This article contains MI5’s Report on the British Free Corps (BFC) dated 27 March 1945. The report was produced in Appendix I of Adrian Weale’s book “Renegades: Hitler’s Englishmen” (Published by Weidenfeld & Nicholson 1994 ISBN: 0-297-81488-5).
About May 1943 the Germans announced to Prisoners of War the establishment of a Holiday Camp in Berlin, to be known as Stalag IIID/999. About a month later they opened another Camp, Stalag IIID/517 at Genshagen. This was for Other Ranks, the Officers remaining at IIID/999. In October 1943 we heard, by Secret Channels, from POWs in Germany, that, from the outset, these camps were regarded with grave mistrust and recognised as what they were, namely, propaganda establishments to subvert the loyalty of British POWs. They were almost immediately labelled, by the POWs, “The Prop. Camps”, by which title they are known today.
It does not appear that the selection of the first batch of prisoners to be sent there was cleverly, or even systematically made. For example no attempt was made beforehand to identify BUF men or prisoners with German pre-war connections. Instead the first batch consisted of a heterogeneous collection, who had mostly been for long in captivity, and very few were volunteers. The only evidence of purpose in selection is that it included a few entertainers (among them a dance band), interpreters, and, whether by accident or design, several men with some experience of journalism.
In the event the camps were a failure from the start. The camp arrangements were incomplete when the POWs arrived. The latter were on their guard and obstructive when possible. There was no attempt by the enemy at intensive propaganda, but there was better food than in the ordinary Camps, a library, and organised recreation (so far as obstruction by POWs allowed) including conducted motor coach tours around Berlin, group photographs and walking out under supervision.
At an early stage, probably in October 1943, certain POWs were individually sounded as to whether they would join a unit to be called St. George’s Legion. The purpose of the unit was declared to be the fight against Bolshevism, and the inducements were
- that five Colonels and a Brigadier had already joined,
- that the unit had already reached Brigade strength,
- that it would be better to be a fighting soldier that to go to seed as a POW,
- that it had the support of the British Government,
- that it would lead to promotion.
The theme was later, in April 1944, elaborated in a pamphlet widely distributed in all camps, on the lines that
- Britain had been slow to recognise the Russian peril, and that, in joining, POWs would be serving the true interests of their country.
- Those who joined would get in on the ground floor of what was bound to become a great British movement.
In October 1943, the month that all these activities first came to light, the name AMERY, the significance of which was unknown to those approached, was mentioned uncertainly by two Canadian Officers who had been approached to join, as that of the Brigadier associated with St. George’s Legion.
Concurrently with canvassing in Stalags IIID/999 and /517, the Germans sought recruits by another method. At Luckenwalde was a Transit and Interrogation Camp, called Stalag IIIA, for prisoners recently captured. The general policy in this camp seems to have been precisely the reverse to that in Stalags IIID/999 and IIID/517. To IIIA were sent prisoners, particularly Irish and Indian, who were reported from field interrogation to be likely material. On arrival they found the harder camp conditions and acute discomfort. The aim was, apparently, to present these to prisoners as the normal camp conditions that would find when sent on to the basic Stalags. POWs of weak loyalty would then choose the alternative of enlistment in the Legion. It may have been to widen appeal that the name was changed from “Legion of St. George” to “The British Free Corps”. The new title was first reported in December 1943.
The uniform of the Legion, first seen at the end of 1943, was an ordinary German field-grey uniform with an embroidered Union Jack on the left arm. (It is an indication of the scale of German hopes that 800 of these Union Jack badges were made.) Later three leopards were added to the collar, and a Service flash “BRITISH FREE CORPS” in Gothic lettering was added to the sleeve.
The strength of the unit in the early stages is not certainly known. It was probably greatest at the end of 1943 but, in February 1944, we received reliable information that the strength was a mere twenty. At present we have no certain knowledge as to the training received by the Corps. We do know that some members of it were armed with revolvers, and also that in the early past of 1944 they were hanging about the barracks at Hildesheim day after day with nothing to do. It may well be that the numbers were never sufficient to justify any military training as a unit.
Throughout the early part of 1944 Censorship intercepts from POWs mail provided ample, and often amusing, evidence of the general indignation felt within the camps, and the persistent efforts made by the Germans to secure recruits, including the sending of men in uniforms to the larger camps to serve as decoys.
Early in 1944 Stalags IIID/999 and /517 were closed owing to the bombing of Berlin, and recruiting then depended on visiting recruiters who were sent to the camps, including JOHN AMERY himself, and recruits came from two sources:
- Men enlisting to escape the conditions at Luckenwalde.
- Men enlisting as an alternative to punishment (usually as a result of association with German women while on a Working Party).
Early in 1944 certain of the few enlisted members of the British Free Corps were drawn from it, and assigned to other subversive activities, such as broadcasting and SS Propaganda units at the Front.
The information which follows as to those responsible for founding the BFC, how it came into being, and the identity of its members, was obtained from two men, Corporals COURLANDER and MATON, who were themselves members, and who were found in Brussels at the time of its occupation in mid-September 1944. Right up to this time they had been actually serving in the Free Corps.
Since that date we have received information that the “Prop” camps had a second lease of life after the first bombing, but were finally closed at the beginning of 1945. At the present time it is, of course, extremely difficult to obtain information as to the existing situation in the Free Corps.
We know that, as late as September 1944, two recruits named Gunner NIGHTINGALE and Private MILLER were enlisted. There may be others; but it is reasonable, in view of the war situation, to assume that the BFC is now stagnant if it is not disbanded. The members may be used as orderlies and messengers.
It will be seen that the first recruits for the BFC came from the “Prop Camps”, Stalags IIID/999 and /517. These camps also provided a number of broadcasters, some of whom were also, at one time or another, members of the BFC. It would probably be inaccurate to assume that those two, and other, subversive activities were born out of the propaganda camps and owed their existence to them. POWs would certainly have been used for broadcasting propaganda and probably the BFC would also have been formed, whether the propaganda and probably the BFC would also have been formed, and the British Free Corps is, after all, an old idea, being analogous to the Irish Brigade which Casement tried to form in the last war. What is true is that the propaganda camps were a convenient foundation for subversive activities, and were used to nourish them. The German effort was quite a large one. The completeness of its failure is the more remarkable. The details of the effort, and who was behind it, serve to support the foregoing remarks.
The exact scene of these activities is irrelevant to this note, but it is important to realise
- that Stalag IIID is a generic title which includes all POW establishments in the Berlin region, which were all administered from HQ.
- that Stalag IIID/999 was situated in Zohlondorf West, and Stalag IIID/517 at Genshagen.
- that in June 1944, the BFC was in an old monastery building near Michaclisplatz at Hildesheim. Connected with this, in Berlin, was a house in the Grunewald district where recruits were received and issued with clothing.
When Stalag IIID/517 was opened, of the cadre staff of five servicemen who were already there to receive the first batch of POWs, the four in the executive positions are reported to have had pre-war BUF sympathies. The German in charge was Sonderfuhrer Oscar LANGE, an ex-New York docker, who, in spite of his low rank, was allowed considerable initiative and had also to do with the recruiting arrangements in Luckenwalde. LANGE, therefore, was concerned both with the propaganda camps as such and with the plan for forming the Free Corps. He was under the direct control of Hauptmann BENTMANN. This officer was in charge of the Wehrmacht propaganda section of Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW), and was interested in the formation of a British Unit, but only for propaganda purposes. BENTMANN and LANGE are to be regarded as soldiers, responsible for implementing the policy of higher authority, so far as that policy was to be applied to Service POWs; but it appears that the higher authority was shared between the Foreign Office, Propaganda Ministry and SS, all of whom had a hand in the programme. This divided authority later led to friction and discord and was partly responsible for failure in recruiting at the Camps.
Looking at this higher authority, on present information it seems likely that the idea of the propaganda camps originated with the German Foreign Office, while the prime mover in starting the Free Corps was John Amery, the British civilian renegade. The latter’s name was given to a recruit by LANGE as early as August 1943, as “now forming a unit to fight against Communism”. The relations at that time between AMERY and the Foreign Office are not known, and on them depends how far he may also have been responsible for the idea of the propaganda camps. What is known, however, is that the Foreign Office was actively interested through the persons of HESSE, ZIEGVALD, ADAMI and SCHMIDT.
Dr. HESSE, who was German Press Attaché in England before the war, worked through ZIEGVELD, who was a student in England at the outbreak of the last war, and was interned. ZIEGVELD is reported to have been a foundation member of the “Link” and the author of the book name “England at the Cross Roads”.
ADAMI is believed to have been keeping an eye on the activities of AMERY on behalf of the Foreign Office.
Of these men, ZIEGVELD came into direct contact with POWs.
The SS representative was Hauptsturmfuhrer Hans Werner ROEPKE, who was to take direct command of the BFC as a Waffen SS Unit. Some influence in the shaping of the BFC was also exercised by Major HEIMPEL, who was security officer and as such held the Gestapo brief.
Besides AMERY, another notorious British civilian renegade was directly involved in the BFC. This was Vivian STRANDERS. This man is reported to have become acknowledged member of the NSDAP some time before assuming German nationality. He was appointed to succeed ROEPKE in command of the BFC in August 1944.
Something is known of several other German characters associated with the propaganda camps and the BFC, in varying degrees, but those mentioned are sufficient to illustrate the set-up.
The known membership of the British Free Corps 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.
The principal subversive activity other than the BFC, nourished by Stalags IIID/999 and /517, was to add to the staffs of the secret broadcasting stations of which Radio National (music and talks), Workers Challenge (talks to appeal especially to the working class) and Empire Senders (for Dominion and Colonial audiences) were examples. All the above stations were pretended to be operating secretly within the countries to which the propaganda was directed. This enterprise, which employed more civilians than Service renegades, was under the joint control of the Foreign Office and Propaganda Ministry, and was known as the Bureau Concordia. After some discord it was ruled that the Foreign Office should exercise political control over all foreign propaganda, and in this capacity should censor material submitted by the Propaganda Ministry. It is unnecessary in this note to explore the details of this organisation and its control, though the Security Service has considerable information on the subject (which is contained in a memorandum by Mr. Shelford). There is a present interest, however, in those characters with whom British prisoners came in touch, and those prisoners themselves.
The headquarters for the Foreign Office department for controlling the activities of the Bureau Concordia, and the recruiting of renegades for it, appears to have been run by Professor HAFERKORN, ADAMI assists HAFERKORN and has visited POW camps to obtain recruits.
There are Englishmen, resident in Germany before the war, who are concerned in the organisation and some of whom took a parallel interest in the formation of the BFC. A POW who is almost on an equal footing with some of these men, such as JOYCE, BAILLIE STEWART and AMERY, is Pilot Officer FREEMAN, whose case is particular in that, though without earlier German connections, he has worked his way so far as to be a fully accepted member of the German control.
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 Recihmarks a month for FREEMAN down to 400 Reichmarks.
Lieutenant-Colonel V.H. Seymer (MI5).
27 March 1945.