No. 1 Internment Camp, Tatura

Response

Camp 1 at Tatura is the first of a number of purpose-built camps that were established throughout Australia to house “enemy aliens” and/or prisoners of war during World War II. The internment camps continue to serve as a powerful example of how everyday citizens can be implicated in the pursuit of robust national security during wartime.

A black and white photograph of multiple single storey buildings in a rural landscape. There are several eucalyptus trees in the foreground. No. 1 Internment Camp, Tatura. Source: Tatura Irrigation and Wartime Camps Museum.

Just as Australia and its Allies moved to ensure external security throughout the war, focus was also directed internally. This manifested in a fear that foreign nationals of countries at war with Australia—largely Germany, Italy, and Japan—might become saboteurs or spies. As a result, thousands of Australian residents suddenly found themselves identified as “enemy aliens” and potential threats to Australia's national security.

From 1939, the National Security (Aliens Control) Regulations were introduced to control and monitor “enemy aliens.” The regulations required these residents to register and restrict their travel between work and home. Formal permission was required to travel further or change residence. However, the most dramatic response was the internment of these residents in camps. A number of purpose-built camps were constructed to house “enemy aliens” living in Australia and others sent to Australia for internment after being detained by Allied countries; also, from 1941, to hold prisoners of war (POWs).

In early-1940, Camp 1 for internees was established at Tatura. The area had been selected for its agricultural land, the large reservoir nearby, and most importantly, its inland regional location, which made escape difficult. Camp 1 housed male civilian internees from 1940 until 1947. It became the nucleus of a localised group of seven Internment and Prisoner of War camps located at Tatura, Dhurringile, Rushworth, Murchison, and Graytown. This was the largest group of World War II internment and POW camps constructed in Australia. These camps housed the majority of internees and POWs held in Victoria, and the greatest concentration of internees and POWs in Australia.

A large group of people stand in a courtyard surrounded by single storey buildings. Some men are seated on chairs and a man can be seen reading a paper in the foreground. Eucalyptus trees can be seen beyond the buildings. German internees of No. 1 Internment Camp, Tatura, listening to a concert, 1943. Source: Australian War Memorial.

From 1939 to 1947, the Tatura camps held around 8,000 men, women and children at any one time, both prisoners of war and “enemy aliens.” Prisoners of war were often sent to Australia from other Allied countries, but also included captured enemy personnel such as the German crew from the Kormoran. The German cruiser had suffered significant damage when it sank HMAS Sydney off the coast of Western Australia on 19 November 1941, and 318 of the Kormoran’s 399 crew were captured and sent to POW camps across the country. The Captain and his officers ended up at Dhurringile POW Camp, just south of Tatura. At that camp, Kormoran Captain Detmers and other German officers engineered a daring escape, building a secret tunnel over a period of years. A state-wide search ensued and eventually all twenty escapees were recaptured.

However the circumstances that brought most internees to the camps were through no fault of their own, and despite experiencing hardship they found ways to bring meaning and enjoyment to their daily lives. Internees established their own study classes and theatre groups and undertook a range of activities such as gardening, clothes making, furniture and toy making, as well as organising a range of regular sports. Numbers of internees volunteered to work on local farms to help with the labour shortage.

A black and white photograph of three men standing in front of workbenches inside a timber and corrugated iron shed. German internees of No. 1 Camp, Tatura Internment Group, work at benches in one of the workshops in the camp. Source: Australian War Memorial.

The Tatura camps also housed many of the “Dunera Boys” associated with the infamous deportation of internees to Australia due to overcrowding in Britain. In 1940, over 2,500 men were crammed onto the HMT Dunera—a ship that had the registered capacity for 1,600 people. The majority of these men were Jewish refugees and were transported alongside German and Italian prisoners of war, some of whom were Nazi and fascist sympathisers. The conditions on the ship were appalling. The men suffered physical and verbal abuse at the hands of the British guards, and had possessions and documents stolen or thrown overboard. Upon arrival in Australia, they were divided up to be interned at Hay in New South Wales and at Tatura. Their treatment was so poor that the British Government agreed to pay £35,000 in compensation to the group, and the incident was described by Winston Churchill as "a deplorable mistake".

The “Dunera Boys”, as they became known, included musicians, artists, philosophers, mathematicians, scientists and writers, who greatly contributed to life in the camps. Following their release in 1941 many chose to remain in Australia, making a significant contribution to the nation’s economic, social, and cultural life. The story of the Dunera Boys has been documented in numerous films and books.

A black and white photograph of a large group of men standing in a hall. The men are smiling and wearing suits. Dunera Boys reunion, Melbourne, 1963, by Henry Talbot. Source: National Library of Australia.

More information on the history and the experiences of those interned can be explored by visiting the Tatura Irrigation and Wartime Camps Museum.

The lives of internees and prisoners of war are commemorated in two foreign war cemeteries established in Victoria following the end of World War II in close proximity to the camps: the German War Cemetery at Tatura, and the Italian Ossario at Murchison cemetery. The German War Cemetery, officially inaugurated in 1958, contains the exhumed and reinterred remains of 272 German internees and POWs from across Australia who died while detained during World Wars I and II. Similarly, the Ossario, which opened in 1961, provided for the reburial of 130 World War II Italian internees and POWs (129 men and 1 woman). Both sites continue to be important places of remembrance for descendants and others.

A colour photograph of a stone building with a gabled roof. The building has a bell tower with a cross on its roof. Italian Ossario, Murchison. Source: Greater Shepparton Council. Located on the lands of the Yorta Yorta people.