They were supposedly part of a charitable scheme that offered alternative employment to the region’s young out-of-work miners.
At their height, the work camps of East Cleveland attracted the great and the good of depression-era Britain and even received a visit from Prince George.
But new research into archive documents and the writings of a self-styled “English Fuhrer” reveal the sinister true motives behind the camps – the Nazi creed of Heartbreak Hill.
During the Great Depression, between 1928 and 1933, the closure of many of East Cleveland’s ironstone mines devastated thousands of families as unemployment soared to 91%.
Under the guidance of their friend Rolf Gardiner, husband and wife Major “Jim” and Ruth Pennyman, of Ormesby Hall, began buying stretches of land around Margrove Park, Boosbeck and Lingdale.
The scheme, known as Heartbreak Hill, worked by providing plots of land that the miners could cultivate as farmland, the miners were then paid in produce.
The plan was lauded as a great success and attracted the attention of 1930s high society with Prince George’s visiting 1933.
Yet behind the plaudits and royal visits, it appears the scheme was designed to promote an ideology founded in Nazism – and the connection can be traced to Rolf Gardiner.
Aristocratic and charismatic, the blond haired, blue-eyed Gardiner spoke fluent German, was a prolific writer, folk dancer and a rural revivalist.
He helped pioneer organic farming and co-founded Kinship in Husbandry, a forerunner of today’s Soil Association.
But Gardiner was also an anti-Semite, a Nazi sympathiser and the self-described Fuhrer of German-style youth movements in England.
In his writings found by the Gazette at Tees Archives in Middlesbrough, Gardiner rants of how a “Jew-controlled press, cinema, wireless and advertising,” had “corrupted the soul of England”.
In another piece Gardiner wrote: “Germany has the innate power to claim captaincy of European civilisation at a time when it is menaced from without and within.”
Perhaps most unsettling is the letter Gardiner wrote on April 25, 1933 to the infamous Nazi propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels.
Gardiner begins: “Esteemed Herr Reich Minister,” before introducing himself as the “Fuhrer of a young English generation”.
Explaining the difficulties he had faced while setting up a far-right youth movement in England he wrote: “An entire old world stood opposed to our direction and wanted to reverse it. For we sought the new order of a third Reich…
“We wanted to bring about not brotherhood but spiritual combat… We thought in an undemocratic and un-pacifist way.”
Goebbels immediately published the letter as an example of Nazi support in Britain.
It was in 1929 that Gardiner first wrote to the Pennymans with his idea of politicising Cleveland youths under the guise of work camps for the unemployed.
Beginning, “My dear Jim and Ruth,” Gardiner wrote: “Our business is to create something new, something rooted in faith and obedience which may survive the storms which loom and break over England.
“Here’s your job! To initiate something new, and to kindle the life quality where it has been quenched.
“In the neighbourhood of every fluctuating industry today, we ought to be starting some form of rural activity which will about and train the surplus young men.
“Try to get the young socialists and communists to meet the “Imps”… Start your smaller discussion groups.
“Get them to report the result of their discussions to the united assembly afterwards, but be careful whom you put in charge of the groups.”
“You’ll have to sift your human material somewhat cunningly at first and pick out the live-wires from the furred ones: for upon your original nucleus, your larger one will later on depend…
…Have organization and real discipline whenever it is necessary.”
Throughout the 1930s, Gardiner set up similar work camps across Britain, all following the same ideology.
The Gardiner’s camps received regular visits from Nazi youth groups led by Georg Gotsch, director of the Musikheim in Frankfurt, described by Gardiner as being “a true executor of the ideas of the National Socialist state”.
In an Evening Gazette interview after his visit to the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Jim Pennyman said: “So much had been said about the bullying of the Jews and political opponents that Hitler’s constructive ideas had been overlooked in many circles.
“The treatment of individual Jews is to English eyes inexcusable but this is not the first time, that in a revolution, people have been deprived of their property.
“There are two classes of Jews to whom the Hitler regime objects, namely the international financier and the Jews who filter in from the East.
“They say Germany is for the Germans, and no foreigner will be allowed to own land or have an important position in the state service.”
While this doesn’t look good in retrospect, it should be understood that in the early 1930s, the true nature of Nazi ideology was poorly understood by most.
At that time there was widespread feeling that the Treaty of Versailles imposed unfair punishment on Germany and that the Nazi’s demands were in some ways justified.
And it should be noted that when asked if he would like to see any form of Hitlerism or Fascism introduced into Britain, Jim’s reply was: “Most decidedly No”.
Also “Red Ruth” Pennyman, as she was known, considered herself to be a communist.
It seems that towards the final years of the scheme, Ruth’s influence succeeded in marginalising Gardiner.
Finally, the record shows that towards the outbreak of WW2, the Pennymans distanced themselves from Gardiner.
Major Pennyman was promoted to Colonel and remained steadfastly loyal to Britain.
Gardiner himself turned his back on Nazism but did keep in touch with his friend, the convicted war criminal and Reichs minister for agriculture Richard Darre.
And history shows that despite the efforts of a fanatical few, the ideals of National Socialism never caught on with the people of East Cleveland.
Source – Middlesbrough Evening Gazette, 24 Feb 2014