Apr 2006 Journal

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Diligent study (book review)

by Helen P. Fry
Tiverton: Halsgrove, 2005, 183pp., £19.99

This volume shines a light on one corner of the story of the Jewish people in Britain during an especially critical period, that of the Second World War. It deals with the author's home territory, North Devon, which had the particularity of being the area where No. 3 Training Centre of the Alien Companies of the Pioneer Corps was situated from September 1940 to February 1942, and hence where several thousand Jewish refugees spent time during the war. In the area too were Bydown House and its offshoot, which were run under the auspices of Youth Aliyah, Hechalutz and Hachoharath Noar, to train some 90 young Jewish refugees for emigration to Palestine and this, like the Pioneer Corps, is covered in some detail. Evacuees - including some schools - and other local refugees as well as resident local Jews are also presented, though less fully.

Training Centre 3 in Ilfracombe comprised refugees fresh from post-Kristallnacht Germany and Austria and, later, men who had volunteered to join the Corps on their release from internment. The first category mostly knew little, if any, English, while the second was composed of men and boys who had lived in Britain for some time and were thus somewhat conversant with its culture and language. Those newly arrived from the Continent had first been brought to Kitchener Camp in Kent, financed and rebuilt by the Council for British Jewry, which was intended as a transit camp pending the refugees' onward emigration. Kitchener opened in January 1939. It was there that Training Centre 3 came into existence and where Alien Pioneer Company No.69, the first of five such companies to be raised there, was trained in January 1940. The Centre was moved to the West Country that same summer when Kent was deemed too great a security risk.

The Pioneers were 'the Jack-of-all-Trades of the British Army' according to one testimony and, indeed, they performed a wide range of jobs from guarding aerodromes to clearing bomb damage and building coastal defences and roads, railways and water supplies. Some worked on the PLUTO project, originally built and tested across the Bristol Channel. Many recall this period with affection - some for the ready-made friends it provided for lonely exiles, others as a 'centre of Central European ferment', but others, such as Koestler, newly arrived from internment in France, strikes a sourer note: 'It was a unit of the rather under-privileged in physique, or intellect. So we were freaks ...'.

The men were a mix, in age, experience and social background. Some were notables, such as Coco the Clown (the Russian Nikolai Poliakoff), some would become so (for instance Robert Maxwell, or Ken Adam, later a brilliant film set designer). AJR Information's co-founder, Herbert Freeden, was one of their number. They enjoyed a lively cultural life.

Everyone wore the British uniform and several, in their testimonies, underline the irony of this, which gave rise to some amusing situations. Attitudes of the local population are only occasionally mentioned: for example, when the uniforms were first worn, the Pioneers were 'confined to camp for 7 days to give the local people a chance to get used to the idea of foreigners with German accents running around in British uniform'. From 1942 onwards enemy aliens were permitted to enter fighting units and the testimonies give a good idea of the scope of their work. Many were engaged in intelligence work.

Spiritual matters were catered for by Jewish chaplains: Isaac Levy and Benjamin Wykansky are two mentioned by name. Ilfracombe had no synagogue so services were held in hired rooms and halls. A telling occasion was a meeting for 'civilian and military Jews' in October 1941 addressed by Professor Norman Bentwich, at which those present undertook a 'declaration of faith ... in a British and allied victory and to further the interests of the Jewish National Fund'.

The author has researched this little-known period of North Devon history with diligence, as the copious footnotes and the bibliography demonstrate. She also includes useful appendices, especially the one based on the War Diaries of the Alien Companies. The contribution of the Pioneers and those at Bydown to the British war effort is underlined and given due recognition at several points, as is the support of the civilian population, both Jewish and gentile. This is a fascinating story which rightly brings to the fore the testimonies of so many of those who lived through it. Had it been possible to weave together the narrative and the testimonies instead of separating them, and include more analysis, it might have been even more powerful. The volume is richly illustrated with contemporary photographs and documents and is well produced. It is therefore a pity that a considerable number of misspellings and typographical errors have slipped in.
Marian Malet

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