Hired Military Transport Dunera was a British passenger ship built as a troop transport in the late 1930s. As the storm clouds of war gathered in the late 1930s, thousands of German refugees - either Jewish or politically opposed to the Nazis - fled to Britain for sanctuary. Little did many of them know they would soon be deported to Australia in one of the more notorious incidents in British maritime history, later described by Winston Churchill as "a deplorable mistake".
As a wave of fear over a German invasion gripped the nation at the start of World War II, thousands of foreign nationals were kicked out over fears that they might be enemy spies They were put on the ship HMT Dunera, which had a capacity of 1,600 including the crew. It set sail from Liverpool 70 years ago on 10 July 1940, without the passengers - later known as the Dunera Boys - knowing where they were going.
By far the best known (and most notorious) instance of wartime internment in Australia was the Dunera affair. Following the fall of France and the evacuation of Dunkirk, the British Government responded to public panic over the 'enemy within' and temporarily interned thousands of foreign nationals. Canada and Australia agreed to assist the 'mother country' with the process and, accordingly, in July 1940, HMT Dunera set sail from Liverpool to Sydney, carrying 2 542 male 'enemy aliens.' Although the group included some 250 German Nazis and 200 Italian Fascists, the vast majority of the deportees were strongly anti-Fascist and two-thirds of them were Jews.
After a 57-day journey in appalling conditions, during which the ship was hit by a torpedo, the internees' eventual arrival is regarded as one of the greatest influxes of academic and artistic talent to have entered Australia on a single vessel.The Dunera Affair:
The harrowing circumstances of the Dunera's voyage out to Australia have been documented by Bartrop, Pearl and Patkin, among others. The maltreatment of prisoners by sections of the British escort troops earned the Dunera the label 'hellship.’
57 Days of Hell — The Voyage of HMT Dunera, 1940
The HMT (Hired Military Transport) ship Dunera began loading on July 10, 1940 — 2,542 internees, 2000 of whom were Jewish refugees, aged 16 to 60. With 7 officers and over 300 others, a total of 2800 men were to be crammed on to a vessel built to hold 1600.
The ship’s crew — 309 poorly trained soldiers — brutally searched and looted the internees’ luggage of up to 80 lbs., while the ship’s commanders, Lieutenant-Colonel William Scott and First Lieutenant O’Neill, either stood by indifferently or actively participated.
The ship left Liverpool at midnight. Callously indifferent to the fate of the men, the British government allowed the Dunera only one destroyer escort — this but eight days after the sinking of the Arandora Star. Less than 24 hours out of Liverpool, German submarine U-56 attacked — a torpedo hit the Dunera with a loud bang but did not explode.
The 57 days of the voyage were a nightmare of inhuman conditions and brutal mistreatment. The lower decks of the ship were jammed, and men had to sleep on mess tables or on the floor. 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 absolutely 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. “Men slept on floors and benches,” recalled Peter Eden, “and if you wanted to go to the toilet at night, you were walking on bodies.” Robbed of their luggage, the refugees had but the clothes on their backs; most of them had no toothbrush, toothpaste, comb or soap. Later, the guards gave one piece of soap to every 20 men to share for 2 weeks but this was hardly enough to keep clean. If an internee became ill there was a half-hour to see the doctor. Innoculations were non-existent. Food consisted of smoked fish, sausages, potatoes and a spoonful of melon and lemon jam a day; however, the bread was usually maggoty and the butter rancid.
The crew treated the refugees with extreme cruelty. The internees remained uninformed of their true destination until their own knowledge of geography and navigation by the stars — and arrival in a western coastal port of Africa — made further secrecy impossible. The crew searched the men daily, threatening them with loaded rifles fixed with bayonets. If guards found any vital medications, such as insulin, they threw them overboard. They also threw false teeth away, confiscated razors and shaving utensils and threatened men who hid their razors or were clean-shaven with detention in the bunker. Any valuables, hidden food, or Jewish religious vestments, phylacteries and prayer books were confiscated and either kept or thrown overboard. Beatings were daily. Staff Captain “A” Branch, who boarded the Dunera in Melbourne, reported as follows:
Prior to arrival in Australia, the crew ordered the internees to shave off their beards, providing the 1600 men with 8 razors to do the task. The ship reached the Port of Fremantle in Western Australia on August 27 and Port Melbourne on September 3. At Melbourne, two groups disembarked: the 251 German and Austrian “A” Category internees whom the British government regarded as dangerous or potentially dangerous due to their political affiliations, along with 94 Germans and 200 Italians whose political affiliations were seen as “doubtful” since they were members of the Fascist Party in England. These men were interned at a camp at Tatura. Those who remained onboard were mainly refugees of Nazi oppression. Around 10 o’clock on the morning of September 6, 1940, fifty-seven days out of Liverpool, the Dunera entered Sydney Harbour. The atmosphere was tense: on one hand, the press sniffed a sensational story — in its coverage, the Daily Telegraph reported that “among the internees were parachutists, other prisoners of war, and hundreds who had been carrying out subversive work in England.” On the other hand, 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. For the weary internees, “some in heavy overcoats, hats, others with summer wear having lost everything else, some orthodox Jews in their traditional black garb and hats,” they didn’t much look like spies as they left the ship.
On arrival in Melbourne in September 1940, 500 deportees were disembarked and transferred to the Tatura internment camp while the remaining men and youths went on to Sydney and were transferred to the Hay camps and, subsequently, to Tatura.
Major Julian Layton (Julian David Layton, OBE) of the Home Office was sent to Australia to assist with the repatriation process. Charges were laid against a number of the Dunera guards, and compensation payments were allocated to the deportees. 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.