Two early recruits to the BFC:SS-Mann Kenneth Berry and SS-Sturmmann Alfred Minchin, with German officers, April 1944.
Collaboration has always been a topic that arouses fierce emotions, and those POWs who went over to the other side or in some way supported the Axis cause have received much coverage. But their numbers were minuscule, and their overall effect minimal. The only real damage came from those who willingly gave information to their captors under interrogation, or acted as stool pigeons to discover intelligence from other unsuspecting prisoners. Although the Germans did use stool pigeons, the prisoners’ fear of them was possibly exaggerated. Bob Prouse certainly believed that he and his comrades were victims of one such informer, who worked his way into their confidence while they were digging an escape tunnel from the work camp at Niederorschel. When the man suddenly disappeared, the tunnel was discovered. A similar occurrence was experienced at Spangenberg, when an unknown officer departed as suddenly as he had arrived, to be followed by an intensive search by the Germans that revealed the presence of a tunnel and much otherwise well-hidden escape material.
One informer with an unusual story was RAF Sergeant Michael Joyce, initially held at the Dulag Luft transit and interrogation camp. The fact that he was a cousin of the infamous collaborator William Joyce – ‘Lord Haw Haw’ – may not have helped his cause, but he aroused suspicions among other prisoners and did nothing to allay their doubts by his friendliness towards the German camp staff. Joyce eventually asked to be transferred from the camp, and in May 1942 he was taken to Rome and then to North Africa via Crete. There he posed either as a representative of the Red Cross, issuing bogus Red Cross forms, or as a fellow POW shot down in North Africa. He was not particularly successful in gaining information from genuine British and American airmen, and following a bout of dysentery he was returned to Germany.
Joyce’s tale then took a bizarre turn when he was ordered to infiltrate one of the civilian escape networks whose lines began on the Luxembourg–Belgium border. Kitted out as a newly downed airman, Joyce managed to contact an escape line, but instead of slipping away to inform his German superiors of the network’s existence he simply carried on down the line to Bordeaux, before arriving in Britain in November 1942.
Joyce kept quiet about his activities as an informer, and was commended for his bravery and initiative, being awarded the Military Medal and promoted to flight lieutenant. It was only after the war that the truth came out. Joyce escaped prosecution, but lost both his MM and his commission.
Another informer became too well known for his own good. Sub Lieutenant E. W. Purdy, a member of the British Union of Fascists before the war, was recruited by the Germans in the Marlag naval camp. He was taken to Berlin, where he joined a number of other British renegades broadcasting anti-British propaganda. While in Berlin he fell out with his German minders and in March 1944 he was sent to Colditz, where he offered his services to the camp officer, Reinhold Eggers. The prisoners in Colditz were always wary of new arrivals unable to vouch for themselves, but Purdy’s misfortune was to be identified as a German sympathizer by Julius Green, then in Colditz but formerly the dental officer at a number of other camps, including Marlag. After interrogation by the security committee and the SBO, Purdy broke down and admitted his past. The SBO, Colonel Willie Todd, then told the commandant that unless Purdy was removed from the camp he would be unable to guarantee his safety. It would seem that this was no idle threat, as, according to one account, some of the Colditz officers had decided that Purdy should be hanged as a traitor there and then. Their intentions were frustrated when Purdy was whisked away after spending just three days in the castle.
The idea of raising a military unit from British POWs to fight on the German side was first raised by the renegade John Amery, a committed fascist who broadcast pro-Nazi propaganda to Britain from Berlin. Although sceptical of the idea, the Germans gave Amery permission to begin recruiting for his grandly titled League of St George in April 1943. He managed to recruit just one member, a 17-year-old ship’s boy from the Saint-Denis internment camp outside Paris. Interest from Hitler saved the project, which was then taken over by the SS. In January 1944 the renamed British Free Corps (BFC) came into being, with the initial intention of raising a platoon of thirty men who could be trained and sent into combat.
Two ‘holiday camps’ had been set up by the Germans, attached to Stalag IIID outside Berlin. Special Detachment 999 was for officers and was establised in a suburban villa at Zehlendorf, but later moved to a country house in Bavaria. Although suspicious of the whole set-up, British officers accepted the offer of short breaks of up to six weeks in pleasant surroundings. To their surprise, no attempt was made to suborn them to the Nazi cause, and it would seem that the ‘holiday’ was just that. (The Anglophile German Foreign Office official and 1944 July Plot conspirator against Hitler Adam von Trott zu Solz implied that he was the inspiration behind the holiday camp, thereby suggesting a benign motivation.)
The camp for other ranks – Special Detachment 517 at Genshagen – was rather more sinister. The camp staff included a few of the men who were to become the nucleus of the BFC, their role being to persuade incoming POWs to join them in the ‘Crusade against Bolshevism’. But little attempt, if any, was made to screen appropriate recruits before arrival, and the vast majority of POWs simply ignored the staff and enjoyed the superior conditions of Genshagen before returning to their parent camps.
Another factor militating against success for the Germans was the presence of camp leader BQMS John Brown, one of the more intriguing and seemingly contradictory figures in the POW system. An Oxford graduate, committed Christian and pre-war member of the British Union of Fascists, Brown was captured in 1940 and sent to the Blechhammer work camp. He used his position as a senior NCO to become a highly successful racketeer, whose blatantly pro-German sympathies were bitterly resented by many of his fellow prisoners. But he was in fact acting as a double agent, having at some point been given access to one of the MI9 letter codes. He was able to get himself sent to Genshagen to run its administration – something beyond the riff-raff who made up the BFC. According to his own account, he managed to sabotage the recruitment efforts of the BFC while sending back reports of the activities of British pro-Nazi sympathizers, including John Amery, to MI9.
During 1944, BFC recruiting leaflets were distributed to POW camps, but were treated with contempt. As Bob Prouse noted, ‘They insulted the intelligence of POWs by expecting us to believe this nonsense. The only result in our lager was one of ridicule and laughter.’ In a few cases BFC members managed to talk to prisoners directly, but once again with very limited success. Despite the recruitment drive the BFC was never able to reach its very modest target of thirty men (it peaked at twenty-seven in January 1945), and, although it began infantry training, it never saw any front-line action. Its members – an assortment of pre-war fascists, malcontents, opportunists and the mentally confused – drank, womanized and quarrelled among themselves until the end of the war. From a German point of view they were a waste of time and resources.
In 1939 the IRA ‘chief of staff’, Sean Russell, suggested to the Germans that they raise an anti-British force from Irishmen in the British Army. The Germans were initially doubtful, but in September 1940 they made some tentative moves towards organizing an Irish Brigade with recruits drawn from German POW camps. Although the initiative received some response, none of the volunteers seem to have had any interest in the German cause. Some went along to monitor what was happening and to report back to the British authorities; others were tempted by the idea of greater freedom and improved conditions. Of nine officers who were sent to a camp for possible recruitment, three were code-writers in contact with MI9. The officers were soon returned to their camps, with the exception of one man who was not even Irish but a journalist looking for a story. Realizing that the Irish were a lost cause, the Germans effectively abandoned the project in 1943.
From a German perspective, a more promising source of recruits was provided by POWs from the Indian Army. The genesis of the Free Indian Legion resulted from the arrival of Subhas Chandra Bose in Germany in January 1941. Bose, an Indian nationalist leader under virtual house arrest in Calcutta, had slipped out of India and, after travelling through Afghanistan and the Soviet Union, had reached Germany in the hope of lobbying Hitler for military support against the British in India. While Hitler and the German Foreign Office debated the issue, the sudden capture of over 1,000 Indian troops in North Africa in May 1941 transformed Bose’s plan to that of raising a German-equipped Free Indian Legion. The number of Indian POWs steadily increased to around 15,000 by the end of 1942, providing a well-stocked pool of potential recruits.
Batches of Indian POWs were sent from Italy and North Africa to the German camp at Annaberg, where they were subjected to an intensive recruitment campaign by civilians from the German-sponsored Free India Centre. Those POWs thought suitable were sent to another camp at Frankenberg for further attempts at persuasion and, if successful, military training. There was certainly an anti-British undercurrent within the Indian POW population that the Free India propagandists were able to exploit with some success: roughly a quarter of those captured went over to the German side – approximately 4,000 men. The figures would have been higher if Bose had not insisted that all recruits start on the bottom rung, thereby alienating NCOs and Viceroy’s Commissioned Officers (VCOs – ranks roughly between a senior NCO and an officer), who, in addition, had dependants back in India relying on their British pay and subsequent pensions.
Bose’s modernizing zeal extended to abolishing the traditional distinctions of religion, region and caste. Although in many ways commendable, these changes tended to unsettle many of the Indian Legion soldiers. Another unsatisfactory reform was Bose’s choice of Hindustani as the language of command, replacing the Urdu of the British Indian Army. As a consequence, German, English, Urdu and Hindustani were all spoken at various times.
Despite these problems, recruitment and training continued, the intention being to raise a force comparable to a German infantry regiment of three 1,000-strong battalions. A small German staff of senior NCOs and officers would provide overall leadership. By February 1943 the Indian element of the Legion stood at 2,270, and by the summer of 1944 it had reached a maximum strength of 3,115 Indian troops, which with the German staff made a total figure of around 3,500 men. The deployment of the Legion remained a problem. Initial hopes that victory on the Eastern Front would enable it to be used as a spearhead to invade British-occupied India were irrevocably dashed by the spring of 1943. Designated Infanterie Regiment 950, the Legion was initially deployed in the Netherlands in May 1943, performing construction duties, before being transferred to France as part of the German occupation force.
Morale steadily declined. There were outbreaks of violence between different religious groups, and at least one mutiny. The men of the Legion began to feel increasingly isolated from all that was familiar to them. Discipline began to waver, and there were accusations of drunkenness, looting and rape while in France. The historian Milan Hauner wrote of the Legion in France, ‘Without spiritual guidance many Indians saw “Europeanization” as a process of throwing away their own religion and habits. The imitation of Europe sometimes took rather grotesque forms when some of the Indians preferred to speak broken German among themselves rather than Urdu, for instance.’ After the Allied breakout from Normandy the Legion was withdrawn from France – a transfer that included skirmishes with the French Resistance, the Legion’s only form of military action. Stationed first in Alsace and then near the Swiss border in Germany, it took no part in the final battles of 1945 and tamely surrendered to the Americans in April 1945. While the ringleaders of the Legion were court-martialled in India after the war, it was felt by the British that too many men had been either tricked or coerced into joining the Legion to merit any further disciplinary action.
For the Germans, the Free Indian Legion had seemed to show genuine promise, but as it ultimately failed in both the military and propaganda spheres it turned into the largest of their collaborationist white elephants. Perhaps anticipating failure, the Germans seemed half-hearted in their attempts to bring over Allied POWs to their cause. They had some undoubted successes with camp informers, but even there results were limited. The history of Allied POWs in Germany and Italy is one not of collaboration but of sustained and spirited resistance.