On 7 September 1940, the first hastily built buildings at the Hay internment camp in western New South Wales were occupied by more than 2500 predominantly Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. The refugees arrived on HMT Dunera from Britain. Amongst the Dunera internees were musicians, academics, professionals and businessmen, many of whom settled in Australia after the war and made significant contributions to this country.
The Dunera men settled into the camps well, organising concerts, sports, classes, apprenticeships and even designing their own banknotes which were printed by the Riverine Grazier in Hay. The banknotes, which were quickly outlawed by the Australian authorities as contravening the law, have become collector's items.
After the Dunera internees were moved to Tatura in Victoria, the Hay camps held Italian and Japanese POWs and civilian internees. Amongst them were the Japanese merchant seamen who had been engaged in the pearling industry in Australia. Several of these elderly men died during their imprisonment.
The only prisoner to escape from the Hay camp was an Italian POW, Lieutenant Edgardo Simoni who had been captured by Australian troops in North Africa in January 1941.
It is unlikely that 'the fox', as Simoni was known, was permitted to work with other prisoners outside the Hay camp. An Italian POW captured at Bardia in North Africa, Simoni was shipped to Australia and placed in the Murchison POW Camp near Shepparton in Victoria. He escaped from there twice: on the first occasion he was at large for 24 hours and on the second, for ten months. During that time he worked in Melbourne under an assumed name.
After he was recaptured he was sent to the Hay gaol, the most secure section of the Hay camp. However, having arranged for tools to be passed in to him, he cut his way through the bars of his cell window and escaped down the Murrumbidgee River. He was at large in Melbourne for about three months before being spotted, re-captured and returned to Hay. At the end of the war he was repatriated to Italy where he continued his army career, retiring with the rank of Colonel.
The history of Hay's POW Camp is distinguished by the achievements of those who worked there. Irrigation farms were developed and they grew huge quantities of hay, grains and vegetables and also experimented with cotton, tobacco and pyrethrum. Other projects were the brickworks, seed production, dairy, poultry farm, piggery, firewood cutting and cane grass construction. In 1947, the three Hay compounds were dismantled and everything was sold and dispersed.
In 1974, Colonel Simoni – 'the fox' - made a sentimental journey back to Hay to visit the site of his incarceration and to try to re-trace his escape route. Unfortunately conditions in the Riverina in 1974 were dramatically different from conditions during his escape. He was unable to re-trace his journey because of the flooding river, reedy swamps and unbearable mosquitoes.