Although I have written many history books, Silent Crossroads is my first historical novel. 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. This is an aspect of the wars that is seldom discussed.
In both world wars the Germans were always short of men, always looking for ways to recruit others to their cause. During WW I 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 win (hopefully) recruits in the process. To this end the Ottoman Empire, then a German ally, declared a jihad, which was intended to make all the Muslims under British rule in Asia rise up in a move that would paralyse the British Empire. Unfortunately for the Axis powers, except for a few dockworkers in Singapore, nobody in the Muslim world paid any attention.
In a deliberate move to mix nationalism with the wider war, the Germans’ next target was Irish soldiers. Approximately 200,000 Irishmen fought in the war and did so bravely. Then there was Sir Roger Casement, a man who had been knighted by George V for his humanitarian work, but who was also an ardent Irish nationalist. 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, in 1916, allowed Casement to meet thousands of Irish POWs held in German camps. The plan was to recruit Irish soldiers and return with them to Ireland to foment rebellion. Casement managed to get only some fifty men to join him, which showed that whatever the perceived wrongs of British rule, the soldiers thought that being armed by the Germans and returning to Ireland to start an uprising in the middle of a war was disloyal.
By building on the perennial resentment of British rule in Ireland, the Germans helped to mastermind the Easter Uprising in 1916. The soldiers who joined Casement were armed by the Germans with 20,000 rifles and 1,000,000 rounds of ammunition, but the uprising was a failure. Casement was tried for treason and sentenced to hang in August of the same year, while Britain’s draconian response (including the execution of more than a dozen ring leaders) led to a free Ireland after the war.
World War II is almost unique in history because this was clearly a fight between good and evil. Surely no British soldiers would fight for the Nazis. The reality was that while some British soldiers joined the German army, even worse was the fact that others joined the Waffen SS.
Similar to the idea that the Germans could use Irish POWs to create mayhem back in Ireland, Indian POWs formed the German Free India Legion. India wanted to be free of British imperial rule, so Indian soldiers were persuaded to join Britain’s enemy in a bid to win freedom for their country. As recruitment propaganda, it worked. About 2,500 Indian soldiers joined the legion (along with a few students who had been in Germany at the start of the war). They weren’t deployed to the front lines but, instead, were used in support and administrative roles. From 1942-44 the Tiger Legion (as it was also 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 was now rubbing shoulders with decidedly non-European allies shows the level of desperation for manpower that drove the SS in the closing months of the war.
Strange as all of this may seem, it is another group that is 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 solely of British servicemen (from the British Isles) who had been captured during the conflict. John Amery was the British fascist responsible for the formation of this corps.
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; his mother was a Hungarian Jew. None of this explains why he would become a Nazi supporter, but he was a difficult child who left Harrow at the age of sixteen and a violent young man known in Mayfair circles for his drinking, his debts and his 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 Franco during the Spanish Civil War. Amery later settled in Vichy France, a reminder that it wasn’t just Germans who were fascists in the 1930s and 40s.
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. 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 Wehrmacht 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. 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 fighting the British so would not be considered traitors. Instead they would fight on the Eastern Front in an effort to push back the communist threat. His initial recruitment drive yielded … nobody. By the middle of 1943, that number had improved to two, although one man backed out before enlistment.
Meanwhile Amery was embroiled in a scandal when his French mistress died chocking on her own vomit after the two had gone on a drunken binge. While narrowly escaping a trial for manslaughter, he also 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 his 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 (imaginatively called ‘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”.
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 (equivalent rank 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, showing what a tiny and inconsequential result had come from all the efforts to enlist British POWs.
The 11th Nordland saw action in the final Battle of Berlin, where at one point the men of the British Free Corps were 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 had been working with Mussolini’s fascists in northern Italy in the last days of the war. From there he continued to broadcast fascist propaganda (like the more infamous Lord Haw Haw) until he was captured by Italian partisans, who handed him to the British Captain Alan Whicker (yes, the famous one) 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 of 1945 at the age of thirty-three.
So, while it was exceptionally rare to find anyone 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. It seems some men are born to be fascist bullies.
John Amery was an ignoble individual motivated by fanaticism. Harry Woods in Silent Crossroads 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 takes place during the terrible events of the first half of the twentieth century, seen through the lens of one family, shattered by war but united in love.
By Author and Historian Jem Duducu also known as HistoryGems
The book is available on Amazon