First British shots of the war targets Jewish refugees
1 September 1939
Before dawn on the 1 September 1939, Hitler’s Wehrmacht commenced the invasion of Poland, triggering Number 10’s declaration of war two days later. During those same early hours, a British police launch, patrolling the coast off Palestine to prevent the unwelcome arrival of fugitives fleeing Nazi persecution, opened fire with a Lewis machine gun on a fifty year old Panamanian cargo steamer, SS Tiger Hill, which was packed with approximately 1,400 Jewish refugees.
The British authorities and press blamed the ship. Even the left leaning Daily Herald reported, under the headline ‘Refugee Ship Drew Shots’, that the launch commander had been ‘obliged to fire his Lewis gun’ after the cargo vessel attempted to ram the launch.1 Few if any newspapers mentioned that machine gun bullets killed two refugees. possibly because journalists had been unable to interview the ship’s crew or passengers for their version of what happened.2
The commander had directed the machine gun fire at the steamer’s bridge, forcing the the Tiger Hill to retreat seawards. The ship was then able to loose the launch and avoid any subsequent interdiction, deliberately running itself aground some 300 yards off the coast near Haifa at approximately 10 pm the same evening. 1,202 refugees, including 621 men, 533 women and 48 children were arrested and detained, although some 200 had managed to get ashore in small boats before the British arrived.3 The overwhelming majority of the refugees were from Germany, Austria, which had come under Nazi rule the previous year, or the Czech Republic, which had been occupied in March.4
- ‘Refugee Ship Drew Shots,’ The Daily Herald, 5 September 1939, p. 4.
- Foreign Relations of the United States Diplomatic Papers, 1939, The Far East: The Near East and Africa, Volume IV, The Consul at Jerusalem (Steger) to the Secretary of State accessed online at url https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1939v04/d847
- ‘Palestine: Coastal Incident,’ The Scotsman, 5 September 1939, p. 9.
- Documents Relating to Passengers on the SS Tiger Hill ( ID19551), Holocaust Survivors and Victims Database, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum accessed online at url https://www.ushmm.org/online/hsv/source_view.php?SourceId=19551
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