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Jul 2007 Journal

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Remembering internment

My article on the ‘Thank-You Britain’ Fund (May 2007), which emphasised the positive side of relations between Britain and the Jewish refugees from Hitler, provoked a letter, published in June, reminding readers of the mass internment of ‘enemy aliens’ in the summer of 1940 - the heaviest item on the negative side of that account. The wartime internment and deportation of refugees was indeed the greatest stain on the record of the British government’s treatment of those who fled here to escape Nazi persecution. The events of that momentous summer, now 77 years ago, were of such consequence for the refugees that I intend to devote two major articles to them.

Initially, the government had intended to avoid mass internment, which had proved harsh and unjust in the First World War. Instead, at the outbreak of war, German nationals were required to appear before tribunals, which classed them according to the security risk they posed. Only a tiny minority - some 600, mostly Nazi sympathisers - were placed in Category A and interned forthwith. The vast majority - over 64,000 and consisting mostly of ‘refugees from Nazi oppression’ - was placed in Category C and left at liberty. Some 6,800 people, whose cases were unclear to the tribunals, were placed in the intermediate Category B and made subject to certain restrictions.

But with the fall of France and the Low Countries in May/June 1940, which exposed Britain to the most serious threat of invasion it had faced since 1066, a wave of panic swept the country. Newspapers like the Daily Mail and the Daily Express, organs of the xenophobic right whose hostility to the refugees barely concealed their dislike of Jews, had been pressing for some time for the internment of Jews from Germany. The government now gave way to those who argued that the refugees posed a threat to national security, as spies or as potential fifth columnists who might sabotage British defences as their counterparts supposedly had in Holland and France. The defenceless refugees fell victim to this temporary ascendancy of reactionary bigots and Jew-haters allied with military and security circles obsessed with internal threats to the defence of the realm.

In May 1940, the newly installed coalition government under Winston Churchill first decreed the internment of male enemy aliens between the ages of 16 and 60 living in ‘Protected Areas’ on the threatened sectors of the coast, then issued the notorious order to ‘Collar the Lot’. Male refugees in Category B were interned, as were Category B women; the detention of male refugees in Category C, ordered in June, was under way when the policy of internment was halted the following month. This ultimately caused the internment of some 27,000 enemy aliens, including some 4,000 women, most of whom were Jews who plainly posed no security risk whatsoever.

The mass internment of enemy aliens in 1940 was, it is now generally agreed, indefensible. It was a measure that was as cruel and inhumane as it was stupid and pointless. The best that can be claimed for it is that it was an ill-considered response to a situation of extreme emergency, at a time of national obsession, largely irrational, with internal security risks, largely imaginary. To intern as potential Nazi sympathisers Jewish refugees, who had been the most prominent targets of Nazi persecution and had the greatest reason to oppose the Nazi regime, was almost perversely insensitive. Among its worst aspects was the trauma that a fresh bout of detention inflicted on those of the internees who had already experienced imprisonment in Nazi concentration camps.

The incompetence and inefficiency that characterised the entire episode were apparent from the outset. The process of arresting detainees was conducted with a combination of heartless bureaucracy and disorganised muddle. Refugees were often detained in the early morning - some suffered the dawn knock on the door that would carry them off to an uncertain fate - while others adopted the simple expedient of leaving home early to avoid arrest. The police notoriously raided Hampstead Public Library on 13 July 1940 to detain its refugee readers, but failed to round up those who congregated for an early breakfast at Lyons Corner House at Marble Arch.

After their arrest, most refugees were first held in temporary camps, like the racecourses of Kempton Park and Lingfield for those in the London area. Conditions were bad at Prees Heath in Shropshire, where internees lived under canvas, and indescribable at Warth Mill, a disused cotton mill at Bury, Lancashire, where dirt, squalor and lack of food and facilities reigned. The chaos of these makeshift arrangements was matched by the disorganisation of the entire exercise; the internees soon realised that the military authorities had no real idea why they had been interned, what was to be done with them, and how long they were to be held. Worst of all was the psychological blow of being unjustly imprisoned; the deprivation of liberty, the confinement and humiliation were made more wounding by the apparent willingness of the authorities to identify Jewish refugees with the agents of Nazism.

The authorities soon started moving the internees from temporary camps to the Isle of Man, where, as in the First World War, they were to be held. Many spent some time at a makeshift camp at Huyton on Merseyside, a newly built council estate hastily converted into a camp. The internees were housed in camps in Douglas and other resorts on the Isle of Man, mostly in groups of boarding houses requisitioned for the purpose. Camp names like Central Promenade, Hutchinson, Onchan, Sefton, Mooragh and Rushen (the women’s camp comprising Port Erin and Port St Mary) passed into refugee usage.

Conditions in the camps on the Isle of Man were considerably better than in the temporary camps, not least because some semblance of order and stability could be established there. The internees lived in small groups in individual boarding houses, where the food and accommodation were spartan but adequate; many refugees slept two to a double bed. The summer months on the Isle of Man were pleasant, and free from air raids. Walks in the country were permitted, under armed guard, as was swimming in the sea. There were adequate sanitary arrangements and some medical care. The internees were able to develop a remarkable array of cultural activities, including concerts, lecture courses and other educational activities organised by ‘camp universities’. The galaxy of academic and artistic talent available in the camps made for a wide and attractive selection of lectures for those eager to put their enforced idleness to good use.

But the emotional and psychological impact of detention remained powerful and hurtful. The internees were confined on an island remote from the mainland cities, far from their families, whose safety was at serious risk from German bombing and who had been deprived of their main breadwinner. Cut off from reliable sources of news, the internees fell prey to all sorts of rumours and fears, not least that Britain would surrender and hand them over to the Nazis - ‘like rats in a trap’, as had happened in France. The difficulty of communicating with the outside world, especially the long delays to which letters and telegrams to families were subject was a source of great frustration; refugees found it hard to set about securing their release. The arbitrary inefficiency of the administration was one of the aspects of camp life that most affected the internees’ morale.

The government took the process a stage further when it started to deport internees overseas. Four ships carrying some 4,400 men sailed to Canada, while some 2,400 were sent to Australia on the ill-famed Dunera, in extremely poor conditions; on this vessel the internees were robbed and seriously mistreated by the military escort, and eventually court-martial proceedings were taken against the officer in charge and two of his subordinates. On 2 July 1940, the liner Arandora Star, bound for Canada, was sunk off the Irish coast with the loss of several hundred lives, mostly German and Italian deportees. Though the government first claimed that all Germans on board had been Category A internees, it soon became known that many of the dead were Jewish refugees in Category C.

The resulting furore crystallised opposition to internment and led to a determined campaign against it in parliament, culminating in a celebrated debate on 22 August 1940, as German bombs fell on the capital. By then, public opinion had swung sharply against internment and the government had reversed its policy, issuing a White Paper in late July listing a variety of categories of internees eligible for priority release; these were widened over the following months. The release of the interned refugees proceeded reasonably speedily. The first 50 were released from the Isle of Man on 5 August 1940, though many more were detained until late 1940 or early 1941. By August 1941, only about 1,300 refugees were still interned in Britain, while many of those deported overseas had returned, often to join the armed forces.

Anthony Grenville

next article:In support of today’s refugees