The 43 Group fought renewed fascism in the UK after World War II. It was set up by Jewish ex-servicemen who were horrified to see fascist salutes on the streets of Britain upon returning as heroes. The activities of fascist groups included anti-Semitic speeches in public places, inciting racial hatred, and from the rank-and-file fascists, violent attacks on Jews and Jewish property.
They were shocked by the level of protection given to the fascists at home by the police – all in the name of freedom of speech. The Talmud Torah (religious school) in Dalston had its windows smashed. Jewish shops were daubed 'PJ' (Perish Judah). You heard, 'We have got to get rid of the Yids' and 'They didn't burn enough of them in Belsen'."
(See video with interviews of former members of the 43 group by pressing here)
Many of the senior members of the British Union of Fascists, which had preached anti-Semitism before the war, including their leader Oswald Mosley, had been interned during the fall of France in May 1940. Yet immediately after the war, the Mosleyite movement, renamed The British League of Ex-Servicemen and Women, started up its hate campaign all over again, blaming the war on the Jews and choosing the route of their demonstrations through Jewish areas. Mosley Blackshirts, dressed like Nazi stormtroopers, were revived.
The 43 Group got its name from the number of ex-servicemen (38 men and five women) who turned up to the founding meeting at the Jewish centre Maccabi House, a Jewish sports club in south Hampstead, in April 1946.
Morris Beckman was one of the 43 and he explained the founding as: "We wanted revenge – the Holocaust was in our minds. We decided we had to out-fascist the fascists." "I had been in the merchant navy, survived two torpedo attacks on the Atlantic convoys, and I came back home to Amhurst Road, Hackney to hugs and kisses. My mother went out to make some tea and my dad said, ' The bastards are back – Mosley and his Blackshirts'."
The Group started as a self defense organization aimed at protecting the harassed and Jewish community in the East End of London. The clashes escalated simply because the BUF "Upped the ante" and the 43 group were forced to reply in kind. They regularly broke the law in their struggle, and their veterans are proud to have done so.
The Groups philosophy of the “3 D's” - Discuss, Decide and Do it – were quickly manifested on the streets of London, with literally thousands of fascist meetings and rallies sent packing. Quickly gaining a reputation, The Groups ranks swelled to hundreds, organized in 'wedges' of a dozen or so. These wedges would attend a BUF rally and at a given signal would storm the speaker’s platform, attacking BUF stewards and speaker.
The Groups military background ensured tight discipline and brutally effective actions. This combined with a number of spies within the fascist ranks. Ensured the 43 Group almost always came out on top, closing down two-thirds of all fascist activity in the UK until its simultaneous demise with organized fascism in Britain.
Despite the Groups ferocity when fighting the fascists, they offered no resistance if arrested by the police. This policy was in keeping with their goal of convincing the State to ban fascist organizations. The Group could not then be seen to be attacking the State. Their motivations were the quite reasonable desire to drive away annoying idiots who came with megaphones and jackboots to their streets.
The 43 Group was viewed by established Jewish organizations, such as the Board of Deputies of British Jews (which represented and promoted the welfare of British Jewry), as competitors, and this Jewish establishment also worried that the group's activities could damage the community's reputation, especially in light of the terrorist acts and guerrilla warfare carried out by militant Zionist groups like the Irgun in British Mandate Palestine.
The policy of the British Board of Deputies was to make political representations to the Labour Home Secretary, James Chuter-Ede, for a change in the law to outlaw the Moselyite gatherings. But the Attlee Government was not going to ban the Fascists. With the Labour home secretary James Chuter Ede refusing to take action and the Jewish establishment urging peaceful protest, the demobbed Jews had had enough.
In November 1946, the 43 Group had a letter published in the Jewish Chronicle calling for new recruits. In addition to gaining new members, it provoked a response the following week from the Jewish establishment in the form of the Board of Deputies of British Jews (BoD) Louis J Hydleman, chairman of the BoD’s Jewish Defence Committee (JDC), who wrote to the newspaper attacking the Group. Hydleman argued that there was no need for a separate organization from the JDC and that the Group should disband.
(The picture above shows Morris Beckman addressing an antifascist meeting in Bethnal Green, east London, in 1947.)
Although the group was around 85% Jewish, including ex-service personnel, it was open to all and enjoyed a huge network of popular support from people of all shades of political opinion. By 1947, the group had over 1,000 members: mainly in London, but also in Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham and Newcastle, including 100 women and a network of non-Jewish supporters helped by infiltrating Mosley’s headquarters so the group knew in advance of his next meetings and enabling the group to thwart the fascists’ plans by making them public.
In little more than a year the 43 Group had became an impressive organization. It had a full-time organizer, an office, a monthly newspaper (On Guard), a growing membership, and had infiltrated members deep into the fascist movement.
Money flooded in from prominent Jews such as the boxing promoter Jack Solomons and the businessman Sir Charles Clore. Every month Bud Flanagan (born Reuben Weintrop and a member of the Crazy Gang comedy quartet) sent a £30 cheque with a note saying "Good work, boys." The actor Sydney Tafler helped the cause by mimicking Mosley’s hate rhetoric on a recording played to a group of Jewish businessmen. “They reached for their chequebooks, some of them donating £1,000.”
The toughest – former Royal Marines, paratroops and Guards – became the commandos, on call day and night to disrupt meetings and carry out raids. A network of London black-cab drivers provided eyes, ears and transport.
Group founder Morris Beckman arguing that 43 Group was crucial in stopping a resurgence of fascism in post-war Britain. He claims that two-thirds of fascist meetings (more than 2000) were closed down by anti-fascists in the summer of 1947. "They saw us as stereotypes, the nervous Jewish tailor clutching a bag of money, when we were young men, trained to fight. I interviewed some fascists years later and they said they left Mosley because they didn't want to get a beating. We made a lot of people A&E (accident & emergency) cases."
Their philosophy, instilled into them after six years in the Services, was simple: attack all Fascists. The 43 Group responded with single-minded aggression. Armed with clubs, razors, bricks, knuckledusters, broken bottles, knives and everything except guns and bombs, the 43 Group tracked down Fascist meetings to quash them.
The event that gained the most publicity for the 43 Group was Flamberg’s alleged shooting with intent to murder of the fascist John Preen in December 1947. Charged with Flamberg was another founder member of the 43 Group, John Wimborne. In March 1948, On Guard reported: “The 43 Group have received a great volume of applications for membership of their organization as a direct result of the Preen case”.
John Wimbourne and Gerry Flamberg were in the HQ in Bayswater. It was late and we decided we’d go to a club. “That night John Preen, Mosley’s right-hand man, told police he had been shot. Preen, who had been a member of the BUF and had been imprisoned during the war as a fascist detainee, was a prominent activist who had been a founder of the Britons Action Party and also ran a fascist bookshop.
He gave them the registration of a car that Gerry was renting and the police pulled us in.” Preen identified Mr. Wimbourne and he was arrested on suspicion of attempted murder. Wimbourne was 21 “so they sent me to Wormwood Scrubs, which was an interesting experience. When we came up again in court, there was a good witness who proved it would not have been possible for a shot to be fired as Preen claimed, so we were off the hook.” The magistrate declared that Preen’s word was unreliable.
The 43 Group taught its members unarmed combat, boxing and how to avoid knife thrusts and razor slashing. Many wore cricket boxes so they wouldn't be kneed in the crotch by police, hundreds of whom were drafted in to keep order. Knowing that Fascist meetings incited attacks on local Jewish people and property, The 43 Group struck as soon as a speaker mounted the podium, using wedges of ten or more men to overturn the platforms.
According to Chanie Rosenberg, an anti-fascist, ‘If we had left them alone, Mosley would have had some brief blossoming of sorts, and he would have kept a nucleus there. But we didn’t. We smashed them. The anti-fascist activity more or less eliminated any possibilities they had.’
Martin Black, a Jewish former RAF serviceman, recalls how appalled he was: "We couldn't believe it, these bast***s were on the street again giving the Fascist salute." Stanley Marks, who was demobbed from the Royal Engineers, agrees. "They were doing the same, as if nothing had happened. Our whole lives were dominated by what had happened to the Jews in Europe."
The 43 Group was voluntarily disbanded on 5 April 1950, as its members considered that the immediate threat had passed. The executive committee drew up a resolution that it circulated to all the Group’s current members.
“In the interests of the Jewish community, as the ultimate proof of our sincerity in this desire for unity, and because we consider that Jewish ex-servicemen can and must play a leading role against all forms of reaction, it is hereby resolved by the membership of the 43 Group of Ex-Servicemen that this organization shall forthwith disband, and that all those eligible should immediately join and take part in the work of the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen.”
Some members of the 43 Group
The initial membership of around 300 people included war heroes who held bravery decorations such as Petty Officer Thomas "Tommy" William Gould, a submariner who won the Victoria Cross, and Gerry Flamberg, who won the Military Medal at Arnhem.
Others at the foundation meeting were Morris Beckman, who served in the Merchant Navy in World War II and was torpedoed twice, Leonard Sherman, martial arts expert (Welsh Guards), and Alec Carson, who flew Hawker Hurricanes in the Battle of Britain.
Thomas William Gould was a recipient of the Victoria Cross, the highest and most prestigious award for gallantry in the face of the enemy that can be awarded to British and Commonwealth forces.
Gould was 27 years old, and a petty officer in the Royal Navy during the Second World War when the following deed took place for which he was awarded the VC. On 16 February 1942 north of Crete, in the Mediterranean, HM Submarine Thrasher, after attacking and sinking a supply ship, was itself attacked. Thrasher was subjected to a three hour depth charge attack and aerial bombing.
Later, after surfacing, two unexploded bombs were discovered in the gun-casing. Petty officer Gould and Lieutenant Roberts removed the first one without too much difficulty, but the second bomb had penetrated the side plating of the gun emplacement, and then the deck casing above the pressure hull.
Roberts and Gould entered the confined space (which was no more than 2 ft high in places), and lying flat, wormed past deck supports, battery ventilators, and drop bollards. The petty officer then lay on his back with the 150 lb bomb in his arms while the Williams dragged him along by the shoulders. "It was then a matter of the two of us, lying horizontally, pushing and pulling the bomb back through the casing.
It was pitch black and the bomb was making this horrible ticking noise while the submarine was being buffeted by the waves." Meanwhile, Thrasher was surfaced, stationary, and close inshore to enemy waters. If the submarine was forced to crash dive, both men would drown. It was 50 minutes before they got the bomb clear, wrapped it in sacking, and dropped it over the side.
Another one of the fighters was Gerald Flamberg who had won the Military Medal [awarded to soldiers below commissioned rank for bravery in battle on land]. He was the son of Jack Flamberg from Warsaw and Stepney born Miriam.
Called up in 1941, he joined the King’s royal rifle Regiment. After six months, he volunteered for the 156th parachute battalion. He was dropped many times in campaigns including North Africa, Sicily, Italy, and Operation Market Garden in Arnhem.
On the 19th September 1944, West of Arnhem, Private Flamberg's company, after almost continuous fighting since they dropped the day before, delivered two attacks on a strong enemy position. They were held up each time and suffered considerable casualties.
A number were collected, of whom Flamberg was one, by Lieutenant C Silvester, Brigade Liaison Officer, and led in a third time. There was heavy fire and in the supposition that it was from our own troops, Flamberg was sent out into the open with a recognition triangle. He was met by a German tank which immediately opened up and put a bullet through his shoulder and remaining there in action, pinned the Company at about 200 yards.
Flamberg crawled back, and concealing his distress, cheerfully asked and obtained permission to attack the tank with a Gammon bomb [No. 82 grenade was an elasticized stockingette bag filled with plastic explosive and primarily used by paratroopers]. He then stalked the tank, working up to within ten yards of it, in great pain with one arm useless.
He threw the bomb and damaged the tank so that it hastily withdrew, opening the way for the Company to which Flamberg, as cheerfully as ever, then returned. The tremendous fighting spirit and fine example of this man was of the highest importance in its effect on the troops, who then went in to hand fighting in the best of spirits as consequence of it.
He was captured, and in the prison camp, he obtained pledges to help children who had lost their father’s during the war, which led to the organization of the Brunswick Boys’ club after the war. He eventually owned a successful chain of jewelry shops.
John Wimbourne joined the 43s after returning to Britain from service in the Merchant Navy. He recalled feeling compelled to combat Mosley’s organization. “I was shocked to come back and see what was going on. A few of the boys I knew were of the same mind. We decided we would not stand for it.” Their activities often led to run-ins with police — and a real risk of prison.” Wimbourne ran the intelligence section.
Cyril Sherbourne maintains to this day that without the 43 Group, the Fascists would have flourished. “Mosley used to be on top of a van giving speeches about the Jews controlling the world. If there had been no opposition who knows what would have happened? They could have been in power by now. “Fighting went on almost every week. The tough ones were in front and the weaker ones went behind. I’m proud of what we did.”
Jules Konopinski was a commando veteran of Ridley Road. He came to Hackney from Poland with his family in 1939. His mother's nine brothers and sisters died in the extermination camps. In 1946, his uncle, a survivor of Auschwitz, moved in. "I had eyewitness evidence of the Holocaust and there were these Nazis walking around saying the Jews are like rats."
When asked if he seriously injured anyone he will only say "Yes". He took part in raids on fascist homes, staked out cemeteries that had been the target of fascist daubings. "We visited one fascist at home after an attack and severely reprimanded him. We said if any one of ours is hurt again we will come back to find 10 of you."
Harry Kaufman signed up for the 43 Group after seeing a newspaper headline: "Jewish war heroes arrested after Mosley protest." The group's team of forgers may have saved him from prison. "I was on top of somebody whacking him and a police officer grabbed me and said sort of 'You're nicked'. Behind me, Reggie Morris, a big bloke in a white mac, showed the officer a card: "Special branch. I'll take this one. He marched me around the corner and said 'Now fuck off'."
He was arrested again in Tottenham and says he was only spared jail because he had been called up for national service in the RAF.
(See video of Jules Konopinski and Harry Kaufman by pressing here)
Harry Kaufman demonstrates how to turn a copy of the Guardian into a useful cosh. A tap across the palm gives a hint of the damage it would cause if it were swung in anger. "This of course was only for self-defense," he smiles. "If you were arrested, you simply dropped it on the floor and it was just a newspaper. Others carried bits of lead piping, iron bars and things."
Battles were fought in Walthamstow, West Green, Victoria Park, Shoreditch, Hackney, Whitestone Park, Kilburn, Maida Vale, Tottenham and once as far as Brighton, where the Fascists marched only 20 yards before being set upon by a well-organised The 43 Group ambush led by Commander Barry Langford, thanks to a spy in the Mosleyite camp.
"We're not here to kill," a former The 43 Group veteran recalls, being told on that occasion: "We're here to maim."
Maurice Podrow, who was still in the RAF when he joined the group, admitted that at the time he was “very violent”. “At a meeting at Hyde Park Corner we couldn’t get at Mosley, so we picked on this big South African, one of his right-hand men,” he said. “I was pictured on the front of the Daily Mail punching him. My wing commander wasn’t very pleased.”
He wore a Polish army belt with a thick brass buckle “sharpened so it was a four-sided blade”. Knuckledusters, coshes, steel-capped boots and knives were used on both sides. The Blackshirts threw potatoes studded with razor blades.
Beckman recalled bloody battles in Ridley Road market, in what was then a Jewish area of Hackney, in east London. Mosley would stand on a van, nicknamed “the Elephant” because of its two massive ear-like loudspeakers, and stir up crowds with talk of the “alien” menace. “We would salt the crowd with groups who would fight among themselves, the police would be diverted and two wedges of commandos, the tough guys – ex-marines, guards and paras – would make for the platform and overturn it.” “If the meeting was disrupted the police were forced to close it down."
Although the 43 Group continued to attack fascist meetings, most spectacularly in Brighton in June 1948, when the fascists were given a decisive physical beating, it placed growing emphasis on the propaganda campaign.
By 1949 it was clear that the building of a successful fascist party was not going as smoothly as Mosley had hoped. Some 700 people turned out to hear him speak at Kensington Town Hall in January 1949, where he returned to classic, prewar antisemitism. Over 3,000 protesters gathered outside at a demonstration organised by the 43 Group. Tear gas was set off inside the meeting and over 100 fascists required medical treatment for its effects. There were seven arrests, several of whom were 43 Group members.
One of those active in the 43 Group was Vidal Sassoon who at the age of 17 in 1947, although having been too young to serve in World War II, became the youngest member of the Group. Sassoon was later to become the most famous hairdresser in the world and best remembered as a style icon who revolutionized fashion in the sixties. He created simple geometric, "Bauhaus-inspired" hair style, also called the wedge bob. His "wash and wear" philosophy liberated women from the "tyranny of the salon" and "revolutionized the art of hairstyling."
Sassoon's styles became "emblematic of freedom and good health" and their popularity allowed him to open the first chain of worldwide hair styling salons, complemented by his hair-treatment products. He amassed a 100 million fortune, part of which funds the renowned Vidal Sassoon Centre for the Study of Anti-Semitism and Xenophobia at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem. It also funded educational pursuits on a need-basis in Israel and elsewhere.
Vidal Sassoon was born in Hammersmith, London. His parents were Sephardi Jews. His mother, Betty (Bellin), came from a family of immigrants from Spain, and his father, Jack Sassoon, was from Thessaloniki, Greece. His father left his family when Vidal was three years old.
Sassoon spoke at length to Julian Kossoff in 2010 about his exploits on the streets of London in the postwar years doing battle with Oswald Mosley's reformed Blackshirts across bombed-out London.
"I was 17 when I came back to London after the evacuation," he recalled. "I wanted to be a footballer but my mother insisted I get a profession, so I was apprenticed to a very distinguished hairdresser called Adolph Cohen, who was known by everyone as 'the Professor'. We lived on the fourth floor of a Petticoat Lane tenement in the East End, where the smell of bagels wafted up from the bakery downstairs.
"The Lane was a maze of colorful humanity; people cared for one another, and showed a kindness that knew no barriers of race. But then that popinjay Mosley was released from prison, where he had spent most of the war. And our lives were to change for the worse.
"Suddenly there were fascists preaching hate on every corner," said Sassoon. "These rabble-rousers were the same Nazi sympathizers who had spent the war years in prison, and now they were starting where they had left off.
It is astonishing that even after World War II, when Belsen and Auschwitz had been liberated and newsreel had shown the world the scale of atrocities committed against Europe's Jews, Mosley could still find hundreds of supporters in the East End for his campaign of racial hatred and anti-Semitism.
Mosley tried to dress up his post-war campaign as merely being in favour of European unity - "Europe: A Nation!" was his favoured battle-cry - but, in fact, his thuggish, street-corner orators were simultaneously shouting: "Not enough Jews were burned at Belsen!"
"Their speeches and their literature depicted us, the Jews, as coarse, ugly caricatures with long beards and dirty finger-nails, dressed in black gabardine. And they hurled the same abuse that I remembered from the 1930s, when we had to walk through Paddington in a crocodile to school. I was too young to do anything about it then but I had never forgotten the fear. En masse, when you've got a thousand throats all screaming "The yids, yids, we've gotta get rid of the yids", that is pretty terrifying. They'd wear uniforms, insignia, the whole thing.
"I don't remember exactly when we decided to fight back, but the pictures we were seeing from Auschwitz and Buchenwald and Dachau changed the shape of our rage, and the slogan "Never Again!" became a command."
And so it was that the fresh-faced cockney signed up with the 43 Group. "We had turned the cheek for the last time," says Sassoon, who heard about it on the Whitechapel grapevine. "And as a 17-year-old recruit, I was proud to be involved.
"As soon as I showed an interest I was assigned to a particular group, like everyone else. My guv'nor in the East End group was Jackie Myerovitch, and from him we would get a phone call to be in a certain place at certain time to disrupt a Mosley speech, or one of the pubs. Then these incidents, or actions, would begin. It was pretty terrifying. I remember Jackie being badly slashed, but there was no time to worry about such things."
When you consider the ferocity of the clashes between the Fascists and The 43 Group in the late Forties - Sassoon likens them to "pitched battles" - it was a miracle no one was killed. There were 40 clashes a week at their peak: bricks were thrown, flesh slashed and faces smashed in fights that even mounted riot police couldn't control, yet there were no fatalities - because no guns were involved.
The biggest and most regular clashes came in Ridley Road - nicknamed Yiddley Road by the Fascists - in Dalston where the Metropolitan Police had to try to keep the peace during 1947-48. Sasson recalls the fighting as "horrendous", but: "You had to be involved, you had to be."
A boy amongst hardened fighting men, Sassoon was to become one of the toughest and keenest of all the informal soldiers. "He was only a kid, but he was a tough little shtarka", says a former 43 Group commander and comrade, retired paratrooper Gerry Lambert, using a Yiddish word that corresponds, more or less, to hard man.
One of the veterans said: "You would never have guessed to see him there, deep in the fray. At that time he was just the sort of guy you wanted standing right by your side when the fighting started. And back then, of course, we often had to break the law. It was out of necessity. We had to use the same weapons as the fascists did: knuckle-dusters, coshes [a weapon shaped like a short thick stick], and cut throat razors".
Inevitably the police arrested hundreds of people during the five years of organized violence and on at least one occasion the young Sassoon found himself in jail. "I've lost count of the number of actions I was involved in," he smiles, "but I do remember the night we were told to go up to Kilburn [in north-west London], to break up a fascist meeting. There was a real punch-up. We chased the blackshirts into a pub, but we were ourselves being chased by the police.
They arrested us on the spot, threw us in the back of the van and started calling us filthy foreign Jew bastards. They beat the hell out of my old friend Big Mo Levy and threw us in a cell for the night." "When we went up before the judge the next morning we told him about the police brutality, but he just said, 'those sort of things do not happen in Britain, now go home and be good boys'."
"Well yes," he says gently, "I had to have a sense of humour. There was one occasion one morning after a particularly nasty tear-up, he returned to his employers, Alfred Cohen's hairdressers in Whitechapel, with a badly scratched face and this refined client looked at me and said, 'Good God, Vidal, you look terrible. What happened to you?'
"Nothing much," I said. "I just tripped on a hairpin."
In 1948, at the age of 20, Sassoon joined the Haganah (which shortly afterwards became the Israeli Defence Forces) and served in a Palmach commando unit in the Negev during the 1948 Arab–Israeli War, which began after Israel declared statehood. He described the year he spent training with the Israelis as "the best year of my life." At the time he hoped to stay in Israel, attend university and become an architect but his family's poverty forced him to return to London.