The British SS in The Eagle Has Landed
Was the late Jack Higgins right? Did British soldiers really join the Waffen-SS?
THE recent death of Jack Higgins caused me over the weekend to flick through a copy of The Eagle Has Landed – a book I hadn’t read since I was about 12. I also watched the film again, which feels like a solid 6/10. (Incidentally, the actor John Standing – who plays the vicar – seems to have been born in his mid-fifties. Is it me, or is it because I only watch him in films and TV shows from the 1970s?)
Anyway, while I was going through the book, I was reminded of the character of Harvey Preston, a corporal in the Royal Army Service Corps who has been held as a POW by the Germans until he decides to enlist in a unit of the Waffen-SS called the ‘British Free Corps’, also known as the ‘British Legion of St George’. In the book, Heinrich Himmler reveals that the idea behind the unit ‘was to recruit Englishmen from the prisoner of war camps, mainly to fight on the Eastern Front’.
Preston is undoubtedly a ne'er-do-well, who had been posing as a posh captain in the Coldstream Guards when he was captured, and had even served a two-year stretch for fraud before the outbreak of war. When we meet him, Preston appears dressed as an Untersturmführer – the equivalent of a 2nd Lieutenant – in the SS, and he makes quite the entrance.
He was at that time twenty-seven years of age, a tall, handsome man in a beautifully-tailored uniform of field grey. It was the uniform which particularly fascinated Radl. He had the death’s head patch of the SS in his peaked cap and collar patches depicting the three leopards. Under the eagle on his left sleeve was a Union Jack shield and a black and silver cuff-title carried the legend in Gothic lettering, Britishes Freikorps.
The renegade corporal finds himself in the presence of Himmler, who is assessing whether he would be suitable to join the mission to England to kidnap Winston Churchill. Preston is none too keen, not least because it goes beyond the remit of his unit, which apparently features some fifty or sixty volunteers. He bleats to Himmler:
“As the Reichsführer knows, members of the British Free Corps were given a guarantee that at no time would they have to wage war in take part in any armed act against Britain or the Crown or indeed to support any act detrimental to the interest of the British people.”
The threat of a spell on the Russian front makes Preston see sense, and he decides to join the mission.
Of course, the character of Preston does not appear in the film, because I suspect that introducing the whole notion of a British Waffen-SS unit stuffed with traitors would have proved too much of a distraction.
However, was Higgins right? Was there really a ‘British Free Corps’, and if so, was Harvey Preston modelled on any real figure?
The short answer to the first question is ‘yes’. There was indeed such a unit, and it was pretty much as Higgins described it in his novel, which was published in 1975, when the British Free Corps was almost completely forgotten. The brainchild of the traitor John Amery, the unit never featured more than thirty renegades at any one time, and it was largely manned by those who saw it as opportunity to sate their appetites, both nutritional and sexual.
Furthermore, their uniform was almost just as Higgins described, although, to be pernickety, the cuff-title was in English and not in German.
This picture shows two British Free Corps members – Kenneth Berry on the left, and Alfred Minchin – posing with German war reporters in April 1944. Take a good look at the uniforms, and you can see the three leopards on the men’s collar tabs, and the Union Jack shields on their sleeves.
Uniform aficionados will recognise that neither of these men are officers, which raises the existence of whether there ever was an officer figure like Harvey Preston.
Well, once again, Higgins was dead right, because Preston was undoubtedly based on the very rogue figure that was one Douglas Berneville-Claye, the bigamist son of a Staff Sergeant who passed himself off as an officer and an aristocrat, and at some point left his POW camp to join the SS. Towards the end of the war, the handsome Berneville-Claye briefly took charge of the renegade unit while wearing a black SS tank uniform bearing the insignia of a Hauptsturmführer – the equivalent of a captain – in the British Free Corps.
For those wanting to know the fate of Berneville-Claye and to read a full history of the unit, there is only one place to turn – Renegades by my great friend Adrian Weale. It was Adrian who unearthed the photograph of Minchin and Berry, and his book was the first – and remains the best – telling of this extraordinary tale. I shan’t reveal here what happened to the members of the unit during and after the war – as that would be a plot spoiler!
It was chancing upon Renegades in the office of the Literary Editor of The Times back in the mid-nineties that gave me the inspiration to write my first thriller, The Traitor, which features an SOE agent who joins the British Free Corps to save the life of his loved one.
While I was researching the book, I managed to track down Alfred Minchin to Weston-super-Mare, and decided to pay him an unannounced visit. When I arrived, I was informed by his widow that he had recently died. I asked whether she knew what her late husband had done in the war, and she said he had been a POW and that was all she knew. As she had only met him long after the war, I saw no reason to disbelieve her.
It did occur to me to tell her the truth, but I thought that would be both pointless and cruel. I got back in my car and left her to her memories.
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