Jul 2010 Journal

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‘A deplorable mistake’: The Dunera 70 years on

This month marks the 70th anniversary of the sailing of the infamous troopship Dunera. On 11 July 1940, the Dunera left the port of Liverpool carrying 2,000 (mainly) Jewish internees to Australia, along with 251 Nazi POWs and 250 Italian Fascists. None knew their intended destination.

Less than 48 hours after leaving Liverpool, the ship took a direct hit from a German submarine U-56 off the coast of Ireland. ‘We were aware of the dangers of U-boats,’ recalls AJR member Peter Eden, ‘but could only hope we were not attacked. Fortunately the torpedo failed to go off and we were able to continue the journey.’

The internees finally discovered that they were bound for Australia and faced an arduous nine-week journey in desperately overcrowded conditions. They were confined below deck for 23½ hours a day with poor ventilation and inadequate sanitary arrangements.

Many of the internees were man-handled by the ship’s crew. ‘All the gangways were barbed wired,’ comments AJR member Willy Field, ‘so no one could escape. People were pushed around, some beaten up. We had our belongings confiscated and in some cases thrown into the sea. Neither daylight nor natural air ever reached the decks. We were treated like German prisoners, not refugees from Nazism.’

The Dunera finally docked in Australia on 6 September and the Jewish internees were taken to two camps at Hay. Life in internment turned out to be productive. The internees formed their own university, football teams and cultural events and even printed camp money. After a year in internment around 400 internees volunteered for the British forces, returned to Liverpool on the SS Stirling Castle, then served in the Pioneer Corps before transferring to fighting units of the British army.

Eventually, the entire Dunera episode was acknowledged by Winston Churchill as ‘a deplorable mistake’. The officers and other ranks involved in the mistreatment of the internees were court-martialled and severely reprimanded.
 

Helen Fry

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