|Alfred Vivian Minchin in German uniform|
Published in European Socialist Action No 29, July/August 2010
With war inevitable on September 1, 1939, Sir Oswald Mosley, the leader of British Union, issued this statement to all members of his organisation: “To our members my message is plain and clear. Our country is involved in war. Therefore I ask you to do nothing to injure our country OR TO HELP ANY OTHER POWER. Our members should do what the law requires of them and, if they are members of any forces or services of the Crown, they should obey their orders and, in particular, obey the rules of their service ... We have said a hundred times that if the life of Britain were threatened we would fight again ...”. In May 1940, he wrote, “... Stories concerning the invasion of Britain are being circulated ... in such an event every member of British Union would be at the disposal of the nation. Every one of us would resist the foreign invader with all that is in us...”.
John Amery was never a member of British Union or any similar organisation although, along with William Joyce, he came to personify that type of misguided idealist, adopting the ideological ethos of another country. In that sense, they had something in common with the Burgesses and Macleans of the post-war world.
All the countries occupied by the Germans in the Second World War were, de facto, under German martial law, defeated and without their former heads of government. For them, hostilities had ceased and life seemed to continue more or less as in peace-time. Without directions from their former heads of government, the inhabitants of the occupied territories had several choices ...collaboration, neutrality or resistance. With the absence of a state of war, collaboration seemed the most realistic course for many. Others volunteered for the Waffen SS divisions in defence of the New Order.
Britain, however, remained at war throughout the duration and for its citizens the moral question was far simpler. The duty of a patriot was to fight in the defence of Britain, whether the war was right or wrong. This was the position of Oswald Mosley and British Union, even though many were interned without charge or trial under Defence Regulation 18b. Many other Mosley men, however, made the supreme sacrifice in all the branches of the armed forces. In this respect, Mosley’s Blackshirts were patriotic to a man, while a handful of traitors had left the movement long before hostilities commenced. William Joyce being one and a notable exception as far as British fascism was concerned.
John Amery was a strange case, indeed. From a wealthy family, his father was Leo Amery ... a member of Churchill’s Cabinet and a drafter of the Balfour Declaration, then becoming the Secretary of State for India and Burma. His younger brother, Julian, became a not inconspicuous Tory MP after the war and paid dearly for his sibling’s ultimate fate on the gallows. He loved his brother and wished eternally that things had been different.
Leo sent his eldest son to public school where he excelled himself with his first act of notoriety by running off to France with his father’s wallet and a revolver. Thereafter, the father arranged private tuition and John discovered the deceptive sexual delights of prostitutes ... the more the merrier!
As a consequence of this particular peccadillo, his first wife, Una Wing, was an ex-prostitute with several convictions for plying her trade in the West End of the capital. When funds were really short, John was not averse to turning to being a rent boy himself on several occasions.
After bankruptcy, John Amery was sent to France with a small allowance and from there he dabbled in the far-right movements prevalent at the time.
The Vichy government, anxious then to please both the French people and the Germans, prevented him from leaving France. At the same time, Vichy disapproved of Amery’s adopted style of French radical fascist views. He was an embarrassment to them.
With little else to do, John Amery approached the German Armistice Commission in Grenoble with an offer it seemed it could not refuse. Amery, always one to grasp an opportunity when it came along, was soon to end up in wartime Berlin, speaking eloquently into the propaganda microphones of the Reichsrundfunk, the first foolish move he had made in a long time. On November 19, 1942, John Amery spoke through the Germans’ English language service with material supplied by Dr Fritz Hesse of the England Committee and Joachim von Ribbentrop, the Foreign Minister and former Ambassador to Britain. His broadcast was an immediate flop and he failed to impress anyone, including his listening father who was mortified. His broadcasts continued for several months but he never quite achieved the notoriety of William Joyce.
Even so, he was given the five-star treatment in a luxury hotel with a generous expense account while the Joyces made do with their small apartment and a basic salary.
Amery’s next mission was to tour the internment camps to give tedious homilies on how sensible it would be to change sides and wear the uniform of the enemy. Thus was born the idea of The Legion of St George, later to be known as the British Free Corps, under the control of the SS. It was formed in the last year of the war and numbered no more than thirty misfits out of hundreds of thousands of British prisoners of war. To the annoyance of Joyce, a few had been recruited from his broadcasting assistants.
The types who joined included the son of a Lithuanian Jewish merchant settled in England, a chemist who had been a member of British Union from 1934 to 1938, the son of a German immigrant who had found himself caught up in the Channel Islands working for the Todt organisation and another, a seventeen year old captured from a torpedoed ship and recruited by Amery, who the lad thought was Britain’s Foreign Minister. Another seventeen year old captured in the Italian campaign thought the British Free Corps was composed of several divisions. As pointed out before, those few who had connections with British Union had lapsed from membership years before the outbreak of hostilities.
This motley crew spent most of their days in indolent debauchery until, after the bombing of Dresden in February 1945, they were ordered to the Russian Front. For all the high-faluting propaganda of fighting Bolshevism, the very purpose of the BFC’s existence, they refused to budge with the Germans placing some blame on them for the bombing of Dresden and then throwing them into prison ... or punishment camp. Two months later, after much pleading, they were released conditionally but always in a state of near rebellion. The rest of the BFC disintegrated in panic at the news of the punishment camps where, it was rumoured, starving prisoners fell on the cadavers of others, pulling out their livers and kidneys for sustenance. One of them, the BFC’s British-born, half-German commandant, Thomas Haller Cooper, walked away to be captured by the British ... later reprieved after being given the death sentence.
Cooper was an exception among his BFC ‘comrades’ because, having a German mother, he had joined the Leibstandarte Division of the Waffen SS soon after the outbreak of war, serving in Poland and Russia, where he was wounded. Parentage sometimes lands the thinking man on difficult shores.
The myth that the British Free Corps represented all the best and noble in the struggle against communism and that they even fell fighting in the ruins of Berlin is the stuff of pulp fiction of the It Happened Here genre. It was never like that. If they had behaved with the gallantry of the various Waffen SS divisions from the occupied territories then there may have been some cause for redemption. Their legal status was one of traitors while their country was at war and no lies or myths can change that fact.
John Amery did not don the field-grey uniform with the British Free Corps cuff band and the Union flag sleeve motif, even though the Legion of St George (later the BFC) was his brainchild. He did more than these (literally) turncoats by touring the camps and inciting British POWs to commit treason. Many former Blackshirts within the ranks of those prisoners must have seethed with contempt for this spoiled, upper-class opportunist who continued his playboy lifestyle when German civilians picked through the rubble of their cities.
He was awarded a gallantry medal after a Berlin air raid but the circumstances remain unknown.
He travelled the length and breadth of occupied Europe, convinced he was a major celebrity, giving speeches to all who would listen ... rather like the present-day lecture circuits. As the war began to draw to a close, he ended up working for Mussolini in Northern Italy.
As befitting his celebrity status, on capture he was escorted into custody by an Intelligence Corps captain by the name of Alan Whicker, not knowing that his captor would, in the years following Amery’s execution, enjoy a rather more successful career in broadcasting than Amery’s ever was.
While Joyce’s council argued the business over a British passport in order to avoid a meeting with the hangman, Amery pleaded guilty on all counts knowing full well that he would receive the death penalty. The Germans, in defeat, passed over all the information they had on him.
The legacy of all this is that a new Europe can only be built on the firm rock of patriotism, each man loyal to his locality, while serving the greater union. The legend printed inside every Union Movement membership card read; BRITAIN FIRST IN EUROPE A NATION. It is the principle to which we subscribe up to this day.
John Amery was a traitor as much as a German who assisted the Allies, for whatever high moral reason at the time. One is bound by an oath of loyalty to one’s country ... always! Otherwise ‘patriotism’ is an empty word.