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Britain’s Nazi collaborators

If Hitler’s planned invasion of Britain had succeeded he would have found accomplices as fanatical as those in Europe

This article is taken from the November issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.


Presumably because I have written on this subject, a good few months ago I was sent this book, and I have seen no reviews of it. This is a surprise, for it shakes the story the nation tells itself that the British stood alone against Adolf Hitler in 1940 and went on to win the war. Hitler’s British Traitors shows that if Hitler’s planned invasion had succeeded after the fall of France he would have found collaborators as fanatical as those in all the countries the Wehrmacht had conquered.

A very thorough researcher, Tim Tate has made the most of the files of the Security Service, otherwise MI5, and now deposited in the National Archives. That agency had to follow up all possible information about supporters of Hitler, producing the evidence that allowed the authorities to arrest them, hold in camera trials and imprison them under emergency legislation.

Hitler’s British Traitors, by Tim Tate
Icon Books, £25

Undercover agents and informers were detailed to join fascist movements and write reports. Proceedings of this kind ran contrary to the English legal tradition and often placed MI5 in the awkward position of agent provocateur, encouraging some suspect to commit treason. Declassification has been haphazard, perhaps because interested parties have been weeding. Arrogant and incompetent is Tate’s opinion of Maxwell Knight, at the head of the agency and once himself a fascist.

A fantasy was at work in these otherwise ordinary people but sometimes what they did has to be taken on trust. Dorothy O’Grady, a rackety woman, committed acts of sabotage and espionage, but “since her file has been lost, it is impossible to know how she escaped execution”. In the case of Mary Marita Margaret Perigoe, her original Secret Service file was for unexplained reasons destroyed at an unstated date, and a version of its contents reconstituted. Seventeen-year-old Dorrie Knowles wanted to communicate to Germany information about explosives manufactured in the factory where she worked. She was never prosecuted, and Tate says in his dry style that she “simply disappears from the official history of British citizens eager to betray their country during wartime”.

The fantasy made room for Hitler. Rex Wilfred Freeman, aged 21, lived with his mother who spoke for him: “There will be more justice when Hitler comes.” A registered nurse, Olive Baker, wrote to a woman of German origin: “You must be proud to have such a wonderful Führer. I have seen him often and am convinced he has been divinely sent.”

Mrs Nicholson, a successful doctor, was married to Admiral Wilmot Nicholson, a First War veteran. Arrested for copying secret documents and arranging for their delivery to Germany, Mrs Nicholson said in a sworn statement that she had met Hitler personally and surely he was a very good man, “the kind of man we needed in England”. She told her charlady, “the Germans would get to London by Christmas” and if she stayed indoors when they marched up the street she’d be all right. Mrs Nicholson was found not guilty on the grounds that her husband, the Admiral, could not be seen to be married to a traitor.

Founder of a fascist group of extremists, Commander E.H. Cole, a former naval officer, called Hitler “that Man of God across the sea, that great Crusader”. An MI5 agent reported him saying to a military rabble-rouser at a fascist meeting, “Tell them to shoot the Jews,” and “extermination is the only solution to the Jew problem in Palestine”. Educated at Eton and Balliol, James Lonsdale Bryans sought long after the war had started to gain an audience with the Führer, whom he describes as a man of “faith and genius”.

Tory MP Archibald Ramsay took German money to produce Nazi propaganda

Antisemitism held the fascist fantasy together. MI5 argued for the internment of aristocratic fascists such as the Marquis of Tavistock (later the twelfth Duke of Bedford) or the Duke of Buccleuch, but as Tate puts it, their status and connections “protected them from the laws applied to less fortunate British fascists”. Among themselves, the talk was of Jewish global conspiracy. Admiral Sir Barry Domvile, whom the Admiralty itself warned might be the British Quisling, spoke of a general clean-up: “We have sunk to such depths of degradation and depravity under our Jewish teachers that nothing can surprise me.”

A Conservative MP, no less, Archibald Ramsay accepted German money to fund his own propaganda outfit known as The Link, praised Hitler as “that splendid fellow” and said: “What we want is a bloody revolution and I am ready to start one right away.”

A hectic character, John Beckett was one of the more experienced fascists. At the moment when the German invasion was expected, he had plans for a Nazi puppet regime. He wrote to Tavistock a letter that fell into an informer’s hands: “There is a general consensus of opinion that you are the only person around whom we could build an alternative government in time.”

He reserved for himself the ministry of national security. The informer also reported that General William Ironside, the chief of staff, was willing to join the coup and would appoint Major General John Fuller as minister of defence. Fuller, the pioneer of Panzer warfare, was an outright antisemite who had been received by Hitler.

The most serious and violent of all the plots for a Nazi uprising in Britain was taking place simultaneously. Born in 1889, Leigh Vaughan-Henry was a well-known musician, a vociferous antisemite and in touch with German intelligence. After his arrest, there was unequivocal proof that he had been trying “to obtain a sizeable arsenal of weapons”.

Tate points out that the official histories of  MI5 make no mention of this putsch. The reason may be that another informer heard from Vaughan-Henry that after a short civil war General Ironside would become dictator and “Germany could do as she liked with Britain”. Ironside may have done nothing to deserve these reports, but on the face of it they are why this dictatorial alternative to Winston Churchill was expeditiously sacked in June 1940.

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