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.
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.
Many scholars now feel 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.
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).
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…’.
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’.
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. Steve Woodbridge is Lecturer in History at Kingston University
(All images: WikiMedia Commons)