Dunera Internees

The following is section 'A' of the "Report of the Directorate of Prisoners of War and Internees at Army Headquarters Melbourne 1939-1051 Chapter 3". This section, referring to Internees from the United Kingdom, is copyright of the Commonwealth of Australia reproduced by permission.






1. In June 1940, the High Commissioner for the United Kingdom received at Canberra a telegram from His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom stating that the question of the custody of German and Italian internees in the United Kingdom had been under consideration and that the retention there of the large number of dangerous or potentially dangerous persons involved would impose a serious burden on the authorities responsible for their custody, as well as immobilise a considerable number of personnel guarding them. The telegram further stated that in the event of a serious attach on the United Kingdom there would be a danger that the internees, if given the opportunity, might assist the enemy, and the personnel required as a safeguard against such a contingency could better be employed for other more essential purposes. 

2. As the military authorities in the United Kingdom had informed the government that internment on islands in close proximity to Great Britain was open to serious objection from the point of view of national security, the considered opinion of the government was that it would be far better if internment could be effected in some more distant area. The High Commissioner for the United Kingdom in Australia was therefore asked to ascertain whether, in the circumstances, His Majesty’s Government in the Commonwealth of Australia would be prepared to accept German and Italian internees and arrange for their detention, and if so, the maximum number which could be accepted on the condition that all expenditure on account of transport and maintenance would be borne by the United Kingdom Government. 

3. The Military Board in Australia gave urgent consideration to this request and recommended to War Cabinet that the United Kingdom authorities be informed that the Commonwealth Government agreed to accept a total of 6000 (including internees and prisoners of war) from Great Britain. War Cabinet concurred in the recommendation and a cable was despatched early in July 1940 advising acceptance of the proposal and requesting details of nationalities and sexes of internees and the probable date of despatch from the United Kingdom. 

4. Only one shipment of internees was received in Australia under this arrangements; comprising 2542 males (2342 Germans and 200 Italians). These internees were transferred on the “Dunera” which departed from England on 10 Jul 40 and arrived in Australia on 27 Aug 40. AT the request of the United Kingdom Authorities, 13 German internees were re-embarked on the Dunera for return to England. 

5. An officer of the Directorate of Prisoners of War and internees was sent to Fremantle, Western Command, to board the Dunera on arrival and to prepare appropriate detention orders under National Security Regulations. This officer reported that all internees were enemy aliens and that he was therefore preparing detention order under Regulation 20 of National Security (Aliens Control) Regulations. It was not until a later date that advice was received from the United Kingdom that a small number were actually British subjects. On receipt of this advice detention orders under Regulation 26 of National Security (General) Regulations were signed in respect of those concerned. 

6. Early reports on this shipment indicated that embarkation in England had been effected under trying conditions; speed was essential owing to the collapse of France and it had been impracticable to give adequate attention to questions of accommodation and conditions of the vessel. As a result the internees suffered a most uncomfortable trip. They were twice fired on with torpedos but both missed their target. To illustrate the speed with 
which shipment was effected it is reported that officers and men allotted to the vessel for escort duties were given only two hours notice and in many instances their wives did not know of their departure. Baggage of the internees, estimated at 20 tons, was not properly recorded or labelled and some of it contained perishable food-stuffs smuggled on board. No basic documents were supplied in respect of the internees and some considerable time was required, after their arrival at internment camps in Australia, to document them. 

1. Disembarkations were effected as follows : - 

At Melbourne     345 Germans and 200 Italians, Including 26 sick. 
"    “                   1997 Germans, including 56 sick

Internees disembarked at Melbourne were transferred to Tatura Internment Camps and those disembarked at Sydney, to Hay. 

8. The types of internees included in the “Dunera” shipment were many and varied for reasons set out hereunder : - 

(a) Internment in the United Kingdom had been effected under most difficult and trying circumstances. 

(b) There was no opportunity, prior to their shipment, to sift and consider fully the information available on individual cases. 

(c) Many had been interned merely as a precautionary measure and some had good grounds for hating the Nazi system. 

9. Tribunals set up in the United Kingdom had, however, roughly classified Germans into Categories ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C”. ‘A” Category included those considered hostile or whose conduct of character had been such as to make it undesirable to allow them to remain at large. 251 of these internees were included in the ‘Dunera’ shipment and were segregated at Tatura Internment Camp No.1 Class ‘B’ included those whom the Tribunal considered sufficiently reliable to be allowed their liberty, subject to certain minor restrictions, (prior to the collapse of France), and Class ‘C’, those who could be definitely regarded as friendly and reliable. Conditions of emergency caused the general internment and the government made it clear that, except in the case of ‘A’ Category internees, internment of itself did not imply any moral stigma on the individual. Classifications into the various categories had not been entirely satisfactory as the standards adopted by Tribunals had varied considerably and there was generally a tendency to make free use of the intermediate ‘B’ Category. 

10. When accepting the internees for custody, the Commonwealth Government had made it clear that none would be released in Australia, but that they would remain interned here until returned to the United Kingdom for release or for any other purpose. However, the United Kingdom Authorities, in a “memorandum for the information of the Australian Government” regarding these persons, expressed the hope that the classification of internees would be undertaken here and that a system of less rigid custodial treatment to genuine refugees from Nazi oppression and other not falling within the potentially dangerous class, would be applied. The Commonwealth Government then emphasised its intention not to release any internees in Australia and that the non-interned wives and families of the internees already here could not be accepted. 

11. Further representations were received that these wives and families should be permitted to come to Australia on the condition that they agree in writing to voluntary internment on arrival. War Cabinet was informed that Army did not consider it desirable to accept these persons as the could not be held for security reasons and if British subjects or refugees they could appeal or agitate for release immediately after arrival in Australia. There 
would then be no vaild legal reason for their detention and they would no doubt constitute a source of political embarrassment already caused to the United Kingdom Government, the Commonwealth would agree to accept the persons concerned, at the same time requesting that only those persons be embarked for internment in Australia who would, by their retention in the United Kingdom, be the cause of embarrassment there. 

12. Lack of shipping and other important considerations ultimately led the United Kingdom Authorities to abandon the proposal, and at this stage a Home Office representative (Major J.D. Layton – later Lt-Col) was sent to Australia to liaise with Army and other Departments concerned in regard to emigration of United Kingdom internees, their enlistment in the Pioneer Corps of the British Army and other allied matters. 

13. These internees presented a difficult problem at all times, as will be observed during the reading of the report, but it is certain that their acceptance by the Commonwealth during Great Britain’s greatest danger was a service of very definite value to the country. However it is appropriate to point out that the transfer of persons who are a thorny problem politically e.g. Jewish refugees of unknown antecedents is always likely to end up as an embarrassing political and administrative problem to the Power accepting them for custody. When the security risk has abated, it is so very easy for the original Interning Power to say to the Detaining Power that the latter has full freedom to release such persons at its discretion. This type of situation is well worth bearing in mind should the Army ever again have to advise the Government on transfers of internees from abroad. 

13(a) For future benefit, it is accorded that apart from inter-Governmental arrangements for transfer and custody of internees, it is essential that on an administrative level as between both the Governments and the service authorities concerned there should be the clearest possible arrangements for documentation and security of personal possessions and baggage during transfer. Claims made by internees for real and imagined losses of their personal possessions during all stages of their movements were astounding, both in volume and amount. Dealing with such claims occupied a tremendous amount of time, caused widespread friction and resentment and probably considerable wastage of public funds in settling claims on a sympathetic basis.

© Commonwealth of Australia reproduced by permission