The History of the British Free Corps Part II

In August of 1944, four more recruits joined on with the BFC. However, three of the four had done so not because they wanted to, but because they were blackmailed into doing it. Two of them were made to join as they had relationships with local area women. One of them was pregnant by one of the men and this was an offense punishable by death while the other man’s liaison with a woman was discovered by the Gestapo. The results of men forced to join the BFC did nothing for morale, in fact, it made it worse. This touched off lack-luster recruiting drives and a flap over the wearing of the Union Jack arm shield flared up. The flap concerned the wearing of the shield below the German eagle. By this time, many other units wore their national flag on the right sleeve and some of the BFC men thought the original position of the shield took a shot at England. It took a direct order from Heinrich Himmler to quell it by allowing the shield to be worn on the right sleeve if desired. Another downturn was Lieutenant William Shearer, who joined the BFC, and was their first, and only British officer to accept a position in the unit. Hoping that, at the least, Shearer would provide a token officer presence, but Shearer was a schizophrenic and wouldn’t put on his BFC uniform or even leave his room to which end he was removed and sent to the mental asylum from whence he came, to be sent back to England on medical grounds. Another sour on the BFC camp was the successful invasion of France by the allies.

With the success of the D-Day landings, some of the BFC men saw the writing on the wall and began to look for ways out. A flash in the pan involving the arrest of BFC man Tom Perkins for theft of a pistol caused a full blown fire within the BFC which culminated in eight men, including Pleasants, refusing to work to set up a football field and all of them were dismissed and sent to SS punishment camps. This incident led to an investigation as to why the BFC was floundering and the upshot was that recruiting had to be stepped up, assemble as many volunteers as possible, and get them trained for combat and sent off to the front lines, whether as a unit or just as replacements for other units. It was here that Vivian Stranders, a SS-Sturmbannfuhrer, sought to make his bid for power by making a move against Cooper and Roepke, so as to position himself for possible monopolization of the British recruiting and perhaps assuming command of the BFC. Stranders, originally a English citizen, joined the Nazi party in 1932 and became naturalized and later, after the war began, was posted in the Waffen-SS as an expert in British affairs. Stranders, however, may not have had a unit to go to as two new problems rocked the boat.

MacLardy abandoned the BFC, volunteering to join a Waffen-SS medical service unit. Two other men, one of them Courlander, could read the tea leaves and sought out of the BFC. They, however, took another tact and volunteered for service with the war correspondent unit “Kurt Eggers”, which was operating on the Western Front. The ultimate goal for these men was to run for the lines when the first chance arose. Britten removed all of the BFC insignia from their uniforms, replacing them with the standard SS patches and rank then the the two men hopped a train for Brussels in the company of a Flemish Waffen-SS unit. Once there, they ultimately turned themselves over to the British, being the first two BFC men to return to England. Still, problems reigned. Two more recruits were gained, again by being forced into it as they had sexual contact with German women and the new quartermaster found a ready source of things to sell to those barracked at the monastery. With all these problems, the barrack commander went to Roepke to request the BFC be sent elsewhere. As it turned out, the BFC were indeed going to be moved.

On October 11, 1944, the BFC arrived at Dresden, to begin training as assault pioneers at the Waffen-SS Pioneer School at the Wildermann Kaserne. Here, they would receive instruction in clearing obstacles, removing minefields, usage of heavy weapons, demolition, and other tasks required of such combat engineers. SS-Obersturmbannfuhrer Hugo Eichhorn reviewed the now 13 man BFC unit (not counting the support staff of four ) and despite what, to him, might have been a pretty unfearsome lot, greeted them and introduced their two training officers. The BFC was now working up into shape. They were issued with rifles, steel helmets, camouflage uniforms, and gas masks then set about getting back into physical shape and taking courses in the use of machineguns, flamethrowers, and explosives. Picket and guard duty were assigned to the BFC as well. All this came crashing down when news of Roepke’s dismissal came through.

Stranders had been successful in outing Roepke, replacing him with SS-Obersturmfuhrer Dr. Walther Kuhlich, who was wounded so bad during his stint with SS-“Das Reich”, that he was unfit for active frontline duty. This only added another nail to the BFC coffin. Freeman, following the war, said he had seen a list of over 1,100 British who applied to fight against the Soviets. Why did the BFC remain rife with problems and could never get any recruits? Freeman summed it up that the core base of the BFC were “poor types” and that this contributed to lack of any respect for the BFC from the get-go. And by this time, POWs were hip to the propaganda, especially the BFC.

Cooper, seeing that he needed to bow out of the BFC, asked Wilson, who said he was of a similar frame of mind, to meet in Berlin to request a return to the stalags. The gig was up when Wilson, whose sole reason for going to Berlin was to go womanizing, left Cooper high and dry and under arrest, the charge being sabotage of the BFC. Brought before Stranders and Kuhlich, Cooper was shown signed statements by several BFC men accusing him of anti-Nazi acts. A day later, he was formally charged by a SS prosecutor and sent to the LAH, working as a military policeman. Wilson, now in charge of recruiting, had no real intention of working hard to get new blood. Instead, he set about getting ex-BFC men who’d been kicked out, back into the fold, notably Pleasants. In this, Wilson was successful. In the winter of 1944 and 1945, several new BFC recruits arrived, and the BFC returned to its training, all the while trying to put up a front to the other soldiers who felt the BFC led a soft life. Pleasants even managed to woo the secretary who worked for Kuhlich, marrying her in February of 1945.

Plans were afoot, however, to use the BFC in a last-ditch propaganda ploy. An attempt was made to form a rift between Josef Stalin and the allied leadership, namely Winston Churchill and Teddy Roosevelt. The main effort, called “Operation Koniggratz”, attempted to sway British POWs being evacuated from the Polish stalags as the Soviets advanced. The plan was an abject failure and it was pondered how the BFC might be used to play a role in the effort, especially as they were training for combat on the Eastern Front. Again, this came to naught and the whole idea, which even included faking Communist acts within Germany, crumbled.

The BFC, meanwhile, found its morale taking a nose dive once more, thanks in part to Wilson’s lack of leadership and with Kuhlich almost always in Berlin. Still, recruits for the BFC arrived, near the close of 1944, including two South Africans. Of these five, three turned out to be genuinely anti-Communist, one of them being swayed by BFC literature, the other two having wanted to initially join the SS-“Totenkopf” division until they were talked into joining the BFC by Kuhlich. By January of 1945, the BFC was up to 27 men, three shy of the magic 30. But by this time, it was seen the whole BFC idea was a total and complete failure and many began to concoct ways to get out. Hugh Cowie, a Gordon Highlander from Scotland, was in the middle of several scandals, including the refusal to accept six Maoris into the BFC on the grounds it was a “white only” unit and having to deal with drunkards and AWOL BFC men, notably one man who kept sneaking away to be with his girl. With Wilson away, Cowie hatched a plan to use his temporary position to get access to travel documentation for him and five others, hop a train to the Eastern Front, and lay low somewhere and let the Soviets overtake them, using the pretext of going on a recruiting drive. Once on the train, all the men (save one who didn’t show) removed their BFC insignia and it went downhill from there, the end result being all of them were picked up by the Gestapo. After harsh tongue lashings by their armed escort and Kuhlich, half of the escapees were sent off to isolation camps while the other three agreed to remain with the BFC. The major hammer fell when the allies bombed Dresden on February 12, 1945, killing some 40,000 people and some took advantage of it all to make an escape but one man, who thought he could confide in his Norwegian nurse girlfriend, found out otherwise and she informed the Gestapo of his plans and the entire BFC was arrested but not before two BFC men managed to sift into the POWs being sent west and were never to return to the BFC.

This was the straw which broke the camel’s back. After the BFC men were sprung from jail, it was time to make some use out of the unit. The BFC was taken to Berlin and barracked in a school on the Schonhauser Allee, to wait there until the required steps were taken to put them into the line. It was here that the last “volunteer” came forward, Frank Axon who was captured in Greece in 1941. Accused of hitting a cow which caused it to give birth to its calf too early, he could either join the BFC or be severely punished and so, he chose the BFC. With the prospects of combat looming for a lost cause, the BFC men sought ways out once more. Three men were provided British army uniforms by a sympathetic officer who sent them off to escape. Another man, who had a girlfriend with connections to the “Kurt Eggers” Regiment, managed to get transferred there while Pleasants went to the “Peace Camp”, doing exhibition boxing bouts with Max Schmeling for the delight of German officers. On March 8, 1945, the remaining BFC men were brought before Kuhlich who gave each of them a choice: fight on the front or be sent to an isolation camp. All of them chose to fight. Wilson, in no hurry to go to battle, managed to get himself a slot as liaison between the BFC and the Berlin office of Kuhlich. This put Douglas Mardon in charge of the unit and in shaping up what he had, he was left with eight men in all (two men he refused to take and Minchin had scabies ). Mardon had to move the unit to a training camp in Niemeck, to get a crash course in anti-tank, close-combat tactics. Here, the BFC men were given training in the use of the Panzerfaust and other tank killing methods. They were also issued the StG44 (MP44) assault rifle and given training in its use. The unit strength was cut down to seven when one member smoked aspirin until he became ill, being able to get transferred out. With the hurried training done, the BFC was given two days leave before moving out to the front lines.

On March 15, 1945, a truck was loaded up with the tiny BFC and it moved out to meet up with the headquarters of III. (Germanisches ) SS-Panzer-Korps. During the ride, most members removed their BFC insignia. Upon arrival, the HQ staff was rather shocked at getting a British unit and so they put the BFC up in billets on the western edge of Stettin pending orders on what to do with them. While waiting, the BFC came under some brief Soviet mortar and artillery fire but no injuries were reported. However, the manpower was again reduced by one when one man came down with a severe case of gonorrhea and was sent away to a military hospital.

On March 22, 1945, orders came in from the HQ that the BFC should move to the headquarters portion of the SS-“Nordland” division, located at Angermunde. From there, they would be placed with the divisional armored reconnaissance battalion (11.SS-Panzer-Aufklarungs-Abteilung) which was stationed in Grussow. The commander there was Sturmbannfuhrer Rudolf Saalbach and when the BFC arrived, he gave them a quick welcome and assigned them to the 3rd. Company, commanded by the Swede Obersturmfuhrer Hano-Goesta Perrson. Perrson issued the BFC with a single Sd.Kfz.251 half-track and a “Schwimmwagen”, giving them orders to prepare trench lines within the company’s perimeter. The “Nordland” division was currently being held in reserve but the BFC, from their positions, could clearly see the Soviets. The BFC remained in the line for a month but the notion that they could be attacked by the Russians, failed to unify them and discord was rampant, so much so that Mardon was pressured into seeing if the BFC could be pulled out. During this time, Cooper was to return to the fold. After being told he was being transferred to the Germanic Panzer Corps, Cooper burned his SS papers and packed a suitcase with civilian clothing and went to the Corps HQ located in Steinhoffl on the Oder. He learned, to his surprise, that “ten [Englishmen were] somewhere near the front.” He was then informed his presence was requested by Obergruppenfuhrer Felix Steiner and during this time, Steiner ordered Cooper to accompany him to the front to inspect the BFC troops. Cooper, on the ride there, informed Steiner about the BFC and that it was unwise to have them at the front, to which Steiner agreed, but more because Steiner was concerned about post-war legalities of his usage of such men on the front. After inspecting the BFC, Steiner gave a short speech and ordered that the BFC be used as medical orderlies. Cooper, after catching up on the news, spoke with Mardon and then the two of them approached Brigadefuhrer Ziegler at his Nordland headquarters. They gave Ziegler a rundown on the unit, pointing out that many were forced into joining the BFC and thus, were of dubious combat value, to which Ziegler agreed. Ziegler set in motion the process by sending Cooper and Mardon to Steiner and upon meeting with him, discussed the points they made to Ziegler. The upshot was that Steiner issued the orders to pull the BFC out of the line and utilize them as truck drivers in the rear lines.

The next day, the BFC left the front lines and reported to the Corps headquarters and from there, they were issued with travel orders, rations, and were to go to Templin, to join the transport company of Steiner’s headquarter staff. They arrived there on April 16, 1945. In the meantime, Wilson, who was supposed to be sending the BFC men their Red Cross parcels (for all intents and purposes, the BFC were still classified as POWs and thus still got the parcels), chose to horde them and ultimately, he deserted into Berlin on April 9, 1945. To calm the rumblings, Cooper and four BFC men rode into Berlin to try and locate the parcels on the 17th. and upon returning on the 19th., they found a Hauptsturmfuhrer, in full SS panzer uniform, sporting BFC insignia, waiting to take them back to the front.

The tanker was Douglas Berneville-Claye who had a pension for embellishment, fraud and theft, and the ability to pass himself off as something he wasn’t. Having been booted out of the RAF, he ended up as a commander with the SAS in the Middle East where he was branded as “useless” and “dangerous” by his comrades, to the point they’d refuse to conduct operations with him. He was captured in 1942 by DAK units and taken to an Italian POW camp, to which he claimed to have broken out of four times. He was then sent to Oflag 79 in Brunswick until removed from there for his own safety since the POWs saw him as, and correctly so, as a German informer. From the time of his removal to his appearance in Templin in March of 1945, no record is known. As he stood with the BFC, he launched into a speech saying he was a earl’s son, a captain in the Coldstream Guards, and would collect two armored cars to take the BFC into battle with, even making the claim that the BFC would have no problems with the British authorities and that England was going to declare war on Russian in a few days. Cooper called Berneville-Claye’s bluff and Berneville-Claye turned away, taking one of the BFC men with him as a driver, and drove away ( Berneville-Claye eventually changed into a full SAS uniform while the driver took up farmers clothing and they turned themselves in ). “Bob” Rossler remained with the Nordland division when it went into battle in Berlin, fighting alongside the Volkssturm, Hitlerjugend, and all the other mixed bag units which remained to fight it out.

The BFC, however, remained true to their orders, following Steiner’s headquarter unit to Neustrelitz. They drove trucks, directed traffic, and assisted the evacuations of civilians from the Neustrelitz and Reinershagen area until, on April 29, 1945, Steiner ordered his forces to break contact with the Russians and make for the western combat lines to surrender to the US and British. From this point on, the BFC men sought ways to get to the western lines and avoid capture by the Soviets. Those who fell into or were turned over to the British, among other British traitors, stood trial. Amery was hung, Cooper went to jail (being released in 1953), Britten got ten years (reduced to two months when he was released for medical reasons), Wilson got ten years, Freeman got ten years, and other members got from 15 years to even no punishment at all.

And so ended the British Free Corps service to Germany

The Turncoat Claye

Douglas Webster St. Aubyn Berneville-Claye called himself Lord Charlesworth (no claim to any title) 1 SAS (B + A Squadrons) October 1942-December 1942 (2Lt) born 1917 Plumstead, London (Douglas Berneville Webster Claye) son of Frederick Wainwright Claye, MBE, Little Ouseburn, Yorkshire.

Every army has its bad hats, those men who prove to be inherently unworthy of comrades, a disruptive influence in any unit. In World War II such men did not appear only among the `other ranks’: there were occasions when the Army selection boards erred in promoting candidates to hold officer rank in His Majesty’s forces.

In wartime the Army boards were passing out as fit many young subalterns to lead men in battle or staff work, whether on dangerous missions or among the `we also serve’ ranks of the humble Pay Corps or other noncombat units. Such a candidate for advancement was Douglas Berneville-Claye, who was granted his commission as a second lieutenant in October 1941, and presently posted to the West Yorkshire Regiment in the Middle East. That the selecting officers in England had erred in permitting Claye to bear an officer’s pips did not then seem obvious. But a year after first donning his officer’s cap Claye volunteered for the Special Air Service. At this point his true merit began to emerge. As a leader of special service troops he proved quite undistinguished, so untrustworthy that veterans of hazardous SAS operations refused to accompany him on new ventures.

Nevertheless, despite misgivings, Lieutenant Claye’s commanders allowed him to embark on ops, this resulting in his capture behind enemy lines. Hitler had ordered the execution of all captured commandos, but Claye was lucky and was sent first to an Italian POW camp, then to the German Oflag (Offizierlager) 79. And here Claye’s true personality emerged: he went over to the enemy, becoming an informer to the German camp security staff. ByJanuary 1945 he had fully weakened to German propaganda, inviting Allied prisoners to join them in the great `anti-Bolshevik crusade’. Claye entered the Waffen SS, specifically the socalled `British Free Corps’, a handful of turncoats let out of POW cages, men who succumbed to German promises of a better, more adventurous life – in reality to be used as more cannon fodder on the Russian front. Even here Claye proved a misfit, unable to agree with his fellow traitors or lead them in combat. He used his SAS training to desert his German masters, re-outfitting himself in British battledress before returning to Allied positions in the West.

Claye’s past eventually became known and various charges were put to him, all of which he denied. Owing to lack of evidence he was released from custody and permitted to resume Army service, but one year later he was caught out on a comparatively small offence, that of stealing a typewriter, and was dismissed from the Army.

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The renegade SAS officer who eventually arrived on the Oder Front in March-April 1945. He had actually joined the Waffen-SS after being released from a POW camp where his fellows, probably correctly, suspected him of being an informant for the Germans; but his excuse, post-war, was that he had been given an SS uniform after escaping from a camp and had eventually, after various highly unlikely adventures, bluffed his way back to the British lines. Not surprisingly, MI5 and other investigating authorities didn’t believe him, but after two years intensive effort they could not gather enough hard evidence to make a conviction likely and dropped the matter (though Berneville-Claye himself was already in prison for various other offences). Berneville-Claye strikes me as the most likely inspiration for the story: he was an inveterate liar, con man and BS artiste and told everyone he met a range of grandiosely inflated accounts of his wartime experiences (there is now, at an Australian school where he ended up teaching in the 1970s, a ‘Douglas Berneville-Claye Memorial Prize’ for the most distinguished pupil of the year, named after ‘Major the Honourable Douglas Berneville-Claye, DSO, MC’. He died in 1975.

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