LONDON — It is nearly 80 years since the outbreak of World War II, but, for many Britons, the country’s finest hour remains the moment that it stood alone and under assault as Hitler’s forces swept across Europe.
It is undoubtedly a powerful and compelling chapter in Britain’s national story and critical to understanding how the United Kingdom views itself – and its continental neighbors – today.
Bookshelves groan under the weight of biographies of the country’s wartime leaders. Studios churn out films – “Churchill,” “Darkest Hour,” and “Dunkirk” to name but three – retelling the events of the perilous and heroic summer of 1940 and the hard-fought liberation of Europe which began four years later. And, more disquietingly, the language of the war and its prelude – of appeasement, surrender and resistance – dominates the political discourse around Brexit.
But, as Tim Tate argues in his newly published book, “Hitler’s British Traitors: The Secret History of Spies, Saboteurs and Fifth Columnists,” this is not the whole story.
“For all the genuine unity and determination of the vast majority of the population to defeat Hitler, there was also a small – but dangerous – sub-stratum which yearned for the day when his troops could goose-step down Whitehall amid an orgy of swastika flags,” he writes.
Using newly released official documents, Tate traces the tale of Britain’s Fifth Column – “the enemy within the gates” who, in the words of Cicero, spoke in “accents familiar” – which has been discreetly covered-up and shoved to the back of the national consciousness for the past eight decades.
During the course of the war, more than 70 British men and women were convicted in a series of largely secret trials of attempting to aid the enemy, and hundreds of fascists were interned on the orders of the government.
Although two of these traitors were executed during wartime, most received remarkable leniency. Many more escaped justice altogether through a mixture of their social and political connections, bureaucratic infighting, and the determination of the British state to strike a balance between ensuring the nation’s security and maintaining individual civil liberties – including of those who sought to aid an enemy which would have destroyed them.
Some crimes were petty acts of resistance to the war effort. Others were far more serious: well-planned conspiracies to overthrow Winston Churchill’s government, assist the Germans during an invasion, and set up a puppet regime in its aftermath.
Some betrayals undoubtedly led to the deaths of countless British servicemen and civilians. The motives of these traitors were largely ideological: Most were devoted fascists and virulent anti-Semites, although a few were simply petty criminals motivated by greed.
In search of enemy alien life
Britain was desperately unprepared for the challenge it faced on the outbreak of war. Legislation to combat foreign espionage and domestic subversion was either absent, weak or outdated. Its principal agency to fight Axis spies and Fifth Columnists – MI5 – was under-resourced, disorganized and pitifully short of staff. B Branch, the division which focused on threats to national security, had a mere 12 agents in the four years prior to 1939 and had spent much of its time and effort on the danger posed by communists.
The biggest weakness, however, was the fact that when the war began, the government and security services’ initial concern was with the danger posed by the 70,000 “enemy aliens” residing in Britain. Attempting to sift those that should be immediately interned or have their movements restricted from those – such as Jewish refugees from Hitler’s persecution (although many of the latter were interned) – who were seen as no danger diverted valuable time, manpower and effort.
A small minority of “enemy aliens” represented a genuine danger but, despite the hysterical press campaign against them led by the previously fascist-sympathizing Daily Mail, the real threat was much closer to home.
Pre-war Britain had a small, politically impotent and often-feuding network of fascist and pro-German groups: the Imperial Fascist League which was led by Arnold Leese, a rabidly anti-Semitic former veterinary surgeon; Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists; and the short-lived National Socialist League, a break-away from the BUF which itself later morphed into the British Council for Christian Settlement in Europe and the British People’s party.
More genteel Nazi sympathizers gravitated towards less-threatening sounding groups such as The Link (a Berlin-funded propaganda group led by a retired senior admiral, Barry Domvile, which supposedly promoted Anglo-German friendship and understanding) and the Nordic League. Beneath the veneer of respectability, the League – with its motto of “Perish Judah” – hosted meetings at which speakers praised Hitler and advocated murdering Jews, and its leadership had close links to the German Embassy.
The German invasion of Denmark, Norway, Holland and Belgium in the spring of 1940, and the assistance provided to the Nazis by local fascists such as Vidkun Quisling, provoked renewed media and public concern about the need for what the Sunday Times described as “the most effective protection against Fifth Column activities.” In response, the government rushed a new Treachery Act through parliament introducing the death penalty for a wide-ranging series of offenses which might aid the enemy or impede the war effort. Internment regulations were strengthened to allow anyone “showing sympathy to enemy powers” to be locked up. And the BUF was banned and Mosley and his most senior lieutenants were detained.
These concern were not misplaced. As the Royal Air Force fought off a German invasion over the skies of southern England in the summer of 1940, Mosley’s footsoldiers were engaged in acts of espionage and sabotage: damaging public phones boxes to hamper communications during air raids; mapping the locations of aerodromes and RAF stations; and sketching the sites of local munitions factories. One 16-year-old was even found to have set fire to houses during the height of the Blitz with the aim of helping guide the Luftwaffe towards their targets.
Those caught were prosecuted and imprisoned, although in a pattern that was to be repeated throughout the war, the well-to-do and well-connected frequently escaped punishment. In June 1940, for instance, a wealthy Yorkshire factory owner who had played a leading role in the local BUF was discovered by police to have amassed a huge stock of weapons and ammunition. He was, though, only briefly detained before being released on the advise of the liberal-minded body established by the government to oversee appeals against internment.
But, as Tate details, such activities were relatively trivial compared to what Britain’s would-be Quislings were plotting in London.
A three-ringleader fascist circus
There appear to have been three major overlapping conspiracies hatched in 1940 with the aiming of fomenting a “fascist revolution.” Among those involved were figures with close links to the political and military establishment.
The ringleader of the first was Captain Archibald Maule Ramsay, a pro-Nazi Conservative MP with violently anti-Semitic beliefs. In May 1939, Ramsay founded the Right Club, a secretive group which aimed, in the words of his son, “to coordinate the activities of all the patriotic bodies which are striving to free this country from… Jewish domination.”
There was, in fact, nothing patriotic about the Right Club. Instead, its “Inner Circle” schemed and conspired against their fellow countrymen and women, aiming to deliver them into the hands of the Nazis.
Ramsay had long been on the security service’s radar and its undercover agents penetrated his organization, reporting back to their superiors discussions about the need for a military coup which would occur as German forces arrived in Britain. “Personally, I should welcome a civil war with shots fired in the streets,” Ramsay told one meeting, while Domvile told another of the need for “a bloody revolution.” “I am ready to start one right away,” added Domvile.
While Ramsay’s fantasies about Hitler installing him as head of a protectorate were far-fetched, the group’s activities nonetheless posed a real danger.
As well as Domvile and Ramsay, the “Inner Circle” also included General John Fuller, who had acted as an unofficial adviser to the Wehrmacht during Germany’s rearmament and had been a personal guest of Hitler at the Fuhrer’s 50th birthday celebrations but nonetheless remained a close friend of General William Ironside, the commander-in-chief of Britain’s Home Forces. Other members included two members of the House of Lords – Lord Sempill, who before the war had been in the pay of Mitsubishi, then an arm of the Japanese military, and had, despite warnings from the government, passed sensitive military intelligence to it – and Lord Tavistock (later the Duke of Bedford).
Tavistock, the fourth-richest man in Britain, bankrolled a range of fascist causes and in early 1940 illegally sought to make contact with the Nazis in order to negotiate peace terms. The security services lobbied to have him interned and warned the government that he would “be likely to be set up a gauleiter or the head of puppet British government” in the event of an invasion. But his wealth and connections enabled Tavistock to remain a free man.
The case of the stolen cache
By winning the trust of Ramsay’s wife, an MI5 agent discovered that the Right Club had contacts in the police, MI5 itself, key government ministries and the War Cabinet, and had been secretly compiling a list of Axis opponents to be eliminated when the country fell to the Germans.
But MI5’s infiltration of the Right Club uncovered an even greater act of treachery by its key players. In April 1940, the secret service learned that Ramsay’s self-described chief of staff, Anna Wolkoff, was working hand in glove with Tyler Kent, a young US diplomat who had stolen thousands of sensitive documents, including telegrams between Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt and War Office and intelligence service papers which had been shared with the Americans, from the Embassy.
Wolkoff, a Russian-born Nazi fanatic and anti-Semite who became a British citizen in 1935, had, moreover, copied some of the stolen cache and was passing it to the Germans via the military attache at the Italian Embassy. The US Ambassador, Joseph Kennedy, waived Kent’s diplomatic immunity and the police and MI5 arrested him and Wolkoff. Ramsay, who was aware of their activities and had himself inspected some of the stolen documents, was also detained.
MI5 wanted Kent, Wolkoff, Ramsay and his wife charged with espionage. The Home Office and the government’s law officers, however, decided that only Kent and Wolkoff should face charges. He eventually received a seven-year prison sentence, while she got 10 years with the judge pronouncing that Wolkoff’s “anti-Jewish obsession” destroyed her “mental and moral fibre.”
By contrast, Ramsay and Domvile were interned, with the MP retaining his salary and resuming his seat in parliament upon his release in 1944.
Aside from treating Ramsay with kid gloves, his wife, Sempill, Tavistock and Fuller never even saw the inside of a cell. Moreover, the government adamantly refused to release the names of the Right Club’s members, which were discovered in a leather-bound book when police raided Kent’s flat. Those on it would not finally be exposed until 2000 when the list was given to the Wiener Library, the world’s oldest Holocaust museum.
Such injustices did not always go unnoticed by the courts. One judge referred to a BUF member who appeared before him charged with advertising the frequency of a German propaganda station broadcasting to Britain as “a humble tool,” noting that “the real criminals responsible have not been brought to justice”; a reference perhaps to Ramsay who used a question in parliament to publicize the Nazi station and where it could be found on a radio dial.
The maestro’s maelstrom
Ramsay’s name also figured in a second major plot, this one overseen by a Welsh musician and conductor who appeared frequently on the BBC. Unbeknown to listeners, however, Dr. Leigh Vaughan-Henry was also an ardent Nazi and vicious anti-Semite. His links with fascist groups and German intelligence brought him to the attention of MI5 which successfully penetrated the conspiracy of which he was at the center.
Vaughan-Henry had established a secret network of 18 cells each with 25 members and planned a coup – installing General Ironside to power – once the Nazis had captured the Channel ports. Vaughan-Henry, who was communicating with the Abwehr through his wife who was living in Germany, had acquired a printing press, transport facilities, a network of accommodation addresses, and was forging false identity appears. At the time of his arrest in June 1940, Vaughan-Henry also appears to have marshalled considerable sums of money and was attempting to negotiate an arms deal to purchase weaponry.
Vaughan-Henry was interned on the Isle of Man. The government’s failure to prosecute him under the Treachery Act, speculates Tate, may have been due to a desire not to have the names of senior political and military figures involved in the plot disclosed, even in the proceedings of a secret trial closed to the media. There is no evidence that Ironside knew or approved of the conspiracy, although he was dismissed from his post shortly after Vaughan-Henry’s arrest.
John Beckett, a former Labour MP who had joined Mosley’s blackshirts and then left to form various more extreme fascist groups, was another recipient of Tavistock’s largesse. After the outbreak of war, he, Domvile and Ben Greene (the cousin of the novelist Graham Greene) established the British Council for Christian Settlement in Europe to publicly lobby for a negotiated peace with Germany.
But Beckett was also engaged in less public, more nefarious activities.
Once again, MI5 managed to spy on the fascists’ plotting. This time, it employed Harald Kurtz, a former Nazi who had come to live in Britain in 1937 and later embarked on undercover work for the British secret service. Posing as a Nazi agent, Kurtz found that Beckett, Greene and Robert Gordon-Canning, a wealthy former army officer and one-time leading BUF official, were conspiring to assist a German invasion. They talked of the need to acquire weapons and build pro-Nazi contacts in the armed forces to ensure that, as Beckett put it, when the time was right they would “turn their rifles in the right direction.”
Beckett, Greene and Gordon-Canning were arrested and interned in May 1940. A letter found by MI5 included a document drawn up by Beckett addressed to Tavistock. It contained detailed planning for a “Coalition Government of National Security” which would take power once the Germans had invaded. Tavistock would be prime minister and there were to be senior Cabinet posts for Mosley, Beckett himself, Greene, Fuller and Ironside.
MI5’s effort to thwart the Fifth Columnists’ activities was, however, hampered by the government’s advisory committee on internment, which frequently recommended the release of those – including Inner Circle members of the Right Club, Greene and Gordon-Canning – whom the security services had laboured hard to put away.
Tiring of a judicial system which did not appear to share the same appreciation of the threat posed by well-connected fascists or the methods sometimes employed by MI5 to detain them, Britain’s spooks hit upon an ingenious alternative method to neutralize the Fifth Column.
Fake news of a London-based Gestapo cell
The brainchild of Victor Rothschild, scion of the banking dynasty but then gainfully employed as head of MI5’s counter-sabotage section, it involved the establishment of a fake Gestapo cell in London. The effort was led by Eric Roberts, a bank clerk and former fascist sympathizer who had turned and become an undercover agent in the BUF.
Roberts was furnished with a fake Gestapo identify card and assumed the alias of “Jack King,” an agent recruited in Britain in early 1939 to compile information on those who would be “loyal to the Fatherland.” Over three years, he built a network of hundreds of Nazi fellow-travelers. As Rothschild had advocated, its aim was to “canalize” the information given to Roberts, duping its members into thinking that it was being fed back to Berlin, when is was instead being diverted to MI5 in London.
At the center of the network were two ardent fascists, Marita Perigoe and Hans Kohout. Perigue assumed the role as Roberts’ deputy and was given a weekly stipend; she debriefed network members in a specially wired flat in central London which MI5 rented for the operation.
Agents provided Roberts with maps indicating the location of Britain’s petrol and aviation stocks; top secret research on a new type of jet engine for fighter planes and reports on experimental tanks; and information about military bases and civil defense. Some even wandered their home towns jotting down information on possible targets for German bombers, with one woman gleefully detailing the death and injuries caused by an air raid which she incorrectly assumed had resulted from information she had provided.
Perhaps most importantly, Kohout’s attempt to pass Germany crucial military secrets – including details of the new Mosquito fighter bomber and the “Window programme,” the chaff technology deployed to confuse German radar which saved the lives of hundreds of Allied airmen – were thwarted.
As Germany’s defeat beckoned, MI5 became aware that some of Roberts’s agents were planning post-war espionage and, for a time, “Jack King” continued his activities to keep tabs on the fascists’ activities. To maintain the charade, Rothschild even had Roberts secretly reward Perigoe and Kohout with specially minted imitations of Nazi medals in January 1946 as a reward for their services to the fatherland. Talk of assassinating British politicians and murdering East End Jews to “avenge Nuremberg” were monitored, as were efforts to help German POWs housed in the UK escape.
Those who worked on Hitler’s behalf and betrayed their country are now dead, but, as official files have finally given up their ghosts, their stories are now coming to light.
How should Britain confront this challenge to the deeply embedded narrative it has told itself for many decades? With perspective and maturing, Tate argues.
“History, if sometimes uncomfortable, is not binary: the existence of a large group of traitors, committed to transforming Britain into a fascist dictatorship does not negative the equally-factual heroism of a country which fought – sometimes on its knees – to prevent that catastrophe,” writes Tate.