Back in the Isle of Man after 74 years

DSCF0798.JPG

from Robin Lustig

It's blowing a gale, and thunderous waves are crashing against the sea wall. I've brought my 95-year-old father to the pretty little town of Peel, on the west coast of the Isle of Man, and the weather is not being kind.

We're standing on Marine Parade, in front of nine Victorian red-brick houses, four storeys high, with magnificent views over the water to the ruins of Peel Castle, parts of which date back to the 11th century. Houses here sell for up to half a million pounds; a two-bedroom penthouse flat is on the market for £200,000.

But we're not here to buy a holiday home. This is where, in 1940, just months after the beginning of the Second World War, my father was interned, behind high barbed wire fences, after having been officially categorised as a "friendly enemy alien". He'd arrived in Britain the previous year, a refugee from Hitler's Germany. And this is the first time, after 74 years, that he's been back.

The summer of 1940 was a scorcher. So much so that my Dad and his fellow internees were occasionally allowed out from behind the barbed wire, down to the beach for a quick dip in the sea. To my father's amusement, soldiers with fixed bayonets stood guard. What were they frightened of? That a prisoner would suddenly make a break for it and start swimming across the Irish Sea to Ireland?

Then, as now, much of Marine Parade was hotels and guest-houses. Their owners had been given seven days' notice to get out -- because with the German army poised menacingly along the coasts of France, Belgium and the Netherlands, Churchill was taking no chances. He worried about the 80,000 Germans and Austrians, refugees or not, who were living in the UK, and issued his famous order: "Collar the lot." (When Italy entered the war in June 1940, another 19,000 Italians were added to the list.)

And so it was, that on 4 July 1940, my father was arrested at the school in Derbyshire where he'd been working as a part-time gardener and cello teacher, and carted off. A few weeks later, he was put on a train to Liverpool and then on a ferry to the Isle of Man. The island had already been used to intern potential enemy aliens during the First World War -- so it had some idea what to expect.

The world of the internees was suddenly restricted to no more than 250 metres of a seafront promenade, each end sealed off with barbed wire and armed guards. As my father and I stand on a corner, looking up a side road that leads away from the sea, he says: "I never knew what was up there before. We couldn't even look round the corner."

But it could have been worse. Unexpectedly, my Dad's cello turned up, having been sent, without his knowledge, by his sister who was living in Cambridge. (He had expressly asked her not to send it on, for fear of it being damaged, but his letter arrived only after she had already dispatched it. The fact that it survived intact -- and that he plays it to this day -- is one of the many minor miracles of our family saga.)

There were several musicians living behind the wire in Peel, and soon a scratch orchestra had been put together. It was agreed that their morale-boosting concerts for fellow-internees were likely to be of greater benefit than any other chores they might have been set, and for the rest of his time on the island, my father's time was spent rehearsing and performing.

Now, he says, it feels extremely strange to be back. We sit on a bench on the promenade, buffeted by the wind and spray, and after a while, he says the longer he looks at those imposing Victorian villas behind us, the more familiar they become.

On the way back to the airport, we stop off at the Manx Museum in Douglas, where they have an invaluable archive of material relating to the internment of aliens in both world wars. We look at files of government orders, specifying exactly how much food each internee should receive (even what contingency plans should be made if not enough kosher meat was available) and how many blankets they must be allocated.

But what they can't tell us is exactly how many people -- men, women and children -- spent time on the island behind barbed wire. The records are far from complete, especially from Peveril Camp, where my father was held. After he was freed, the camp was used to house British Fascists, Mosleyites, and IRA suspects -- perhaps because their records were considered ultra-sensitive, they were destroyed, along with those from my Dad's time.

So how did he get out? Simple: he enlisted in the British army -- and eventually was marched away from the barbed wire, taken to Douglas to board the ferry back to the mainland, and told that the moment he set foot on the ship, he would be regarded as a member of the British armed forces.

One small step for an internee -- from His Majesty's prisoner, to His Majesty's soldier.

(There are some pictures from our visit to Peel here.)

Recent Posts
Archive