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White Eagle Over Wimbledon

By John Phillips

Fear and suspicion of Polish immigrant workers may have led impressionable Britons to vote for Brexit. It was a different story when an earlier generation of Poles came to help defend Britain against Nazi evil.

These people became the nation’s ‘first ally’ against Adolf Hitler. They were welcomed to the UK. A good few were brave pilots in the Battle of Britain.

Since then hundreds of thousands of Poles have come to work in Britain following Poland’s membership of the EU in 2004.

At first their presence did not generate hostility. That was whipped up by UKIP and far right parties who claimed Poles came to rob Brits of their jobs.

It was not the first time that an influx of Poles had led to resentment. There was a wave of anti-Polish sentiment in the British labour movement after the war and British authorities treated Polish political refugees in the 1950s as ‘aliens’. They were placed under close surveillance for years before they could become ‘naturalised’ UK citizens.

But more recent distrust festered in a dark part of the popular English imagination. It led to all migrant East Europeans being branded as ‘Poles’. It even led to violence and death.

In White Eagle over Wimbledon, journalist and historian John Phillips tells how his father, Ireneusz Filipowicz, fought in the Polish Resistance as a teenager and became the first recorded Cold War defector from Poland in a daring escape from the Russian secret police before arriving in Britain.

It is the story of one family, part of the thriving Anglo-Polish community in London in the 1960s and 1970s, which integrated into a gentler English society. Like so many immigrants to Britain, their contributions helped make the nation great.

Ireneusz married a beautiful English girl, had a successful business career and created a loving and welcoming Wimbledon home for their children. Yet some exiles, such as hard-drinking Uncle John, failed to integrate into Britain, which he believed ‘betrayed’ Poland in 1939.
The Poles and the British could be said to have enjoyed a love-hate relationship over the past 75 years.

Phillips’ poring over the entrails of an often bloody European history is his attempt to illuminate and reinforce the two peoples’ deep alliance so that love may prevail in the future.

John Phillips was born in Yorkshire and grew up in Wimbledon, attended King’s College School and read history at Oxford University.

He became a foreign correspondent for United Press International and The Times. He is editor of The Italian Insider.

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