Public Opinion

Public opinion of Britain's internment policy shifted dramatically during 1940 – as illustrated by these newspaper clippings.

When Britain declared war on 3 September 1939, there was general support for the government’s decision to find out which German nationals were in the country. In most cases, tribunals were short and confirmed that subjects had no fascist sympathies and, in a lot of cases, were fleeing Nazi persecution. The hearings were a necessary inconvenience.

Italy’s entry into the war on 10 June 1940 sparked both anti-Italian riots on the streets of Glasgow, London and South Wales and an immediate change in government policy. This blanket approach – interning both innocent Italians and German refugees previously considered ‘friendly’ – was initially supported in the press.

However, as stories of harrowing arrests and a lack of organisation at camps like Warth Mills began to surface, letters questioning internment appeared in broadsheets like The Times.

As well as individuals with personal connections to innocent victims of the government’s internment policy, opposition also came from churches. This included the Quakers, who had written a damning report on conditions at Warth Mills, and the Archbishop of Canterbury.

There was also opposition from notable establishment figures and artists like H.G.Wells, E. M. Forster and Ralph Vaughan Williams. They co-signed letters decrying the internment of Jewish refugees, along with a joint committee made up of the British Red Cross, the YMCA and refugee organisations.

By August 1940, the impact of the sinking of the SS Arandora Star was beginning to be felt. The killing of hundreds of innocent Italian internees was seen by some as a national disgrace. MPs like Edmund Radford, the Member for Manchester Rusholme who had a constituent who died on the SS Arandora Star, raised questions in parliament.

However, on its release, a government White Paper allowed only interned German and Austrian refugees to bid for release – and specifically the elderly and those who could contribute ‘work of national importance’. This was to say doctors, dentists, scientists and academics.

A second White Paper, issued in late-August 1940, applied the same eligibility criteria to Italians. By October, this had been revised to include those who were ‘opponents of the Fascist system’.

Government inched closer and closer to a total overhaul of the internment policy implemented in June 1940. Many hundreds of lives had been lost while others languished in camps in Australia and Canada where they would remain for the rest of the war.

Warth Mills joined other sites across the country as an official prisoner of war camp.

In September 1940, The Times published a letter from a newly released internee. While suggesting wholesale internment of internees may have been unjustified, the writer is quick to point out the wider context and express his gratitude that their voices were heard.

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