Wiltshire's Enemy Aliens (Part Three): 'Roulette'
As the Second World War drew on numerous other nations entered the conflict, both with and against Britain: Britain formally declared war on Finland, Hungary and Romania on 7 December 1941, the same day as Japan entered the war with the attack on Pearl Harbour; more countries joined the war as time went by. These new entries into the conflict made enemy aliens out of thousands of foreign nationals living in Britain, enemy aliens whom the government believed needed to be controlled. The way these people were dealt with by the government can tell us much about how the final stages of the internment process unfolded in Britain, particularly Wiltshire, and about everyday life for foreigners during the war.
In Wiltshire after the summer of 1940 the aliens who most concerned the police were Romanians. On 8 November 1940 the Home Office issued a letter to all British police forces outlining that in the event of war with Romania, any Romanians in Britain would automatically become enemy aliens, at which point the government planned intern those who were male and between the ages of 16 and 65. We don’t know exactly how many Romanians were living in Wiltshire at this time, but it wasn’t many. According to a census undertaken by the police in March 1942, out of a total of 624 aliens living in Wiltshire there were only six Romanians, two men and four women.
On 12 November the police in Wiltshire drew up a list of names of male Romanians in the county who were to be interned under these orders. They were a 31-year old living in Swindon, and a 16-year old living in West Lavington. In a note at the end of the report the police recorded that “both are physically fit”, meaning that they were not exempt from internment due to poor health. The Home Office had asked the police to keep this list continually updated, and on 13 February 1941 the older man’s name was removed and replaced by another 18-year old living in Hullavington, also described as ‘physically fit’.
These lists present us with something of a puzzle: the Arandora Star was sunk in July 1940, resulting in a public outcry against mass internment and supposedly the government’s abandonment of the policy. Yet here we have evidence that police in Wiltshire, on the orders of the Home Office, were actively maintaining a list of people eligible for mass internment as late as February 1941. The reality is that the government’s change of internment policy was only a very gradual process, one that was set in motion by the sinking of the Arandora Star but not one that was completed quickly.
The first signs of a meaningful retreat from mass internment did not come until April 1941, when the Home Office wrote to Wiltshire Constabulary amending their previous instructions: in the event of war with Romania, those with dual nationalities (i.e. those who were legally Romanian-British), those doing war work, and Romanian diplomats were added to the list of those exempt from imprisonment.
A second, much more important, shift occurred in early December 1941, immediately before the outbreak of war with Romania. Interestingly the Home Office rescinded the instructions of November 1940, saying instead that for Romanian civilians “it has been decided not to adopt a policy of general internment but to intern those individuals (male or female) concerning whom there is some reason for suspicion”. This change is likely to have come about because of the change in the course of the war: it corresponds with the Americans’ entry into the war and the Russian counteroffensive at the Battle of Moscow. The direction of the war was beginning to change, making Britain much less insecure in terms of the so-called ‘enemy within’.
As before, these orders were to be implemented on receipt of special coded telegram: for Romania, the codeword was ROULETTE. This telegram was received by the Wiltshire police on 7 December 1941:
There is no record of what action the police in Wiltshire took in response to these orders – the list of Romanians eligible for internment does not appear to have been maintained after February 1941, and there is no evidence that the individuals on the list were interned. This is presumably because there was no specific evidence of any wrongdoing; it’s not entirely clear whether the two male Romanians on the 1942 census were the same as the names found on the register. Nor do we know much about what happened to these men after the war, beyond the fact that they were naturalised in the late 1940s: in Cambridge; London; and in Thame (Oxfordshire).
What, then, can we learn from these documents? First, they give us a much clearer picture of the process of internment during the Second World War: that changes were gradual rather than sudden, that these changes were situational and reflected the course of the war effort, and how the mechanics of internment and surveillance of enemy aliens developed in the later stages of the war. Second, the documents tell us a great deal about the local impact of national policies, something that’s often missing in official histories. Finally, and most interestingly for me, is that they give us some insight about foreigners and minorities living in Wiltshire during the war. They tell us about how many aliens were living in the county at various stages of the war, when they entered the country, where exactly they were living, what their occupations might have been, as well as giving us an idea about their movements over time (at least one of the Romanians on the police lists seems to have left the county towards the end of 1940, for example). More than that, they show us how the fortunes of foreigners in Britain ebbed and flowed – whether someone avoided internment had much more to do with Britain’s prospects of success in the war than it had to do with the alien’s behaviour, good or bad. For many internees and aliens the codename for Romanian internment, had they known about it, would have seemed cruelly ironic: for individual aliens, rather than being clearly defined and well thought through, the internment was very much a “roulette”.
Tom Plant, Community History Advisor