THE atmosphere inside the prisoner-of-war camp was electric. Packed into a wooden theatre were several hundred Allied PoWs watched over by their German guards. Suddenly, heads started to turn and a hush fell over the throng. Two young men, dressed in the uniform of the dreaded Waffen-SS, entered the room and walked down the aisle.
The pair looked nervous and their hands were visibly shaking as they carried what looked like a bundle of lecture notes.
Some of the more observant PoWs noticed that there was something strange about their SS uniforms. On the men’s left sleeves had been sewn Union Flag shields. There were three lions from the Royal Standard on their right collar tabs and the words ‘British Free Corps’ had been stitched on their left cuffs.
‘The menace of Jewish Communism’
The two men mounted the stage and one of them started to speak in perfect English. The PoWs listened in dumbstruck silence as it became clear that they were both British and that they were exhorting them to join the German cause.
The younger of the two men repeated the words from the flimsy recruiting leaflet in his hand and said: ‘In order to fight the menace of Jewish Communism, we ask you to join the British Free Corps and take up arms with Germany in our fight against the common enemy .. .’
His words were soon drowned out by jeers and catcalls. Before long, the guards decided to escort the two British SS men out of the theatre as they tried to shield them from punches and the odd projectile.
The prisoners were stunned by the whole episode. Many were tempted to tear up the leaflets but others advised against it, suggesting that with the shortage of lavatory paper in the camp they could be put to better use.
It was the spring of 1944, and the Germans were so desperate to find soldiers to fight on the Eastern Front that they had launched a campaign to recruit from the ranks of Allied PoWs.
This camp in Northern Germany was no exception. Although many of the PoWs there had endured the hardships of camp life since Dunkirk, it was inconceivable that they would fight for the hated Nazis, and even more so as part of the SS.
But who were these men who had joined this mysterious unit called the British Free Corps?
The PoWs would have been surprised to find that its members had been born into decent middle-class families, and had been educated at grammar schools in places such as London, Harrogate and Edinburgh.
Fascists or simpletons
They were men with quintessentially British names such as Nightingale, Pleasants, Purdy, Cooper – Britons who decided that they would rather turn traitor and fight for Heinrich Himmler‘s Waffen-SS than remain with honour in their PoW camps.
For the most part, BFC members were either fascists or simpletons, pathetic individuals for whom concepts such as decency held little currency.
Their story is one of the most shameful episodes in British military history. The fact that so few have heard of it is testament to our eagerness to sweep the existence of these traitors under the carpet.
The BFC is undoubtedly a stain on our fine war record, and it partially debunks the popularly held notion that every British soldier was a patriot.
While researching my novel The Traitor (a fictionalised account of the unit), I discovered that after the postwar courts martial of these men, the British Government decided to lock up records of these trials for 75 years, even though the proceedings had been held in public and reported in the Press at the time.
Clearly, the notion of a British SS unit was unpalatable in the post-war euphoria which mythologised the purity of the country’s war record.
Like the widespread looting that went on during the Blitz and the frequent strikes on the armament assembly lines, the BFC is, naturally, not something we should be proud of.
But it is certainly not a subject that should be hushed up.
As I sifted through the few old intelligence files that are available at the Public Record Office and spoke to World War II historians, one name kept cropping up: Thomas Cooper.
Educated at the prestigious Latymer Upper School in Hammersmith, West London, Cooper was remembered by his headmaster as being ‘a clever boy who was interested in modern languages’.
Although Cooper’s mother was German, he had been born and brought up in England, and he left school after matriculation at the age of 17.
But his applications to join the Police, the Navy and the Air Force were all turned down because of the ‘nationality question’.Deeply frustrated, Cooper decided to join Sir Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirt movement in 1938, and he was soon blaming the Jews for his lack of success in the job market.
During the 1930s, fascism was considered by many to be a political creed that could solve the nation’s problems. Mosley’s British Union of Fascists attracted tens of thousands of men such as Cooper.
True to the cause
Sympathetic commentators saw fascism as a more ‘virile’ form of Conservatism, an opinion that collapsed when the public realised that many Blackshirts were little more than anti-Semitic thugs.
Mosley may have had some eyecatching ideas, but he had attracted the wrong crowd, and his movement was soon regarded as being on a par with the Nazis in Hitler’s Germany.
By the outbreak of war, the British Union (the word ‘Fascists’ was significantly dropped) had expired, and the internment in 1940 of Mosley and other leading fascists saw a final nail hammered into British fascism’s coffin.
Or, at least, that was the hope. However, there were many who remained true to ‘the cause’.
They maintained their zealous hatred of communism, which they saw as being part of a sinister Zionist plot hatched by both Jewish Bolsheviks in Moscow and Jewish capitalists in New York.
Part of the imbecility of fascism has always been the preposterous belief that somehow both the plutocrat and the communist are in it together.
However, fascism was still admired by many notable figures in Britain in the 1930s.
They included 12 Conservative MPs, Lord Redesdale (the father of the famous Mitford girls including Diana who had secretly married Mosley in Berlin, and Unity who befriended Hitler), the Duke of Wellington and a former head of Naval Intelligence, Admiral Sir Barry Domville.
Thomas Cooper lacked such high society contacts and struggled to find a job, so he went to Germany in spring 1939 in search of work.
Despite his fluency in German, he could find only occasional work as a farm labourer or English teacher.
With the outbreak of war, Cooper found himself joining the German army. His application was noticed by a senior SS officer who invited him to join the elite SS fighting force in early 1940.
By his own account Cooper performed admirably, but it was an excellence of the most horrific and criminal sort.
By the time he had been fully transferred to the British Free Corps in early 1944, Cooper was telling his fellow British traitors that he had shot 200 Poles and 80 Jews during a single day in Warsaw.
He also boasted that he had thrown women from the top storeys of buildings as well as butchering young children and babies ‘as they would only grow into big Jews’.
Cooper was promoted to sergeant and soon saw action on the Russian Front. But in February 1943, he was badly wounded by shrapnel in both legs and was sent back to Germany for treatment.
His injuries won him the Silver Wound Badge, making him the only Englishman to win a German combat decoration during the war.
The English Legion
Cooper was, therefore, a natural choice to help the Germans set up a unit of British volunteers.
Hitler had personally approved the plan, and on December 28, 1942, sent out the following order: ‘The Führer is in agreement with the establishment of an English legion (former members of the English Fascist Party or those with similar ideology) – therefore quality, not quantity.’ Hitler stipulated that the unit, then called The Legion of St George, should reach platoon strength (around 30 men) before going into action against the Russians.
According to Adrian Weale (the author of Renegades, a history of the BFC) the Nazis considered that ‘a British Regiment or Brigade on the Eastern Front would be a useful addition, with the extra impact of a propaganda value out of all proportion to its size.’ ONE of Cooper’s jobs was to ‘butter up’ potential recruits from the ranks of British PoWs. A special PoW camp had been set up at Genshagen, where the conditions were luxurious compared to other camps. Cooper’s mission was to recruit a minimum of 30 men needed to form the unit.
Those who joined came from a variety of backgrounds. There were former Blackshirts such as Francis MacLardy, a Liverpudlian pharmacist and a sergeant in the Royal Army Medical Corps.
Then there were the chancers such as former professional strongman Eric Pleasants from Norfolk, who wanted to escape incarceration.
There were also those who were in it for the availability of women, such as Private John Eric Wilson of No 3 Commando, who was ‘sexually obsessed’, according to other members of the unit.
Many came from middle- class backgrounds and knew exactly what they were doing although, clearly, others were simple men such as Kenneth Berry, who had left school at 13 and was under the impression that the British approved of the unit.
In all, 57 British and Commonwealth citizens joined the British Free Corps between 1943 and 1945.
However, at any one time, there were never more than 20 members of the unit and, as a result of Hitler’s strict insistence of its required strength, the unit never saw any direct action.
When not touring PoW camps on recruitment drives, much of the men’s time was spent with other non-German SS men in the town of Hildesheim, where they learnt German and trained in SS lore.
In their spare time, women and alcohol were priorities and discipline was often a problem.
Local women regarded British SS men as quite a catch. For such pathetic and largely unattractive men such as them, the sexual surfeit was often too much.
Back in Britain, the authorities were aware of the activities of the BFC. Details were found in letters home from scornful PoWs whom they had failed to recruit.
Other letters, written in code, contained more specific information that was passed on by MI9, the secret intelligence agency that was responsible for escape attempts by Allied PoWs.
At the end of the war, members of the unit were rounded up and taken home for trial. Naturally, most lied and claimed that they had joined the BFC in order to spy on the Germans.
However, only one member was found to have truly tried to sabotage the BFC. Private Thomas Freeman, from No 7 Commando, did his best from the time of his recruitment in February 1944 to encourage the men to mutiny. He was partially successful and caused a split in the BFC’s ranks between those who were out-and-out Nazis, such as Cooper and MacLardy, and those who were in it for a ‘good time’. It was hardly surprising that such a motley collection of selfish individuals would fall apart.
Yet the sentences meted out to these traitors were surprisingly lenient.
Although Thomas Cooper was sentenced to death, this was commuted to life imprisonment and he was released from jail as early as January 1953. It is believed that he went to live in Japan, although he returned to Britain and died here in the mid-1980s.
Francis MacLardy received only a 15-year sentence, and Kenneth Berry got a mere nine months.
Some of the Commonwealth citizens received only fines, and others were not proceeded against at all. Moreover, it appears that members of the BFC reintegrated themselves into British society with little difficulty after they had served their prison sentences.
Some, such as Eric Pleasants, went to live near their childhood homes. Alfred Minchin, a BFC lance corporal, spent the remainder of his years living in Weston-super-Mare – a town that is, coincidentally, twinned with the BFC’s hometown of Hildesheim.
Ironically, the British Government’s obsession with secrecy meant that these traitors could live in peaceful anonymity. There were some who never even told their wives that they were once one of Hitler’s Englishmen.
Taken from Guy’s new book, Nazis, Spies & Fakes: Ten Years at the Coalface of History now available for just £1.99 / $3.00.