Ingeborg van Teeseling

About Ingeborg van Teeseling

After migrating from Holland ten years ago and being warned by the Immigration Department against doing her job as a journalist, Ingeborg van Teeseling became a historian instead. She endeavours to explain Australia to migrants new and old at her website, and runs, telling people's life stories.

Dunera: The time our government locked up 15,000 refugees to keep us safe

Back in the midst of WW2, The Menzies government decided to lock up 15,000 foreigners on our shores under the guise of national security. Bitterly, some of those locked up were born here. Sound familiar?



In our occasional series of highlights in Australian history, I would like to introduce you today to the Dunera boys. It is 1940. Robert Menzies has declared it his “melancholy duty” to tell us that Australia is at war, and the country has responded to that by rounding up enemy aliens. There are 45,000 people living in the country who are in some way associated with places that we don’t like anymore: Germany, Italy, and after Pearl Harbor, Japan. But there are others we don’t trust either, from 30 countries, including China, Finland, Hungary, Portugal, Russia, Iran, Palestine and even the US. Under the National Security (Aliens Control) Regulations of 1939, we decide to lock them up. Not all of them, because in the absence of boys at war the economy has to keep running. But enough. In total, about 15,000 people will be interned in camps in Australia. Seven thousand are residents, mostly people who have been living here for a while, some who have been born here. Because, according to the rules, if you are a woman marrying an “alien”, you become an alien yourself. That means you run the risk of being picked up and locked away with your family. And you cannot own a homing pigeon, obviously, because all good spies have those and they are a threat to the nation. 

The other 8,000 prisoners come from foreign shores. Sometimes they are prisoners of war, soldiers and officers the Australian military has arrested overseas. More often they are residents of our friends’ countries, and we have been asked to take care of them. This is how we are confronted, in September 1940, with the Dunera boys. In July 1940, a ship called the HMT Dunera had set sail from Liverpool to Sydney. On board were 2,542 male “enemy aliens”: a few hundred of them German Nazis and Italian fascists, but most of them were anti-Nazis, and most of those were Jews. About half of them had been on their way to Canada two months before when their boat had been torpedoed. 682 people had died, the rest was now on its way to Sydney. A good percentage of the young men on board had arrived in Britain only recently, on the Kindertransport (Children’s Transport) that had managed to bring some thousands of (mostly Jewish) children to safety from Germany and further East. It was British policy to intern people from Germany and Italy, whatever their background, and the Motherland had asked the Commonwealth to help lock them up. Throughout their trip, the internees were beaten, starved, robbed and even bayonetted by the British soldiers and guards. Dysentery had reigned and they’d had to put up with wading through sewage on deck, sharing one bar of soap with twenty guys and narrowly escaping two torpedo strikes. The soldiers had smashed beer bottles on deck and forced the internees to walk across the broken glass barefoot. 


The call to lock up everybody who wasn’t dinky-di was growing. “It makes your blood boil when we think of what our boys are going through while these dirty aliens are allowed to roam at large.”


When they arrived, the Australians were in two minds about the men, especially the Jewish refugees. Their charges were starved and pale, and the soldiers who were accompanying them on the train to their camp were appalled. They gave them food and drink and cigarettes, but they were still their wardens, taking them to prisons in Tatura (Victoria) and Hay (NSW). On reflection, the British weren’t very happy either. There were furious debates in Parliament and even members of Churchill’s own government felt that “this bespattered page of our history” had to be “cleaned up and rewritten” as soon as possible. Nevertheless, the men were still behind barbed wire, where they tried to make the best of it. And they were the best: Walter Freud, the grandson of Sigmund; the future founders of the world famous Musica Viva chamber music ensemble; writers, designers, artists, a theoretical physicist, a few philosophers, an economist, some engineers, a smattering of professors; Hugo Wolfsohn, a celebrated political scientist. Both in Hay and Tatura they set up their own township inside the camp, with their own currency, a university, two orchestras, a newspaper, a theatre. They stayed there until the end of 1941, when their status was changed to “refugee” and they were released. 

That wasn’t an easy decision for the Curtin government to make, because despite the fact that these were clearly innocent bystanders, the “public sentiment” was that it was better to be safe than sorry. Especially in 1941 and 1942, when the war was going badly for the Allies, the call to lock up everybody who wasn’t dinky-di was growing into a roar. Arthur Fadden, the leader of the Country Party, said in Parliament that “the alien question” had been “too long characterised by the usual British consideration for the individual,” and that had to stop. It was time that all enemy aliens were interned. Billy Hughes, leader of the United Australia Party, supported Fadden, saying that “we cannot make war…blithering about the Bill of Rights.” And then there was the President of the Imlay Shire Council in Eden, NSW, who thundered that “it makes your blood boil when we think of what our boys are going through while these dirty aliens are allowed to roam at large…for God sake force some pressure on the authorities and round these criminals up.”

After their release, the Dunera boys were given a choice: go back to Britain (a perilous option, in the middle of the war) or stay in Australia. About 900 of them did just that and quite a few of them repaid their hosts by joining the Australian military. They also contributed to post-WW2 Australia in many, many other ways. There have been a few books written about the men, and in 1985 there was a telemovie by Ben Lewin. You can find it at Umbrella Entertainment On Demand. Both Tatura and Hay camps have mostly been razed to the ground, but the Dunera boys kept meeting in Hay for reunions until fairly recently.

Because one person’s unknown history is another person’s lived and remembered reality.



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