Prisoners of war and internees down under

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Whilst it is well known that Australians have been held as prisoners of war (POWs) overseas, lesser-known is that Australia kept thousands of its own military and civilian POWs.

In the interests of national security throughout both World Wars, the Australian Government established internment camps to accommodate military prisoners of war transferred to Australia and to prevent certain groups from assisting enemy powers.

A large number of those interned in both wars were classed as ‘enemy aliens’, that is, those with ancestral or citizen links to countries at war with Australia.

During the First World War Germans made up the majority of internees. Australia interned about 7,000 people during the First World War, of whom about 4,500 were ‘enemy aliens’.

During the Second World War, as well as Germans, there were also large numbers of Italian and Japanese internees. Internees also included nationals of over 30 other countries including Finland, Hungary, Portugal and Russia.

A group of men in uniforms standing on the boat

Arrival of a prisoner on Torrens Island 1914. National Library of Australia 5016753. (Paul Dubotzki)

Australia interned 7,000 of its own residents and a further 8,000 people were sent to Australia to be interned as POWs. At the peak of the Second World War, more than 12,000 people were interned in camps across Australia. Approximately one-fifth of all Italian residents in Australia, one-third of Germans and almost all Japanese became internees during the war.

Not all internees were foreign nationals. Naturalised British subjects, Allied military prisoners and those born in Australia of German, Italian and Japanese origin were also interned. After Japan entered the war, there were concerns by some that Aboriginal people in north Australia may assist the Japanese and many were interned as a result. Likewise, hundreds more were interned (mainly Guugu Yimidhirr people), because of their association with a German-born pastor at a Lutheran mission station at Spring Hill on the Endeavour River.

British-born subjects who were members of the radical nationalist First Movement, were also interned. Men made up the majority of those interned, but some women and children also spent time in the camps.

Men (some smoking cigarets and pipes) looking through the window.

Paul Dubotzki (centre) and other Torrens Island internees, 1915 (Paul Dubotzki)

Internees were accommodated in camps in every state and territory, often in remote locations.

Many records don’t make a clear distinction between civilian internees and military prisoners of war and the terms ‘prisoner’ and ‘internee’ are often used interchangeably for both groups.

There were differences, however, in the rights of these two groups and the way they could be treated by Australian authorities. For example, prisoners of war could be made to work while internees could not. Internees also had to be paid for any work they undertook.

Life for internees varied between the camps, particularly between those that were temporary camps and those that were purpose built. The conditions also depended on the geographical location of the camp, its climate, the composition of the camp population and importantly the personality of the officer in charge.

A large group of men behind the wired fence in front of the hotel building.

Hotel De Ville, Torrens Island. (Paul Dubotzki)

While Australia’s treatment of POWs is considered to have been fair, the reasons behind civilian internment remain a contentious issue. It is easy to understand how many civilian internees would have felt hard done by, with some having lived in Australia all their lives.

During the First World War, nearly 7,000 Germans and Austrians were interned in Australia commonly for crimes only of their family descent. A young apprentice photographer, Paul Dubotzki was among them. Dubotzki had been on an expedition to South-East Asia before the war, and was running a photographic studio in Adelaide when he was interned as an 'enemy alien'.

During his five years of confinement in Australia, he documented inmate life.

Dubotzki’s first pictures focused on the mistreatment of inmates in the Torrens Island camp in South Australia and were used as evidence in a Defence Department inquiry in to the camp’s operation, which saw inmates transferred to camps in NSW.

Dubotzki was moved to several other camps in NSW including Holsworthy, Trial Bay and Berrima gaol.

In these later camps, Dubotzki focused his lens on the camp community and culture that developed around him. His insightful photographs show fellow inmates making the best of their situation.

Men performing acrobatics

A 1918 photo of German WWI internees performing acrobatics in the Holsworthy gym. (Paul Dubotzki)

To pass the time and bolster spirits, the internees built things, performed theatrical plays and musical events, participated in small business endeavours and sporting contests.

What is clear from Dubotzki’s photographs is the strength of human spirit. The internees came from all walks of life and acted as muse for the young photographer. Among his fellow inmates was beer baron Edmund Resch and budding illustrator Kurt Wiese who would go on to illustrate the pictures in the original Bambi book.

Dubotzki was repatriated home to Germany in and died in 1969, aged 78.