There is an often asked question. How many South Africans served in Nazi Germany’s Armed Forces?
The answer is not many. Two South Africans who served in the German armed forces in WW2 are well known, Robey Leibbrandt – the firebrand Afrikaner insurgent tried for treason is possibly the most known and to a lesser extent Leutnant Heinz Werner Schmidt, who was one of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s personal aids in the North African conflict. However there where was also a smattering of South Africans – five in total, who served in the Waffen SS, and most joined the infamous “British Free Corps”.
The Waffen-SS was the armed wing of the Nazi Party’s SS organisation. Its formations included men from Nazi Germany, along with volunteers and conscripts from both occupied and un-occupied lands, as well as men drawn from Allied Forces – a small number of British, Canadians, Americans, Australians and South Africans where recruited as Prisoners of War and indoctrinated into Nazi philosophy.
Initially, in keeping with the racial policy of Nazi Germany, membership was only open to people of Germanic origin (so-called Aryan ancestry). The rules were partially relaxed in 1940, and later the formation of units composed largely or solely of foreign volunteers and conscripts was authorised.
The British Free Corps was a unit of the Waffen SS during World War II consisting of British and Dominion Prisoners of War (POW) who had been recruited by the Nazis.
The unit was originally known as the Legion of St George. Only 54 men belonged to The British Free Corps at one time or another, some for only a few days. At no time did it reach more than 27 men in strength.
The idea for the British Free Corps came from John Amery, a British fascist, son of the serving British Secretary of State for India, Leo Amery. John Amery travelled to Berlin in October 1942 and proposed to the Germans the formation of a British volunteer force to help fight the Bolsheviks.
Apart from touting the idea of a British volunteer force, Amery also actively tried to recruit Britons. He made a series of pro-German propaganda radio broadcasts, appealing to his fellow countrymen to join the war on communism.
Recruiting for the Free Corps in German Prisoner of War (POW) camps In 1944, consisted of leaflets distributed to the POWs, and the unit was mentioned in Camp, the official POW newspaper published in Berlin.
The unit was promoted “as a thoroughly volunteer unit, conceived and created by British subjects from all parts of the Empire who have taken up arms and pledged their lives in the common European struggle against Soviet Russia”.
The attempted recruitment of POWs was done amid German fear of the Soviets; the Germans were “victims of their own propaganda” and thought that their enemies were as worried about the Soviets as they were.
So, who the South Africans recruited into the Waffen SS?, Where and what we know about them is limited, however this is what has been researched:
SS-Unterscharführer Douglas Cecil Mardon (South African)
Joined the Waffen SS around Christmas 1944 – the third of the trio of South Africans who joined the Corps at Dresden, he possessed very rigid views on the threat to the free world of Soviet success on the Eastern Front. As a POW he had seen Russian prisoners and had come to distinctly racist conclusions about them, when he read Waffen SS British Free Corps recruiting literature it convinced him to volunteer with alacrity. On 8 March 1945 ‘received promotion to Unterscharführer and was given command of a section.
He was undoubtedly sincere in his wish to fight against the advance of Communism’. On 15/3/1945 he removed the tell-tale BFC insignia from his uniform and substituted an SS runes collar patch’.
His Allied rank was Corporal and his unit unknown. He used the alias Douglas Hodge as a “Jackal of the Reich”. After the war he was fined £375 for high treason.
SS-Mann Pieter Labuschagne (South African)
Joined in the winter of 1944/45, he succumbed to one of Stranders’ German recruiters, Unterscharführer Hans Kauss, whilst working on a road gang. Deemed to be so useless by Mardon that he refused to take him. Slipped away in the direction of Dresden, to be ‘liberated’ by advancing US forces after the war.
He used the alias Private Adriaan Smith as a “Jackal of the Reich”. He was found guilty of treason after the war and fined £50.
Van Heerden (South African)
Van Heerden’s whereabouts are unknown – it was said he left Pankow December 1943 – “Killed in action on 12 February 1945, during bombing of Dresden” also said to have gone from Dronnewitz to Schwerin in May 1945. He is thought tie listed as Jan Pieterson as an alias as a “Jackal of the Reich”. He was originally a Rifleman in a British or Allied Commonwealth Long Range Desert Patrol.
SS-Mann Viljoen (South African)
He joined the Waffen SS in Dec 1944/Jan 45 through the offices of a friendly SS NCO in charge of his working party. He was hospitalized with burns during the Dresden raids. His South African rank was Corporal, however his origin unit is unknown. He was acquitted after the war.
Hiwi (SS foreign volunteer) William Celliers (South African)
He was a South African policeman from Windhoek in South West Africa, he did not join the British Legion of the Waffen SS, instead he went to the 1st SS Panzer Division, Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler. He served in the flak detachment of Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler in the fall and winter 1943-44 until the LSSAH was sent to the Western Front, he was awarded with the Iron Cross 2nd Class.
The 1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler (often abbreviated as LSSAH) began as Adolf Hitler’s personal bodyguard, responsible for guarding the Führer’s person, offices, and residences. Initially the size of a regiment, the LSSAH eventually grew into a division sized unit.
The LSSAH independently was amalgamated into the Waffen SS. By the end of the war it had been increased in size from a regiment to a Panzer (armored tank) division.
Members of the LSSAH perpetrated numerous atrocities and war crimes, including the Malmendy massacre. They killed at least an estimated 5,000 prisoners of war in the period 1940–1945, mostly on the Eastern Front.
The British Free Corps of the Waffen SS were allocated to the 3rd Company, under the command of the Swedish Obersturmführer Hans-Gösta Pehrson. The British Free Corps contingent was commanded by the South African – SS-Scharführer (squad leader) Douglas Mardon, and were sent join a Waffen SS Company on the eastern front, a detachment of which that was situated in the small village of Schoenburg near the west bank of the Oder River.
On March 22, as the SS Company was entrenching, it was partially overrun by an advance element of the Red Army which had blundered into its position by accident. Although taken by surprise, the SS troopers, including the British Free Corps volunteers, quickly regained their wits and launched a vigorous counterattack, driving off the Soviets.
On 16 April 1945 the Corps was moved to Templin, where they were to join the transport company of Waffen SS Obergruppenführer Felix Steiner’s HQ staff. On 29 April Steiner decided to break contact with the Russians and order his forces to head west into Anglo-American captivity.
A few details of the court-martial of several Commonwealth soldiers in the British Free Corps exist, with some claiming they joined the British Free Corps to sabotage it and gather intelligence. John Amery, the founder was however sentenced to death in November 1945 for high treason and hanged. No other member of The British Free Corps was executed – sentences ranged from limited imprisonment, to fines and warnings, some where acquitted.
At the post-war Nuremberg trials the Waffen-SS was judged to be a criminal organisation due to its connection to the Nazi Party and involvement in numerous war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Former Waffen-SS members were denied many of the rights afforded to the military veterans. An exception was made for Waffen-SS conscripts, who were exempted because they were not volunteers. About a third of the total membership were conscripts.
The image shows members of the British Free Corps, and is one of the few available – here is Kenneth Berry, an ex British sea-man (second left) with SS- Sturmmann Alfred Minchin (second right), an ex British Merchant sea-man talking to German officers, during a recruitment drive in Milag, April 1944.
Note the British Free Corps emblem on their sleeves, it consists of a British Union Flag (Union Jack) in a shield, underneath is a sleeve band on which “British Free Corps” is written in English. On the right hand colour tab can be seen the British “Three Lions” from the English Coat of Arms.
In the end they all fall onto the “wrong” side of history, and can be best summed up by John Amery’s epitaph written by his father:
“At end of wayward days he found a cause – ’Twas not his Country’s – Only time can tell if that defiance of our ancient laws was as treason or foreknowledge. He sleeps well.”
“Time” – unfortunately for John Amery, the Waffen SS and the British Free Corps – has now judged it all to be somewhat wayward.
Researched by Peter Dickens, source Wikipedia.