What was an Enemy Alien?

From ‘Enemy’ to ‘Allied’ Alien

Adventures of a German-Jewish ship deserter in Australia during World War II

A unique WWII Australian immigration story

Berlin, Zurich, Naples, Shanghai, Tokyo and Yokohama, were cities that Helmut ‘Henry’ Dreyer, my grandfather, lived for various periods of time before arriving – as a 20-year-old Engine Boy on the Norwegian oil tanker Pan Europe – in the Port of Brisbane on August 28, 1940.

“I heard you are a Jew. I hate Jews. If you return to this ship when we depart in three day’s time, I will throw you overboard when we are two hours out at sea”. Those words by Pan Europe’s Third Officer changed the course of Mr Dreyer’s life and meant he had but three days to find refuge in Australia or – so he strongly believed – he would be murdered by Pan Europe’s Third Officer (name unknown) and his fellow Nazi sympathisers among the ship’s crew.

According to his oral testimony, having grown up in the German capital Berlin and being surrounded by the anti-Jewish slogans, ideology and fervour of the Nazis and their supporters, Mr Dreyer feared this was no idle threat – “because with these Nazis you don’t get a second chance”. His father, Salomon Dreyer, had been deported from Berlin to the Polish border during the Polenaktion transports in October 1938.

Mr Dreyer had three days on an Australian Landing Permit in Brisbane to resolve his precarious situation so as not to be compelled to return to the Pan Europe – and possibly thrown overboard by the crew after it departed – and continue on to Brazil which was his final destination.

Mr Dreyer had several challenges. He had no contacts in Brisbane and the local Rabbi refused to help him, only suggesting he “turn himself in to the immigration authorities and state his case”. As alluded to above, throughout his young life, Mr Dreyer’s experience with ‘authorities’ had not been positive. He was reluctant to turn himself in without first having a day or two to think about what he was going to do, contact family in Shanghai and reach out to a childhood friend who had immigrated to Sydney a few years prior.

The Australian government’s National Security (Aliens Control) Regulations 1939 Act was well in force by the time Mr Dreyer arrived at Brisbane Port.

The outbreak of World War II in September 1939 led to public panic over the potential threat from people residing in Australia who might harbour loyalties to countries at war with the British Empire. Government regulations required ‘enemy aliens’ to register at their local police department, limit their travel to within their police district and obtain permission from authorities to change their address. This particularly affected thousands of Australians from German, Italian and Japanese backgrounds – even those who had resided in Australia for many years and in some cases their spouses and children too. 

Henry Dreyer was travelling on a Polish passport (something his father was able to secure for his wife and sons prior to being deported to Poland), but it stated that his place of birth was Berlin. Mr Dreyer predicted that his place of birth would be an issue in Australia, in addition to the fact that he was a ship-deserter, making his claim to be a ‘refugee’ suspicious in the eyes of authorities.

Making use of his Landing Permit, Mr Dreyer disembarked from the Pan Europe and sought help from an Australian soldier who was stationed at Brisbane Port. The soldier introduced Mr Dreyer to an Australian mother and son who lived in the Brisbane suburb of Bulimba, just across the Brisbane River from where the Pan Europe was docked. Martha Laurens and her son Lyndon Laurens were members of Christian sect called Brethren. Their religion compelled them to assist Mr Dreyer as they were “taught to be good to the Jews because their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ was a Jew”. They sheltered Mr Dreyer in their home and arranged a job for him milking cows at a local dairy. Mr Dreyer was living illegally in Australia for several weeks before he was reported to the local police. His internment journey begins at this point.


[1] From Helmut Dreyer’s oral testimony recorded for the Twelfth Hour Project in 1990 by interviewer Agnes Seemann at 3 Weonga Road, Dover Heights, NSW. Cassette three, side one.