CHAPTER 6 – FROM FRANCE TO THE ARMY
I have mentioned the various roads that brought the foreign refugees to the Corps; also the way the colonials were recruited. As for the bulk of the rest – the British citizens – they were either transferred from other regiments and corps or conscripted straight into the Corps. My road was slightly different. My father was a Russian Jew who had left Russia in 1905 and my mother a French gentile woman, daughter of a French army officer. Though my parents were foreign I was born in Britain and therefore a British citizen and liable to conscription. But at the time my age group was being registered I was living in France with my mother. I returned to England at the time of the German advance into France and the fall of Paris together with a boat full of people escaping the advancing German armies.
This was June 1940. The British authorities were concerned that enemy spies and agents would infiltrate Britain among the flood of refugees.. So when our ship docked at Southampton all aboard were herded between lines of soldiers with fixed bayonets onto lorries and interned in a special reception camp to be screened. Huts and tents had been erected in the large grounds of a well known school on the outskirts of London. It looked as though, with hundreds to be screened, it might take several days before they got to me. I noticed that only a low wall separated the grounds from the road and the wall was hidden from view by shrubs. So I simply jumped over the wall, crossed the road and caught a bus into London.
I had been working in the Paris office of a City firm of chartered accountants, Barton Mayhew & Co. The next morning I presented myself at their London offices. There I found my Paris office manager and another colleague, who had also escaped from Paris just ahead of the German armies. For the next twelve months I was employed at the London office of this firm.
As I have mentioned I had been abroad at the time my age group was registered. The manner of my return to England, which I have just described, meant that there was no record of my return to Britain. So my name did not appear on any list of men liable to conscription. It seemed that, if I kept quiet, I might never get called up.
But I wanted to join the army. I was not motivated by any desire for glory or excitement or by patriotism. Quite the contrary. Since the age of 16 (I was now 20) I had been a convinced international socialist. I had joined the Labour Party League of Youth and came into contact with a Trotskyist group that was active in the Labour Party and their youth section. When I moved to France in 1938 to live with my mother in Paris (my parents had divorced) I joined a French Trotskyist group.
In our opinion the war was, like that of 1914-18 , a conflict between rival groups of capitalist nations fighting over markets, colonies and spheres of influence. The working classes of Britain, France and Germany should not be killing each other in the service of their respective rulers and political masters. In each country the working class should oppose the war and continue the class struggle against their own ruling class. The previous war had been ended by the Russian Revolution of 1917 and, revolutions in Germany and Austria in 1918. There had been mutinies and unrest in Britain and France. We expected this new war to develop in the same way
We did not believe in abstaining from the war by individualist gestures such as registering as conscientious objectors or refusing to join the forces. Our place was with the workers and the soldiers and sailors, sharing their experiences and taking our message of international working class solidarity to them. We were convinced our duty was to provide the consciousness and leadership that was necessary if the growing discontent was to lead to the establishment of working class power and the victory of socialism..
However our principled opposition to the war faced us with a problem. I have mentioned how many of the anti-Nazi refugees who found themselves in the Pioneer Corps looked on the war. They were as hostile to Churchill’s rampant imperialism as we were. They had no interest in defending Britain’s subjection of India and its African colonies, nor France’s empire. Neither did many British workers, trade unionists and Labour supporters. But wasn’t there a difference? Didn’t the British workers still enjoy democratic rights, free speech, the right to join trade unions – rights that the Nazis in Germany and the fascists in Italy had taken away from their citizens? And for the Jews, faced after the collapse of France with the imminent prospect of a Nazi occupation of Britain, wasn’t the need to defend against such an occupation a matter of life and death? And not only for the German and other refugees but also for British Jews and for that matter British trade union and Labour Party activists? After the war the plans the Nazis had prepared for ruling occupied Britain were revealed.. They included not only the internment of Jews, but of all non-fascist political and trade union activists, of all political opponents, of intellectuals and writers. As in other occupied countries the Nazis would have set up puppet governments composed of the dregs of society, fascists like Oswald Mosley and his Blackshirts.
It was in response to these concerns that many Trotskyists, including me, were forced to replace the “revolutionary defeatist” stand advocated (but never applied) by Lenin during the 1914-18 war by a more appropriate one. We accepted the need to fight fascism and that this meant in effect to defeat Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. But we argued that a capitalist ruling class was incapable of effectively fighting fascism.
The collapse of France had shown this. The French ruling class had been frightened to death by the great waves of strikes in 1936 which won many gains for the working class; such as the 40-hour week, holidays with pay, legal enforcement of the rights of trade unions to negotiate for their members. This had followed the election in the same year of a Popular Front government of Radicals and Socialists, supported by the Communist Party. This was by no means a revolution. The new Socialist prime minister, Leon Blum, and his government restricted their programme to reforms of the capitalist system. No one was expropriated. But the employers feared their absolute right to manage their enterprises and their power was being eroded. The rich and the affluent feared that the Popular Front and the moderate union leaders would not be able to control the militancy of their supporters. The spectre of communism was abroad. They looked for a strong government of law and order. If their own French politicians could not curb the working class and restore their authority their saviour would have to come from across the border. This was combined with prevalent anti-semitism, always strong in right wing and military circles. A much used expresssion in those rightwing circles was “Rather Hitler than Blum”. Faced with the German advance, General Weygand, the French Commander-in-Chief refused to send much need reinforcements to the front, preferring to hold divisions in reserve to deal with anticipated “disorders and communist uprisings” in the rear. As a comrade of mine expressed it ‘ The French bourgeoisie was “counter-revolutionary defeatist”’ In our view this, together with the corruption and incompetence, explained the speed with which the French government and High Command surrendered and gave way to Marshall Petain’s reactionary and pro-German regime.
The same applied to Britain. We could not trust the arch-Tory, Churchill, who had used troops against striking miners and praised the Fascist dictator, Mussolini, for restoring order and discipline to Italy, to defend democracy. We were aware that many in the Tory Party, in big business circles and in the military hankered for an early peace with Germany and a common front against the menace of “Russian bolshevism”. It has since been revealed that Lord Halifax, the Foreign Minister, led a faction in the cabinet arguing for peace negotiations with Germany in 1940. Influential well-placed people in the higher reaches of British society were openly pro-Nazi and many more covertly so.
We argued that only a socialist Britain that had itself abolished poverty and exploitation within its own frontiers and given freedom to its colonies could successfully prosecute the struggle against Fascism and appeal to the German and Italian workers to turn against their own rulers. Similar arguments were being put forward by George Orwell and writers and intellectuals associated with him. So we abandoned Lenin’s “revolutionary defeatism “ and, for want a better description became “revolutionary defencists”.
Such a movement for a socialist transformation of Britain could succeed only if it won the support of the mass of the British working class, both in the factories and in the forces. This is why I felt it was wrong to spend the war in a relatively comfortable office job. My duty was to get in the thick of it and help build such a movement.
So I went to my local Labour Exchange which dealt with conscription and asked to be registered. Two weeks later I received a summons to report to the Pioneer Corps training Depot in Oldham. This was in June 1941. I was to fight with the Pioneer Corps in Sicily and Italy, on the Normandy beaches and into Belgium before being transferred to an infantry regiment.
Before I go on to relate my experiences with the Corps I must make clear that the initial reason for leaving France was not just the need to escape the Nazis.
I have mentioned that I belonged to a Trotskyist group. By the time the war started in September 1939 the Popular Front government had been replaced by a very right-wing one which imposed martial law. It clamped down on all left wing parties and groups. It outlawed the Communist Party, arresting many of their deputies and activists. It made expression of communist and anti-war views illegal. Many of the members of the group I belonged to were arrested. Two of our leading members, Pierre Frank and Raymond Molinier had previously been charged with propaganda “attacking the integrity of the French Empire” and had fled to Belgium to escape arrest. When the Nazis invaded Belgium they escaped to England. But as they had left France illegally they were now living illegally in England, with no identity cards, no ration books etc. So the group instructed me to return to England where, as a legal British citizen I could provide them with a safe house and shelter.
However it took some time for me to obtain the necessary travel and exit permits from the French authorities (I had to forge some documents). Meanwhile the German armies were pushing deep into France The delay meant that I only managed to get out of Paris on the last train for Le Havre that left the capital before the Germans entered the city. I reached Le Havre just in time to board the last boat that left as the German troops appeared.
I would have had to flee France in any case. I would have been on three Gestapo “wanted” lists – as an enemy citizen, as a Jew and as a Trotskyist! In fact when I returned to Paris in 1944 as a British soldier I leant that the Gestapo had raided my mother’s flat looking for me. Satisfied that I had indeed escaped to England they, fortunately, left my family alone. The group’s decision to send me to England probably saved my life. Without that decision I would not have secured the necessary papers in time. Instead of getting across the Channel I would most likely have stayed in Paris till the last moment and had to flee south to escape via Marseilles and North Africa. British civilians, foreign refugees and fleeing allied soldiers had to. Not all got away. Many were trapped in the non-occupied zone and interned by the Vichy authorities. This was the fate of many German anti-Nazi exiles who were then handed over to the German authorities and perished in the concentration camps.