At the start of the First World War a wave of popular xenophobia hit Britain. German Shepherds were renamed Alsatians to convince us that they might be borderline French. Dachshunds were stoned in the street. German-owned—or at least German-sounding—businesses had their windows smashed. The two most prominent branches of the Royal family—the Saxe-Coburgs and the Battenbergs—became the Windsors and the Mountbattens (one might wonder why Windsor in preference to say Scunthorpe or Sidcup?) the originals now remembered only as the names of, respectively, a chunky loaf of bread and a lurid pink and yellow cake.
Nothing like that happened in WW2. Nothing like that happened in 1939. It was 1940, at the fall of France and Norway, that xenophobia hit and then at governmental rather then the popular level, when thousands of foreign nationals—Germans, Austrians and Italians (although, oddly, we were not yet at war with Italy), most of them refugees, but many of them long term residents—were rounded up and interned as a potential Fifth Column. It was tragedy, it was farce—and anyone enquiring into it today is likely to find that there are still a few files in the National Archives at Kew marked “closed” that are inaccessible to researchers ” but this is Britain ” we have no Freedom of Information Act and often the best way to enquire about the activities of government or Secret Services is to go to an archive such as the LBJ library in Austin, where you will learn more British secrets of, for example, our 1960s foreign policy than you will in Britain itself. I’ve been waiting fifteen years or more for the Home office to answer queries about things that happened in 1940. Still, patience is a virtue and in Britain a necessary one.
Only the most naive could have thought after the Munich crisis of 1938 that war was avoidable. Among the precautions the British took was the passing into law, only two weeks before the outbreak of war, of the Emergency Powers Act (1939), clause 18B of which dealt with the possible threat from British nationals. Foreigners could simply be detained under the Royal Prerogative, which required no legislation and guaranteed no appeal—in effect a suspension of Habeas Corpus—and resident aliens were ordered to register with a tribunal shortly after the outbreak of war. The tribunals—120 of them—interviewed almost 75,000 people (I find all statistics on this matter vary, so don’t expect them to add up) and ascribed them to one of three categories:
A: High Risk. About 600 people, the majority of whom were interned immediately.
B: Doubtful. About 650 people who were allowed to remain at liberty subject to travel restrictions.
C: No Risk. An overwhelming 64,000, 55,000 of them classified as refugees from Nazism, many of them Jewish, allowed to carry on as normal.
Britain had its fascists, a British Union of Fascists and a British People’s Party. But beyond this I’d argue that the basic beliefs of fascism were little different from the core values of the deeply anti-semitic British ruling class anyway, that Hitler had adherents in both houses of Parliament, and even more, that Mussolini and Franco were much admired for their anti-communist stance and much-vaunted efficiency. Mussolini, famously, had made the trains run in time. Franco, famously, had shown us how to level a city with bombers. Quite possibly the bombers were on time too. It might be hard at the best of times to tell a toff from a fascist. Some were obvious. The most famous figure among our aristocratic fascists was Sir Oswald Mosley—a black-shirted demagogue (one is tempted to think the political movements of the 1930s were started by someone with several surplus swathes of dull cloth to sell) who had run the gamut of Britain’s political parties before founding the BUF, who had led his thugs into the East End (then the predominantly Jewish part of London) in 1936 resulting in a three way clash between fascists, police and locals known as the Battle of Cable Street. And there was Archibald Maule Ramsay MP (Conservative), proprietor of the Right Club, a bunch of overt Jew-haters whose membership included several members of the aristocracy, and none less than the Duke of Wellington, a descendant of the victor of Waterloo. Their motto? “Perish Judah.”
You might expect Mosley and Ramsay to be top of any government list by September 1939. Far from it. Neither was interned until the summer of 1940, and Ramsay not until the risk had been seriously proven, when a clerk at the US embassy, Tyler Kent, was arrested for spying for Germany and a spy ring based on the Russian Tea Rooms in South Kensington broken up. Among Kent’s possessions was the Red Book of the Right Club, listing its membership. Joe Kennedy (US ambassador to Britain) is reputed to have cracked the lock on it with a paper knife and handed over the list to MI5.
Who then did get banged up at the outbreak of war? As category A, Germans with obvious Nazi sympathies, Germans with suspected Nazi sympathies: about 350 in all—and under 18B a few oddballs rather than a few demagogues . . . for example, the novelist Henry Williamson, who was arrested in 1939 as a member of the BUF reputed to have attended Nazi meetings in Germany—he spent a weekend in custody. The arrest of, dare I say, “eccentrics” seems to be an abiding characteristic of this short-sighted operation. The following year, August 1940, St John Philby, well-known arabist and father of the spy Kim Philby, was interned, and the year after that one of the founders of the Scottish Nationalist Party, Arthur Donaldson—neither on anything that would pass muster as evidence.
It seems to be a case of not being able to see the wood for the trees, and when Churchill assumed power in May 1940 amongst his first acts was an order to “collar the lot,” and round up all remaining enemy aliens. It was a matter of moving all the trees to find the wood, something unseen in these islands since the death of Macbeth.
On May 16th 1940, during the battle of the Meuse, most category B aliens were rounded up by Scotland Yard. Two weeks later, during the evacuation from Dunkirk, a curfew of 10.30 pm was introduced for all foreign nationals over the age of 16, and later the same week the remaining Bs (men over 60 and women) were interned. By the middle of the month there were some 11,000 internees. Those of them unfortunate enough to be Italian, and Britain had large Italian communities, particularly in London and Glasgow, might have had their sense of injustice marginally lessened by Italy’s entry into the war on the Axis side. Meanwhile, as George Orwell observed, you couldn’t get a decent meal in London as the chefs from the Savoy, the Caf” Royal, the Piccadilly and most of Little Italy had all been locked up. One camp was rumoured to hold no less than fourteen top London chefs.
Then late in June the response to Churchill’s “collar the lot” was put into top gear—Home Secretary Sir John Anderson (now best-remembered for lending his name to the world’s first flat-pack furniture, a self-assembly garden air-raid shelter) ordered the round-up of the harmless, the category C aliens, and another 13,000 swelled the numbers in the makeshift camps to nearer 30,000. By now word had spread of the midnight knock of the copper with your name on his list and of the arbitrary nature of the arrests. There was diplomatic unease—US Secretary of State Cordell Hull conveyed his fears for the “far-reaching and distressing consequences” via Joe Kennedy to the Foreign Office. There was public unease—and, toothless though the phrase seems now, there were questions in the House as MPs such as Victor Cazalet and Eleanor Rathbone raised the waste, incompetence and injustice of internment. In the Lords, Lord Cecil termed it “one of the most discreditable incidents in the whole history of this country.”
Indeed it was. We had locked up the host of the ordinary—ordinary except in so far as they were exceptional; they had fled their own countries, abandoning everything they owned for the sanctuary of a country they might fairly have expected to stand by them. Britain had a long tradition of taking in Europe’s refugees and meanderers—Stalin had lived in the East End ten years before the Revolution. To this day a legend persists that Hitler had briefly been a resident of Liverpool, prompting a tabloid headline seventy years later : “Did Hitler support Everton?” We had taken in Marx, Bakunin, Herzen, Emperor Napoleon III, Einstein, Freud and hundreds from the Eastern European pogroms of the late Nineteenth Century. But that had changed. In the years leading up to the war we had established quotas and visas—quotas and visas for men fleeing Dachau and Oranienberg. Quotas and visas for a menacing horde of tailors and pastry chefs.
One of the worst incidents was arbitrary in the extreme. The Metropolitan Police surrounded Hampstead Library (a well-known haunt of Jewish intelligentsia) in north London, only half a mile from Freud’s home, singled out anyone with a foreign accent and bundled them into paddy wagons—no warning, no toothbrush, no suitcase, no appeal.
It was not simply that we locked up the tailors of the East End, the eggheads of Hampstead or the pastry chefs of Soho. We locked up the talent too—the concert pianists Rawicz and Landauer, the violinist Norbert Brainin, the mathematician Claus Moser, the composer Egon Wellesz, the artists Kurt Schwitters, Fred Uhlman and John Herzfeld, the writers Sebastian Haffner and Theodor Kramer, Martin Freud—fellow of the Royal Society and son of Sigmund—and the scientists Hermann Bondi and Thomas Gold, early proponents of the steady-state theory of the universe. Arguably, all of these would have been of more use to the war effort if recruited rather than imprisoned. A survey of the Onchan camp conducted in the summer of 1940 revealed that no less than 113 scientists had been detained. On his release Bondi went on to refine one of Britain’s war-winning inventions, radar. Interned in Huyton camp was the German physicist Klaus Fuchs. Fuchs was released in 1941, went on to work on the Manhattan project at Los Alamos, New Mexico, with Teller and Oppenheimer and was among the elite group of scientists present at the testing of the first atom bomb. Arguably, again, Bondi and Fuchs made immeasurable contributions to the war effort once released. (Alas, two years after “the bomb” Fuchs gave the secrets of atomic fission to the Russians and damaged England’s relationship with the USA far more badly than Tyler Kent had damaged the USA’s relationship with England.)
What did we do with these thousands? From local Police stations and commandeered accommodation such as barracks and schools the internees were shipped to holding camps such as Kempton Park or Lingfield race courses or direct to camps of “permanent” residence across the British Isles and away from the south coast. I say permanent. None had been designed for this purpose. In Bury, Lancashire, a derelict cotton mill had simply been wrapped in barbed wire. In Huyton, Liverpool an unfinished housing estate was commandeered. In Douglas on the Isle of Man whole streets of seaside boarding houses had been cordoned off, the windows blacked out and the summer guests replaced with the babel of Mittel-Europa.
The Isle of Man became the largest host to the interned. It was a gift to the security forces sitting as it does squarely in the Irish Sea between Scotland, Ireland and England, a five hour sailing from Liverpool, more isolated than any Hebridean island, governed by its own parliament, and that time still partly inhabited by speakers of its own variety of Gaelic, and practically immune either from attack or rescue. Camps sprang up in Onchan, Peel, Ramsey, Port Erin and Port St Mary. Men to the north, women and children to the south.
Until August 5th all these camps were under military control and it’s from this period—haphazard, makeshift, unplanned, inconsiderate, insensitive, callous, criminal—that most of the complaints about internment stem. The two most resounding complaints were the breaking up of families and the total deprivation of news—no newspapers, no radio and a cumbersome censorship of mail that led to a summer backlog of over 100,000 letters. Next was the loss of personal possessions, in particular the loss of documents such as passports—and, undeniably, there were plain acts of theft. The detention of Nazis alongside legitimate refugees was a cause of concern to both inmates—intimidated and bullied—and the world outside—alarmed and outraged. Vaughan Williams and E.M.Forster were among signatories to a letter to the London Times on July 23rd protesting ‘scenes of persecution which have already been alleged.”
The worst seems to have been the camp at Bury, known as Warth Mills. It was termed a temporary transit camp, but the conditions were scandalous, and temporary transit could mean at least a week’s stay. This is taken from a first-hand account :
“Two thousand people were housed in the whole building . . . there were eighteen watertaps . . . one bath tub . . . our beds were only boards . . . there were neither tables nor benches, we had to eat standing . . . the lighting for the place came through the glass roof, partly broken, the rain came in also . . . there were fights about lavatories . . . the commandant refused to give any drugs for the sick without payment . . . blankets full of vermin . . . the officers took our wallets . . . the soldiers took our suitcases and took anything they fancied . . .”
It is not surprising that there were suicides, both among those about to be detained and those already in custody. When I researched my novel Second Violin, I was unable to determine just how many—and it’s likely that the closed files I encountered related to this. Perhaps half a dozen, but half a dozen too many. The two suicides in my novel are entirely fictional, but scarcely improbable. One internee throws himself under the wheels of a train en route to the north of England, another jumps to his death from the top floor of a fictionalized Warth Mills.
There’s a sense in which this, panic though it was, was an understandable response. How was a man who had survived Oranienberg or Dachau to assess his situation? Woken in the night, told to pack and escorted to he knew not where by British Tommies. How was he tell a Tommy from an SA thug? They both wore brown shirts. The German camps had been almost instant, set up early in 1933 to deal with dissidents. They were not at that point death camps or even labour camps. But they were brutal. Designed to intimidate or “re-educate” (“Agree, shut up or emigrate”)—if education can be defined as the attempt to beat knowledge into anyone—something one would think the British would understand rather well as they’ve treated their children this way for generations.
I interviewed Hermann Bondi (by then Sir Hermann) in 1992. His arrest and internment seem typical. A refugee from Vienna and a student at Trinity College, Cambridge, he was arrested by a polite policeman knocking on the door of his room and telling him to pack. For a few days he was held in an army barracks in Bury St Edmunds, and then transferred by train to Huyton in Liverpool. The polite bobby was in stark contrast to the jeering crowds that greeted the internees as they marched from the railway station to the as yet unfinished council estate. Bondi was not among the lucky ones assigned a solid roof, and spent two weeks under canvas before being shipped to the Onchan camp on the Isle of Man, where, he remembered, “food and hot water were very scarce,” but this he ascribed much more to the general conditions in the country than to any act of discrimination.
The Camps were overcrowded, but the measure to ease overcrowding was drastic—after a month in Onchan Bondi was returned to Liverpool and set sail for Canada on July 3rd 1940, across an ocean infested with U-boats.
The move to Home Office control on August 5th was registered at once in the release of the first fifty Category C prisoners, but it also seems true that those compelled to stay saw their conditions improve.
In 1980 I interviewed Gus Wittmann, another refugee from Vienna who had arrived in London in his early twenties, education interrupted. He had a high opinion of the British and I think him typical in his lack of resentment for what he endured. Endured might not be the word. He seemed to relish his summer on the Isle of Man. Gus was dry, warm (well as warm as anyone could be in rainy islands not yet privy to the secrets of central heating), well-fed (in so far as the wartime ration presented a frustrating but balanced diet) and educated.
“The Isle of Man was my university. I was required to do no work for my ration, and was free to attend seminars arranged by our ad hoc university and I was exposed to some of Europe’s finest minds.”
I can’t remember who told me this. It might have been Gus, it might have been his fellow Viennese, my London publisher George Weidenfeld (fortunate not to be an internee himself) but the maxim is resounding : “Put Viennese people together for long enough and they will do two things. Found a university and open a patisserie.” Which, on the Isle of Man, is exactly what they did.
The Isle of Man, having its own parliament, also had its own rations standard, somewhat more relaxed than on the mainland, and there was always the possibility of trade with the locals. The overcrowding was eased as more and more detainees were shipped to Canada and Australia. But eased at a price.
On July 2nd 1940, as Hermann Bondi boarded the SS Ettrick for Canada, the Arandora Star, bound for Australia with 1200 internees and a crew of 400, armed but unescorted, was sunk a hundred and twenty-five miles off the coast of Ireland with the loss of more than 800 lives.
By the end of 1940, 10,000 interned aliens had been released, and a further 7500 sent overseas. Many were released back to their civilian lives, some joined the forces, many were allowed to join the Pioneer Corps, a non-combatant regiment that laid roads and dug drains, often regarded as the Army’s dumping regiment, but undeniably useful. By the summer of 1941 only 5000 remained interned, a figure which, by 1945, had dwindled to a few hundred. A scandalous, hysterical moment in British history was allowed to fizzle out in a return to some sort of normality.
I asked Hermann Bondi about the why of this. He had, clearly, no resentment of the British—qualified by a scientist’s “I always resent inefficiency”—so who was to blame? I think Professor Bondi, in so far as he would ascribe blame at all, blamed ignorance, what he called the lack of any political education in the British of 1940 and the lack of any willingness on the part of the press to educate them. Could it be that all those Penguin Specials in their urgent red covers (on one of which, The Internment of Aliens by François Lafitte, this article is largely based), published in the Thirties and Forties with titles like “Germany Puts the Clock Back,” “Europe and the Czechs,” “The Jewish Problem,” and the tersely worded “What Hitler Wants” might have gone unread? It seemed, talking to him the best part of twenty years ago, that Sir Hermann was proud to be British, but had wished all along that Britain had been part of Europe, that Britain had made the effort to know Europe. Twas ever thus.