The Dunera - a ship with a cargo of talent

By John Lewis

After the fall of France in May 1940, the German Army stood poised to invade Britain.

In the ensuing panic, thousands of “enemy aliens” — Germans, Austrians and Italians — were rounded up by British authorities to be transported overseas. Some were Nazi sympathisers, but most were political refugees, or people working in England or just visiting family and friends. Many were Jewish.

Some were sent to Canada, others to Australia.

The troopship Dunera, with a capacity of 1600, set sail from Liverpool on July 4, 1940, with none of its 2500 passengers knowing where they were going.

After a 57-day journey in appalling conditions, during which the ship was hit by a torpedo that failed to detonate, the Dunera arrived in Melbourne on September 1, 1940.

Five hundred detainees were sent to be housed at the newly built Camp 2 at Tatura. The remaining 2000 Dunera passengers were sent to internment camps at Hay in far west NSW.

After a few months in Hay, drought and sandstorms forced their transfer to the Tatura camps.

The “Dunera Boys” were a mixed group — mainly German Jewish refugees, university lecturers, artists, musicians, businessmen and Italians, some of whom were celebrated chefs from the best known London hotels.

In the Tatura camps, they organised fitness classes and schooling, from kindergarten to matriculation; they gave workshops, from carpentry to music and languages; and with talented actors and singers they put on concerts and theatrical performances.

Many trusted prisoners worked on local orchards and farms.

At the end of the war, many detainees chose to stay in Australia and make a new life far from the ruins of Europe. The arrival of the Dunera Boys is today regarded as one of the greatest influxes of academic and artistic talent to have entered Australia on a single vessel.