1940-1949 | Refusing refugees



The Exodus shortly after it was boarded. The passengers were reembarked on deportation ships –
National Photo Collection of Israel via Wikimedia.

[ 9 September 1947 ]

On 9 September 1947,  the Runnymede Park, the last of three British deportation ships carrying 4,500 holocaust refugees, docked in Hamburg.  The Jewish passengers were forcibly disembarked by hundreds of steel helmeted British paratroopers, armed with truncheons, gas masks and water hoses and reinforced by German police. Screams and howls could be heard from the ship’s hull as the soldiers turned on their hoses. Some of the passengers were injured while trying to resist and had to be carried off on stretchers, while a brass band played loudly to drown out shouts of ‘fascist Gestapo’ and ‘we won’t land in Germany.’  Lieutenant-Colonel Gregson, the British officer in command, confessed to a reporter that ‘they fought to the last, even including the children.’1

Once on shore, the refugees were directed on to a train. A desperate woman rushed up and down beside the carriages, calling out for her missing child, while Jews who had been particularly determined in their resistance were thrown into box cars at the rear. It was a two hour battle before the wagons was ready to depart; the destination two displaced persons camps, staffed by Germans and one of which had been built by the Nazis in 1942 as a concentration camp for French and Polish workers.2

Two months earlier the refugees had set out to reach Palestine on an aging packet steamer, the President Warfield,  which they renamed the Exodus. It was boarded twenty nautical miles from its destination by the Royal Navy. In the ensuing chaos two passengers were fatally shot and one crew member was beaten to death in the ship’s wheelhouse while attempting to resist the illegal boarding, the ship being still in international waters.

The British then attempted to deport the remaining holocaust refugees back to France where they had embarked.  The French, however, insisted they would only allow their return if it was voluntary, but when the three deportation ships arrived at Port de Bouc the passengers refused to disembark. The Foreign Office, ignoring requests from Washington for a compromise, decided to transport them to Hamburg, which was part of the British zone of occupation in Germany, so that they could be forcibly removed.3    A number of British reporters were waiting when the refugees arrived. Most were not particularly sympathetic, with a correspondent for The Scotsman typically reporting that ‘the atmosphere of hysteria was clearly due to the systematic agitation of experts using every artifice of racial and religious propaganda.’4


  1. ‘Two Hour Battle At Hamburg: Hysterical Jews Carried Ashore by Troops,’ and ‘Troops’ Restraint: No More Force than Necessary,’ The Scotsman, 10 September 1947, p. 5. ‘Hoses Used on Last of the Exodus Jews,’ The Gloucestershire Echo, 9 September 1947, p1 and James Barr, A Line in the Sand: Britain, France and the Struggle for Mastery in the Middle East, Simon and Schuster, London and New York, p. 348.
  2. Patrick O’Donovan ‘Bitter Resistance,’ The Scotsman, 10 September 1947, p. 5 and ‘4,400 Defiant Jews on Way to Hamburg,’ The Aberdeen Press and Journal, 23 August 1947, p. 1.
  3. James Barr, Op. cit. p. 348 and ‘Exodus Jews “Betrayed”‘, The Northern Whig, 11 September 1947, p. 1.
  4. ‘Troops’ Restraint: No More Force than Necessary,’ The Scotsman, 10 September 1947, p. 5.

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