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Britisches Freikorps.jpg

In World War II, the British Free Corps (BFC) (sometimes Britisches Freikorps in German) was a unit of the Waffen-SS consisting of British and Dominion prisoners of war who had been recruited by the Nazis. Adrian Weale's research [1] has identified about 59 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 — smaller than a contemporary German platoon.[2]


Early efforts

The "British Free Corps" was the brainchild of John Amery, son of Conservative cabinet minister Leo Amery.

Amery was a staunch anti-Communist who admired the National Socialist doctrines of Nazi Germany. Bedeviled with bankruptcy and money problems, he left England and met the French fascist leader Jacques Doriot. Following the Spanish Civil War, Amery and Doriot traveled together to Austria, Czechoslovakia, Italy and Germany before residing in Vichy France. He pretended to have joined Franco's Nationalists during the Spanish Civil War in 1936, and claimed to have been awarded a medal of honour while serving as an military intelligence officer with the Corpo Truppe Volontarie. Displeased with their mindset, Amery ran foul of the Vichy government. He made several attempts to leave France, but was unsuccessful until September 1942, when Hauptmann Werner Plack brought him to Berlin to speak to the German English Committee. It was at this meeting that Amery suggested that the Germans form a British anti-Bolshevik legion. Adolf Hitler was impressed by Amery and allowed him to remain in Germany as a guest of the Third Reich, where he made a series of pro-German radio broadcasts to Britain.

The idea of a British force to fight communism languished until Amery met with two Frenchmen, who were part of the LVF (Légion des Volontaires Français) in January 1943. The two LVF men lamented the situation on the Eastern Front, where only Germany was battling the Soviet Union. They felt that they should lend support with their LVF service. Amery rekindled his idea of a British unit and aimed to recruit fifty to one hundred men for propaganda purposes. He wanted to seek out a core of men with which to gain additional members from British POWs. He also suggested that such a unit could provide more recruits for the other military units made up of foreign nationals. (However, the Germans had already raised a number of such units, which were operating under the command of the Waffen-SS.)

Amery began his recruiting drive for a unit he named the "British Legion of St. George." He made the rounds of POW camps, addressing 40 to 50 inmates from Britain and various Commonwealth countries and handing out recruiting material. His first efforts at recruitment were failures, but he persisted and eventually was rewarded with four recruits: an elderly academic named Logio, Maurice Tanner, Oswald Job, and Kenneth Berry (a 17 year old deckhand on the SS Cymbeline, which was sunk). Logio was released, while Job was recruited by German intelligence and trained as a spy. He was caught while trying to get into England and hanged in March 1944. Thus, Amery ended up with two men, of which only Berry would actually join what was later called the BFC. Amery's link to what became the BFC ended in October 1943 when the Waffen-SS decided his services were no longer needed.

German recruitment

BFC recruitment poster

According to an MI5 report released on 27 March 1945 [3] known members at various times consisted of the following:

  • Cpl. COURLANDER, RN; New Zealand Army; the son of a Baltic Jew; may have had genuine anti-Russian leanings.
  • Cpl. MATON, FP; RA and Commandos, whose make-up is fertile ground for Nazi ideas with which, on his own admission, he is impressed. He had a good Military record and was NOT an enrolled member of the BUF.
  • COOPER, T; a civilian with German connections and sentiments. A very active member of the BFC.
  • Sgt. MacLARDY,F; RAMC; pre-war District Secretary of BUF.
  • MINCHIN, A; Seaman POW; recruited three other members; was one of the first to join the BFC himself; motive uncertain.
  • Sgt. WILSON, J; believed a weak character, entered BFC via Luckenwalde - perhaps under duress.
  • Pte. MARTIN, E; Canadian Army; little known; employed previously by Germans at Luckenwalde Interrogation Camp; boastful, brutal type; ambitious.
  • LEWIS, J; Seaman POW, convinced fascist; vain.
  • Pte. BRITTON, K; Nazi by temperament; BUF member.
  • 'REID' - an alias, unidentified POW; Luckenwalde recruit, but not an unwilling one.
  • 'DAVIS' - an alias, a Battalion Signaller; a Luckenwalde recruit; real sympathies in doubt.
  • 'LANE','Sandy', unidentified POW; recruited at Luckenwalde; really anti-German; now left BFC.
  • 'ROGERS' - an alias; picked up by Germans in Austria; really anti-German; now left BFC.
  • 'FRAZER' - an alias. South African; came with 'ROGERS', linguist; true identity and background unknown.
  • 'Aussie No. 1', Australian POW; recruited at SCHWERIN (? to dodge trouble).
  • 'Aussie No. 2', Australian POW; same as Aussie No. 1).
  • 'Aussie No. 3', Australian POW; came with 'ROGERS'; anti-German, intends to escape.
  • 'BARKER' - an alias; Australian seaman POW; recruited early by MINCHIN.
  • BERRY, K. Ships Boy POW; taken prisoner at age of 14, now 19-20; recruited at St. Denis; we have evidence that he now regrets it.
  • 'CAMERON' - an alias; out and out Nazi; nothing else known about him.
  • PLEASENTS; civilian; recruited by MINCHIN.
  • LEISTER; civilian.
  • Sgt. ROSE, N; Regular soldier POW; recruited Luckenwalde, BFC storekeeper; anti-German.
  • 'BROWN' - an alias. Regular soldier POW; probably got into trouble and joined to avoid punishment; believed to own petty criminal record.
  • 'The International Brigade Man'; identity unknown.
  • 'The New Lad'; identity unknown.
  • 'Sailor'; identity unknown.
  • 'Ukraine Joe'; identity unknown.
  • 'COWARD' from Marienbad; identity unknown.
  • Gnr. NIGHTINGALE, H; RA; joined September 1944 to avoid punishment for intercourse with German women.
  • RUSSLER, Wilhelm; may be German stool-pigeon to the Corps.
  • Lieu. SHEARER, WAW; the only Army Officer recruit; was to have taken his place as British Officer in unit; believed psychological case; considered by Germans too unbalanced for intended employment; returned to camp and now repatriated.
  • SCHMETTERLING; British; origin unknown; joined voluntarily.
  • PHILLPOTTS, Joe; British; reported to have joined voluntarily as a means of obtaining permission to marry girl he had met on a working party.
  • 'The Corps Tailor'; nothing known about him; may be identical with any of Renegades Nos. 25-29.
  • STURMER; German; presence unexplained.
  • Pte. JACKSON, E; POW; nothing further known.
  • Pte. MILLER, W; POW; joined like No. 20 to avoid punishment.
  • Lieu. PURDY, W; RNR, POW; now seconded for radio duties.

In addition to a number of British civilians, the following Service renegades have been employed in editing, writing scripts, and broadcasting for the enemy, and in certain cases the same men are also employed in journalism: (One of them, for instance, Pilot FREEMAN, recently wrote the leading article in the chief Nazi organ "Angriff" under his own name).

  • Sergeant CHAPPLE, Arthur, RASC.
  • Corporal COURLANDER, RN, NZ Forces, in addition to a permanent position in the BFC and service later in the Waffen SS he, at one time, broadcast for Empire Senders (Since repatriated).
  • Pilot Officer FREEMAN, BRM: Royal Air Force.
  • Rifleman HOSKINS, C: King's Royal Rifle Corps (KRRC).
  • Sergeant HUGHES, RD: Royal Air Force.
  • Corporal MATON, FP: Commandos - as for COURLANDER above.
  • Lieutenant PURDY, W: Royal Navy Reserve (also a member of the BFC).
  • Lance-Corporal SPILLMAN, R: King's Royal Rifle Corps (KRRC).
  • Guardsman GRIFFITHS, WH: Welsh Guards.

All these men received payment varying from 1000 Reichmarks a month for FREEMAN down to 400 Reichmarks.

Sergeant John Brown

With the failure of Amery's recruiting efforts, another idea was tried in an attempt to woo POWs into joining the BFC. Given the harsh conditions of POW camps in Germany and the occupied areas, Nazi leadership formed two "holiday camps" for likely recruits, Special Detachment 999 and Special Detachment 517, both under the umbrella of Stalag IIId, near Berlin. English-speaking guards were used, overseen by German intelligence officers, who used the guards as information gatherers. The Germans needed a Briton as a conduit for potential volunteers and, for this duty, chose Battery Quartermaster Sergeant John Henry Owen Brown of the Royal Artillery.

Brown had been a member of the British Union of Fascists (BUF) before the war, and he was also a devout Christian. Captured on the beaches of Dunkirk in May 1940, Brown ended up in a camp at Blechhammer. Given his rank, he was made a foreman of a work detail where he won the confidence of the Germans. With his status, the Germans made him the camp leader of Special Detachment 517.

In reality, Brown had set up a black market scheme, smuggling in contraband to supply his men and to buy off the guards. Later, Brown learned the POW message codes created by MI9 and began to operate as (in his words) a "self-made spy". Once he comprehended his role concerning the "holiday camps", he realized that he was in a unique position to both hinder the formation of this unit and to obtain intelligence — while ensuring the men who came to the camp actually got a holiday. Brown's work gained him the Distinguished Conduct Medal after the war.

Thomas Haller Cooper

At this time, another Briton, Thomas Haller Cooper (who used the German version of Cooper – Boettcher – as his last name), arrived at the camp. Cooper, unable to obtain public service employment in Britain due to his mother's German nationality, joined the BUF. During a visit to Germany in 1939, he became trapped there by the war and joined the Waffen-SS. He was posted to the SS Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler (LAH), where he eventually transferred to the infamous SS "Totenkopf" infantry training battalion. He became a machine-gun instructor with the 5th Totenkopf Regiment and was made an NCO. Following the German invasion of the Soviet Union, he was assigned to the Wachbattaillon Oranienburg outside Kraków, Poland, where he allegedly told BFC men that he committed atrocities against Soviet POWs, Polish civilians, and Jewish prisoners. Later, he served as transport driver in the SS-Polizei-Division, which was posted to Schablinov, a town on the Leningrad front, replacing the mangled forces of the Spanish Blue Division. When Soviets attacked the division on 13 February 1943, Cooper was hit in the legs by shell splinters, evacuated, and awarded the Wound Badge in Silver, becoming the only Englishman to obtain a German combat decoration.[1]

Roy Courlander

Besides Cooper and the young Berry, a handful of other Britons drifted into this group. Most notable was Roy Courlander, who used the nickname of 'Reg'. The son of a Lithuanian Jew and an English woman, he was serving in the New Zealand army in Greece when captured in 1941. He expressed extreme anti-Russian views, and participated in Nazi broadcasts for England before he joined.

When the first batch of 200 POWs arrived in the camp, Brown and his men did their best to entertain the prisoners while Cooper and other pro-Nazi men worked the crowd, seeking ex-BUF members or other ex-Fascist group members as well as finding out attitudes about the Communists. This displeased many of the POWs, who demanded to be sent back to their camps. To calm the situation, the most senior British POW, Major-General Fortune, was asked to send a representative to the holiday camp to inspect it; he selected Brigadier Leonard Parrington, who inspected the facilities, and reported it was indeed a holiday camp and the POWs should not worry. Brown did not feel safe in informing Parrington of the purpose of the camp. While Parrington's visit was successful in calming the POWs, this recruiting effort gained only one confirmed recruit, Alfred Vivian Minchin, a merchant seaman whose ship, the SS Empire Ranger had been sunk off Norway by German bombers. Brown, following the first recruitment, learned of the full scope of the project from Carl Britten, who said he'd been forced into the BFC by Cooper and Roy Courlander. Brown was unable to persuade Britten to quit the BFC, but MI9 received a revealing transmission from Brown.

Later recruits

A bombing raid against Berlin damaged a good portion of the camp prior to a second batch of POWs being brought in. It was decided to move the men to a requisitioned cafe in the Pankow district, overseen by Wilhelm "Bob" Rossler, a German Army interpreter. Prior to the move, the BFC gained two members, Francis George MacLardy of the Royal Army Medical Corps, (who had been captured in Belgium) and Edwin Barnard Martin of the Canadian Essex Scottish Regiment (captured at Dieppe in 1942), which brought the strength of the BFC to seven. POWs were brought into the camp once it was repaired, until the recruiting effort was halted in December 1944. Brown reported to the Germans that the handling of the camp fostered distrust among the POWs, and was counter-productive for obtaining recruits for the BFC. Meanwhile Brown, as their front man, continued a dangerous game of gathering intelligence while deterring recruits from joining the BFC. Oskar Lange, who was overseeing the camps, hit upon another idea to gain recruits, and, he hoped, give him more stature. While the earlier holiday camps only entertained long term POWs, Lange proposed that they take newly captured prisoners, who were still in a state of confusion, and work on them while they were vulnerable at a new camp in Luckenwalde. The camp was commanded by Hauptmann Hellmerich of German intelligence with his chief interrogator, Feldwebel Scharper. Scharper was not above using blackmail to get what he wanted and his tactics included fear, intimidation, and threats to coerce prisoners into joining.

The first group of POWs to be taken to Luckenwalde were mainly from the Italian theatre of war. One such case, which illustrates the techniques used by the camp, was Trooper John Eric Wilson of No.3 Commando. Upon arrival, he was stripped, made to watch his uniform get ripped to pieces, and then given a blanket to cover up with. Placed in a cell with just the blanket and fed 250 grams of bread and a pint of cabbage soup, he was only allowed out to empty the waste bucket. After two days like this, he was taken before an "American", who was in fact Scharper. Wilson was asked his rank (about which Wilson lied, saying he was a staff sergeant), name, number, and date of birth, then returned to his cell. Left alone, a "British POW" would come in from time to time, offer cigarettes and conduct idle chit-chat. The end result was that the isolation and the mistreatment led to him holding on to the "POW" who showed kindness to him. When dragged before Scharper some days later and offered the choice of joining the BFC or staying in solitary, it can be understood why Wilson chose the BFC. With this initial success, it was deemed this method would be the gateway to expanding the BFC and in turn, 14 men were made to join. This included men from such esteemed units as the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and others.

However, things fell apart when these men, told they would be joining a unit of thousands, arrived at their billets in the cafe, and found the "unit" amounted to a handful of men who were more interested in the opportunity of freedom or were Fascist in their outlook. At this time, Edwin Martin attempted to take advantage of the discord to disrupt the BFC, but it did not have the desired effect. Two of the men broke away from the cafe and got into Holiday Camp 517 to report to Brown who then complained to Cooper. Cooper then addressed the men at the cafe billet and promised that those who did not want to remain could leave. (To prevent the truth about the BFC reaching the general POW population, these men were isolated in a special camp.) By December 1943, the BFC returned to eight men in strength.

Despite of the tiny size of the unit, the Waffen-SS continued to work on the BFC. The first step was to appoint an officer. Because of the nature of the BFC, the candidate had to be trustworthy, have a good understanding of English, be a skilled leader and have excellent administrative skills. This job fell to SS-Hauptsturmführer Hans Werner Roepke. A highly educated man, Roepke's grasp of English came from his time as an exchange student before the war. His military service included being a private in the Reichswehr, then as a law man with the Allgemeine-SS, before being called up to serve as a flak officer with the SS-Wiking division. He was made the commander of the BFC in November 1943.


An "M36" impression of the uniform of the British Free Corps

Roepke's first order of business was the name. "The Legion of St. George" was rejected as being too religious and the "British Legion" was also not acceptable since it was in use by a UK World War I veterans group. It was Alfred Minchin who suggested "British Free Corps" after reading about the "Frikorps Danmark" in the English version of Signal magazine. Thus, it was accepted that (though, in correspondence, the unit was sometimes called the "Britisches Freikorps"), officially the name was the "British Free Corps". That settled, Roepke moved on to the purpose of the unit. All the current members told Roepke they wanted to fight the Russians (which was what the Germans wanted to hear), and so, with that settled, it was ordered that the BFC must swell to create at least a single infantry platoon of 30 men. It was also decreed that no BFC member could be part of any action against British and Commonwealth forces nor could any BFC member be used for intelligence gathering. Until a suitable British officer joined the unit, the BFC would be under German command. Other things worked out included BFC members not having to get the SS blood tattoo, not having to swear an oath of loyalty to Hitler, and not being subject to German military law. They would receive pay equal to the German soldiers of their rank. Finally, it was decided to equip the unit with standard SS uniforms with appropriate insignia. Roepke ordered the BFC to be moved to the St. Michaeli Kloster in Hildesheim and also put in an order for 800 sets of the special BFC insignia to the SS clothing department.

Officially, the BFC came into existence on 1 January 1944. By February 1944, the BFC made the move to Hildesheim and the Kloster, which was a converted monastery, now the SS Nordic Study Centre and also the barracks for foreign workers labouring for the SS. Prior to the move, things for the BFC men were pretty idle but after the move, recruiting was to be stepped up. Of the group who left the BFC in December, the rumour that they would be sent to an SS run stalag, caused some of them to rethink their decision and three of them returned to their POW camps. Two new recruits were gained, including Private Thomas Freeman of No 7 Commando of Layforce. (Freeman was to be the only BFC man who did not receive any punishment post-war for his membership.) MI5 stated his only purpose for joining the BFC was to escape and also to sabotage the unit. At this time, Roepke ordered the BFC men to assume false names for official documents but not all did so. The BFC were also issued their first SS field uniforms, but without any insignia. Tasks were now assigned to the BFC members as well, which led to some factionalism. Despite having duties, the majority of the time was spent being idle once simple chores such as cleaning the billets were done.

This idleness gave Freeman a chance to ruin the BFC by going after those who were not Fascist or strong anti-Communist. By getting them on his side, especially since the main pro-Nazi BFC men were often away from the barracks, Freeman sought to form a rift in the unit. He was able to go on one of the recruiting drives, with the purpose to gain men for his own ends. It netted three volunteers, though one returned to his camp soon after.

In April 1944, the BFC was issued its distinctive insignia, the three lion passant collar tab, the Union Flag arm badge, and the cuff title bearing "British Free Corps" in Gothic script. On the morning of 20 April, Roepke said that the BFC was now fully-fledged (by being issued uniforms, weapons, and pay books), and recruiting could begin in earnest. Promotions were also handed out at this time, with Freeman becoming senior NCO. Following the parade, the BFC members went off to various camps throughout Germany and Austria where they had been interned. The idea, however, was flawed and this recruiting drive netted just six new members. During one such drive, Berry confided to a camp leader his predicament, the leader saying he should seek out the Swiss embassy in Berlin, which Berry did not follow up. Two of these recruits, John Leister and Eric Pleasants, who had been caught up in the war when the Germans occupied the Channel Islands and put them both in camps, were mostly motivated by the opportunity to better food, alcohol and access to women. Pleasants frankly admitted to Minchin and Berry that he "was in it to have a good time."

The recruiting drives brought the BFC to a strength of 23 men. This worried Freeman because if the unit reached 30, then the BFC would be incorporated into the 5th SS Panzergrenadier Division Wiking and sent into action. To prevent this, Freeman drafted a letter, signed by him and 14 other BFC men (mostly newcomers), requesting they be returned to their camps. Freeman and one other instigator were sent to a penal stalag on the charge of mutiny 20 June. Freeman escaped the stalag in November of that year, and reached Soviet lines where he was repatriated in March 1945. Still, the BFC was rattled and tensions between members were evident, made worse by Cooper's intent to instill SS-style discipline and methods, which were alien to the Englishmen. With Freeman gone, Wilson became senior NCO, which was a mistake given Wilson had lied upon his capture about his rank, and thus had little experience leading men.

In August 1944, four more recruits joined the BFC, including Lieutenant William Shearer. However, three of these recruits were blackmailed into enlisting. Two of them were made to join as they had relationships with local women: one had made his girlfriend pregnant, which was an offence punishable by death; the other man's liaison with a woman was discovered by the Gestapo. This addition of men coerced into joining the BFC only damaged morale, and touched off lack-luster recruiting drives.

Morale continued to decline. A flap over the wearing of the Union Flag arm badge below the German eagle flared up at this time. By this time, many other units wore their national flag on the right sleeve, and some of the BFC men thought the position of the badge was disrespectful to Britain. It took a direct order from Heinrich Himmler to settle the matter by allowing the badge to be worn on the right sleeve if desired. Then there was the addition of Lieutenant Shearer, the only British officer to accept a position in the unit. It was hoped that, at the least, Shearer would provide a token officer presence: however, Shearer was a schizophrenic and refused to put on his BFC uniform or even leave his room. After several weeks, he was returned to the mental asylum from whence he came, and later sent back to England on medical grounds. A last blow was the invasion of France by the Allies.

John Amery's Proclamation of the Legion of St George




150,000 of our fellow countrymen are in prison in the home country, because they have declared themselves against this fratricidal war. In violation of the Habeas Corpus Act and the fundamental laws of our constitution these men have never been brought to trial or even allowed to see a lawyer.

American troops have not only occupied Ulster but are arriving in increasing numbers in England.

Naval bases and Colonies have been handed over to Mr Roosevelt's administration.


This war has ceased to be a war of nations but has become a war of CONCEPTION

Europe and our country, your wives and children at home are menaced by the invasion of the HORDES OF BOLCHEVICK BARBARITY.

For this reason I have approached the German Government with the proposal to form A BRITISH LEGION AGAINST BOLCHEVISM, to be known as the LEGION of ST GEORGE.

I appeal to all Britishers to answer this call to arms for the defence of all the principles that we Englishmen have been the first to proclaim in the world.


The St George Legion will fight only against the Communists and on NO OTHER FRONT!

All men will commence in their present rank and promotion will be open to all men alike, without any distinctions or qualification, political or otherwise. Within the limits of the military possibilities the Legion of St George will fight at the junction of the German-Finnish front, beside the troops of the undaunted liberty loving Finnish people.


Hundreds of soldiers have volunteered to join this Legion. Men who have escaped to England have come to join us. Three Royal Air Force aeroplanes have come over to us so far with their arms and equipment.

It is up to you civilians to give a hand to show that we intend to take our responsibilities to maintain THE INTEGRITY OF OUR EMPIRE, by giving the world proof that we have not all sold out to the JEW OR PLUTOCRAT.


The British Representation which is a 100% British organisation will take no steps whatever of intimidation against the persons who do not opt, BUT fellow countrymen the world is watching us, EUROPE EXPECTS THAT EVERY CIVILISED MAN WILL DO HIS DUTY, National England desires that you will show yourselves worthy of Nelson's immortal signal:


Your place is with us Nationalists .... Your duty is to opt NATIONAL under the glorious banner of St George we are going to write a new page in the History of the British Empire: more, WE SHALL SAVE THE BRITISH EMPIRE FROM COMMUNISM AND AMERICAN RAPACITY.

We shall show the world that free Englishmen:


Pay no attention to waverings or opposition: the first to opt will be the examples of bravery and courage to those that now waver or are against us but who will have to join us one day when they realise all the truth. In these fatal days when we are before the bar of civilisation: I beg, I demand, that you put aside all hesitations, all the prejudice, all the lies that have led you where you are ... that you take this IMMENSE OPPORTUNITY THAT I HAVE OBTAINED AND WITH ME, WITH ALL THOSE THAT HAVE ALREADY JOINED.


PARIS 20-4-43

John AMERY[1]

After D-Day

With the success of the D-Day landings, some of the BFC men saw the writing on the wall and began to look for ways out. An incident involving the arrest of a BFC man for the theft of a pistol blew up, culminating in eight men, including Pleasants, refusing to work setting up a football pitch; all of them were sent to SS punishment camps. Despite this, recruitment was stepped up, with the intention of assembling as many volunteers as possible, get them trained for combat, and sent off to the front whether as a unit or as replacements for other units. It was here that Vivian Stranders, an SS-Sturmbannführer, sought to make a bid for power by making a move against Cooper and Roepke, intending to monopolize British recruiting, and perhaps assume command of the BFC. Stranders, originally a British subject, joined the Nazi party in 1932 and took German nationality. After the war began, he was posted to the Waffen-SS as an expert in British affairs.

MacLardy abandoned the BFC, volunteering to join a Waffen-SS medical service unit. Two other men, one of them Courlander, could read the tea leaves, and left the BFC by volunteering for service with the war correspondent unit Kurt Eggers, which was operating on the Western Front. Their ultimate goal was to make for the Allied lines at the first chance. Courlander removed all of the BFC insignia from their uniforms, replacing them with the standard SS patches and rank. The two men boarded a train for Brussels in the company of a Flemish Waffen-SS unit. Once there, they turned themselves over to the British, becoming the first two BFC men to return to their homeland. Still, problems reigned. Two more recruits were gained, again blackmailed into joining over sexual contact with German women. With all these problems, the commander of the barracks went to Roepke to request the BFC be sent elsewhere. As it turned out, the BFC were indeed going to be moved.

On 11 October 1944, the BFC arrived at Dresden, to begin training as assault pioneers at the Waffen-SS Pioneer School at the Wildermann Kaserne. Here, they would receive instruction in clearing obstacles, removing minefields, use of heavy weapons, demolition, and other tasks required of combat engineers. The BFC was issued with rifles, steel helmets, camouflage uniforms, and gas masks, then set about getting back into physical shape, and given courses in the use of machine-guns, flamethrowers, and explosives. Picket and guard duty were assigned to the BFC as well. This attempt to turn the BFC into an actual combat unit came to a stop with the news of Roepke's dismissal. Stranders had been successful in ousting Roepke, replacing him with SS-Obersturmführer Dr. Walther Kuhlich, who was wounded during his stint with SS-"Das Reich", and was unfit for active frontline duty.

Cooper saw no future for himself in the BFC, and asked Wilson, who said he was in a similar frame of mind, to meet in Berlin to request a return to the stalags. The gig was up when Wilson, whose sole reason for going to Berlin was to go womanizing, left Cooper high and dry and under arrest, the charge being sabotage of the BFC. Brought before Stranders and Kuhlich, Cooper was shown signed statements by several BFC men accusing him of anti-Nazi acts. A day later, he was formally charged by an SS prosecutor and sent to the LAH, working as a military policeman. Wilson, now in charge of recruiting, had no real intention of working hard to get new blood. Instead, he set about getting ex-BFC men who had been kicked out back into the fold, notably Pleasants. In this, Wilson was successful. In the winter of 1944 and 1945, several new BFC recruits arrived, and the BFC returned to its training, all the while trying to put up a front to the other soldiers who felt the BFC led a soft life. Pleasants even managed to woo the secretary who worked for Kuhlich, marrying her in February 1945.

Plans were afoot, however, to use the BFC in one last-ditch propaganda ploy. An attempt was made to cause a rift between Joseph Stalin and the Allied leaders, namely Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt. The main effort, called "Operation Koniggratz", attempted to sway British POWs being evacuated from the Poland's stalags as the Soviets advanced. The plan was an abject failure and it was pondered how the BFC might be used to play a role in the effort, especially as they were training for combat on the Eastern Front.

The BFC, meanwhile, found its morale taking a nose-dive once more, thanks in part to Wilson's lack of leadership and with Kuhlich absent in Berlin. Still, recruits for the BFC arrived, near the close of 1944, including two South Africans. Of these five, three turned out to be genuinely anti-Communist, one of them being swayed by BFC literature, the other two having wanted to initially join the SS Totenkopf Division until Kuhlich talked them into joining the BFC instead. By January 1945, the BFC was up to 27 men, three shy of the magic 30, but by this time the whole BFC idea was considered a total and complete failure. It did not help that six Māoris who had applied to the BFC were rejected by the men on the grounds it was a "whites only" unit. There was also the ongoing problem of having to deal with drunken and AWOL BFC men, notably one man who kept sneaking away to be with his girl.

With Wilson away, Hugh Cowie, a Gordon Highlander, hatched a plan to use his temporary position as senior NCO to escape. Captured in France in 1940, Cowie once tried to escape, was punished, and had been arrested for having a radio. Instead of a court-martial, he agreed to join the BFC the previous June. Cowie's plan was to use the pretext of going on a recruiting drive to obtain documentation for him and five others, join a train to the Eastern Front, lay low somewhere and let the Soviets overtake them. Once on the train, all the men (save one who did not show), removed their BFC insignia, but were reported to the Gestapo by an innkeeper once they left the train at Olomouc. Cowie and one of the escapees were sent off to isolation camps while the other three agreed to remain with the BFC. The major blow to the already questionable value of this unit came when the Allies bombed Dresden on 12 February 1945, killing some 300,000 people. Some of the members took advantage of this to attempt an escape, but were betrayed to the Gestapo by the girlfriend of one of the plotters; the entire BFC was arrested, except for two members who managed to mingle with POWs being sent west and make their escape.

Still, the Germans attempted to make some use of the unit. After the BFC men were released from jail, they were transferred to Berlin and billeted in a school on the Schönhauser Allee, to wait there while the required steps were taken to put them into the line. It was here that the last "volunteer" came forward, Frank Axon who had been captured in Greece in 1941. Accused of causing a cow to prematurely calf by hitting it, Axon chose service with the BFC over severe punishment. With the prospects of combat looming for a lost cause, the BFC men sought ways out once more. Three men were provided with British Army uniforms by a sympathetic officer who sent them off to escape. Another man, who had a girlfriend with connections to the "Kurt Eggers" Regiment, managed to get transferred there. Pleasants, who had traveled to Prague the previous November to box against the SS police boxing team in the final round of the SS championship, went to the "Peace Camp" to participate in exhibition-bouts with Max Schmeling to the delight of German officers.

On 8 March 1945, the remaining BFC men were brought before Kuhlich who gave each a choice: fight at the front or be sent to an isolation camp. All of them chose to fight. Wilson, in no hurry to go into battle, managed to get himself a slot as liaison between the BFC and Kuhlich's Berlin office. This left Douglas Mardon, a South African POW who had joined in January, in charge of the unit and in shaping up what he had: a grand total of eight men—he refused to take two men, and Minchin had scabies. Mardon had to move the unit to a training camp in Niemeck, where the BFC men were given training in the use of the Panzerfaust and other tank-killing methods. They were also issued with the StG44 assault rifle and given training in its use. The unit strength was cut down to seven when one member was transferred after smoking aspirin until he became ill. At last, the Germans would get some use from the BFC.


On 1 March 1945, a truck loaded with the tiny BFC travelled to the headquarters of III (Germanic) SS Panzer Corps. During the journey, most members removed their BFC insignia. The HQ staff was rather shocked at getting a British unit, and being unsure of how to employ the new force, they put the BFC in billets on the western edge of Stettin pending orders on their deployment. While waiting, the BFC came under some brief Soviet mortar and artillery fire but no injuries were reported. However, the manpower was again reduced when one man came down with a severe case of gonorrhoea and was sent away to a military hospital.

Orders came in from the HQ 22 March that the BFC should move to the headquarters unit of the 11th SS Volunteer Panzergrenadier Division Nordland, located at Angermunde. From there, they would be placed with the divisional armoured reconnaissance battalion (11.SS-Panzer-Aufklärungs-Abteilung) which was stationed in Grussow. Once there, the BFC were assigned to the 3rd Company, equipped with a single Sd.Kfz.251 half-track and a "Schwimmwagen", and received orders to prepare trench lines within the company's perimeter. While the "Nordland" division was currently being held in reserve, the BFC, from their positions, could clearly see the Soviets. The BFC remained in the line for a month, but this shared combat experience failed to unify them and discord was so rampant that Mardon was pressured into seeing if the BFC could be pulled out.

About this time Cooper returns to the story. Having been told he was being transferred to the III (Germanic) SS Panzer Corps, Cooper packed a suitcase with civilian clothing and reported to the Corps HQ in Steinhoeffel on the Oder. There he learned to his surprise, that "ten Britons were somewhere near the front." SS-Obergruppenführer Felix Steiner, commander of IX SS Panzer Army, then took Cooper to inspect the BFC troops. During the journey, Cooper informed Steiner about the BFC, and advised that this tiny unit had little combat worth, was morally unstable and thus possessed dubious combat value. Steiner agreed, mainly over the post-war legalities of using POWs in combat. After inspecting the BFC, Steiner ordered that the BFC be pulled from the line.

The next day, the BFC left the front and reported to Corps headquarters, where they were issued with rations and travel orders to Templin. There, they would join the transport company of Steiner's headquarters staff. They arrived 16 April. In the meantime, Wilson, who was supposed to be sending the BFC men their Red Cross parcels (the BFC were still classified as POWs, and thus still received the parcels), chose to hoard them instead and deserted to Berlin on 9 April. To calm the rumblings, Cooper and four BFC men traveled to Berlin on the 17th, to try and locate the parcels. Returning after two days, they found a Hauptsturmführer, in SS panzer uniform, sporting BFC insignia, waiting to take them back to the front.

The officer, Douglas Berneville-Claye, had a penchant for fraud, theft, embellishment and the ability to pass himself off as something he was not. Having been booted out of the RAF, he ended up as a commander with the SAS in the Middle East where he was branded as "useless" and "dangerous" by his comrades, who eventually refused to conduct operations with him. He was captured in 1942 by units of the Afrika Korps and taken to an Italian POW camp, which he claimed to have broken out of four times. He was then sent to Oflag 79 in Brunswick until removed for his own safety since the POWs had correctly identified him as a German informer. From that point until his appearance in Templin in March 1945, his record is a blank. Standing before the BFC, Berneville-Claye launched into a speech saying he was an earl's son, a captain in the Coldstream Guards, and would collect two armoured cars to take the BFC into battle — even making the claim that the BFC would have no problems with the British authorities and that Great Britain was going to declare war on the Soviet Union in a few days. Cooper called Berneville-Claye's bluff; the officer took one of the BFC men with him as a driver and drove away. Berneville-Claye eventually changed into an SAS uniform while the driver took up farmer's clothing, and they surrendered to the Allies.

There is a persistent rumour that one BFC member, Reg Courlander, took part in the Battle of Berlin, and destroyed a Soviet tank. By this time, Roy Courlander was far behind Allied lines, and the movements of the other members of this unit are clearly known. The only person who can be proved to have seen combat in the uniform of the BFC was their translator "Bob" Rossler, who remained with the Nordland division when it went into battle in Berlin, to fight alongside the Volkssturm, the Hitlerjugend, and the other mixed bag units defending the city.

The few remaining BFC members followed Steiner's headquarters unit to Neustrelitz. There they drove trucks, directed traffic, and assisted the evacuations of civilians from the Neustrelitz and Reinershagen area until, on 29 April, Steiner ordered his forces to break contact with the Soviets and make for the western lines to surrender to the US or British. On 2 May, Cooper and the men with him surrendered to unit of the US Ninth Army near Schwerin.

Meanwhile Hugh Cowie had organized other former BFC men and seized control of their isolation camp. Heavily armed, they made their way west and also surrendered to the Ninth Army at Schwerin.


  • SS-Hauptsturmführer Johannes Roggenfeld: unknown - Summer 1943[2]
  • SS-Hauptsturmführer Roepke: Summer 1943 - 9.05.44[2]
  • SS-Obersturmführer Kühlich: 9.05.44 - May 45[2]


While British intelligence had been aware of this unit since Brown's first reports, and had the names of all of its members, it took several weeks for MI5 and Special Branch to track down and detain those involved.[3] Cowie had begun training as a military policeman in Britain when he was arrested. Amery was arrested in northern Italy. Pleasants ended up in the Soviet Occupation Zone of Germany, and was arrested by the Soviets in 1946 on espionage charges, and spent seven years in a prison camp, then returned home to boast of his dubious status as the reigning middle-weight boxing champion of the Waffen-SS until his death in 1997.

Amery and Cooper were tried for high treason alongside William Joyce (also known as "Lord Haw Haw") and Walter Purdy, and sentenced to death. Amery and Joyce were both hanged (by Albert Pierrepoint in Wandsworth Prison on 19 December 1945 and 3 January 1946 respectively).[4]

Cooper's and Purdy's sentences were commuted to life imprisonment. Cooper was released from prison in 1953, and lived in the Far East for a number of years. He returned to the UK in the 1970s and died in 1987. The rest were dealt with under military law: MacLardy was sentenced to life, reduced on appeal to 15; Cowie was sentenced to 15 years, but was released after seven; Wilson got ten years; and Berry, the first recruit, served nine months. Courland was court-martialled by the New Zealand forces, sentenced to 15 years, also served only seven. Freeman successfully defended himself on all charges, and was acquitted; MI5 stated his only purpose for joining the BFC was to escape and also to sabotage this unit. Berneville-Claye was acquitted due to lack of evidence, served another year in the army before being discharged for theft, and left the UK to eventually end his days in Australia.

In the middle of 1946, it was learnt that three former BFC members had somehow been demobilised and escaped punishment; rather than recalling them to service to face a court-martial, they were merely summoned to an MI5 office, and given a severe warning concerning their future conduct.

Freeman, after the war, said he had seen a list of over 1,100 British who applied to fight against the USSR. Asked why the BFC remained rife with problems and short of recruits despite opportunities like this, he summed it up that the core base of the BFC were "poor types", which contributed to a lack of any respect for the BFC from the start.

In popular culture

Many readers' first acquaintance with the British Free Corps came in Jack Higgins' WWII novel The Eagle Has Landed. In the novel, a BFC Officer named Harvey Preston, who is patterned on Berneville-Claye, 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.

The 2006 film Joy Division 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.

See also


  • Adrian Weale. Renegades: Hitler's Englishmen. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1994. ISBN 0-7126-6764-4
  • Guy Walters. The Traitor (novel). London: Headline, 2002. ISBN 0755300564
  • Jack Higgins. The Eagle Has Landed (novel)
  • Tony Walker. 'Snides', (novel) Published in USA 2004. ISBN 1-59526-122-2
  • Peter MacAlan. The Judas Battalion (novel). London: WH Allen, 1983. ISBN 0 491 03120 3


  1. ^ a b c
  2. ^ a b c d
  3. ^ a b
  4. ^

External links

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