The British soldiers who fought for Germany in the world wars
Not all British soldiers fought for their home cause in the two world wars of the 20th century. Here, Jem Duducu explores the ways in which German forces sought to exploit unrest in both conflicts, and shares the varied stories of men from around the British empire who joined the Germans to fight…
British fascist John Amery (right) was given access to PoW camps to recruit British soldiers for the British Free Corps during the Second World War. Photographed here c1936, arriving at Palais de Justice, Paris. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
In Jem Duducu’s first historical novel Silent Crossroads, the main protagonist is Harry Woods, the only British soldier to serve on both sides in both world wars. While Harry Woods is fictional, there were rare instances in both world wars of British soldiers siding with the Germans after they were captured. Here, Jem explores this aspect of the wars that is seldom discussed…
In both world wars, the German forces were always short of men and looked for ways to recruit others to their cause. During the First World War, they developed plans to spread unrest in the wider world, a strategy designed to distract the Allied forces from their efforts on the western front and to (hopefully) win recruits in the process. To that end, the Ottoman empire, which was then a German ally, declared a military jihad (holy war), intended to cause all the Muslims under British rule to rise up in a move that would paralyse the British empire. Unfortunately for the Axis powers, except for a minor uprising in Singapore, nobody in the Muslim world paid any attention.
- 10 surprising facts about First World War uniforms
- How was Germany able to afford the astronomical cost of rearmament in the 1930s?
- King George V at war (podcast)
In a deliberate move to mix nationalism with the wider war, German forces next targeted Irish soldiers, approximately 200,000 of whom fought in the war. Sir Roger Casement, who had been knighted by George V for his humanitarian work, was also an ardent Irish nationalist and, in a bid for Irish independence, Casement conceived the idea of asking the Germans to help him incite an uprising against the British empire in Ireland. The Germans saw a chance to sow dissent in the empire and allowed Casement to meet Irish prisoners of war held in German camps.
Irish nationalist Sir Roger Casement conceived the idea of asking the Germans to help him incite an uprising against the British empire in Ireland. (Photo by George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images)
The plan was to recruit Irish soldiers and return with them to Ireland to foment rebellion. Casement managed to get only some 50 men to join him, which showed that whatever the perceived wrongs of British rule, the soldiers likely thought that being armed by the Germans and returning to Ireland to start an uprising in the middle of a war was disloyal.
Yet, by building on the perennial resentment of British rule in Ireland, the Germans helped to mastermind the Easter Rising in 1916. On 24 April 1916, around 1,500 armed Irish nationalist rebels, allied with Germany, marched into Dublin. The soldiers, some of whom had been recruited by Casement, were armed by the Germans with 20,000 rifles and 1,000,000 rounds of ammunition, but the uprising ended in bloody failure. Casement took no active part in the uprising: he had already been caught, and was tried for treason and sentenced to hang in August of the same year. Meanwhile, Britain’s draconian response, including the execution of more than a dozen ringleaders, was a factor that contributed to a free Ireland after the war.
More like this
A barricade of cars and bicycles on Prince's Street, Dublin, Ireland, during the 1916 Easter Rising, which ended in failure. Britain executed more than a dozen ringleaders of the rebellion. (Image by De Agostini Picture Library / Getty)
British soldiers fighting for the Nazis?
Surely no British soldiers would have fought for the Nazis? Yet the reality was that some British soldiers joined the German army, and others even joined the Waffen SS, the armed corps of the Nazi SS.
Similar to the First World War idea that the Germans could use Irish PoWs to create mayhem in Ireland, Indian PoWs formed the German Free India Legion. Much of India wanted to be free of British imperial rule, so some Indian soldiers were persuaded to join forces with Britain’s enemy in a bid to win freedom for their country.
Members of the Free India Legion, an Indian armed unit attached to the German Wehrmacht, c1943. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
As recruitment propaganda, it worked. Around 2,500 Indian soldiers joined the legion (along with a few students who had been in Germany at the start of the war). While they weren’t deployed to the front lines, they were instead used in support and administrative roles. From 1942-44, the Tiger Legion (as it became known) was part of the German army, and in the final year of the war it became part of the Waffen SS. That the ‘pure Aryan’ SS force was now rubbing shoulders with decidedly non-European allies shows the level of desperation for manpower that affected the Nazi forces in the closing months of the war.
The Legion of Saint George and John Amery
Strange as all of this may seem, there was another group that might seem far more bizarre in the story of British soldiers turning to the Third Reich. The Legion of Saint George, later called the British Free Corps, was a very small section of the Waffen SS, comprised of British and white men from Dominion Territories who had been captured during the conflict. The British man responsible for the formation of this corps was a fascist called John Amery.
Amery came from a distinguished family. He was the son of the Conservative MP Leo Amery, who later became a cabinet minister under Winston Churchill, while his mother was a Hungarian Jew. He was a difficult child who left Harrow at the age of 16 and became a violent young man, known in Mayfair circles for his drinking, debts and debauchery. When he reached his twenties, he went from being an ardent anti-communist to a pro-fascist. This turned into active military service, which involved gun-running and working in intelligence for General Francisco Franco during the Spanish Civil War, before later settling in Vichy France.
Amery met with Hitler’s approval when he made a number of English-language radio broadcasts in support of the Nazis. His style was dull but the messages were strangely poetic. “A crime is being committed against civilisation,” one intoned. “Not only the priceless heritage of our fathers, of our seamen, of our empire builders is being thrown away in a war that serves no British interests, but our alliance leader Stalin dreams of nothing but the destruction of that heritage of our fathers.”
By late 1942, his pro-fascist and anti-communist passions melded with the idea of getting British PoWs to form an anti-Soviet unit in the Nazi forces to fight on the eastern front. Hoping to create something similar to the Legion of French Volunteers against Bolshevism, which had 5,500 members by the end of the war, Amery went to Berlin to seek permission to form the British Free Corps, in essence a British SS force, to operate within the German army.
British fascist John Amery in Paris with his fiance actress Una Wing, August 1932. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Amery was given access to PoW camps (just as Casement had done, a generation earlier) where he told British prisoners from all over the empire that they would not be considered traitors if they fought, as they would not be fighting the British. Instead, they would fight on the eastern front in an effort to push back the communist threat. His initial recruitment drive yielded not a single person. By the middle of 1943, that number had improved to two, although one man backed out before enlistment.
The British Free Corps
Amery was later embroiled in a scandal when his French mistress died choking on her own vomit after the two had gone on a drunken binge. While narrowly escaping a trial for manslaughter, he faded from the story of the British Free Corps when both the Waffen SS and the Goebbels propaganda machines began to develop the idea beyond Amery’s personal ambitions. Instead of individual meetings with small groups, there followed a concerted effort to encourage enlistment through leaflet distribution and the official PoW camp newspaper, Camp, distributed via the Nazi propaganda department to all prisoners of war. The group was described as “a thoroughly volunteer unit, conceived and created by British subjects from all parts of the empire who have taken up arms and pledged their lives in the common European struggle against Soviet Russia".
Even after all this, the maximum number of enlistees in the British Free Corps was just a few dozen men. They were trained for about four months by the SS in a facility near Dresden and were sent to fight on the eastern front in March of 1945. The plan to find a suitable British officer to lead the group never succeeded, because no suitable British officer came forward. Instead the corps was led mainly by German SS Hauptsturmführers (a rank equivalent to a captain). It was part of the 11th SS Volunteer Panzergrenadier Division Nordland, a unit mainly comprised of Scandinavian volunteers who numbered around 300 men; the members of the British Free Corps didn’t make up even ten per cent of the force, which shows what a tiny and inconsequential result had come from all the efforts to enlist British PoWs.
Heinrich Himmler, who was head of the Gestapo and the Waffen-SS, inspects a PoW camp in Russia, c1940. (Courtesy of the National Archives/Newsmakers)
The 11th Nordland saw action in the final battle of Berlin, where at one point the men of the British Free Corps was forced to fight in the trenches with oncoming Soviet troops, but the unit was so small as to make no difference on the battlefield. The final two members of the unit surrendered to American troops of the 121st Infantry Regiment on 2 May 1945. A few of the members of the British Free Corps were tried after the war, and at the time it was big news. These men (including two New Zealanders as well as those from the British Isles) had turned their backs on the British empire and had joined an evil regime. Most were given custodial sentences.
Meanwhile, John Amery had left Germany and in the last days of the war had been working with Mussolini’s fascists in northern Italy. From there he continued to broadcast fascist propaganda, similar to that of the more infamous Lord Haw Haw [the nickname of fascist radio personality William Joyce] until he was captured by Italian partisans, who handed him to the British captain Alan Whicker (yes, the famous broadcaster and journalist) to be returned to Britain.
Unsurprisingly, Amery was tried for high treason. There was an initial argument from his defence that Amery was mentally ill. His brother tried desperately to prove that he had become a Spanish national before the war so couldn’t have committed treason, but Amery eventually pleaded guilty to eight counts of high treason. His trial lasted just eight minutes and while there could be an argument against the indecent haste of the court, there could be no doubt that he was guilty. Amery was hanged in December 1945 at the age of 33.
A rare change of sides
So, while it was exceptionally rare to find those who changed sides from the British army to the German one in either world war, it wasn’t unheard of. There is a postscript to the story of ex-SS men from other countries: members of the Legion of French Volunteers against Bolshevism were offered incentives to re-enlist in the early 1950s in order to fight France’s war in French Indo-China (now Vietnam). Details are sketchy but it appears that although they were an effective fighting force, the group had to be disbanded (again) due to a preponderance of acts of brutality.
John Amery was an ignoble individual motivated by fanaticism. In my book, Silent Crossroads, Harry Woods explores the concept of loyalty, why a man would turn his back on his country in a time of war, and what he must do to live with his choices.
Silent Crossroads by Jem Duducu takes place during the terrible events of the first half of 20th century, seen through the lens of one family, shattered by war but united in love. The book is available on Amazon.