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Internment Camps in Scotland

February 1, 2021 | by Dr. Yvette Alt Miller

A little-known network of internment camps operated in Scotland during World War II.

During the Second World War units of the Polish Army who had escaped from Nazi Europe were based in Scotland, protecting the North Sea coast from possible German invasion. They were joined by Jewish soldiers in Anders Army, freed after the German invasion of Russia, who reached Britain through Iran, Palestine and the journey round Africa. There were about a thousand Jewish soldiers in the Polish Army in Scotland and their bases were considered to be sovereign Polish territory. This is the story of the Jewish soldiers, their positive and negative experiences of these dark times.

Polish Soldiers in Scotland

In 1939, German forces overran Poland, defeating Poland’s armed forces in just 35 days. Gen. Władysław Sikorski, a former Prime Minister of Poland, travelled to Britain and formed Poland’s Government in Exile. This was crucial work, and Gen. Sikorski forged warm relations with the leaders of the Allied nations as well as the other heads of Governments in Exile whose lands were also being occupied by Nazi troops and governed by puppet leaders.

In June 1940, as Nazi Germany was in the last stages of overcoming France’s military and occupying most off Western Europe, Britain completed the largest evacuation of troops in human history: 340,000 Allied troops were brought from the French town of Dunkirk to safety in the United Kingdom.

Gens. Sikorski and Kukiel formed army bases around Scotland especially in areas facing the North Sea. They also established some army prisons and detention centers. The first center was near Rothesay on the Isle of Bute and they built another in the village of Tighnabruich, on Scotland’s mainland and later more at the towns of Kingledoors and Auchterarder.

Eventually, the Polish Government in Exile ran about half a dozen detention centers across Scotland. Many were forbidding prisons, surrounded by watchtowers and barbed wire and patrolled by armed soldiers. One, at Inverkeithing, was only eight miles from Scotland’s capital Edinburgh. Scottish locals were told that the prisons housed criminal elements and Communists, so that they wouldn’t feel sorry for the prisoners. Nevertheless, tales of horrible conditions began to leak out and be whispered about in the Scottish communities near the camps.

Some of the most high-profile Polish politicians in exile were imprisoned in these camps, including Gen. Ludomil Antoni Rayski, the former Commander of Poland’s Air Force, and former Polish Prime Minister Marian Zyndram-Koscialkowski. Some Polish nationals and homosexuals were imprisoned for drunkenness or other reasons. Some of the prisoners, however, were Jews.

Jewish Prisoners

One famous Jew who is known to have spent time in the camps was the noted Marxist poet and writer Isaac Deutscher. He travelled to Britain from Poland in 1939 to work for a newspaper. That assignment saved his life. Deutscher remained in Britain after Germany invaded Poland. When Britain mobilized troops to fight Hitler, he decided to travel to Scotland and volunteer to fight with the Polish Army in Exile that was based there. Deutscher managed to enlist but was soon arrested and imprisoned in the concentration camp at Rothesay. He was released in 1942 and was employed by British newspapers and journals.

On June 10, 1945, The New York Times announced that Dr. Jan Jagodzinski, the Jewish editor of Polpress, the Polish Government in Exile’s news agency in London, was “arrested” by plainclothes “officers” in London. These were officers of the Polish Government in Exile and they arrested Dr. Jagodzinski and took him north to Scotland, where they imprisoned him in the camp they were running in the small Scottish town of Inverkeithing. By this stage the Polish Government in Exile were aware that Stalin was likely to be setting up a Communist puppet regime in the country and this prompted the arrest and detention of well-known Communists like Jagodzinski. A British Foreign Office official described the arrest as “just an accident of police procedure” and called the targeting of Dr. Jagodzinski “most unfortunate”.

At least two other Jews are also known to have been removed from London by Polish forces: Benjamin and Jack Ajzenberg were brothers who were arrested by Polish officers in London – with the help of the British police – and imprisoned, without trial, before release after two months, in Scotland. Their fate was only made public in February 1941, when a Jewish MP, Samuel Silverman, asked about their fate during a debate in the House of Commons. All cases of alleged anti-Semitism were investigated by Ignacy Shvartzbart, a Jewish representative on the Polish Council in London and followed up with reference to the Polish authorities.

Brutal Treatment

Though it’s not entirely known just how many Jews and others were imprisoned and suffered from brutal treatment in these camps, some reports did get out. On October 29, 1940, at the camp in the rural Scottish area of Kingledoors, a Jewish prisoner, Edward Jakubowsky, was shot to death by a guard who justified his actions saying Mr. Jakubowsky had been “insolent”. As the camp was Polish territory the Scottish police were not informed at the time.

In 2016 Simon Webb published British Concentration Camps: A Brief History from 1900-1975 controversially describing the detention centres as Concentration Camps. He wrote that at the camp in Inverkeithing, reporters were finally able to talk to prisoners in 1945. A 23-year-old Jew named Josef Dobosiewicz told reporters that he’d previously fought with the Canadian army. He’d been held at Inverkeithing for over two months and had seen prisoners chained in their cells. Another prisoner told the journalists that he’d previously been held in a German POW camp, and the conditions there were better than in the Polish run camp in Scotland. The reporters also found that just two weeks prior, a prisoner had been shot while trying to escape and had died of his wounds.

Most complaints were hearsay and the confirmed cases mainly related to verbal anti-Semitic abuse. The Scotsman newspaper carried an article by Webb about his book where he acknowledged that the allegations of the existence of Polish Concentration Camps, as the term is now understood, had not been proved.

British MPs Raising Questions

In addition to Mr. Silverman, a few other British MPs raised concerns about the brutal tactics of Polish forces in Scotland. In 1942 the Scottish MP Adam McKinley asked a formal question about what was happening behind the prison walls on the Isle of Bute. Hoping to avoid any tension with their wartime ally, the British offered no information. The Allied Forces Act ensured that the British Government had no right to oversee what was going on in the Polish run prisons or on their bases, even in the few cases of alleged serious abuse. Nevertheless, the Poles were aware that Britain frowned on anti-Semitic behavior and tried, though not always effectively, to deal with those who were causing friction.

After World War II, the new British Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, pressured Polish authorities to shut down the prison camps. By the end of 1946 they were no longer operating. Britain’s and Poland’s wartime record deserves to be remembered. Though about a quarter of the Jewish soldiers in the Polish Army defected to the British Army alleging anti-Semitism, most remained loyal to the Polish Army and served gallantly in the final onslaught against the Nazis and liberating Europe.

For more information, read this related article: Poles and Jews in Wartime Scotland: Setting the Record Straight


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