The Battle of Cable Street took place 80 years ago, on Oct. 4, 1936, in the East End of London. Although it is largely unknown to most people, it was an epic event in the history of the Jews of the East End. In fact, one can say that this Battle, when Oswald Mosley and his Blackshirts were denied the ability to march thru the largely Jewish East End, was a pivotal moment in the history of British Jewry and represented a major defeat for fascism in Britain.
Yoel Sheridan, who himself was a boy of 8 living very close to Cable Street at the time, spoke about the event at AACI Netanya and showed videos of films taken at the time. There were about 5,000 Blackshirts in full dress uniform with jackboots who lined up near the Tower of London and with Sir Oswald Mosley leading them, marched into the East End singing English translations of German Nazi songs. A coalition of all the groups in the area determined to stop them. They used the slogan of the Spanish Civil War against the fascists, “No pasaren” “they shall not pass.”
But, this coalition of Jews, Irish dock workers, communists and socialists almost did not happen. The Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Jewish Chronicle newspaper were solidly against trying to prevent the march and advised all Jews to stay away. The dockers who were predominately Irish usually did not organize together with the Jews. The Communist Party was against trying to stop Mosley and tried to organize a counter-demonstration in Trafalgar Square. The Labour Party and the British Government were against stopping the Blackshirts from exercising their right of freedom of speech.
But, the Jews were having none of it, they came with the dockers and the local Communists in their hundreds of thousands. They put up barricades and blocked all access roads. Over 5,000 Metropolitan Police then tried to force a passage for the Blackshirts to march thru the East End. The narrow Cable Street near the London Docks was where the focus of the clashes took place. But, after 4 hours of baton charges and hundreds of arrests the police could not clear a way. There were also mounted police on horses, but the crowd threw marbles and ball-bearings down (including my father who was there) and the horses fell and the police were forced to retreat.
Eventually the Police Commissioner decided that they could not break through the massive crowd and ordered the Blackshirts to retreat back to the Tower and along the Embankment of the River Thames. This defeat for Mosley signalled the end of the rise of the Fascist movement in Britain. As a result of this event the Government passed the Public Order Act prohibiting the use of uniforms for any kind of political march and once this happened the allure of the Fascist movement dissipated.
It should be noted that the actual Battle was between the local inhabitants, mainly Jews, and the police, the Blackshirts did not actually get into combat. The police were supposedly doing their duty, trying to ensure the freedom to demonstrate by the Blackshirts. But, actually it was no secret that the police were highly sympathetic to the Fascist movement, and in one notorious case a sergeant at Bow Road Police Station had a photo of Hitler on his wall. My father and others protested this and he was forced to take it down. There was a lot of violent action between the police and the Jews, many of whom were first generation born in Britain. The situation was much like the current situation between the US police and the Black community, although without the guns.
About Oswald Mosley. He had been of aristocratic birth, but was an ambitious member of the Labour Party. Having been passed over for a leadership role, probably because of his arrogant manner, he looked around for an alternative political role and saw the rise of Mussolini and Hitler in Europe and sought to copy them in Britain. He organized the British Union Party and the Blackshirts based on the Nazis. But, his appeal to anti-Semitism and the use of political violence did not attract a large following in Britain. Once WWII started Mosley was arrested and interned during the War.
What was significant about the Battle of Cable Street was that the Jews of the East End of London did not wilt before the Fascists, they stood firm and fought back. If only the Jews in Europe had been able to do the same, but the situation there was totally different, there Fascism and Nazism were very popular and the themes of anti-Semitism and political violence were ingrained.