Most people have a good understanding of what the words ‘prisoner of war’ mean. What is less well known is internment. This refers to the incarceration of civilians of an opposing nation, without trial and for an indefinite period. Often this is done in spite of individual political allegiances and because the potential threat outweighs the costs to families and communities.
Internment had taken place in Britain during the First World War. Many German immigrants lived in London and port cities. Although the vast majority had come to this country to find work, the political turmoil was sufficient that German men between the ages of 18 to 50 were interned in camps on the Isle of Man.
On 3 September 1939, Britain declared that it was again at war with Germany. Although initially there were no major military operations in Europe, leading to a period known as the ‘phoney war’, the British government were preparing to intern German and Austrian men living in Britain.
They looked only to intern, or impose restrictive measures, on men of immediate danger to British security. Throughout late-1939 and early-1940, 120 tribunals were established across Britain. All German and Austrian men aged 16 and over were summonsed to attend and, having been questioned, were categorised as A, B or C.
Category C aliens were exempt from both internment and restrictions. Category B aliens were exempt from internment, but subject to restrictions. Category A aliens were immediately interned. Less than 600 men were interned. By comparison, 64,000 were not considered a risk to British security.
This would all change in the Summer of 1940, with the fall of France and the declaration of war on Britain by Italy. German and Austrian aliens identified as Category B and C were now arrested along with Italian men resident in this country.