When Benito Mussolini declared war on the Allies on 10th May 1940, angry mobs attacked Italian restaurants and ice-cream parlours. Italians living in Britain were interned. This included 4,000 people with less than twenty years' residence in Britain. Amongst those interned were Mussolini's left-wing opponents who had fled to Britain after being involved in anti-fascist activities in Italy.
The Italians were held in various camps all over Britain. Like other refugees they were eventually appeared before tribunals which classified them into three different groups. 'A' class aliens were interned, whereas 'B' class aliens were allowed to leave the camps but had certain restrictions placed upon their movements. The vast majority of refugees were identified as 'C' class aliens and were allowed to go free.
On 12th May, 1940, John Anderson, who was in charge of national security, ordered the arrests of over 2,000 male aliens living in coastal areas. A few days later all 'B' class aliens were rounded up and placed into internment camps. Winston Churchill defended this policy by claiming that it was necessary to "collar the lot".
The Daily Mail, a newspaper that had supported Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists in the 1930s, now led a campaign to have all aliens in Britain interned. Some employers began to sack all foreigners. There were even cases of people losing their jobs because they had foreign ancestors. As one critic of this policy pointed out, this was an argument for removing the British royal family as their ancestors had originally come from Germany. (George V changed the name of the royal family from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to Windsor as a result of anti-German feeling during the First World War).
Government bodies also became involved in carrying out acts of discrimination against foreigners. Some local authorities turned aliens out of council houses. The Home Guard rejected applications from men with alien parentage or origin. In one case, an English soldier who had won the Victoria Cross during the First World War, was turned down when he tried to join the Home Guard because of his "alien parentage". .
The conditions in these internment camps were often appalling. In some camps refugees and foreign aliens were housed in tents without mattresses. Men and women were sent to different camps and so husband and wives were separated. Internees were refused to right to read newspapers, listen to the radio or to receive letters. They were therefore unable to discover what had happened to family members. Several refugees who had fled to England to avoid persecution in Nazi Germany committed suicide in these camps.
A couple of members of the House of Commons complained about the treatment of refugees in these camps. Peter Cazalet, who had carried out research into this topic, ended his speech with the words: "Frankly, I shall not feel happy, either as an Englishman or as a supporter of this Government, until this bespattered page of our history has been cleaned up and rewritten."
H. G. Wells joined the campaign and accused the Home Office of being run by Nazi sympathisers. He pointed out that a large number of those interned had a long record of being involved in the struggle against fascism in Germany and Italy.
A decision was taken at the War Cabinet to export these internees to Canada and Australia. A total of 7,500 men were selected to be moved. The Duchess of York was the first to sail, with 2,500 internees to Canada; twice her normal capacity for passengers. On 2nd July, 1940, he second of these ships, the Arandora Star, carrying 1,571 German and Italian internees to Canada, was torpedoed and sunk off the west coast of Ireland, with the loss of 682 lives.
The government was unrepentant. At the inquiry that followed, a government spokesman, the Duke of Devonshire, justified the decision to deport the refugees to the Dominions with the words: "It seemed desirable both to husband our resources and get rid of useless mouths and so forth." Critics pointed out that one solution to this problem was to put the refugees to work.