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September 1939 – Blitzkrieg & Spheres of Influence: A Narrative of Actions & Reactions…   Leave a comment

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Chronology of The First Week of War; September 1-8:

1   German invasion, blitzkrieg, of Poland began.

2   Chamberlain’s second statement to the House of Commons; emergency Cabinet meeting issued an ultimatum to be presented on 3rd.

3   Britain, France, Australia and New Zealand declared war on Germany. Within nine hours, 1,400 passengers aboard a blacked-out British liner SS Athenia were torpedoed on their way from Glasgow to Montreal by U-30, whose captain mistook the ship for an armed merchant cruiser. 112 passengers perished. Chamberlain’s War Cabinet formed, with Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty.

5   The Polish Corridor entirely cut off; the Polish government fled to Lublin and then to Romania. A thousand civilians were shot by the SS at Bydgoszcz, and the Jewish district of Piotrków was torched. The entire Jewish population began to be herded into ghettos across Poland.

6   France invaded Germany in the Saarland; Germans retreated to Siegfried Line. No further action was taken by either France or Britain.

8   The Polish Pomorze Army encircled in the north; Reichenau’s Tenth Army reached Warsaw but was repulsed by the Polish resistance.

A Short Summary of Events from June to September:

At the end of June, Hitler’s demand that Poland agrees to the incorporation into his Reich of the City of Danzig, overwhelmingly German, and the territory cutting off East Prussia, produced a crisis. The Poles refused to negotiate and were backed up by Britain and France. They also refused to allow Soviet troops into their country. Again, however, Hitler wrong-footed them the Western Allies. In August, he signed a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union, despite his previously unwavering antipathy to communism, neatly sidelining the one country he took to be his most serious enemy. Thus guaranteed, on 1 September Germany invaded Poland. When their demands for German withdrawal were ignored, Britain and France declared war. Surprised, but not undaunted, Hitler continued with the invasion. The Danzig corridor, separating East Prussia from the rest of Germany, was bridged and the land-grab was augmented by the Soviet invasion of eastern Poland in mid-September. By 29 September, Germany and Soviet Russia had partitioned Poland between them. Apart from a ‘rump’ area of central Poland, ruled from Kraków, the country was annexed either by Germany or the Soviet Union.

The Final Steps to European War:

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At the start of 1939, Hitler had had no plans for war even against Poland. Since the Munich crisis, diplomatic pressure had been put on Poland to consider the return of the Prussian city of Danzig to the Reich, and to discuss possible readjustments to the status of the ‘Polish Corridor’ which separated East Prussia from the rest of Germany.

In March, the Polish Foreign Minister, Josef Beck, had given a firm refusal to these requests. Stung by what he saw as intransigence on the part of the Poles, Hitler ordered the armed forces to prepare for war against Poland. At the end of April, the Polish-German Non-Aggression pact of 1934 was abrogated by Germany, and across the summer months, German forces prepared ‘Plan White’, the planned annihilation of the Polish resistance. But Lord Halifax, the British Foreign Secretary was not so taken aback. Four months previously, he had warned the British Cabinet of the possibility of a deal between Stalin and Hitler. Both the British and French governments now realised that the agreement between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany freed Hitler’s hands for an invasion of Poland – and so it proved.

On 1 September, German troops crossed into Poland and two days later, Britain, in accordance with its treaty obligations with Poland, declared war on Germany. Hitler had expected a local war with Poland, lasting a matter of weeks. Instead, he now faced, at least potentially, a major European war with Britain and France.

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The Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, 23 August:

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above: Molotov (seated), Ribbentrop (standing, left) and Stalin at the moment of the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact in the Kremlin in August 1939. Stalin, as this picture shows, was happy and at ease with the Nazi Foreign Minister.

Laurence Rees (2008) has pointed out that, by the summer of 1939, pragmatism had taken precedence over principle. Hitler wanted the German Army to invade Poland within a matter of days. As he saw it, there were German territories to retrieve – the city of Danzig, West Prussia, and the former German lands around Posen, as well as the rest of Poland’s valuable agricultural lands to conquer. But he knew that any into Poland risked war with Britain and France. Moreover, from the Nazi point of view, a vast question hung over their plan to invade Poland; what would be the reaction of the Soviet Union, Poland’s neighbour to the east? If the Soviet Union formed an alliance with the French and the British, how would the Germans react to encirclement by enemies?

So, that summer, off the back of trade talks that were happening in Berlin, the Germans began to sound out the Soviets about a possible treaty of convenience. By 2 August, the urgency of the Germans was palpable. The economic treaty between Germany and the Soviet Union was signed on 19 August in Berlin. Ribbentrop then pressed the Soviets to allow him to come to Moscow to sign a non-aggression treaty. When the Soviets seemed to dither, Hitler stepped in personally and wrote an appeal to Stalin to allow Ribbentrop to go to Moscow. The Soviets relented and Ribbentrop arrived there on the 23rd. The motivation of the Germans was not difficult to fathom. Hitler’s long-term policy was still to view the Soviet Union as the ultimate enemy. As far as he was concerned, its Slavic people were not ‘worthy’ of owning the rich farmland they currently possessed. His almost messianic vision was that one day soon there would be a new German Empire on that land. But he was not concerned, for now, to pursue visions. This was the time to deal with the urgent, practical problems of neutralising a potential aggressor. The Nazi régime acted with at a speed that impressed even the Soviets, as Molotov testified in a speech in September:

The fact that Mr Ribbentrop acted at a tempo of 650 kilometres an hour called forth the Soviet government’s sincere admiration. His energy and his strength of will were a pledge to the firmness of the friendly relations that had been created with Germany.

Yet whilst it was relatively easy to see what the Germans were getting out of the deal, it was, initially, far less simple to explain the attitude of the Soviets. Unlike the Germans, they had a choice and could have accepted the offer of an alliance with the British and the French. At a cursory glance, that seemed to be the logical course of action, not least because they had signed a non-aggression treaty with Poland in July 1932 and neither of the two western democracies was as vehemently antipathetic to the USSR as the Nazis. In addition, the British had already made peaceful overtures towards Moscow. But Stalin knew that Britain had preferred a policy of appeasement to the Germans to an alliance with the Soviets, and he still felt insulted by Chamberlain’s failure to consult him about the Munich Agreement of a year earlier. Moreover, the fact that it had taken the British until the Nazi occupation of the Czech lands on 15 March 1939 to realise the potential benefits of a treaty with the Soviet Union did not impress Stalin. Five days earlier, he had made a speech to the 18th Party Congress in Moscow in which he talked of a war being waged by…

aggressor states who in every way infringe upon the interests of the the interests of the non-aggressive states, primarily Britain, France and the USA, while the latter draw back and retreat, making concession after concession to the aggressors. Thus we are witnessing an open redivision of the world and spheres of influence at the expense of the non-aggressive states, without the least attempt at resistance, and even with a certain connivance, on their part. Incredible, but true.

‘Spheres of Influence’:

Ribbentrop began the negotiations with the following statement:

The Führer accepts that the eastern part of Poland and Bessarabia as well as Finland, Estonia and Latvia, up to the river Duena, will all fall within the Soviet sphere of influence.

Stalin objected at once to these proposals, insisting that the entire territory of Latvia fall within the ‘Soviet sphere of influence’. The meeting was immediately adjourned until Ribbentrop had contacted Hitler about this request. The Führer was waiting for news of the negotiations at the Berghof, his retreat in the mountains of Bavaria. Herbert Döring, the SS officer who administered the Berghof and witnessed the events of that day, noted the reactions of the commanders meeting there to the news that Ribbentrop was about to sign a non-aggression pact with the Soviets:

The generals were upset, they were looking at each other… It took their breath away that such a thing could be possible. Stalin the Communist, Hitler the National Socialist, that these two would certainly unite. What was behind it, nobody knew.

Suddenly, the call came through from Ribbentrop with the news of Stalin’s demand. Döring recalled:

Hitler was speechless during the phone call, everybody noticed. Stalin had put a pistol to his head. 

Hitler agreed to ‘hand over’ the whole of Latvia to Stalin. The main details of the ‘spheres of influence’ were enshrined in a secret protocol to the pact. Then the conversation in Moscow became more discursive as Stalin revealed his frank views about his ‘dislike and distrust’ of the British:

… they are skilful and stubborn opponents. But the British Army is weak. If England is still ruling the world it is due to the stupidity of other countries which let themselves be cheated. It is ridiculous that only a few hundred British are still able to rule the vast Indian population.

Stalin went on to assert that the British had tried to prevent Soviet-German understanding for many years and that it was a ‘good idea’ to put an end to these ‘shenanigans’. But there was no open discussion in Moscow of the Nazi’s immediate plans to invade Poland, nor what the Soviet response to it was expected to be. The nearest Ribbentrop came to outlining Nazi intentions was when he said:

The government of the German Reich no longer finds acceptable the persecution of the German population in Poland and the Führer is determined to resolve the German-Polish disputes without delay.

The Polish Corridor, which had been intended by the framers of the Versailles Treaty to cut off East Prussia from the rest of Germany, had long been presented as a ‘casus belli’ by the Nazis, as had the ethnically German Baltic Port of Danzig, but as Hitler had told a conference of generals in May 1939,

Danzig is not the real issue, the real point is for us to open up our ‘Lebensraum’ to the east and ensure our supplies of foodstuffs.

Yet Hitler was driven by more than simple practicalities. The forthcoming war over Poland was to be an existential conflict, fulfilling the promises he had made fourteen years before in his political testimony Mein Kampf. The German master race would subjugate the Slavs – Untermenschen  (subhumans) according to Nazi precepts of racial hierarchy – and use their territory to nurture a new Aryan civilization. This was to be the world’s first wholly ideological war, and, as Andrew Roberts has written, the reason why the Nazis eventually lost it. By August 1939, Danzig and the Polish Corridor had become the focal point for Nazi propaganda.

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The Non-Aggression Pact between the Soviet Union and Germany was finally signed in the early hours of 24 August 1939. German and Soviet photographers were allowed into the room to immortalise the unlikely friendship that had blossomed between the two countries. But Stalin’s last words to Ribbentrop were spoken with apparent sincerity:

I assure you that the Soviet Union takes this pact very seriously. I guarantee on my word of honour that the Soviet Union will not betray its new partner.

Back at the Berghof, the atmosphere grew ever more anxious in the hours before news of the signing of the pact came through. Herbert Döring watched that evening as Hitler and his guests stared at a dramatic sky over the high mountain peaks. He recalled that:

The entire sky was in turmoil. It was blood-red, green, sulphur grey, black as the night, a jagged yellow. Everyone was looking horrified – it was intimidating. … Everyone was watching. Without good nerves one could easily have become frightened.

Döring observed Hitler’s reaction to the remark of one of his guests, a Hungarian woman:

“My Führer, this augers nothing good. It means blood, blood, blood and again blood.” Hitler was totally shocked. … He was almost shaking. He said, “If it has to be, then let it be now.” He was agitated, completely crazed. His hair was wild. His gaze was locked on the distance. Then, when the good news that the pact had been signed finally arrived, Hitler said goodbye, went upstairs and the evening was over.

The reaction in Britain to the rapprochement between Germany and the Soviet Union might have lacked the drama on the terrace at the Berghof, but it was certainly one of immense surprise. It was a new and incomprehensible chapter in German diplomacy, as one British newsreel declared, asking what has happened to the principles of ‘Mein Kampf’?… what can Russia have in common with Germany? All over the world, Communist parties, who had been campaigning for a ‘Popular Front’ against Fascism, struggled to make sense of the new reality. In Germany, the Nazis were equally non-plussed by the news. SS officer Hans Bernhard heard of the news of the signing of the pact as he waited with his unit to invade Poland. For him, it came as…

… a surprise without doubt. We couldn’t make sense of it. …in German propaganda for years it had been made clear that the Bolsheviks were our main enemy. … (it was) politically unnatural.

Blitzkrieg & the Partition of Poland:

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The German armed forces made meticulous preparations for the Polish war. They committed fifty-two divisions (against Poland’s thirty), organised into five armies surrounding Poland on three sides. They included five Panzer divisions of three hundred tanks each, four light divisions, with fewer tanks and some horses, and four fully motorised divisions, with lorry-borne infantry. These tank and motorised divisions spearheaded the attack, supported by 1,500 aircraft. Altogether, they had 3,600 operational aircraft and much of the ‘Kriegsmarine’, the German navy. Poland had only thirty infantry divisions, eleven cavalry brigades, two mechanised brigades, three hundred medium and light tanks, 1,154 field guns and four hundred combat-ready aircraft, of which only thirty-six were not obsolete. They had a fleet of only four modern destroyers and five submarines. Although these forces comprised fewer than a million men, Poland tried to mobilise its reservists, but that was far from complete when the devastating blow fell at the hands of 630,000 German troops under Bock and 886,000 under Rundstedt.

Polish forces planned to fight a holding action before falling back on the defence of Warsaw. When the campaign opened German forces moved with great speed and power, quickly penetrating the defensive screen and encircling Polish troops. At 17:30 hours on 31 August, Hitler ordered hostilities to commence the next morning, and at 04:45 on Friday, 1 September, German forces activated Plan White, which had been formulated that June by the German Army High Command (OKH), with Hitler merely putting his imprimatur on the final document.  At this early stage in the war, there was a good deal of genuine mutual respect between Hitler and his generals, so that the Führer did not interfere too closely in the troop dispositions and planning. Neither was he cowed by his generals, as he knew that, had he been a German citizen, he would have been commissioned and have emerged from the Great War in command of a battalion. Moreover, his two Iron Crosses gave him some standing with his generals. Despite being mocked as ‘Corporal Hitler’ by the former Lieutenant-Colonel Churchill, he showed no inferiority complex when dealing directly with soldiers who had outranked him by far in the previous conflict.

According to ‘Plan White’, on either side of a relatively weak and stationary centre, two powerful wings of the Wehrmacht would envelop Poland and crush its armed forces. Army Group North would smash through the Polish Corridor, take Danzig, unite with the German Third Army in East Prussia and move swiftly capture Warsaw from the north. Meanwhile, an even stronger Army Group South, under von Rundstedt, would punch between the larger Polish forces facing it, push east all the way to Lvov, but also assault Warsaw from the west and north. As dawn broke on 1 September, Heinkel bombers, with top speeds of 350kph carrying two thousand kilogram loads, as well as Dorniers and Junkers (Stuka) dive-bombers, began pounding Polish roads, airfields, railway junctions, munitions dumps, mobilisation centres and cities, including Warsaw. Meanwhile, the ship Schleswig Holstein in Danzig harbour started shelling the Polish garrison at Westerplatte. The Stukas had special sirens attached whose screams hugely intensified the terror of those below. Much of the Polish Air Force was destroyed on the ground, and air superiority was quickly won by the Luftwaffe. The Messerschmitt Me-109 had a top speed of 470kph, and the far slower Polish planes stood little chance, however brave their pilots. Furthermore, Polish anti-aircraft defences, where there were any, were wholly inadequate.

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The strategy of having a weak centre and two powerful flanks was a brilliant one, believed to have derived from the pre-Great War Schlieffen Plan. Whatever the provenance, it worked well, slipping German armies neatly between the Polish ones, enabling them to converge on Warsaw from different angles almost simultaneously. Yet what made it irresistible was not the preponderance in men and arms, but above all the military doctrine of ‘Blitzkrieg’. Poland was a fine testing ground for these tactics. Although it had lakes, forests and bad roads, it was nonetheless flat, with immensely wide fronts and firm, late-summer ground ideal for tanks. Since the British and French governments had given their guarantee to Poland on 1 April 1939, with the British PM Neville Chamberlain formally promising ‘all support in the power’ of the Allies, Hitler was forced to leave a large proportion of his hundred-division Army on the Siegfried Line or ‘West Wall’, a three-mile-deep series of still-incomplete fortifications along  Germany’s western frontier. The fear of a war on two fronts led the Führer to leave no fewer than forty divisions to protect his back. His best troops, however, along with all his armoured and mobile divisions and almost all his aircraft, he devoted to the attack on Poland.

In charge of the two armoured divisions and two light divisions of Army Group North was General Heinz Guderian, a long-time exponent of the tactics of Blitzkrieg. Wielding his force as a homogeneous entity, by contrast with Army Group South where tanks were split up among different units, Guderian scored amazing successes as he raced ahead of the main body of the infantry. Polish retaliation was further hampered by vast numbers of refugees taking to the roads. once they were bombed and machine-gunned from the air, chaos ensued. It soon became clear to everyone, except the ever hopeful Poles, that the Western Allies were not about to assault the Siegfried Line, even though the French had eighty-five divisions facing the forty German. Fear of massive German air attacks devastating London and Paris partly explained Allied inaction, but even if they had attacked in the west, Poland could not have been saved in time. Although the RAF had reached France by 9 September, the main British Expeditionary Force (BEF) did not start to arrive until the next day.

What the Allies did not fully appreciate at this stage was the ever-present fear in Hitler’s calculations that there would be an attack in the west before Poland was defeated. In particular, he thought there might be a secret agreement between the French and Belgian general staffs for a surprise thrust by the French high-speed motorised forces through Belgium and over the German frontier into the industrial zone of the Ruhr. In addition, he suspected that there might also be an agreement between the British and the Dutch for a surprise landing of British troops in Holland in order to attack the German north flank. In the event, it turned out that no such agreements were in place. As the Poles retreated, seven thousand ethnic Germans in Poland were massacred by their Polish neighbours and the retreating troops. The Poles did this on the basis of their fear of betrayal, but the Nazis soon responded in cold blood, and on a far larger scale.

By 5 September, the Polish Corridor was completely cut off. On the night of 6 September, France made a token invasion of Germany, advancing five miles into the Saarland along a fifteen-mile-wide front, capturing a dozen abandoned German villages. The Germans retreated behind the Siegfried Line and waited. As France was still mobilising, no further action was taken and five days later, the French troops returned to their original positions with orders only to undertake reconnaissance over the frontier. This was hardly the all-out support of the Allies, and Hitler did not have to remove a single soldier from the Polish front. Meanwhile, by the eighth, the Polish Pomorze Army was encircled in the north and the German Tenth Army reached the outskirts of Warsaw but was initially repulsed by the fierce Polish resistance.  Despite years of threats by Hitler, the Poles had not built extensive fixed defences, preferring to rely on counter-attacks. This all changed in early September when the city centre of Warsaw witnessed makeshift barricades being thrown up, anti-tank ditches dug and turpentine barrels made ready for ignition. However, at the same time, the Eighth Army had soon broken over and around the Polish Kraków and Lodz armies by the 17th. The Polish Government fled first to Lublin and then to Romania, where they were welcomed at first, but were later interned under pressure from Hitler. Hitler’s plan had been to seize Warsaw before the US Congress met on 21 September, so as to present it and the world with a fait accompli, but that was not quite what was to happen.

On 9 September, Hermann Göring predicted that the Polish Army would never emerge again from the German embrace. Until then, the Germans had operated a textbook attack, but that night General Tadeusz Kutrzebra of the Poznán Army took over the Pomorze Army and crossed the Bzuta river in a brilliant attack against the flank of the German Eighth Army, launching the three-day battle of Kutno which incapacitated an entire German division. Only when the Panzers of the Tenth Army returned from besieging Warsaw were the Poles forced back. According to German propaganda, some Polish cavalry charged German tanks armed only with lances and sabres, but this did not, in fact, happen at all. Nonetheless, as Mellenthin observed:

All the dash and bravery which the Poles frequently displayed could not compensate for a lack of modern arms and serious tactical training.

By contrast, the Wehrmacht training was completely modern and impressively flexible: some troops could even perform in tanks, as infantrymen and artillerymen, while all German NCOs were trained to serve as officers if the occasion demanded. Of course, it helped enormously that the Germans were the aggressors, and so knew when the war was going to start. In fact, they were fighting their fifth war of aggression in seventy-five years, and they were simply better at it than the Allies. Blitzkrieg required extraordinarily close co-operation between the services, and the Germans achieved it triumphantly. It took the Allies half a war to catch up.

But as the Germans invaded Poland from the west, the Soviet Union made no more to invade from the east. Consequently, Ribbentrop was concerned about Stalin’s reaction to any German incursion into eastern Poland, the region that adjoined the Soviet Union and that it had just been agreed was within the Soviet sphere of influence. He cabled Schulenberg, the German ambassador in Moscow, on 3 September:

We should naturally, however, for military reasons, have to continue to take action against such Polish military forces as are at that time located in the Polish territory belonging to the Russian sphere of influence. Please discuss this at once with Molotov and see if the Soviet Union does not consider it desirable for Russian forces to move at the proper time against Polish forces in the Russian sphere of influence and, for their part, to occupy this territory. In our estimation this would not only be a relief for us, but also, in the sense of the Moscow agreements, be in the Soviet interest as well.

But the Western Allies had just declared war on Germany because they had agreed by treaty to protect Poland against aggression. If the Red Army moved into eastern Poland, would they now decide to fight the Soviet Union as well? The Soviet leaders were concerned that a pact which, from their point of view, was designed to keep them out of European war might now drag them into it. But there remained strong arguments in favour of military action. The Soviets recognised the material benefits to be gained from annexing a large chunk of the neighbouring country with which they had historical scores to settle. Stalin was still bitter about the war the Bolsheviks had fought with the Poles after the Revolution and the Treaty of Versailles, and before the USSR came into being. The Curzon Line, the proposed border at that time between Poland and its neighbours, was used to agree on the spheres of influence in the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. Moreover, ethnic Poles were not in a majority in these eastern territories. Around forty per cent of the population were of Polish origin, thirty-four per cent were Ukrainian and nine per cent Belarusian. This, the Soviet propagandists realised, allowed any incursion to be couched as an act of ‘liberation’, freeing the ‘local’ population from Polish domination. A combination of all these factors meant that on 9 September, Molotov finally replied to Ribbentrop’s cable of the 3rd, to say that the Red Army was about to move into the agreed Soviet ‘sphere’ in Poland. At a meeting in Moscow the following day with the German ambassador, Molotov told Schulenburg that the pretext for the invasion would be that the Soviet Union was helping Ukrainians and Belarusians. This argument, he said, …

… was to make the intervention of the Soviet Union plausible and at the same time avoid giving… it the appearance of an aggressor. 

With only three Polish divisions covering the eight-hundred-mile-long eastern border, it came as a complete surprise when at dawn on 17 September, in accordance with the secret clauses of the Nazi-Soviet Pact that had been agreed on 24 August. The Russians wanted revenge for their defeats at Poland’s hands in 1920, access to the Baltic States and a buffer zone against Germany, and they opportunistically grabbed all three, without any significant resistance. Soviet forces began to cross the frontier in the east against only light resistance, led by Marshal Kovalov in the north on the Belarusian front and Marshal Timoshenko in the south on the Ukrainian front. In a radio broadcast the same day, Molotov justified the Soviet action by the ‘plausible’ argument he had outlined to Schulenberg. Caught between the two great powers, Polish fighting power evaporated. Warsaw surrendered on 27 September. The following day all Polish resistance ceased. The Red Army was initially welcomed in many places and there was confusion in some places as to whether this was an actual invasion at all. Perhaps, some thought, the Soviet troops had really come to ‘help’. Maybe they would just motor through the flat countryside of eastern Poland and confront the Germans, who had already captured most of the west of the country. The photograph below reveals that there was little panic on the streets.

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The total losses of the Red Army in Poland amounted to only 734 killed. Stalin continued to use Polish ‘colonialism’ in the Ukraine and Belorussia as his casus belli, arguing that the Red Army had invaded Poland in order to restore peace and order. The Poles were thus doubly martyred, smashed between the Nazi hammer and the Soviet anvil, and were not to regain their independence and self-government until November 1989, half a century later. By mid-September, the Germans had already moved into several areas behind Warsaw and had indeed taken Brest-Litovsk and Lvov, but some fighting had broken out between Cossacks and Germans, with two of the former killed in one incident and fifteen Germans in another. The campaign cost 8,082 German lives with 27,278 wounded and the loss of 285 aircraft, whereas seventy thousand Polish soldiers and twenty-five thousand civilians had been killed, with 130,000 soldiers wounded. Mellenthin concluded that:

The operations were of considerable value in “blooding” our troops and teaching them the difference between real war with live ammunition and peacetime manoeuvres.

The whole of western Poland came under German control. On 28 September, Soviet and German representatives met to draw up a demarcation line which gave Warsaw to the Germans and the Baltic states as a sphere of interest to the USSR. Almost at once the German authorities began to break Poland up. Silesia and the Corridor became parts of the Reich, and a central Polish area called the General Government was placed under a Nazi administrator, Hans Frank. Thousands of Polish intellectuals were rounded up and murdered. Peasants were removed from their villages in parts of western Poland and replaced by German settlers. Hitler had been right to calculate that Britain and France would give Poland little help, but he was wrong about localising the conflict. Although Britain and France declared war on 3 September, there were only isolated raids by Allied scouting parties and aircraft. After the defeat of Poland Hitler wanted to wage a winter campaign in the west, but was prevented from doing so by bad weather, and both sides sat through the winter and early spring of a ‘phoney war’.

In eastern Poland, casual abuse of the ‘class enemies’ of the Communist system turned into a widespread and systematic arrest. On 27 September, just ten days after Red Army troops had crossed into Poland – the Soviets came for Boguslava Gryniv’s father. He was a prominent lawyer and head of the regional branch of the Ukrainian National Democratic Party (UNDO), a legally constituted organisation. When there was a knock at their door the Gryniv family were surprised to see a member of the local Soviet authority, as it was a church holiday and they were about to celebrate with a family meal. But they took his father away anyway, leaving the family to pray for him not to be punished and to be returned to them. He was one of the first of many to suffer at the hands of the Soviets in eastern Poland. Altogether, between September 1939 and June 1941, around 110,000 people were arrested during the reign of terror facilitated by the occupation of eastern Poland. Aristocrats, intellectuals, trade unionists, churchmen, politicians, veterans of the 1920-21  Russo-Polish War, anyone who might form the nucleus of new national leadership, were arrested by the NKVD and sent to concentration camps from which virtually none emerged.

As in the case of Boguslava Gryniv’s father, individual arrests of members of the intelligentsia and others thought of as a threat to the new régime began from the moment the Red Army arrived in mid-September. Gryniv was sent to the local jail immediately upon arrest, a small cell that usually held drunks and petty criminals. All the most important people who had remained in the town were in this prison. They thought it was simply a ‘misunderstanding’. However, about three weeks later he was taken to Chertkov, where he discovered that all he was accused of was membership of UNDA, a legal organisation before the invasion which was by no means anti-Bolshevik. However, in reality, he was seen as a dangerous member of the previous ‘ruling class’. He disappeared from the prison towards the end of 1939 and fifty years later his family finally learnt that he had been murdered by the NKVD in the spring of 1940.

On the same day that Boguslava Gryniv’s father was arrested, the Soviet government’s new best friend, Joachim von Ribbentrop returned to the Kremlin to finalise the exact borders that would exist between them. After tough negotiations lasting until five in the morning, it was agreed that the Germans would get Warsaw and Lublin, and the Russians the rest of eastern Poland and a free hand in the Baltic. The Germans withdrew from towns such as Brest-Litovsk and Bialystock in the new Russian sector, and the fourth partition in Poland’s history was effectively complete. The Soviets had obtained the lands in their ‘sphere’ without meeting any serious opposition and without even making a formal declaration of war on Poland. Molotov would have done well, however, to take note of Hitler’s statement made many years before in Mein Kampf:

Let no one argue that in concluding an alliance with Russia we need not immediately think of war, or, if we did, that we could thoroughly prepare for it. An alliance whose aim does not embrace a plan for war is senseless and worthless. Alliances are concluded only for struggle.

The Germans had faced fierce Polish resistance in the west, but they had completely consolidated their hold on these lands. After a full day of bombing on 25 September, with no prospect of meaningful help from the Western Allies, a full-scale ‘invasion’ from the Russians in the east, and communications cut between Smigly-Rydz and much of his army, and with food and medical supplies running dangerously low, Warsaw capitulated on 28 September. It was then three days before the Germans agreed to help the wounded in the city, by which time it was too late for many of them. Field kitchens were set up only for as long as the newsreel cameras were there. By 5 October, all resistance had ended; 217,000 Polish soldiers were taken captive by the Russians, and 693,000 by the Germans. On that day, Hitler travelled to Warsaw in his special train to visit his victorious troops. Take a good look around Warsaw, he told the war correspondents there, … that is how I can deal with any European city.

What was to be called the policy of  Schrecklichkeit (frightfulness) had begun as soon as the Germans had entered Poland. For the master race to have their ‘living space’, large numbers of Slavic and Jewish Untermenschen had to disappear, and during the rest of the war, Poland lost 17.2 per cent of its population. The commander of three Totenkopf (Death’s Head) SS regiments, Theodor Eicke, ordered his men to ‘incarcerate or annihilate’ every enemy of National Socialism they found as they followed the troops into Poland. Since Nazism was a racial ideology, that meant that huge swathes of the Polish people were automatically classed as enemies of the Reich, to whom no mercy could be shown. Fortunately, between ninety and a hundred thousand Polish combatants managed to flee the country via Lithuania, Hungary and Romania, eventually making their way to the west to join the Free Polish forces under General Wladyslaw Sikorski, the Prime Minister in exile, who was in Paris when the war broke out and set up a government in exile in Angers in France.

The Wehrmacht took an active part in the violence, burning down 531 towns and villages, and killing thousands of Polish POWs. The claim made by German soldiers that they had been simple soldiers who had known nothing of the genocide against the Slavs and the Jews, was a lie. The nature of the SS had become immediately apparent upon the invasion of Poland. On 5 September 1939, a thousand civilians were shot by them at Bydgoszcz, and at Piotrków the Jewish district was torched. The next day nineteen Polish officers who had surrendered were shot at Mrocza. Meanwhile, the entire Jewish population began to be herded into ghettos across Poland. Even Jewish farmers were forced into ghettos, despite the obvious need for efficient food production in the new eastern satrapy of the Third Reich, early evidence that the Nazis were willing to put their war against the Jews even before their war against the Allies. In Bydgoszcz, they were locked in their synagogue on the Day of Atonement and denied access to lavatories, forcing them to use prayer shawls to clean themselves. Far worse was to come…

(to be continued…)

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The Latter Day Elizabethan Britons, 1952-2002; Chapter Three.   Leave a comment

Chapter Three: A Multi-cultural Society?

 020

By the end of the 1950s, although the populations of the nations and regions of the British Isles had become more permanently mixed than ever before, and added to by those refugees from central and eastern Europe who had now been exiled by the triumph of Soviet Communism in the establishment of the Warsaw Pact, as yet there had been very little New Commonwealth immigration to Britain. It was only in the sixties and seventies that the country began to be transformed into what came to be known as a multi-cultural society.

 

Following the wartime Emigracja – immigration to Britain, there was a further wave of Poles arriving in the UK between 1950 and 1971. According to the 1971 Census, this amounted to 13,470 persons, seventy-five per cent of whom were women. Some of these were relatives of previous refugees who had decided to stay, while others were traditional devout Catholics and anti-Communists. The Polish Educational Society Abroad was established in Britain with the main aim of giving financial support and assistance to Polish voluntary schools in order to maintain Polishness by educating the children of Polish parents and preparing them for their return to Poland. The beginning of the Polish schools in Britain goes back to the 1950s when Polish parents began to be seriously concerned about the maintenance of Polishness in their children. While the underlying motive was the return to the homeland, the need to establish schools was also driven by the concern that, with Poland under Communist rule, many families did not know when they would be able to return safely and permanently. While, at first, the schools were located in private houses, later they moved into the halls of Polish churches throughout the country. When the numbers grew and they could no longer be accommodated in the church halls, more space had to be hired in state schools. In 1977 it was estimated that there were eighty-eight Polish Saturday Schools with over seven thousand pupils. In addition, the Polish Scout and Guide Movement was formed in the 1950s, a nationalistic exile group centred in London with, by 1961, an organisational network in over twenty countries. In that year, there were one and a half thousand Polish boy scouts and a thousand guides in Britain, with a further four hundred Rovers and six hundred adult members of attached groups. The organisation reinforced the work of the Saturday Schools by offering invaluable opportunities for using and developing the Polish language in a variety of realistic communication settings.

Following the unsuccessful Hungarian Uprising and Soviet invasion of October – November 1956, people from all classes and groups who had suffered under the Communist repressions and who feared reprisals for having participated in the uprising, found their way to Britain. Many of them were en route to the USA, but of the two hundred thousand who fled Hungary, about twenty-six thousand were admitted to the UK for settlement. Three Hungarian Associations were formed in the 1950s, the British Hungarian Fellowship in London being one of them. In addition, three associations were formed between 1965 and 1971. Otherwise, the Hungarian expatriates seem not to have been so determined to maintain their separate cultural identity in their host country, becoming fully integrated in British society within a short period of settlement, though keeping up their familial ties with their home country. This may have much to do with the relative freedoms of travel and association allowed during the period of Goulash Communism, especially from the early 1970s, and partly to do with the relative difficulty of learning and using Hungarian outside the home environment, even when both parents were native-speakers. Only in London was this ever a real possibility.

 

During and immediately after the Second World War about forty thousand Ukrainians found refuge in the UK, none of them having left their home country of their own free will. The majority of those who settled permanently in the UK came from the rural areas of western Ukraine, and only about three per cent had completed secondary and tertiary schooling (to eighteen) before arriving in Britain. They were employed in low-paid jobs in agriculture, mining and textiles, in domestic service and as ancillary personnel in hospitals. After a time they moved to better-paid jobs, encouraged their children to do well at school, so that it is sometimes suggested that, as a result of strong family ties and parents’ ambitions for their children, the proportions of Ukrainian children who gained academic success at the various educational levels were greater than the national levels. The Ukrainians who settled in Britain were predominantly male, young and single. Only about ten per cent were women, so Ukrainian men had to look outside the community for marriage partners, mainly among other continental settled in Britain. Later, about two thousand displaced Ukrainian women came to Britain from refugee settlements in Poland and Yugoslavia following the decade between when Ukraine became part of the Soviet Union again, and Poland was forced to join the Warsaw Pact in 1955.

Of the first émigrés, who were predominantly male, about forty per cent didn’t marry, and a large percentage of the rest, maybe half, married non-Ukrainian women. The majority of them hoped at first that they would be able to return to the Ukraine. Most, however, learnt some English in their workplaces. Those who married Ukrainian partners use their native tongue when speaking with them and, in most cases, with their children. A minority considered that speaking Ukrainian at home would be detrimental to their children’s education, however, and so deliberately avoided using the language in the family. Second generation British Ukrainians used English in their workplaces and with friends, in places of entertainment, while using Ukrainian with parents and older members of the exile community, switching to English to talk to Ukrainians of their own generation. They were also encouraged to use Ukrainian in the Saturday schools, meetings and camps of youth organisations. During rehearsals of choirs or dance groups, popular among the second generation, they often used both languages to describe events or experiences connected with these. This was regarded within the community as a sign of language loss rather than of retention in the bilingual setting.

Throughout the sixties and seventies, due to the political situation in the USSR, and its international relations, contacts with the home country were limited and, despite the efforts made by the community to preserve the language, there were significantly fewer third generation speakers. The community life revolved around the churches, principally the Ukrainian Roman Catholic Church and the Autocephalous Eastern Orthodox Church, together with a variety of organisations catering for women, young people, ex-servicemen, students and professionals. It also built a number of properties in addition to churches, including cultural centres and school premises, commercial enterprises, summer camps and retirement homes. Family and personal contacts mainly took the form of correspondence, and well-chaperoned choirs and dance groups from the Ukraine sometimes toured the UK. In the Brezhnev years there was freer intercourse with Ukrainians living in Poland and Yugoslavia, with many more exchange visits taking place. In Ukraine itself, the language came under strong Russian influence, whereas the majority of first-generation British Ukrainians spoke a rural variety of Western Ukrainian at home. In 1966, there were nearly two and a half thousand pupils attending forty-three Ukrainian Saturday Schools throughout Britain, run by over two hundred teaching staff. The curriculum consisted of Ukrainian language, literature, history, geography, religion and folklore. Pupils had two or three hours of classes a week over eleven or twelve years, starting with nursery classes. A GCE Ordinary level examination in Ukrainian became available in 1954, and the language became available as a subsidiary subject at the University of London in 1970. Coventry LEA was the first to provide material support for community Saturday schools.

In the postwar years, the Greek Cypriot community in Britain grew significantly and came from a variety of backgrounds. There had been a sizeable group in interwar and wartime Britain, but it was after the war that substantial numbers of Greek Cypriot men arrived, followed by their families as soon as they had found a permanent job and reasonable housing. The 1955-60 Independence struggle gave rise to further immigration to Britain, as did the civil struggles in 1963 and the invasion by Turkey in 1974, so that the estimated Greek Cypriot population in the UK reached two hundred thousand. This meant that one Cypriot in every six was living in Britain by the late seventies. While the largest part of this population was concentrated in London, there was also much smaller but still significant community in Birmingham. Greek Cypriots left their homes mainly for economic reasons. Most of them came to Britain to find work and improve their standard of living. The largest section came from the lower socio-economic groups. They set out with high aspirations, confident in their hard-working nature, and supported by the strong feeling of solidarity which bonded them to their compatriots. In the fifties and early sixties Greek Cypriots worked mainly in the service sector, in catering, in the clothing and shoe manufacturing industries, in hairdressing and in grocery retailing. In the villages in Cyprus, most of the women’s work was confined to the household and the fields, but in Britain a substantial number went to work in the clothing industry, either as machinists in small factories or as out-workers sewing clothes at home at piecework rates.

By the late sixties self-employment was becoming more common among Greek Cypriot men who had established a variety of small businesses – restaurants, estate agents, travel agencies, building firms, etc. – building gradually what Constandinides (1977) called an ethnic economy. These small businesses often provided goods and services primarily for other Cypriots, although by the second generation there was a tendency to move away from these traditional forms of employment. Their interests moved away from the world of kebab takeaways and Mediterranean grocery shops into the more successful and highly competitive world of property development, manufacturing industry, import-export, travel and tourism, printing and publishing. Mother tongue teaching activities were inevitably concentrated in the areas of greatest Greek settlement, the first classes, in Haringey, dating back to 1955, while classes in Coventry were established around 1963. Children spent between one and four hours per week at these community-run classes.

 004 (2)

In Coventry, the small wartime Indian community had expanded to an estimated four thousand by 1954, occupying some of the more rundown housing stock to the north of the city. Like other immigrants to Coventry at this time – the Welsh, the Irish, Poles and Ukrainians, the Indians were keen to protect their own religious and cultural identity. In October 1952, Muslim members of the Indian community applied to the Planning and Redevelopment Committee for separate burial facilities and land for the building of a Mosque. Although relatively few in number, Coventry’s Indian community was already beginning to experience the racial prejudice that was already beginning to disfigure Britain nationally. It was also soon reported that local estate agents were operating a colour bar. It has already been noted how trades unions and management in the car factories agreed measures to keep them from working on the production lines, relegated to menial cleaning tasks. In October 1954 the editor of the Coventry Standard had reported that a branch of the AEU had approached Miss Burton M.P. on this subject. He commented:

The presence of so many coloured people in Coventry is becoming a menace. Hundreds of black people are pouring into the larger cities of Britain including Coventry and are lowering the standard of life. They live on public assistance and occupy common lodging houses to the detriment of suburban areas. … They frequently are the worse for liquor – many of them addicted to methylated spirits – and live in overcrowded conditions sometimes six to a room.

This article was not the juvenile outpourings of a bigoted cub reporter but the major editorial. Racism appears to have infected a wide spectrum of Coventry society by the mid-fifties as it had also begun to infect the country as a whole. Change was not comfortable for many to live with, and not always easy to understand, and it was easy to project the problems which it presented in everyday life into stereotypical images, as this extract from the transcript of a BBC archive disc shows:

It is getting too bad now. They’re too many in the country and they’re over-running it. If they come into this country, they should be made to live to the same standards as we live, and not too many in their house as they always have done, unless someone puts their foot down. They bring in diseases and all sorts of things that spread to different people, and your children have to grow up with them and it’s not right.

 017

Above: The Windrush Generation: One of the first Jamaican immigrants seeking work and lodgings in Birmingham in 1955.

They in this extract were, of course, immigrants from the West Indies and Pakistan and/ or India who, from the mid-fifties on, came in substantial numbers into the booming cities and industries. Many West Indian immigrants encountered considerable racial prejudice when seeking accommodation. A teenage motor-cycle maniac who was still living with his parents and knew that every time he went out they were on edge, could casually remark about going down Notting Hill Gate… to punch a few niggers up. The scene soon shifted onto a bigger backcloth, and from Notting Hill to Nottingham, but the story was the same, and one which was to become more and more familiar over the coming decades – one of growing intolerance, if not cultural bigotry, in British society. In August 1958, as violence against coloured immigrants became a serious problem, The Times reported on the demands for immigration controls being made by Conservative MPs:

Seeing the Nottingham fight between coloured and white people on Saturday night a red light warning of further troubles to come, some Conservative M.P.s intend to renew their demand for control to be placed on immigration from the Commonwealth and the colonies when Parliament reassembles in October… A resolution is on the agenda for the Conservative Party Conference. It has been tabled by Mr Norman Pannell, Conservative M.P. for the Kirkdale division of Liverpool, who obtained the signatures of about thirty Conservative M.P.s for a motion (never debated) during the last session of Parliament. This expressed the growing disquiet over ’the continuing influx of indigent immigrants from the Commonwealth and colonies, thousands of whom have immediately sought National Assistance’. Mr Pannell said yesterday, ’… The Nottingham fighting is a manifestation of the evil results of the present policy and I feel that unless some restriction is imposed we shall create the colour-bar we all wish to avoid… The object of my representation is to get some control, not to bar all colonial and Commonwealth immigration, but to see that the immigrants shall not be a charge on public funds, and that they are deported when they are guilty of serious crimes.

 008

Paradoxically, then, just as Britain was retreating from its formal imperial commitments, Commonwealth immigration into Britain, principally from the West Indies and South Asia, was becoming an increasingly important issue in domestic politics. During the 1950s, the number of West Indians entering Britain reached annual rates of thirty thousand. Immigration from the Indian subcontinent began to escalate from the 1960s onwards. The census of 1951 recorded seventy-four thousand New Commonwealth immigrants; ten years later the figure had increased to 336,000, climbing to 2.2 million in 1981. Immigration from the New Commonwealth was driven by a combination of push and pull factors. Partition of the Indian subcontinent and the construction of the Mangla Dam in Pakistan had displaced large numbers of people, many of whom had close links with Britain through the colonial connection.

In Britain, postwar reconstruction, declining birth rates and labour shortages resulted in the introduction of government schemes to encourage Commonwealth workers, especially from the West Indies, to seek employment in Britain. Jamaicans and Trinidadians were recruited directly by agents to fill vacancies in the British transport network and the newly created National Health Service. Private companies also recruited labour in India and Pakistan for factories and foundries in Britain. As more and more Caribbean and South Asian people settled in Britain, patterns of chain migration developed, in which pioneer migrants aided friends and relatives to settle. Despite the influx of immigrants after the war, however, internal migration within the British Isles continued to outpace overseas immigration.

 013Above: West Indians in London in 1956. About 125,000 people from the Caribbean came to live in Britain

between 1948 and 1958, hoping to escape the poverty in their home islands.

The importance attached to the Commonwealth in the 1950s prevented the imposition of immigration controls on New Commonwealth citizens. However, by the 1960s, Britain’s retreat from the Commonwealth in favour of Europe and events such as the Notting Hill and Nottingham race riots in 1958 heralded a policy of restriction, which gradually whittled away at the right of New Commonwealth citizens to automatic British naturalisation. Although the 1962 Immigration Act was intended to reduce the inflow of blacks and Asians into Britain, it had the opposite effect: fearful of losing the right of free entry, as many immigrants came to Britain in the eighteen months before restrictions were introduced as had arrived over the previous five years.  

 

The census of 1961 showed the 1954 estimate of Asians living in Coventry to be an exaggeration. In fact, immigration from the new Commonwealth over the previous ten years had been a trickle rather than a stream, accounting for only 1.5 per cent of the population compared with 6.1 per cent from Ireland, including the North. The total number of immigrants from India and Pakistan was less than three thousand five hundred, and there were about another one thousand two hundred immigrants from the Caribbean as a whole. Between the census of 1961 and the mini-census of 1966, however, some major shifts in the pattern of migration into Coventry did take place. A substantial increase in immigration from Commonwealth countries, colonies and protectorates had taken place during the previous five years. The total number of those born in these territories stood at 11,340. The expansion needs to be kept in perspective, however. Nearly two-thirds of the local population were born in the West Midlands, and there were still nearly twice as many migrants from Ireland as from the Commonwealth and Colonies. Indeed, in 1966 only 3.5 per cent of Coventry’s population had been born outside Britain, compared with the national figure of five per cent. The Welsh stream had slowed down, increasing by only eight per cent in the previous fifteen years, and similar small increases were registered among migrants from Northern England. There were significant increases from Scotland, London and the South East, but only a very small increase from continental Europe.

The rate of migration into Coventry was undoubtedly slowing down by the mid-sixties. Between 1961 and 1971 the population rose by nearly six per cent compared with a rise of nineteen per cent between 1951 and 1961. The failure of Coventry’s manufacturing industry to maintain immediate post-war growth rates was providing fewer opportunities for migrant manual workers, while the completion of the city centre redevelopment programme and the large housing schemes reduced the number of itinerant building workers. Between 1951 and 1966 the local population increased by approximately four thousand every year, but in the following five years the net annual increase fell to about a thousand per annum. Moreover, the proportion of this increase attributable to migration had dramatically declined. Between 1951 and 1961, a Department of the Environment survey estimated that migration accounted for about forty-five per cent of population growth in the Coventry belt, whereas in the following five years it made up only eighteen per cent. In the following three years to 1969 the survey noted that the same belt had begun, marginally, to lose population through out-migration.

 018

The 1968 Immigration Act was specifically targeted at restricting Kenyan Asians with British passports. The same year, Conservative MP for Wolverhampton and government minister, Enoch Powell made a speech in Birmingham, that contained a classical illusion that most people took to be a prophecy of violent racial war if black immigration continued:

As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding. Like the Roman, I seem to see ’the river Tiber foaming with much blood’.

 

The speech became known as The Rivers of Blood Speech, and formed the backdrop of the legislation. Although Powell was sacked from the Cabinet by the Tory Prime Minister, Edward Heath, more legislative action followed with the 1971 Immigration Act, which effectively restricted citizenship on racial grounds by enacting the Grandfather Clause, by which a Commonwealth citizen who could prove that one of his or her grandparents was born in the UK was entitled to immediate entry clearance. This operated to the disadvantage of Black and Asian applicants, while favouring citizens of the old Commonwealth, descendants of white settlers from Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa. Thus immigration control had moved away from primary immigration to restricting the entry of dependents, or secondary immigration.

 004

The employment available to new immigrants in 1971 continued to be restricted to poorly paid, unskilled labour. In addition, since the mid-fifties, many West Indians faced prejudice in finding private rented accommodation and all new Commonwealth immigrants faced official discrimination in the residency requirements for council housing.

019

To overcome this prejudice, immigrants to Birmingham tended to congregate in poorer inner city areas or in the western suburbs along the boundary with Smethwick, Warley, West Bromwich (now Sandwell), and Dudley, where many of them also settled. As in Coventry, there was a small South Asian presence of about a hundred, in Birmingham before the war, and this had risen to about a thousand by the end of the war. These were mainly workers recruited by the Ministry of Labour to work in the munitions factories. Birmingham’s booming postwar economy attracted West Indian settlers from Jamaica, Barbados and St Kitts in the 1950s, followed by South Asians from Gujarat and the Punjab in India, and Bangladesh from the 1960s onwards.

 012

By 1971, the South Asian and West Indian populations were equal in size and concentrated in the inner city wards and in north-west Birmingham, especially in Handsworth, Sandwell and Sparkbrook. Labour shortages had developed in Birmingham as a result of an overall movement towards more skilled and white-collar employment among the native population, which created vacancies in the poorly paid, less attractive, poorly paid , unskilled and semi-skilled jobs in manufacturing, particularly in metal foundries and factories, and in the transport and health care sectors of the public services. These jobs were filled by newcomers from the new Commonwealth. In the 1970s, poor pay and working conditions forced some of these workers to resort to strike action. Hostility to Commonwealth immigrants was pronounced in some sections of the local white population. One manifestation of this was the establishment of the Birmingham Immigration Control Association, founded in the early 1960s by a group of Tory MPs.

In Coventry, despite these emerging signs of a stall in population growth by the end of the sixties, the authorities continued to view the city and its surrounds as a major area of demographic expansion. In October 1970 a Ministry of Housing representative predicted that the city’s population would rise by a third over the next twenty years. The economic boom under the Conservative Heath government and Anthony Barber’s Chancellorship, which greatly benefited the local motor industry, temporarily reversed the stall in population growth. By 1974, it was estimated that the local population was rising by two thousand per year, twice the rate of the late 1960s. By 1976, however, the youthfulness of the city’s population was being lost as the proportion of over sixty-five year-olds rose above the national average. By the mid-seventies Coventry was faced with a new challenge posed by changes in the age-structure of its population. The city was having to care for its increasing numbers of elderly citizens, a cost which soon became difficult to bear, given its declining economy. Coventry, with its large migrant element, began to lose population rapidly during this decline, from 335,238 to 310,216 between 1971 and 1981, a fall of 7.5 per cent. Nearly sixty thousand jobs were lost during the recession, and given the shallowness of the family structure of many Coventrians, this resulted in a sizeable proportion of its citizens being all too willing to seek their fortune elsewhere. For many others, given the widespread nature in the decline in manufacturing in the rest of the UK, there was simply nowhere to go.

 007

As New Commonwealth immigrants began to become established in postwar Birmingham, community infrastructures, including places of worship, ethnic groceries, halal butchers and, most significantly, restaurants, began to develop. Birmingham in general became synonymous with the phenomenal rise of the ubiquitous curry house, and Sparkbrook in particular developed unrivalled Balti restaurants. These materially changed patterns of social life in the city among the native population. In addition to these obvious cultural contributions, the multilingual setting in which English exists today became more diverse in the sixties and seventies, especially due to immigration from the Indian subcontinent and the Caribbean. The largest of the community languages is Punjabi, with over half a million speakers, but there are also substantial communities of Gujarati speakers, as many as a third of a million, and up to a hundred thousand Bengali speakers.

 006

Within the British West Indian community, Jamaican English, or the patois – as it is known – has had a special place as a token of identity. While there were complicated social pressures that frowned on Jamaican English in Jamaica, with parents complaining when their children talk local too much, in England it became almost obligatory to do so in London. One Jamaican schoolgirl who made the final passage to the Empire’s capital city with her parents in the seventies put it like this:

It’s rather weird ’cos when I was in Jamaica I wasn’t really allowed to speak it (Jamaican creole) in front of my parents. I found it difficult in Britain at first. When I went to school I wanted to be like the others in order not to stand out. So I tried speaking the patois as well… You get sort of a mixed reception. Some people say, ’You sound really nice, quite different.’ Other people say, ’You’re a foreigner, speak English. Don’t try to be like us, ’cos you’re not like us.’

 011

Despite the mixed reception from her British West Indian friends, she persevered with the patois, and, as she put it after a year I lost my British accent, and was accepted. However, for many Caribbean visitors to Britain, the patois of Brixton and Notting Hill was a stylised form that was not, as they saw it, truly Jamaican, not least because British West Indians came from all parts of the Caribbean. Another West Indian schoolgirl, born in London and visiting Jamaica for the fist time, was teased for her patois. She was told that she didn’t sound right and that. The experience convinced her that…

in London the Jamaicans have developed their own language in patois, sort of. ’Cos they make up their own words in London, in, like, Brixton. And then it just develops into patois as well.


Researchers found that there were already white children in predominantly black schools who had begun using the British West Indian patois in order to be accepted by the majority of their friends, who were black:

I was born in Brixton and I’ve been living here for seventeen years, and so I just picked it up from hanging around with my friends who are mainly Black people. And so I can relate to them by using it, because otherwise I’d feel an outcast… But when I’m with someone else who I don’t know I try to speak as fluent English as possible. It’s like I feel embarrassed about it (the patois), I feel like I’m degrading myself by using it.

 

The unconscious racism of such comments pointed to the predicament of the Black Britons. Not fully accepted, for all their rhetoric, by the established native population, they felt neither fully Caribbean nor fully British. This was the poignant outcome of what the British Black writer Caryl Phillips called The Final Passage. Phillips, who came to Britain as a baby in the late 1950s, was one of the first of his generation to grapple with the problem of finding a means of literary self-expression that was true to his experience:

The paradox of my situation is that where most immigrants have to learn a new language, Caribbean immigrants have to learn a new form of the same language. It induces linguistic schizophrenia – you have an identity crisis that mirrors the larger cultural confusion.

 

In his novel, The Final Passage, the narrative is in Standard English. But the speech of the characters is a rendering of nation language:

I don’t care what anyone tell you, going to England be good for it going to raise your mind. For a West Indian boy you just being there is an education, for you going see what England do for sheself… It’s a college for the West Indian.

 

The lesson of this college is, as Phillips puts it, that symptomatic of the colonial situation, the language has been divided as well. In the British Black community, and in the English-speaking islands of the Caribbean, English – creole or standard – was the only available language.

 020

The story of 1970s Britain, whether viewed from an economic, social or cultural perspective can be summed up by one word, albeit a long one – deindustrialisation. By 1977, if not before, its role as the world’s first and leading industrial nation was finally over, just as its time as an imperial power had effectively ended fifteen years earlier, as Dean Acheson had commented. It was another question as to whether the British people and politicians were prepared to accept these salient facts and move on. Employment in manufacturing reached a peak of nine million in 1966. It thereafter fell rapidly, reaching four million by 1994. Much of this loss was sustained in the older industries of Northwest England, but the bulk of it was spread across the newer industrial areas of the Midlands and Southeast (see map). As with the processes of industrialisation two centuries before, Britain led the way in what was to become a common experience of all the mature industrial nations. The so-called maturity thesis suggested that, as industry developed and became more technologically sophisticated, it required less labour. At the same time, rising living standards meant that more wealth was available, beyond what would normally be spent on basic necessities and consumer goods, giving rise to a growing demand for services such as travel, tourism and entertainment. By 1976, services had become the largest area of employment in all the regions of Britain.

Another problem faced by the manufacturing sector was the long-standing British taste for imported goods. Many observers noted that not only was the country failing to compete internationally, but British industry was also losing its cutting edge when competing with foreign imports in the domestic market. The problem of deindustrialisation therefore became entwined with the debate over Britain’s long decline as a trading nation, going back over a century. It was seen not only as an economic decline, but as a national failure, ownership of which in speeches and election propaganda, even in education, struck deep within the collective British cultural psyche.

There were three periods of severe recession, but here we are only concerned with the first of these, from 1973-75. British industry’s share of world trade fell dramatically during these years, and by 1975 it was only half what it had been in the 1950s, to just ten per cent. Nor could it maintain its hold on the domestic market. A particularly extreme example of this was the car industry: in 1965, with Austin minis selling like hot-cakes, only one car in twenty was imported, but by 1978 nearly half were. In addition, many of the staple industries of the nineteenth century, such as coal and shipbuilding, continued to decline as employers, surviving only, if at all, through nationalisation. In addition, many of the new industries of the 1930s, including the car industry, were seemingly in terminal decline by the 1970s, as we have seen in the case of Coventry. Therefore, deindustrialisation was no longer simply a problem of old Britain, it was also one for new England. It was also a problem for East Anglia, because although it was not so dependent on manufacturing, and services were growing, agriculture had also declined considerably (see map).

A great variety of explanations for the decline in British industrial competitiveness were put forward, and have continued to be debated since. None of these explanations has proved wholly satisfactory, however. One explanation suggests that there is a cultural obstacle, that the British have been conditioned to despise industry. This might be a relevant argument to apply for new England, with an industrial heritage going back only two or three generations, and to old England, the traditional rural areas, although even in these areas it would be something of a stereotype, but it would be difficult to apply to old Britain, with its generations of coal miners, shipbuilders, foundry and factory workers. During the depression years of the 1930s many of these workers, finding themselves unemployed, had, like the father of Norman Tebbitt (Margaret Thatcher’s Party Chairman in the late seventies) got on their bikes, or walked long distances, in their hundreds of thousands to find work in the new manufacturing areas. With no jobs to find anywhere in the seventies, these were pretty pointless words of advice. Pointless or not, Tebbitt’s speech was picked up by the popular Tory press and appeared in the banner On Your Bike headlines which have since become so emblematic of the Thatcher era. Unfortunately, the same press used them to put forward a related argument that the British were not sufficiently materialistic to work hard for the rewards associated with improved productivity. Complacency from generations of national success has also been blamed, as has the Welfare State’s cosseting of both the workforce and those out of work.

Alternatively, the government’s failure adequately to support research and development has been blamed, together with the exclusive cultural and educational backgrounds of Westminster politicians, government ministers and civil servants. This exclusivity, it is argued, left them ignorant of, and indifferent to, the needs of industry. Obstructionist trade unions were a favourite target of many, particularly after the coal dispute of 1971-72, which led to a series of power cuts throughout the country and a three-day working week. Management incompetence or short-termism, leading to an abdication of responsibility and the failure to restructure factories and industries, was seen as another cause and this, as seen in the case of Coventry, was an argument which had some local evidence to support it, although unions were sometimes equally short-sighted in some instances.

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Britain’s falling competitiveness was making it difficult, throughout most of the seventies, for governments to maintain high employment by intervening in the economy. Since 1945 successive governments had followed the tenets of the economist J M Keynes, borrowing in order to create jobs if unemployment approached a figure deemed as unacceptable (in the 1970s this was about six hundred thousand). During the decade, this became increasingly difficult to do as Edward Heath’s government (1970-74) struggled to follow such policies in the face of a global recession associated with the tripling of oil prices in 1973, by OPEC (the international cartel of oil producers). This caused immediate recession and fuelled international inflation. Attacks on trade union power were becoming more popular owing to a growing perception that they had become too powerful and disruptive, holding the country to ransom. The Second Wilson Labour administration that followed faced a huge balance-of-payments crisis and the tumbling value of the pound and they soon found themselves under the control of the IMF (International Monetary Fund), which insisted on severe spending cuts. The contraction of manufacturing began to accelerate and inflation was also increasing alarmingly, reaching twenty-four per cent by 1975. It came to be seen as a more urgent problem than unemployment and there was a national and international move to the right and against high-taxing and high-spending governments. Demands were made that they should stop propping up lame duck industries with public money or by taking them, however temporarily, into public ownership.

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Keynes’ argument had been that keeping workers in employment multiplied the effect through the economy as they spent part of their incomes on goods and services was shown to operate in the opposite direction through the effects of rising unemployment. However, the majority of people of working and voting age had no adult memory of their own of the 1930s, and radical politicians were able to exploit these demographics to their advantage to argue the case for monetarism with tight controls on public spending. In these circumstances, voters felt that spending public money on ailing industries was wasteful and inappropriate, especially as it raised their tax burden.

Printed Sources:

Barry Cunliffe, Asa Briggs, et.al. (eds.) (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British and Irish History. London: Penguin Books.

McCrum, Cran & MacNeil, (eds.) (1986), The Story of English. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Michael Clark & Peter Tweed (eds.) (1972), Portraits and Documents: The Twentieth Century. London: Hutchinson.

Safder Alladina & Viv Edwards (eds.) (1991), Multilingualism in the British Isles I: The Older Mother Tongues and Europe. Harlow: Longman.

Bill Lancaster & Tony Mason (eds.) (n.d.), Life and Labour in a Twentieth Century City: The Experience of Coventry. Coventry: Cryfield Press (University of Warwick).

Theo Baker (ed.) (1978) The Long March of Everyman. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Simon Schama (2002), A History of Britain: The Fate of Empire, 1776-2000. London: BBC Worldwide.

Richard Brown & Christopher Daniels (1982), Documents and Debates: Twentieth Century Britain. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

Derek Wilson (1997), A Short History of Suffolk. London: Batsford.

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