Dunkirk Backstory: Jewish Traitors, Communist Spies, and the Internment of Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts

The success of Christopher Nolan’s powerful film Dunkirk shows there is still an insatiable appetite amongst the British public for stories about World War II.  This is partly fueled by the gradual opening of wartime archives which has led to a seemingly never-ending stream of titles about wartime espionage. But there are some fascinating stories which mysteriously no-one wants to pursue.

One such was revealed by Christopher Andrew, the official historian of Britain’s security service MI5, in 2009, when he said in his magisterial history, that at the end of the war there was a ban on the service recruiting any more Jews to its ranks because of fears they would be disloyal. This informal ban stood for thirty years. It was a startling revelation, but produced little further comment.

That Jews have a special talent for international espionage is hardly news. Their role as a diaspora population coupled with their insistence that they be recognized as full citizens of whatever territory they happen to be occupying gives them unique advantage. But it is a quality that can be a two-edged sword for the host population.

For a good example we need to travel back in time to 1942 to a sprawling Regency house in Oxford’s Woodstock Road where a puzzled policeman is staring high up at a radio transmitter cable that has been slung between the big house and an adjacent former coachman’s cottage. It strikes the policeman as unusual in wartime when there was a strict ban on private radio transmitters. He reported this to MI5 and added that ‘you might think this worthy of further inquiry.’ The file shows that someone in MI5 has marked the paragraph of special interest. Yet no further action was taken.

It’s understandable why the police would want to tread carefully, as that Regency house was occupied by a very important person in British public life. For the previous six years Neville Laski QC had been President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews. In this role he had been much concerned with gaining admission to Britain for thousands of German Jewish refugees and was enthusiastically assisted by his wife Sissie, the daughter of a rabbi and the sister of a prominent member of the Communist Party. It was probably at a temporary refugee shelter in London that Sissie met Ursula and Len Beurton and it might have been out of sympathy for this intelligent young family’s predicament that the Laskis’ offered them the cottage at a low rent.

But Ursula Beurton was very far from being just another poor refugee. Her real name was Ursula Ruth Kuczynski and she had been born in Berlin into a well-off Jewish family of academics of pronounced left-wing sympathies. She had joined the Communist Party in the early thirties, been trained as a radio wireless operator in Moscow and then criss-crossed Europe for the party under the codename of ‘Sonya’. In 1938 she returned to Moscow to be secretly awarded the Order of the Red Banner, promoted to colonel and then sent to Britain to pose as a refugee.

In this capacity ‘Sonya’, whose first marriage was over, had been ordered to marry an English party member called Len Beurton to obtain a British passport. The wedding took place in Switzerland on 23 February 1940 on the anniversary of the founding of the Red Army.

In London she was assisted by another Soviet spy, her brother Jurgen Kuczynski, and through him she met the source who would give her the secrets she was to transmit to Moscow. German atomic physicist Klaus Fuchs was not Jewish but had been a Communist Party member since 1932. He openly admitted this when MI5 had briefly detained him as a potential enemy, but strangely he was not only allowed to work on atomic fission but given a British passport which allowed him to move freely about the country. This proved useful for his regular clandestine meetings with his controller Sonya from 1942 in the Oxfordshire countryside. Afterwards she would cycle back to the cottage with his blueprints and files in the front basket and laboriously convert the document contents, letter by letter, into code. Then, having rechecked it, she began to tap out her signal in Morse.

Klaus Fuchs was the most damaging of traitors and was to betray many of the secrets of not just the British atomic bomb project but also the Manhattan project that he would join later. It was because of him and others that the Soviet Union was in possession of an atomic weapon in the late forties. He was a central figure in the conspiracy that led Julius and Ethel Rosenberg to the gas chambers.

Which leads us to the question of whether the President of the Board of Jewish Deputies knew he was harbouring a Soviet agent at the bottom of his garden in Oxford?  To many it must have seemed unlikely. Neville Laski QC was a man of pronounced conservative leanings and in any case he had been absorbed in an entirely separate struggle — the round-up and incarceration in detention camps of nationalist opponents of the war with Germany. In his role as President of the Board, Laski had pushed hard behind the scenes for the forced internment of around a thousand British nationalist political dissidents. In May, 1940 Laski finally had the satisfaction of seeing his goal reached.

This was duly carried out by Winston Churchill when he became Prime Minister in May, 1940. Defence Regulation 18B allowed the government to intern those whom the government “had cause to believe were capable of prejudicial acts.” Most of the domestic internees were nationalists and former members of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists (BUF) who arrested on what one author has called “trumped up charges.”

According to Richard Thurlow, author of Fascism in Britain:

The de-facto suspension of Habeus Corpus with regard to interned fascists represented one of the darkest pages in Britain’s liberal traditions. Unlike the IRA in the 1940s and 1970s the vast majority of interned fascists were British patriots not engaged in terrorist or subversive activities. … No evidence was ever produced at any stage to show that the BUF or any other fascist group had ever sanctioned illegal behaviour.

While most detainees were arrested at their homes, a sizeable number were on active duty and were either detained while on parade, on naval vessels or after returning from bombing raids. Two civilian sailors and former BUF members were arrested immediately after returning from Dunkirk after taking hundreds of British soldiers off the beach and onto Royal Navy vessels offshore.

The round-up was especially galling because Oswald Mosley set great store in being seen to obey the law at all times and exhorted his followers to do likewise. In all branches of the services men who had bitterly opposed the war, set their beliefs aside to carry out their patriotic duty as they saw it.

Two “Blackshirt” units served with great distinction in the defence of Dunkirk. In a rearguard action at Calais the First Battalion of the Rifle Brigade was all but wiped out while the First Battalion of the Queen Victoria’s Rifles suffered heavy losses. Despite the arrests, many loyal former “Blackshirts” men continued to serve in the armed forces. These included “Dambuster” Dennis Lucan, DFM, who was killed in action in 1944 but who had defended Mosley when he was attacked by communists at a rally in Leeds. One BUF member who was interned was Jeffrey Hamm who wrote of his dead comrades: “In sacrificing their lives for their country they had given the most convincing answer to those who had smeared them as ‘traitors’ and ‘fifth columnists.’” But it was all to no avail and these men and women were conveyed to detention camps on the Isle of Man. Oswald Mosley and his wife were kept in prison in London.

At the time many blamed Churchill for an act of vindictive spite against those who before the war had so publicly mocked him as the puppet of wealthy Jewish interests. But now thanks to the gradual opening of wartime archives we can see that there was indeed a “hidden hand” and it was provided by the Board of Deputies of British Jews in the shape of the indefatigable Neville Laski who hounded the Home Office for years on end to clamp down on Mosley. More importantly, it is now apparent that it was through the Board of Deputies’ own network of informants that the Home Office were supplied with the identities and home addresses of many BUF members on the list.

The Defence Regulation 18b files are still so sensitive that many remain sealed or heavily redacted nearly eighty years later. But in recent years a slightly clearer picture of what happened has emerged through the work of approved authors who have been granted access to the Board archives. They reveal that the association between MI5 and the Board grew so close that the overstretched security service seems to have relied on informants paid for by the Board’s extremely deep coffers. The Board seems to have been able to add information to MI5’s central registry — its main database! This follows an identifiable pattern in which Jewish advocacy organizations insinuate themselves into the innermost counsels of law enforcement and government security organisations.

All this is still a sensitive issue because it happened during a war in which Britain was said to be fighting for freedom. It also tends to undermine the charge that nationalists were suffering from “paranoid fantasies” about a Jewish hidden hand manipulating events behind the scenes.  Far from paranoid, they seem to provide substance for much of what was claimed.

The Board as the upstanding, respectable face of Anglo-Jewry was keen to distance itself from anything questionable, and as a result, from 1936 its covert activities were discreetly channelled through a group called the Co-ordinating Committee run from the Board itself but including many prominent members of the Jewish community. Its activities were conducted in great secrecy but a business associate of Winston Churchill’s called Robert Waley Cohen persuaded his fellow businessmen to pledge vast sums of money to pay for an army of informants, private detectives, forensic accountants and lawyers to take down the BUF.

This campaign of the organized Jewish community was ultimately the reason why so many law-abiding patriotic people ended up in internment.  There was no lack of intelligence expertise among the Jews on the Co-ordinating Committee because the membership included, at various times, Lord Bearsted who was an officer in the British foreign intelligence service MI6 and also Lord Rothschild who worked in counter-espionage for MI5. But if these two men were serious about uncovering domestic subversion, then then they needed to look no further than down the table, for their fellow committee members included two men with very worrying associations.

Take businessman and Co-ordinating Committee member Oscar Deutsch. He owned the massive 250-venue Odeon cinema chain. He regularly spent Friday Shabbat with his cousin, Arnold Deutsch, who was an Austrian psychologist and refugee. Arnold Deutsch posed as an observant Jew like his cousin Oscar but it was a particularly inappropriate disguise. In Vienna he had been an associate of the pioneering ‘sexologist’ Wilhelm Reich and had helped set up Reich’s ‘sex-pol’ movement by which sexual enlightenment would be brought to the workers. Both Reich and Arnold Deutsch were committed members of the Communist Party.

In Britain Arnold Deutsch was the Soviet Union’s main spy controller and pioneered the technique of recruiting idealistic students while at university in Cambridge. Eventually he would have a stable of 20 agents including the Cambridge spies Kim Philby and Guy Burgess, all deeply embedded inside the upper reaches of the British establishment. Arnold Deutsch just happened to live in the same block as his fellow communist spy controller Jurgen Kuczynski.

Then there was another Co-ordinating Committee member, West End furrier Cyril Ross, who was to be himself placed under surveillance for recruiting and fundraising for the Irgun, the Jewish terrorist organisation, which was just beginning the murderous campaign in Palestine which was to take the lives of more than 700 British soldiers, police and crown servants.

Suspicions about the loyalty of Victor Rothschild himself have never gone away especially as he was so personally close to the individuals in the Cambridge spy ring and helped so many of them in their careers.  As an officer tasked with tracking down enemy spies he could have thrown light on why MI5 allowed so many suspected communist spies to travel about without interference.  Perhaps he could also have explained, if he had been asked, why an illegal transmitter attached to Neville Laski’s house was not investigated further.

There are times, when reading old diaries, that the astonishing naïveté just leaps out. In one diary entry a very senior MI5 officer is wondering how to analyse intercepted radio code traffic from Palestine where Jewish terrorist groups like the Irgun seemed to be preparing for a war against the British Mandate authorities.  He decided it should be shown to two Jewish colleagues: “I also said that I could not see that there would be any harm in either Victor Rothschild or Herbert Hart seeing the message. …They had been of considerable assistance (on) … Zionist matters. Rothschild was violently anti-Zionist and as far as I knew Hart is too.” What could possibly go wrong? Didn’t anyone in MI5 know that the Rothschilds had bankrolled the early Jewish settlements in Palestine and had a deep commitment there?

Much ink has been spilled on whether Rothschild was or was not a communist spy but one suggestion came from traitor Kim Philby himself in an interview with journalist Philip Knightley in Moscow. Philby believed that leaving MI5 in 1947, Rothschild had seized or copied all the six-by-four file- cards listing Soviet agents in Europe and elsewhere. These, Philby believed, were used by Mossad, the security service of the fledgling state of Israel, whose cause Rothschild’s family had championed from the nineteenth century. While anything emanating from England’s greatest traitor has to be handled cautiously it is hard to see why he would reveal this if he did not think it was true.

The Cambridge spies famously fled to Moscow after the war but the biggest scandal was not to emerge until many decades later. That they were the tip of an iceberg of many Soviet spies who were eventually unmasked but never prosecuted to avoid both public scandal and upsetting the Americans. These include  ‘Sonya’ – Ursula Kaczynski and her brother Jurgen who were allowed to slip out of the country and return to East Berlin where to this day there is a square named after Jurgen Kuczynski.

The Fuchs episode in Britain was mirrored in the USA.  When the communist spy ring which had penetrated the Manhattan Project was unmasked, only one of the dozen or so spies wasn’t a Jew. Strangely none of the detailed commentary on this episode remarks on this striking ethnic pattern. While Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were sent to the gas chamber, other plotters such as Theodore Hall were allowed to quietly flee the country.

You do have to ask yourself how anyone managed to miss the unmistakeable ethnic contours of what was going on, but MI5’s thirty year ban on Jews implies that not everyone was complacent.  And did the President of the Board of Deputies harbour deadly Soviet spies while conspiring to have lawful British patriots thrown in detention? You don’t need to guess why no-one will be dramatizing that story in the near future.

Internment effectively destroyed nationalism in Britain and made life very difficult for the DR 18b detainees on their release. The Daily Worker newspaper and trade unionists made it their business to ensure that former DR 18b detainees would not be able to resume their employment by threatening walk-outs and strikes. It did not matter that none had been convicted of any crime, the slightest smell of ‘treason’ in post-war Britain was enough. Ironically many of those who organised this boycott of patriotic Englishmen were themselves, at the very least, communist fellow travellers who took their line from Moscow.

One of the most unforgiving of these was Neville Laski’s brother, the Marxist intellectual Harold Laski, who was also a leading light of the National Council for Civil Liberties which campaigned strongly to keep the DR 18b internees behind bars.  Harold Laski seems to have been an exemplar of many on the Jewish left who combined Marxist internationalism with a strong Jewish identity and a commitment to Zionism—essentially two different different ways of pursuing Jewish interests, one for the Diaspora and one for Israel.  He became chairman of the Labour Party in 1945 but was also an unrepentant admirer of Stalin.  Despite being on the left he described himself as a “Zionist at heart” and felt himself part of the Jewish nation.

There are worries about his associations too.  At the London School of Economics he was a charismatic speaker.  Some students who fell under his spell were later approached to become Soviet spies and at least one did so. Was Harold Laski a talent-spotter for the Soviets like his friend Jurgen Kuczynski?

To read the diaries and files from this period is like entering a hall of mirrors where the MI5 agents, Russian spies, Zionists, Marxist intellectuals and Jewish activists lived and worked so closely together it is hard to tell one from the other. In the end it is hard not to conclude that for MI5 all the equipment, the invisible ink, miniature cameras and the dead letterbox training, was all in vain.  The one piece of kit they needed to penetrate the fog of confusion was a copy of The Culture of Critique by Kevin MacDonald.  If they had read that, then much of what lay underneath the game of masks would have revealed itself. And they would have learned that at the end of the day blood will out, whatever mask it is wearing.

C Andrew, Defence of the Realm: The authorised history of MI5 (London Allen Lane 2009)

R Thurlow,  Fascism in Britain: From Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts to the National Front ( London Tauris 1998)

D Tilles British Fascist Anti-semitism and Jewish Responses  1932 – 1940  (Bloomsbury Academic 2014)

J Hamm, Mosley’s Blackshirts, (Black House Publishing  2017)

R Skidelsky,  Oswald Mosley,   (MacMillan 1975)

N West, The Guy Liddell Diaries, Vol 1 and 2 (Routledge  2005)

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