Veteran denounced for removing Swastika wreath from the Cenotaph

Shameful moment No. 2

Captain James Edward Sears

On Thursday 11 May 1933, Captain James Edmonds Sears, a First World War veteran and a prospective Labour Party candidate for South West St. Pancras, was fined forty shillings at London’s Bow Street magistrates court. His offence, according to the sentencing magistrate, was his “very ill mannerly and improper” behaviour when he removed a giant swastika wreath from the base of the Cenotaph in Whitehall and passed it to a driver with instructions to throw it in the Thames.[1]

The wreath of lilies and laurel leaves arranged around a large black swastika had been placed there the previous day by Dr Alfred Rosenberg, one of Hitler’s most trusted and ruthless senior officials.  A few days earlier The Times, under the headline “Dr Rosenberg to Visit London” had explained that “Herr Rosenberg… is the special champion of the theory of ‘eastward expansion’ for Germany which is the basis of Nazi foreign policy,” and added that “his numerous books show him to be a convinced anti-Semite.”[2]

Rosenberg has more recently been described by historian Klaus Fischer as “a brooding, pedantic and intolerant ideologue” and a man who “had steeped himself so well in the intellectual demimonde of racist philosophy that when he met Adolf Hitler, the two men immediately recognised each other as soul mates.”  By the time of his visit he was already a key architect of Germany’s campaign of persecution against the Jews.[3]

What shocked the British establishment, however, was that someone should dare remove Dr. Rosenberg’s swastika wreath.  Even the relatively progressive Manchester Guardian expressed its dismay,  insisting that “the new regime of wrangling and wreath snatching round the Whitehall Cenotaph seems rather unedifying and not very appropriate to the true purpose which the memorial is supposed to serve.” It added that “to remember the dead is a thing which a man can only do for himself and he cannot very well be doing that with any real purpose or gravity if he is busy filling himself with boiling rage against certain examples of the living.”[4]

The protest was also covered in many regional newspapers as distant from London as the Devon and Exeter Gazette, which headlined it as “Unfortunate Incident. Wreath damaged at Cenotaph. The Tribute of Hitler and German People“[5] and even in the more distant Dundee Courier and Advertiser, which in its editorial declared that protesters should direct their anger not at the Nazis, but rather at what was happening in Communist Russia. The paper ridiculed “the excited anger inspired throughout the socialist movement by the Nazi revolution” and maintained that, compared with the Soviet Union’s “murderous atrocities…………..the atrocities of the Nazis are as water to vodka“.[6]

At least one regional newspaper, the Leeds Mercury, expressed its shock at the magistrate’s lenient comments about the defendant’s behaviour, remarking that “the magisterial epithets ‘ill mannerly and improper’ were very mild for the action of removing (the swastika wreath) and throwing it into the Thames, even though it was done by a Parliamentary candidate of (otherwise) irreproachable reputation.”[7]

Several newspapers mentioned that Captain Sears was said to have planned the operation on Wednesday morning when the wreath had been initially placed there.  Then, just before seizing it, he had turned to his son and declared that what he was about to do was a “protest against the desecration of the cenotaph by Hitler’s hireling,” adding that “any spirit of generosity and brotherhood is entirely absent from Dr. Rosenberg’s action and it is merely intended to throw dust in the eyes of the English people.”[8]  Most newspapers also reported that when Hitler’s emissary was informed of the wreath’s removal “he was deeply shocked” and that his secretary issued a statement explaining that “Dr. Rosenberg is painfully surprised….He placed (the wreath) there on behalf of Chancellor Hitler and the German people….The incident that has happened is a very sad thing. Dr Rosenberg leaves it to public opinion in this country. The public will readily understand what he is feeling about it.”[9]

Some members of the British establishment made their annoyance at the Captain’s actions clear. The most vocal was General Sir Ian Hamilton, who had commanded the British Expeditionary Force at Gallipoli in 1915 and was a leading figure in the British Legion, the ex-servicemen’s organisation. He described himself to a German corespondent in November 1933 as “an admirer of the great Adolph Hitler”[10], so it was perhaps predictable that he would take a dim view of Captain Sear’s protest.

However his displeasure and impatience with Captain Sears’ action seems to have been widely shared. When Sir Ian proposed a motion at the annual conference of the South African War veterans Association at Portsmouth on 13th May, just two days after the incident, expressing “regret than an ex-serviceman should have been the first to break the sacred truce from politics which had until now guarded the cenotaph, its wreaths and its memories of fallen comrades” it was carried unanimously. No one ventured to suggest that Dr. Rosenberg’s swastika wreath might itself be in any way political.[11]

Fortunately for Captain Sears he was able to impress the court, when asked, with an account of his remarkable military career, explaining that he had served as a soldier during the First World War rising from the rank of private to captain, an extremely rare accomplishment, and that he held the Mons star medal for his role during the crucial battle in delaying the German advance in 1914. This was sufficient to convince the magistrate that he was a person of normally good character and not guilty of theft but he was still found guilty of willful damage and fined two pounds, a sum equivalent to well over a hundred pounds today.  A report the same day in the German press that Sir John Simon, British Foreign Secretary had called on Leopold Von Hoesch, the German ambassador to “express the British’ government’s regret” was officially denied by the Foreign Office although it refused to comment on any dialogue that may have occurred between Sir John and Von Hoesch, when they met during a court event at Buckingham palace.[12]

Sear’s fine did not stifle the spirit of resistance. That same evening, someone carried out another, if more restrained, act of defiance placing a small chaplet of red and white tulips and gardenias in the same space where Dr Rosenberg’s swastika wreath had been placed at the base of the cenotaph. An attached card carried a short but inspiring message of resistance. “This wreath is placed here in sincerity by a British citizen who resents the insult to our glorious dead”.[13] Another card which had been placed along with a single lily on the cenotaph on the previous day was deemed offensive and was quickly detached and removed by a police constable. It was from an American veteran and read

If the Unknown soldier could speak to this unknown American he might voice his preference for this single flower to the wreath of a murderous dictator which now desecrates this memorial.”[14]

There were to be many more such desecrations throughout the 1930s, when German delegations and officials placed swastika wreaths at the Cenotaph, usually with an accompanying Hitler salute.  These carefully choreographed displays of Nazi etiquette usually took place with the sanction and blessing of their British counterparts and sometimes of the government itself . Here are a few of those incidents.

In June 1935, the same German delegation of First World War veterans, which had earlier visited Brighton, were welcomed to London by the headquarters staff of the British Legion. They marched down Whitehall carrying the German swastika flag.  The Western Daily Press described how “with arms extended in the Nazi salute… they stood in silence for two minutes.”[15]

January 1936 – The Swastika is carried towards the Cenotaph

In January 1936 a party of German ex-servicemen, accompanied by British Legion officials, held up traffic in Whitehall while the two groups carried the Nazi flag and the Union Jack to the Cenotaph. The German visitors then layed a wreath containing a black swastika set against a white circle of flowers.[16]

In June 1936 the German general Oberst von Seeckt placed an enormous wreath of lilies and laurels at the foot of the Cenotaph. They were tied together with a red ribbon embossed with a black swastika.[17]

In August 1936 a parade of fifty Hitler Youth marched down Whitehall to the Cenotaph carrying the Nazi flag, alongside a group of fifty boys of the Britannia Youth Movement, who’s standard bearer carried the Union Jack.  Earlier Afred Roy Wise, the Conservative MP for Smethwick in Staffordshire,  enthusiastically escorted the Hitler Jugend on a tour around the Houses of Parliament. The Britannia Youth Movement were then invited to Germany to attend the Olympic Games and the Nazi party rally at Nuremberg.[18]

In May 1937, the Nottingham Journal carried an article about the largest ever parade of some 25,000 members of the British legion down Whitehall under the headline “Moving Scenes at Cenotaph.”  It reported how “as they passed the Cenotaph the German (military) attache gave the Nazi salute and Signor Dalcroix ( the president of FIDAC – the International Alliance of Allied Veterans Organisations ) held out an arm in the fascist salute, while a friend removed his silk hat.”[19]

In July 1937, a photograph in the Scotsman carried a photo showing a party of German blind ex-servicemen giving a Nazi salute after laying a wreath at the Cenotaph, containing a black swastika seemingly surrounded by white flowers.[20]

On 24 September 1938, at the height of the Munich crisis as it seemed that Britain and Germany were on the brink of war, a party of German ex-servicemen, headed by the Duke of Saxe Coburg Gotha, laid a swastika wreath at the Cenotaph just as Chamberlain was passing on his return to Downing Street.  As there was a large crowd of onlookers present,  two policemen were delegated to stand guard in case the wreath was taken or vandalised. The Yorkshire Evening Post related how “the swastika stared blatantly from the wreath’s long red ribbon” but that “no harsh words were said.”  The Times reported the wreath laying but avoided any mention of the swastika.[21]

The ex-servicemen were part of a delegation of eight hundred German veterans who had arrived two days earlier.  Disembarking from a liner at Greenwich, they had proceeded up the Thames in barges, each flying the swastika flag at its bow.  The Birmingham Gazette reported how “the first man who jumped off the (first) launch gave the Nazi salute, and he was followed by about 200, each of whom did the same.”  They were warmly welcomed by Port of London officials and then escorted to Westminster Hall where “everyone sat down to tea” and listened to “an official welcome by Sir Thomas Inskip, Defence Minister.”[22]  There is no record of anyone asking him how he had the time to attend such a function, if the British government really believed that war with Germany might be imminent.


1. “Wreath Flung in Thames,” The Yorkshire Post, 12 May 1933 p5 and “Dr Rosenberg’s Wreath,” The Times, 12 May 1933 p11 from The Times Digital Archive accessed on 17 July 2017.

2. Our Special Correspondent, “Nazi Foreign Policy – Dr. Rosenberg to Visit London,” The Times, 4 May 1933 p11 from The Times Digital Archive accessed on 17 July 2017.

3. Klaus P. Fischer (1995) “Nazi Germany: A New History“, Constable, London p119.

4. “The Cenotaph,” the Manchester Guardian, 13 May 1933, p11

5. “Unfortunate Incident. Wreath Damaged at Cenotaph. The Tribute of Hitler and German People”, Devon and Exeter Gazette, 11 May 1933 p20.

6. “Socialists and Nazis”, the Dundee Courier and Advertiser, 12 May 1933, p6.

7, “Herr Hitler’s Wreath”, the Leeds Mercury, 12 May 1933, p6

8. “Nazi Foreign Expert Dr Rosenberg Lays wreath on Cenotaph”, the Scotsman, 11 May 1933 p8, “German Wreath from Cenotaph Thrown into The Thames,” the Hull Daily Mail, 11 May 1933 p1, “Nazi Wreath Snatched From the Cenotaph”, the Dundee Courier and Advertiser 12 May 1933 p3 and “Nazi Wreath From Cenotaph Thrown in the Thames”, the Lancashire Daily Post, 11 May 1933, p7

9. “Dr Rosenberg Shocked,” the Yorkshire Evening Post, 11 May 1933, p14, “Unfortunate Incident,” the Devon and Exeter Gazette, 12 May 1933 p20 and “Hitler’s Cenotaph Wreath Thrown into River,” the Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail,” 11 May 1933, p5

10. Ian Kershaw (2004), “Making Friends with Hitler: Lord Londonderry and Britain’s Road to War“, Allen Lane, London, p55

11. “Cenotaph ‘Truce’ Broken”, the Aberdeen Press and Journal, Monday 15 May 1933 p6.

12. “Nazi Foreign Expert Dr Rosenberg Lays Wreath on Cenotaph”, The Scotsman, 11 May 1933 p8.

13. “Nazi Wreath Snatched from Cenotaph”, the Dundee Courier and Advertiser, 12 May 1933, p3 and “Dr Rosenberg’s Wreath,” The Times, 12 May 1933 p11 from The Times Digital Archive accessed on 17 July 2017.

14. See “A Lily and a Card”, the Daily Mirror, 13 May 1933, p20 and “Another Cenotaph Incident”, the Hull Daily Mail, 12 May 1933, p9

15. “German Ex-Prisoners at the Cenotaph,” the Western Daily Press, 26 June 1935, p4

16. “German Ex-Servicemen Wreath Placed at the London Cenotaph,” The Scotsman, 21 January 1936 p15

17. “German and French Tributes,” the Western Daily Press and Bristol Mirror, 9 June 1936 p12

18. “‘Hitler Jugend,’ – German Youths at the Cenotaph,” The Scotsman, 3 August 1936 p2

19. “Morning Scenes at Cenotaph,” the Nottingham Journal, 17 May 1937 p7

20. Photo caption in The Scotsman, 17 July 1937 p20

21. “Germans at the Cenotaph,” the Yorkshire Evening Post, 26 September 1938 p6,  “German Mayors at Mansion House,” The Times, 26 September 1938 p9 accessed online in the Times Digital Archive on 26 October 2017.

22. “Defence Minister Welcomes 1000 German Visitors,” the Birmingham Gazette, 23 September 1938 p3