Defence Regulation 18B was perhaps the most infamous of the Defence Regulations adopted by the British government during World War II. It originally enabled the Home Secretary to detain any person he believed to be "of hostile origin or associations", and anyone "recently concerned in acts prejudicial to the public safety or the defence of the realm or in the propagation or instigation of such acts". It arose as a result of the Emergency Powers (Defence) Act 1939 which was passed on the 24th August 1939 shortly before the outbreak of the war. As the Act's long title stated this was an "Act to confer on His Majesty certain powers which it is expedient that His Majesty should be enabled to exercise in the present emergency; and to make further provision for purposes connected with the defence of the realm." Which is to say that it was purely an enabling act which permitted the government to make whatever regulations it believed were necessary or expedient in the circumstances by means of an Order in Council.
Although the Home Secretary now had the power to order the detention of named individuals initially only a handful of people were so detained, and there was some opposition to even this modest use of the government's power of detention from the more radical elements of the Labour Party such as Aneurin Bevan. It took a particular set of circumstances to persuade the government to make any extensive use of Regulation 18B.
What happened was that, following the conclusion of the Norway Debate of the 8th and 9th May 1940, Winston Churchill became Prime Minister on the 10th May 1940, on the same day as Germany invaded both Belgium and the Netherlands. Many soon came to believe that the rapid advance of German forces in western Europe over the following days could be explained by the presence of a 'fifth column' of pro-Nazi sympathisers who were working on behalf of the invaders. This naturally gave rise to fears that a similar fifth column was operating in Britain and such fears were soon to be given some credence by the emergence of the Kent-Wolkoff affair.
The Kent-Wolkoff affair involved the discovery that one Tyler Kent, a clerk at the American Embassy, had been making copies of various classified documents including copies of the correspondence between Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. These copies were later seen by an Anna Wolkoff who had passed on the information to the Duco del Monte, who was the Assistant Naval Attaché at the Italian Embassy, who had then passed it onto the Abwehr (that is, German military intelligence). What particularly interested the British authorities was that Anna Wolkoff was an associate of the Right Club, a group of distinctly pro-Nazi anti-Semites organised by one Andrew Maule Ramsay the Conservative Member of Parliament for Peebles. When Special Branch subsequently raided Kent's flat on the 20th May 1940 they discovered a total of 1,929 classified documents together with a copy of what became known as 'Ramsay's Red Book', a coded membership list for the Right Club.
It was this suggestion that there might be some kind of organised pro-Nazi movement within Britain that appears to have persuaded the government to take action, and on the 22nd May 1940 the Cabinet met and agreed to adopt an amended version of Regulation 18B which permitted the detention of anyone involved in activities regarded as "prejudicial to the public safety, the defence of the realm, the maintenance of public order, the efficient prosecution of any war in which His Majesty may be engaged, or the maintenance of supplies or services essential to the life of the community". Which was of course sufficiently broad to allow the government to detain anyone it so desired.
On the 23rd May 1940 there were a series of mass arrests across the country of those deemed to be at least potentially a threat to the war effort, celeberated by the headline 'Britain Swoops on Fascists' in the Daily Mirror of the following day. Those arrested included most of the identifiable members of the Right Club including Andrew Maule Ramsay, whilst there was a wholesale round up of the far more numerous members of the British Union of Fascists. This was followed by another wave of arrests on the 10th June 1940 when Italy declared war against Britain. In total 1,769 individuals were arrested and detained of whom a total of 763 were members of the British Union of Fascists. It is however worth noting that Regulation 18B was not only used against members of a organised fascist groups, but was also used against some Irish Republicans such as Cahir Healy, any individual who was regarded as being fascist sympathisers such as the author Henry Williamson and future businessman Tiny Rowland, or indeed any British national who was of German, Austrian or Italian origin and whose loyalty was therefore regarded as suspect.
Here we can refer to the case of Ettore Emanuelli, who despite being born in South Wales and thus a British citizen, was clearly of Italian parentage and thus 'suspect'. He was arrested on the 10th June 1940 and initially spent seven weeks at Walton Prison before being moved to Ascot where the winter quarters camp for the Bertram Mills Circus had been converted into a detention centre. After another ten weeks he was moved to York where an internment camp had been constructed from the main grandstand and administration buildings of the local racecourse. Sixteen weeks at York Racecourse was followed by another two months at a half completed council housing estate at Huyton, before he was shipped across to the Isle of Man in May 1941. There he remained until April in the following year when he was taken to Brixton Prison and held there until his final release on the 14th August 1942.
This as it turned out, was a fairly common experience, as most of the detainees eventually ended up in the Isle of Man, and something over 1,100 of those detained were eventually released over the next two years, as the government's 'Advisory Committee', set up by to consider appeals against internment, gradually worked its way through the numbers. (Somewhat ironically one of the members of this Advisory Committee was a certain Anthony Blunt, who was arguably far more of a traitor than most of those that he was called to pass judgement upon.) Indeed most of those interned under Regulation 18B, including members of the British Union of Fascists were gradually released over time, and even Oswald Mosley was eventually allowed free in 1943 by the Home Secretary Herbert Morrison, much to the annoyance of some on the political left.
It is also important to note that Defence Regulation 18B used by the British government to legalise the rounding up its own citizens, it needed no such justification to arrest foreign nationals (a matter of crown prerogative apparently) and the events of May 1940 similarly triggered off a round up all those of German and Austrian, and later Italian nationality. Between May and July 1940 some 22,000 of these 'enemy aliens' were similarly detained, most of those were of course largely refugees from the Nazi regime.
There remained the question as to what extent the government was legally justified in locking up its own citizens for what they might have done, rather than for what they had already done. The leading case as far as Defence Regulation 18B was concerned was that of Liversidge v Anderson (1942). This involved the case of Robert Liversidge a Jewish businessman, who found himself interned and later decided to sue for damages alleging false imprisonment. (The Anderson in question was the Home Secretary John Anderson, who also gave his name to the Anderson Shelter.) This case went as far as the House of Lords, where by a majority of four to one it was decided that it was sufficient that the Home Secretary believed that he had sufficient cause to detain someone, and that this belief was not subject to any test of reasonableness. Althose this would appear to confirm the legality of Defence Regulation 18B, many lawyers regard this case as 'bad law' and note that it any case it is not compatible with Human Rights which are now incorporated into English law, which wasn't the case back in the 1940s.
Attitudes towards the use of Defence Regulation 18B during the war continue to be polarised betweeb those who regard it as "the gravest invasion of civil liberty which has occurred in Britain this century", and those who regard it as a perfectly reasonable if regrettable response to a national emergency (that is the imminent threat of invasion by a foreign power). This debate continues to have some resonance to the present day, if only because the British government now regards itself as engaged in a War on Terror and the question remains as to what extent it can lock up its own citizens simply because it believes that they might pose a threat to public order.
According to Hansard of the 25th February 2002, the official Home Office internal history of Regulation 18B written by one C D Carew-Robinson, although this has never been published. It is however publically available for inspection, as are the two hundred and fifty one records relating to the history and operation of Regulation 18B which are presevered at the Public Record Office in Kew. However most of the records regarding the 1,769 detainees have long since been destroyed as being "of no historical interest".
As recently as the 2nd March 2007 MI5 finally released "three weeded files" containing "policy discussions on the appeals by British fascists against detention under Defence Regulation 18B", which apparently reveals the fact that the Security Service at the time felt that it was too easy for detainees to secure their release.
- A.J.P. Taylor, English History 1914-1945 (Oxford University Press, 1990)
- The Right Club
- The Defence Regulation 18B British Union Detainees List
Compiled by the Friends of Oswald Mosley (F.O.M.) March 2006 from
- Ettore Emanuelli, My Years in Internment Camps: At York and on the Isle of Man
- Johan Steyn, Guantanamo Bay: The legal black hole
Twenty-Seventh F.A. Mann Lecture: 25 November 2003
- British War Economy/Chapter III
- 2 March 2007 releases: Miscellaneous policy files