Wartime internment camps in Australia

During World War I and World War II, Australia held both prisoners of war and internees.

Prisoners of war were captured members of enemy military forces, or those who had surrendered.

Internees were mostly ‘enemy aliens’ from countries at war with Australia. Most were civilian men, but some women and children were also interned. Internees were held in camps around Australia, often in remote locations. People were interned based solely on their nationality, even if they had done no wrong.

We hold records about:

  • internment camps
  • camp development and administration
  • government policy on internment
  • people who spent the war years in internment.

World War I

During World War I, the Australian Government interned ‘enemy aliens’ living in Australia.

Initially, the government classed foreign nationals of countries at war with Australia as enemy aliens. Later, this expanded to include:

  • naturalised British subjects originally from enemy nations
  • Australian-born descendants of migrants from enemy nations
  • others who posed a threat to Australia’s security.

Australia interned almost 7000 people in World War I internment camps. They included around 4500 enemy aliens and British nationals of German ancestry living in Australia.

World War II

With the outbreak of World War II, there were concerns in Australia about German ‘fifth-columnists’. By 1941 to 1942, many also feared a Japanese invasion. The aims of internment in World War II were to:

  • identify and intern those who threatened the safety or defence of Australia
  • allay public concerns
  • hold internees who were sent to Australia by its overseas allies.

As the war continued, many Japanese people were interned. Germans and Italians were also interned because of their nationality, particularly those living in northern Australia. Around 20 per cent of all Italians living in Australia were interned.

At the peak of the war, Australia held more than 12,000 people in internment camps.

Over the course of the war, internees included:

  • 7000 Australian residents, including 1500 British nationals
  • 8000 people from overseas.

Internees from overseas

During World War I, Germans living in Australia made up most internees. The decision to intern someone was sometimes based purely on that person’s family or occupation.

During World War II, internees were mainly German, Italian and Japanese. Australia also interned people from more than 30 countries, including Finland, Hungary, Portugal and Russia.

Overseas allies also sent ‘enemy aliens’, mostly German and Japanese, to Australia to be interned. Men, women and children came from:

  • Britain
  • Palestine
  • Iran
  • the Straits Settlements (now Singapore and Malaysia)
  • the Netherlands East Indies (now Indonesia)
  • New Zealand
  • New Caledonia.

The Dunera Boys

One notable group of overseas internees arrived from England in 1940 on board the Dunera. They were mostly Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria who had fled persecution — only to be interned by the British and shipped to Australia.

Despite the terrible treatment they suffered, some of the Dunera Boys went on to make significant contributions to the social, cultural and economic fabric of postwar Australia.

Internees from Australia

Not all internees were from overseas. There were people in the camps who, while of German, Italian or Japanese ancestry, had been naturalised or were born in Australia.

British-born Australians linked to the radical Australia First Movement were also interned.

Mostly internees were men, but women and children also spent time in the camps. In all-male camps, internees were prone to depression, anxiety and psychological disorders.

Internees or prisoners of war?

Many records do not make a distinction between civilian internees and prisoners of war. The terms ‘prisoner' and ‘internee’ were often used for both groups, and prisoners and internees sometimes lived together in the same camp.

Prisoners of war and internees had different rights and authorities treated them differently. Authorities could force prisoners of war to work, for example, while internees had to be paid for any work they did.

Life in internment camps

Internment camps were overseen by the army and run like military camps. They were set up in reused buildings, such as the old jails at Berrima and Trial Bay in New South Wales.

The largest camp during World War l was at Holsworthy, west of Sydney.

During World War II, internees were kept in repurposed facilities, including:

  • Long Bay jail, New South Wales
  • Northam racecourse, Western Australia
  • Keswick army barracks, South Australia
  • military bases at Enoggera, Queensland, and Liverpool, New South Wales
  • Dhurringile mansion, Victoria.

With more internees, these camps became too small. The government built new camps at:

  • Tatura, Victoria
  • Hay and Cowra, New South Wales
  • Loveday, South Australia
  • Harvey, Western Australia.

Life for internees was different in each camp. Conditions depended on:

  • whether the camp was purpose built
  • where the camp was
  • what the climate was like
  • who else was in the camp
  • the personality of the officer in charge.

Some camps functioned as mini-societies, with their own currencies, schools and management committees.

After the wars

Internment camps closed at the end of each war.

World War I

The government deported most internees at the end of the war.

World War II

The government released many internees before the end of the war. Others could leave the camps when fighting stopped. Internees from Britain or Europe could stay in Australia. Most Japanese internees, including some who were born in Australian, were sent back to Japan in 1946.

Australians interned overseas

Hundreds of Australians were interned overseas by the Japanese during World War II.

We hold extensive records about Australians interned in the Asia-Pacific region and the Australian Government’s response.

Records about wartime internment camps

Find out about alien registration and internment records held at the National Archives.

If you can't find what you're looking for, please ask us.

Publications

Find out more about wartime internment camps

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