After the second world war, pre-war fascist leader Oswald Mosley, freed from his wartime prison, tried to rebuild the fascist movement he had led in he 1930s. A core of former British Union of Fascist leaders, joined by younger men, took up the largely anti-semitic agitation they had revelled in before the war. Jewish areas of London, or areas where a mix of Jews and other communities mixed, were seen as fruitful areas for street meetings and rallies – partly to pick up support from and to foster, local xenophobic sentiment, and partly to provoke and intimidate.
But many Jews were far from intimidated. In 1947, a group of Jewish ex-servicemen formed the 43 group to respond to the fascist attempt to reform. Growing rapidly, they resolved to resist the violent rhetoric and physical attacks with a determination to break up fascist meetings, attack the fash wherever possible, and disrupt them in all ways they could. They developed a strong physical and intelligence-led operation that would eventually put the fascist on the back foot.
Ridley Road, in Dalston, East London, was one of the regular battlegrounds between fascists and 43 Groupers, as it had been between the BUF and their enemies in the ‘30s, and would be again tin the 1960s. A bustling street market, in an area with a large Jewish community, it was to see repeated fascist meetings and anti-fascist response…
On Sunday June 1st, 1947, eight men (one fascist, and seven anti-fascists) were arrested after a large meeting of the fascist British League at Dalston’s Ridley Road ended in a fierce battle. Jewish ‘commandos’ from the anti-fascist 43 Group had targeted the meeting with the aim of shutting it down.
Having receive intelligence that the British League would be holding a rally, the 43 Group decided to take them on. Gerry Flamberg, who took on leading the action, briefed a large group of 43-ers. The fascists had scheduled their meeting for 7.00, and planned to send in a ‘holding party’ to prevent anyone else using the space and ensure their meeting went ahead. But the 43 Group had other plans…
Former sidekick to Oswald Mosley, Jeffrey Hamm, and Raven Thomson, another former BUF leader, were the main fascist attractions. Expecting attention from the 43 Group, they had both asked for heavy police protection, and arranged for over 100 of their own heavies, muscular young Nazis, to attend. The fash planned to distribute their literature, and to also try to enrol members on the spot.
Other fascist meetings were being held on the same evening in other parts of London, so Gerry Flamberg was only able to sign up 24 of the ‘commandoes’ the group used to break up meetings; 30 other members were to form a ‘support party’.
The Group’s Intelligence team handed out maps of the layout of the streets, which everyone memorized to make sure they could get into the Road, in small groups of four or five, and escape afterwards if need be. Cars with drivers and black cabs driven by sympathisers were parked all round the area from 7.30 to pick up group members legging it from the fallout. Two doctors, 43 Group members, were also on standby in Amhurst Road and Stoke Newington Church Street, to treat possible injuries.
Morris Beckman, one of the supporters on the day, met up with the others in his group, and made their way to Ridley Road: “At five minutes to seven [we] turned into Kingsland High Street. We walked towards Ridley Road along a narrow pavement and found ourselves in a throng of people, mainly young men, all walking the same way. Group members were in the procession but we did not acknowledge one another. We walked alongside one group of fascists and in front of others. They eyed us and we eyed them; no one spoke or made a hostile move. Tension was very high; we felt like gladiators moving towards our joust in the arena. The fascist were silent; so were we… ‘Don’t strike a match’, said Sam, ‘We’ll all go up with a bang…
The size of the crowd surprised us. There must have been over 400 people clustered around the platform which stood in a corner about ten yards away from the Woolworth’s wall. The platform flew two large union jacks and the usual fronting board with the legend, ‘The British League of Ex-Servicemen and Women.’ An eloquent young fascist wearing a black shirt, a plain white tie and slacks (the quasi-uniform that had become the Mosleyites’ standard style) was addressing the crowd. It was the task of those early speakers to create a nucleus for passers-by to latch onto and thus build up a large audience for when the main speakers performed.
Police in pairs were perambulating slowly round the perimeter of the crowd. So were many Group members and fascist stewards. Unlike the police, who were killing time, the two antagonists were seeking the best positions for the coming battle… Fascists were accosting passers-by and selling their propaganda, forcefully, and successfully. Others moved through the crowds doing likewise… In the short time since we had positioned ourselves at the edge of the crowd…it’s numbers had grown. About ten ranks of people now stood behind us…
Gerry pushed through to us. ‘Hamm will speak next. He’ll introduce Raven Thomson for the main speech, then Hamm will finish it off. We’ve counted well over thirty fascists already round the platform and there’s loads of them in the crowd.’
‘Cripes’ said Ivor. ‘We’re well outnumbered then.’
‘The locals have turned out to support us. About thirty.’
‘With Big Arthur?’
‘He’s pushed his way onto a wedge. He’s dead set on knocking over the platform.’
‘How can we tell who supports us and who doesn’t when the fighting starts?’
‘Easy,’ Gerry grinned, ‘if they aim at your head with a cosh, you’ll know it’s not one of our supporters… Now listen… About two dozen police are by the van ready to throw a cordon in front of the platform. That will reinforce the stewards… the wedges will go in from two directions. If one gets through, the platform goes and that’s the end of the meeting. If it doesn’t, go for the fascist next to you and don’t hold back. If sufficient fights break out, he police will not have control and they’ll close down the meeting… if you hear a referee’s whistle blow two long blasts, that means scarper, and bloody quick…’
He disappeared… Ivor nudged me, and muttered. ‘Just in front, about six persons to your left, is out target.’ I looked at four very tough young men… ‘I’ve tangled with them before,’ Ivor said…
A van appeared and crept slowly through two police lines up to the back of the platform. The young speaker eyed it and hurried his words… he introduced Jeffrey Hamm and the clambered to the ground. Hamm leapt onto the platform and spoke into a microphone plugged into batteries inside the van… h spoke briefly, eulogizing Raven Thomson… and referred to the Jewish terrorists ‘killing our boys in Palestine’ and reiterated the need to break the hold of the Jews who were running Britain and how Mosley would solve this problem… Hamm clambered down to a cacophony of applause and catcalls. Raven Thomson, a heavily-built man, took his place. He had barely opened his mouth when the heckling started. It came from all directions.
‘Going back to the Isle of Man for your holidays?” [Thomson had been imprisoned in a detention camp on the Isle of Man, and Brixton Prison, during World War 2)
‘They should have hanged you with William Joyce!’
But Thomson was an experienced campaigner… he ploughed on with what he had to say…
The volume of noise rose to a crescendo… About 30 or more fascists shuffled into a tight ring around the platform…
And then the commandoes struck. I glimpsed the wedge on our side drive through the fascist stewards. Fist were flying… The people in front of us were pushing back with alarm, panicking to get away from the fighting around the platform…. Thomson had stopped speaking and was gesticulating downwards with his right arm, fingers outstretched… then he disappeared from sight. The platform with its two union jacks swayed to and fro and up and down, and then it was gone…
We went at our fascists and they fought back hard. It was a savage few minutes. There were punches, boots flying, curses, and Ivor yelling… I found myself trading punches with a stocky youth.. he kept telling at me, ‘Fucking Jewboy bastard’… I landed several blows on his face, and saw blood trickle from his mouth, and he caught my forehead with resounding blows then he was gone…
Scuffles and fights were everywhere… I heard police whistles and dogs barked frenziedly… Press and other photographers scurried about taking pictures of the swirling action…”
The seven 43 Group members – including the leader of the action on the day, Gerry Flamberg – were bound over to keep the peace (as was the one nazi also nicked). This was usually done to try to prevent the activists from taking part in any more similar frays, but most of the 43 Group commandoes ignored this and were involved in many such battles.
This scene was repeated numerous times in Ridley Road, and in other areas of London seen as targets by the post-war fascists. Although in 1948 Mosley and the fledgling fascist groups combined to form the Union Movement, the constant battering they took from the 43 Group, with weekly fights all over town, took its toll on them. After several years the Mosleyite agitation had largely faded out by 1952. The core of the nazi movement, though, and the underbelly of racism it fed on and encouraged, would resurface,, over following decades – though new migrant groups would become the object of the fascists’ main venom…
If you enjoyed this:
You Must Read:
The 43 Group: Battling with Mosley’s Blackshirts, by Morris Beckman
An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online