Forced internment of British civilians during World War II

Something I didn't know about world history: During World War II, the British government rounded up thousands of its own citizens — people of German, Austrian, or Italian ancestry. Some were put into camps, others deported to Canada and Australia. Others were simply labeled as potential enemies and spied upon. The really crazy part: Many of these people were Jewish refugees who had become citizens of Britain in order to get away from the Nazis. (Via Carol Roth)


  1. This also happened to 22,000 Japanese Canadians in British Columbia, Canada, most of whom had been born in Canada.

      1. I’m told the Klan came after my great-grandfather (a third-generation German-American who spoke no English) in southern Texas during World War I. Thankfully for me, they were dissuaded by a local sheriff who made an accurate (if highly problematic) argument to the effect of, “My god man, can’t you see they’re white!” 

        1. How does anyone get to be a 3rd-generation immigrant and still not speak the local language? There must have been some insular dynamics going on there…

          1. Yep, there were quite a few towns in Texas that were mostly German. Lots of German settlements.  This does not surprise me in the least. New Braunfels and Fredricksburg come to mind since they are fairly close by.

          2. He did speak the local language. It was German in many places in the Hill Country at the time.

            One thing this illustrates is how much faster today’s immigrants are learning English, compared to a hundred or two hundred years ago. Due to mass media, universal schooling etc. Back then it was fairly common that even the first generation born in the US would never become fluent in English.

    1. I don’t see how either decision could be considered questionable at the time. In 1940, Britain had lost the Western Front, its most powerful ally had just sued for peace with the Nazis, the Soviet Union was actively colluding with genocide in the East and the most powerful country on Earth had its head in the sand.

      The only way the British could continue fighting was to control the Atlantic, something that might have been much harder if the French fleet fell into Nazi hands. (Something the Nazis tried when they took over Vichy France later in the war).

      As for internment, there was no way the British could perform security screening of the hundreds of thousands of refugees that had flooded into the country in the previous few years. Internment reduced the risk that Nazi agents had slipped into the country amongst genuine refugees.

      Trying to put modern sensibilities on the events of 1940 is almost impossible. Britain, and by extension – democracy – faced a war for its very survival. There’s been nothing like it since. Some horrible short-term decisions were made, but the price was worth it.

      1. democracy – faced a war for its very survival.

        And there’s no better way to save something than to destroy it by violating its core principles! It’s a deep, deep game.

  2. My Grandfather, a recent refugee from Austria was interned by the British and separated from his wife and newly born daughter. He described the experience as not unpleasant, living conditions were no worse than for anyone else in wartime Britain and they were treated with the typical sense of British fair play.

    The main problems were boredom and the food, the latter being typical British Army fare. Both issues were solved by the inmates. They had daily lectures and since the camp contained a diaspora of European social strata, these could range from “the rebuilding of a Mercedes carburetor” to “Etruscan pottery of the Archaic period.”

    Upon discovering that one of the interned was a sous chef at Vienna’s most famous hotel, he was pressed into service in the camp kitchens. Apparently, his creations around cabbage and corned beef were enjoyed by inmates, guards and officers alike!

    The British eventually realized that these refugees were no threat to the Empire and the camps were dissolved within a year or so. My grandfather returned home, still eternally grateful to his new country for his home and protection.

  3. I’m actually finding it hard to work up any outrage over this.

    If I was worried about infiltrators and sympathizers from a specific country one of the first places I would look was people who had immigrated from that country along with people directly associated with them such as their children.

    And in a life-and-death world war with said other countries, throwing your net as wide as possible isn’t some crazy overreaction.

    And while the treatment wasn’t perfect, the seizing of property from people of Japanese and other Asian ancestry in Canada being an excellent example, it was pretty good compaired to what others were doing at the time. Yes it sucked, but unlike the other side in the war we were not lining up suspects and just shooting them.

    And the bit calling out treating Jewish refugees like everyone else as being somehow particularly shameful shows a lack of thought. They would be the biggest group to be careful of. After all, you KNOW the other side is holding large numbers of their family and relations.

    And finally, it’s all well and good to wag our fingers and feel morally superior to the past but if tomorrow the USA was in a shooting war with China (that somehow did not go nuclear) how do you think all the Chinese students and kids of Chinese students currently residing in the USA would be treated? They would probably find a more acceptable term than ‘camps’ but the rounding up would happen just the same and for most of the same reasons.

    1. I’m actually finding it hard to work up any outrage over this.

      You know who else wouldn’t be outraged by it?

    2. The question is not how I think the Chinese students would be treated, Ryan_T_H.  The question is how they should be treated. 

      And “attack entire immigrant populations” is a really inept way to catch spies and sympathizers.  It’s guaranteed to upset some of your most fervent allies – the people who left for a reason – while also being guaranteed not to catch any actual spies or useful intelligence.  If you understood the community well enough to develop useful leads, you wouldn’t be rounding them all up in the first place.  So yes, throwing your net as wide as possible is a crazy overreaction.  It’s not just inhumane, it’s also bad intel work.

      (For the record, after the war – when there was no fear of spies as an excuse – Britain continued to be brutal and stupid towards Jewish refugees.  A number survived the war, the death camps and rescue only to die in a British internment camp in Israel.)

      I prefer to hope my country can set a higher standard for itself than “repeat the most cowardly and stupid mistakes of the past.”

  4. It’s not really all that crazy to treat jews from germany/etc as potential spies. If you assume that anyone from country X may be a spy, it’s not much of a leap to assume that they could also be a fake jew. Or a jew that’s working for the nazis on a promise that their family will be left alone or what have you.

    Sure, most spies are going to be native turncoats, but it’s hard to arrest your entire population…

    1. Well, crap.   I was on the Dunera in the 1960s — they filled it with a bunch of us schoolkids and did a cruise from Edinburgh to Stockholm, Leningrad and Copenhagen.

      Those refugees must have been miserable…

  5. Geez, it was hard to know who to trust in WW2. Britain could have had a pro-Nazi King if not for an abdication.

  6. This happened to my grandfather – he was a Jewish refugee from Austria. He was sent to the Isle of Man, where they put his skills to use as a doctor for (ironically) German POWs. I don’t think he was there for more than a year, and he was able to emigrate to the U.S. later during the war.

  7. I thought this was generally known about by most people who have a knowledge of 20th C history (which isn’t generally that much sadly). I’ve certainly seen it referenced in a lot of the coverage of WWII.

    This seems to have been pretty standard practice in such wars by all sides, the US interned or rounded up and relocated over 100,000 Japanese Americans after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese did the same to Brits/Americans and their allies.

    I’m not saying it was right, but I did think it was relatively well known. Obviously not.

  8. For the internees who were just bored, they were lucky they were not deported, which, for some, met with fatal consequences:

    “More than 7,000 internees were deported, the majority to Canada, some to Australia. The liner Arandora Star left for Canada on 1 July 1940 carrying German and Italian internees. It was torpedoed and sunk with the loss of 714 lives, most of them internees. Others being taken to Australia on the Dunera, which sailed a week later, were subjected to humiliating treatment and terrible conditions on the two-month voyage. Many had their possessions stolen or thrown overboard by the British military guards.”

  9. The suspicion of citizens of recent foreign extraction is not baseless.  The famous “Duquesne” ring of German spies consisted mostly of naturalized US citizens who had emigrated from Germany in the inter-war years and taken on apparently ordinary occupations.

    If you are the FBI and believe that every spy ring will be compromised by at least one member (this case) then all you have to do is sit and wait for the informants to walk in.

    If you think maybe you were just lucky this time, then you start thinking a wider net needs to be cast.

  10. Maggie – the cited article does not seem to state that any people with British citizenship were interned. Do you have a reference for that? (Or did I miss such a statement?)

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