This week on 2SER Breakfast, Dr Peter Hobbins talked to new breakfast host Tess Connery about French Nazis in Sydney during World War II.
After France fell to Germany in June 1940 in World War II, the loyalties of French colonies around the world were divided as they had to choose between loyalty to the French Vichy government that was now in place, or the Free French rebels under General Charles de Gaulle. This confusion rippled across the British Empire as it became unclear who French colonials were loyal to and whether the Allies could rely on their support.
In September 1940 a steamship called the Pierre Loti sailed out of Indochina (Vietnam) to New Caledonia. When the ship arrived in Noumea, the new French Governor Henri Sauteau had just declared that both the New Hebrides and New Caledonia were to be a Free French colonies, and that local supporters of the French Vichy government were to be deported.
These Vichyists, mainly French citizens and some colonials, were put on board the Pierre Loti for repatriation to Indochina. Before returning to Indochina however, the ship was due in Australia.
In October 1940 the Pierre Loti arrived in Sydney. How were the Australian authorites, who were after all part of the British Empire, to deal with these people who wanted to be part of their homeland’s government but didn’t want to fight against the Germans either? They weren’t enemies or prisoners of war, so they were classed by the Australian government as aliens and housed in hotels around town while a decision was made. The crew on board the ship who were mainly Vietnamese and Lascar sailors, were
sent to the Quarantine Station at Manly, where one of the sailors inscribed his name into the sandstone.
Several of the ship’s officers were also Vichyists, with one of them, Jean de Boisriou, accused of being a ‘rabid Nazi’ by a Free French supporter in Sydney. To the Free French in Sydney it seemed clear that the Vichyists were fundamentally Nazis walking around town, and they wanted these collaborationists kicked out of Australia as well.
The British acquisitioned the Pierre Loti in November 1940 which was used as a merchant marine. The crew were offered the possibility of continuing to work on the ship if they agreed to sign a document stating that were loyal to Britain and the Free French, but none were prepared to accept these terms.
In April 1941 Quarantine Station staff reported that there were still about 50 sailors from the Pierre Loti at the station. It’s likely they were gradually returned to French territory from May 1941 along with the Vichyist passengers and officers, although it is unclear what effect the Japanese occupation of Indochina had upon such plans.
To read more about the Pierre Loti and the French Vichyists in Sydney, head to the Australian National Maritime Museum’s website here where Peter has written a more detailed blog post: https://anmm.blog/2017/11/29/two-invasions-two-nations-and-a-solitary-carving/
Peter Hobbins is an historian of science, technology and medicine at the University of Sydney. Much of his work has explored the meanings and boundaries of ‘scientific medicine’, in both nineteenth- and twentieth-century Australia. He is the author of a book on snakes and snakebite in colonial Australia, and co-author with Ursula K Frederick and Anne Clarke of ‘Stories from the Sandstone: Quarantine inscriptions from Australia’s immigrant past’, winner of the 2017 NSW Community and Regional History Prize at the Premier’s History Awards. In 2016 Peter was the Merewether Fellow at the State Library of New South Wales, researching Sydney-based amateur naturalist, James Samuel Bray. He appears on 2SER for the DIctionary in a voluntary capacity. Thanks Peter!
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