British Heroes: Thinking of Those Who Were Truly Great

Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them.  A recent release of documents of actions and beliefs of British citizens during World War II amply illustrates both the achievement by some of greatness and the strong pro-Nazi partisanship, bitterness, and even villainy of others who were born great, at the pinnacle of the elitist British society.

It is a pleasure to recall heroic achievement.  On September18, 2018, a statue was unveiled by Prince William, duke of Cambridge, of Major Frank Foley in the West Midlands city of Stourbridge where he had retired.  This was a tribute to a courageous man, son of a railroad worker, Catholic-educated and deeply religious, a man seriously injured during World War I.  Foley was passport control officer at the British embassy in Berlin, in reality the head of the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) station from where he recruited agents and acquired information about German military research.

After Kristallnacht, Foley risked his own life to save at least 10,000 Jews from death by the Nazis, even going into Nazi internment camps to get Jews out, hiding some in his own home, and getting them forged passports.  He was honored as a British Hero of the Holocaust in 2010, and as a Righteous Gentile by Yad Vashem in Israel in 1999.  Foley is sometimes referred to as the "British Schindler," but Foley saved more Jews than the latter's 1,200.  In the future, it might be more appropriate to refer to Schindler as the "German Foley."

Foley's noble story is told in a new book, Agent Jack by Robert Hutton, which also reveals startling accounts of the more ignoble life of those "born great" in Britain before and during World War II.  It exposes those well placed and wealthy aristocrats who were sympathetic to the Nazi cause, appeasers of Hitler and anti-Semites, and a number of anti-Semitic groups during the 1930s and after, such as the Liberty Restoration League; the Imperial Fascist League, led by Arnold Leese; the Link, led by Admiral Barry Domvile, whose motto was "Perish Judah"; and Patriotic Societies.    

The aristocrats were a shameful, dishonorable group.  The duke of Westminster, probably the wealthiest man in Britain, named his dog "Jew."  The duke of Buccleuch, lord steward of the Royal Household, the largest private landowner in Europe, attended the 50th birthday party of Hitler in April 1939.  The duke of Bedford was an acquaintance of German ambassador Joachim von Ribbentrop.  Lord Tavistock, later duke of Bedford, funded a number of fascist causes.

Coco Chanel, opportunist, sometime friend of Winston Churchill, and intense anti-Semite, was involved with the duke of Westminster (Bendor) for over ten years.  She was also a collaborator with Nazis during World War II.  Starting as a "horizontal collaborator" and the mistress of Baron Hans von Dinklage, she became a Nazi secret agent, codenamed "Westminster," working for General Walter Schellenberg, head of SS intelligence.  Her most ambitious act was to take part in the 1943 operation Modellhut, via the British embassy in Madrid, a plan to get a message to Winston Churchill that a number of important Nazis wanted to break with Hitler and were interested in negotiating a separate peace with Britain.

Chanel, the glamorous designer of haute couture who revolutionized women's fashions with the chic little black dress and pearls, escaped any serious punishment or prosecution after the war.  It is highly likely that had she testified, her evidence would have exposed the sympathies and activities of the British-born elite, senior British officials, Wallis Simpson, and even members of the royal family.

That experienced and shrewd American philosopher, Mae West, informed us in one of her films "to keep a diary and someday it will keep you."  The recently revealed British documents and diaries may not have mercenary value, but they provide important commentary on the great and the good.  One surprising revelation is about Sir William Strang, a leading adviser to the British government for twenty years; permanent undersecretary at the Foreign Office, 1949-53; and opponent of a policy of appeasement.  He was generally respected and honored, and his career was protected, but a 1943 MI5 report has come to light, written by Victor Rothschild, head of MI5's counter-sabotage department.  It reveals that Strang personally hated Jews: "Bolsheviks and the Jews are the two greatest enemies of all that was decent."

The declassified MI5 files indicate the presence of an internal enemy of socially important homegrown fascists prepared to undermine Britain during the war and, even more unfamiliar, the unusual attempt of MI5 to neutralize the men and women who looked kindly on the triumph of the Nazis.  In the interwar years, pro-Nazi forces had emerged, led by the magnetic and charismatic Sir Oswald Mosley, who presented a variety of policy alternatives.

Mosley started his political career as a conservative, then independent, then Labor, before founding the New Party, which became the British Union of Fascists (BUF) in 1932, a group with its black-uniformed paramilitary corps, the Blackshirts.  Mosley and his associates were imprisoned in May 1940 under Defense Regulation 18B, WHICH allowed internment of people suspected of being Nazi sympathizers, but he was released in November 1943 and put under house arrest.

What is important is that British fascism had considerable support among the well born.  George Orwell wrote that English fascism, when it arrives, is likely to be of a "sedate and subtle kind."  Though subversive, in the main, it avoided extremism and political violence. 

In 1934, Mosley founded the elite January Club, a discussion group of prominent individuals.  The Anglo-German Fellowship, 1935-39, formed to foster friendship between the two countries, had important corporate sponsors including Price Waterhouse, Thomas Cook, and Unilever and organized dinners with prominent Germans, including Joachim von Ribbentrop.  The secretive Right Club, formed by the politician Archibald Ramsay in May 1939, of anti-Semitic and fascist sympathies, opposed to war with Germany, had as its main objective "to oppose and expose the activities of organized Jewry."  It held that if there was a war, "it would be entirely due to the Jews and Duff Cooper" (Conservative Party politician, close friend of Churchill, opponent of appeasement, and anti-Nazi).  The club tried to leak sensitive correspondence between Churchill and FDR to discourage U.S. support for Britain.  The chair at the meetings of the Right Club was taken by the fifth duke of Wellington. 

A curious operation has now been revealed.  Because of the number of socially important people with responsible positions who were sympathetic to Hitler and were spreading anti-Semitism, MI5, at the suggestion of Victor Rothschild, wanted to prevent any potential problem.  He thought a useful way to control acts of possible subversives would be to create a fifth column, a fake Gestapo cell.  A unit was led by Eric Roberts, an obscure ex-bank clerk, given a pseudonym as "Jack King," who identified as a Nazi spy.  He made transcripts of conversations with the five hundred Nazi sympathizers he identified, who supplied him with information in the belief that it was going to Berlin.  All the reports went to MI5.  The 500 were all anti-Semites, who listened to German news bulletins, thought the BBC was offering lying propaganda, and even sought opportunities to help the Luftwaffe strike Britain, such as setting fire to Jewish shops in the city of Leeds to help the Luftwaffe find targets.

Eric Roberts remained unknown to the British public, remained silent about his remarkable operation, and retired to Canada after the war.  Born of the sun, he traveled a short while toward the sun and left the vivid air signed with his honor.