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Aliens: The Chequered History of Britain’s Wartime Refugees

Even when promoting highly illiberal policies on immigration or asylum seeking, ministers can seldom resist making reference to what Boris Johnson called Britain’s “proud history of welcoming people from overseas, including many fleeing persecution”.

The main piece of supporting evidence is always the roughly 80,000 Jews, and particularly around 10,000 children on Kindertransport, who were saved from Nazi persecution and likely death through finding safety in the UK.

Though acknowledging that this was a major humanitarian achievement, Paul Dowswell is determined that we do not turn it into a comforting myth we can use as a stick to beat today’s government policy. Then, as now, newspapers led by the Daily Mail (which greeted Hitler’s accession to power with an article that “fizzes with fanboy adoration”) “created a climate of fear and resentment” about refugees, and “governments used bureaucratic barriers and obfuscation to prevent their arrival”.

Once the war started, in an atmosphere of (tabloid-induced?) public paranoia about fifth columnists, all refugees were classified as “enemy aliens”. An undifferentiated policy of internment saw Jews and fervent Nazis held in captivity together in places such as the Isle of Man. In 1940, 7,500 refugees were deported. Hundreds died when the Arandora Star was attacked by a German submarine en route to Canada and others suffered exceptionally cruel treatment by the servicemen accompanying them on the Dunera bound for Australia.

Aliens is hardly the first book to challenge the rose-tinted view of “welcoming” wartime Britain, as referenced in the title of Barry Turner’s book on the Kindertransport, ...And the Policeman Smiled. But it does explore some less familiar territory.

Poles formed “the largest group of foreign nationals fighting in the RAF”, writes Dowswell, and played a crucial role in the Battle of Britain. Many more were liberated from prisoner of war and concentration camps. Shortly after the war, therefore, between 130,000 and 150,000 were living in temporary accommodation in Britain.

The Polish Resettlement Act of 1947 – described by Dowswell as “Britain’s first mass immigration law” – rewarded the country’s “Polish allies with a cooperative approach to citizenship”. Yet they still faced much hostility, not least from union organisers who thought they worked too fast and showed up their British colleagues. It was not until the 1960s, according to one historian, that the Polish community managed to overcome stereotypes portraying them as “potential scabs, fascists and Casanovas” and gain broad acceptance.

People in Britain were often ‘repelled by the treatment of black American soldiers by their white American allies’


Another group of refugees, as Dowswell points out, is “commonly overlooked in histories of the second world war” – namely the millions of displaced persons, former prisoners and remnants of defeated armies who settled in Britain’s zone of occupation in a postwar Germany said to resemble “one huge ants’ nest”. Jews who had survived the Holocaust were often kept in camps as “the only solution available to feed and house them”. In accordance with agreements made with Stalin, Slovenians and Cossacks were handed over to their former enemies, but more than 7,000 men from the Ukrainian Galician Waffen SS division were allowed to settle in the UK. Their fate remains very topical. Dowswell reports investigations indicating that they were involved in “massacres of Polish civilians”, but others see them as “fighters for Ukrainian freedom” – celebrated at a ceremony in Kyiv as recently as 2021.

Perhaps most interesting of all, however, is the story of the black GIs based in Britain during the war. Though the War Office wanted to encourage British troops to “adopt the same exclusionary attitude of the American army towards ‘coloured troops’”, notes Dowswell, the Colonial Office was afraid of the “uproar” this would cause in the empire. Ordinary people in Britain, meanwhile, had no experience of living in a country with an overt “colour bar” in shops and dance halls, and were often “repelled by the treatment of black American soldiers by their white American allies”. When American military police called for a ban on black servicemen visiting the pubs in a Lancashire village, the publicans responded by putting up “Black troops only” signs.

The treatment of black American servicemen, Dowswell suggests, perhaps “reflect[s] the way the British like to see themselves – as fair-minded, decent people”. The jury remains out on whether this country should “feel proud of its wartime record” or not. But Aliens brings together much fascinating material to help us reflect on this.

Matthew Reisz