The Myth of 1940

Angus Calder

  • Collar the lot! How Britain Interned and Expelled its Wartime Refugees by Peter Gillman and Leni Gillman
    Quartet, 334 pp, £8.95, May 1980, ISBN 0 7043 2244 7
  • A Bespattered Page? The Internment of ‘His Majesty’s Most Loyal Enemy Aliens’ by Ronald Stent
    Deutsch, 282 pp, £7.95, July 1980, ISBN 0 233 97246 3

On 16 May 1940, when the German Army had just overwhelmed Holland, police swooped to arrest 3,000 men born in the Reich but now living in Britain. Some were billeted in the offices of the Tote organisation. Queuing for lunch, one detainee saw an army officer brandishing a revolver at a boy:

‘Are you Jewish?’ the officer asked.
‘Yes’, the boy replied.
‘Are there many Jews here?’
‘About 80 per cent.’
‘Damn!’ the officer exclaimed. ‘I knew we’d get the wrong lot.’

Further arrests over the next few weeks brought the grand total of ‘enemy aliens’ interned to over 27,000. Some of these were undoubtedly hostile to Britain’s cause. But the vast majority were certainly not, and included a very great number of Jewish refugees, and some distinguished German socialists and Italian anti-Fascists, besides such oddities as a couple of Scottish miners whose father had been working briefly on the Ruhr when they had been born, and had never regularised their nationality.

While Hitler was setting them plenty of other problems which now seem incomparably more urgent, organising internment on this scale distracted Cabinet, Home Office and War Office. Troops were tied down guarding harmless aliens at a time when Dad’s Army was nightly expecting invasion. Highly skilled refugees whose talents would have enhanced Britain’s war effort wistfully stared at barbed wire on the Isle of Man. While an anti-Fascist ballet was touring South America under British Council auspices, its choreographers and designer were in detention.

Later that year, Penguin published a well-researched and highly indignant ‘Special’, The Internment of Aliens, by François Lafitte, which exposed what had happened as fully as was then possible. By that time, policies had changed, innocuous aliens were being released as quickly as the authorities could manage, and a general disposition to forget about the matter was setting in – not least among former internees now permitted to serve eagerly in the Army and, in some cases, to do important war work. After forty years in which very little has appeared in print on the subject, two new books appear almost simultaneously, each attempting a full account. Both the Gillmans and Ronald Stent have looked at official papers, both have interviewed ex-internees. Yet their work has been less overlapping than complementary.

Peter Gillman is a member of the Sunday Times ‘Insight’ team, and he and his wife, scenting conspiracy in top places, offer a detailed narrative of Government policies in the making. Mr Stent, himself a former internee, knows far less about Whitehall’s workings, and writes less efficiently, but gives a fuller and more inward account of life in Britain’s concentration camps. Where their accounts conflict, one would be hard put to blame either. Confusion and bad conscience in the then Government led to obfuscation, some of it probably deliberate. As Mr Stent observes, ‘statistics on every aspect of the internment story, given from time to time in Parliament by spokesmen of the various Ministries, differ so often that one cannot but wonder about their accuracy’.

Many internees were shifted to camps in the Isle of Man, where detention, for some victims (including, he says, Mr Stent), had incidental compensations. With so many distinguished refugee intellectuals present, a rich cultural life was possible. ‘Universities’ sprang up. Musicians had time to practise, artists improvised paintings and sculptures. The Dadaist Kurt Schwitters, after years of neglect, relished his captive audience: ‘His pièces de résistance, beyond doubt, were sculptures fashioned out of state remnants of porridge, which he assiduously collected from breakfast tables. They had the colour of Danish blue cheese and exuded a faintly sickly smell. Alas, they did not survive long; the mice soon got them.’

So, granted the tale was not one of unrelieved misery, might we not claim that we’ve had good reason for banishing it from memory? Ailing and elderly refugees who suffered dire conditions in improvised camps hardly fared worse than aged Britons blitzed not long after. If interned wives were separated from husbands, well, army service had made millions lonely. Compared to the bungles and chicanery around Dunkirk, or even to the failings of Britain’s preparations against air raids, the absurdities of internment may not seem so culpable – just typical examples of how bureaucracy muddles in total war. Sir Claus Moser and Sir Hermann Bondi, Siegmund Nissel and Peter Stadlen, were amongst numerous able refugees who survived difficult, but not lethal, conditions, forgave the implicit insult to their integrity, and went on to make distinguished contributions to British life. While the Government was interning a large minority of refugees, it gave over £850,000 in the first 11 months of 1940 towards the support of those who stayed outside.

No politician stands out as a villain in the Gillmans’ interesting series of revelations. Sir John Anderson, blamed over this and much else at the time, in fact fought hard to keep internment to a minimum (and no one denied that some people had to be ‘collared’). If Churchill was a hard-liner in the early summer of 1940, it was not many months before he was calling for a ‘more rapid process of release from internment’. Though there is very little evidence of positive dislike of individual refugees shown by the general public, Government spokesmen were plausibly humane when they argued that refugees might be safe from assault behind barbed wire.

But in that case, why not ‘intern the lot’, as sections of the gutter press demanded? Anderson had a formidable brain and stated logically that it would be ridiculous to intern ‘Class B’ male aliens without also impounding ‘Class B’ women. So why did he later order the arrest of all ‘Class C’ men but leave women in the same ‘Class’ at liberty?

These classifications had been given by 120 tribunals set up across Britain early in the war. The cases of 73,800 individuals had come before them, of whom three-quarters were refugees. Only a few hundreds were put in Class A, to be interned immediately (though even this category included some Jewish refugees); 64,200 went into Class C, and were at that time thought to pose no security risk. The B’s, doubtful cases, were subject to some restrictions.

Mr Stent writes: ‘The opportunities for the expression of prejudice, ignorance or just plain stupidity on the part of the chairmen of the tribunals were obviously great, and there were many examples of blatant inequity. It is hard to follow the reasoning of the chairman who classified a Protestant, half-Jewish student … as a “B”-category alien because he admitted that he was intermittently in contact with his non-Jewish mother via friends in Switzerland.’ Actually, I think this tribunal was not so silly as some others. It was conceivable that German Intelligence could have blackmailed refugees, using threats against their relatives. But this gave an argument for precisely such restraints on travel and so forth as were imposed on Class B aliens in the first instance, not a case for the arrest and detention which befell them later.

From early 1940, several newspapers stirred up anti-alien prejudice. The Kemsley and Rothermere publications, which had been pro-appeasement and soft on Fascism, were to the fore in suggesting that many refugees were really Gestapo agents. One did not need the talents of the recently dead Sigmund Freud (whose son Martin, an FRS, was interned) to guess what psychological processes had made Beverley Nichols, erstwhile pacifist and member of the right-wing Anglo-German Fellowship, the most persistent of all journalists shrieking the slogan ‘Intern the lot.’ Alas, irrationality gained powerful support in April, as ‘Quisling’ became a byword and the myth was born that a ‘Fifth Column’ had been at work in Norway aiding Nazi conquest.

The senior body of British military and civilian intelligence, the Joint Intelligence Committee, was quick to embrace the myth: as the Gillmans point out, it offered an ideal explanation of its own complete failure to anticipate what had happened. The hysteria of its members produced a supreme example of the looney logic which prevailed for the next few months. They were so sure that there was a Fifth Column in Britain that they argued that ‘the absence of sabotage up to date reinforces the view that such activities will only take place as part of a prearranged military plan’. In fact, the Germans had not organised a Fifth Column, and would have been crazy in any case to enlist refugees, whose accents usually made their foreign origins conspicuous. But the Joint Intelligence Committee absurdly saw refugees as the chief danger and clearly implied that all should be interned.

Next month the British Minister at the Hague, Sir Neville Bland, returned from conquered Holland to make wild and baseless assertions that a Fifth Column had undermined that nation. As the German Army advanced further and panic spread in Whitehall, the gutter press chorus became still more strident and Home Office liberalism was spun into retreat. The Gillmans think they have discovered a conspiracy within MI5 aimed at steamrollering Anderson’s objections. But, fascinating though their suggestions are, they seem at this point perhaps to be blurring a crucial distinction. There were good reasons, despite liberal qualms, for interning Mosleyite Fascists and other British pro-Nazis (fourteen hundred or so suspects were rounded up at this time). The same reasons did not apply to Jewish refugees. It was the Chiefs of Staff who now applied pressure on the Cabinet for their indiscriminate internment.

The situation was very ominous, and one might excuse Whitehall panic and the resulting mass detentions on ‘better safe than sorry’ lines. Such an apology won’t fully work on behalf of the policy, presented as a fait accompli to the Cabinet on 11 June, of exporting aliens to the Dominions. Crucial papers relating to this were denied to the Gillmans, but they have pieced together what they rightly call ‘a disreputable story’.

The concept seems to have been Churchill’s. In the course of implementing it, the British Government fed those of Canada and Australia, and its own supporters in Parliament, with what can at best be called equivocations, and broke its promise to internees who volunteered to sail on the understanding that their wives and children would shortly join them.

Just over eleven thousand allegedly ‘dangerous characters’ were expelled. Four ships sailed for Canada between 21 June and 7 July. Many were indeed ‘A’-class internees and POWs, but over a quarter were ‘B’ or ‘C’-class Germans or Austrians, and many of the Italians dispatched were no more dangerous than the 68-year-old restaurateur, settled in Britain for 42 years, who had three sons serving against the Nazis but was packed into the Arandora Star. That ship was torpedoed west of Ireland, and he lost his life, along with half those aboard, including well-known Italian and German socialists and an Italian engineer who had lived most of his life in England and had been engaged on important war work. This disaster provided a focus for the outrage which MPs of all parties were beginning to voice over internment policy. Meanwhile, the puzzled Canadian authorities found themselves guarding such ‘dangerous characters’ as Jewish schoolboys and left-wing German merchant seamen.

One ship only sailed for Australia, on 10 July. The 2,732 internees aboard the Dunera included over 400 survivors from the Arandora Star; the rest were all classified ‘B’ or ‘C’. The commander of the military guard, Lieutenant-Colonel Scott, put on record his view that the Nazi Germans on board were ‘of a fine type, honest and straightforward, and extremely well-disciplined’, whereas his Jewish charges were ‘subversive liars, demanding and arrogant’. His soldiers plundered the internees on the voyage of anything they could find of the least value (and the British Government eventually had to pay out £30,000 in compensation). The Dunera narrowly missed a torpedo on the way. Conditions on board were hardly better, if at all, than those endured by convicts on the same route a hundred years before.

Scott seems a genuine ‘villain’, but he was only a minor actor in the internment story. There is room for more research on that story, but I don’t think it will uncover an equally villainous role played in top places. What happened has to be understood in the context of events which had shaken the British ruling class more severely than any since 1830-32. Bungles and lies were inevitable in a phase where the mistrusted usurper Churchill confronted sullen Conservative benches in the Commons, and when every political person in Britain, right, left or centre, bemused by the pace of events on the Continent, was, in panic or anger, searching for scapegoats. People did not know yet that this was their ‘finest hour’. Not till Hitler invaded Russia would fears of invasion subside, and only then would it be possible to stabilise the great Myth of 1940.

Under the spell of this myth, Churchill’s arrival in power would appear, not as the work of a few Tory backbenchers, but as the expression of the Will of the People. The Dunkirk fiasco would be a moral triumph. The epic tale of the Battle of Britain would be related without any recognition of the fact that the Luftwaffe simply hadn’t had the right kinds of planes to defeat the RAF. The negative fact that German bombs had not destroyed British morale would be mutated into the assertion that the whole people had acted heroically.

Those who ‘trekked’ from blitzed cities don’t belong with the myth, nor do the many who attended the meetings of the Communist-led People’s Convention. Interned Jews have suffered a like oblivion. Yet certain parts of the story now ably told by the Gillmans, and movingly illuminated by Mr Stent, do help to explain how Britain survived the summer of 1940 still fit to resist, how honour was saved and how the myth became possible.

Impressively, certain MPs expressed their anger in very strong terms: it was a Conservative, Victor Cazalet, who denounced indiscriminate internment as a ‘bespattered page’ in British history. And, impressively, this matter so very embarrassing to the Government was debated again and again in Parliament. Most impressively of all, in August, when the danger of invasion was actually greater than before, common sense prevailed and releases began. There was plenty of actual and latent anti-semitism in Britain, some of it at high levels. But the temptation to make Jews into scapegoats was resisted, as was that of peace with dishonour. Encouraging smugness, the Myth of 1940 has done Britain a great deal of harm. But better that harm than the evil there might have been, if irrationality had gone further and Britain had been seen to lose concern for the individual rights of oppressed foreigners. The gutter press had had things much its own way in 1914-18. Over aliens, in 1940, it finally lost.