Eighty years ago on 16 July 1940, Hitler issued Führer Directive No.16 which instructed his forces to prepare for an invasion of the United Kingdom. The Nazis had conquered France and on a clear day could see the white cliffs of Dover — they readied themselves to launch Operation Sealion.
A few weeks before, David Low’s iconic cartoon had appeared in the Evening Standard. It depicted a British soldier on a cliff edge overlooking a blackened English Channel, rifle in hand, a fist raised in defiance at enemy aircraft — and bearing the caption ‘Very Well. Alone’. As history records, determined spitfire pilots from Britain and 15 other countries, stopped them.
Ever since the Battle of Britain in 1940, many have wondered what would have happened if the Nazis had indeed landed on the south coast. What would have been the fate of those who refused to be bystanders? It has led to innovative alternative histories — novels such as Len Deighton’s SS-GB (1978) and films such as It Happened Here (1964). Highly imaginative, but still deeply chilling for any British Jew.
The German invasion forces would have been followed by einsatzgruppen, determined to eliminate resistance and opponents. They would have carried copies of the Sonderfahndungsliste GB with them — a ‘most wanted list’ of 2,820 names — people to be incarcerated to await an unknown fate. This document, known as the Black Book, contained the names of well-known British Jews as well as those who had fled from Nazi persecution in mainland Europe.
The list was drawn up by the office of SS General Walter Schellenberg who believed that Britain was in the hand of an upper-class elite — and the Jews. Indeed he was sent to Portugal to persuade the Duke and Duchess of Windsor to work for Nazi Germany.
The Black Book was culled from European telephone directories, ‘Who’s Who’ and lists of members of the House of Lords. It was full of misspellings, duplications and erroneous information. The non-Jewish Arthur Greenwood, the Labour politician and strong anti-fascist, was listed under ‘Jews’. Another was the Zionist leader, Vladimir Jabotinsky who had already left the UK to campaign in the US for the formation of a Jewish army.
The Black Book contained the names of every kind of Jew — assimilated, acculturated, Zionist, Marxist, Orthodox, non-Orthodox. The Nazis were never fussy about which kind of Jew they wished to eliminate.
There were the Rothschilds and the D’Avigdor-Goldsmiths, Sir Herbert Samuel, Lord Swaythling and Eva, Marchioness of Reading. Simon Marks of Marks and Spencer and Oscar Deutsch who owned the Odeon Cinema chain. Israel and Rebecca Sieff, tireless campaigners for Zionism, were listed along with their great friend, Chaim Weizmann. The abode of Leslie Hore-Belisha, the Jewish Secretary of State for War under Neville Chamberlain was listed as the Reform Club, 104 Pall Mall. There were newspapermen such as Alex Easterman and Sefton Delmer, the sculptor Jacob Epstein, the publisher Victor Gollancz, the historian Albert Hyamson and the entertainer, Vic Oliver.
The Nazis made sure to target the formal leadership of the Board of Deputies — Barnet Janner, Neville Laski and Isadore Salmon. Chief Rabbi Hertz was on the list as was Ivan Greenberg, the editor of the Jewish Chronicle.
Jewish refugees from Europe were not forgotten — Henry Kissinger’s favourite writer, Stefan Zweig and Otto Schiff who had helped so many Jews to escape and whose name is rightly remembered through a Jewish Care home in Hampstead.
Hitler remembered anti-capitalist Nazi dissidents, the Black Front, who had bitterly broken with him. Leading British Communists such as the slavish Stalinist loyalist, Rajani Palme-Dutt, were there as well despite the friendship pact with the USSR.
It was twenty miles of clear blue water that saved British Jews, but they also understood the profound meaning of Churchill’s words: ‘Hitler knows that he will have to break us in these islands or lose the war.’ For this generation, it was a matter of life and death. The JC editorial then was unequivocal: ‘Every Jew whatever his age and condition must know himself — a soldier of Britain, of civilisation and of Jewry.’