offered residency at the end
of the war. Almost all the rest made their way back to Britain, many of them
joining the armed forces there. Others were recruited as interpreters or into
the intelligence services.
National Archives page states:
Bureaucratic delays and
inefficiency notwithstanding, the internees were all released in due course.
Some 900 elected to remain in Australia, and a substantial number of them
served with Australia's defence forces, notably in the 8th Employment Company.
I was told
by the curator of the Hay museum that, in accordance with the agreement between
Britain and Australia, all the detainees, except for a handful who were kept on
for military duties as translators and interpreters, were repatriated to
Britain. It was after that that some 900 or so returned to Australia.
In the years
following the war, there have been reunions of the Dunera Boys in Hay; and
regular get-togethers in Melbourne. In the Hay museum, there’s a clip from the Riverine Grazier, the same newspaper
that printed the camp currency notes, showcasing the return of the Dunera Boys
for the 70th anniversary.
back years after their ordeal, one of the Dunera Boys, Horst Jacobs, at the
time the president of the Hay-Tatura Association, said: “We who arrived in
Sydney on HT 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.”
Return to top of page Go to Fireside