August 24, 1939 – Great Britain Passes the Emergency Powers (Defence) Act of 1939 Enabling “Enemy” Internment

On this day in history, the British Parliament enacted legislation granting its government special powers pursuant to the growing threat of war in Europe. The act was passed in reaction to the Nazi-Soviet Pact the day previously. The House of Commons was recalled from its summer recess to pass this act, which gave authority to implement the Defence Regulations that had existed in draft form after the first world war.

Russian foreign minister Molotov signs Nazi-Soviet Pact in front of his German counterpart Ribbentrop, center, and dictator Stalin in 1939

Russian foreign minister Molotov signs Nazi-Soviet Pact in front of his German counterpart Ribbentrop, center, and dictator Stalin in 1939

Defence Regulation 18B, often referred to as simply 18B, was part of the Defence (General) Regulations 1939 and allowed for the internment of people suspected of being Nazi sympathizers. The effect of 18B was to suspend the right of habeas corpus to affected individuals for the first time since the Magna Carta was adopted in 1215.

Of the British citizens who were detained, most were members of Fascist or extreme Right-wing groups, who were generally opposed to the war with Germany. But the majority of detainees were not British citizens, but technically enemy aliens. The fact was however that many of these people were merely refugees trying to escape Nazi Germany.

In 1940, the Act was extended in reaction to several events: the rapid seizure of power in Norway by Germany, the fall of the Low Countries, the invasion of France, and the discovery that a clerk at the U.S. Embassy had stolen thousands of telegrams, including highly confidential correspondence between Churchill to FDR.

More and more Germans and Austrians were rounded up. Italians were also included, even though Britain was not at war with Italy until June, 1940. 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.

British internment camp

British internment camp

After Italy’s Mussolini declared war on Great Britain and France on June 10, 1940, angry anti-Italian riots broke out in many British cities. Terrified shop owners, many with British citizenship and having been resident in the British Isles, often for decades, were forced to barricade themselves into back rooms. The worst riots were in Liverpool, Cardiff, Swansea and Newport, all with large pre-war Italian populations. In places the police were forced to charge the rampaging mobs with batons.

The worse violence occurred in Scotland, with major riots in Glasgow, Clydebank and Edinburgh. Many of the rioters were young men from areas of high youth unemployment. It was thought that they used Italy’s declaration of war as an excuse to vent their xenophobia, frustration at unemployment, and anti-Catholicism. Many of their victims were not only British citizens, but had sons serving in the armed forces.

But on June 11 Prime Minister Winston Churchill announced to the country that all Italians males between the ages of seventeen and seventy who had not been resident in Britain for more than twenty years, plus all those, male and female, on the MI5 suspects list would be subject to internment.

Tatura Internment Camp, Victoria, Australia

Tatura Internment Camp, Victoria, Australia

Thousands of internees were sent to camps set up at racecourses and incomplete housing estates. The majority were interned on the Isle of Man, where internment camps had been set up in World War One.

Even though many of the ‘enemy aliens’ were Jewish refugees and hardly likely to be sympathetic to the Nazis, 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 July 1, 1940. Designed to carry 500 passengers, Arandora Star was carrying 1,300 internees. It was torpedoed and sunk with the loss of 714 lives, including many Italian British citizens and Jewish refugees. A week later, 2,542 men were taken to Australia on the Dunera. Internees were subjected to anti-Semitism, humiliating treatment, and intentionally abysmal conditions on the two-month voyage. Many had their possessions destroyed by the British military guards. The Dunera was labeled a “hell-ship.”

A subsequent 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.


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