National Archives of Australia

Issue 5 January 2012

The ‘friendly alien’ in wartime Australia

Australian conceptions of race, citizenship and security shaped our policy towards Allied nationals resident here when their homelands were invaded during World War II. Often our attitudes towards ‘friendly aliens’ were at odds not only with Britain, but with other countries of the Empire. The Archives’ Margaret George Award recipient Dr Daniel Leach has researched records in the collection to gain an insight into how friendly aliens were regarded with inherent suspicion in wartime Australia.

Alien enlistment: ‘neither necessary nor desirable’

Read caption below

A page from a War Cabinet Agendum stating that the enlistment of aliens is ‘neither necessary nor desirable’, 1940. NAA: A2671, 45/1940

From the outbreak of World War II in 1939, the question of whether friendly aliens would be allowed to enlist in Australian forces provoked debate within military and legal circles. Enlistment had long been restricted to those ‘substantially of European origin’[1], which debarred, among others, Chinese Australians, French citizens from Lebanon and Syria, and even Aboriginal Australians.

As the war progressed, Australia remained unmoved, insisting alien enlistment was ‘neither necessary nor desirable’.[2] Its only concession was to authorise the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) to accept foreign volunteers from February 1940. However, debates concerning the oath of allegiance demanded of these recruits – or even if they should be obliged to take an oath at all – delayed alien enlistments until the Australian campaign in Greece in April 1941.

Australian policy-makers also had American volunteers in mind (the United States being a ‘friendly’, if not yet actually Allied, nation), but it was émigré nationals of occupied countries who had the greatest motivation to enlist.

Greeks and Yugoslavs volunteering in Australia were eventually authorised to enlist in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF). Czechoslovak volunteers, on the other hand, who numbered fewer than 10 in the entire country, were shipped to their brigade in Palestine at considerable expense, after much debate over who should pay for them and whose uniform they should wear in transit.

Xenophon Castrisos, an aerial photographer with the RAAF during World War II. Courtesy State Library of Queensland

In time there were significant numbers of foreign forces in Australia. Dutch forces fleeing Japanese invasion of the Netherlands East Indies (modern Indonesia) were the most numerous. Free French forces from France’s Pacific territories were also equipped and trained here before serving in North Africa and Europe. Along with the Dutch, they served under their own commands, directed by governments-in-exile or local deputies.

Mistaken internment

Alfred Svendsen’s Prisoner of War/internee report, 1941. Alfred was Danish, but the report is stamped ‘German’. NAA: MP1103/2, PWQ142

Fear of invasion led to mass internment of enemy aliens in Australia during the war. Friendly aliens were not entirely spared, either. Some indeed acted in an unwisely subversive manner, such as the Dane who carved a swastika on a table top prior to his internment appeal hearing; or the Frenchman who, outraged at Britain’s attack on his country’s fleet in Algeria, uttered drunken ‘anti-British statements’ in a Barcaldine pub. He later awoke with a bad hangover at Brisbane’s Gaythorne internment camp.

There were enemy aliens who claimed neutral or Allied nationality to avoid internment. Equally, there were Yugoslavs in the mining regions of Western Australia interned as Italians, and Danish and Dutch migrants who had to prove they weren’t Germans. Greeks and Chinese in Australia soon proposed they be issued with identifying badges in order to differentiate themselves from Italians and Japanese.

Of all friendly aliens in wartime Australia, one group attracted particular attention. These were Norwegian mariners, some of whom spent the entire war interned. One Norwegian internee operated a secret radio at Tatura internment camp.[3] Fear of ‘Fifth Columnists’ and ‘Quislings’ was to cast official suspicion over many Norwegians then in Australia – including one on active service in the RAAF.

An enemy agent?

This linkage alone might have obliged the military to review security procedures for the enlistment of foreigners, but there was worse to come. In New Guinea, a Yugoslav Macedonian in Australian uniform was about to ruin his life by deserting and fleeing into the jungle, accompanied by two soldiers of Imperial Japan. ‘He was enlisted in the Australian Forces as a friendly alien,’ reads a weekly intelligence summary of February 1943, ‘but represented himself to the Japanese as a Bulgar’. As Australia had been at war with Bulgaria since January 1942, ‘it is considered that this man may be an enemy agent’.[4]

His tragic case in particular demonstrates that, to our security services in the tense environment of World War II, all ‘aliens’ were to some degree inherently suspect – whether ‘enemy’ or ‘friendly’.


1. NAA: SP459/1, 461/6/1129, Eastern Command, 11 June 1940.

2. NAA: A2671, 45/1940, War Cabinet Agendum, 24 February 1940.

3. NAA: C320, P122, Review of internments – nationalities other than Italian, German and Japanese, 19 June 1943. See also Haakon Nilsen, The Tatura Secret Radio, Nilsen-Parker, Gwandalan, 1997.

4. NAA: MT885/1, D/3/455, Dimitrevich, M. Pte – District Court-Martial, 1943.

Dr Leach is a Sessional Lecturer and Honorary Fellow at the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies, University of Melbourne.

Want more?

View Archives records relating to this article:

More Archives records about internment during World War II

Purchase In the Interest of National Security: civilian internment in Australia during World War II by Klaus Neumann from the Archives’ online shop

Read more about the Archives’ Margaret George Award

Post a comment