It is estimated that around 60,000 German refugees entered Britain in the years leading up to the outbreak of the Second World War. These were mainly Jews and left-wing opponents of Hitler who had escaped from Nazi Germany. Political and religious fugitives also came from other European countries with right-wing dictatorships such as Italy, Spain and Portugal.

Vernon Kell, head of MI5, decided to use the Alien Registration Act to restrict the number of foreigners entering Britain. This law had been passed at the beginning of the First World War and gave Immigration Officers complete control over whether or not a foreigner would be allowed to land in the United Kingdom.

In September 1939 there were a total of 71,600 registered enemy aliens in Britain. On the outbreak of the Second World War the police arrested a large number of Germans living in Britain. The government feared that these people might be Nazi spies pretending to be refugees. They were interned and 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.

When Benito Mussolini declared war on the Allies on 10th May 1940, Italians living in Britain were also interned. This included 4,000 people with less than twenty years' residence in Britain. This included many Mussolini's left-wing opponents who had fled to Britain after being involved in anti-fascist activities in Italy.

Women's internment camp on the Isle of Man
Women's internment camp on the Isle of Man

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 three largest internment camps were at Wharf Mills (Bury), Huyton (Liverpool) and on the Isle of Man. Others were sent to the prisons at Brixton and Holloway and to a camp at Kempton Park Racecourse. At Brixton several Jewish refugees were beaten up by interned members of the British Union of Fascists.

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.

Herbert Morrison, the Home Secretary, defended government policy on refugees. He argued there were "already 100,000 refugees, mainly Jews, in this country. There was considerable antisemitism under the surface in this country. If there were any substantial increase in the number of Jewish refugees we should be in for serious trouble."

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.

Primary Sources

(1) Sir Arnold Wilson, speech in the House of Commons (10th July, 1936)

It is quite wrong to suppose that Jew-baiting is due solely to Fascism. It has its origin in other than Fascist quarters. It has its basis in grievances long felt, and now becoming more serious in certain branches of administration of the law, such as hire purchase and housing rentals.

I have watched with alarm and anxiety the growth of anti-semitism in the last three years. The Government would do well to consider closely the economic and juridical bases of the growing feeling that certain classes of the community unquestionably have that they are the victims of one particular section of the community. I do not support that thesis, but it is sincerely and honestly held by decent men in regard to certain branches of the retail trade, and more particularly in regard to the ownership of some of the worst houses.

Certainly the basis of anti-Jewish feeling is primarily economic; the sooner we realise that the better.

(2) E. M. Forster, Jew Consciousness (1939)

Jew-consciousness is in the air. Today, the average man suspects the people he dislikes of being Jews, and is surprised when the people he likes are Jews. On the surface, things do not look too bad. Labour and Liberalism behave with their expected decency and denounce persecution, and respectability generally follows suit. But beneath the surface things are not so good, and anyone who keeps his ears open in railway carriages or pubs or country lanes can hear a very different story. People who would not ill-treat Jews themselves, enjoy tittering over their misfortunes; they giggle when pogroms are instituted by someone else and synagogues defiled vicariously: "Serve them right really, Jews!

(3) George Ward Price, Daily Mail (9th October, 1939)

Another war-problem is that of the aliens in our midst. We are being very indulgent to them. There is good reason to think that in some cases our indulgence is being abused. From facts within my own knowledge, I believe that many enemy agents came here as refugees. Many of these alien immigrants are Jews. They should be careful not to arouse the same resentment here as they have stirred up in so many countries.

I dislike as much as anyone else the Nazi persecution of that race, but it is a fact that the Jews were getting a stranglehold on German life out of all proportion to their avowed numbers. Many of the German Jews, often themselves recent immigrants from Eastern Europe, were the worst of their kind. In this country the national character is strong enough to absorb the better Hebrew type; in Germany, the Jewish aliens formed a class-conscious, self-interested community, and the misdeeds of some brought down reprisals on the rest.

(4) George Orwell, Partisan Review (March, 1942)

There is no doubt that in the summer of 1940 working-class suspicion of foreigners helped to make possible the internment of the refugees. At the time I talked with coundess people, and except for left intellectuals I could find no one who saw anything wrong in it. One is constantly coming on pockets of anti-Semitism, not violent but pronounced enough to be disquieting. The Jews are supposed to dodge military service, to be the worst offenders on the Black Market etc etc. I have heard this kind of talk even from country people who had probably never seen a Jew in their lives.

(5) George Orwell, Partisan Review (March, 1942)

The usual formula is 'Of course I don't want you to think I'm anti- semitic, but...' and here follows a catalogue of Jewish misdeeds. Jews are accused of evading military service, infringing the food laws, pushing their way to the front of queues, etc etc. People dislike the Jews so much that they do not want to remember their sufferings, and when you mention the horrors that are happening in Germany or Poland, the answer is always 'Oh yes, of course that's dreadful, but...' and out comes the familiar list of grievances. Because two days ago a fat Jewess grabbed your place on a bus, you switch off the wireless when the announcer begins talking about the ghettoes of Warsaw; that is how people's minds work nowadays.