1940-1949 | Refusing refugees

785 refugees drown after Britain insists Turkey refuse them overland passage

Map of the Bosphorus showing 1 -Istanbul harbour and 2 - the location of the Struma when it was sunk. OpenStreetMap - CC BY-SA 2.0 - via Wikimedia
Map of the Bosphorus showing 1 -Istanbul harbour and 2 – the location of the Struma when it was sunk. OpenStreetMap – CC BY-SA 2.0 – via Wikimedia.

24 February 1942

On 24 February 1942, the S.S. Struma, a small 240 ton vessel crammed with 786 Jewish refugees, including over one hundred children, was sunk by a torpedo in the Black Sea. All but one of the passengers drowned.1 The sinking occurred after the British government pressured Turkey not to allow the refugees to continue their journey overland to Palestine. The Foreign Office realised this entailed either forcing them to return to Nazi-allied Romania or leaving them to fend for themselves in a broken down nineteenth century schooner in the Black Sea.

Either option meant almost certain death, as one Foreign Office acknowledged in a memo, noting that ‘if they go back they will all be killed.’2 A similar concern had been voiced earlier by Sir Hughe Knatchbull-Hugessen, the British ambassador in Ankara. He made clear his unease about the proposal to force the vessel back into the Black Sea, suggesting instead that Turkey allow the ship to ‘go towards the Dardanelles,’ and adding that, ‘It might be that if they reached Palestine, they might despite their illegality receive humane treatment.’3   Unfortunately, his view was immediately denounced in Whitehall.

A stony Colonial Office official had noted: ‘this is the first occasion on which… the Turkish government has shown any signs of being ready to help in frustrating these illegal immigrant ships, and the ambassador then goes and spoils the whole effect on absurdly misjudged humanitarian grounds.”4 At the Foreign Office, Charles Baxter, head of the Eastern Section, concurred, adding that the paramount concern shared by most of his colleagues was that ‘if we were to accept these people, there would, of course, be more and more shiploads of unwanted Jews later.’5

Not all officials were so unsympathetic. On the day of the sinking, not realising it was too late,  Edward Walker at the Foreign Office Refugee Department expressed personal misgivings, commenting that he didn’t  at all like the idea that ‘we may be acting as accessories in bringing about the death of these miserable people.’6 Two days later, in an editorial, the Manchester Guardian also questioned the Foreign Office’s decision. Under the headline ‘Need this have happened ?’ it commented ‘it passes understanding why the victims of Axis brutalities, the shattered fugitives from butcher-states like Rumania, should be thrust back from safety in the home of their race.’7


  1. Samuel Aroni, Who Perished on the Struma, and How Many ? accessed online at https://www.jewishgen.org/databases/holocaust/0140_Struma.html#P9
  2. Bernard Wasserstein, Britain and the Jews of Europe, 1939-1945, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1988, p. 154.
  3. Ibid p. 145.
  4. Ibid p. 145.
  5. Ibid p. 148.
  6. Ibid p. 152.
  7. Ibid p. 155.

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