War and the end of the BUF 1939-40
The build up to war
By the beginning of 1939 a new war in Europe looked inescapable: Hitler had not been satisfied by the territorial concessions which the appeasers heading the British and French governments had granted him. In the spring of 1939 Fascism gained another victory, when Spain's elected government was finally defeated by General Franco's army. At home re-armament was by now well under way: in the Medway Towns many thousands who had spent most of the 1930s on the dole at last found employment in Chatham Dockyard and at Short Brothers' aircraft works in Rochester. There were, nevertheless, in January 1939 still some 3,140 people registered at the Chatham Employment Exchange as unemployed.
Preparations had begun to be made for the eventuality of bombing raids and the Medway Towns became, reputedly, one of the first areas of the country to establish Air Raid Precautions (ARP). Such measures did not meet with approval in all quarters. W L Williams (by now the local District Leader of the BUF) wrote to the Kent Messenger and Observer in January 1939 to comment upon an ARP Volunteer conference which had been attended by the Mayor of Gillingham. Williams took strong exception to the Mayor's comments that "a crisis was imminent", maintaining that this was only the case if Britain was intent on "meddling in the affairs of other countries". Williams asserted that it was the policy of the "British Union" to, in the words of their favourite pro-appeasement slogan, "Mind Britain's Business". Replying to criticism by Observer readers, he disingenuously denied that his organisation was in any way modeled on the movements of "Herr Hitler and Signor Mussolini". Like the BUF as a whole, Williams sounded increasingly like a gramophone record with the needle stuck, squawking "Mind Britain's Business" as war approached inexorably.
In March 1939 he was at it again, protesting that Gillingham Council's Library Committee had banned the BUF paper Action from Gillingham Library as a "Nazi newspaper": the BUF and Action were "concerned with Britain's business only" and were in no way connected with Germany, pleaded Williams.
Mosley at Gillingham - March 1939
On 15th March 1939 war came yet another step closer, when Hitler tore up the Munich agreement (which had meant "peace in our time" according to Prime Minister Chamberlain) and sent German troops into Prague. Eleven days later, on Sunday 26th March, Oswald Mosley made his last visit to the Medway Towns as leader of the BUF. At Gillingham's Paget Hall he spoke for an hour and a quarter, concentrating (not surprisingly) on the developments in Europe. Predictably he argued that Hitler's grabbing of territory in eastern Europe was no concern of Britain's and that a BUF government would "Mind Britain's Business". Equally predictably he railed against the Jews, and against refugees from the Fascist dictatorships, accusing them of taking jobs from the two million still unemployed.
This was the most low-key of Mosley's visits to the Medway Towns, judging by the local press, according to which there were "no scenes" and "only a few people" demonstrating outside. The Fascists were by this time a pathetic remnant of what they had been. They were discredited, demoralised, and marginalised.
(Nevertheless, it is noteworthy that, even at this low-point in their fortunes, the BUF was still able to maintain two premises in the Medway Towns, namely a District Headquarters at 20 Arden Street, Gillingham, and a bookshop at 48 Luton Road, Chatham, run by one H Dore.)
The Nazi-Soviet Pact and the outbreak of war
The eventual onset of the long awaited war on 1st September 1939 finally set the seal on the BUF's isolation. They quickly came to be reviled and mistrusted as agents of the enemy and a possible "fifth column" in the event of invasion. A belated attempt by the Medway BUF to rekindle local support in February 1940, by holding a meeting with Oswald Mosley as the speaker, failed to get off the ground when Chatham Council refused to allow the Town Hall to be used as a venue.
By an irony of history the former mainstay of the anti-Fascist movement, the Communist Party, found itself in a similar situation to the BUF. In August 1939 Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union had concluded a "non-aggression pact", which involved the partition of Poland between them. (The subsequent occupation by Germany of the western segment of Poland was the event which finally sparked off the war.) Stalin, in signing the pact with Hitler, had reasoned that, since Britain and France would not agree to a "peace front" against Germany (which the Soviet Union had been proposing since the mid-1930s), he would have to reach an accommodation with Germany. (Having a slice of Poland as a "buffer zone" was an added bonus.)
The Communist Party of Great Britain was thrown into confusion by this turn of events, first supporting what it regarded as an "anti-Fascist" war and then (on orders from Moscow) opposing it as an "imperialist" war. In November the Soviet Union invaded Finland, helping to isolate the CP still further.
Thus Communists and Fascists found themselves accused of being in league as agents of the enemy. In the columns of the local press W L Williams bemoaned the fact that as a Fascist he was now "often told that I am not far removed from a Communist". Williams pleaded that Germany was not to blame for the War, and that Russia was "the real enemy of Great Britain and the Empire".
The message that Fascists and Communists were all the same was rammed home at Short Brothers' in February 1940, when staff were addressed by a speaker from the right-wing Economic League. He accused Fascists, Communists, and Pacifists of all "assisting the efforts of the Nazi propaganda machine" and being effectively indistinguishable from one another.
The leading lights of the Economic League had not always been such keen anti-Fascists before the War. The League's Director-General was John Baker White, a Kent land-owner who had been a member of the British Fascists' Grand Council in the 1920s (see Chapter One). While visiting Germany in the 1930s White had been much impressed by Hitler. In his 1937 book Dover-Nuremberg Return White had written of the Fiihrer as follows:
"He looks, speaks and behaves like a national leader, using the word in its highest sense, and he has natural dignity ... He has made promises and fulfilled them. When and where he has failed or made mistakes he has admitted failure. He has had placed in his hands enormous power, and so far he has not misused it nor sought to exploit his position for personal ends ... He is without question a very great man".
The end of the BUF
The final blow for the BUF came in the spring of 1940. The so-called "phoney war" ended with the advent of the Nazi "Blitzkrieg", which brought German troops right up to the French side of the English Channel. As invasion fears grew, the new coalition government which had been formed under Churchill decided to act against Britain's Fascists as potential "fifth columnists".
In late May the Police began rounding up key BUF members under Defence Regulation 18B(1A), which permitted the detention of those who could reasonably be suspected of sympathising with the enemy. On Monday 3rd June the Police in Gillingham arrested District Leader Williams, his brother (living in Arden Street), and another BUF officer named Richardson (from Napier Road). The three men were immediately sent to Walton Gaol in Liverpool. A fourth Fascist was arrested at Borstal, a 29 year-old school teacher named Norman Holloway. Up and down the country around 750 leading BUF members were receiving the same treatment. Some were released to fight in the War, others (such as Mosley) were kept in detention "for the duration". On 10th July 1940 the British Union of Fascists and National Socialists ceased to exist, as the government forcibly dissolved it under a new war-time Defence Regulation (18AA).
The Communist Party and the War
As for the Communist Party, its members were subjected to a degree of harassment and the Party's newspaper, the Daily Worker, was banned in January 1941. The Party did, however, remain a legal organisation, despite calls for tougher action.
On 22nd June 1941 the CP's situation changed abruptly, with the German invasion of the Soviet Union. Overnight the Party switched to supporting what it now once again regarded as an "anti-Fascist" war, becoming eager to prove its patriotic credentials as a loyal supporter of Churchill's government. Party members in industry (such as those at Short Brothers' aircraft works) now sought to maximise war production and avoid strikes or any other kind of industrial strife. The Party's fortunes changed dramatically, as the new super-patriotic policy brought a boom in recruitment that (ironically for a party claiming revolutionary credentials) easily put into the shade anything achieved by the Communists' tireless anti-Fascist campaigning in the 1930s.