With all the talk in the news about the looming Nazi threat taking hold in Australia, we thought it a good opportunity to look at a time where there were actual Nazis in Australia. Not Nazi sympathisers or Neo-Nazis, or even members of the short-lived Australian Nationalist Socialist Party (which had a brief public profile in the 70s).
The Nazis in this story are from the then nascent-Nazi Germany. They would go on to become members of Hitler’s Third Reich, and in 1932, still six years before war broke out in Europe, they briefly – and by pure mishap – ended up stranded in a remote Aboriginal community in north Western Australia.
Their names were Hans Bertram and Adolph Klausmann, two German aviators traversing the world seeking new markets for the burgeoning German aviation industry. While Hitler was consolidating his power in their homeland, Bertram and Klausmann were piloting the Atlantis, a Junkers W33 seaplane, through Europe, the Middle-East and Asia.
Ten weeks into their journey, the pair landed in Indonesia to refuel and overhaul their engines. After splitting off from other members in their entourage, they flew south-east towards Australia, with plans to rendezvous at a later date in Shanghai.
What ensued was a catastrophic series of events that would become one of the greatest survival stories in Australian history.
The duo encountered rough storms over the Timor Sea, forcing them to land in Kimberley in north Western Australia. With no Wi-Fi, no GPS, no telephones or satellites, Klausmann and Bertram were hopelessly lost, and their seaplane desperately low on fuel. To compound their problems, the German duo incorrectly calculated their location, believing themselves to be on Melville Island, slightly north-east of Darwin, when in fact they were already 370 kilometres west of Darwin and very much on mainland Australia.
Only one day into the ordeal, after deciding to fly further west, the Atlantis ran out of fuel. The two left the seaplane and trekked by foot back to their initial landing spot. Beating off swarms of flies and mosquitos, and narrowly escaping encounters with crocodiles, the pair traversed the dry bush and desert; shirtless, shoeless and without food or water.
Seven days in, after being bested by the brutal climate and relentless onslaught of insects and animals, Klausmann and Bertram begrudgingly returned to their (incredibly useless) seaplane.
In a last-ditch attempt to save themselves, the waylaid Krauts transformed one of the seaplane’s floats into a makeshift kayak they could use to probe the area for signs of civilisation.
But after four days of journeying by kayak, they found nothing, and finally came to the crushing (yet very fucking obvious) realisation that they were not on Melville Island. Eventually, the makeshift seaplane-float kayak gave out, forcing the duo to take shelter in a cave near Cape Bernier. Here, they would sit out the remainder of the ordeal before eventually being stumbled upon by a local group of Aboriginals. *
It’s said that the local indigenous mob brought them freshly caught fish, chewed it and fed them until the men regained enough strength to walk. (If coloured folks chewing food and spitting it into the mouths of Nazis like helpless baby birds isn’t poetry then we don’t know what is). All in all, the duo lasted 39 days. Klausmann was driven mad by the experience and never fully recovered (funny that), while Bertram wrote books and directed films about the experience, and went on to join the Brownshirts and make propaganda films for the Nazi Party.
Weirdly, as thanks to the local people, and on behalf of Hitler himself, the German consulate in Australia donated a pipe organ to the Aboriginal mission in Kalumburu**.
The organ is still around today, in storage in a Benedictine monastery in New Norcia; though a little worse for wear. In another strange tale, it was shot up by a strafing Japanese fighter plane 11 years later. During the Second World War, a wing of 36 Japanese planes raided the local Kalumburu mission, mistaking it for a weapons silo, killing four children, a woman and a priest – and damaging Hitler’s gift in the attack.
Though the feted Nazi uprising that mainstream media in this country would have you believe is currently underway might be a different brand from what went down in Kalumburu in the 30s, let this story serve as a reminder that whether it’s your shirt or your skin that is proudly brown, history is, sometimes, really fucking weird.
*Fun fact: This is the only time in recorded history that a Nazi was actually happy to see a black person.
**We kid you not, this actually happened.