The Lord Mayor orders the swastika hoisted over Cardiff town hall
Shameful moment No. 10
On 30 September 1938, the Swastika flag was raised over Cardiff’s Town Hall, where it fluttered alongside the flags of Britain, France and Fascist Italy. The instructions came directly from Tory mayor Oliver Purnell and within hours he had received a message from the German consul “expressing delight at the Lord Mayor’s gesture of friendship”. Purnell himself described it as “a gesture of jubilation” at the outcome of the Munich conference. An agreement by which Britain and France conceded to Hitler’s demand for Nazi Germany to annex the Sudetenland in return for a dubious promise of peace.
The Western Daily News assumed that the people of Cardiff must have been thrilled by the surprise sight of the swastika flying over their town hall. “Symbolising the joy of the Welsh people at the signing of the Munich Pact,” the paper presumptuously observed, “the German (swastika) flag was flown for the first time ever upon the City Hall and Law Courts at Cardiff yesterday.”
Yet, contrary to the supposition of the journalist, the crowd of onlookers which quickly gathered on the pavement below was not, initially at least, at all cheerful. Inside the City Hall, Sir William Williams, the senior member of the council, was equally unappreciative. He urged Purnell to take the Nazi flag down, but the Lord Mayor who was hurrying to a committee meeting, was adamant that it should remain in place. Sir William shouted after him “It is an insult to the people of Czechoslovakia. It looks as if Germany has won.”
At least four councillors strongly disapproved of the Mayor’s action. They immediately searched for the key which might allow them direct access to the roof to remove the flag but to no avail. Then, one of them attempted to climb up by a drainpipe but this attempt also failed. Fortunately, two other councillors discovered a route up via an emergency staircase. The Daily Mirror described how the two men, both aged over sixty and cheered by the crowd below “slowly made their way across the roof. Faced with a thirty foot drop on either side,” the report continued, “they clung on desperately as they made a perilous crawl along the footway running the length of the building. ‘It took them several minutes before they reached the flag,” an eye-witness told the Daily Mirror. Then they grabbed the swastika together and pulled it down.”
The Daily Telegraph‘s reporter explained that the councillors had been able to climb through a skylight and had then “reached the flagstaff by using slatelayers ladders”. The paper noted that as they hauled the swastika down, the watching crowd cheered, but that it had been again replaced an hour later and “will be flown again tomorrow.” The Lord Mayor felt strongly that flying the swastika alongside the other flags was justified, and told the reporter that he had received thanks for his gesture from the consular representatives of Nazi Germany, fascist Italy and France. Meanwhile, he also explained his action to the Daily Mirror, commenting that “it is a good job Mr Chamberlain ( the prime minister ) has not the same mentality as these members of the council or we should have been at war by now. This is an historic occasion and I can see no reasonable objection to my action.”
While he informed another reporter that “I am investigating as to who is responsible for the incident,” adding that “it is my intention that the flag shall be flown again tomorrow.” Two days later he clarified his reasons to a meeting of the council, telling them he had ordered the swastika flag to be flown because “it represented the 78 million Germans we want to regard as brothers.”
Sir Ernest Bennett, National Labour MP for central Cardiff, was probably impressed by the mayor’s impulsive gesture. He was a member of the pro-Nazi Anglo-German Fellowship and the following year a German newspaper published a short article Sir Ernest had written advocating the return to Germany of her former colonies and in 1940 he was one of several MPs who were still attempting to campaign for a negotiated peace with Hitler.
However there were many ordinary people in Cardiff who must have been deeply unhappy at seeing such cringing deference to the Nazi regime. Cardiff had a large Jewish community in the Gabalfa area which had been suffering from escalating racist intimidation during the summer of 1938 with swastikas and “kill the Jew” messages daubed on their houses. H. Jerevich, Minister of the Cardiff Synagogue, told a reporter
“A strong anti-Jew feeling seems to have developed…… Even in my own neighbourhood people I have always regarded as friends are now turning out to be absolutely anti-Jew.”
The Local Miners Union was also probably dismayed at the Nazi flag decision. As early as 1935 during a meeting in the city, the executive council of the South Wales Miners Federation, had passed a resolution protesting the murder of the leader of the German miners in a concentration camp and voted to “submit a vigorous protest (to the German Embassy) on behalf of the miners of Britain.” They would have doubtless have been dismayed by Purnell’s explanation to a reporter for the Monmouthshire Beacon as to why, even after the first Nazi flag had been hauled down, he was still insisted that a replacement swastika flag be flown.
“It was done,” declared the Mayor, “to show the world that we are anxious for the friendship of Germany.”
Nor was Cardiff the only local authority to fly the swastika flag. In August 1938 Jewish holiday makers at the Lancashire resort town of Lytham St. Annes protested when they noticed the Nazi flag flying on the seafront. The Lancashire Daily Post reported that “veiled threats were made that it would be torn down if the corporation did not remove it.” After an initial decision to haul down the flag, the Town Hall received an anonymous complaint that “Jews have no right to dictate what flags the Corporation must fly on the promenade.” They then decided to fly the swastika again but this time they instructed “plain clothes promenade attendants” to “keep watch over it”. The council issued a statement giving an explanation for its decision.
“We do not wish to be involved in any trouble which might result in the German Embassy taking action, so we have decided to hoist the German (swastika) flag again.”
An even more blatant display of deference to Nazi etiquette at Chelmsford in October 1936 caused less controversy. The Essex Newsman reported that “the Union Jack and the German national flag bearing the swastika emblem… fluttered side by side” during a visit by a delegation of two German ex-servicemen who were “received with much cordiality by the people of Essex.” On inspecting a guard of honour they “raised their right arms in the Nazi salute” and the subsequent dipping of the swastika flag and union jack by the adjacent war memorial was described as “an impressive moment watched by a hushed crowd of people.”
A luncheon was then served at the Saracen’s Head Hotel at the invitation of the mayor of Chelmsford. Baron Von Lersner, Chairman of the German Prisoners of War Organisation, gave a speech explaining that “it was the duty of Germany, in the middle of Europe, to be armed against the enemy we all know,” (an obvious reference to Soviet Russia) and added that “apart from that enemy Germany knows no enemy in the world.” His remarks were loudly applauded whereupon the baron handed the mayor a souvenir of the occasion – a photograph of the Fuhrer. The mayor seemed delighted and declared that he would keep the photograph alongside a letter that he had received from Hitler the previous year, adding “I may say that I am a great admirer of him.”
There was not the slightest murmur of dissent and at a subsequent dinner that evening, hosted at the Institute Hall in Braintree by the Essex County Committee, the Reverend J.F.K. Bickersteth, the headmaster of Felsted School, informed the two Germans and other guests that he had been “greatly impressed by the young men who form the Hitler Youth groups.” There is no record of whether the Bishop of Chelmsford attended either of the two events, but a few months later he wrote in the Anglo-German Review that “the whole world lies under a great debt to the German people; it is quite true to say that their achievements are regarded with admiration in this country.”
1. “Swastika Flag Hauled Down,” the Sheffield Daily Independent, 1 October 1938 p7, “Swastika Flag Hauled Down At Cardiff,” the Western Daily Press, 1 October 1938 p9 and “Swastika Flag,” the Scotsman, 1 October 1938 p16
2. “Busy Man’s Summary,” the Western Daily Press, 1 October 1938, p9
3. “Risking Death to Pull Down Swastika,” the Daily Mirror, 1 October 1938, p2
4. “Risking Death to Pull Down Swastika,” the Daily Mirror, 1 October 1938, p2 and “Alderman Hauls Down Swastika Banner,” the Daily Telegraph, 1 October 1938 p6
5. “Swastika Flaug Hauled Down At Cardiff,” the Western Daily Press, 1 October 1938 p9 and “Swastika Flag,” the Scotsman, 1 October 1938 p16
6. “Why Lord Mayor Flew Nazi Flag,” the Daily Mirror, 4 October 1938, p14
7. “Swastika Flag Hauled Down at Cardiff – Lord Mayor’s Gesture Provokes Incident”, the Western Daily Press and Bristol Mirror, 1 October 1938 p9. “‘Return Colonies,’ say Sir E Bennett and Lord Redesdale in Nazi Paper: an Explanation,” the Evening Despatch, 1 February 1939. See also Richard Griffiths (1983) “Fellow Travellers of the Right: British Enthusiasts for Nazi Germany 1933-39“, Oxford University Press, Oxford p 185. Martin Pugh (2006) “Hurrah for the Blackshirts: Fascists and Fascism in Britain Between the Wars“, Pimlico, London p 270 and http://www.counterfire.org/articles/opinion/18801-the-nazis-and-the-British-establishment Chris Bambery (1 March 2017), “The Nazis and the British Establishment”.
8. “Jew Baiting in Britain – Swastikas, ‘Kill the Jews’ Painted on Cardiff Houses”, the Scotmsan, 16 August 1938, p14.
9. “British Miners Protest Against Nazi Murder”, the Western Daily Press, 28 May 1935, p8
10. The Monmouthshire Beacon, 7 October 1938 p2.
11. “Swastika Flag Up Again at St. Annes,” the Lancashire Daily Post, 4 August 1938 p3
12. “Germans in Essex,” the Essex Newsman, 31 October 1936 p1
13. Ibid p1
14. The Bishop of Chelmsford quoted in “The Anglo-German Naval Review,” August 1937 quoted in Richard Griffiths (1983) “Fellow Travellers of the Right,” Oxford University Press, Oxford p282