BBC - WW2 People's War


1939 - 1945

Internment of civilian nationals belonging to opposing sides was carried out in varying degrees by all belligerent powers in World War Two. It was also the fate of those servicemen who found themselves in a neutral country.

At the outbreak of war there were around 80,000 potential enemy aliens in Britain who, it was feared, could be spies, or willing to assist Britain's enemies in the event of an invasion. All Germans and Austrians over the age of 16 were called before special tribunals and were divided into one of three groups:

  • 'A' - high security risks, numbering just under 600, who were immediately interned;
  • 'B' - 'doubtful cases', numbering around 6,500, who were supervised and subject to restrictions;
  • 'C' - 'no security risk', numbering around 64,000, who were left at liberty. More than 55,000 of category 'C' were recognised as refugees from Nazi oppression. The vast majority of these were Jewish.

The situation began to change in the spring of 1940. The failure of the Norwegian campaign led to an outbreak of spy fever and agitation against enemy aliens. More and more Germans and Austrians were rounded up. Italians were also included, even though Britain was not at war with Italy until June. When Italy and Britain did go to war, there were at least 19,000 Italians in Britain, and Churchill ordered they all be rounded up. This was despite the fact that most of them had lived in Britain for decades.

Thousands of Germans, Austrians and Italians were sent to camps set up at racecourses and incomplete housing estates, such as Huyton outside Liverpool. The majority were interned on the Isle of Man, where internment camps had also been set up in World War One. Facilities were basic, but it was boredom that was the greatest enemy. Internees organised educational and artistic projects, including lectures, concerts and camp newspapers. At first married women were not allowed into the camps to see their husbands, but by August 1940 visits were permitted, and a family camp was established in late 1941.

That many of the 'enemy aliens' were Jewish refugees and therefore hardly likely to be sympathetic to the Nazis, was a complication no one bothered to try and unravel - they were still treated as German and Austrian nationals. In one Isle of Man camp over 80 per cent of the internees were Jewish refugees.

More than 7,000 internees were deported, the majority to Canada, some to Australia. The liner Arandora Star left for Canada on 1 July 1940 carrying German and Italian internees. It was torpedoed and sunk with the loss of 714 lives, most of them internees. Others being taken to Australia on the Dunera, which sailed a week later, were subjected to humiliating treatment and terrible conditions on the two-month voyage. Many had their possessions stolen or thrown overboard by the British military guards.

An outcry in Parliament led to the first releases of internees in August 1940. By February 1941 more than 10,000 had been freed, and by the following summer, only 5,000 were left in internment camps. Many of those released from internment subsequently contributed to the war effort on the Home Front or served in the armed forces.

As regards British citizens interned by the Nazis, in September 1942 the Germans sent 2,000 British-born civilians from the Channel Islands to internment camps in Germany. Another 200 were deported in January 1943, as a reprisal for a British commando raid.

In 1941-2 approximately 130,000 civilians from Allied countries living and working in colonies invaded by the Japanese were interned. These included men, women and children from the Netherlands, the UK, Australia, New Zealand and the USA. The camps varied in size; some were segregated according to gender or race but there were also many camps of mixed gender. One of the largest un-segregated camps was the Stanley internment camp in Hong Kong, which held 2,800 mainly British internees. Unlike prisoners of war, the internees were not compelled to work, but they were held in harsh conditions in primitive camps. Brutality by the Japanese guards was common and death rates were high.

Internment was also carried out in the USA after the Americans entered the war in December 1941. Some 100,000 Japanese-Americans living on the west coast of America were interned, often in very poor conditions.

The fact files in this timeline were commissioned by the BBC in June 2003 and September 2005. Find out more about the authors who wrote them.