The Brits Who Fought For Hitler (2002)
For images of the production: British Free Corps
A nation reviles treachery, perhaps now more than ever. But the chronicles of recent history have ignored the most shameful episode of World War Two. The Britisches Freikorps unit of the Waffen SS served alongside the Nazis on the Eastern Front. Its members wore the death’s head insignia and took German rank. They helped defend Berlin even as Hitler retreated to his bunker. But each and every member was recruited from British, Canadian, Australian and South African soldiers who volunteered to betray their country. Recognising the potential propaganda value of the unit, the Nazis ordered 800 SS uniforms with Union Jack arm badges. Most Allied prisoners of war ignored or resisted recruitment tactics ranging from leaflet bombardment to bribery and torture. But some 200 Allied prisoners answered the Nazi call. Some were motivated by greed, or by sympathies with the fascist cause. Others were simply described by intelligence files of the time as of ‘weak character’, and found the opportunities offered by the Germans to drink and womanise too tempting. The British Free Corps was itself betrayed by one of its number who joined only to feed MI5 with information. John Brown, the quartermaster of a camp at Genshagen. As Germany collapsed, Brown’s information allowed the Allies to round up the traitors who often posed as fleeing PoWs. They were prosecuted and sentenced at court martial and treason trials. The intelligence files were quietly closed and access to the devastating information within was restricted. There was no cover-up, rather a conspiracy of indifference. For the first time on British Television, the British SS soldiers speak of their treachery, and their part in a failed German propaganda coup.
This week Channel Five present an intriguing documentary about a group of upper class Brits who sided with Hitler during world war II. Channel Five Tuesday 8 May 2003 - 8.00pm.
As the Russian army moved towards Berlin in the last months of the Third Reich, the crumbling Nazi forces were joined by some unlikely reinforcements – a British SS unit. This documentary, based on formerly classified information, tells the story of these treacherous men. The pro-Nazi soldiers were the brainchild of the upper-class, Harrow-educated John Amery, a conman and sexual psychopath whose father served in Churchill’s war cabinet. Although he was a quarter Jewish (his father was half Jewish) , Amery was an anti-Semite renowned for making speeches welcoming the German invaders in France. He then offered his services to Nazi propaganda minister Goebbels, and began working with notorious broadcaster Lord Haw Haw.
For the first time on British television, men of the British Free Corps of the Waffen SS speak of their treachery, and their part in a German propaganda coup that failed dismally when faced with stout British resistance. Of around 150,000 British PoWs, only 27 joined the ineffective British Free Corps (BFC). Historian Adrian Weale explains how Amery’s idea of a corps of British traitors delighted Hitler. But his initial attempts at recruiting from German PoW camps were a dismal failure: few British prisoners were prepared to join the army that had made their lives hell. The SS put British turncoat John Brown in charge instead, but little did they know that former fascist Brown was an MI5 informer who was passing all their plans to British intelligence. Their plans were doomed from the start.
The ‘carrot’ approach was tried first. Recruiters told prisoners they would be fighting communism, and wouldn’t have to bear arms against their fellow countrymen. Some British prisoners were transferred to a ‘holiday camp’ with healthy meals, beer, a theatre, a cafe and a football pitch. However, this attempt to show the Nazis as reasonable types was undermined by the presence of a work camp next door, where tens of thousands of Russian prisoners were worked to death in full view of the PoWs.
Still, very few took up the German offer to wear the special BFC uniforms, with the swastika sitting alongside the three lions and Union Jack. The Nazis then used the ‘stick’ approach, attempting to break the men by cutting their rations, depriving them of clothing and subjecting them to psychological torture.
Blackmail was another tactic: prostitutes were sent in to seduce the PoWs, who were then told they faced the death penalty for sleeping with German women if they didn’t collaborate. However, the response was still poor. The occasional bigot – such as Thomas Cooper and Francis MacLardy – joined up on ideological grounds, but most wanted an easy life, drinking beer in the local cafes, sleeping with the local German girls and avoiding the front if at all possible. Even the corps commander, Hans Werner Roepke, wasn’t looking forward to battle. The filmmakers tracked the former SS Captain down to a Frankfurt suburb. ‘The Brits Who Fought For Hitler’ includes an interview from one of the BFC men’s German girlfriends, now in her 70s. She much preferred the British SS men to the Germans, and still keeps a photo of her "real English Gentleman" boyfriend. It wasn’t until spring 1944 that there were enough recruits to form the corps. They began training in an old seminary, where they signed up under false names. Privileges included the right to be addressed in English and to be allowed to do English marching drill. But although recruits were told they were joining a large and prestigious outfit, the pitiful size of the BFC got Roepke the sack, and the unit’s importance was downgraded.
The BFC were sent for battle training at Dresden, and ironically helped clean up operations after the famous firestorm raid by the RAF in February 1945. Locals were not amused to find British people in what was left of their city, and arrested them as spies. They were released from gaol and sent to the Eastern Front to help with the last ditch defence of the Fatherland. The BFC spent a month on the front line watching the Russians on the other side of the river and coming under shellfire. Fortunately for them, they were pulled back just before the Russian breakthrough and, realising the game was up, they headed West towards the British forces pushing into Germany. The BFC members changed sides again and attempted to merge with freed PoWs, wearing their old British uniforms. But MI5 officers found, questioned and imprisoned many of them. The most serious punishment, execution for treason, was saved for John Amery. Few mourned his death. BFC members were sent to prison for treason and aiding the enemy, and even today, the shame of their actions still affects families. The film talks to the son of one member who says: "I hope to God he wasn’t involved in atrocities."
Executive Producer: Simon Schofield / Producer/Director: James Cutler
A Real Life Media Production