Photo Credit:
Roy Rogers in 1942 shortly before joining the Royal Armored (tank) Corps.

Rogers was very tense at the start of the journey, fearing that at any moment Gestapo men might arrest him and take him off the train. When the train passed beyond Nazi-controlled territory, Roy finally felt a flood of relief. He would always remember crossing the Channel on a ferry, the train trip up to London, and checking in at Bloomsbury House, the Jewish refugee center that coordinated jobs and lodging for new arrivals.

He began to settle in over the following months, appreciating his newfound freedom in England. But on September 1, 1939, the Nazis invaded Poland and England declared war on Germany. Rogers and 55,000 other refugees from Nazi oppression were suddenly classified as “enemy aliens” because of their German-Austrian origins. They were quickly rounded up and placed in internment camps. Rogers found himself interned on the Isle of Man off the western coast of England.

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Boredom, isolation and not knowing what was happening in the outside world were Rogers’s biggest hardships – though his situation would soon worsen. Wanting to eliminate any potential “enemy alien” threat, Britain moved to transport 7,000 military-age internees from UK soil. In June 1940, several transports sailed for Canada – one of them, the Arandora Star, was torpedoed by a German U- boat, resulting in the loss of 630 detainees.

Soon after, Rogers and 2,000 others were transported to the port of Liverpool. There they were met by gruff, tightlipped British guards who gave them no indication of their destination as they were marched up a gangplank onto an ocean liner-turned prison ship, the HMT Dunera. They were forced below deck into the ship’s bowels where there was no place to sit but the hard steel floor.

And so began an eight-week voyage. Also aboard were 250 Nazi POWs and another 200 Italian Fascist prisoners. The British guards made no distinction between the enemy combatants and the interned refugees, treating both with distain and harshness. Rogers and the other internees remained cooped up below deck 23 hours a day. Whenever he was allowed, Rogers went up on deck to get fresh air but when he and the others were topside they had to do their best to avoid the guards, who doled out punches ruthlessly for no reason and arbitrarily snatched whatever papers, books and other possessions the refugees held and threw them overboard.

Beyond the severe discomfort there was also the danger of getting sunk by enemy submarines prowling the seas. Only two days out of Liverpool, the men in the holds of the ship heard a terrifying boom along the hull. They feared the ship would go down from a torpedo hit. It was later confirmed that the Dunera in fact had been hit, but the torpedo was a dud that failed to detonate and the ship continued on its grim voyage.

The captain of Nazi U-Boat 56 later confirmed his attempt to sink the Dunera but said he didn’t try again because books and letters in German had been found in the ship’s wake. Thinking the Dunera carried only German POWs, he did not want to sink it.

* * * * *

After 57 days the Dunera arrived in Sydney. The exiles were transported another 750 kilometers by train to a remote internment camp in Australia’s interior. There, the internees were finally treated humanely. An Australian doctor examining them on their arrival was shocked by their condition and issued a report that prompted an investigation of the Dunera affair.

Two ranking officers and several guards were court-martialed for mistreating the deportees. Prime Minister Winston Churchill called the event “a deplorable and regrettable mistake.” British officials reassessed their overall internment policy and realized that refugees from Nazi oppression could help in the war effort. They sent a high-ranking military officer to the Australian camp and he began recruiting the German-speaking exiles. Of the 2,000 transported internees, some 500 “Dunera Boys,” Rogers included, left the relative safety of Australia and eagerly enlisted in the fight against the Nazis. They sailed back on a troop ship, crossing through the Panama Canal into the German U-boat infested Atlantic, finally reaching Britain without incident.

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Ed Lion is a former reporter for United Press International now living in the Poconos.