The legion of traitors

THEY had good Scottish surnames - William Alexander, Hugh Cowie, Alexander MacKinnon and Charlie Munns. They had served in good Scottish regiments - the Highland Light Infantry, the Gordon Highlanders and the Cameron Highlanders. They grew up in big Scottish towns - Glasgow, Aberdeen and Edinburgh. They were Scots through and through, and they had all fought well for their country against Fascism.

Yet, towards the end of the war, all four found themselves as members of the Waffen-SS, Heinrich Himmler’s elite fighting force. Their unit was called the British Free Corps, and these Scots were just four of the unit’s 57 British and Commonwealth citizens who fought for Hitler on the eastern front. Who then were these men, men who swapped honourable lives as PoWs for the ignominious glory of wearing an SS uniform which featured a Union Jack on its left sleeve?

As its name suggests, the British Free Corps (BFC), was no ordinary formation of the Waffen-SS. Massive German losses on the eastern front against the Russians had led Himmler to look outside Germany for recruits and volunteers from most of the countries of Europe could be found serving in its ranks.

By 1944, any pretence that the Waffen-SS was racially ‘exclusive’ or elite had been abandoned and alongside western Europeans and Scandinavians could be found Bosnian Muslims, Ukrainians, Byelorussians, Turkestanis, Tartars and even Indians, wearing a uniform in which the sinister double lightning flash of the SS was replaced by a tiger’s head patch. But the smallest group of recruits to Himmler’s sinister empire actually came from the Third Reich’s most persistent enemy: the British Empire.

The idea of a British unit was partly that of John Amery, the notorious English renegade who was executed at Wandsworth Prison after the war. A sybarite, Amery’s attempts at recruiting for his nascent ‘Legion of St George’ were pathetic, and his only success was one sub-literate teenager from the civilian internment camp at St Denis in France.

However, the Germans, realising that a unit might have some value, started to take the idea seriously. Hitler approved of the plan, but stipulated the unit would have to reach platoon strength - about 30 men. Using a mixture of blackmail, bribery and intimidation, the Germans set about finding recruits from the thousands of PoWs.

The first Scot to join the BFC was Hugh Cowie from Aberdeen. Captured in France in 1940, Cowie was a private in the Gordon Highlanders. Imprisoned in Stalag XXa, he kept a diary that described the grim conditions. The men were infested with lice and constantly injured by the machinery in their workshops. A fellow PoW was shot for not putting out a cigarette. Cowie tried to escape, but was recaptured. He was sent on a working party to Upper Silesia, where he was arrested for owning a secret radio. Instead of facing a court-martial, Cowie agreed to join the BFC in June 1944.

According to the post-war testimony of an English member of the BFC, Thomas Cooper, who was later sentenced to life imprisonment for his treachery, Cowie was no fascist. "He told me that he had fought in the Spanish Civil War under Marshall Tito," Cooper later recalled. "His political views, which he never voiced to me, can hardly be assumed to be of a Nazi nature. His general character was very good and he always did his utmost to defend the interests of the men against any interference by the Germans."

Cooper, however, was a Nazi. A sergeant in an SS concentration camp guard detachment before he was transferred to the BFC in early 1944 and a member of the British Union of Fascists in London before the war, Cooper boasted he had personally shot 200 Poles and 80 Jews in just one day in Warsaw. He also boasted he had thrown women from buildings, as well as young children and babies, "as they would only grow into big Jews".

Unsurprisingly, Cowie had little time for Cooper. "Cooper wanted us to drill in the German manner," he said after the war. "And he wanted us to be the subject of the German penal code, instead of British military law... Cooper had a very vicious temper and he was always insulting us."

The next Scot to join the BFC was Charlie Munns. He had served in the Durham Light Infantry before being captured and imprisoned near Danzig. Like many others members of the BFC, it was Munns’s libido that got him into trouble. As a member of a PoW working party, he befriended a German girl, Gertrud Schroeder. She fell pregnant, an offence that could have seen Munns facing a firing squad for ‘race defilement’. He was given the option of joining the BFC, which he did in August 1944. "He saw no other way out of trouble," said Cooper in his post-war testimony.

William Alexander joined the unit that September. A tough, tattooed, Glaswegian private in the Highland Light Infantry, Alexander, like Munns, had been forced to join because of his liaison with a German girl.

However, his physique soon saw him enrolled in the SS pioneer boxing team. Along with English BFC member Eric Pleasants, a former professional wrestler, Alexander travelled to Prague in November to box against the SS police team for the final of the SS boxing championship. Although Alexander lost his bout, Pleasants won his and would claim the dubious honour of being the reigning middleweight champion of the Waffen-SS until his death in 1997.

Although recruits continued to trickle in throughout 1944, the unit never reached platoon strength. Based in the Saxon town of Hildesheim, the BFC spent most of their time carousing with local females, as well as drinking in the town’s bars. However, in October, the torpor was broken by a move to Dresden, where the BFC were to be trained at the SS pioneer school. It looked as though they would soon have to go into action.

In January 1945, the BFC reached its peak strength of 27. With the imminent possibility of having to fight the Russians, some sharper members of the unit decided to get out while they could. The chief instigator in this was Hugh Cowie, by now an SS-UnterscharfŸhrer - sergeant - responsible for drilling the men. He had little enthusiasm for the job and along with William Alexander and four English members of the BFC, decided to desert and head for the Russian lines.

On the day they were due to leave, the last Scot to join the unit arrived. Alexander MacKinnon was a lance-corporal in the Cameron Highlanders who was dragooned into the BFC after being caught having sex with a farmer’s daughter as well as sabotaging cheese production on his working party.

MacKinnon had barely been introduced to his fellow countrymen when Cowie, Alexander and the others headed off to Prague. They removed their British Free Corps cuff-bands and the embroidered Union Jack shields. Their luck changed when they left the train at Olmutz and a local innkeeper reported them to the police. They were questioned by the Gestapo for five days before being escorted back to Dresden. There, both Cowie and Alexander left the BFC and were interned at an isolation camp for former BFC members at Droennewitz, north-west of Berlin.

Meanwhile, Charlie Munns had somehow managed to wangle himself out of the BFC. According to Cooper, he had received permission from the Germans to marry Gertrud Schroeder. He left for Danzig, and, in Cooper’s words, "Munns was not seen again after this and I heard no more of him."

Although it isn’t clear what Munns did after leaving the BFC, there are indications he continued to serve in the SS, possibly as a guard at the Stutthof concentration camp or the SS military prison at Danzig-Mutzkau.

Although the end was approaching, some of the BFC tried to keep the unit together. One was John Eric Wilson, the BFC’s senior NCO. MacKinnon recalled him as a stickler for discipline: "[Wilson] was the sergeant major... [He] was very regimental and was doing his best to make the British Free Corps a success... He had a notice on his door ‘Knock and Wait’ and when he did call us in he made us stand to attention and give the Nazi salute. If it wasn’t done properly, he would send you out and make you come in again.

MacKinnon said that the BFC was a "farce". On April 19, 1945, he, the last Scot to join the BFC, became the last Scot to leave. By now, the 10 remaining members of the BFC had been sent to join a Waffen-SS combat unit on the Oder front, just north-east of Berlin. There they were joined by one of the strangest characters in a strange story: Douglas Berneville-Claye, an Englishman who appeared wearing the black uniform of an SS panzer officer with the rank of captain.

Berneville-Claye was a fantasist with convictions for fraud and bigamy who had obtained a commission in the West Yorkshire Regiment from which he joined the SAS in North Africa, calling himself Lord Charlesworth. Captured in December 1942, he joined the SS as late as April 1945, to get away from a PoW camp where fellow prisoners believed him to be an informer. Sent as a staff officer to the same SS Panzer Grenadier division as the BFC, he requisitioned MacKinnon as his driver. As the German armies imploded they drove westward and surrendered to British Paras.

The intelligence authorities in London had known of the British Free Corps from almost the beginning. Even as Hitler’s Thousand Year Reich entered its death throes, teams of security officers - members of MI5 and Scotland Yard - accompanied leading elements of the allied armies, looking for the renegade soldiers. Most British Free Corps members were recaptured at the north German town of Schwerin. Thomas Cooper had led the rump of the BFC from Templin westwards until they met the 9th US Army on May 1.

At the same time, Hugh Cowie, the Aberdonian Gordon Highlander, had organised other BFC rejects to seize control of the BFC ‘isolation camp’ at Droennewitz. Heavily armed, they had moved to Schwerin where they encountered the same American unit. For the BFC - at last - the war was over.

Only a few BFC men were arrested in Germany itself. The rest were returned to Britain as newly liberated ex-prisoners. In the months following their return, MI5 officers and Special Branch detectives began detaining them.

Cowie had begun training as a military policeman when he was taken into custody. Alex MacKinnon was quietly awaiting demobilisation so he could return to his job as an Edinburgh bus driver when the knock came at his door.

In the last weeks of the war, the press speculated on fate of the traitors and a big round of treason trials and executions was forecast. In fact, for the most part, the authorities were lenient. Four leading renegades - William Joyce (Lord Haw Haw), John Amery, Thomas Cooper and Walter Purdy - were tried for high treason and sentenced to death (Cooper and Purdy both received reprieves), but the rest were dealt with under more flexible military law and defence regulations charges.

For the Scots in the BFC, this meant a range of penalties. Recognising his leading role as a BFC NCO, Cowie received a 15-year sentence (later reduced to seven) while MacKinnon was given only two years in jail and was soon able to resume his career at the bus garage. Munns seems to have escaped punishment entirely, presumably by convincing MI5 that joining the BFC was entirely the result of duress, while Alexander was one of a group of three renegades who seem to have slipped through the cracks.

Having been identified and interrogated by MI5, Alexander was released under open arrest and then mistakenly demobilised and returned to civilian life. It was only in the middle of 1946 that MI5 realised that no action had been taken against him and two other English BFC members. After some discussion, it was decided that it would be too difficult to recall them to the colours for court-martial and, instead, they were merely called to an MI5 office and given a severe warning as to their future conduct.

From the German point of view, the British Free Corps was a complete failure: "a black farce", according to Hans Roepke, the SS captain who commanded it. But for many of its members it was a disaster which tainted the rest of their lives. Alex MacKinnon was able to shrug it off; he returned to his wife and his small flat in Oxgang Terrace in Edinburgh, resumed his job and lived quietly, dying in retirement in the late 1990s.

More typical was Hugh Cowie’s experience: he was an intelligent man with a strong character, but his life was destroyed by the BFC and the prison sentence he served afterwards. He spent the rest of his life in and out of prison until he died of a heart attack in a Torquay hospital in 1977. He was serving yet another prison sentence at the time.

The Traitor, a thriller based on the BFC, by Guy Walters (Headline, 6.99). Renegades, The History of the BFC, by Adrian Weale (Pimlico, 12.50). The Brits Who Fought For Hitler, is being screened this autumn on Channel 5