Wartime internment camps in Australia

Cover of An Illustrated Diary of Australian Internment by Edmond Samuels
Cover of An Illustrated Diary of Australian Internment by Edmond Samuels (NAA: A1336, 7597)

In the interests of national security the Australian Government interned thousands of men, women and children during World War I and World War II. Most of those interned were classed as 'enemy aliens', that is, nationals of countries at war with Australia. Internees were accommodated in camps around Australia, often in remote locations.

The National Archives holds records about these camps, their development and administration, as well as about the government policy that established them. Our collection also includes records about the people who spent the war years in internment.

World War I

During World War I, for security reasons the Australian Government pursued a comprehensive internment policy against enemy aliens living in Australia.

Initially only those born in countries at war with Australia were classed as enemy aliens, but later this was expanded to include people of enemy nations who were naturalised British subjects, Australian-born descendants of migrants born in enemy nations and others who were thought to pose a threat to Australia's security.

Australia interned almost 7000 people during World War I, of whom about 4500 were enemy aliens and British nationals of German ancestry already resident in Australia.

Records of World War I internment camps

World War II

During World War II, Australian authorities established internment camps for three reasons – to prevent residents from assisting Australia's enemies, to appease public opinion and to house overseas internees sent to Australia for the duration of the war.

Unlike World War I, the initial aim of internment during the later conflict was to identify and intern those who posed a particular threat to the safety or defence of the country. As the war progressed, however, this policy changed and Japanese residents were interned en masse. In the later years of the war, Germans and Italians were also interned on the basis of nationality, particularly those living in the north of Australia. In all, just over 20 per cent of all Italians resident in Australia were interned.

Australia interned about 7000 residents, including more than 1500 British nationals, during World War II. A further 8000 people were sent to Australia to be interned after being detained overseas by Australia's allies. At its peak in 1942, more than 12,000 people were interned in Australia.

Records of World War II internment camps

Residents of Australia

Most internees during both wars were nationals of Australia's main enemy nations already living in Australia. During World War I Germans made up the majority of internees. During World War II, 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.

Not all internees were foreign nationals. Naturalised British subjects and those born in Australia were among those of German, Italian and Japanese origin who were interned. British-born subjects who were members of the radical nationalist organisation, the Australia First Movement, were also interned.

Men made up the majority of those interned, but some women and children also spent time in the camps.

Overseas internees

Included in the numbers of internees accommodated in Australia were enemy aliens, mostly Germans and Japanese, from Britain, Palestine, Iran, the Straits Settlements (now Singapore and Malaysia), the Netherlands East Indies (now Indonesia), New Zealand and New Caledonia. Most famous among these groups were the Germans and Italians who arrived on the Dunera from England in 1940. The overseas internees included many women and children.

Prisoners of war

During World War I and World War II, Australia held both internees and prisoners of war. Prisoners of war were members of enemy military forces who were captured or had surrendered, whereas internees were civilians. Most prisoners of war in Australia were sent from overseas, very few were captured in Australia.

Many records do not make a clear distinction between civilian internees and military prisoners of war. The terms ‘prisoner' and ‘internee' were often used for both groups. In many cases internees and prisoners of war were accommodated in the same camps.

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.

Camp life

Internment camps were administered by the army and run along military lines. During World War I they were often referred to as concentration camps. Camps were established in repurposed institutions such as the old gaols at Berrima and Trial Bay in New South Wales. The largest camp during World War l was at Holsworthy (Liverpool), west of Sydney.

During World War II, internees were first housed in prisons, such as at Long Bay gaol in New South Wales, or impromptu accommodation such as the Northam race course in Western Australia and the Keswick army barracks in Adelaide. The first camps were set up at the Enoggera (Gaythorne) and Liverpool military bases in Queensland and New South Wales and at the Dhurringile Mansion in Victoria.

As the numbers of internees grew, the early camps became too small. The Australian Government then constructed purpose-built camps at Tatura (Rushworth) in Victoria, at Hay and Cowra in New South Wales, at Loveday in South Australia and at Harvey in Western Australia.

Life for the 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.

After the wars

At the end of each war the internment camps were closed down. After World War I, most internees were deported. During World War II many internees, particularly Italians, were released before the end of the war. Others were allowed to leave the camps after hostilities ceased. Internees of British or European origin were permitted to remain in Australia after the war, including those who had been brought from overseas by British authorities. Most of those of Japanese origin, however, including some who were Australian-born, were ‘repatriated' to Japan in 1946.

Resources on wartime internment in Australia

View the Uncommon Lives website feature on internee Wolf Klaphake, a German scientist and inventor who emigrated from Germany in 1935. The website traces the story of his four-year detention in Australian internment camps during World War II.  

  • Fact sheets on Internment records provide more information about the Archives records on aliens, internees and prisoners of war

Publications available in the Archives' online shop:

The Australian War Memorial's collection includes many photographs of internment camps and internees during both World War I and World War II. Many of the photographs used on these webpages have been kindly provided by the Australian War Memorial.

Internment of Australians overseas

During World War II, hundreds of Australian civilian nationals were interned overseas by the Japanese. The Archives holds extensive records relating to their internment in the Asia–Pacific region and the Australian Government's response. Dr Christina Twomey, co-winner of the Margaret George Award in 2004, used these records to research the experiences of these internees.

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2014