From May 1940 British officials started interviewing foreign nationals or refugees arriving at British ports. The interviews were to ensure the refugee was not lying and therefore not a German spy. This arrangement was soon recognised as inadequate, and from November 1940 a more stringent process for verifying identities was put in place. The Royal Patriotic School (RPS), set up in a former Victorian asylum and First World War hospital in Wandsworth, started receiving alien refugees in January 1941.
The statements of these interviews are held at The National Archives in the series WO 208/3663-3748. Arranged by date, they record an individual’s name, and generally include date and place of birth, occupation and dates and locations of their travel to the UK.
Originally the records were maintained by the Home Office, using a reference of ‘AB’ (apparently the initials of the interviewer). M.I.9a then took over responsibility, with interviews still being undertaken at the point of entry by the Home Office. The interrogation number is the original Home Office number. If they were deemed worthy of further information they were then sent to the Royal Patriotic School.
The interviews were given an M.I.9a reference. M.I.9a later became M.I.19, an intelligence section of its own accord.
Our volunteers have now catalogued the records, with approximately 4,000 refugees or civilians searchable by name, dates, occupation and places mentioned 1. The records also include where maps, plans or photographs are included.
These records show the age and occupation of people entering the UK during the war. They don’t only include civilians, as interviews were conducted with deserters from the German army, Belgian and French air force and army officers, and merchant seaman. The ages range from 80 year olds to school children.
The records include maps and plans of various cities, towns, harbours and coasts around Europe, as well as sketched or traced maps of towns and coasts and drawings of items from boats, tanks, and German insignia. There are a number of reports of where large groups of refugees arrived. In 1941 HMS Castle Durham picked up a large number of refugees. Group interviews also include merchant seaman, fisherman, and groups arriving on small boats.
A large proportion of the interviews are of refugees arriving from Norway, travelling via Sweden or by boat directly to the UK. There are interviews with Norwegians brought back following the commando attack on Lofoten Island on 4 March 1941.
The cataloguing has also identified people escaping from the Channel Islands after the invasion and refugees who arrived in the UK via such places as Shanghai, New York and Brazil.
The report for one 26-year-old man reads: ‘In July 1944 he was arrested for listening to the BBC. He was sentenced to nine months in prison by a German war court on 21 July 1944. As a British-born Islander, he was interned and deported to Germany to serve his sentence. On 30 July 1944 he was shipped to St Malo, France, and then transported by bus to Rennes. The bus was a little dilapidated and kept breaking down. On the 3 or 4 August the bus ran into an American combat group, and he was transferred to British hands, and thus interviewed at Wandsworth’.
Deserters, POWs and escapees
A Soviet soldier, born in Gori, Georgia, deserted at Valonges, on 25 January 1944. He arrived in the UK, via Normandy, on 9 June 1944. The report starts by stating ‘although only numbering about 3,000,000, (the Georgians) are a people of culture far older than our own’. The informant recollects his time in the Russian army fighting against the Germans. He was taken prisoner of war in March 1942. In June he was recruited to the German army, 795 Battalion. In January 1944 he then deserted from the German army and, with the help of local farmers, was eventually picked up by an American soldier and sent to the UK. A later file includes a Captain in the German army who deserted, also from Georgia.
Other records include descriptions of how refugees travelled. Their journeys originated in countries outside Europe, such as Morocco and Singapore. Most journeys took the individuals through a neutral country, such as Sweden. Others made their way to the coast and hitched a lift on a merchant vessel. Some went as far as Brazil and Cape Town. One report states that refugees left Czechoslovakia and travelled to Italy, via Austria, then took a ship to Shanghai, then evacuated to the UK.
The records include stories of people escaping from prisoner of war camps and concentration camps. Two Polish soldiers are recorded as having escaped from Colditz, before making their way to the UK. One French engineer apparently escaped from Stutthof concentration camp. A further report is of an escapee from Stalag XII-D.
Our volunteers now plan to use this data to open the records in WO 208/5164-5170 and WO 208/5495-5506. These are arranged by number, although they are not a complete copy of the records in WO 208/3663-3748. The volunteers are also looking at cataloguing reports of POWs – both Allied and German – found in these records.
- Where the date of birth is less than 100 years ago, the file is open, but the name and details will remain closed on Discovery. Details will be added annually. ↩