Regardless of the 2015 publishing date given, this book is currently (last checked December 2018) just available in hardback, and must have been withheld due to the ongoing release of new official documents, as these terminated only in 2017.
‘Hitler’s British Traitors’ covers a subject that was largely considered either taboo or dismissed with contempt until recently, namely the idea that if Nazi Germany had managed to invade Britain, particularly when they had a potential capability to do so in 1940-41, that they would have found a substantial cadre of collaborators on a level with Quisling Norway or Vichy France; one that was not only relatively numerous but also in many cases very highly placed in the nation’s establishment circles, being both ready and eager to do Hitler’s bidding.
Tim Tate provides us with this history, using as he has done Whitehall and MI5 records dating from the 1930s and 40s – the majority of which were subject to an inexplicable delay in their release, both after the ’50 year rule’ was reduced to 30 in 1967, and even after the Freedom of Information Act in 2000. Many documents are sadly lost to us, partly thanks to a bombing fire that consumed many of MI5’s records at the time, but others were weeded out and destroyed at a later date, probably due to ‘concerns over national security’ (all MI5 files on known Nazi-sympathising members of the British Royal Family for example had been removed). Still others may yet be withheld, so this research that Tate has embarked upon is not necessarily over.
Tate begins his tale by acknowledging that he is touching on a highly sensitive issue, one which certain quarters may find offensive, undermining as it does the belief of ‘in 1940 we (“we?”) stood alone’, and ‘everyone from all social classes joined together to fight Hitler’, tropes long embedded into the national mythology of the UK.
However, the records now released and analysed by Tate tell a tale of not only a network of thousands of wannabe Nazi accomplices and willing spies and how blatant they often were about their sympathies, but also the near-incredible levels of ineptness and bureaucratic infighting that dogged the British authorities’ attempts to deal with the menace. Not to mention, of course, the marked reluctance to out ‘known traitors’ due to their connections within the highest ranks of the national establishment.
The spy-end of the story begins in 1937, when the chance exposure of a Scots-German agent revealed an already deeply-penetrated network run by the German equivalent of MI6 – the Abwehr – that spanned not only from Europe to Britain but even right across the Atlantic to the United States. The Official Secrets Acts of 1911 and 1920 were found to be unfit for the purpose of prosecuting the spy in question, and in addition the British domestic security organisation (MI5) was operating under a near-zero level of funding and a skeleton staff of no more than a dozen.
Tate shows that this wake-up call went largely unheeded, and up until late 1940 the Abwehr was able to operate across Britain with relative ease, despite the seriousness of the international situation by then. Interestingly, one of the main cover agencies for the Abwehr‘s spies was the electronics corporation Siemens, which was even then well established in Britain with many offices and factories.
On the propaganda front the German Nazis had already made big inroads into British establishment circles, linking up not only with sympathetic political organisations like the British Union of Fascists (BUF), but also with the aristocracy that traditionally dominated key positions of power and influence within the British Empire. In 1936, Mr Tate reveals that Ribbentrop, the then German ambassador to the UK, helped to fund extravagant balls in both the German embassy and the stately homes of Britain’s elite, where SS officers in full uniform danced with society ladies ‘in honour’ of the Nazi regime.
A list of prominent UK Nazis, virulent anti-Semites and Axis spies is examined in turn, most of whom were able to, quite incredibly, ride out the war with minimal or no impact on their liberty or social standing, even while they were openly assisting the enemy. These included the Duke of Buccleuch, Captain George Drummond (horse-riding trainer of Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret), Admiral Sir Barry Domville, George Lane Pitt-Rivers (cousin by marriage to Winston Churchill), Major-General J.F.C. Fuller (staff officer and tank warfare expert), Lord Tavistock (the 4th richest man in Britain) and Archibald Maule Ramsay (Scottish Borders Tory MP who kept his seat and salary for the whole war, even while detained for helping to plot a pro-Nazi coup), on to the truly astounding story of William Francis Forbes-Sempill, a former WW1 flying ace, known fascist and repeat-offender Japanese spy since the 1920s who nevertheless held onto a sensitive job in the Air Ministry for the duration of the war.
Revealingly, Tate contrasts the fate of these well-connected and highly privileged fascist collaborators with that of the most working class elements who were sucked into committing treachery – drifters and petty-criminals, most of whom received long sentences of hard labour with four condemned to death (of which, two sentences were passed). In between these two extremes were a large number of middle class fascist operators. These were either interned (eg. Moseley and orchestra conductor Vaughan-Williams) or diverted into and effectively neutralised for the duration of the war by a remarkable MI5 false-flag ‘undercover Gestapo cell’ operation that ran from 1942-45.
It is spy-catcher operations such as the latter that the book spends a large amount of its time describing, which at times I found confusing and laborious, but I suspect that this emphasis might be less the one the author would have chosen if left to his own devices and more a consequence of the ‘demands of the history book market’. This is unfortunate, because as a reader I was less enthralled by the clandestine shadow-play of secret agents and traitors – and more interested in how, had history and the twists of fate taken a different course, the deep-ingrained reactionary inclinations of the British ruling class (usually well-camouflaged under mainstream national propaganda) would have reached its ultimate extent in collaboration with, or as part of, the Third Reich.
Reviewed by Kevin Boylan, Feb 2018