Britain’s World War II Refugees

Back in 1940, Britain was experiencing a huge influx of refugees. Fleeing torment at the hands of the Nazis in particular, thousands upon thousands flocked to Britain in search of safety. Once ashore, they proved invaluable to the war effort, taking up many different roles that helped tip the war in the Allies’ favour. Here, History of War chats to Wendy Webster about a few of these brave men and women. More on this subject can be found at the Imperial War Museum North, Manchester, who are running an display entitled Mixing It: The Changing Faces Of Wartime Britain from 12 September through to September 2016. More information on the display can be found here.

How much diversity can we see in wartime Britain during World War II?

World War II saw the most remarkable and large-scale migration of people to Britain in its history. Britain’s population became more diverse than it had ever been before. Soldiers, sailors, airmen, refugees and war workers came from the British Empire and the Commonwealth, the United States, occupied Europe, and neutral countries like Ireland.

Even before the war, many refugees had come to Britain from Austria, Czechoslovakia and Germany. They came because they were in danger from the Nazis, as political opponents or as Jews. When the Germans overran Europe in 1940, many more refugees escaped to Britain. In the same year, a range of European governments-in-exile and armies-in exile also arrived. There were six European armies-in-exile stationed in Britain in 1940 – Belgian, Dutch, Czechoslovakian, French, Norwegian and Polish. This was unprecedented. The arrivals included prisoners of war. By 1945, more than half a million German and Italian prisoners of war were held in Britain.

Unsung British heroes of World War II

Could you tell us the story of the first Maori pilot to serve with the RAF?

Porokuru Patapu ‘Johnny’ Pohe was the Royal New Zealand Air Force’s first Maori pilot and participated in the ‘Great Escape’ – the subject of the Hollywood film starring Steve McQueen. In September 1943, on a bombing raid over Germany, Pohe’s plane was hit by flak and caught fire, and he was forced to ditch the plane in the English Channel. Picked up by a German boat, Pohe was sent to Stalag Luft III prisoner-of-war camp. His journey, which had taken him from New Zealand to Britain, ended far from home. He was one of the 76 Allied airmen who escaped from Stalag Luft III in 1944, but after six days he was recaptured and 50 of the escapees, including Pohe, were executed by the Gestapo.

Unsung British heroes of World War II

Could you tell us the story of Una Marson?

Una Marson, from Jamaica, began working at the BBC in 1941, where she was the first black woman to make programmes. She compèred Calling The West Indies, featuring West Indians based in Britain who broadcast messages back home. Here she is introducing some of them:

“Four lads from the Royal Air Force came to London so they could get their voices across to you. You should see them in uniform. They look really smart and wear the dandy caps as though they were born to it.”

In other broadcasts to the West Indies, Marson spoke of the money, gifts and comforts for the troops that had poured into London from the Caribbean.

Una Marson also broadcast to British audiences on the BBC Home Service. In one broadcast, she spoke about poetry and history:

“You know, that’s the way thousands of West Indians get their glimpse of your country… Of course, the best in your literature has survived and has come to us. A common language, a common tradition and even blood relationships are real enough bonds.”

She went on to comment: “We children learned these poems and loved them without any thought that they came from a land where people thought us a very different race.”

Unsung British heroes of World War II

Could you tell us the story of Susanna Pearson?

Susanna Pearson was born to Jewish parents in 1928 and grew up in Prague. She came to Britain on the Kindertransport in 1939 aged 11 and lived in Sheffield. Her parents had planned to follow her but were unable to leave Prague before the war began. Setting out on her journey to Britain, she did not realise that she would never see them again.

At first, Susanna received regular letters from her parents, but very few after war was declared. She found out many years after the war that they had been deported to Poland in 1941. She does not know how either of them died. After the war, Susanna got married and settled in Sheffield, where she worked as a teacher, and had three daughters. She gives talks about the Holocaust and says: “My hope is that by telling my story, it will help young people to begin to understand what can happen to ordinary people when they become the victims of racism, discrimination and prejudice.”

Unsung British heroes of World War II

Could you tell us the story of the Czech airmen who vowed to avenge their instructor?

In 1940, the pilots of the First Czechoslovak Fighter Squadron in Britain wrote a statement addressed to an English comrade, John Boulton, who had been their flying instructor:

“Today, alas! we can do no more than remember you … We came back out of that roaring whirl of aircraft, machine-gun fire, smoke and shell bursts one by one. We waited for you all that evening, and the next, and the next.

You never came back.

We will avenge you … The six Germans that we shot down in the fight in which you fell are the first instalment of the price we shall exact for your young life. You gave it for those same ideals, which are graven on our own hearts in letters of burning flame.”

Unsung British heroes of World War II
(standing, left to right); Pilot Officer S Janduch, Sergeant J Vopalecuy, Sergeant R Puda, Sergeant K Seda, Sergeant B Furst and Sergeant R Zima: (sitting, left to right); Pilot Officer W Goth, Flight Lieutenant J Maly, Flight Lieutenant G L Sinclair, Flying Officer J E Boulton, Flight Lieutenant J Jeffries (who commanded the Squadron in January-June 1941, having changed his name by deed poll to Latimer), Pilot Officer S Zimprich, Sergeant J Kaucky, Flight Lieutenant F Rypl, Pilot Officer E Fechtner and Pilot Officer V Bergman.
Unsung British heroes of World War II
Peter Sinclair
Image used by kind permission of Peter Sinclair
Unsung British heroes of World War II
Pilot Officer Peter Thomas of Lagos, Nigeria, 1942.
Image given by kind permission of the RAF Museum

Wendy Webster is a Professor of History at the University of Huddersfield and will be at the Imperial War Museum for the Diversity in Wartime Britain free talk on Sunday 4 October. Wendy is is the author of Not A Man To Match Her, Imagining Home and Englishness And Empire. Her book on diversity in wartime Britain Mixing It will be published by Oxford University Press next year.

Unsung British heroes of World War II
Professor Wendy Webster who is part of the Diversity in Wartime Britain display at the Imperial War Museum

All images ©IWM unless stated

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Unsung British heroes of World War II