In 1962, faced with a resurgent fascist movement, young Jewish men and women came together to oppose them. Through the 1962 Committee (62 Group), the enemy met their match.
Over time, the fighting and intelligence skills of the 62 Group became legendary and remain an inspiration to anti-fascists and the Jewish community today.
The first half of the 1950s was a quiet time for antifascists, with the immediate postwar threat of a fascist revival gone. Britain’s prewar fascist leader, Oswald Mosley, failed to make his much vaunted comeback and, with little to oppose, the antifascist movement faded into the background. Mosley remained in exile abroad while a small group of die-hard loyalists, led by Raven Thompson, Alf Flockhart and Jeffrey Hamm, kept his organisation, Union Movement, alive. The most militant of the anti-fascist organisations, the Jewish 43 Group, was dissolved in 1950 and the set piece street battles between fascists and anti-fascists soon seemed to belong to a bygone era.
Then in the mid-1950s the fascists began to rebuild their organisations and by the early 1960s Britain was in the midst of a fascist revival. Most of their activities were centred in London and therefore so was the anti-fascist response. London was also the place where most of Britain’s Jews lived and the anti-fascist opposition came in its most militant form from a section of the Jewish community who formed the 1962 Committee, or 62 Group as it was popularly known.
By the late 1950s the fascists were organising street meetings in earnest again and in 1959 Mosley made a much-publicised return to electoral politics with his Union Movement. In 1960 John Bean’s National Labour Party and Colin Jordan’s White Defence League merged and formed the British National Party. Led by Andrew Fountaine, within two years the BNP was to splinter and produce the National Socialist Movement (NSM), led by Jordan and John Tyndall. The League of Empire Loyalists, led by A K Chesterton, also continued to organise.
The fascists played a central role in the “race riots” in the Notting Hill area of west London (Notting Dale), where they had a headquarters, and elsewhere now that they had the new issue of “coloured immigration” to campaign around. In 1958-59 they managed to whip up young people to join them on the streets, and the newspapers reported on how “teddy boys” – gangs of young rockers – attacked West Indian workers.
They painted the walls with the slogan KBW (Keep Britain White). Eventually the inevitable happened and Kelso Cochrane, a carpenter from Antigua, was stabbed to death by fascists. His attackers were never caught.
While many of those who were to join the 62 Group were progressive, and some had been involved in the anti-fascist defence of the black community in west London, what galvanised the specifically Jewish response to the fascists was the attacks on their own community.
Anti-black racism was a new weapon for the fascists but this never detracted from their Jew-baiting.
There had been several fascist meetings in London’s Trafalgar Square during the early 1960s at which anti- Jewish comments were made and this had led veteran 43 Group people and a new generation of anti-fascists to talk of forming a similar organisation again.
The single moment that turned that talk into action was when, on 1 July 1962, the NSM called a rally in Trafalgar Square under the slogan “Britain Awake, Free Britain from Jewish Control”.
As an anti-fascist recalled: “I had been in the 43 Group and had opposed the decision to close down their operations nine years earlier. Each year I saw more and more people turning up to listen to nazi and fascist speakers in Trafalgar Square and marching in torchlight parades in Deptford and Islington. When I heard that a new group openly calling itself the National Socialist Movement was calling a rally in Trafalgar Square and would attack the Jewish community, I started to ring round a few mates. Some had been in the 43 Group, others were just people I worked with or family.
What surprised me most of all on the day was how many Mosleyites were there. But my cousin said it was clear they just wanted to have a pop at the Jews, it didn’t matter which group’s rally it was.
Then it went off. Fights were breaking out all over Trafalgar Square. The papers said there were 5,000 there, of whom about 800 were the enemy. Some Jews had come to make a passive protest and were not up for a fight, but we were. The police shut the NSM meeting down and when we got our hands on the nazis we really laid into them, but it was disorganised.”
The rally ended when police arrested the speakers and a riot broke out. Mosley announced he would be holding his own rally three weeks later. The following month the 1962 Committee was formed.
The 62 Group followed in the footsteps of the militant defenders of the Jewish community who had come before it. With arsons being carried out on synagogues and serious provocations against Britain’s Jews, the community needed a force that could physically defend it. The antisemites soon discovered – often after hitting the pavement – that the stereotype of the weak, cowardly Jew was just another Nazi myth…
Like those who fought at the Battle of Cable Street in 1936 and the 43 Group in the 1940s, their activities are an inspiration, not only to Jewish people, but to communities that face racist attacks everywhere.
Accounts taken from a history of the 62 Group
An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online