I wrote this piece about five or six years ago for a military museum in Kansas that focused on World War II. I came across a book that mentioned the British Free Corps, a unit within the Waffen-SS that was started by a possibly mentally-ill and staunchly anti-communist Englishman, and included mostly bored or indifferent POWs from Britain and other nations of the Empire. The unit never saw combat, but was instead viewed as a useful propaganda tool by none other than Hitler himself. Many Americans are not aware that such a unit ever existed. I admit that I was once one of them. Any mistakes in the article are my own.
The Strange History of the British Free Corps
Many people are aware of the infamous German military arm known as the Waffen-SS. The Waffen-SS were the armed military units known for its brutality and slaughter of civilians, most notably on the Eastern Front, as well as shooting Allied prisoners-of-war in the west. And they will forever be linked to the death camps and the Holocaust. But not too many people, even those with an avid interest in the history of World War II, have ever heard of the SS unit known as the British Free Corps.
The creation of this little-known unit was the brainchild of John Amery, a British civilian living in France at the time of Germany’s swift takeover of that country in May 1940. Amery was a rabid anti-Semite and anti-Communist, as well as a pathological liar with possible mental health issues. He was also the son of Leopold Amery, a British Cabinet minister and staunch supporter of Prime Minister Winston Churchill and British imperialism. John Amery, living in the shadow of his well-to-do father, undoubtedly was trying to live up to something he felt he never could. A failed career in movie-making and a vagabond existence led to an increased desire to move out from underneath his father’s shadow. This fierce desire to make a name for himself ultimately led to the betrayal of his country and his countrymen.
Amery was approached by German agents in the summer of 1942, after unsuccessfully attempting to join the army of the Vichy French. Flattered by the German attempts to court him, as well as “stunned” by the alliance of Great Britain with Russia, he soon became a willing participant in Nazi Germany’s propaganda machine. At first, Amery attempted to talk his German handlers into allowing him to broadcast by radio a British “hour” of propaganda, calling for the British government to join Germany in its fight against the Soviet Union. This was granted, and Amery began a traitorous career in radio that was rivaled only by the infamous “Lord Haw-Haw,” who annoyed the British with his tirades against the Allied war effort. But another plan soon began to evolve in Amery’s troubled brain which would lead to the creation of a fighting unit within the fanatical Nazi SS. Amery proposed raising such a unit by seeking out willing volunteers from the thousands of British POWs that were languishing in German prison camps. In his line of thinking, his fellow countrymen would jump at the chance to serve with Germany against the Red Communist hordes of Stalinist Russia. No less a personage than Adolph Hitler was intrigued by the idea and granted permission to Amery to conduct a recruiting drive.
Amery outlined his ideal for a unit that he wanted to name the “British Legion of St. George.” These volunteers would not fight against fellow Englishmen, but with their German allies on the Eastern Front. The Nazis had previously allowed other nations to recruit and raise SS formations, such as the SS Wiking division, which had volunteers from Norway, Denmark, Belgium and the Netherlands. And because they were to fight alongside other SS units, they would be allowed to wear the uniform of the SS, despite Amery’s ridiculous desire to have his unit wear regular British Army uniforms. Amery quickly became an embarrassment to the Germans, drinking heavily and consorting with various prostitutes, one of whom died by asphyxiation on her own vomit after a typical night of heavy drinking. He did manage to conduct exactly one recruiting drive in a POW camp that held British prisoners, managing to recruit four members for his legion, including a 17 year-old English sailor named Kenneth Berry, but was quickly heckled and shouted down as being a traitor by the majority of the prisoners. Still determined to pursue his idea, Amery continued on as a member of the British Legion of St. George (which was later changed by the Germans to the British Free Corps) in name only. The Gestapo did not want Amery anywhere near the unit that he had created. The Germans, after making sure that Amery would have no further connection with the unit, installed a trustworthy English-speaking German officer by the name of SS-Hauptsturmfuhrer (Captain) Hans Werner Roepke to command the BFC. Recruiting was still conducted and pursued, but even at its height, the BFC was comprised of only about 55 men, with several having joined not out of any desire to rid Europe of communism, but of a chance to be free of the life of a POW. The men of the BFC included several nationalities from within the Empire, and included native-born Englishmen, Australians, Irishmen, Scots, South Africans, and even a New Zealander.
The BFC officially came into being on January 1, 1944. On Hitler’s fifty-fifth birthday, April 20, 1944, the BFC was presented with a union-jack patch in the shape of a shield to be worn on their lower left sleeves as well as the customary SS cuff title which bore ‘British Free Corps’ in gothic-type script. The men had a parade the next day in anticipation of a successful recruiting drive. But due to lack of recruits, the unit spent the majority of its time drinking, fighting with German troops, chasing women, and sitting around with nothing much else to do.
The BFC never saw combat and according to author Adrian Weale, who has extensively researched this group, 59 men total served in the BFC at one time or another, at its height reaching a full strength of only 27 men, which was smaller than a contemporary German platoon. Despite recurring failures of recruitment, the Germans saw the unit as a valuable propaganda ploy and put quite a bit of effort in keeping it afloat. The unit was dissolved before the end of the war and many of its members were charged with treason. John Amery was captured by Italian partisans and handed over to his countrymen. The British tried him for treason against his King and country. He claimed that he had never been a Nazi, but admitted to being an anti-Communist. His counsel tried to show he was mentally ill, but at his hearing he pleaded guilty, possibly believing that doing so would get him a reduced sentence (and maybe also hoping that his father’s position in government could save him). The proceedings lasted all of eight minutes, and he was found guilty of treason and hanged on December 19, 1945. Several other former members of the BFC received jail sentences, while others escaped punishment entirely, given stern warnings by the British government to closely watch their future conduct. Thus, the strange story of the British Free Corps passed into history.
For further reading, please see Adrian Weale’s book Renegades: Hitler’s Englishmen, from which much of the above article was taken.