Of all foreigners in the ranks of the German Wehrmacht during WWII,
British and Commonwealth troops were by far one of the most obscure groups
to be found. A select few British and Commonwealth troops are known
to have served independently in various German Waffen-SS units, and
an actual legion unit was formed consisting of British volunteers,
although its history, as we shall see, was very limited.
The initial idea of a British Legion was first conceived by John Amery, son of Leopold Stennet Amery, Great Britain's former Minister for India, and a member of Churchill's wartime cabinet. Amery was in Paris at the time of France's surrender in 1940 and may have been inspired by the advent of the formation of the Vichy Legion des Volontaires Francais being allowed by Germany. Once the war against Russia commenced, Amery hoped to be allowed to poll the UK & Commonwealth PoW camps for recruits for a Brigade of some 1,500 British and Commonwealth volunteers to fight against Soviet Russia. Amery had published in Paris in 1943 an Anti-Bolshevist monograph called "L'Angleterre et l'Europe par John Amery" (England and Europe by John Amery), in which he espoused the basic tenets of pro-Fascist, anti-Soviet rhetoric fashionable in German-occupied Europe at the time. Originally, German intention was to use the legion in a propaganda role, but Amery had different ideas, wishing for it to become a comabt brigade of 1,500 ex-British soldiers.
Perhaps because of his privileged background, and ideological vagaries, Amery found exactly one volunteer in the UK PoW cages. The OKH quickly divested themselves of the seemingly ineffectual Amery and the project was dropped. It is here that the sometimes exaggerated reports of large numbers of Englishmen joining the BFC comes into play. On their second try, the Germans sponsored a so-called holiday camp for prosepective UK recruits to visit in Berlin. Some 300 men either volunteered or were otherwise selected for a seminar of indoctrination and assesment, where around 58 or so were retained for further processing. This number dwindled considerably as handlers from the SS-FHA department under Gottlob Berger, (Himmler's genius of foreign recruitment for his legions), weeded out the drunkards, adventurers, and unreliable elements from the prospective candidates.
Reports of mass-desertion by BFC men in comtemporary accounts are unfounded, as unsuitable candidates of this ilk were sent back to their PoW cages long before they were issued SS-soldbuchs and allowed the relative freedom of camp-life in a rear area, or front-line duty. In spite of all information to the contrary, only some 29 core members of the BFC were kitted out and vetted as members of the now Waffen-SS sponsored unit. These BFC members included three Canadians, three South Africans, three Australians, and one New Zealander. The rest were either UK nationals of pre-war Mosley-ite persuasion, or in the case of at least two members, had one parent of German birth. All members of the BFC were issued their Soldbuchs using psuedonyms.
Himmler at first proposed the unit be called the British Legion, but was advised that an organization of the same name existed in England as an ex-service member's club, much like the American Legion in the United States. The reference to St. George was also soon dropped because it meant very little to the German mind, and because it also referred to the Greek and Russian Orthodox worship of the same patron Saint, and would not denote a unique identification with Great Britain. The name Britische Freikorps or British Free Corps appeared in official RSHA documentation for the first time in November 1943.
In May of 1943, a special emphasis was placed on the formation in the hopes of creating a truely important propaganda weapon for use against the British. To this end, a great number of provisions were created to gather new recruits. During this time, Special Detachment 999 was set up to attempt to increase the recruitment of officers, althought it failed in this mission, gathering only about 6 new members. Special Detachment 999 was later disbanded in late 1943, shortly after its creation.
Another detachment was later formed called Special Detachment 517. Under the control of Special Detachment 517, nearly 300 British PWs were gathered for potential membership and very soon after, an actual form began to take shape within the unit with a command structure consisting ex-British Army and Royal Airforce NCOs, and about 20 other members.
In the Summer of 1943, the control of the Legion was under the SS-Hauptamt as a part of amt (or department) D-I which was in control of the Germanischen Leitstelle, or Germanic Central Administration and the Germanic SS within the Waffen-SS.
In January, 1944, the title of the unit became the Britsches Freikorps, otherwise known in English as the British Free Corps. Soon after, the BFK was accepted fully into the Waffen-SS, although it had been a part of the Waffen-SS since its formation. Upon acceptance into the ranks of the Waffen-SS, the BFK was also given proper German uniforms and a number of unique and colorful insignia were created for the members. These insignia included a Union Jack shield that was worn on the left arm, a Lions of St. George collar patch, and much later towards the end of the war, a British Free Corps cuff title. Without a doubt, such elaborate insignia was designed and issued to the BFC almost exclusively for propaganda purposes, as some Foreign units that had real combat potential never had any sort of special insignia at all.
In Late February 1944 the BFK was transfered in full to the control of the Germanic House, an organization that served the political needs of SS personnel from various European Nations. At this time, the BFK was promised eventual combat training and was issued with offical equipment, although weapons were still missing.
All members of the BFK were required to issue and sign the following statement: "I, (name), being a British subject, consider it my duty to offer my services in the common European struggle against Communism, and hereby apply to enlist in the British Free Corps." This statement was in English, and after being signed, allowed the member to recieve pay books and all other benifits that members of the Waffen-SS normally received.
The BFK led a confused existance, being moved around by German commanders unsure of the legality of using PWs in a combat role. An order was actually given to remove all BFK members from combat duty to avoid problems with the Allies.
Thus the strange existance of the unit more-or-less came to an end. A few members are thought to have taken part in the Battle for Berlin, while the majority of the BFK was sent west to surrender to the Allies. The strange case of the BFK volunteers and their small size warrents that we may never be able to know all the facts regarding this formation and much that we do know is often times suspect. With that in mind, the BFK was no doubt an interesting and amazing German formation.
John Amery himself was arrested in Milan, Italy at the end of the war. He was brought back to England and tried brought to trial at the Old Bailey on 28 November 1945. He pleaded guilty to eight counts of treason. It is said he knew there was no chance of an acquittal, the evidence being so overwhelming, and wishing to spare his family the embarrassment of a long trial, he decided to forgo court proceedings. John Amery was executed by hanging, 29 December 1945. Sentences of several years hard labor and various fines were imposed upon other UK and Commonwealth participants. For the most part, the volunteers of the BFK were considered pathetic dupes and characters unsure of their national sympathies - (ie. those with German relatives.) Postwar in the UK the advent of the BFK was relegated to an unmentioned obscurity, and treated as an abberation of war.
Besides the BFK, an unknown number of Britons served in various other German units. For example, in May, 1940, 7 Britons were said to be serving in various units of the Totenkopfverbande, including in the soon to be 3.SS-Panzer-Division Totenkopf. Other memebers, both before and during the time of the BFC, served in the LAH and in the SS War Correspondents Unit Kurt Eggers. Two Britons served as Hiwis in the Flak detachment of the LAH Division, both being awarded the Iron Cross, 2nd Class. Their story is told in the book, "Gefaehrten Unser Jugend; Die Flak-Abteilung Der Leibstandarte" which gives a detailed account of their experiances.
See also, Britische Freikorps.