05 June 2006

Letting the Side Down British Traitors of WWII

I have just finished Sean Murphy’s excellent Letting the Side Down which is the first book ever to attempts to cover the full range of treachery and collaboration perpetrated by Britons during WWII.

Most people here in the UK could name Lord HawHaw (aka William Joyce who was actually American.); a few could name John Amery the son of hLeopold Amery a member of Churchill’s wartime cabinet, and some will know of the British Free Corps, the tiny SS unit created in 1944. In fact there were around 200 Britons collaborated with the Reich WWII, a figure which excludes the Channel Isles the only British soil to come under German occupation.

Archibald Ramsay

The book commences with a brief account of the pre war fascists and Nazi supporters including, of course, Oswald Mosley,Archibald Ramsay, the Conservative MP who was interned after the Tyler Kent Affair and who conducted parliamentary business from Prison, Lord Londonderry and Unity Mitford. Less well known though were the pre war spies like Jessie Jordan, the Dundee hairdresser, and Joseph Kelly the labourer who tried to sell the plans of an ordnance factory to the Germans but got 10 years hard labour for his troubles.

The wartime penalties for pro German activity were far harsher: Rex Freeman, a railway worker and BUF (British Union of Fascists) member was sentenced to 5 years imprisonment for printing and distributing stick labels that advertised the frequency the New British Broadcasting Service, a German propaganda station. Duncan Scott- Ford, a merchant seaman, was executed for passing on shipping information to the Germans in Lisbon while George Armstrong paid the ultimate price merely for writing to the German Consul in Boston offering to place himself at the disposal of the Reich.

William Joyce

Dozens of Britons made broadcasts for german radio during WWII. William Joyce is well known. Less well known is Norman Baillie Stewart who had gained notoriety pre war for passing secrets to Germany and perhaps was the person for whom the title Lord Haw haw was actually invented. Joyce and Baillie Stewart acted of their own volition, others were coerced: The actor Jack Trevor (real name Anthony Steane) and Ralph Powell, nephew of Lord Baden Powell both claimed to have made broadcasts after substantial threats from the Gestapo.

PG Wodehouse who had been interned after the fall of France also made a number of innocuous broadcasts intended for his American following. While this act generated a considerable amount of hostility in Britain it was accepted that his actions were naïve rather than malicious. In the end the worst penalty he faced was being denied a knighthood until just before his death in 1975.

BFC recruiting poster used in POW and internment camps

Perhaps one of the most squalid events was the creation of the British Free Corps more for propaganda value than anything else. The brainchild of John Amery, it was created in January 1944 and attracted from the British and Commonwealth POW population a motley crew of Nazi sympathisers, anti communists, and opportunists looking for an easier life with access to alcohol and women. Later in its existence the ranks were supplemented by a number of POWs who had committed offences (mainly consorting with German women) and were given the option of joining the BFC as an alternative to prison or the firing squad. 55 people passed through the BFC during its history but it never once reached the critical figure of 30 members. At this point it would have become an active unit and pressed into combat. While one or two members may have seen some combat in the final stages of the war the BFC was an utter failure - Its propaganda value was negligible, its fighting capabilities were less. I will write at greater length about the BFC in a future post.

BFC members Kenneth Berry (left) and Alfred Minchin (Centre) in uniform

Sean Murphy lists also the activities of Theodore Schurch who was hanged for Treachery, Thomas Cooper, the only Briton to receive a German combat decoration and Harold Cole who was perhaps the very worst traitor of all. Abandoned in France by the British Expeditionary Force after being imprisoned for theft, Cole become involved in running escape lines for other British and commonwealth servicemen. Ultimately,however, he betrayed the organisation to the Gestapo, an act that led to the death of approximately 50 of his former comrades. For this he would almost certainly have hanged had he not been killed in a shoot out with French police after the end of the war.

After the war the many of the traitors were put on trial. Amery and Joyce were executed for treason. Four Britons were executed for treachery. Thomas Cooper was one of two others sentenced to death but their sentences were commuted to life imprisonment. Others received a range of sentences from Life imprisonment to a few months imprisonment. Others still, including Ralph Powell, escaped punishment.

The actual damage done to the Allied war effort by these traitors was negligible but had Britain been overrun during WWII we would have seen collaboration on the scale seen in other occupied countries. The Final Solution would have wiped out the Jewish population and the size of the BFC that would certainly have fought on the Eastern Front would have been in the order of thousands. It is perhaps very fortunate that so few Britons in WWII were given the opportunity to play on the Nazi team.

For further Reading

Adrian Weale’s Superb Renegades: Hitler’s Englishmen is essential reading

There are numerous BFC related sites on the internet including This (although currently under reconstruction) and This I cannot vouch for the political orientation of some of the sites out there

The memoirs of one former member of the BFC were published posthumously. Hitler's Bastard by Eric Pleasants. Pleasants escaped punishment after the war on account that he had been been imprisoned as a spy by the Soviets. It was considered that he had been punished enough for his actions.

Stephens Study Room has a wealth of information on the trials of Joyce, Amery,
Cooper et al and is well worth a visit

Finally the transcripts of P G Wodehouse’s broadcasts can be read Here


Anonymous said...

I'd recommend 'Fellow Travellers of the Right' by Richard Griffiths, which looks at various fascist groupings but also at the widespread pro-Nazi tendency that existed in the Conservative Party and the National Government coalition in the 30s.

jams o donnell said...

Thanks for the recommendation. I'll look out for this book

elasticwaistbandlady said...

Wow, what an eye opening and interesting post Jams. I'm rather incompetent on this subject but I'll add it to my "learn something new everyday" quota.

sonia said...

had Britain been overrun during WWII we would have seen collaboration on the scale seen in other occupied countries

That's certainly true, but the real divide wasn't between occupied and non-occupied countries, but between Communist and non-Communist countries. In the former Soviet Union, collaboration was in the order of magnitude of SEVERAL MILLIONS (Vlasov's Russian Army, Kaminski's Brigade, Ukrainian Waffen SS divisions, Cossak armies, Kalmuks, etc. etc.), while countries that weren't previously Communist only contributed in tens of thousands.

And the reason was simple - for many people who used to live under Stalin's regime, Hitler often did appear like a liberator (especially early, in 1941-2).

Motives were different as well. A French collaborator was probably a committed national socialist. A Russian collaborator was simply blinded by his hatred of Stalin and his crimes.

jams o donnell said...

You are quite right Sonia. The level of colloaboration in occupied soviet territories was considerable (an understatement)and far greater than say in Holland or France.

Luckily most of those in Britain who might just have been sympathetic to the Nazis eg BUF members and former members joined up and fought hard gainst the Nazis. One quite senior BUF member, John Henry Owen Brown, did a lot to warn British Intelligence about the the BFC and he did his best to disrupt it.

Anonymous said...

Surprised you missed Lord Semphill and in the Far East, Patrick Heenan who transmitted information diretly to the Japanese, He was an AILO at one of the air bases in N.Malaya and was shot and his body thrown into the Harbour at Singapore just before the surrender.

jams o donnell said...

Semphill wasn't mentioned but he was a dangerous traitor. I found out about Heenan a couple of years later