Musings on the worlds of aviation, military and international affairs.
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Hitler’s British Traitors
The Secret History of Spies, Saboteurs and Fifth Columnists
Tim Tate Icon Books, 4 July 2019
Tim Tate shines a searchlight on a very gloomy and rather overlooked aspect of the UK’s history in the Thirties and Forties. The popularity of Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts is well known, as is the public disorder he created. Much less well known is the degree to which fascism (or at least fascist sympathies), and anti-semitism, were entrenched in the British Establishment in the run-up to WW2. I was particularly interested to read this book as it featured (as I thought it might) a blackguard who popped up in my book (A Passion For Speed). The publication is timely given the level of anti-semitism in parts of Briatin's left, and of the rise of populist anti-semitism across Europe.
To his credit, Tate does not hang back from criticising the UK government’s processes of search for, interrogation, sentencing and so on, of culprits. At least for the first years of the war much behaviour of the security services and the justice system was “determined to maintain the highest standards of ‘fair play’”, perhaps not realising that our enemy was unencumbered by such inhibitions. Co-ordination between the myriad elements of our security services was poor. As is evident to any historian of this area, petty rivalries between them popped up all the time.
Tate catalogues several instances of Nazi agents being caught yet released due to such amateurism; Paul Borchardt being an example; an active fascist at work in the Air Ministry, and well known to some parts of the security services; and so on. These examples of incompetence may explain one reason why MI5 were reluctant to release these files for so long. Tate also points out the Home Office’s embarrassment to discover , well into the war, that it had yet to create a law covering treachery.
Those British readers who thought we all sang from the same hymn sheet will be distraught to read of the likes of Major-General John ‘Boney’ Fuller, who described the Jews as ‘the cancer of Europe’, and lionised Hitler as “that realistic idealist who has awakened the common sense of the British people by setting out to create a new Germany.” Boney was scarily well connected, including to the likes of General William Ironside. The latter was a member of the ‘Anglo-German Fellowship’ and Tate leaves hanging whether his rightward leanings were a factor in his effective demotion from CIGS, and then C-in-C Home Forces.
Amongst the coterie of British aristocrats who were heavily Nazi-leaning included an Army Captain who taught the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret to ride!
Further, MI6 was probably not alone in having arch-propagandists for Hitler within its own ranks – one Anthony Ludovicci was not kicked out until August 1940, after his name had been found in plans for a fascist overthrow. Incompetence was in the early stages partly excused by shortage of resources – the Security Services started the war rather under-funded.
If there is an arch-traitor in this book, it is probably Archibald Ramsay, the founder of the Right Club. He was an MP, and bizarrely (at least from a 21stC perspective) was allowed to remain such when he was finally interned in Brixton gaol. After appeals he was initially released, only later to spend much of the war behind bars (in some comfort), being finally released in September 1944 – drawing his MP’s salary all the while!
In this fascinating book Tate ranges as widely as he can for sources, one of the most fruitful of which are the diaries of Guy Liddell, which produced a pugilistic exchange between Max Beaverbrook and Victor Rothschild. Memorable. Norman Birkett QC, Chairman of the Advisory Committee on Internment comes out of these pages badly – he released too many fascist plotters from internment.
Like me, Tate was hugely frustrated by the degree of ‘filleting’ in the National Archives. The Security Services must recognise that that, in protecting their own, they have destroyed history. Unforgiveable. The unmistakable conclusion of this book is that traitors in the Establishment were much less harshly treated – if they were treated at all – than members of the working classes, who often received sentences of ‘penal servitude’ for misdemeanours much less serious than the intents of the aristocratic plotters. One must conclude that many of the missing files would have served not only to inculpate more aristos, but also explain these judicial fudges.
If there is a criticism of this book (and it is not really, see below), it is that too much of the narrative is driven by National Archive files. Thus we only see what the Security Services want us to see; we do not find out much about the motivation of these fascist sympathisers, or their family circumstances. As I realised when wondering whether to write a biography of my arch-rogue, one is unlikely to be loaned family archives if they only serve to blacken the reputation of an already dark grey sheep! So the villains remain rather one-dimensional; any colour comes from the buffoonery by some in the Government and the security services.