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Fighting fascists: Battling Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts


Founded in early 1946, the 43 Group was an anti-facist group, membership of which, at first, was almost entirely made up of tough, Anglo-Jewish former servicemen. In a five-year covert campaign these men set about disrupting the public meetings of the resurgent fascist movement and also infiltrated it, at great personal risk, to gather intelligence. Amongst the 43 people present at the group’s founding meeting was Morris Beckman, who had served in the Merchant Navy during the Second World War. The following is extracted from the Prologue to Beckman’s book The 43 Group.

In the early Thirties, Oswald Mosley’s ruthless pursuit of personal power had incurred the distrust of his parliamentary colleagues, and so his chances of leading a British political party, any party, had gone. But this vain, highly intelligent and ambitious man had no intention of being side-lined. He had been watching two men take different and successful routes to power: Hitler in Germany, and Mussolini in Italy. Mosley noticed too that, like Germany and Italy, Britain was suffering widespread discontent due to high unemployment, with its attendant hopelessness and starvation-level poverty. The situation therefore looked very exploitable, and Mosley decided to make the leap.

Mosley visited both Hitler and Mussolini, who received him well, and when he returned to England in 1933 he founded the British Union of Fascists (BUF). He modelled his movement on that of Nazi Germany and, like Hitler, selected the scapegoat upon whom the disenchanted and workless could vent their spleen. Thus, anti-Semitism became the main thrust of Mosley’s manifesto. Emulating Goebbels, the successful Nazi propaganda minister, Mosley threw in large visible doses of patriotism by holding mass rallies coloured by seas of Union Jacks and fascist flags.

Mosley built his movement into a sizeable, brutal force whose provocative parades and meetings in Jewish areas created constant disturbances and kept the police at full stretch. He also gathered support from certain wealthy industrialists and sections of the national press. The BUF also established provincial branches and, while they had no chance of achieving success by normal parliamentary process, they were Mosley’s last hope. Besides, the touch of Walter Mitty in the man exhilarated in the limelight and the centrestage his movement gave him.

During the Thirties I was a pupil at Hackney Downs Secondary School, in the heartland of the pre-war activities of the BUF. Their intimidatory violence turned a pleasant enough life into one of apprehensive misery. Jewish people were afraid to venture out after dark and even during the day, when gangs of arrogant Blackshirts roamed the streets abusing and molesting Jews they encountered. It was also unpleasant for non-Jews but they, at least, were not the direct target of abuse and violence.

I remember going out at night and keeping a wary watch for Mosley’s gangs. Fortunately, they tended to be noisy, and one could hear the chants of ‘Heil Mosley!’ and ‘Get rid of the Yids!’ in time to dive down a side street or into a front garden thick with bushes. War put an end to all of that. On 31 October 31, Sir John Anderson, the then Home Secretary, said in the House of Commons, ‘A certain body known for its anti-Semitic and Nazi propaganda has instructed its members to become rumour-mongers and channels for verbal Nazi propaganda. Measures considered to be necessary for the safety of the civilian population are to be made fun of. For example, parents who evacuated their children to safe areas must be made to think that evacuation was unnecessary. The object here is to get people to bring back their children to London and thus defeat measures taken in their interest. This is the way these people operate’.

Sir John was referring to Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. Once war was declared, the BUF became not only, officially, enemies of the state, but a potential fifth column should the Nazis invade Britain. While the Allied and German armies faced each other quietly across the Maginot and Siegfried lines during the phoney war, British fascists could only hope for a Nazi victory, it did not seem possible. But, after the fall of France and the retreat from Dunkirk, they began to plan seriously for the coming German conquest. Many fascists were conscripted into the armed forces, many were interned and others, who evaded both conscription and internment, went underground, remaining loyal to their creed and their country’s enemies. Some, however, did pay for their treachery.

Theodore John William Church, taken prisoner at Tobruk, had joined Nazi intelligence. He was found guilty of treachery and hanged 5 January 1946. Francis John McCordy, taken prisoner in 1940, had applied to join the Waffen SS and helped to found the British Free Corps which fought against the Allies. In January 1946 he was sentenced to penal servitude for life.

Thomas Haller Cooper was in Germany at the outbreak of war. He also enlisted in the Waffen SS and helped raise the British Free Corps. His sentence to death in January 1946 was commuted to penal servitude for life.

Walter Purdy, captured at Narvik, broadcast for the Nazis, wrote anti-Allied propaganda, and betrayed escaping British prisoners. Charged with High Treason, he was sentenced to death, later commuted to a life sentence.

Elise Sarah Orrin, a pre-war BUF member, received five years penal servitude for creating dissatisfaction amongst British servicemen.

The police confiscated many records belonging to the fascists at the outbreak of war, but they left much in Mosleyite hands. Valuable records, including names and addresses, files and account books were taken to a bomb-proof hideout in a railway arch warehouse bordering Hackney Downs. There they lay under the Liverpool Street to Enfield railway line until recovered by the fascists after the war.

During his internment, Mosley could be confident that his supporters would remain loyal to him, intact and active. From scattered cellars and workshops the fascists churned out crude leaflets distributed clandestinely and flyposted on walls, shop windows and trees under cover of the wartime blackout. They were also left on the seats of buses and tube trains. The fascists maintained effective word of mouth communication so that those newly-released from internment knew exactly where to find their comrades. (It is a curious fact that the only two fascist regimes in Europe that remained organisationally preserved when the war ended were in Spain and Britain.)

With peace, virtually all the British fascists released from internment emerged unrepentant. The fact that so many of their countrymen and women had died fighting against their murderous belief meant nothing to them, nor that the war had closed upon an estimated 40,000,000 European dead and the devastation of countless cities and towns. Revelations of the conveyor-belt murder of millions in the concentration camps left them unmoved. In fact, they quickly set about propagandising that the camps were a Jewish myth, had never existed. Despite seeing their heroes hanged at Nuremberg, they were still obsessed by a hatred of the Jews and loyalty to their reclusive and time-biding leader, Oswald Mosley.

One would have thought that a rational man, a penitent man – one with even the most fractional vestige of decency – would have surveyed the devastation caused by the ideology he had espoused and suffered remorse. But not Oswald Mosley. A hugely energetic megalomaniac, undeniably charismatic and immensely wealthy, one would have hoped he might have put his efforts into alleviating the hardship of millions of Europeans, including his own countrymen, caused by his vainglorious creed. But no, not Mosley. He never expressed a single word of regret for the holocaust wrought by fascism; his lust for power remained intact, his ability to see only what suited him undiminished. Mosley was still the wilful hyperactive boy dropping stones from a high cliff onto the crowded beach below, intent only upon his own pleasure and heedless of damage to others.

The war could not end soon enough for the fascists to start politicking, but others could not even wait for that. In November 1944, as British and Allied troops were fighting their way into Germany, the League of British Ex-Servicemen and Women, founded by a Mr James Taylor in Birmingham, staged a more or less fascist, but decidedly anti-Semitic meeting at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park. The speakers were Victor Burgess, released from 18b internment and a former Mosley disciple, and Jeffrey Hamm, Director of Policy, also an ex-18b detainee and a member of the pre-war BUF. The League was fed by an Aid Fund established to assist ex-18b detainees, and support the underground cells.

The war over, Oswald Mosley cautiously and furtively took up again leadership of a revived fascist movement and within months his ‘rough games’ were provoking trouble on the streets of London. In an interview in 1946, Oswald Mosley told the News Chronicle that experience had not only reaffirmed his views, but had intensified them. During his internment, Mosley had had ample time to plan for the post-war scene, planning facilitated by an early release which was never satisfactorily explained by the then Home Secretary, Herbert Morrison. In the autumn of 1945, he began his bid for power. Mosley realised that the British public would not tolerate a return to the strong-arm methods prevalent before the war; he therefore evolved a low-profile technique aimed at recruiting a new generation of fascists under another name.

Mosley’s first significant move was to circulate a letter signed by Alf Lockhart, a one-time BUF member and now one of Mosley’s chief lieutenants, to former Blackshirts all over the country. The letter gave instructions to form local units of ex-fascists and sympathisers, but that the term ‘fascist’ should not appear in the naming of their organisations nor in their literature. Many elaborate names were devised, incorporating jingoistic words such as ‘British’, ‘Patriot’, ‘St George’ and ‘Ex-Service’ over and over again. These new units were also ordered to read the mass of literature now beginning to flow out to them from central headquarters. In these early outpourings, the words ‘fascist’ and ‘Jew’ were carefully avoided. ‘Alien’ became the code for Jew. Mosley did not want to scare off those innocents who would otherwise be drawn to joining ‘patriotic’ groups. The units were ordered to push hard for membership, especially for tough young stewards to protect outdoor and indoor meetings, and to create teams for flyposting and to sell literature on the streets. The end of 1945 thus saw the fascists fast expanding, and their creed propagated by new adherents, many too young to know what it was all about.

Throughout the war a secretive fascist-inclined group had existed called the Right Club; its motto was ‘Perish Judah’. Its members numbered some 250, led by Captain Ramsay, MP for Peebles. (It was reputed that Churchill had kept Ramsay down because of his racialism.) Other members included the Earl of Galloway and the Duke of Montrose. Mosley hoped that defeat of Atlee’s newly-elected Labour government and the ensuing economic hardships would precipitate dissatisfaction with democracy. He planned also to increase his support by playing the anti-Semitic card, alongside a strong pro-British and pro-Commonwealth stance. Then, backed by the physical strength of his street boys and the anticipated support of right-wing industrialists and landowners, he would seize power. Too simple a plan? It had worked for Hitler, and for Mussolini. A pipe dream? Perhaps. But the intent was there. By Christmas 1945, the fascists were coming out onto the streets and the first contestant of the ensuing four years’ war had now entered the arena. It did not take long for the fascists to realise that they were having an easier passage than they could ever have hoped for; they enjoyed four advantages. Firstly, after a long hard war with its ensuing hardships and shortages, the average person just wanted a quiet life. They tended to hurry past the meetings. Secondly, there was free speech; a cherished freedom allowing anyone to climb onto a soap box and speak his or her mind. There can be no argument against this, but it gave fascists the freedom to provoke at will. Thirdly, there was the Public Order Act. This protected even the most inflammatory speakers; they could taunt and traduce as much as they wished, but if an outraged listener protested, the police could make an arrest for creating a disturbance.

Finally, there was the Palestine factor. There, history had conspired to set Briton and Jew in direct conflict. The British, holding the mandate, strove to maintain a balance between Jew and Arab; this meant curbing Jewish immigration into Palestine. But there were tens of thousands of Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, and other displaced persons, who could never return home and had nowhere to go. They were desperate. Many were sole survivors of large families and no country was keen to take them in, except the Jews in Palestine. Thus began the great exodus of Jews from their squalid misery in Europe to the only land that offered them the chance of a return to normal life. The British strove to stem the incomers by blockade at sea, by capturing them on the beaches and shipping them back to camps in Cyprus, and by diplomatic protest. They also arrested and imprisoned Palestinian Jews who were helping the immigrants.

Inevitably, the strains imposed on both sides raised tempers and the 100,000 British troops slid into what could be termed an undeclared conflict, in particular with the two most extreme Jewish groups, the Irgun Zvi Leumi and the Stern Gang. There were military actions on both sides and resultant casualties. When the Irgun hanged two British sergeants in retaliation for the hanging of three of their young men by the British, feelings ran so high in Britain that Jewish men and women dared not leave their homes for several days. The situation in Palestine gave the fascists a rich store of verbal ammunition that they used to the full.

By February 1946, fourteen identifiable fascist groups were operating on the streets and inside schools and halls in London alone. And they were concentrating, provocatively, on those same Jewish areas they had seven years earlier. There were more fascist bookshops and debating societies; the most active of these in London were the Hampstead Literary Society, the Kensington Bookshop at Hammersmith Road and the Stoke Newington Bookshop at Lordship Lane. They were also operating in Leeds, Halifax, Coventry, Hull, Bedford, Bristol and Norwich. The pre-war fascist speakers now re-appearing on street platforms included Arnold Leese, Martin Webster, John Tyndall, John Preen, Victor Burgess, Jeffrey Hamm and Michael Maclean.

Their magazines and papers were now being sold at regular pitches outside selected tube stations including West Hampstead, Finchley Road, Edgware, the Angel, Mile End and Whitechapel. These included many new titles: The Patriot, Tomorrow, Unity, Reality, Vanguard, The People’s Post, League Review, Gothic Ripples, Kingdom Herald, Britain Awake and Britain Defiant.

Jewish ex-servicemen encountering this felt such a bitter sense of betrayal that they sought out their MPs and the first questions condemning the reappearance of fascism were asked in Parliament. Nothing was done; free speech was hallowed. If one of the ‘Sons of St George’ stood on a chair in Hackney and shouted, ‘The Nazis were right to have gassed the Jews!’, it would be terribly provocative and inexcusably vile, but he had the right to say it. If a Jew in hearing protested he could be arrested for causing a breach of the peace. Such was the law which the Labour government upheld and which the Home Secretary, Chuter Ede, never changed. Frustrated ex-servicemen then turned to their communal leaders, the Jewish Board of Deputies, an elected body loosely equivalent to a Jewish parliament. One of their main committees concerns itself with Jewish Defence. Both before and after the war this committee suffered more opprobrium from the community for its seeming inactivity than any other. In a way, this was unfair. The Jewish Defence Committee (JDC) engaged in many tasks that were invisible and unspectacular: lobbying Parliament, organising protests, writing and sending deputations to challenge the media. But they remained defensive, having no option. Being a part of the establishment, they could not do otherwise than support the laws of the land even if those laws went against the interests of the Jewish community. Furthermore, they could not condone any action which broke those laws.

Outraged ex-servicemen engaged in furious dialogue with the JDC which culminated towards the end of 1945 when they went determinedly to tell them that the fascists had to be stopped. They wanted an end to the racial abuse, and an end to the selling of fascist literature. They expected the Deputies to put pressure on the Home Secretary to illegalise all of these activities. The answer was that while they were sympathetic, it was no time to make waves, that the troubles in Palestine were causing too much bad feeling and therefore Jews in Britain had to tread carefully. The ex-servicemen’s response to this was one that the more cautious members of the Defence Committee least wanted to hear: ‘Damn Palestine – we were born here! We fought for this country and were trained to kill the same type of bastard coming back out of the woodwork. They, too, must be attacked and destroyed. If you can’t do it, we will!’

The only evident ripostes to the fascists that autumn of 1945 were initiated by the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen, known as AJEX. Trained by a charismatic character, Lionel Rose, a battery of competent speakers stood on AJEX platforms at Hyde Park Corner, Speakers’ Corner, Bethnal Green, Mile End and Dalston. Experienced speakers such as David Cohen, Maurice Goodrich, Bernard Gillis and Cecil Hyams faced vociferous hostility when an incident in Palestine caused British casualties. And yet they turned out week after week to plead the Jewish cause, and alert their audiences to the return of the Mosleyites.

Occasionally, there would be clashes. For some time, the fascists had held meetings in Hereford Street in East London. One Sunday morning in November 1945 they arrived to find AJEX in possession of their pitch. The fascists decided to holdtheir own meeting in Wood Close. Trouble soon began: heckling, abuse, and then fighting. The police closed down both meetings and made two arrests. This was the first physical clash of fascists and anti-fascists since the war’s end. The efforts of AJEX were gallant, but without any great influence. Their audiences mostly comprised the already converted, Jewish supporters – plus those jeering youths who were not to be converted.

A large number of Jewish ex-servicemen wanted no part of more fighting, not even fascism at home, wanting simply to make up for lost time and settle down. But there were others who put their careers on the back burner, and as their anger rose their minds cleared and focused. Realisation quickly dawned; that if they did not tackle the new fascists themselves, then nobody would. Their exasperation grew into a volatile mix of outrage and anger which could only explode into flame. That flame was the 43 Group.

Extracted from The 43 Group: Battling with Mosley’s Blackshirts by Morris Beckman

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