This article provides an overview of the British Free Corps.
2.0 What was the British Free Corps?
Originally known as the Legion of St George (Edmonton Journal, 1945, p.2), the British Free Corps (German: Britisches Freikorps; BFC) was a unit of the Waffen-SS of Nazi Germany during World War II, made up of British and Dominion prisoners of war who had been recruited by Germany.
It was “…as a propaganda movement to combat Bolshevism.” (Edmonton Journal, 1945, p.2).
3.0 Strength of the BFC
Research by British historian Adrian Weale (2002) has identified 54 men who belonged to this unit at one time or another, some for only a few days.
At no time did it reach more than 27 men in strength (Weale, 2002).
4.0 Brief History
- The idea for the British Free Corps came from John Amery, a British fascist, son of the serving British Secretary of State for India, Leo Amery.
- John Amery travelled to Berlin in October 1942, and proposed to the Germans the formation of a British volunteer force to help fight the bolsheviks.
- The British volunteer force was to be modelled after the Légion des volontaires français contre le bolchévisme (Legion of French Volunteers against Bolshevism), a French collaborationist force fighting with the German Wehrmacht.
- In addition to touting the idea of a British volunteer force, Amery actively tried to recruit Britons.
- He made a series of pro-German propaganda radio broadcasts, appealing to his fellow countrymen to join the war on communism.
- The first recruits to the Corps came from a group of prisoners of war (POWs) at a ‘holiday camp’ set up by the Germans in Genshagen, a suburb of Berlin, in August 1943.
- In November 1943, they were moved to a requisitioned café in the Pankow district of Berlin. Recruits also came from an interrogation camp at Luckenwalde in late 1943.
- The Corps became a military unit on 01 January 1944, under the name ‘The British Free Corps’.
- In the first week of February 1944, the BFC moved to the St Michaeli Kloster in Hildesheim, a small town near Hanover.
- Uniforms were issued on 20 April 1944 (Hitler’s 55th birthday).
- On 11 October 1944, the Corps was moved to the Waffen-SS Pioneer school in Dresden, to start military training for service on the Eastern Front.
- On 24 February 1945, they travelled from Dresden to Berlin, where they stayed in a requisitioned school on the Schönhauser Allee.
- On 08 March 1945, they were moved to the village of Niemegk, a few miles to the south-west of Berlin. Recruiting for the Free Corps was done in German POW camps.
- In 1944, leaflets were distributed to the POWs, and the unit was mentioned in ‘Camp’, the official POW newspaper published in Berlin.
- The unit was promoted “as a thoroughly volunteer unit, conceived and created by British subjects from all parts of the Empire who have taken up arms and pledged their lives in the common European struggle against Soviet Russia”.
- The attempted recruitment of POWs was done amid German fear of the Soviets; the Germans were “victims of their own propaganda” and thought that their enemies were as worried about the Soviets as they were.
- In one Dutch camp, cigarettes, fruit, and other items were lavished on the POWs while they listened to Nazi propaganda officers who described the good that the Germans were doing in Europe, then asked the men to join in fighting the real enemy, the Soviets.
5.0 Commander BFC
The BFC did not have a ‘Commander’ per se, as it was the intention of the SS to appoint a British commander when a suitable British officer came forward.
However, three German Waffen-SS officers acted as the Verbindungsoffizier (‘liaison officer’) between the SS-Hauptamt Amtsgruppe D/3, which was responsible for the unit and the British volunteers, and in practice they acted as the unit commander for disciplinary purposes at least.
- SS-Hauptsturmführer Hans Werner Roepke: September 1943 to November 1944;
- SS-Obersturmführer Dr Walter Kühlich: November 1944 to April 1945; and
- SS-Hauptsturmführer Dr Alexander Dolezalek: April 1945.
A number of sources mention the involvement of Brigadier Leonard Parrington, a British Army officer captured by the Germans in Greece in 1941.
This was based on a misunderstanding by some of the British volunteers after Parrington in the summer of 1943 had visited the POW ‘holiday camp’ at Genshagen, in the southern suburbs of Berlin, as representative of the Senior British POW, Major General Victor Fortune. Parrington had told the assembled prisoners that he “knew the purpose of the camp” and the BFC volunteers who were there took this to mean that he approved of the unit.
In reality, Parrington had accepted Genshagen at face value as a rest centre for POWs.
6.0 Leading Members
Leading members of the Corps included:
- Thomas Haller Cooper (although he was actually an Unterscharführer in the Waffen-SS proper);
- Roy Courlander;
- Edwin Barnard Martin;
- Frank McLardy;
- Alfred Minchin; and
- John Wilson.
These men later became known among the renegades as the ‘Big Six’, although this was a notional elite whose membership shifted periodically as members fell into, and out of, favour.
Starting in February 1944, BFC members were ordered to adopt aliases for official purposes, although several declined to do so.
7.0 Preparations for Active Service
In March 1945, a BFC detachment was deployed with the 11th SS Volunteer Panzergrenadier Division Nordland under Brigadeführer Joachim Ziegler, which was composed largely of Scandinavian volunteers and attached to the III (Germanic) SS Panzer Corps under Obergruppenführer Felix Steiner.
They were first sent from Stettin to the division’s headquarters (HQ) at Angermünde. From there they were sent to join the divisional armoured reconnaissance battalion (11. SS-Panzer-Aufklärunsabteilung) located in Grüssow (on the island of Usedom).
The battalion commander was Sturmbannführer Rudolf Saalbach, and the BFC were allocated to the 3rd Company, under the command of the Swedish Obersturmführer Hans-Gösta Pehrson.
The BFC contingent was commanded by SS-Scharführer (squad leader) Douglas Mardon, who used the alias ‘Hodge’.
Richard W. Landwehr Jr. states “The Britons were sent to a company in the detachment that was situated in the small village of Schoenburg near the west bank of the Oder River”.
On 22 March, as the company was entrenching, it was partially overrun by an advance element of the Soviet Red Army which had blundered into its position by accident. Although taken by surprise, the SS troopers, including the BFC volunteers, quickly regained their wits and launched a vigorous counterattack, driving off the Soviets.
On 16 April 1945, the Corps was moved to Templin, where they were to join the transport company of Steiner’s HQ staff (Kraftfahrstaffel StabSteiner).
When the Nordland Division left for Berlin, the transport company followed Steiner’s HQ to Neustrelitz and the BFC went with it.
On 29 April, Steiner decided to break contact with the Russians and order his forces to head west into Anglo-American captivity.
Thomas Haller Cooper and Fred Croft, the last two members of the Corps, surrendered on 02 May to the 121st Infantry Regiment (US Army) in Schwerin, and were placed in the loose custody of the GHQ Liaison Regiment (known as Phantom).
8.0 After the War
After the War, some members of the Corps were prosecuted. Of those members, those who had been serving in the armed forces were court-martialled, while the merchant seamen and other civilians were tried in the Old Bailey. The column ‘Seymer Category’ refers to a list prepared by Colonel Vivian Home Seymer of MI5 on 30 August 1945 and which is held in file KV 2/2828, entitled ‘The British Free Corps. Papers about the military unit established by the German authorities to exploit renegade British prisoners of war’ in the National Archives
Newspapers of the period give details of the court-martial of several Commonwealth soldiers involved in the Corps.
One Canadian captive, Private Edwin Barnard Martin, said he joined the Corps “to wreck it”. He designed the flag and banner used by the Corps, and admitted to being one of the original six or seven members of the Corps during his trial. He was given a travel warrant and a railway pass which allowed him to move around Germany without a guard. He was found guilty of two charges of aiding the enemy while a prisoner of war.
New Zealand soldier Roy Courlander claimed at his court-martial that he joined the Corps for similar reasons, to gather intelligence on the Germans, to foster a revolution behind the German lines, or to sabotage the unit if the revolution failed.
John Amery was sentenced to death in November 1945 for high treason, and hanged.
9.0 Film and TV Depictions
- Joy Division:
- The film Joy Division (2006) portrays a member of the BFC, Sergeant Harry Stone, among the German troops and refugees fleeing the Red Army advance into Germany.
- In the film it is the aggressive Stone who appears to be the only convinced Nazi remaining among the Hitler Youth with whom he is grouped.
- He is seen attempting to recruit British POWs before the column is attacked by Soviet aircraft.
- The Eagle has Landed:
- Jack Higgins’ novel The Eagle Has Landed portrays a BFC officer named Harvey Preston, who is patterned on Douglas Berneville-Claye.
- He is attached to the Fallschirmjäger unit which attempts to kidnap Winston Churchill.
- A convinced Nazi and petty criminal, Preston is viewed with disgust by all members of the German unit.
- Foyle’s War:
- On TV, the British Free Corps was a subject for ‘The Hide’, the final episode of series 06 of the British TV series Foyle’s War, in which a British POW who had joined the BFC was tried for treason in Great Britain once he returned home, after surviving the firebombing of Dresden.
Edmonton Journal. (1945) Soldier Refused Civil Court Trial. Available from World Wide Web: https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=1uVkAAAAIBAJ&sjid=KoENAAAAIBAJ&pg=1570,4805813&dq=british+free+corps&hl=en. [Accessed: 17 March, 2020].
Weale, A. (2002) Renegades: Hitler’s Englishmen. 2nd Revised Edition. London: Pimlico.