What is it with these British?

The Dunera association had its celebration of the 67th anniversary of the Dunera’s arrival in Sydney recently. Since my daughter had recently done a major assignment on the Dunera she and I flew up and she gave a little talk on what she’d found.  I always enjoy being with these people – people I don’t know and who are foreigners often with strong accents with whom I somehow feel familiar.  I feel familiar with their energy and directness of expression.

We got talking to a lovely woman in front of us in the audience who was intrigued by Anna’s presence.  She was great fun to talk to.  After the official talks – of which there were three, one Dunera Boy got up and gave a good impromptu speech which contained two themes.  The first was his bemused anguish that the same kind of refugee bashing was at work again in our community – a subject on which all the speakers touched.  The second was his desire to find out the truth about what happened all those (67) years ago.  He’d tried to get access to the archives, but the British authorities won’t allow access to them.  They say they’ll provide access 100 years after they were created – leaving this guy in the unlucky position of being dead at the time.  So he lamented his own resignation to never knowing why what happened happened.

It reminded me of something that happened seventeen years before.  Then, in the run up to the 50th anniversary, the Dunera Boys had sent off invitations to all and sundry.  PM Hawke, GG Hayden, the British High Commissioner, some military representatives including (I think) people from the RSL and various other notables.

The inviations were sent in February.  The replies they got were fine with the exception of the reply from the British High Commissioner who informed them by letter that he was, sadly, unavailable at the relevant time of the relevant day.

When he read a few days before the celebrations that all and sundry were turning up including His Ex the Governor General, he was, it seems a little startled and chagrined.  Leading my father who gave one of the speeches to mention it in his speech.  Dad wasn’t the humourless or unfriendly type.  He was ultimately grateful to the British for ending up in Australia and very unprepared to complain about what was a miserable trip at the hands of a bunch of sadists running the ship. Dad’s attitude was that stuff like that happens from time to time and there were a lot worse things going on – including to his family.

But over the fold is what he said:

Apart from the needless cruelty suffered, one could nto help but be angry at the sheer inefficiency of it all. Here were thousands of dedicated opponents of what the German Nazi dictatorship stood for, men who could have been used to help the British war effort.

instead, either panic or a well-ocrhestrated anti-refugee campaign plus prejudice, induced the British authorities to use scarce ships, materials and personnel to transpurt us thousands of miles away to Canada and Australia.

The fact that we were going to reminisce about this incompetence and inefficiency probably explains the refusal of the current British High Commissioner in Australia, Sir John Cole, to accept our invitation to be among the specially invited guests at this gathering.

After some publicity about our reunion recently we have received the following letter from Sir John Cole two days ago:

Further to my letter of 5 February to Fred Gruen regretting your invitation to attend the 50th anniversary function on 6 September I should be most grateful if the following message could be releayed to those attending:

I sent my apologies to you for being unable to attend these ceremonies today but my warmest wishes are with you for a memorable day.  Much water has passed under the bridge since you first set foot on Australian soil on 6 September 1940 – fifty years ago.  The Australian nation has grown and prospered beyond recognition and you with her.  May I wish you all many happy years to come.

I thank Sir John for his warm, if not entirely spontaneous, greetings on this occasion.

What a strange lot.

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Damien Eldridge
Damien Eldridge
16 years ago

Nice post Nick. I must admit that I had never heard of the Dunera before now. Perhaps we do need to have a look at the Australian history courses in our schools!!!

16 years ago

Glad to see this subject re-visited in a blog. It was always a sad incident and the British Government’s continuing efforts to obscure the facts makes it more so.

Francis Xavier Holden
16 years ago

It’s good to see the Dunera issue being kept in front of people every now and then and to have a reminder of how these anti nazi “enemy aliens” and “subversives” ened up contributing so much to Australia.

nic – the wiki entry is pretty lean and short. I’m sure you could usefully beef it up a bit. Remember these days, if it’s not in wiki it didn’t happen.

16 years ago

My wonderful uncle, an inoffensive dentist, was one of them.
He was born in Germany and had migrated to the UK.
My grandfather never spoke to my aunt again after they were married.

Francis Xavier Holden
16 years ago

I forgot to add that in a strange coincidence I’m currently reading 3 books on Albert Speer.

Graham Bell
Graham Bell
16 years ago

Nicholas Gruen:
British upper class do indeed have their funny little ways – which may or may ot get people killed – so the response by Sir John Cole is hardly surprising.

Wonder why it is that so little is ever said about the efforts and the contributions of Australian Jews to help their co-religionists suffering oppression in Europe prior to, during and after the Second World War?