The Dunera Boys

Accidental Immigrants


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

Hay Railway Station

My 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 plains.

With a 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.

HMT Dunera

DuneraAn 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:

1940. 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.

References 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 named.

So, Who Are the Dunera Boys?

Part of Hay museum inside one of the carriagesWell, as 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 Archives page, 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 Goose?). 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.

Australia, 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.

The 2,542 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.)

The Dunera Boys were essentially the 2,036 anti-Nazis in the complement of the ship’s hapless passengers.

Based on the numbers quoted above, the maths suggests that the “several dozen Nazi sympathisers” numbered 55.

About 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).

Intense 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.

Winston Churchill would later describe the Dunera affair, as it would be referred to, as "a deplorable and regrettable mistake.”

The first 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.

Their Journey

As if their forcible detention and deportation to the other side of the world wasn’t injustice enough, the 57-day voyage on the Dunera, in retrospect, might well have been seen as the nadir of their entire experience.

In 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.

Apart 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."

Arrival in Australia

Flyer for camp theatreThere are 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.

The 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 sympathisers.

Presumably 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.

Those who 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 in Hay.

You could 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.

I have seen references to passenger lists so somewhere the records might show better substantiated numbers.

The 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.

Camp Life

Camp concert programNotwithstanding 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 POWs.

The Dunera 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.

They were encouraged by the army officers who ran the camp to establish an internal system of democratic government to run internal camp affairs.

Camp banknoteOne enterprising undertaking was the introduction of their own currency.

Internee 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 are here”.

Reverse side of camp banknote

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.

The Aftermath

Some seven 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.

Riverine GrazierSeveral sources refer to some 900 or so who stayed in Australia after their release while the remainder returned to Britain.

Wikipedia states:

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.

The 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.

Looking 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.”

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