Life inside the concentration camps of Scotland
AFTER THE end of the Second World War, when the horrors of concentration camps such as Dachau and Belsen became known, it was commonly claimed of the German people that, ‘‘They must have known.’’ How could concentration camps be operating on the edge of villages and towns without those living nearby being aware of what was happening in such places? The situation in Germany was mirrored precisely in another European country at that time.
Between 1940 and 1946, a number of concentration camps were set up on the edge of large towns; some only a few miles from major cities. Local farmers heard rumours about atrocities being committed in these places, but when they approached the barbed wire fences, they were warned off by armed guards in watch-towers. Stories circulated about beatings, torture, starvation and even shootings, but so secretive were those running the camps that no solid information ever leaked out. It was also suggested that these sinister locations were being used to hold communists, Jews and homosexuals; although this was never admitted by anybody in authority. All this was happening not in Germany or Poland at the height of the Holocaust, but in the south of Scotland.
In 1940 thousands of Polish soldiers came to Britain following the fall of France. They were led by the autocratic General Wladyslaw Sikorski. In exchange for defending the east coast of Scotland against German invasion, the Polish forces were granted the right to set up their own bases in Britain, which were to be regarded as Polish sovereign territory; immune from interference by the authorities of this country.
General Sikorski took the opportunity to establish a detention facility near Rothesay on the Isle of Bute for both his political opponents and anybody else he felt like imprisoning. To the members of the Polish Government in Exile, Sikorski made no secret of his intentions, announcing at a meeting of the Polish National Council in London on July 18 1940, ‘‘There is no Polish judiciary. Those who conspire will be sent to a concentration camp.’’ Shortly afterwards, a secret order was issued to General Marian Kukiel; Commander of Camps and Polish Army Units in Scotland. This related to what was described as an ‘‘unallocated grouping of officers’’ who were to be held in a special camp.
On the Isle of Bute were both political prisoners and also what the Poles called ‘‘pathological cases’’. These were drunks, homosexuals and others of whom Sikorski and his associates disapproved. There were also a number of Jews. A second camp was established at the village of Tighnabruich on the Scottish mainland.
One of the things which soon became apparent was that Jews were particularly likely to fall foul of General Sikorski’s Government in Exile and end up in the two camps in Scotland. One of the most famous prisoners on the Isle of Bute was the writer, journalist and biographer of Stalin; Isaac Deutscher. Although born in Poland, Deutscher, a Jew, had emigrated to Britain where he made a life for himself before the outbreak of war in 1939. In 1940, following Dunkirk and the Fall of France, he travelled to Scotland to volunteer for the Polish army which was now based there. No sooner had he joined up, than Deutscher found himself interned at the camp at Rothesay. Being both a Jew and also a communist, he was regarded as a dangerous subversive by senior figures in General Sikorski’s administration.
Rumours began to circulate among MPs in London that something unsavoury was going on in Scotland. Names began to emerge of Polish citizens being held for no apparent reason in secret installations. In all cases, the men being detained seemed to be Jews. On February 19 1941, for example, Samuel Silverman, MP for Nelson Right: An image of Rothesay Bay in Bute, taken in 1943 and, Waladyslaw Sikorski.
how the papers broke the story of camp conditions and Colne, raised the question in the House of Commons of two Jewish brothers called Benjamin and Jack Ajzenberg. These men had been picked up by Polish soldiers in London and taken to a camp in Scotland. The following year, Adam McKinley, MP for Dumbartonshire in Scotland, asked in the House what was happening on the Isle of Bute. The government, which had no wish to upset a valuable ally, refused to provide any information. Under the terms of the Allied Forces Act, the British had in any case no legal right to interfere in what was happening at camps and army bases being operated by the Polish Government in Exile.
Other camps were opened at Kingledoors and later Auchterarder. These were forbidding places; surrounded by barbed wire and with watchtowers. At Kingledoors, a Jewish prisoner called Edward Jakubowsky was shot dead by a guard for insolence. The British police were not informed of this and no action was taken.
One of the things which is seldom realised is the extent to which the Polish army based in Britain was largely made up of men who had previously served in the Wermacht. Whenever Poles who had been serving with the German army were captured by the British, they were handed over to the Polish authorities in London, who promptly enlisted them in their own forces. This meant that by 1945, over half the men in the Polish army had previously served with the Germans.