Morris Beckman addressing an anti-fascist meeting in Bethnal Green in October 1947
Published: 28 May, 2015
by DAN CARRIER
WHEN Morris Beckman returned to London at the end of the Second World War, having risked his life as a radio operator on ships crossing oceans filled with U-Boats, he was disgusted to see British fascists peddling their views on the streets of Camden.
Morris, who passed away this week aged 94, would not stand idly by as the far right made speeches and sold pamphlets that denied the Holocaust.
Instead, he and other Jewish ex-servicemen set up the 43 Group – an organisation that fought fascists on post-war London’s streets.
Morris was born in Hackney in 1921. He had tried to join the RAF in 1939 but was turned down – instead he learned Morse code and became a radio operator on ships making the dangerous Atlantic crossings.
During the Battle of the Atlantic in 1942, two of his ships were torpedoed.
Morris went into the clothing trade after the war, running a menswear business until the 1970s. In the 1980s, he turned his hand to writing, documenting his life in the Merchant Navy and the 43 Group. Books included The Hackney Crucible, The Jewish Brigade: An Army With Two Masters, Flying The Red Duster and Atlantic Roulette.
In his 1992 book The 43 Group, he wrote of the shock servicemen felt when they saw the doctrine they had defeated in Europe still alive in Britain.
He recalled how he was moved to act after he and his cousin Harry Rose watched a fascist rant on the corner of Star Street in Kilburn. Harry had fought with General Wingate behind Japanese lines in Burma.
“He said to me: ‘I’m going to shut that bastard up’,” recalled Morris.
“I calmed him down but we asked ourselves – what is anyone going to do about this?”
They tried lobbying MPs and using lawful means but with no success. Instead, they set about disrupting inflammatory demonstrations by fascists.
Morris’s brave work has become legendary. History academic Professor David Cesarani said: “Morris was an extraordinary man who combined physical toughness with intellectual agility, a naturally gifted writer who was equally at home with a pair of boxing gloves as he was with a typewriter. Words poured out of him in the form of diaries, novels, historical narratives or impromptu speeches over a cup of tea. I listened with fascination to the stories from his years in the Merchant Navy, his role as a founder member of the 43 Group, and his adventures as a savvy businessman.
“He was a great family man and loved to talk about holidays in Dieppe with his wife [the journalist Patricia Lennard] and sons. Morris was proud of being a Jew and saw no conflict between his Jewishness and his love for England. He revelled in the freedom and democracy we take for granted in this country, but we enjoy it because men and women like him fought to defend it abroad and on our streets. He taught generations that if you care about liberty, tolerance and democratic politics, sometimes you have to roll up your sleeves and take on their enemies.”
He saw his bravery as merely a twist of fate that put him in extraordinary times and he believed he acted as anyone else would do.
Morris is survived by his sons Jonathan and Andrew.