‘HMT Dunera,’ the scandal and the salvation

England in 1940 was in the grip of a great panic over the possibility of an invasion by Nazi Germany, whose troops were just across the English Channel, only 35 km. from Dover.

NEWLY ARRIVING Jewish refugees from Europe wave from the ship ‘S.S. Awarea’ as it pulls into Haifa port in 1948 (photo credit: REUTERS)
NEWLY ARRIVING Jewish refugees from Europe wave from the ship ‘S.S. Awarea’ as it pulls into Haifa port in 1948
(photo credit: REUTERS)
On Hanukka in December 1940, the Australian public was finally told the whole awful story of the HMT Dunera, the British troopship (HMT stands for Hired Military Transport) in which several hundred enemy aliens, mainly German Jewish refugees, had been deported to their country from Great Britain.
England in 1940 was in the grip of a great panic over the possibility of an invasion by Nazi Germany, whose troops were just across the English Channel, only 35 km. from Dover. In England, European and German foreigners were all seen by Britain as potential spies and agents provocateurs, who would join with the enemy if and when the Nazis invaded.
As a result the British government ordered all adult German subjects to be rounded up and interned, even though the majority were German Jewish refugees who had recently escaped from Nazi Germany and who were implacable enemies of the Nazis.
The majority were sent to the Isle of Man, offshore from the mainland to the west of Liverpool, where they could do little harm, but heavy suspicion fell on those men of military age, from 18 to 65, who were seen as highly dangerous.
They were sent further afield, all the way to Australia; in its nervous panic Great Britain thought them to be a real threat. It was thought that if they stayed in England they might form a fifth column if and when the Germans invaded.
In its panic, the British government had even ordered the removal or obliteration of all direction signs and placenames that might have helped any German invaders.
Those deported to Australia had to be kept under surveillance for the journey, and the British navy was able to supply a suitable troopship, the HMS Dunera. It was a secure military vessel and had originally been designed and equipped for 1,600 troops, but now was to be filled with 2,542 refugees, besides the crew and the army warders, so everyone was cramped and hugely uncomfortable.
Of the internees, over 70 percent were Jewish refugees who had managed to escape from the Nazis and had come to England via Holland and Belgium well before the outbreak of the war.
On board the ship, the internees were all very badly treated by their British army warders, who were under the command of Lieutenant John O’Neill, who did nothing to reduce the brutality of his men. They had all been led to consider the internees to be Nazi spies and, as the army warders searched them, they stole their watches and rings, any loose money, change and notes, as well as other valuables and precious items. They also searched and looted their personal luggage, and threw much of it overboard, to the consternation of the internees who were left with hardly anything except the dirty and skimpy clothes they were standing in.
Later, when the internees had been imprisoned in Australia, they were able to normalize their lives to some extent and they published a weekly magazine, which often contained their favorite song, one that they had sung regularly on board the ship, to a tune they had learned from their British warders: “My luggage went into the ocean, My luggage went into the sea, My luggage was thrown in the ocean, Oh, bring back my luggage to me!” When the internees arrived in Australia, the government kept their arrival secret and immediately sent them all off to a prison camp at Hay, a place in New South Wales. It was 750 km. west of Sydney in a treeless and arid grazing area that was both hot, rainless and above all, completely inhospitable. The internees suffered from the horrible climate and the abundance of stinging flies that had suddenly found new bodies to feed on. The internees had little or no opportunity to escape and anyway there was nothing nearby to escape to. Like the British, the Australians also considered the internees to be potential dangerous enemies.
They kept them imprisoned under harsh conditions, and at first kept their internment and location a secret from the public, for fear of causing alarm and panic.
The internees gradually made a somewhat civilized life for themselves, organized talks, lectures and seminars; many were scholars and professors, and they applied from time to time to be allowed to emigrate to the United States and other more friendly countries. This was not unwelcome to the Australians, who were keen to reduce their numbers, and many internees eventually found their way to countries in South America, countries that were not unwilling to take them. Many who went were in the end able to apply from there for a visa to the US, the “Goldene Medina” that most of them saw as the true land of promise and the one to which they wished to emigrate.
The refugees retained unpleasant memories of their original deportation by troopship to Australia, on which they had been scandalously treated by the British army warders – but there was one positive and amazing thing to be thankful for, of which they only became aware much later.
The Dunera had been followed by a Nazi submarine, of which the crew were not aware. The U-boat was eager and ready to torpedo what it thought was a warship carrying many British soldiers. But the U-boat crew soon became aware of the considerable amount of debris that had been thrown off the boat by the warders, and picked up some of it to inspect it.
When they saw that it contained much in the way of German letters and literature, they concluded that the military boat was not carrying troops to Australia but rather German POWs, and the U-boat commander decided to spare the ship. Thus the boat, the lives of its crew, the warders and the internees were all saved thanks to the harsh and scandalous treatment that had been meted out to the internees by the British army warders.
The author is a Senior Fellow at the W. F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, Jerusalem.