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British Internment and the Internment of Britons: Second World War Camps, History and Heritage edited by Gilly Carr and Rachel Pistol

Reviewed by Charmian Brinson, Imperial College London/ Research Centre for German and Austrian Exile Studies

London: Bloomsbury, 2023, 302 pp. ISBN 9781350266254, £76.50.

This portrayal of the internment of ‘enemy aliens’ during the Second World War is a book with a difference. Not only does it cover an unusual range of camps in different countries - Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Israel, India, Australia and Canada – but it considers both internment by and of the British which results in a far more differentiated view than is usually the case in internment literature. As a corollary, the book also examines memory and heritage of the individual camp sites.

Research into the internment of aliens in Britain can be said to have started in 1980 when the release of salient documents to the National Archives led to the publication of what have become two standard works on the subject: Ronald Stent’s A Bespattered Page and Leni and Peter Gilman’s Collar the Lot. These works focus primarily on the Isle of Man camps but also include the Canadian and Australian experiences of internees deported from Britain to the British Dominions. Since that time, further studies of alien internment have appeared though none with the breadth of the present volume.

The editors of the volume, Rachel Pistol and Gilly Carr, are both well known for their work on alien internment, among other things, as are some of the authors of the individual chapters: Jennifer Taylor, for example, on Huyton Camp, Terri Colpi on Italian internees and the ill-fated Arandora Star. The book is divided into three sections, the first dealing with British Camps, the second with camps on the Continent, the third with camps in the British Dominions. One of the most original contributions in the first section is Rachel Pistol’s study of the early internment camps, set up as emergency measures in racecourses, holiday camps, even in the winter quarters of Bertram Mills’s circus. These camps are frequently overlooked or bypassed in internment literature even though a large proportion of the internees had some experience of them before being transferred to a more permanent camp. Conditions in the makeshift camps, of which the most notorious was undoubtedly Warth Mills, a disused cotton mill, were frequently appalling. Another welcome addition is Clare Ungerson’s chapter on Kitchener Camp, not exactly an internment camp but rather a refugee camp or rescue camp, that accommodated male Jewish refugees fleeing from Germany during the 1930s and prepared them for onward emigration and future work.

As for the Isle of Man camps, it was an interesting editorial decision to forego a portrayal of one or both of the best-known camps, Hutchinson and Onchan, and instead to include a chapter on Sefton Camp about which far less has been written to date. Based essentially on an internee journal, the chapter contains much original material and, while noting some of the internee entertainments and artistic activity, it makes clear the physical and psychological strain of camp life. The final chapter in this first section, however, on Rushen Camp, the women’s camp on the Isle of Man - though it too contains much of interest - fails to engage with the underlying problems of this particular camp that emerge from most of the primary and secondary literature on the subject. One of these was the inflexibility of the first Commandant Dame Joanna Cruickshank towards many of the women in her charge; the second was the presence of a significant number of National Socialist women in the camp who threatened and bullied the refugee contingent.

The second section is devoted to Britons interned in France, Italy, and Poland. While there has been a fair amount of research devoted to ‘enemy aliens’ interned by the British, comparatively little has appeared to date on the internment of British civilians on the Continent so that this section is particularly welcome. The chapters focus on the camp in Compiegne, France; the women’s camp at Vittel, also in France; the Fascist Italian camps; and the German internment camp at Tost (Tostek) Poland. This last named held British, Belgian, French and Dutch civilians of whom the best-known was undoubtedly the celebrated British writer P.G. Wodehouse. Wodehouse’s wartime experiences have been told before, with his apparent willingness to engage with the Nazis being variously put down to naiveté, treachery or something in between. Christine Berberich’s contribution concentrates less on this individual case, however, and more on everyday life in the camp, basing her account largely on internee recollections and correspondence, including that of Wodehouse himself.

The two contributions on the British in French camps, both – like the Berberich chapter – containing much that is original, portray two rather different forms of internment. The camp at Compiegne was primarily designed as a transit camp while the women’s camp at Vittel held at least some of its internees for longer periods. However, for around three months in 1943, the camp at Compiegne interned 130 British citizens, deported from the Channel Islands, whose lives in the camp are expertly pieced together by Gilly Carr from previously unknown archive material. Although the privations of this group were probably less desperate than those suffered by other groups in the camp – the Channel Islanders were fortunate to receive help from the neighbouring American camp - they were only too well aware of the ill treatment being inflicted upon other prisoners. The British women interned at Vittel, on the other hand, fared relatively well in what the Red Cross described as ‘the best of camps’– the Germans being mindful of the fact that (non-refugee) German women interned in Britain might suffer if British internees in Vittel were poorly treated.

The final chapter in this section describes the internment in fascist Italy of a largely unknown group of British citizens, the ‘Anglo-Maltesi’, people who in the 19th Century had emigrated from Malta to Libya. They were expelled from Libya in September 1941 and interned in a series of Italian camps. Their situation greatly worsened after the Italian authorities had given way to the Nazis, with some of the ‘Anglo-Maltesi’ men being deported as slave labourers to Germany and the Jews among them sent to concentration camps.

In the third and final section of this book, the focus is once more on the internment of ‘enemy aliens’ by the British. Not in Britain itself, however, but in camps around the world, an arrangement made possible by the close ties with the British Empire and Dominions. The setting up of camps in Canada and Australia for the containment of male ‘enemy aliens’ from Britain has been described before - though Alan Morgenroth’s contribution on the Tatura Camps in Australia and Todd E. Caissie’s on Camp B-70 in New Brunswick, Canada, contain much original material, in particular on the question of heritage. There remain three further chapters, one of them on Atlit Camp, near Haifa, which held Jewish refugees from Europe desperate to reach Israel. The chapter is based largely on refugee testimonies. Two more chapters focused on internment camps in British India, a particularly under-researched topic to date, although the escape of Heinrich Harrer and others from the Dehra Dun camp has caught public imagination to some degree, all the more so because of Brad Pitt’s portrayal of Harrer in the 1997 film, Seven Years in Tibet.

British Internment and the Internment of Britons offers the reader a very unusual comparative approach to the subject of alien internment in World War II. It uncovers much new material while also indicating how much more there is to be done, not least in the fields of memorialization and heritage. Some progress has already been made here, for instance by the erection of plaques by the Association of Jewish Refugees at the sites of some former camps, other camps are virtually forgotten. But as Pistol and Carr conclude: ‘Honoring the memory of those submitted to national and transnational injustices is also part of the fight of holding governments to account for their policies and highlighting the long-term and far-reaching impacts of internment’ (p.8).

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