By Guy Walters
Daily Mail | March 2010
At first glance, he looks to be a regular corporal in Hitler's dreaded Waffen-SS. The uniform is certainly familiar enough. But look a little closer and two disturbing clues emerge as to his true identity.
On the man's right arm, a Union Flag shield is just visible, while his right collar tab hides a strange insignia - the three lions of the Royal Standard of England.
For this corporal was no ordinary Nazi. He belonged to a shadowy and little-known unit of the SS called the British Free Corps (BFC), a group of treacherous British and Commonwealth soldiers who decided to fight for the Nazis rather than spend the war in honourable captivity as PoWs.
Photographs of members of the British Free Corps in uniform are fantastically rare - the last was found 30 years ago. But earlier this month, I discovered this faded photograph - and several others like it - in a long-forgotten file buried away at the National Archives in Kew, Surrey.
The photographs - of 14 men in total - had been tucked away in a folder relating to an RAF war crimes investigation unit that I stumbled upon while researching a forthcoming book.
Placed in a plain brown manilla A5 envelope marked simply 'collaborators', there were no accompanying documents, nor any details of the men's identities.
But from piecing together other historical records, I have been able to trace most of those shown here, and in some cases tell the full story of their betrayal - and reveal what became of them after the war.
Together, their tales cast a fascinating new light on some of Britain's worst wartime traitors.
So who was the first arrogant young man, posing proudly in his SS uniform? His name was Roy Nicholas Courlander - one of the leading members of the BFC. And what makes his betrayal even more abhorrent is that he had been raised by a Jewish family.
These BFC members are believed to be Railton Freeman, Leonard Banning, Martin James Monti and Douglas Berneville-Clay
Born illegitimately in London in 1914, the young Roy was adopted by a Lithuanian Jewish businessman who sent him to boarding school. When he was 19, however, he was sent to live and work on a coconut plantation owned by his father in the New Hebrides in the South Pacific.
On the outbreak of war, Courlander was enlisted into the New Zealand army, and served in the Western Desert and Greece, where he was captured in April 1941.
But unbeknown to his fellow PoWs, Courlander harboured secret fascist sympathies and had come to believe in the inevitability of a Nazi victory. So when the Germans invaded Russia that summer he decided to defect, volunteering to fight for Hitler against the Soviets.
His request was initially turned down by the Germans, and Courlander spent the next year acting instead as an interpreter at his PoW camp.
Nevertheless, he continued to ally himself with his captors, and in June 1943, he was rewarded with a transfer to Genshagen PoW camp 20 miles south of Berlin.
Superficially, Genshagen appeared to be almost like a holiday camp, where PoWs were well fed and had access to many more amenities than they would expect at a normal Stalag.
Billed as a camp where compliant prisoners could enjoy a well-earned break, its purpose was far more sinister - it was a place in which prisoners were recruited to help the German cause.
While at Genshagen, Courlander first came into contact with one of the most despicable and infamous British traitors of the war - John Amery.
An Old Harrovian and son of a leading member of Churchill's Cabinet, Amery was a sexual pervert, a bankrupt and a convinced Nazi who had remained in France with his prostitute wife after the fall of Paris.
These portraits of unidentified members of the BFC were found in an envelope marked ‘Photographs Dulag Luft III and Collaborators’ at the National Archives at Kew. The first two pictures appear to be of the same man
Amery spent his time making speeches glorifying the Third Reich before he kindled the idea of forming a British unit that could fight alongside the Germans - the British Free Corps.
Initially christened the 'Legion of St George', the idea was personally approved by the Führer. On December 28, 1942, Hitler had sent out the following order from his lair in the forest at Rastenburg: 'The Führer is in agreement with the establishment of an English legion . . . former members of the English Fascist Party or those with similar ideology - therefore quality, not quantity.'
Hitler stipulated that the unit should reach platoon strength - around 30 men - before going into action.
Amery toured PoW camps attempting to recruit British and Commonwealth-troops to enlist, but he met little more than catcalls and jeers. His recruiting leaflets were often used as lavatory paper by patriotic prisoners.
Courlander, though, was eager to enlist. Even before joining Amery's unit, he proved his loyalties to his new masters by broadcasting on German radio. The Nazis thought that using British citizens for these transmissions was a useful propaganda weapon.
The most famous broadcaster was William Joyce, more infamously known as 'Lord Haw-Haw'. But Courlander did more than just make broadcasts. He actively tried to convince fellow PoWs to join the new 'British SS'.
The vast majority were understandably outraged. Those who were persuaded to sign up had often been members of Oswald Mosley's Blackshirts, or chancers who were lured by the promise of decent food, alcohol, and access to female company.
Towards the end of 1943, Courlander was sent to live in Pankow in Berlin, where he was billeted along with his fellow recruits. On January 1, 1944, the British Free Corps finally came into being, and Courlander was given the rank of corporal.
As the leading light in the unit, he had hoped to be commissioned as an officer, but the job went to a German SS captain called Hans-Werner Roepke.
In the spring, the unit was posted to Hildesheim, 20 miles south-east of Hanover, and on April 20, 1944 (Hitler's 55th birthday), the unit had its inaugural parade wearing its specially designed BFC uniforms featuring the Union Flag and the three lions collar tab that Courlander is shown wearing in the photograph on this page.
What is not visible in this image is the cuff band which read 'British Free Corps', an addition that must surely have startled the residents of Hildesheim when the British collaborators caroused with German women in the local cafés.
Like his fellow traitors, Courlander jumped at the chance of female company, and while he continued his radio work in Berlin, he struck up a relationship with a German girl called Carola.
But as the year wore on, even the most dim-witted members of the BFC realised that the war was going against Germany, and they had no desire to go into action. 'The unit was just trying to kill time,' Captain Roepke remembered many years later.
Even Courlander's loyalty to the Nazis dissipated, and during that summer he made plans to escape. Along with another BFC member, Francis Maton (see below), Courlander was seconded to the SS propaganda regiment on the Western Front, which he hoped would give him the chance to defect back to the Allies.
On September 3, the two men duly arrived in Brussels, where they went into hiding rather than face the advancing Allied army. The following day, they gave themselves up to a British officer, thus becoming the first two BFC men to be arrested.