I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
In July 1940, a passenger vessel left Liverpool carrying a variety of people the British government thought might be a threat to national security. The HMT Dunera (HMT stands for Hired Military Transport) designed to carry 1,600 passengers and crew sailed with almost 2,500 people aboard, not counting crew. The voyage was later described by Winston Churchill as “a deplorable mistake.”
In the summer of 1940, Britain was on its knees. France had capitulated and the remnants of the British Army had been plucked from the beach at Dunkirk, minus its weapons. The country was alone and facing the strong possibility of a Nazi invasion. There was fear that German and Italian sympathizers were lurking in the country ready to rise up and help the attackers.
So, the round-up began. Residents of the United Kingdom with Austrian, German, or Italian backgrounds were taken into custody and interrogated. About 70,000 people were interviewed and most―66,000―were found to be harmless and released. However, 569 were suspected of being spies or agents provocateurs and were locked up in internment camps.
Caught up in the sweep were thousands of Germans―Nazi opponents and Jews―who had sought sanctuary from Hitler’s murderous regime.
Britain was facing food and other shortages, so the government decided to ship some of the internees out of the country.
Aboard HMT Dunera
Those deemed to pose a danger were loaded onto the HMT Dunera, docked in Liverpool. The BBC described the passenger manifest: “The vessel was crammed with some 2,000 mostly Jewish refugees, aged 16 to 60. Alongside them were genuine prisoners of war, 200 Italian fascists and 251 German Nazis, meaning the ship was hugely overcrowded.”
It seems highly unlikely that the Jewish refugees could be a public menace, so it’s possible that anti-Semitism played a role in putting them on the HMT Dunera.
On July 10, 1940, the ship left Liverpool with none of its passengers knowing where they were headed.
The conditions aboard were awful. There were ten toilets available for more than 2,000 men, and dysentery was rampant. Fresh water was in short supply meaning proper personal hygiene was impossible. The men were kept below decks with the foul-smelling and stagnant air except for 30 minutes a day.
The guards brutalized the passengers, with beatings and blows from rifle butts a daily occurrence.
The personal possessions of the deportees were confiscated and anything of value was stolen by the low-quality and ill-disciplined soldiers who guarded them. Their luggage was pilfered for anything of value and the rest was thrown overboard.
The Submarine Threat
A couple of days after leaving Liverpool the HMT Dunera was sailing through the notoriously rough waters of the Irish Sea. She was spotted by a U-boat, which fired a torpedo. The weapon hit the ship with a huge thud but did not explode. A second torpedo passed under the vessel as rose on a wave.
Some of the deportees had been through the exact same scenario of few days earlier. On July 2, 1940, the Arandora Star was torpedoed and sunk northwest of the Irish coast. Her passengers were all deportees heading for Canada and about half of them died. Some of the survivors were taken back to Liverpool and immediately put aboard the Dunera.
One of those men, Rando Bertoia, recalled many years later, “Bang! We were torpedoed again. We were all thinking this would be the Arandora Star all over again, and you can imagine how we were terrified.”
Arrival in Australia
After 57 miserable days aboard ship, the HMT Dunera arrived in Melbourne, Australia. Some of the deportees disembarked there and the rest went on to Sydney. But, freedom eluded them. They were put into internment camps. Certainly, conditions were better than on board the Dunera, but they were still incarcerated and many of those held were deeply opposed to Hitler and Mussolini.
The National Museum of Australia notes that “The group had a high percentage of skilled professionals, tradesmen, and artists as many of the Jewish inmates had been forced to leave successful careers in Germany, Austria, and England in the preceding years.” They organized an orchestra, library, university, and newspaper and they printed their own currency for use inside the camps.
Word of the deplorable treatment meted out to the internees started to circulate and voices were raised that something needed to be done. Major Victor Cazalet, a Conservative Member of the British Parliament said “Frankly I shall not feel happy, either as an Englishman or as a supporter of this government, until this bespattered page of our history has been cleaned up and rewritten.”
By late summer 1940, Britain changed its classification for aliens, which meant most of those on the Dunera would not have been deported under the new rules. Early in 1941, Major Julian Layton was sent to Australia to sort out the mess, which led to the release of most of the internees by the end of 1941.
Between 900 and 1,000 men joined the Australian Army to do manual labour in Australia in support of the war effort. As a result, they were offered permanent residency in the country. The remainder went back to Britain and joined the fighting forces or worked in intelligence and as interpreters.
The National Museum of Australia comments that “The Dunera Boys who stayed on in Australia made huge contributions to the cultural, academic, and economic life of the country.”
- An inquiry into the Dunera Affair was held but its findings are embargoed until 2040 under the Official Secrets Act.
- Lieutenant-Colonel William Scott was the officer in charge of the 309 soldiers guarding the Dunera passengers. When the appalling treatment of the passengers came to light he was court-martialled and “severely reprimanded.” Two non-commissioned officers were reduced to the rank of private, given 12-month prison sentences, and then kicked out of the army.
- The British government estimated the value of the property stolen or destroyed to be ₤35,000 (that’s almost ₤2 million in today’s money). Belatedly, ₤35,000 was paid in compensation.
- The Dunera continued to be used as a troop ship until 1960 when she was refitted as a cruise ship. She was withdrawn from service in 1967 and scrapped.
In 2010, Dunera Boy Survivors Gathered in Hay, Australia.
- “Dunera.” Holocaust.com.au, undated.
- “The Dunera Boys - 70 Years on after Notorious Voyage.” Mario Cacciottolo, BBC News, July 10, 2010.
- “Seventy Years After the Arandora Star Was Sunk With Loss of 713 ‘Enemy Aliens,’ the Last Scots Italian Survivor Is Able to Forgive but Not Forget.” The Scotsman, June 24, 2010.
- “War Internee to Free Man: A Dunera Boy’s Story.” Riahn Smith, The Weekly Times, April 27, 2016.
- “From Marple to Hay and Back.” Alan Parkinson, Marple-uk.com, undated.
- “Dunera Boys.” National Museum of Australia, undated.
- “Britons Finally Learn the Dark Dunera Secret.” Kate Connolly, Sydney Morning Herald, May 19, 2006.
© 2020 Rupert Taylor
MG Singh emge from Singapore on May 19, 2020:
Wonderful article about an unknown fact. Enjoyed reading it and adding to my knowledge.