Renegades: Hitler’s Englishmen

Two members of the British Free Corps at an internment camp for naval prisoners, Westertimke, northern Germany, April 1944.

Two members of the British Free Corps at an internment camp for naval prisoners, Westertimke, northern Germany, April 1944.

This is, in some ways, the book of which I am most proud, mostly because it was my first work of history and it was through writing this that I learned how to research amongst primary sources.

As a 12 or 13 year old, I used to make and paint model soldiers and to help me with this, I bought a book called ‘Army Badges and Insignia of World War Two’ by a writer called Guido Rosignoli, published by Blandford Press in 1972.  Tucked away in this was a small section covering the badges of the Waffen-SS and I was surprised to see that one of these depicted the three leopards of the British Royal Standard.  Tucked away in the commentary on this plate was the remark that ‘it is believed a small SS unit was also raised from British prisoners of war’.

For some reason this piqued my interest but when I tried to find out more from my father’s collection of books on the Second world War, there was nothing to be found.  Very obligingly, Dad went to the Haldane Library at Imperial College where he found a couple of books about the SS: Heinz Höhne’s ‘Order of the Death’s Head’ and George H Stein’s ‘Waffen-SS:  Hitler’s Elite Guard at War’ which he borrowed for me. Höhne’s book contained no mention of this British SS unit but Stein’s did include a few paragraphs, evidently based on documentary sources, which confirmed that it did actually exist.

But that was it:  I was unable to find anything else at that time.  Over the next few years, I did come across a few references to British SS men.  One was a character in the Jack Higgins bestseller ‘The Eagle Has Landed’ and they popped up in one of the Sven Hassel pulp war novels, but neither reference seemed particularly authentic.  Eventually, when I was, I suppose, 15 I met a fellow model soldier maker – a boy called Ian Brightman – who did know a bit about the British SS.  He owned a book called ‘The Jackals of the Reich’, written by Ronald Seth, which purported to be a complete account of the British SS unit – or the ‘British Free Corps’ as I now learned it was called.  I borrowed the book and devoured it in a couple of hours.

It turned out to be a somewhat sordid story of drunken, badly behaved British POWs, lacking anything of the moral compass of the prisoners of, for example Colditz or the Great Escape, whose exploits I’d grown up with.  Even so, it was clearly an incomplete account, full of gaps, dead ends and misunderstandings, and I wondered whether a proper version of the story would ever be written.

I left it at that for the time being but a couple of years later, I decided to use the opportunity presented by having a ‘Gap Year’ before university to try to dig down to the bottom of the story. Over the next twelve months or so, I divided my time between waiting at tables in the Directors’ Restaurant at the Olympia Exhibition Centre, bouncing at the Hammersmith Odeon, working as tea boy in the department of Chemical Engineering at Imperial College and poring over books and documents in libraries and archives in Britain and Germany.  Just after my 18th birthday, I travelled by train to Berlin, then still divided between Britain, France, the US and the Soviet Union, to visit the Berlin Document Centre, where I found records relating to a few of the British SS men, and in London I was able to read the trial documents of five of the British civilians who had served in the unit but, as an 18 year old, I lacked the credibility to persuade the British government to let me see any of the files that were still being withheld from the public, nearly fifty years after the end of the war.

It wasn’t until 1993 that I finally cracked it.  By then I had served as a military intelligence officer and I’d also written my first book.  Armed with a contract to write a book about the British SS unit, I was able to persuade the Lord Chancellor’s Department that I was a fit and proper person to read the files relating to the court martials of the POWs who had served in the British Free Corps, as well as Home Office ‘renegade’ files, featuring reports by MI5 officers, which allowed me to unlock the whole story.  Along with this, I managed to track down several German former members of the Waffen-SS, who had been associated with the unit, including its former commander Hans Roepke; and Eric Pleasants, an elderly and somewhat eccentric Norfolk man who had spent fifteen months serving as the PT instructor for the British Free Corps, followed by eight years in a Soviet POW camp.

The book eventually appeared in 1994, published by Weidenfeld and Nicholson and to my delight was well-reviewed everywhere from the ‘Spectator’ to the ‘Morning Star’.  A paperback edition followed, and an updated version was published by Pimlico in 2002.  The book is currently, for practical purposes, out of print but an e-book edition should be available soon and it is still available, secondhand, through Amazon and other online sellers.

‘He has produced an account not only fuller and more reliable than Rebecca West’s but also thoroughly readable and full of curious detail’ (John Grigg, The Spectator)

‘…his style is fresh and parts of the book read more like an adventure story, with more shady characters than a le Carre novel.  In the course of his research, the author completely deconstructs Rebecca West’s famour 1949 book ‘The Meaning of Treason’, showing it to be largely mendacious.’  (Andrew Roberts, The Sunday Telegraph)

‘Adrian Weale’s ‘Renegades:  Hitler’s Englishmen’ is certainly instructive and finely researched and has some hefty insights for its readers…

‘Despite it’s abject failure, the British Free Corps still warrants serious study and Weale’s committed scholarship gives us that opportunity.’ (Morning Star)

One thought on “Renegades: Hitler’s Englishmen

  1. Pingback: Lethal Injection | Adrian Weale

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