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Mooragh Camp: Second World War Internment on the Isle of Man

Posted on 05.09.2020

This article is the first in a four part series about Civilian Internment on the Isle of Man during the Second World War. 

Why were people interned?

Many things may have been different on the Isle of Man from the rest of Britain during the Second World War – there were no nightly air raids, children were not evacuated and rationing was not as strict. There was though one major difference in the Manx experience of the war compared to the rest of Britain and that was the large number of Manx boarding houses surrounded by barbed wire fencing and the presence on the Island of thousands of ‘enemy aliens’ (mostly Germans, Austrians and Italians).

When war was declared in September 1939, there were about 75,000 Germans and Austrians living in Britain. Some had lived in Britain for several years, others were economic migrants but many were religious (Jewish) or political refugees who had fled from Nazi persecution in Germany and later in Austria. Following the declaration of war, all German and Austrian nationals had to register as ‘enemy aliens’ and go before a tribunal to determine whether they posed a security risk or not. Only a minority were deemed to have Nazi sympathies (and were immediately arrested and imprisoned), some had their freedom of movement curtailed (for example they couldn’t live near the coast but were otherwise free to do as they wanted) and the majority were deemed genuine refugees and therefore ‘friendly’ enemy aliens. But all this changed when Germany’s invasion of France, Belgium and the Netherlands began on the 10th May 1940 and each of countries soon fell and were occupied by German forces during May and June. By the end of May 1940, British and Allied troops were being evacuated from Dunkirk (many on requisitioned Manx Steam Packet vessels) and on the 10th June, Italy joined the Axis powers with Germany and Britain was now under threat of invasion.

Suddenly there were no ‘friendly’ enemy aliens, just thousands of potential 5th Columnists and enemy spies spread throughout Britain, including thousands of Italians who had lived in Britain for several years. Everyone was now a suspect and mass internment of ‘enemy aliens’ was seen as the answer, so ‘Collar the lot!’.

On the lsle of Man, Ramsey boarding house keepers had been asked for details about available accommodation in their properties at the beginning of May, only to discover that their homes were being requisitioned by the Government on Monday 13th May. They were then told that they would need to have vacated the properties by the following Saturday, so that their homes could become the Island’s first civilian internment camp.

Mooragh Camp, Ramsey

The Mooragh Camp opened on the 27th May 1940 and was created by erecting a double line of barbed wire fencing around the boarding houses and hotels on the Mooragh promenade, but the camp did not include the Mooragh Park which was still open to the public. The camp held about 1,100 internees, who were originally Germans and Austrians, many of them Jewish refugees from Nazi persecution.

Mooragh Camp, Ramsey, 1940 by Hugo Dachinger (1908-1995) view of the Mooragh Camp painted on newspaper IOMMM: 2002-0144

By 1942 most of the original Mooragh Camp internees had been released to work for the Allied War Effort as it was realised they posed no security risk. The same process reduced the numbers of internees in other camps around the Island. As these camps closed, the remaining internees who could not (for a variety of reasons) be released were transferred to Ramsey and a segregated camp of Germans, Italians, Finns and Japanese was created. Mooragh Camp was the last men’s camp to close on 2nd August 1945.

View of Mooragh Camp showing the internal divisions (barbed wire fencing) segregating the different nationalities within the camp (1943) PG/5396/8

Hope for the future – Living with the Wire in the Darkest Hours of War

Hugo Dachinger’s Mooragh Camp, Ramsey Bay shows the view looking directly out to sea from the internment camp, through the barbed wire. Dachinger has captured the dramatic colours of the sky and the dark brooding storm clouds with the bright sunrise breaking through. But in the summer of 1940, with the threat of invasion an ever present fear, in particular for the thousands of ‘enemy aliens’ interned on the Isle of Man (many of them refugees who had already escaped once from Nazi persecution), this painting may have had a different and more symbolic meaning. It could represent the artist’s hopes and fears about the future and about who would eventually win the war. Does the sunrise symbolise a new day and a brighter future? Does the red sky predict a more pessimistic idea of the calm before the storm, summarised in the well-known phrase, ‘red sky in the morning, shepherd’s warning.’ Or is it just what it appears to be, the record of a spectacular sunrise that Dachinger happened to witness whilst interned in Ramsey?

Ambivalence surrounds the vessels in Ramsey Bay. Are they Manx fishing boats or Royal Naval ships? Are they sheltering from an approaching storm or from German U-boat patrols in the Irish Sea?

Mooragh Camp, Ramsey Bay, 1940 by Hugo Dachinger (1908-1995) a view of the Ramsey Bay from Mooragh Camp  IOMMM: 2002-0142

Following the opening of the Mooragh Camp and the arrival of the first male internees on the Island, several other internment camps were opened in rapid succession and more blocks of hotels and boarding houses (and even whole villages) were surrounded with barbed wire fencing from the end of May 1940 onwards.

Each internment camp had its own ‘personality’ and was subtly different in various ways from the other camps – discover more about other camps on the Island in future Collections Online articles.

Further Information

Want to discover more about the Isle of Man during the Second World War? Here are further resources:

 

 

 

 

 

Discover more about internment on the Isle of Man in the Manx National Heritage Library and Archives.

Find out how the Manx newspapers reported the War and what stories from the internment camps made the local news: https://www.imuseum.im/newspapers/

If you want to discover more about internment and see a variety of internee-made items – visit the Mann at War Gallery and National Art Gallery at the Manx Museum or take a look at our online resource Explore Mann at War.

 

Yvonne M. Cresswell (MNH Curator of Social History)

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