By the end of 1939 and the early part of 1940 most of the 70,000 ‘aliens’ – immigrants – living in Britain had been sent before a tribunal which assessed their loyalty to Britain, after which less than 600 were classed as high threats to British national security and imprisoned, usually as a result membership of a Nazi organisation. This relatively tolerant policy was to change dramatically in May 1940.
Between the outbreak of war and early summer of 1940 the military situation of Britain and its allies had gone from relatively optimistic, to precarious, to potentially disastrous. The Norwegian Campaign had been a failure, France and the Low Countries had been invaded and overrun, the British Expeditionary Force had been trapped and nearly destroyed at Dunkirk, and a German invasion attempt seemed highly likely. To make matters worse, Italy joined the war against Britain on 10 June 1940.
Nationally, this sudden change in the outlook of the war exacerbated already simmering anti-alien tensions. It was not thought possible that the Germans could overrun France and Belgium so quickly under normal circumstances – that they had collapsed so soon was taken as proof that they had been undermined from within by German agents posing as immigrants. Combined with Britain’s difficult military situation these (unfounded) accusations led to a hysteria in which any alien, even those previously classed as loyal, was seen as a potential traitor. The government responded to this panic by ordering the arrest of all enemy aliens: when discussing what to do about Italians living in Britain, Winston Churchill is said to have demanded that the police “collar the lot!”.
The files of the Wiltshire Constabulary here at the History Centre show how this mounting hysteria gripped the county. On 28 May 1940 the Chief Constables of England and Wales wrote to the Home Office to say that: "It is not felt that the slightest reliance can be placed even on those aliens who have produced the most excellent credentials and whose conduct has hitherto been apparently innocuous, as it seems reasonable to expect that that any enemy agent ... will be extremely circumspect until the time comes for him to take action."
What’s interesting about this letter is the way that the language used to describe aliens living in Britain had changed since September 1939. Whereas at the start of the war aliens were deemed innocent unless specific evidence of disloyalty was found, by late May 1940 the police were suggesting that aliens should be assumed guilty of subversion unless proven otherwise. The best response to this, the security services felt, was simply to arrest all enemy aliens in Britain: “under the present circumstances the County Chief Constables feel that the only safe plan is to intern every enemy alien”.
The effects of this suspicion were soon felt in Wiltshire. On 29 April 1940, the Home Office wrote to Wiltshire Police instructing them to begin preparations to deal with Italians employed in sensitive locations within the county; in the event of hostilities between Britain and Italy these people were to be off immediately on receipt of a coded Home Office telegram. In response, the police began to draw up lists of all Italians then in Wiltshire; police records here at the History Centre show that 17 Italians were identified, 5 men and 12 women, giving their names, addresses and occupations.