British Volunteers in the Wehrmacht in WWII
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 knownto have served independently in various German Waffen-SS units, andan 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 JohnAmery, son of Leopold Stennet Amery, Great Britain’s former Ministerfor India, and a member of Churchill’s wartime cabinet. Amery was in Paris atthe time of France’s surrender in 1940 and may have been inspired bythe advent of the formation of the Vichy Legion des Volontaires Francais being allowed by Germany. Once the war against Russia commenced, Ameryhoped to be allowed to poll the UK & Commonwealth PoW camps forrecruits for a Brigade of some 1,500 British and Commonwealth volunteers tofight against Soviet Russia. Amery had published in Paris in 1943 anAnti-Bolshevist monograph called “L’Angleterre et l’Europe par John Amery”(England and Europe by John Amery), in which he espoused the basic tenetsof pro-Fascist, anti-Soviet rhetoric fashionable in German-occupied Europeat the time. Originally, German intention was to use the legion in apropaganda role, but Amery had different ideas, wishing for it to become acombat brigade of 1,500 ex-British soldiers.
Perhaps because of his privileged background, and ideological vagaries, Amery found exactly onevolunteer in the UK PoW cages. The OKH quickly divested themselves of the seemingly ineffectualAmery and the project was dropped. It is here that the sometimes exaggerated reports oflarge numbers of Englishmen joining the BFC come into play. On their second try, the Germanssponsored a so-called holiday camp for prospective UK recruits to visit in Berlin. Some 300 men eithervolunteered or were otherwise selected for a seminar of indoctrination and assessment, where around58 or so were retained for further processing. This number dwindled considerably as handlers fromthe SS-FHA department under Gottlob Berger, (Himmler’s genius of foreign recruitment for hislegions), weeded out the drunkards, adventurers, and unreliable elements from the prospectivecandidates.
Reports of mass-desertion by BFC men in contemporary accounts areunfounded, as unsuitable candidates of this ilk were sent back to their PoWcages long before they were issued SS-Soldbuchs and allowed the relativefreedom of camp-life in a rear area or front-line duty. In spite of allinformation to the contrary, only some 29 core members of the BFC werekitted out and vetted as members of the now Waffen-SS sponsored unit. TheseBFC members included three Canadians, three South Africans, threeAustralians, and one New Zealander. The rest were either UK nationals ofpre-war Mosley-ite persuasion or in the case of at least two members, hadone parent of German birth. All members of the BFC were issued their Soldbuchsusing pseudonyms.
Himmler at first proposed the unit be called the British Legion, but wasadvised that an organization of the same name existed in England as anex-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 verylittle to the German mind and because it also referred to the Greek andRussian Orthodox worship of the same patron Saint, and would not denote aunique identification with Great Britain. The name Britische Freikorpsor British Free Corps appeared in official RSHA documentation for thefirst time in November 1943.
In May of 1943, a special emphasis was placed on the formation in the hopes of creating a truly 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, although it failed in this mission,gathering only about 6 new members. Special Detachment 999 was later disbandedin late 1943, shortly after its creation.
Another detachment was later formed called Special Detachment 517. Underthe control of Special Detachment 517, nearly 300 British PWs were gatheredfor potential membership and very soon after, an actual form began to takeshape within the unit with a command structure consisting ex-British Armyand 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 GermanischenLeitstelle, or Germanic Central Administration and the Germanic SS within theWaffen-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 BFKwas accepted fully into the Waffen-SS, although it had been a part of theWaffen-SS since its formation. Upon acceptance into the ranks of theWaffen-SS, the BFK was also given proper German uniforms and a number of unique and colorful insignia were created for the members. These insignias included a Union Jack shieldthat was worn on the left arm, a Lions of St. George collar patch, and muchlater towards the end of the war, a British Free Corps cuff title.Without a doubt, such elaborate insignia was designed and issued to the BFCalmost exclusively for propaganda purposes, as some Foreign units that hadreal combat potential never had any sort of special insignia at all.
In Late February 1944, the BFK was transferred in full to the control of theGermanic House, an organization that served the political needs of SSpersonnel from various European Nations. At this time, the BFK was promisedeventual combat training and was issued with official equipment, althoughweapons 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 myservices in the common European struggle against Communism, and herebyapply to enlist in the British Free Corps.” This statement was in English,and after being signed, allowed the member to receive pay books and allother benefits that members of the Waffen-SS normally received.
The BFK led a confused existence, being moved around by German commanders unsure of the legality of using PWs in a combat role. An order was actuallygiven to remove all BFK members from combat duty to avoid problems with theAllies.
Thus the strange existence of the unit more-or-less came to anend. A few members are thought to have taken part in the Battle forBerlin, while the majority of the BFK was sent west to surrender to theAllies. The strange case of the BFK volunteers and their small size warrants 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 inmind, 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 wasbrought back to England and tried brought to trial at the Old Baileyon 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 embarrassmentof 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 fineswere imposed upon the other UK and Commonwealth participants. For the mostpart, the volunteers of the BFK were considered pathetic dupes andcharacters unsure of their national sympathies – (ie. those with Germanrelatives.) Postwar in the UK the advent of the BFK was relegated to anunmentioned obscurity and treated as an aberration 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 theTotenkopfverbande, including in the soon to be 3.SS-Panzer-DivisionTotenkopf. Other members, both before and during the time of the BFC,served in the LAH and in the SS War Correspondents Unit Kurt Eggers. TwoBritons served as Hiwis in the Flak detachment of the LAH Division, bothbeing awarded the Iron Cross, 2nd Class. Their story is told in the book,”Gefaehrten Unser Jugend; Die Flak-Abteilung Der Leibstandarte” which givesa detailed account of their experiences.