Britain’s love/hate relationship with ‘foreigners’ during the Second World War

The Second World War is not usually remembered as a time when Britain's population was diverse. Yet, as Professor Wendy Webster from the University of Huddersfield reveals in her new book, it was more diverse than ever before. But while Britons largely welcomed foreign servicemen, their attitude often turned frosty – even hostile – when the war was over…

1940: French troops arrive in England from Flanders. (Topical Press Agency)

During the Second World War, thousands of refugees, war-workers and troops arrived from all parts of Europe and the British empire. In 1940, six European Allied contingents were stationed in Britain: Belgian, Czech, Dutch, French, Norwegian and Polish. This was unprecedented.

Troops and airmen arriving from the empire included Africans, Australians, Canadians, Indians, New Zealanders and West Indians. After the USA entered the war in December 1941, by far the largest national group arriving was American. Nearly 3 million GIs disembarked in Britain between 1942 and 1945, and 10 per cent of them were black.

Such diversity involved a number of firsts: Peter Thomas was the first black African RAF Pilot Officer, and made an appearance in a documentary on Africa’s Fighting Men (1943) sponsored by the Ministry of Information.

Porokoru (Johnny) Pohe was the Royal New Zealand Air Force’s first Maori pilot and flew in RAF No.51 Squadron. In September 1943 his Halifax was hit and caught fire, and he had to ditch the plane off the French coast. He was captured and sent to Stalag Luft III, where he was one of the 76 Allied airmen involved in what was subsequently made famous as the 'Great Escape'. He was recaptured and executed by the Gestapo.

How did Britons respond to different groups arriving? In mid-1940, there was a great deal of hostility towards foreigners. The majority of Germans arriving from 1933 were Jewish, and classed by the government as ‘refugees from Nazi oppression’. But in May 1940, the introduction of a policy of mass internment of enemy aliens was supported by many Britons.

Upon Italy's declaration of war on Britain in June there were violent anti-Italian riots in a number of British towns and cities. Hostility was not confined to people of enemy nationality. In the context of expectations of an imminent invasion, many Britons lumped all foreigners together as potential spies and Fifth Columnists. Asked who should be interned by a Mass Observation survey, one man replied: “All what don't speak plain English.”

Uniforms had a considerable impact on how people were received in mid-1940. At the height of the scare about spies and Fifth Columnists, George Orwell recorded in his diary that he had seen great numbers of Belgian and French refugees arriving at Waterloo and Victoria stations. They were “greeted in silence”. Internees who were marched through the streets of Liverpool remember spectators who were often hostile. Anna Spiro said that: “People spat at us because we were ‘bloody Germans’.”

But Polish airmen marching through the streets of Liverpool in mid-1940 remember the British shouting “Long live Poland!” and giving them the thumbs up. Uniforms did not even have to be smart. Tadeusz Szumowski, a Polish airman evacuated from France who was sent to a training camp in West Kirby, spoke of the “smiling faces of English people… We might have worn uniforms which were dirty and decidedly past their best, but at least we were recognised as sturdy welcome allies.”

Those serving in multinational forces based in Britain often experienced a close community distinguished by friendships and solidarity. In 1940, the pilots of the 1st Czechoslovak Fighter Squadron in Britain wrote a statement addressed to an English comrade, John Boulton, who had been their flying instructor. “We will avenge you... The six Germans that we shot down in the fight in which you fell are the first instalment of the price we shall exact for your young life. You gave it for those same ideals which are graven on our own hearts in letters of burning flame.”

In their turn, the British paid tribute to the Czech Squadron. Flight-Sergeant Crocker stated: “I’m proud to be able to work with these men who are fighting so pluckily at the side of our own pilots... The whole world ought to know how you went into the fight, met and shot down the enemy”.

Willy Hirschfeld, a German Jewish refugee who had been interned by the British in 1940 and then deported to Australia, returned to Britain in 1941 to join the Pioneer Corps. He transferred to the Royal Armoured Corps in 1943, where he worked as a tank driver with a British crew. His tank suffered a direct hit in September 1944, and he was the only survivor.

He records of his crew: “You sleep together, you work together, you eat together, it’s like a family… right up to that moment we were always one team.” A sense of solidarity and friendship is particularly apparent in the term ‘band of brothers’ used by Bob Kellow to describe the crew in which he served in Bomber Command. Kellow was an Australian member of this crew, which comprised two Australians, three Englishmen and two Canadians.

There was conflict as well as friendship, but this went under-reported because of government censorship, especially when it involved violence. It was particularly evident between American and British troops and spilled over into street brawls.

There were also a number of cases of violence by white American troops against black British people. Black GIs were often regarded as valuable allies, and compared favourably with their white compatriots by the British. In one report from Huddersfield they were said to be “better behaved than the British troops”.

Meanwhile, a Jamaican serviceman who was refused service in a pub after a cricket game asked: “Why have I travelled thousands of miles to be on the receiving end of such treatment?” One black woman in the ATS was refused a new issue of shoes by her white officer on the grounds that “at home you don’t wear shoes anyway”.

When the war was over, after demobilisation, there was a more frosty reception for people who were now in civvies. Sam King, a West Indian who had served in the wartime RAF and came back to Britain on the Empire Windrush in 1948, noticed a change from wartime attitudes with people “more aggressive” and “trying to say that you shouldn’t be here”. Alan Wilmot from Jamaica, who served with RAF Sea Rescue, also noticed a change. “Being a civilian it was a complete different thing from in the services. ‘What you come back here for? The war's over.’ That was the attitude.”

A Gallup Poll held in June 1946 showed that 30 per cent of those interviewed favoured allowing Poles to remain in Britain, but that 56 per cent supported deporting them. Those who did return to Poland faced arrest and imprisonment. Many were shot.

Poles had been welcomed in Liverpool in 1940. They fought in the Battle of Britain and the battle of Arnhem. But when the war was over, a delegate at the Trades Union Congress asked: “How do the people of Liverpool feel when they see these Poles… strutting about our streets, when our... heroes from Arnhem, pilots from the Battle of Britain, have to take their wives and families and go squatting?”

Professor Wendy Webster’s research into Second World War refugees, visiting soldiers and war workers will feature in a new book, and in an exhibition at the Imperial War Museum North. Over the course of her research Prof Webster has examined a large number of autobiographies, memoirs and other personal accounts from the war and its aftermath.

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