The Road to Internment

At the outbreak of the Second World War, Britain entered a state of high alert. Read about the issues that led to the internment of men from opposing nations.

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.

Francis Ludwig Carsten

Listen to Professor Francis Ludwig Carsten, German refugee and Warth Mills internee, describe his tribunal and subsequent arrest. © IWM, no. 4483

Mussolini’s entry into the war on the side of Germany had sparked mob violence on the streets of many British cities. Italian businesses were targeted, but it was the owners and men from the Italian communities – not the angry mob – who were arrested when police arrived.

Joe Pieri

Listen to Italian-Scot Joe Pieri describe the anti-Italian riots that preceded his journey to Warth Mills. © BBC Witness

"The mob ransacked our shop... It was a frightening experience... Practically every Italian shop in Glasgow was subjected to some sort of destruction and violence." Joe Pieri

Luigi Beschizza

Listen to Luigi Beschizza, another Warth Mills internee, describe his arrest. © IWM, no. 13149

The men rounded up in Manchester included Italian Ernani Landucci, a waiter in local hotels for 30 years. He belonged to a group called Fascio, an affiliation of Italians living in Britain that, by 1940, wasn’t looked upon sympathetically. Most were not actively political and their membership helped them in personal affairs. Ernani, for example, owned a patch of land in Italy and paid taxes on it. The arresting officer, Robert Mark, later described how Ernani burst into tears on their arrival. He opened a bottle of wine and, handing glass to his wife, daughter and the police, toasted: ‘Bugger the Fascio!’. Mark would go on to become Chief Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, remembering this day as one of the most formative in his young career.

Among the camps and temporary holding centres set up to handle cases were police stations, racecourses, boarding houses, churches, empty housing estates and, in the case of Warth Mills, a disused cotton mill. Few records exist to tell us how and why locations were chosen, but internees were often ferried between different camps. The men stayed at Warth Mills for one to three weeks before the decision was made to send them onto the Isle of Man or deport them.

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Conditions at Warth Mills

Appalling living conditions, corruption and anti-Semitism were daily realities for the men interned in the camp. Hear the internees' experiences in their own words.

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