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.
The MP Peter Cazalet, speaking about internment in the House of
Commons during the war.
The Manchester Italians: wonderful
Italians in Britain (Spartacus site)
Sheila Lahr's story: very detailed
tragedy of the Arandora Star
Life in Britain for German POWs: BBC site
the Blitz - Prisoners of War: children's stories
collected by Robert Westall
There were 60,000 Germans and Austrians
living in Britain. The government was worried that
they might be spies.
Actually, this was highly unlikely. In the
16 people were executed during the war under the
Treachery Act of 1940.
The government called these people
'aliens' and it divided them into
• Class A (high security
risk) – 596
• Class B (doubtful cases) –
• Class C (no risk) – 66,002
Class A aliens were rounded up and put in
internment camps immediately, but most Class B and C
aliens were imprisoned
by the summer of 1940. When Italy entered the
war in June 1940, Churchill ordered that all 15,000
Italians living in Britain be arrested as well.
In many cases, this was unfair – some of
them were refugees from Nazi Germany who had left
Germany because they hated Hitler. Renate Scholem, a
17-year-old schoolgirl at a boarding school in Kent -
whose father was a German-Jewish communist in a Nazi
concentration camp, and who had fled with her mother to
England to get away from Hitler - was arrested because
she was living in a sensitive area and had been seen
talking to a man in RAF uniform. In the camp, she met
a nun who had lived 20 years in an English convent, and
a number of Jewish Germans who had fled to England from
Many aliens were sent to camps on the
Isle of Man. Some – who had fled to England to escape
persecution – were in such despair that they committed
suicide rather than be arrested.
Some vital aliens – for instance those
working on the atomic bomb – were allowed to stay free,
but they were not allowed to own a car, a bicycle or a
After the panic of 1940–1941,
restrictions were relaxed. The internees were allowed
to receive letters, and eventually many of them were
allowed to return home.
Why should 70,000 aliens
be allowed to go about freely in this country? I
know from German servants that they idolise Hitler.
interned Englishwomen of 70 years and more in
Poland. The time has come when all persons of German
origin should be looked upon as potential enemies and
There is no
such thing as a friendly German.
Letter in the Daily
Sketch, 10 April 1940
I was interned. Just
like that. Two policemen came and fetched me.
People stood lining the streets, throwing stones at
you, spitting at you and shouting ‘Spies!’ That
was horrible. Everyone thought it would be a
concentration camp like it is in Germany.
them wanted to jump into the water, because they
didn’t know what was in front of them. When we
arrived on the Isle of Man, we had pictures taken
with our number on. We already had the feeling
that we were criminals.
Wolfgang, remembering later.
Hilda was an
ordinary housewife and was completely loyal.
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.
John Simkin is a
modern historian who runs the
I think the government
of the day panicked. Of course there may have been
a few spies. But I can’t believe it was necessary
to lock up thousands of people, some of them great
scientists and engineers who could have been useful.
Surely a couple of days checking backgrounds would
have revealed that we had more reason to hate Hitler
than the British.
Claus Moser, remembering in 1983
Claus and his
family were refugees from Hitler’s Germany.
During the war, many prisoners were captured, and they had to be put in prisoner-of-war camps. There were 75,000 Italian POWs in Britain in
1943. At the height of the war, there were 600
internment and POW camps. The prisoner-of-war camp
Harperley (County Durham) appeared on the TV
Restoration programme, and
Eden Camp near Malton in
Yorkshire is now a museum.
Conditions were never as brutal as in the
Nazi prisoner-of-war camps, and the POWs were allowed
out under escort to go and work on local farms. Where
the Nazis used torture to try to extract information,
the British allowed POWs to mix and talk freely, and
merely recorded their conversations using secret
microphones! Few POWs tried to escape – most were much
happier to wait safely until the war ended.
As time went on, conditions relaxed even
further. Artistic Catholic Italian POWs in Camp 60 on
Orkney decorated one of their Nissen huts as a
(you can visit it today). The POWs arranged concerts
and night-classes (the internees on the Isle of Man set
up a University). Some POWs made friends with local
families, and some even married local girls – after the
war 25,000 POWs chose to stay in Britain.
Not all relations were good.
remained ardent Nazis. A re-education programme was
laid on which included footage of Nazi concentration
The Italian Chapel
at Lamb Holm, Orkney, decorated by Italian
prisoners-of-war. It is hard to believe
that this is the inside of a corrugated iron Nissen hut!
Life at Eden Camp
general feeling of camp life among the many prisoners
confined to Eden Camp during their captivity was,
considering its nature, a happy one, with a reasonable
degree of comfort and an almost surprising amount of
freedom. However the usual amount of discipline was
observed by the camp authorities, with roll calls
every night and morning.
It was more of a ‘home from home’ with all the modern
conveniences available at that time… Each prisoner
was allocated a certain quota of bread and meat per
day, the rations would be collected by the British
troops from their supply dump at Amotherby, near
Malton, then brought back to the camp where they would
be distributed to the P.O.W.s’ own cooks who would
then prepare the food.
The day to day organisation of the camp was under the
control of a Sergeant and an Orderly Officer but the
general overall discipline of the prisoners themselves
was the responsibility of their own N.C.O.s and
Prisoners provided their own
services which included a doctor, dentist, tailor and
shoe repairer. At the far end of the camp a hut had
been constructed as a drying area for washing on wet
days. This hut contained heated pipes and here the
prisoners would hang up their wet clothes and do their
… For many prisoners this was a far better life than
they had experienced when they were fighting for their
country. There was no vindictiveness, no one was
badly treated and there was no cause for the Guards to
use their truncheons. The prisoners accepted the
situation because they knew they were being well
looked after, had good warm sleeping accommodation and
plenty of good food.
It was a camp rule that random spot checks would
occasionally be carried out on one or two selected
huts by the Orderly Officer and a Regimental Police
Sergeant to see if any prisoners were in possession of
items that were against camp regulations. Any
prisoner who did misbehave himself ended up in the
"sin-bin" or jail, or what the Italians called the
‘calaboose’, the length of time being at the
discretion of the Commanding Officer. Roll-calls
took place twice a day, after reveille in the morning
and again in the evening. The prisoners never knew
exactly when other roll calls would take place. A
Regimental Policeman, along with a Sergeant in charge
would commence the ritual at the camp's hospital,
accompanied by the P.O.W.s’ Commanding Officer and a
Sergeant Major. They began by checking the number of
sick and the number of Italian staff on duty, then on
to the cookhouse and carried on until all the huts had
been checked and all prisoners accounted for. Once
the count was made and tallied with the number of
prisoners in the camp, the Orderly Officer would sign
the roll as ‘All present and correct’.
… No one really tried seriously to escape from the
camp except for one occasion when an Italian prisoner
made a bid for freedom. He had been refused the
newly agreed two hour freedom which had been granted
after the Italian forces had surrendered. It was one
of those ‘spur of the moment’ actions, he was unable
to bear his captivity while his comrades left for a
short taste of freedom. He tried to get under the
barbed wire but became entangled and was discovered
weeping over the hopelessness of the situation.
Anne Jacques, Eden Camp: the People's War 1939-45