The Dunera Boys - 70 years on after notorious voyage

By Mario Cacciottolo
BBC News


As the storm clouds of war gathered in the late 1930s, thousands of German refugees - either Jewish or politically opposed to the Nazis - fled to Britain for sanctuary.

Little did many of them know they would soon be deported to Australia in one of the more notorious incidents in British maritime history, later described by Winston Churchill as "a deplorable mistake".

As a wave of fear over a German invasion gripped the nation at the start of World War II, thousands of foreign nationals were kicked out over fears that they might be enemy spies.

They were put on the ship HMT Dunera, which had a capacity of 1,600 including the crew. It set sail from Liverpool 70 years ago on 10 July 1940, without the passengers - later known as the Dunera Boys - knowing where they were going.

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.

After a 57-day journey in appalling conditions, during which the ship was hit by a torpedo, the internees' eventual arrival is regarded as one of the greatest influxes of academic and artistic talent to have entered Australia on a single vessel.

The 70th anniversary of the ship's arrival will be commemorated in Australia by three days of events and re-enactments.

Among the Dunera's detainees were German-born Peter Eden and Willie Field who met as young men on the ship and have been firm friends ever since. They are now both aged 90 and live in London.

Possessions taken

With the vessel hugely over capacity, Mr Eden said the men "slept on floors and benches, and if you wanted to go to the toilet at night you were walking on bodies.

"The troops that were guarding us were the worst in the British Army. I remember seeing someone walking off wearing my raincoat and I lost my watch.

"The Australians asked us where our luggage was but it had gone overboard."

The men were kept below decks for all but 30 minutes each day and there were just 10 toilets for more than 2,000 men, giving rise to the need for "toilet police" who would call up people as vacancies arose.

Image source, Other
Image caption,
The Dunera's arrival in September 1940 was captured by Australian press

Fresh water was only supplied two or three times a week and razors and shaving equipment had been confiscated. Also removed were the personal possessions of the internees, which were ransacked by some of the ill-disciplined British guards, many of whom were later accused of acts of cruelty and assault.

Mr Eden said that while in the Irish Sea, a torpedo hit the Dunera "with a loud bang" but did not detonate.

"A second torpedo was fired and because the waves were heavy, the ship went up just as the torpedo passed underneath," he said, matter-of-factly. Despite these incidents, the ship carried on.

Mr Field, who had survived a spell in Dachau concentration camp before coming to Britain, said he found an open hatch below decks through which he and fellow internees each breathed fresh air in 10-minute shifts, a respite from the foul stench of many bodies confined in a dimly-lit confined space for weeks without ventilation.

'Bedraggled lot'

When this hatch was discovered by the soldiers - described by Mr Field as "the lowest of the lowest" - it was sealed.

Upon initial arrival in Australia, the Italian and Nazi prisoners of war disembarked in Melbourne, and then once the ship arrived in Sydney on 6 September 1940, an Australian medical officer came on board.

His damning report led to a court martial of several of the British guards. A senior officer and a sergeant were severely reprimanded and another soldier was reduced to the ranks, given a 12-month prison sentence, then discharged from the Army.

Mike Sondheim, 93, has been president of the Dunera Association for 20 years and has lived in Melbourne since his arrival. He estimates there are less than 100 Dunera Boys left alive.

He said the ship's arrival was not what the Australians had expected, with the passengers being "a bedraggled lot, some in heavy overcoats, hats, others with summer wear having lost everything, some orthodox Jews in their traditional black garb and hats.

"A mixed lot, certainly no trace of any uniformed enemy soldiers or parachutists, as the press implied."

Historian Helen Fry said: "It was one thing to intern these men in camps in the UK, but quite another to intern them in Australia.

"The shocking thing was not only the conditions of the ship, but the fact they were deported along with Nazi and Italian fascists. This showed a complete misunderstanding about their situation. It was a very un-British thing to do."

Image source, (C) British Broadcasting Corporation
Image caption,
Peter Eden and Willie Field met on the Dunera 70 years ago

After questions were asked about the matter in the House of Commons, the British government soon realised their mistake and needed a legitimate reason to bring the deportees back, but in a manner in which they would not lose face, Ms Fry added.

Therefore the men, by now kept in camps in Hay, New South Wales, were offered the chance to return and fight in the British armed forces.

After taking up the invitation, both Mr Eden and Mr Field helped the nation's war effort, the former seeing active service and eventually becoming a counter-intelligence officer, hunting Nazis after the war's end.

Mr Field became a tank driver, was involved in D-Day and was the only survivor after his tank was hit by a shell.

New names

Both men say they bear no animosity towards Britain for having deported them in the first place, and maintain they were grateful to the nation for having saved their lives in the first place. Both later became British citizens and adopted their current names, abandoning their original Germanic ones.

Mr Eden later became a Lord, but indicated he should be addressed by his untitled name for his interview.

Many from the Dunera returned to fight, but others remained in Australia and later became notable contributors to that nation's scientific, business, academic and cultural communities. A number of them were awarded the Order of Australia later on in their lives.

Also among those on the Dunera were Franz Stampfl, who helped coach the athlete Roger Bannister to the world's first sub-four minute mile and Anton Walter Freud, grandson of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud.

Image source, Other
Image caption,
The deportees were taken to internment camps in Australia by train.

In her book Freud's War, Dr Fry quotes Walter Freud, who later wrote about the Dunera in his unpublished memoirs.

He said: "Although the most essential medicaments were lacking, vital medicines like insulin were thrown overboard when discovered to be owned by the internees.

"False teeth were removed, destroyed or thrown overboard… religious artefacts - vestments, prayer books, Bibles and phylacteries were taken away or torn. Some vestments were returned thanks to the interned Chief Rabbi Lt Malouy.

"Some of the vestments had been removed from burning synagogues in Nazi Germany."

With space at a premium, he also said he was "lucky and found myself in a hammock, able to be sick on everybody below me".

After Walter's internment Leonard Woolf, husband of author Virginia Woolf and Sigmund Freud's publisher, wrote to Clement Attlee, then leader of the Labour Party group in Churchill's coalition government.

He said: "Freud and his family, when they came here, were welcomed as distinguished guests and victims of the Nazis.

"That any of them should now be interned as dangerous and that a grandson of Freud should have been sent off to Australia by the government seems to me amazing."

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