With the outbreak of World War II the Australian government began to register all residents who it classified as “enemy aliens”, mainly German and Italian nationals. As the conflict escalated, internment camps were established to incarcerate not only Prisoners of War (PoWs), but also civilians considered to be a threat to the home front.

One of the most notorious episodes of wartime internment involved a group of people transported from the UK to Australia on the ship HMT (Hired Military Transport) Dunera. In July 1940, the Commonwealth government agreed to accept 6,000 internees from Britain. However, only one shipment was dispatched to Australia. On board the HMT Dunera were approximately 2,000 male German Jewish refugees aged between 16 and 45, most of whom had fled from Nazi occupied territories. Also on board were 200 Italian PoWs and 250 Nazis. They were all treated as enemy aliens, without distinction.

The voyage took 57 days. The conditions on board were appalling. Overcrowding, lack of hygiene and mistreatment by crew members was compounded by fear of torpedo attacks, the uncertainty of the destination, and the acute tensions between Jewish refugees and Nazi passengers.

Upon their arrival in Sydney, on 6 September 1940, the ‘Dunera Boys’ (as the Jewish passengers came to be known) were interned in Hay and Orange in New South Wales. Eventually, they were moved to Tatura, in Victoria.

The first arrivals to the Hay detention facility were 2036 German and Austrian Jewish refugees who had fled from the Nazis. They were mostly professionals who had escaped in fear of their lives. They were placed side by side with 451 German and Italian PoWs many of whom had been Nazi and fascist supporters.

While waiting for their release, the ‘Dunera Boys’ developed a rich cultural and intellectual program at the camp. In due course, the injustice of their predicament was realised, and they were permitted to return to Britain.

Initially considered a scandal, the story today is viewed as a significant chapter in the history of Jewish migration to Australia. Of the original 2,000 Dunera Boys, 900 chose to remain in Australia. Many served in the 8th Employment Company and in the defence forces of the Australian army. They became proud and loyal Australian citizens who made a significant contribution to emerging multicultural Australia. Some of them became leaders in their fields in the arts, the sciences, business and academia.

Dunera Boys reunion 1991,
Credit: National Library of Australia

The repatriation of the remaining PoWs took place in 1946. The camp was dismantled after the war ended.