Important new contribution to interpreting The Troubles: Review of Thomas Leahy’s ‘The Intelligence War Against the IRA’

Thomas Leahy’s The Intelligence War Against the IRA is an important new contribution to the growing, and changing, interpretations of The Troubles. As the title suggests, the main thrust of Leahy’s book is an analysis of the intelligence war that the British security forces, both overt and covert, waged against the IRA.


He evaluates how effective this intelligence was in bringing the IRA’s leaders to the negotiating table. It is a timely book, as it contributes to the interesting subtheme of The Troubles but also, importantly, questions the prevailing orthodoxy that the intelligence war was the key to defeating the IRA.

As Leahy notes in the introduction to the book, the effectiveness of Britain’s intelligence war in Northern Ireland has been the subject of fierce debate among researchers. This is due to almost one significant factor: the discovery of a British agent at the highest levels of the Provisional IRA (PIRA), who was code-named Stakeknife. To many researchers, the use of human intelligence agents stymied the PIRA’s operational activities to such an extent that they had little choice but to negotiate a peace with the British. (1) Leahy successfully challenges this.

Malayan Emergency British Army

Firstly, Leahy supplies ample insight into the various agencies in the Northern Irish intelligence structure and provides a clear analysis of the changes that were made to increase the system’s effectiveness. As Leahy himself states, this can be seen as a clear link to Britain’s counterinsurgencies where intelligence was vital in defeating the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya (1952-60) and resolving the Cyprus Emergency (1955-59). Both instances relied heavily on human intelligence sources to provide inside information to quell the insurgency.

In Northern Ireland, the intelligence structure was streamlined following the introduction of police primacy or ‘Ulsterisation‘ and the Walker Report, which established Tasking and Coordinating Groups (TCGs) and a Director and Coordinator of Intelligence in Northern Ireland (DCI). The TCGs coordinated each intelligence service into a province-wide security strategy, while the DCI acted as a liaison and coordinator between the agencies and the British government. (2)

Accordingly, this intelligence system relied heavily on the collation of human intelligence sources. From the outset of The Troubles, various state agencies had tried to recruit sources in the Republican paramilitaries as well as informants amongst the civilian population, and been generally effective at doing so.

IRA members

However, as the imprisonment of PIRA operators increased, often through intelligence provided by informants or ‘touts’, senior PIRA prisoners reassessed the organisation and altered its structure. They moved from a militaristic structure of brigades and units to a cellular construct, in theory making it far more difficult for an enemy to infiltrate the PIRA. This is a common observation which is well-supported in the main historiography.

Yet, this is where Leahy differs from current orthodoxy. To some, such as Moloney and Matchett for instance, this re-organisation of the PIRA led to its defeat in the intelligence war, but Leahy moves away from this interpretation. Whilst the PIRA was in its former structure, it was large, unwieldy and open to infiltration because of this. Once Active Service Units (ASUs) were active, though, the circle of knowledge was massively reduced. This contradicts Moloney, who states that once the British agent Stakeknife had become a member of the PIRA’s Internal Security Unit, the security forces not only had a mine of intelligence but a way of sowing discord and eliminating the PIRA’s top operatives. (3) This view is supported by a former Force Research Unit (FRU) operative, Martin Ingram. (4)

In contrast, Leahy convincingly argues that this aspect, and the element of human intelligence, has been overplayed. Using archival material, he counters that the invention of the ASUs had left the PIRA a tighter and far leaner organisation, while agents such as Stakeknife had, in fact, limited powers outside the hubs of Belfast and Derry; their effect on the rural ASUs had very little impact. As well as this, Leahy quotes former Sinn Fein publicist Danny Morrison that, through the cellular structure, ‘the more information they [agents] gave, it became easier for the IRA to work out who was the common denominator’. (5)

British Army observers in Ireland

Here we come to Leahy’s main divergence to the current narrative. He believes that the PIRA were not actually beaten by the intelligence war. As mentioned above, outside of the ‘hotbeds’ of Republican action, Derry and Belfast, the rural ASUs suffered little, if any, enemy intelligence penetration throughout The Troubles.

It is generally known that Captain Robert Nairac operated in the Armagh area, often disguised as a Republican; to Leahy, instead of showing the effectiveness of the British intelligence effort, it was a reflection of the paucity of information that the security forces held on the area, which became known as ‘Bandit Country’. As Leahy observes, ‘In fact, putting an Oxford graduate such as Nairac undercover in South Armagh suggests that British intelligence was struggling’. This is an opinion it is difficult to disagree with.

British Army soldiers in Ireland

In actual fact, it is also hard to dispute that the PIRA were far from being defeated outside of Derry and Belfast. The South Armagh Brigade of the PIRA, for example, were among the most, if not the most, effective of the PIRA’s units. They organised and undertook the Warrenpoint Massacre of 18 British soldiers on 27th August, 1979, as well as the assassination of Lord Mountbatten on the same day. By the late 1980s, they were central in providing the bombs for the PIRA mainland bombing campaign. This was possible, argues Leahy, because it was impossible for the security forces to penetrate the close-knit Republican communities, while the Armagh ASUs were deeply suspicious of the PIRA city operators that they came into contact with. Despite the eventual curtailing of the South Armagh Brigade (most members were killed in an SAS ambush at Loughgall), the activities of rural ASUs did not allow violence in the province to drop to ‘acceptable levels’.

British Army watchtower in Derry

The final argument presented in the book is that The Troubles were eventually brought to a close because of the PIRA leadership’s intentions to pursue political objectives. Here, Leahy argues that much of the violence, with some exceptions, were attempts to bring the British to the negotiating table. Stating that since the mid-1970s, the PIRA had been aware of the British state’s wishes to see an agreement between the Republicans and Loyalists, it was the mandate established by Sinn Fein’s electoral success of the early 1990s that made it impossible to exclude Sinn Fein from the peace negotiations. As Leahy states, talking to the terrorists was far ‘more effective than the intelligence war which had mixed results and did not reduce IRA activity to an acceptable level across Northern Ireland’. (6)

To sum up, Leahy’s book is a great addition to The Troubles canon. It is a well-researched study with a diverse range of secondary material, a wealth of archival evidence and interviews with significant figures on all sides of the conflict. The book offers a compelling reinterpretation of the effectiveness of Britain’s intelligence war against the PIRA, one that disputes that it was a central to bringing the conflict in Northern Ireland to an end. As Churchill famously said, ‘meeting jaw to jaw is better than war’.

Nick Clifton is a PhD student in History at Kingston University, Surrey


(1) Thomas Leahy, The Intelligence War Against the IRA (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020), p.2.

(2) Ibid, pp.140-143.

(3) See Ed Moloney, A Secret History of the IRA (London: Penguin, 2007).

(4) See Martin Ingram and Greg Harkin, Stakeknife: Britain’s Secret Agents in Ireland (Dublin: O’Brien, 2004).

(5) Leahy, pp.145-155.

(6) Ibid, pp.236-247.

(Images: Wikimedia Commons)







Posted in British Empire, British history, European History, Historiography, Irish History, Public History, Research, Secret State, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Past and Present: Why studying History tells us who we really are

In 2017 the historian Sir David Cannadine, in his capacity as president of the British Academy, made a strong and very welcome defence of the study of his subject, pointing out that the academic investigation of the past is necessary because it teaches the crucial ability to ‘appraise evidence critically, persuade, negotiate and unravel complexity’.

Sir David Cannadine

It was a response to those who like to claim that academic history is in ‘crisis’ and lacks relevance in the 21st century, and also to those who like to disparage experts (such as the politician Michael Gove, who infamously said in 2016 that people had had enough of ‘experts’). Cannadine (pictured) remains a keen defender of history and historical inquiry.

It is vital that we regularly remind ourselves of the importance of history and, as scholars, continually explain our purpose and strongly defend our profession, including to the wider public. I was therefore especially interested in an article by the journalist Jenni Russell in late 2019, who penned a very welcome and thoughtful article on the importance of studying history, which is (as she put it) the ‘topic that encompasses every human and pre-human experience that ever was’.

History and Power

Writing in the Times newspaper on November 7th, 2019, Russell pointed out that history ‘reveals all human nature, our capacity for cruelty and cooperation, love and hatred, and the extraordinary range of the societies in which we have lived and died, from hunting bands to empires, dictatorships to democracies’.

Jenni Russell

She also observed that history ‘teaches us that all power wanes, every decision has unintended consequences and that no society recognises its fatal flaws until it’s too late’. Although Russell (pictured) had some hard-hitting things to say about how school history in the UK has become too bound up with rote-learning and, at the professional level, too ‘jargon-ridden’, nevertheless she made a strong case for history and for properly understanding the past, ‘particularly when Britain is riven by the question of who we are, who we were and who we want to be’.

It is gratifying that the study of history is being discussed again in the media, especially as a result of the Black Lives Matter campaigns and the ongoing debates over the value or not of statues, and the related questions of power and memory in our nation and its diverse communities. More such debate is sorely needed. Regrettably, as with many other subjects in the humanities, the subject of history appears to be under attack in the UK’s HE sector at the moment. Indeed, it may even disappear completely from some of the New Universities, which (as Russell noted) are now prioritising STEM subjects, creative arts and business studies. Currently, University managers like to proclaim the need for more Black History, yet still appear happy to allow their history degree programmes to be abolished.

History is in danger of becoming the victim of short-sighted prejudices held by those who place all their faith in the ‘market’, or those who are motivated by the vacuous simplicities of post-modernism and post-structuralism, which claim that the study of the past is a fool’s errand and that everything can be reduced to mere ‘narrative’ in this ‘post-truth’ age.

History as a Critical Skills-set

Past present and future signpost

It is especially important that we hold on to a subject that can arguably help us navigate our way through an age where ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news’ have become mainstream, and where populist attacks on ‘experts’ have become the norm.

As we face Brexit, probably one of the most important changes to our country since the Second World War, and also the huge consequences of the Coronavirus for society, a knowledge of the past in order to more fully comprehend the present becomes even more important. Facing up to painful events and falsehoods is at the heart of this, and speaking truth to power is particularly required, no matter how uncomfortable this makes us. Many myths have been spun about the past and Britain’s national identity, with populist politicians only too happy to exploit and ‘weaponise’ nostalgia and memory in a highly selective and often nakedly ideological way.

History can train and equip the individual with a skills-set that enables one to be a critically engaged citizen, sceptical towards ideology and falsehood – skills now even more valuable in a digital age when the internet is King and social media rules. The ability to discern fact from fiction, to understand and evaluate the concepts of objectivity and subjectivity, and to manage and appraise huge varieties of data during a time of turmoil and change, will be even more essential tools in coming years.

Debating History

Russell’s article brought some interesting reactions in the letters pages of the Times a few days later. The author and historian Tom Holland, for example, agreed with Russell that history is the one subject that every child should study, and also shared her concern about the future of history. Similarly, Professor Hamish Scott, a Fellow of the British Academy, also stated that Russell is ‘absolutely correct’ to extol the many benefits of studying history; however, he said that her description of academic history as ‘jargon-ridden’ was too sweeping.

Sir Anthony Seldon, also offering his perspective on the points raised by Russell, argued that ignorance of history, ‘not least by politicians in this election campaign [the 2019 General Election], spreads error and false truth’. He added: ‘Without history, we are ignorant nobodies, stumbling forward blindly to nowhere’. To my mind, that last comment is a warning that says so much: will we heed it?

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University, Surrey

(Images: Wikimedia Commons)

Note: An earlier version of this blog was published here in November, 2019.

Posted in British Empire, British history, European History, History skills, Media history, Public History, Research, Study Skills, Teaching, Uncategorized, World History | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

A Year of Upheaval: ‘Red’ 1920 in retrospect

It is often assumed that when the Armistice was signed in November, 1918, the world entered a period of relative peace. Yet, as a number of historians have pointed out, the following year – 1919 – proved to be a year of civil wars, together with upheavals, strikes and general social and political discontent across the globe. Moreover, looking back, it is evident that this pattern of uncertainty and societal conflict also continued well into 1920.


In fact, one hundred years later, when we consider the many events of 1920 from the perspective of 2020, it is very clear that parts of the globe remained in considerable turmoil in the immediate aftermath of the Great War.

One especially notable sign of this was continued fear of the rise of Labour and Socialist ideas and parties. The year 1917, of course, had seen a Communist revolution in Russia, and 1918-1919 witnessed various Leftwing uprisings in cities in Germany and in other parts of central and eastern Europe.

All this had sent a palpable chill across the political elites in the liberal democracies, and many politicians, such as Winston Churchill (pictured), feared that the ‘disease’ of Bolshevism could rapidly infect workers across the globe if left unchecked.

‘Reds’ Under the American Bed

Churchill’s views were echoed elsewhere. In the USA, for example, the ‘Great Red Scare’ that had gripped the country the previous year appeared to reach new heights in early 1920. On 2nd January, 1920, acting on instructions from the government (and mainly at the behest of the Attorney-General, A. Mitchell Palmer), extensive raids were carried out by state authorities across the country on Communist and Labour offices and, where necessary, on the workplaces and private homes of Leftwing ‘suspects’.

America Red Scare cartoon

It is estimated that more than 4,000 radical activists were rounded up, with confiscation made of huge amounts of documentary evidence, letters and membership lists. It is now generally accepted that this controversial operation, often conducted by local police, was informed by extreme paranoia, and had also been fanned by a regular diet of highly questionable press reports (many of them bordering on hysteria) about the internal ‘Red’ threat to American life.

Many of the citizens who were arrested were subjected to severe police beatings and ill-treatment, but many turned out to be innocent of the crimes they were accused of. Indeed, after a series of embarrassing court hearings where judges had ruled that much of the evidence collected by police had been obtained illegally, it is estimated that, by April, 1920, about 50 per cent of the detainees had been freed.

‘Reds’ in Europe

In Western Europe, the year 1920 saw similar political controversy and turmoil over the question of the impending ‘Red’ threat. In Germany, the month of January, 1920, saw mass marches by Berlin workers on the Reichstag (the German parliament). Many of the men were unhappy at a bill proposed by the new government that aimed to reduce the rights of the many elected Workers’ Councils that had been set up in 1918-19. On 13th January, 1920, armed troops posted around the Reichstag building clashed with the strikers and opened fire, killing 42 and wounding 400. Martial law was declared in some parts of Germany, and leaders of the Freikorps (paramilitary bodies of ex-servicemen which had formed in 1918-1919 and were deeply anti-Bolshevik) remained convinced that the country was in extreme danger from the Left.

Freikorps Germany 1920s

Although the Versailles Treaty had come into effect on 10th January, 1920, reducing the German army to 100,000 men and demanding the disbanding of the Freikorps (pictured, many Freikorps merely reformed themselves into sports clubs or shooting societies, planning for the day when they could fully re-group and destroy the German Left more decisively.

In hindsight, such a tense atmosphere also laid the groundwork for the emergence of extreme nationalists, such as the young Adolf Hitler, who had formed his new ‘National Socialist German Workers Party’ (NSDAP) in 1920.

In France, the spring of 1920 was also marked by a series of bitter industrial strikes, including a full national rail strike in the month of May. However, in a country still recovering from the huge damage and costs of the Great War, the key Labour Unions found it increasingly difficult to stir up enthusiasm and support from French workers for further strikes. It would appear that many French workers had lost their appetite for protest. In addition, the French government took legal action against those they regarded as the political ‘ring-leaders’ of the strikes.

The ‘Red Scare’ in Britain

Britain also saw numerous industrial strikes and general discontent during the course of 1920. This reached a climax in a major national miners’ strike in the month of October, a strike which lasted for over two weeks and effectively brought the country to a standstill.

Army on duty in Summer 1919

This industrial conflict in Britain gave much impetus to the growth of a number of voluntary citizens groups and organizations, such as the Middle Classes Union (MCU), which had been formed in March, 1919, and feared the rise of Socialism and Bolshevism.

Writing in February, 1920, Frank Gladden, of the Richmond branch of the MCU, argued that the Labour party was entirely governed by ‘class’ interests, whereas: ‘We of the Middle Classes Union claim to represent the interests of all classes, irrespective of creed or rank’. The national executive of the MCU launched a new journal, The New Voice, in April, 1920, and warned that the country was drifting towards Communism.

Although they denied they were ‘strike-breaking’ organizations, such groups were keen to offer their services to the government during any period of severe industrial ’emergency’. Similarly, although they operated with a lower public profile, unofficial agencies such as ‘National Propaganda’  and the ‘Industrial Intelligence Bureau’ had become key players by early 1920 for the dissemination of anti-Socialist propaganda across the British Isles.

British government paranoia about Bolshevism was also increased when the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) was formed in August, 1920, with 5,124 members (but this membership figure declined to only 2,500 by January, 1921).

Fascist anti-Communism

Meanwhile, Italy – although on the winning side during the Great War – continued to suffer from political upheaval, rampant inflation, high unemployment and general economic stagnation during the course of 1920. Strikes and riots were frequent occurrences during the year, culminating in September with a massive series of sit-ins in the industrial north of the country. Workers occupied over 600 factories and many Soviet-style Workers’ Councils were set up. The government finally stepped in and offered a 20 per cent wage increase, which ended the immediate crisis, but did little to ease middle-class fears of further Socialist ‘anarchy’.

Mussolini March on Rome

However, watching all this very closely was the former Socialist agitator Benito Mussolini, who increasingly played the anti-Communist card and instructed his new Black-shirted Fascists (founded in 1919) to attack all Socialist and Labour organisations across the country.

The two ‘Red Years’ (as 1919-1920 became known in Italy) saw major physical confrontation on the streets of major towns and cities and in the countryside between Fascist squadristi and Socialist, Anarchist and Communist activists. By late 1920, it was evident that many ordinary Italians, although not necessarily enthused by fascism, increasingly saw Mussolini and his new movement as possibly the only force that could save Italy from ‘Red’ revolution.

In hindsight, the year 1920 can certainly be seen as a year of considerable social and political upheaval, with paranoia, hatred and fear of Socialism across the world constituting a major element of this in particular. The French composer Claude Debussy, speaking in the aftermath of the Great War, apparently lamented to a friend: ‘When will hate be exhausted?’ A brief glance at 1920 suggests that it was far from exhausted.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University, Surrey

(Images: Wikimedia Commons)

Note: An earlier version of this blog was published here in January.




Posted in American history, British history, European History, Fascism, French History, German History, London history, Public History, Research, Russian History, World History | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

COVID-19 Agricultural Crisis? We have been here before – in World War One

On 20th May, 2020, The Guardian newspaper ran the headline ‘Farmers still need up to 40,000 workers to harvest fruit and veg’. As lockdown continues for many people and the summer picking season reaches its height, farmers in the UK have been left wondering how they will manage without their normal workforce from Eastern Europe.

SH 3 pick for britain

The call has gone out from Government for a ‘new land army’ of UK workers, drawn from workers furloughed from their ‘normal’ jobs. ‘Pick For Britain’ is the campaign’s snappy three-word title, supported by a website:

The reference to the Land Army is not accidental. It draws on the country’s nostalgia for the two world wars: mention the ‘Land Army’ and images of healthy young women clamouring to work on the land rise before your eyes, helped by the various recruitment posters from the time.

SH 2 For_a_healthy,_happy_job_join_the_Women's_Land_Army

But in the Guardian article, one modern-day farmer insisted this romanticised image is unhelpful: ‘The rhetoric may bring forward large numbers of people but some only want to do the odd day here and there or don’t want to do the hours that are required. That’s very difficult for business’. The Prince of Wales, who provides royal backing for the project, echoed this view, warning that ‘people are needed who are genuinely going to commit; the phrase I have often heard is: ‘pickers who are stickers’ ‘.

The campaign has not been entirely successful to date. One of the country’s largest agricultural recruitment agencies says that, of the thousands of applications they have received, only about 20% complete the interview process, and of those only 9% are actually suitable for the work.

There is more than a hint that modern-day workers don’t quite have the ‘right stuff’.

Persuading women onto the land and farmers to accept them

So, how does today’s situation compare with 1914-1918, when the country’s food production system was under serious threat?

As now, the traditional agricultural workforce was being depleted, as agricultural workers turned into soldiers. In September, 1915, the Board of Agriculture, responding to the looming crisis, needed a new group of potential workers who could fill the shoes of the departing soldiers, and the most obvious group of underemployed people were women. the instruction went out to county councils to encourage and organise women to work on the land. It was this early initiative which led to the formation of the Women’s Land Army – although it took a further eighteen months to get to that point.

SH 5 Womens Land Army

In Surrey, as early as April, 1915, the Dorking and Leith Hill Suffrage Society began to organise women to work on the land (among other things), and in July, the Guildford branch of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies proposed the establishment of a Surrey Committee for Women’s Farm Labour (SCWFL) to coordinate the county’s efforts. Its initial purpose was to recruit ‘lady registrars’ in each village in the county, to create lists of women in their districts willing to volunteer for farm work. By 1916, 99 registrars had been recruited and 1,756 women had registered. this was no mean feat, as women were reluctant to take up manual, outdoor work – it was considered demeaning. The SCWFL appealed to women using shame and patriotism in equal part: shame in the example set by French women who were eagerly taking up field work, and patriotism by reminding them of the sacrifices being made by their menfolk. It worked!

Persuading farmers was a great deal harder. A survey in 1915 to assess the need for agricultural labour in the county revealed, surprisingly, that over half of farmers had an adequate supply of labour, and of those who said they needed help, only 20 were desperate enough to consider women.

But the SCWFL had influential supporters, none more so than Lady Onslow of Clandon Park. Lady Onslow spent much time persuading her husband’s tenant farmers to support the scheme. Several expressed grave doubts, claiming local women were expensive to hire, inefficient and unsuited to the work. One of Onslow’s tenant farmers explained he had employed women to attend his cows in the past and they were good milkers, but absolutely no use at anything else.

Women’s Farm Labour Committee swing into action

Nevertheless, the SCWFL got on with the job of recruiting women and persuading farmers to provide training for new recruits. the farmers were paid a small sum per trainee and the women were provided with accommodation and a weekly allowance of 12s/6d. By the end of the war, Surrey farmers had trained nearly 2,000 women for agricultural work, including SCWFL recruits and, later, members of the Women’s Land Army (WLA).

Gradually, the questions of women’s suitability to work on the land ceased to be an issue. The Reigate branch of the SCWFL reported that women were coming forward in large numbers while farmers ‘whose prejudices were supposed to be insuperable are themselves setting the example and demonstrating how women can be… employed with success’.

SH 1 Advert surrey advertiser

Surrey Advertiser, 19 May, 1917

What types of work could women do? Very heavy work was obviously out, but there was much they could do: dairy, rearing young animals, tending sheep, harrowing and hoeing, planting and pulling potatoes were all considered suitable jobs. Women were even allowed to use machinery, for mowing, reaping and binding hay bales. In 1917, somewhat controversially, tractor driving was added to the list. There were the usual objections, which revolved around questions of women’s ability to drive and handle ‘delicate’ machinery! But these and other objections were over-ruled and women took to the new task with gusto.

Women’s Land Army

The SWCFL kept the county’s agricultural economy going in the middle years of the war, laying the foundations for and then managing recruitment to the new WLA in the county. The WLA application process was tough, with large numbers being rejected for poor references, unsuitability, or for health reasons. High turnover was also a concern and cast doubt on the rigor of the recruitment process: many undesirable recruits were being sent to work on farms, and the Committee demanded stricter instructions for the recruitment boards. many recruits were leaving for health reasons, suggesting more rigorous medicals were needed, while others left or absconded – their initial rose-tinted vision of farming work shattered by its reality.

SH 4 Women's-Land-Army-1917

In the first six months of Surrey WLA, 670 candidates were interviewed, but only 193 were accepted: a success rate of just under 30% – better than the figures reported for ‘Pick For Britain’, but still rather on the low side. According to the Committee, at the beginning of July, 1917, there were 869 women working full-time and 994 part-time, making a total of nearly 2,000 Surrey women working in agricultural jobs.

Echoing some of the problems faced by the ‘Pick For Britain’ campaign, finding suitable accommodation for WLA recruits also proved to be a challenge. Many recruits came from urban middle-class families unused to rural living and Violet Onslow’s patience was often stretched thin when dealing with complaints about lodgings. Rooms were too small or dark, and where was the ‘sitting room’ to relax in, were common refrains. in one case, three young friends requested they be accommodated together, but Lady Onslow replied that it was not reasonable to make such requests, the girls should be under no illusion that they were there to work and not to have fun. Complaints about poor accommodation were frequent.

It is difficult to arrive at an exact figure for how many Surrey women responded to the call to help feed the nation. A report published in summer, 1918, by the SCWFL’s successor organisation, Surrey Women’s Agricultural Committee, claimed nearly 2,200 women working on the land, farms and market gardens, from early 1917 to summer 1918. This is almost certainly an underestimate, as women were constantly being recruited right up to the end of the war, replacing other women who left.

Then and Now

It is interesting to look at the current agricultural crisis in the context of that which occurred during the First World War, to see many of the same issues causing problems: initial enthusiasm and eagerness to respond to appeals to patriotism and romanticism; a diminishing interest as the reality of work involved sinks in; difficulty in persuading farmers that this new group of workers will be their salvation; difficulty in finding suitable accommodation.

Despite its problems, the project to introduce women agricultural workers in the First World War was generally considered to be successful. Will the same be said for ‘Pick For Britain’?

Dr. Sue Hawkins is Honorary Research Fellow in History, Kingston University, Surrey

(Images: S. Hawkins; Wikimedia Commons; and ‘Pick For Britain’)

Note: This blog is an expanded version of a section on women and agriculture in a chapter, ‘Women and Work’ by the author, in Surrey History Centre’s recently published book, In the Shadow of the Great War, Surrey 1914-1922, edited by Kirsty Bennett, Imogen Middleton, Michael Page and Juliet Warren (The History Press, 2019).

More information about all aspects of Surrey during the First World War can be found on Surrey History Centre’s dedicated website:

Sue Hawkins

Dr. Sue Hawkins







Posted in Archives, British history, Gender History, Local History, London history, Public History, Research, Surrey, Surrey History Centre, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Overview of Overlord: Uncovering Kingston’s role in the 1944 D-Day landings

It is no exaggeration to say that D-Day, the 6th June, 1944, is a day that changed history. With the recent anniversary of the D-Day landings, a day which began ‘Operation Overlord’ and the invasion of German-occupied France by the Allies, it is important to recall the essential role that Kingston-on-Thames and the surrounding area played in those momentous events.

Many people are unaware of the extent to which the Borough of Kingston and its districts helped contribute to the tremendous success of D-Day. Here are six interesting facts about the Kingston area and its role in D-Day:

D-Day Diver

One: Kingston’s main public swimming pool in the 1930s, the Coronation Baths, was located in Denmark Road, just a short walk from what is now the University’s Penrhyn Road and Knights Park campuses. One of the closest-kept local secrets of the Second World War was that the pool, which had underwater lights, was taken over by the Admiralty in January, 1944, and was used for training many of the frogmen who carried out a particularly hazardous mission in the very early hours of the D-Day invasion morning. Wearing specially-designed rubber diving suits, some 120 divers were trained to swim underwater to enemy defence obstacles and plant special explosives, which helped clear a path for Allied landing-craft to safely reach the Normandy beaches.

Two: The complex military and logistical planning for Operation Overlord and D-Day was one of the most secret Allied operations of the Second World War. It was overseen by American General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied invasion forces. Intriguingly, ‘Ike’ Eisenhower lived and worked in Kingston from 1942-1944.

Dwight D. Eisenhower

With his main headquarters located in Bushy Park, near Teddington and Hampton Court, Eisenhower (see photo) rented Telegraph Cottage in Warren Road, at the top of Kingston Hill, where he would snatch time to relax and go for occasional horse-rides in Richmond Park. Eisenhower’s presence in Kingston was a closely-guarded secret, as it was feared that the Germans would attempt an assassination had the news leaked out.

Three: The Bushy Park camp was known as ‘Camp Griffiss’, named after Lieut-Col. Townsend Griffiss, who had been first U.S. airman to die in Europe after America’s entry into the war in 1941. The camp was a major military base for both the U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force from July, 1942 to December, 1944. Much of Eisenhower’s detailed planning for D-Day took place at the camp which, at its peak, had some 4,000 personnel working there. Although many service personnel lived in the grounds of Bushy Park in huts, numerous officers were billeted with local families in the Kingston area. Interestingly, most of the camp’s huts remained standing until as late as 1963.

Four: Although much of the press in Britain could not go into detail about the actual military events of D-Day, or reveal which areas of the country had contributed to Operation Overlord and precisely how, newspapers were nevertheless allowed to carry very general reports on the landings over the next 3-4 days after D-Day. In Kingston, the local Surrey Comet published an editorial on 10th June recognising the enormity of the landings and their significance: ‘This lodgement on a broad front has constituted a unique operation of war, an immense venture which has been years in planning and which is of an intricacy so vast that only very few can have the least realisation of its amazing complexity’.

D-Day -British_Forces_during_the_Invasion_of_Normandy_6_June_1944

And, by July, 1944, the Comet was able to report that the Queen’s Royal regiment, the West Surreys (which had local Kingston men in its ranks) had arrived in France a few days after D-Day and ‘were almost immediately engaged in very heavy fighting near Tilly sur Seulles’. For several days they took part in resisting powerful German counter-attacks in the Tilly area, an action that was vital to the overall success of the Allied invasion.

Five: A huge armada of many vessels and landing craft were used on D-Day, a key one being the L.C.T. (‘Landing Craft Tank’). This was an amphibious assault craft for landing tanks or heavy guns on beachheads, and many of the L.C.T.s went in just before the main landings took place to lay down covering fire. One such L.C.T. on the early morning of D-Day was commanded by Sub-Lieut. Richard Offer, R.N.V.R., a former pupil of Tiffins School in Kingston. He gave a vivid account of what he experienced to the local Surrey Comet. Mines were dodged successfully, he said, but the craft came under heavy fire and two shells hit his vessel. Yet, despite a ‘whacking hole’ in its side, the craft managed to get back successfully to England. Another LC.T. was under the command of Lieut. W.E. Fairiey, RNVR who, prior to the war, had himself been a Surrey Comet reporter. He commented to the paper: ‘The number of ships off the beachheads and going backwards and forwards across the Channel was simply staggering’.

Six: It is estimated that about 130,000 men bravely swept onto the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, with many men killed or seriously wounded in the first waves of the assault. One of these was the son of Mr. and Mrs. W. Harper of Surbiton. In early July, 1944, they were officially notified that their son, private Robert Harper, a commando, had been killed in action with the first wave of assault troops on D-Day. Born in 1915, he had been educated at Christ Church School in Surbiton, and became a brickmaker at Tolworth brick fields before he was called up in 1940. Before he was killed, he had been stationed in Iceland and in the Shetlands.

Regrettably, the recent anniversary of D-Day, and its associated commemorative events, was curtailed by the Coronavirus emergency. Nevertheless, there was still plenty of media coverage and profiles of the remaining D-Day veterans. It all helped remind us how the bravery and sacrifice of such local heroes enabled the eventual liberation of Europe from fascist tyranny.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University, Surrey 

(Images: Wikimedia Commons)

Note: An earlier version of this blog was published here on June 4th, 2019.




Posted in American history, British history, European History, Events, Fascism, French History, German History, Kingston, Local History, London history, Media history, Public History, Research, Surbiton, Surrey, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Secret Heroism: Remembering the ‘listeners’ of Bletchley Park

As we recall the end of the war in Europe 75 years ago, in May, 1945, and remember the eventual end of full hostilities in the Far East a few months later in August, 1945, it is also worth reminding ourselves of the crucial role played by the ‘secret workers’, the men and women who monitored messages behind-the-scenes and stayed silent about their vital intelligence work for decades afterwards.

Many of us are now familiar with the story of Bletchley Park, the British government’s top-secret code-breaking establishment in World War Two, and the huge achievements of some of the key staff there, such as Alan Turing. Bletchley Park secretly broke the German ‘Enigma’ codes, helped turn the tide of war in the Atlantic, and was also the home of ‘Colossus’, the world’s first semi-programmable computer.

Wrens operating the Colossus computer, 1943.

A combination of the work of historians and the wider public interest sparked by recent Hollywood movies has provided researchers with a much better picture of the role of secret code-breaking in helping the Allies bring about the defeat of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.

But we often overlook the fact that, as well as brilliant mathematicians, scientists, language scholars and other key experts (many of them drawn from Britain’s top-class Universities), Bletchley also employed many hundreds of other people, and a considerable number of these did not actually work at the site itself, but were stationed in other parts of the British Isles. Bletchley had a large but highly secretive ‘support network’ of dedicated people who fed vital information and messages back to the main station, known back then as ‘Station X’.

A good example of such secret heroism

Towards the end of 2017, it was reported in the British press that 97-year old great-grandmother Alison Robins, a mother of three who had seven grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren, had quietly died in a nursing home in Bristol, after suffering from dementia.

Apart from close members of her family, many of those who encountered Alison in her later years were not aware of the secret but vital role she had played in World War Two. Alison was one of the last surviving Bletchley Park ‘listeners’, who was responsible for passing messages to Britain’s top-secret wartime code-breaking establishment in Buckinghamshire.

Dressed in civilian clothes, her job involved being positioned at various and rather isolated points around the British coastline. When on duty, she had to stay up all night and eavesdrop on messages from German submarines and ships that were covertly operating in the seas around Britain and were trying to sink British and American vessels. This was extremely important and confidential work, equally important in many ways as some of the main work that took place at Bletchley Park itself. Recalling her duties some years later, Alison told her children that ‘anyone who thinks black coffee keeps you awake is wrong – the only thing that keeps you awake is the thought that if you fall asleep people will die’.

Alison Robins

Before her job working as a ‘listener’, Alison, who had left school with no qualifications, had joined and served as a ‘WREN’ in the Women’s Royal Naval Service (see photo), but had become rather bored just working in the canteen at the Royal Navy College, and had taught herself Morse Code in her spare time. After becoming a ‘listener’ for the network that served Bletchley, she found herself working alongside people who could also speak German, so Alison purchased a book, Hugo’s Teach Yourself German in Three Months, which gave her a working knowledge of the language. Although she could not speak German fluently, she picked up enough so that she was able to translate key phrases and write them down.

According to her family, Alison (who had signed the Official Secrets Act in the war), very rarely spoke about her wartime experiences, but it is known that her husband, Maurice, who also spoke German, was sent to Germany just after the war, and carried out translation work during the Nuremberg Trials, where the leading surviving Nazis had been prosecuted by the Allies for war crimes.

Interestingly, when Maurice returned back to Britain, the devoted couple embarked on their own process of ‘reconciliation’ with Germans. When some German POWs (Prisoners-of-War) were working at the bottom of their garden, Alison and Maurice gave the men regular cups of tea and also invited them to lunch. Alison’s daughter, Jill, told the press after her mother’s death: ‘It was very practical – my parents went to talk to them, I think that was a really important part of the post-war period for them’. Jill added: ‘My mother was lovely – we all adored her’.

The role of the ‘listeners’

What Alison Robins’s life does is to help remind us of the importance of the ‘listeners’ in the Bletchley story, their contribution to the war effort and defeat of fascism, and also the incredible spirit of generosity that a number of people demonstrated in the immediate post-war years, despite all the wartime trauma and stress they had been through.

Bletchley Park

The code-breaking and intelligence gathering operations of Bletchley Park and its associated networks came to an end in 1946, but much of its pioneering work was continued in a new organisation now known as GCHQ (the Government Communications Headquarters).

The Bletchley Park site itself, after years of falling into disrepair, was ‘saved’ by voluntary and other hard work conducted by fundraisers, local historians and conservation experts. The Bletchley Park Trust, set up to regenerate the site, has helped finance a visitor centre and various interactive exhibitions. The famous Bletchley mansion, its huts and its grounds is today a heritage site, usually open to the general public (like many places, Bletchley has had to temporarily close due to COVID-19, but it is hoped the site will re-open soon).

Significantly, the wartime role of Bletchley is also the subject of on-going research by historians who specialise in intelligence and the history of the ‘secret state’. The question of gender in relation to such work also remains of great scholarly interest, and new research on the topic continues to flow.


In September, 2019, for example, the Cloister House Press published Joan Clarke: The Biography of a Bletchley Park Enigma, by Anthony J. Randall. Joan worked alongside Alan Turing, was an outstanding mathematician, and stayed on after the war to work for what became GCHQ (she helped unmask the double-spies Burgess, Maclean and Philby, and also helped to decrypt numerous Soviet communications during the Cold War).

Moreover, as recently as March, 2020, Matador Press published Mavis Batey: Bletchley Codebreaker, Writer, Garden Historian, Conservationist, written by Jean Stone. Mavis was another key code-breaker at the now famous site.

It is evident that there is plenty of new research still being carried out on the ‘listeners’ of World War Two. It is fascinating to wonder what other new findings will emerge in years to come.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University, Surrey

(Images: Wikimedia Commons)

For more information on Bletchley, see:

Note: An earlier version of this blog was first published here in January, 2018.


Posted in British history, European History, Fascism, Gender History, German History, History skills, Local History, Media history, Museums, Public History, Research, Secret State, Uncategorized, World History | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Under a ‘Rain of Bombs’: How the Dunkirk evacuation was reported in Kingston-on-Thames

Britain has just marked the 80th anniversary of what one war correspondent called at the time the ‘miracle’ of Dunkirk, the dramatic rescue of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) from the beaches of the small Belgian seaside town, which took place between 27th May and 4th June, 1940.

Troops returning from Dunkirk

Weary troops disembark at a British port

Looking back, many historians now have mixed feelings about how this humiliating and near-disastrous defeat was turned into a ‘victory’ in Britain’s received national mythology concerning those dark days.

What cannot be denied, though, is the incredible bravery shown by men involved in the operation, including civilian non-combatants who volunteered to sail to the beaches in small boats and rescue hundreds of soldiers under enemy fire.

How did news of Dunkirk’s events filter through to Kingston-on-Thames at the time? What details were the Royal Borough’s residents provided with about the evacuation?

Kingston and wartime news

During May, 1940, local residents in the small Thames Valley town and surrounding districts had already been made aware that all was not going well for British land-forces and their Allies across the English Channel. The local Surrey Comet newspaper, in an editorial on 18th May, had warned that the ‘tragedy of Norway has been repeated in Holland’ and that ‘Quislings’ and Fifth Columnists ‘within the gates’ were preparing the way for invasion.

The so-called ‘Phoney War’ of the past few months had well and truly come to a crashing end, and there were now growing fears that the ‘island’ of Britain could very well be next on Hitler’s shopping list of conquests.

Despite official censorship of what precisely was happening abroad militarily, awareness among local townspeople began to emerge in early June that something major and traumatic was occurring in the conflict. Local citizens, especially those residing along the River Thames and near the main bridge in Kingston, had already seen the commandeering by the Navy of plenty of various ‘small ships’, and witnessed them being taken up the River towards central London, for eventual despatch to a south-east coast port. Some local boatmen had also volunteered as pilots in this task.

JB Priestley

Indeed, on Wednesday, 5th June, the famous author J.B. Priestley (pictured), in a national broadcast on BBC Radio, coined the phrase the ‘Little Ships’ and told his listeners that Britain had turned a page in its history and seen a chapter headed ‘Dunkirk’. It is interesting to note that none other than Winston Churchill became a big fan of Priestley’s radio talks.

A ‘Little Ship’ in action

Moreover, on the very same day, the local Surrey Comet newspaper carried its first report on the ‘Dunkirk Epic’. The paper reported that three young Kingston watermen, in a small pleasure boat that in peacetime normally plied its trade on the Thames between Hampton Court and Richmond, had been ‘Bombed and machine gunned for close on 48 hours’, but had still managed to take off nearly 800 British and French soldiers from the Dunkirk beaches ‘during the heroic evacuation of the B.E.F.’, thus serving to link Kingston (as the paper put it) ‘with one of the most glorious epics in our history’.

According to the Comet, the skipper of the small boat, which was (perhaps appropriately) named the Tigress, was Mr. Henry George Hastings, a 27-year old lighterman of the Gloucester Arms in Kingston. His brother, Warren, had acted as engineer and deckhand on the boat, while Bill Clarke, of Richmond Road in Kingston, had completed the small crew. The boat had been part of a convoy of about 20 beats ‘of all shapes and sizes’, and had made its way to the beachhead by looking out for the ‘great fires’ burning at Dunkirk, as the crew did not have a chart or compass.

Dunkirk troops waiting in line

Apart from a moment when Henry Hastings was thrown overboard by the concussion of a bomb, the three men came through unharmed. However, after it had completed its job of rescue from the dangerous Dunkirk beaches, the Tigress had been holed by a German bomb and sunk.

Hastings explained to the Comet: ‘When we arrived hundreds of troops were marching along the beaches being shelled and bombed mercilessly all the time. I got the boat as near to the shore as I could. The troops clambered into her, some of them actually riding in to the sea on horses, and others clung to the sides of the boat’. He said his boat could accommodate about 150 at a time, and they made four journeys to and from the beaches to naval ships lying further out to sea.

Hastings also commented: ‘The machine-gunning and bombing of the ships was continuous but I never saw the slightest sign of panic either by the troops or the crews. We were picked up by another boat and brought back to England. We reached Kingston on Saturday morning. I had never taken the Tigress farther than Tilbury before’.

More revelations

Another fascinating report on Dunkirk appeared in the Surrey Comet three days later under the heading: ‘Braved Dunkirk’s Terrors – Thames Watermen Under Rain of Bombs’. It revealed, in perhaps surprising detail, how more stories had emerged concerning the ‘heroic part’ played in the evacuation by local Thames Valley watermen.

One such story involved a 15-year old Teddington boy who had wept when told he was too young to make the dangerous trip; Anthony Nash, of Clarence Road in Teddington, had been part of the crew of one of four petrol-driven boats that had been requisitioned and taken down to the south-east coast, but his boat had developed engine trouble and permission had been refused for it to go across the Channel. The other three boats had been used, however, and made several rescue trips, transferring French, Belgian and British troops from the shore to waiting larger ships.


Other stories came from local soldiers from the East Surrey regiment, who had managed to escape from the beaches and be evacuated. Private George Edgar Apps, a 23-year old army transport driver from Kingston, for example, was cited in the Comet as saying: ‘We lived for a week on anything we could find’. He, along with nine other men, had abandoned their lorry and had become separated from their unit, eventually tramping their way to the coast.

Similarly, Pvt. Joseph Cox, wounded in the side and ankle, had walked the last nine miles to Dunkirk without boots. Other details were also set out in the Comet on the survival experiences of local men who had managed to be rescued.

A few days later, on 12th June, the Surrey Comet also carried some tantalising details for readers on the ‘gallant fleet of Thames pleasure craft’ that had cooperated in the Dunkirk evacuation and returned to their local moorings on Sunday, 9th June. As the paper observed: ‘Some of them that set out on the perilous undertaking did not return; others came back bearing the scars of battle’.

Dunkirk little-ships on Thames

In addition, the Comet noted: ‘The boats came home without ceremony. There were occasional outbursts of enthusiasm as they passed under London bridges, but when they arrived at the higher reaches of the Thames their coming had been unheralded and there were few to see them draw into their moorings’. Yet, gratifyingly: ‘Later in the day their presence was discovered and crowds of people spent hours inspecting them’.

At the time, British senior officers estimated that the evacuation of the BEF from Dunkirk, code-named ‘Operation Dynamo’, would only save about 30,000 men, about a tenth of the entire BEF. In the end, an astonishing 338,226 men were rescued, including 139,997 Belgian, Dutch, French and Polish troops.

In its own way, as with a good number of other local towns in the Thames Valley area, Kingston had played a key part in this daring and vital endeavour.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University, Surrey

(Images: Wikimedia Commons)




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Fifth Column Fears in Kingston, 1939-1940: A Brief Survey

Eighty years ago this month, some of the first signs of serious fear about a possible German invasion of the country began to grip the British public. Although such concern had been building for a few months beforehand, the news from abroad in May-June, 1940, was increasingly pessimistic, not helped by growing rumours and local gossip.

Troops returning from Dunkirk

In south-west London, local people became aware of the ‘Little Ships’ sailing up the River Thames, to be eventually used at Dunkirk to rescue troops. It was clear that something major was occurring, and various hints began to appear in local newspapers (which were subject, of course, to wartime censorship).

A few years ago I carried out some research on wartime fears about ‘Fifth Column’ activities in Richmond-on-Thames, Surrey, and the extraordinary degree of paranoia that gripped some of the local townspeople at the time about the possible activities of the ‘enemy within’. More recently, and keeping the focus on the Thames Valley area, I have conducted some similar research into how such fears about potential collaborators, spies and saboteurs had an impact on Kingston-on-Thames and the surrounding area in 1940.

Concept of the ‘Fifth Column’

The term ‘Fifth Column’ had its origins in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, when the fascist General Emile Mola, during his march on the besieged Spanish capital Madrid, boasted that he had not only four columns of troops under his command, but also a ‘fifth’ secret column of Francoist supporters already in the city, a body of pro-fascists who would work to undermine the Republican defenders from within, through acts of sabotage and spreading defeatist rumours.

British soldier on beach 1940

Many scholars now feel that this was exaggerated and more a product of skilled pro-Franco propaganda than real historical fact. However, the notion of a ‘Fifth Column’ still caught the popular imagination of the public across Europe at the time, including in the UK, especially when people were faced with the rapid occupation of Norway and Denmark by the Nazis, and then the shocking collapse of Belgium, France and the Netherlands under a German onslaught soon after. Many commentators in 1940 put these huge defeats down to the work of spies, saboteurs, ‘Quislings’, traitors, and pro-Nazi elements working behind Allied lines. ‘Spies’ and ‘subversion’ also made good copy for newspapers, who helped fan the growing atmosphere of distrust.

Impact on Kingston

How did all this have an impact in Kingston in Surrey and the surrounding area? One can certainly see evidence of such fears building up about the so-called ‘Fifth Column’ in the spring and summer of 1940, especially as news began to filter through about the defeat and evacuation from France of the B.E.F. (British Expeditionary Force).

Tragically, many of the refugees who escaped to this country became a focus for suspicion, with some people suggesting that ‘enemy spies’ could easily have smuggled themselves in among those who had fled Nazi tyranny, including among the Jewish refugees. Fortunately, more sane voices prevailed (for a while, at least).

Jewish chidren arrive in Britain 1938

The Surrey Comet, for example, did its best to encourage people to trust the authorities on this issue. In April, 1940, an editorial in the newspaper assured its readers that they could safely rely upon ‘the police and other competent authorities to tighten their grip upon the insidious evil known as the Nazi “Fifth Column”, and find time to give help and friendship particularly to the thousands of young people, Germans, Austrians and Czechs, who have lost their countries and have even better reason than we to hate old enemies’.

On the other hand, as May turned into June, 1940, and news from the continent (in so far as it passed tight censorship restrictions) became more grim, even the calm ‘reasonableness’ of the Surrey Comet began to crack somewhat under pressure. In an editorial in late May, 1940, on ‘Spies and Saboteurs’, the newspaper welcomed the new Treachery Bill that was quickly going through the House of Commons that week, and added: ‘Experience in other lands has brought home to the Britisher that stricter measures must be taken against espionage, sabotage and “Fifth Column” activities. The Germans’ easy success in occupying the Norwegian ports is known to have been largely due to the activities of traitors like… Quisling and German agents…’.

If the Invader Comes

The newspaper claimed that other countries, notably Holland, had since found that their public services had been ‘corrupted’ in the same way by agents of Berlin, and thus ‘a wholesale clearance of Nazi sympathisers has become necessary’. The Comet argued that the law in the UK should now be strengthened against ‘anti-war agitators and those who are covertly assisting the enemy’. Similarly, a week later, the same newspaper used another editorial to warn people about ‘Mischievous Gossip’ and the repetition of rumour – ‘the chatter of the man in the street and club’, which ‘may easily result in demoralisation and, indeed, the defeat of the Allied cause’. It was the duty of the ‘patriotic citizen’ to ignore and discourage such ‘vapourings’.

Fear and paranoia

Clearly, fears about ‘Fifth Columnists’ and enemy spies could have serious implications for innocent people visiting Kingston and the area at the time, even serving members of the Armed Forces. In May, 1940, it was reported that three young uniformed Naval ratings were taken from the upper deck of a trolley bus on the Hampton Wick side of Kingston Bridge and arrested by police officers, and detained for about an hour on suspicion of being ‘Fifth Columnists’. It emerged that the innocent men had been stopped by police who were acting on information provided to them by a local woman.

In another example of the tense atmosphere that descended on the area in light of ‘Fifth Column’ fever, in early June it was reported that alarms had been raised at Teddington Weir about a man who had ‘been seen photographing the weir’. A police car had been sent to detain the ‘Fifth Columnist’, but when they arrived and closely quizzed the man, they had found his ‘camera’ was in fact a gas mask (of the kind issued to all civilians).


Even the Local Defence Volunteers (L.D.V.) (later the ‘Home Guard’) could be subject to ‘Fifth Column’ suspicions. As the scale of the disaster in France became apparent and fears of German invasion of Britain grew, thousands of volunteers responded to a radio appeal by the government and flocked to join the L.D.V. in the Kingston and general Thames Valley area, but local authorities remained keen to root out anybody ‘suspicious’. In the Twickenham and Teddington area, for example, the newly appointed L.D.V. commandant, making a speech to his new force on Twickenham Green, said that, in view of the ‘danger of Fifth Column activities, selection of the men for the unit was being done very carefully’.

In the same way, local elected Councillors in the area began to show signs of paranoia about ‘Fifth Column’ spies. In early July, a debate at a meeting of Surbiton Town Council saw a Councillor ask whether Surbiton’s Mayor would consider setting up an ‘Espionage Corps’ to report ‘anything of a subversive character that they hear’. The Mayor promised to see that the matter was brought before the local Emergency Committee, but probably privately agreed with another Councillor who asked pointedly: ‘Are we to have a Gestapo in this country before Hitler gets here?’

The presence of conscientious objectors (who were labelled as ‘conchies’) also became the focus of ‘Fifth Column’ suspicion within local authorities in Kingston and the surrounding areas. A major row broke out within Twickenham Council, for example, in July about a plan to root out all ‘conchies’, as such men, it was claimed, ‘might be a pernicious influence on their colleagues’. Some Councillors wanted a special test to be introduced for every Council employee to ask whether they were an ‘objector’, and to also ask about their nationality and even the nationality of their parents. In the heated debate over the issue, some members of the Council argued it was a naive effort to find ‘Fifth Columnists’, which would be doomed to failure and only serve to imperil liberty, the very thing the country was fighting to protect.

Shockingly, at one stage in the debate, one of the Councillors referred to conscientious objectors as ‘worms’ and said they should be ‘put in the lethal chamber’. No further comment is required.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University, Surrey

(All images: Wikimedia Commons)

Note: An earlier version of this blog was published here in June, 2017.


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Early reactions to Mussolini in Britain: The case of Kingston

The dramatic rise of Benito Mussolini to the leadership of Italy, and his destruction of liberal democracy, engendered a variety of reactions at local level in Britain in the 1920s, some of them (in hindsight) surprisingly supportive of the new Fascist regime.


I recently conducted some research on this pro-fascist sentiment in interwar Britain. The advent of Fascist leader Mussolini to the premiership of Italy in 1922, and his gradual conversion of the country into a full dictatorship over the course of the next 2-3 years, was watched with mixed feelings in this country.

A number of commentators took the view that the Duce was very bad news for liberal parliamentary democracy, and a potential threat to wider European peace, while others appeared to strongly admire his apparent ‘rescue’ of Italy from Bolshevism and economic instability.

Those individuals who admired Mussolini and his new regime were often openly enthusiastic about the ‘new Italy’, and expressed this in terms that many of us today (I would hope) still find shocking. However, even back in the 1920s, the fans of Mussolini could often create similar outrage and dismay. In particular, people could still be dismayed by the number of clergy who appeared to admire Mussolini’s methods, especially his apparent rejection of atheism and the seeming conversion of his country back to more ‘spiritual’ values. Contemporary historians have sometimes referred to this type of sentiment as ‘clerico-fascism’.

The Case of Kingston

At local level in Kingston-on-Thames, in Surrey, a good example of such controversy occurred in June and July, 1927. In late June, 1927, the Surrey Comet carried a lengthy report entitled ‘Saviour of Italy – Brilliant Address on Mussolini’s Career’. This news item gave an account of a talk given at the 37th anniversary of the opening of the Eden Street Wesleyan Church in Kingston, a two day event. On the second day of the celebrations, the Reverend Dr. J.E.B. Kirtlan had given a lecture on ‘Mussolini and what he stands for’.

Kingston on Thames

The Reverend Dr. Kirtlan ‘began by saying that he regarded Mussolini as the greatest personality alive at the present time’. Kirtlan said that he did not mean by this that Mussolini was ‘the best or the greatest’, or even that he was a good man, ‘but that he was a portent’. Dr. Kirtlan proceeded to give an outline of the history of Italy from Ancient Rome to 1860, the year when the new Kingdom of Italy was founded. He noted, however, that Italian parliamentary democracy had ‘degenerated sadly’ over the years.

He then gave the background to Mussolini’s life. After the Great War, Mussolini had, in the Reverend’s view, seen ‘the sinister hand stretched out from Moscow to seize Italy’. Mussolini had realised that Bolshevism was the ‘very incarnation of diabolism’ and if Russian Soviet ideals took hold, it was ‘the end of Italy’. Dr. Kirtlan then proceeded to show to his audience how Mussolini had ‘rescued’ Italians ‘from gross materialism, and brought them back to the foundation truth of the Christian religion – that it was only by sacrifice that the world could be saved’.

Benito Mussolini Posing with Church Dignitaries

Kirtlan noted approvingly that, today, Italian churches were now crowded and, instead of selfishness, people were inspired  by the ‘ideal of service’. Mussolini had brought back the cross into schools, ‘whereas the Russian Soviet taught the people to blaspheme God and to trample and spit upon the crucifix’. Bringing his talk to a close,  Dr. Kirtlan claimed that ‘striking results’ had followed from Mussolini’s policies, ‘as seen in the regenerated and rejuvenated Italy of today’. He added that he did not for a  moment suggest that we needed a Mussolini in England, as we were happily wedded, he said, to constitutional government, ‘but we did need to recover the belief that the ideals of service and sacrifice, as opposed to self-seeking, were the surest foundations of national well-being’. The Reverend T.H. Fenn thanked Kirtlan ‘for his brilliant address…’.

Debate and Controversy

It was no surprise to find that, over the next three weeks, the Surrey Comet carried a number of letters either condemning or supporting the address given by the Reverend Dr. Kirtlan. In the June 29th issue, for example, a letter from Mr. H. Marsden, of Canbury Park Road in Kingston, said that it was ‘with some amazement’ that he had read in the newspaper details of the address delivered by Kirtlan: ‘We have all heard various accounts of the “Duce”, but it is certainly the first time I have heard of him as a kind of Saint’. Marsden added that Mussolini may have produced in Italy some form of order out of chaos, ‘but by what means has he and his blackshirt fascists accomplished it? In most instances by a ruthless reign of terror, equal to, if not surpassing that of Russia’.

A week later, the Comet carried another letter, from Mr. Lewis, of Teddington. This took a more approving stance towards Kirtlan’s views. Lewis claimed that ‘thousands of travellers’ had told us of Italy’s ‘wonderful position’ under Mussolini. According to Lewis, the country had been ‘in a sad state after the war’, with ‘extreme Socialists holding it in a vice’, and religion ‘scouted’. Mussolini, asserted Lewis, had ‘stopped the ruin. There is order out of chaos and thousands of all classes are bound together to keep Italy great’.

Mussolini March on Rome

Similarly, the next edition of the newspaper contained another pro-Mussolini letter. Penned by Mr. Arthur Webb, a Kingston resident who now lived temporarily in Milan, the writer argued that, immediately after the war, Italy had fallen into the hands of ‘people with pronounced Bolshevistic tendencies’. Mussolini, claimed Webb, had ‘saved his country from the fate of Russia’ and created a happy people who were now ‘staunch adherents’ of fascism. The writer asserted: ‘Let all sane-minded Englishmen think of Mussolini as the Saviour of Italy’.

Clearly, there were those who took a notably pro-fascist or sympathetic view of Mussolini and his new authoritarian regime, and approved (it would appear) of the seeming ‘spiritual’ or religious aspects of fascism in Italy. Was the Reverend Dr. J.E.B. Kirtlan himself a ‘clerico-fascist’? There was arguably a strand of this in his thinking. But I have found no evidence that he was a member (either active or passive) of a fascist organisation in this country. What obviously impressed the Reverend was the image of Mussolini as a defender of Christian religion and the church.

Moreover, in a markedly stereotypical way, Kirtlan shared the view of a number of other commentators that the Italian character and nation was somehow ‘weak’ and prone to disorder, and in need of the firm hand of authoritarian government. In this sense, Mussolini and his movement was a force for stability and ‘order’, a view that would continue to influence some members of the clergy during the 1930s (including towards the Spanish dictator General Franco).

One suspects that such sentiments and views of Italy are still around today. Indeed, one can detect a growing nostalgia in Italy itself for the ‘good old days’ of Mussolini, or the restoration of the values of ‘strong’ leadership. Personally, I find this very worrying.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University, Surrey

(Images: Wikimedia Commons)

Note: A previous version of this blog was first published here in June, 2018.

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