Arrival of Dunera

At the end of Wharf 21, Jones Bay, a sign commemorates Pyrmont’s most significant arrival, the troopship Dunera on 6 September 1940. During the Battle of Britain, British authorities crammed 2542 male ‘enemy aliens’ and 300 badly led and ill-trained soldiers onto the Dunera – double its capacity – and sent them to Britain’s old dumping ground. Most of the ‘enemy aliens’ were German and Austrian refugees, Jews and anti-Nazi activists, many highly educated and talented. A minority were German and Italian POWs, including Nazi sympathisers. A German U-boat hit the ship with two torpedoes, neither of which exploded. Worse during the 57-day voyage were appalling conditions, maggoty food, disease, and harassment by the guards (who also pilfered their belongings) and the Nazi clique.

At Pyrmont, an Australian army doctor, Alan Frost, inspected the ship. His damning report triggered a furore in the Australian and British parliaments; Churchill declared the episode ‘a deplorable and regrettable mistake’. The commanding officer of the guards and several others were court-martialled. Though most of the refugees were interned at Hay, far-west NSW and Tatura in Victoria, they could organise their own ‘towns’, including ‘universities’. Many testified that the heat, dust and flies of the Australian bush made more congenial companions than the SS, Gestapo and death camps of their homelands. After Pearl Harbour, the government reclassified the ‘enemy aliens’ as ‘friendly aliens’ and set them free with three options: free passage back to Britain to join the army, travel to other countries, or stay here.

1000 chose to stay, to go down in legend as ‘the Dunera boys’. Hundreds joined the armed forces, typically in intelligence and interpreting roles. Once more Britain’s outcasts flowered in Australia. Many Dunera boys and their children made a formidable contribution to the arts and academic life in their adopted country, and are celebrated, among other things in the 1985 television mini-series, The Dunera boys, a museum in Hay, websites, and on the Welcome Wall at the National Maritime Museum (also in Pyrmont). Every year the surviving Dunera boys, their families and descendants, gather to remember a terrible voyage that eventually enriched their lives and the country where they landed.

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