23 November 2009

Isle of Man Internment Camps, 1940

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 very special inmates like Lord Weidenfeld (publisher), Professor Geoffrey Elton (academic), Sir Charles Forte (hotelier), Sir Nikolaus Pevsner (art historian), RW Tiny Rowland (international businessman), 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.


Hels said...

Catherine L wrote...

I would be very interested in additional information on the Isle of Man camps - or any documentation, and also for teaching purposes, as this is very little known in France.
Thanks for your help.

Hels answered....

palace and Catherine L, I have not done any of my own research on the British internment camps, but hopefully these two references will prove useful. More and more evidence will be coming to light, without doubt.

Cathie said...

Thank you !

David Thompson said...

Very interesting Hels. In my childhood in Northern Ireland in the late 60s and early 70s, the Isle of Man was seen as a holiday destination. It seemed that my grandparents went there every year. I can remember spending two family holidays there myself.

It is strange now to think of it as a place of cruelty and torment.

Anonymous said...

Finding this all very interesting as it has just come to light that my grandfather was interned in the Peel camp on the Isle of Man in 1940 and released 1941.I never knew him personally but he has a mention in a book I have yet to read called "In the Highest Degree Odious, detention without trial in Wartime Britain" by A.W.Brian Simpson, a leading academic lawyer. First published by Oxford Uni Press 1992. I do know that he was a very good draughtsman and later founded an Arts Society in Southampton where my family currently still live. Hoping to research more so thanks for this info.

Hels said...


A few years ago I gave a paper at a conference on the Isle of Man camps. I think everybody in Australia who had a father, uncle or grandfather on the Isle of Man, or on the Dunera ship, turned up. You have never seen such a large, or interested, crowd.

More and more information is becoming available, so I hope you can track your grandfather's history easily. But I warn you... it may not be a happy story.

Thanks for the book reference. I'll add it to the post.

Hels said...


I suppose the authorities thought that the Isle of Man a] was remote enough for security not to be a problem and b] had all the necessary residential facilities already in place.

I also suppose we can understand the fear of a dangerous fifth column in Britain, if thousands of ex-German and ex-Italian citizens were allowed to live unsupervised.

But the internment programme was nasty and with very little nod to natural justice. 14,000 enemy aliens herded behind barbed wire? Good grief.

The Dunera story, from the Isle of Man to Australia, is also difficult for us to read:

Harry said...

For 50 years i have lived on the Isle Of Man and was indeed born here.

Very little information or archives relating to internment camps is available here, although thanks to the invention of internet technology and the ability to investigate these stories, the Island's convenience to the UK government, is becoming clearer.

Seems to suit the United Kingdom to use the Island when profitable to them, bearing in mind since Norse times, the jurisdiction is like black and white to England.

Makes you consider what other secrets are still to be unearthed by our caring society?

Loved your information, thank you.

Hels said...


Many thanks. I haven't thought about this topic for a while, until I started looking at what happened to Jersey, Guernsey and Alderney from 1940-1945. Now I am asking some new and interesting questions about the Isle of Man.

Anonymous said...

Ref comment by David Thompson stating that IOM during the period of internment was a place of crulety.Nothing could be further from the truth, my grandparents house in Onchan was taken over as part of an imternment camp . they always said that the internees were fairly treated, which was more than could be said for my grandparents who were virtually evicted from their house to make way for the internees. Allan B

Hels said...


"Makes you consider what other secrets are still to be unearthed by our caring society". True true, especially regarding war time secrets. It is the historian's task to comb the official records (after they are declassified 30 years later), but also to take oral histories from unofficial records.

Hels said...

Allan B

thanks for your note. I knew boarding houses were taken over semi involuntarily, but I hadn't thought through the fact that your grandparents were virtually _evicted_ from their own house.

This doesn't mean the internment of so-called Enemy Aliens wasn't extra-legal and cruel. But it does mean the number of victims was larger than I had thought.

Anonymous said...

My father was interned in 1940 in the IOM Douglas camp and I have his letters from that time describing this time. He was sent on to Canada and returned in mid 1941. he was an Austrian (Jewish) refugee who had been rescued by the Czech Refugee Trust fund, as a political activist. You can contact me if interested.

Hels said...


Your father was twice unbelievably lucky. Firstly the SS Arandora Star, taking Austrian and German Jews from the Isle of Man to Canada in July 1940, was sunk with enormous loss of life. Secondly he returned, presumably voluntarily!!

Please contact the Dunera Museum in Hay re your father's history. They will tell you who keeps the relevant archives.

Thank you for writing. I wish you had been at the conference where I gave the paper on the Isle of Man Internment Camps.

Hels said...

Knockaloe on the Isle of Man was the largest internment camp in Britain during WW1. I have added a reference to "Prisoners of Britain: German Civilian and Combatant Internees During the First World War" by Panikos Panayi.

Unknown said...

Hi, my Grandfather was interned in Douglas Central Promenade Camp from July 1940 to January 1941 when he was released for health reasons.

I have some 17 letters written by him during the earlier part of his internment,some classical music he wrote which we have just transcribed and have had recorded plus a couple of documents produced by the detainees - a newsletter dated November 21 1940.

This is a forgotten and disageeable part of the UK's WW2 history, particularly for the Jewish refugees like my grandfather.

Please let me know where I can send these documents so they are available for historians researching the internment camps.

Unknown said...

My grandfather was interned in the Promenade Camp in Douglas from July 1940 to January 1941.

I have pesonal letters, a camp newsletter and the programme for a Camp Revue (September 1940)

I also have the musical composition for piano written by my grandfather which we have just had transcribed and recorded - it was played for the first time since 1940 on April 7th 2014 - exactly 40 years after he passed away.

Would be glad to make these documents and music available publicly.

Hels said...


Examine the material collected by the Manx Museum and see if it is for you.

Manx National Heritage,
Kingswood Grove,
Douglas, Isle of Man IM1 3LY
01624 648000


If you do place your family treasures in an archive, make sure you get a complete photographic record for yourself first.

Yes this was a very disageeable part of the UK's WW2 history, but far from forgotten. Every time I give a paper on the 1930s and 40s in Britain, every child and grandchild of a Jewish Isle of Man prisoner turns up. They will never forget.

Unknown said...

My father was interned on the Isle of Man during WW2 - he was living on the Faroe Islands but not a Danish citizen, hence considered an 'enemy alien'. I have tried but been totally unable to find any related records.

Any suggestions on where to search would be welcome.

Hels said...


I hope your dad survived well and shared all his stories and photos with you.

For records, the best place to start is The Library & Archive Service: Internment During
World Wars 1 & 2: The Isle Of Man’s Role.

In order to use the Reading Room at the Manx Museum or the iMuseum you need to register your contact details. Proof of ID showing your current address is required. Go to it :)