LONDON — Six months after the end of World War II, Britain’s fascist leader, Sir Oswald Mosley, attended a Christmas party. He was given a rapturous reception by 1,000 stalwart supporters — complete with raised-arm salutes. Despite the defeat of the Third Reich which he had so admired, Mosley remained convinced that Britain’s fascist moment was still to come.
But the former head of the British Union of Fascists would also face a group of equally committed opponents — mainly Jewish ex-servicemen –who fought, spied upon and, ultimately, helped to defeat Mosley’s much hoped-for return to the political stage.
As Daniel Sonabend brilliantly captures in his new book, “We Fight Fascists: The 43 Group and Their Forgotten Battle for Post-war Britain,” this was a tale of often bloody, and occasionally terrifying “organized chaos.”
In the aftermath of the Allied victory, Mosley initially ordered most of his supporters to keep their heads down. In a bid for respectability, and to help maintain and grow fascist networks, he urged them to form local book clubs and cultural societies. On no account were they to mention the Jews.
Many, though, were unable to contain their enthusiasm for their lost cause. With the lifting of various wartime regulations, a plethora of fascist organizations — deeply antagonistic towards one another but united in their hatred of Jews — began to spring up.
One to which Mosley gave his private approval was led by Jeffrey Hamm. A Nazi enthusiast and virulent anti-Semite, Hamm had, like the former BUF leader, been interned during the war.
A running start
In May 1946, four Jewish former soldiers encountered Hamm addressing a small crowd at Whitestone Pond in Hampstead, north London. They rushed the small platform from which he was speaking, tangling with the stewards who were guarding it, and beat Hamm.
When the four men recounted their actions back at Maccabi House, a Jewish sports club in West Hampstead, they received a warm response. As Sonabend writes: “Over the next few months these young Jewish ex-servicemen saw the Whitestone Pond attack not as a one-off but as the template for an anti-fascist organization.”
It was already becoming evident to the men that both the government and Jewish communal groups, such as the Board of Deputies and its Jewish Defense Committee, were not prepared to take the kind of robust action they thought necessary against fascist activists.
A Cabinet committee on fascism, for instance, had decided that there was “no immediate threat” of a fascist movement gaining ground. The Labour home secretary, James Chuter Ede, recommended that the fascists instead be left “to the sense of humor of the British people.”
At the same time, the conservative-minded Board was determined that any action taken to counter the fascists be law-abiding, uncontroversial and not draw negative attention to the Jewish community.
Labour home secretary, James Chuter Ede, recommended that the fascists be left ‘to the sense of humor of the British people’
That attitude, though, was not one shared by many young Jews. They had fought for their country to defeat fascism overseas, were scarred by the images of the camps (which some had personally witnessed and in which others had lost relatives), and had memories of how Mosley’s Blackshirts had terrorized Jews in the 1930s.
Many Jews were, moreover, appalled by the sight of Royal Navy ships in the Mediterranean attempting to prevent Holocaust survivors from reaching Palestine. “We felt useless,” recalled Morris Beckman, who had participated in roughing up Hamm.
From frustration, anger and a determination that never again should Jews be stalked by fascists on the streets of London, the 43 Group was born in the last months of 1946.
While the origins of its name are disputed — the official account is that it stemmed from the number of people attending its first meeting — its aims were not.
“The battle against fascism,” its founding members wrote in an early letter to the Jewish Chronicle, “must go on… We must kill it, and kill it now!”
The group, its members decided, would oppose and expose fascist and anti-Semitic groups, and unite the public against them. It would have no other political agenda and it would be open to those who were neither Jewish nor former soldiers.
The funding begins
Despite disapproval from communal organizations, money began to roll in from prominent Jewish businessmen and so too did recruits: by July 1947 it had a budget of 1 million British pounds (roughly $1.3 million US) in today’s money and 500 members.
The group operated mainly through semi-autonomous branches, but it was led by Gerry Flamberg — a paratrooper who was his battalion’s boxing champion, along with Geoffrey Bernerd, a former army captain. Jonny Wimborne, who was still a member of the Merchant Navy, was head of intelligence, while Reg Morris, an ex-guardsman whose good looks had seen him work as a stand-in for the film star Stewart Granger, was its field commander. Harry Bidney, a gay former officer who had served in Burma, led the group’s notoriously violent East End section. The most famous of its veterans was the hairdresser Vidal Sassoon who, appropriately, often carried a pair of scissors when out on 43 Group operations.
As befitted a group run by former soldiers, the campaign against the fascists was to be fought with military discipline and precision. Although the group had an iron rule of never attacking police officers — despite a streak of anti-Semitism which ran through elements of the Metropolitan Police — it often cut up rough.
One group of fascists who had been harassing Jews in north London found themselves drenched in the paint that they’d been using to daub anti-Semitic graffiti. Others found themselves on the end of a beating.
The group had an iron rule of never attacking police officers — despite a streak of anti-Semitism which ran through elements of the Metropolitan Police
Fascist speakers weren’t just heckled (ridicule was a favorite tactic), their meetings were disrupted with brawls designed to force the police into closing them. Sometimes Flamberg’s men used a “flying wedge.” Following the cry of “break the fucking meeting up,” a group of well-built commandos would rush their way through the crowd, barging the police and fascist stewards aside until they got to the speaker, who would often be orating atop a wooden box that they would then overturn.
But, author Sonabend argues, the arrests which resulted from breaking up fascist meetings were designed to attract publicity. The 43 Group wanted to highlight the contrast between Jewish former soldiers and fascists who’d spent the war locked up for fear they might stab their country in the back if the Germans invaded.
Masters of chaos
1947 proved to be a critical year. Despite its recent victory, Britain was in a dark place: austerity and continued rationing combined with a bitterly cold winter to produce food and fuel shortages. Aided by elements of the press, fascist agitators pressed home the time-honored message that Jews were profiteering black marketeers. Reports commissioned by the government suggested a paradox: anti-Semitism was rising, but large majorities of people were fiercely opposed to fascism. Mosley, believing that Britain was on the verge of an economic crash, prepared his return to public life.
The violence which accompanied the drawing to a close of the British Mandate in Palestine added to this noxious mix. The murder of two British sergeants by the Irgun in July 1947 sparked rioting and anti-Semitic incidents across the UK, upon which the fascists swiftly sought to capitalize.
On Ridley Road, in heavily Jewish Hackney in north London, by mid-September Hamm’s speeches began to draw large crowds, reaching up to 6,000 — some of them mere sightseers. The 43 Group, however, was determined to stop them, and for weeks they and the fascists fought running battles in and around the area.
This was, as Sonabend writes, “the defining conflict” between the two sides. It both challenged the perception that Jews would “take persecution and victimization on the chin” and, critically, provided an inauspicious backdrop to Mosley’s planned autumn comeback. The former Blackshirt leader had been desperate to attract middle class support; instead, argues Sonabend, the fascists would remain “associated with street violence and chaos.”
The 43 Group had long been planning for Mosley’s attempted return. Aside from its public activities, the group operated a surveillance and spying operation and had managed to infiltrate a number of individuals into the fascists’ ranks. Doris Kaye and her Irish-Catholic boyfriend, James Cotter, became so trusted by Mosley that they were able to obtain both the date and the closely guarded venue for his comeback rally.
On November 15, 1947, the 43 Group was able to besiege the Memorial Hall in Farringdon and, at one point, managed to force Mosley to retreat from the stage as the fascists were forced to fight off an attempted invasion of the building.
Mosley’s new Union Movement (UM) — named as a nod to his belief in a united Europe — was harassed by the 43 Group at every turn. They left his supporters bruised and bloodied after a May Day march in East London and routed them at what became known as the “Battle of the Level” in the coastal city of Brighton a month later.
And one blue-eyed, blonde-haired young Jew, today only identified as “Ben,” managed to charm his way into Mosley’s inner circle and become part of his security detail. Ben fed back daily reports and helped the group burgle documents from Mosley’s country estate.
This was, though, highly dangerous work. Their mission complete, Kaye and Cotter were spirited out of the country to Canada where they lived the rest of their lives. Group members were trailed and assaulted by fascists who armed themselves with brass knuckles and razor blades. Flamberg had an incendiary device pushed through his mail slot.
Sometimes the fascists’ tactics were marginally more sophisticated. In December 1947, John Preen, a Mosley supporter who had been interned in the war, faked a shooting and managed to get Flamberg and Wimborne charged with his attempted murder. The group, which always paid its members legal costs, hired Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe, a former Nuremberg prosecutor and future home secretary, who got the case dismissed after picking holes in Preen’s story. Newspaper coverage of the case helped the group’s membership to surge to 2,000 members.
Within a year, the UM had fizzled into insignificance. Having waited for so long, Mosley had missed his moment: austerity and rationing began to ease and living standards improved, while the withdrawal of British troops from Palestine meant that the anti-Semitism the UM had hoped to exploit swiftly subsided.
Disenchanted and prone to infighting, Mosley further demoralized his supporters by telling them to switch their attacks from Jews to communists. For many, this simply didn’t have the same appeal, and the fascist leader once again returned to his sly attacks on “international financiers.” The UM’s performance in 1949’s local elections proved so dire that the party chose not to contest the following year’s general election.
In December 1949, the last issue of 43 Group’s newspaper, On Guard, appeared. The group itself was disbanded soon afterwards as a bored Mosley prepared to leave the UK for France.
Although the competition is not great, Mosley is the most popular fascist politician Britain has ever seen, albeit one with a distinctly limited appeal. It was in no small part thanks to the 43 Group that his hopes of returning to the fray after the war were scuppered.
But that, as Sonabend demonstrates, was by no means its only legacy.
“If it achieved nothing else,” one veteran later recalled, “it gave Jewish ex-servicemen the sense of pride that we are a people, that we can defend ourselves and we’re not just running away. If it did nothing else. But I’m sure it did do more than that.”