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Prisoners of War

V: Enemy Aliens in New Zealand

V: Enemy Aliens in New Zealand

At the same time as she was safeguarding the interests of her own men and women abroad, New Zealand was engaged in securing herself against danger from enemy aliens within her own shores. In view of the potentially dangerous international situation in 1938, the New Zealand Government had in that year empowered the already existing Organisation for National Security to take such preliminary steps as would not leave the country unprepared in the event of war with Germany. This organisation, which comprised representatives of the Services, of the Department of Internal Affairs, of the Police and of other interested departments, set up committees to cover various aspects of the national emergency which hostilities would create. Among these was an Aliens Committee for deciding how to deal with enemy nationals living in New Zealand and her dependencies, so as to safeguard the interests page 16 of the country without contravening either international agreements or humane standards of conduct. As a result of the Alien Control Emergency Regulations 1939, all aliens (to the number of 9000) had to register with the police. The latter kept up-to-date lists of their names and whereabouts, and had little difficulty in a small population like that of New Zealand in keeping track of their activities and opinions.

The interest of the police in aliens had begun much earlier. In February 1934, for example, the Auckland police were keeping a watch on the activities of the Auckland German Club, where it was known that a Nazi group had grown active under the encouragement of successive German consuls with Nazi sympathies. By August 1939 the necessity for internment was being investigated, but it had been decided as a matter of policy to take into custody only those aliens with pronounced anti-British views, whose liberty would probably constitute a public danger. Arrangements were by then in hand for the arrest and detention by the police, on an order from the Attorney-General, of any persons whose records or whose open hostility warranted it. They were to be handed over to military authorities in twelve convenient centres throughout the Dominion, the Army being thereafter responsible for their custody both in transit and during interment. Although there were 786 Germans in New Zealand and 535 in Samoa, it was not anticipated at the time that the number interned would be more than fifty, and it was decided to set up a single central internment camp.

In the 1914–18 War the treatment of interned aliens by New Zealand, as a matter involving her relations with another state, had been laid down by the British Government. In October 19391 the New Zealand Government, although by then possessing full power of independent action in this field, decided in the absence of any other precedent to use the British Government's proposed course of action as a working basis for their own. The United Kingdom, in the spirit of the Tokyo Draft,2 was referring all doubtful Germans and Austrians to special tribunals to determine whether in the interests of national security they should be interned, or subjected to special restrictions, or left at liberty. If they were to be interned, they were to be placed in special camps apart from prisoners of war.

1 The period following the First World War had seen a speeding-up of the evolution of the Dominions as self-governing states responsible for their external affairs no less than their internal administration. In 1931 they were given recognition as sovereign states in British constitutional as well as international law by the Statute of Westminster. Although New Zealand declined to ratify it, she was forced in time to follow the example of her more nationally conscious sister Dominions. New Zealand's ratification took place at the end of 1947.

2 See Introduction, p. xxiv.

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In order to centralise the transmitting to Germany of information regarding Germans anywhere in the Commonwealth through one channel, namely the Prisoner-of-War Information Bureau in London, Commonwealth governments were asked to submit details of any action taken regarding enemy aliens. By 25 November New Zealand was able to report that the German consular staff of eleven had left for Germany, that 19 others were also on their way to their countries of permanent residence, and that up to that time no Germans in New Zealand had been arrested or interned. So far as Samoa and the Island Dependencies were concerned no Germans had left; but 14 were interned in Samoa, 29 (including two women) had been released on parole, and a further 15, including the president and secretary of the former Samoan Nazi Party, were coming to New Zealand for internment. The property of internees was to be vested in a Custodian of Enemy Property and ‘the utmost consideration was being given to their comfort and social needs.’1 Details had been given to the Swiss Consul as the representative of the Protecting Power for German interests in New Zealand.

Somes Island had been the site of New Zealand's camp for civilian internees in the 1914–18 War, and it was again selected for this purpose in 1939. Situated in Wellington Harbour at some distance from the mainland on every side, its 120 acres of high grassland planted with trees contained a number of buildings easily adaptable to the needs of an internment camp. The island was taken over by the Army authorities, and the first batch of German internees was landed by ferry boat on 23 December 1939.

No women or children were interned there and the treatment of the men who were was based on the Geneva Prisoners of War Convention of 1929, camp standing orders consisting largely of extracts from it. Everything within reason was done for the comfort and welfare of those interned. They had single or double cubicles, bedding which included a kapok mattress, five blankets, sheets and pillowcases, and ample bathrooms. They were given plenty of excellent food, the same in fact as that prepared for the camp staff, and generous free issues of good clothing. They shared a canteen with the camp staff and were supplied with additional comforts by the Salvation Army, the Society of Friends, the New Zealand Red Cross Society, and also by individual wellwishers. From the same sources they received books and from the New Zealand YMCA games and recreational material, including two billiard tables. They enjoyed freedom to move over the whole of

1 Government official statement released in Wellington on 28 November 1939.

page 18 the island from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m., with permission to fish and bathe; the privilege of six visitors once a week; ample provision for letters and parcels. On one occasion during the summer of 1939–40 the camp commandant, ‘to alleviate the monotony of life on the island’, even arranged a launch trip round Wellington Harbour. But although this was at the expense of the internees, it was not considered advisable to repeat it.

Despite all this it needs little imagination to see that being interned was a matter of some inconvenience and resentment for many of those taken to Somes Island. The more politically minded succeeded to some extent during the early days in organising a campaign aimed at wearing down the camp commandant and the guards by pin-pricking annoyances. This was to develop into open insolence as the war progressed and the news of German successes became known.

* * * * *

The period covered by this chapter, referred to variously as ‘The Phony War’ or ‘The Twilight War’, was filled with suspense and uncertainty for many of those whose lives had become entangled in the war. Prisoners in enemy hands were wondering whether the whole conflict might not soon finish, and so relieve them of doubts about whether to attempt an escape and about the correct course of their actions in general during captivity. Civilians in enemy countries were often surprised at the moderation of their treatment, and those in internment camps were wondering whether they might not soon be released to their homes. Next-of-kin were solicitous for news and filled with anxiety about quite often exaggerated hardships which they visualised their captive relatives enduring. They had not yet realised what long years of captivity and separation lay ahead. Governments and service departments were uncertain whether they should commit themselves to large-scale organisation for dealing with possible large future batches of prisoners. The International Red Cross Committee1 and the national Red Cross war organisations, whose purpose it was to deal with emergencies such as war, and with specific problems arising from it such as alleviating the lot of prisoners, went ahead and set up the machinery blueprinted for them. The main burden of the early relief work for Commonwealth captives fell on the British Red Cross. But though this body was pressing for expansion and campaigning for more funds in the first six months of the war, there were many who did not then realise the importance of the work for prisoners and internees on which it had embarked. There

1 The IRCC had set up a ‘Commission for Work in Wartime’ in September 1938.

page 19 were, moreover, few who foresaw the scale1 on which this work would increase before the war was finally over. In the remaining months of 1940 all this hesitation at home was to give way before the certainty of a long and bitter struggle. For those in German hands, their hopes of early release dispelled, there remained only the vague possibility of escape or the bleak prospect of years of helpless captivity in an enemy country amid the restrictions and shortages of a long war.

1 Before the evacuation of Dunkirk there were some 1500 in enemy hands; the total number of British Commonwealth prisoners who fell into enemy hands was over 300,000.