Contributor: Alan Chanter
On the 10th of June 1940 Mussolini, the Italian Dictator, declared War on Great Britain and France. That night across the country angry riots broke out in many British cities. Mobs ransacked Italian property, mainly businesses, smashing windows and looted shops. The terrified owners, many with British citizenship and having been resident in the British Isles (often for decades), were forced to barricade themselves into back rooms. The worst riots were in Liverpool, Cardiff, Swansea and Newport, all with large pre-war Italian populations. In places the police were forced to charge the rampaging mobs with batons.
Italians living in Manchester and Birmingham faired better, with no reported incidents, and in London there were relatively few attacks on Italian owned premises. The worse violence however occurred in Scotland with major riots in Glasgow, Clydebank and Edinburgh. The Scotman, next morning reported on a night of smashing and looting in Leith street, numerous arson attacks, the crowd singing patriotic songs and even rumours of a shopkeeper being killed.
In Edinburgh Restaurants, Ice-cream shops, Fish and Chip shops, Hairdressers' establishments and the premises of a wine importer all had their windows smashed. In Glasgow mobs rampaged through the streets throwing bricks at Italian premises. In Campbletown three shops were damaged and the elderly owner of one only narrowly avoided being bodily thrown into the harbour (saved by the fact that the tide was out).
Many of the rioters were young men from areas of high youth unemployment. These used Italy's declaration of war as an excuse to vent their xenophobia, frustration at unemployment, and in Scotland particularly -Anti-Catholicism. For a few however, the riots were not so much out of partiotism but more as an excuse for a spell of pilfering and looting. Many of their victims were in fact British subjects, many having resided in Great Britain for decades and many had sons serving in the armed forces.
On the following day Prime Minister Winston Churchill announced to the country that all Italians males between the ages of seventeen and seventy who had not been resident in Britain for more than twenty years, plus all those, male and female, on the MI5 suspects list would be subject to internment. Italians civilians in London were perhaps the hardest hit by the wave of arrests that followed. According to the 1931 census there were more that 10,000 Italians resident in the capital, and in the aftermath of Mussolini's declaration of war whole families would be split up; the menfolk taken away to internment camps, or in a large number of cases actually deported to Australia or Canada (South Africa to its credit refused to participate in this affair), not seeing their families again until well after the end of hostilities.
Source: Wartime Britain 1939-1945 (Juliet Gardiner, Headline Books/ Review, 2004)
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Thomas Dodd, late 1945