One of the most controversial issues of Britain's Second World War, the internment of Enemy Aliens and some British subjects on the Isle of Man from 1940 on, has only slowly emerged from under the total silence of official secrets. Two books look promising. I haven’t seen them in Australia yet, so I will reprint the publishers’ summaries.
The first account of the Isle of Man camps between 1940-45 is called Island of Barbed Wire: The Remarkable Story of World War Two Internment on the Isle of Man by Connery Chappell, 2005. At the outbreak of war there were c75,000 people of Germanic origin living in Britain, and Whitehall decided to set up Enemy Alien Tribunals to screen these 'potential security risks'. The entry of Italy into the war almost doubled the workload. The first tribunal in Feb 1940 considered only 569 cases as high enough risks to warrant internment. The Isle of Man was chosen as the one place sufficiently removed from areas of military importance, but by the end of the year the number of enemy aliens on the island had reached 14,000. With the use of diaries, broadsheets, newspapers and personal testimonies, the author shows how a fun holiday island was transformed into a rather nasty internment camp. Boarding houses became barrack blocks, and many hoteliers welcomed the means of earning extra income.
Eventually the internees took part in local farm work, ran their own camp newspapers and set up internal businesses. With inmates of the calibre of Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, Lord Weidenfeld, Sir Charles Forte, Professor Geoffrey Elton and RW Tiny Rowland, the life of the camp quickly took on a busy and constructive air; but the picture was not a happy one. Angry disputes flared between Fascist inmates, on one hand, and the Jewish Europeans who had fled Germany, on the other. Even now, there remains the persistent question never settled satisfactorily. Were the internments ever justified or even consistent?
John Simkin added that conditions in these internment camps were often appalling. In some camps refugees and foreign aliens were housed in tents, sleeping on the cold English ground. Men and women were sent to different camps, so families were split up. Internees were refused to right to read newspapers, listen to the radio or to receive letters, so they were unable to discover what had happened to family members. All internees were placed behind the same barbed wire, although at least the Mooragh camp was separated, keeping the pro-British, German Jewish internees safe from the pro-German, British Fascist internees.
The second book, Totally un-English? Britain’s Internment of Enemy Aliens in Two World Wars edited by Richard Dove in 2005, covered similar territory, but for both world wars. In the Great War, Britain interned some 30,000 German nationals, most of whom had been long-term residents. In fact, internment brought little discernible benefit, but cruelly damaged lives and livelihoods, breaking up families and disrupting social networks. In May 1940, under the threat of imminent invasion, the British government interned some 28,000 Germans and Austrians, mainly Jewish refugees from the Third Reich. It was a measure which provoked lively criticism, not least in Parliament, where one MP called the internment of refugees ‘totally un-English’.
I have not changed the photos on the front of the published books. They both selected the same image.
Few bloggers seem interested in the subject, even though Australia and other countries are agonising over very similar issues today. Second World War blog compared the Isle of Man camps with internment camps in France. The Sharpener blog also mentioned the British camps. Peter G drew attention to a very early book (1980) called Collar the Lot! How Britain Interned & Expelled its Wartime Refugees by Peter and Leni Gillman.
Only Skeddan made some critical points. In WW2 the camps were used for political detainees including those held under section 18B of Defence Regulations. This enabled the Government to imprison those citizens thought to be dangerous to national security without charge, trial or set term. This included not only Enemy Aliens, but also British subjects, so constitutionally this measure was on very thin ice. Since Isle of Man is not part of UK, these detainees were not under the jurisdiction of English courts but subject to royal prerogative. The Isle of Man served as a kind of a constitutional black hole, like Guantanamo Bay.
In the Highest Degree Odious: Detention without Trial in Wartime Britain was written by AW Brian Simpson and published by Oxford University Press in 1995. It discusses the detentions of British citizens that took place in summer 1940, soon after Winston Churchill became Prime Minister. It occurred when belief in the existence of a dangerous fifth column was widespread.
Now a new book. Prisoners of Britain: German Civilian and Combatant Internees During the
First World War was written by Panikos Panayi and published by Manchester University
Press in 2012. Panayi recorded the experiences of hundreds of
thousands of German captives and detainees held in camp at Knockaloe on the Isle of Man during the conflict; their numbers peaked at 115,950, comprising 24,522 male civilian and 91,428 male military internees.