The UK was home to a number of governments in exile during the war, including the Belgian, Czechoslovak, Greek, Luxembourgish, Dutch, Norwegian, Polish and the Free French, as well as Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I. Resistance groups developed in tandem to these exiled leaders in the UK.
The UK’s own resistance efforts were diverse, extending from the Special Operations Executive’s efforts to foster and coordinate resistance abroad, to the BBC’s campaigns of solidarity and international broadcasts, to the resistance of the populations of the occupied Channel Islands, to the nation’s grassroots and government-supported efforts to save refugees.
The UK’s resistance efforts were diverse and extensive.
One British institution that attempted to aid resistance abroad was the BBC, particularly through its Overseas Service (now the World Service), which was broadcasting around the world in 45 languages by 1945.
The Service featured pioneering broadcasters including Zulfiqar Ali Bukhari, later Director-General of the Pakistani national public broadcaster Radio Pakistan, and Una Marson, a London-based Jamaican writer known first for Calling the West Indies, launched in 1939, which read letters from Caribbean soldiers in the British army to their families, and later Caribbean Voices, which showcased Caribbean writers.
During the war the BBC brought on board refugees to help with languages, broadcast covert messages to resistance groups abroad and to their SOE handlers, and created the famous ‘V for Victory’ campaign. In a January 1941 broadcast Victor de Laveleye, programmer of Radio Belgique (which transmitted to Nazi-occupied Belgium from London), encouraged Belgians to paint ‘V’ signs – in reference to ‘victoire’ (‘victory’) in French and ‘vrijheid’ (‘freedom’) in Flemish - to defy the Nazis. The effort soon spread to other BBC European services that broadcast to Nazi-occupied areas, and soon the V symbol was visible across Europe’s towns and cities, daubed by anti-Nazi activists.
When Winston Churchill joined the campaign, he called the V sign “the symbol of the unconquerable will of the people of the occupied territories.”
The townspeople of Worthing in Sussex watch with interest as the Home Guard resist an 'attack' on the pier by regular troops supported by a Universal carrier, 3 August 1941.
Photo: Imperial War Museum
The Occupied Channel Islands
From 30 June 1940 until 9 May 1945 the Channel Islands were under Nazi occupation, the British government having decided the islands were not strategically important and leaving them undefended.
Resistance efforts during occupation included the ‘Guernsey Underground News Service’ (GUNS), which covertly listened to the BBC news on radios islanders had hidden from confiscation, or which they had built themselves. This network then copied the news and shared it with other islanders, contradicting the censored war news in The Star and Guernsey Evening Press.
GUNS members included Frank Falla, who was at one point editor of The Star during occupation. After being revealed he was deported to a prison in Frankfurt, where he traded bread for a pencil to record the names and dates of eight islanders who died. Falla survived and after the war campaigned to ensure German compensation payments to British victims of Nazi persecution covered his fellow islander prisoners during the war.
Others on the Islands, like shopkeeper Louisa Gould who lived in St Ouen, Jersey, hid those at risk from the Nazi occupiers on the islands. Gould hid Feodor Burriy, a Soviet pilot whose aircraft was shot down, for 18 months and despite the danger in doing so she stated that “I have to do something for another mother’s son”. Gould’s efforts were reported by a neighbour and, after investigation, she was arrested and sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp where she was killed. During her trial, Gould falsely testified that another woman, Dora Hacquoil, had not listened to the news, meaning she evaded being deported with Gould and others.
Refugees in the UK
Preceding and during WWII, Jewish refugees escaping Nazi persecution to the UK numbered in the tens of thousands. However, the UK’s immigration laws dating from 1919 granted these refugees no special status, and they were only accepted on a temporary basis. By 1939 approximately 80,000 refugees had entered the UK out of the approximate 500,000-600,000 who tried to. Initially it was largely just a collection of NGOs, such as the Central British Fund for Germany Jewry and various Christian organisations, which supported the refugees fleeing to the UK.
Even following some reports of the Nazis’ crimes, the British government was slow to act. However, after the Kristallnacht pogrom of November 1938, the government started to relax its policies on refugees, and the ‘Kindertransport’ rescue mission that ensued, which focused on saving (mainly) Jewish children, was supported by the government until the outbreak of war. The mission saw around 10,000 children brought to the UK. The Refugee Children’s Movement, an umbrella organisation of 70 regional groups, came together and by the end of the war there were roughly 175 local committees supporting the Kindertransport refugees across the country.
Despite such support, following the outbreak of war the government banned all emigration to the UK from Nazi-controlled territories. Moreover, Austrians, Germans and Italians, including refugees, faced difficulties in the UK following rising fears of Axis spies amongst them. Roughly 30,000 Jewish refugees were interned in camps in the UK and 8,000 were deported to Canada and Australia. Despite this, later in the war they were released and by the end of the conflict one in seven Jewish refugees from Germany had volunteered to serve in the British forces.
'Resistance' in the UK
In the event of mainland occupation, the British government prepared various networks to resist Nazi invading forces, which extended beyond the formal domestic military. Most well known is the Home Guard, which enlisted those ineligible for active military service. Beyond this were multiple networks, often kept in various levels of secrecy. One network created was the Auxiliary Unit, while another was the Secret Intelligence Service, namely Section VII, which was reported to have had a secret sabotage wing known as ‘X Branch’.