Cooper, Thomas Heller - Britain's Own War Criminal

British free corps recruitment poster
British free corps recruitment poster

The story of the British Free Corps, the British SS unit, and one of its key figures Thomas Heller Cooper.

Submitted by martinh on March 8, 2006

The prosecution of an alleged War Criminal by the British State, fifty years after the end of World War 2, opens a new chapter in the double standards of the British Justice system. Britain's attitude to the former Wermacht, SS, Waffen SS, SD and their East European allies has to say the least been inconsistent. The Nuremberg Trials and the non-existent "De-Nazification" programme at the end of the War were simply a public relations exercise by the Western Allies, not an attempt to gain justice for the millions of victims of Nazism. Western governments used the "De-nazification" programme to recruit people like Claus Barbie for their intelligence services, cynically ignoring the blood on their hands. The need for loyal anti-Communists overrode demands for Justice, the Cold War was beginning and the unique skills of people like "the Butcher of Lyons" were required by them West.
It is convenient to characterise War Criminals as Nazi fanatics, Eastern European anti-semites and nationalist minorities. But Britain produced at least one man who admitted to participating in the "Final Solution", which British Intelligence were perfectly aware of but who was never charged for his part in it; SS Oberschfuhrer Thomas Heller Cooper from Chiswick, West London.
Cooper was born in 1919, the son of a British Father and a German mother. He left School in 1936 with a reputation as a loner with a good command of German, the family's second language. He spent 1937 attempting to join the Police, the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy, but was rejected by all of them. He would later claim because of his mother's nationality. In September 1938 he joined the British Union of Fascists (BUF) and also started making contacts with a Nazi work exchange scheme Reichs Arbeits Deist (RAD) as he still was unemployed. He left Britain on the 9th July 1939 after RAD invited him to Germany. His plans to work were frustrated because due to an administrative error the Germans were not expecting him. He was forced to wait until 20th August before being offered a teaching post. Less than two weeks later war broke out and Cooper was promptly arrested, but released when he was able to produce a certificate to prove he was Volkdeutsche, acquired by his German grandmother whose awareness of international events was obviously a lot more astute than her grandson's.
Cooper worked as a private tutor until he met the Head of SS recruitment Brigadefuhrer Gottlob Berger. On 1st February 1940 he reported to Lichtefelde Barracks, Berlin, training base of the SS Leibstandate, moving later in the month to its artillery battery. Two weeks later he was posted to the SS Topenkopf Division Infantry Training Battalion and in July 1940 posted to the 5th SS Topenkopf Infantry Regiment. February 1941 saw him promoted to Rottenfurher (the equivalent of Corporal) and sent to the SS NCO Training School at Lauenburg in Pomerania. Finishing his training in May he was posted to SS Topenkopf Wachbatallion Oranienburg stationed near Krakow, it was here that he would later boast that he participated in massacring both Polish Jews and Russian Prisoners of War. The unit was officially supervising forced labour.
In November 1941 he was again promoted to Unterscharfuhrer or Sergeant and in January 1943 transferred to the Transport unit of the SS Polizei Division initially drawn from the pre-war German police force. He finally met some Russians with guns rather than half starved POWs or defenceless Jews on 7th February 1943 just outside Schablinov, Russia, where he was seriously wounded in both legs, for which he would later receive the German Silver Wound Badge.
On the 1st June while recovering from his wounds at Bad Mushau military hospital, Cooper was approached by Sonderfurher Oscar Lange who was intrigued by the British SS man. On the 6th June 1943 whilst on leave in Berlin Cooper was ordered to the German Foreign Office's England Committee, where he met Dr. Fritz Hesse. He was asked to write two propaganda pamphlets on National Socialism for distribution among British POWs . The Germans were attempting to set up a British volunteer force to fight on the Eastern Front as both a propaganda tool and it was hoped, to drive a wedge between the British and Russians. The idea had come from John Amery a Nazi sympathiser who had fought in Spain for the fascists. Amery's father was Leopold Amery, Conservative MP and Churchill's Secretary of State for India . On the 28th December 1942 Amery heard Hitler had agreed to "the establishment of an English Legion".
Between 20th April and 4th March 1943 Amery carried out a recruiting drive at St. Denis internment camp. He had a bad reception from the internees and recruited only four men, Prof. Logio an elderly academic who wanted to carry on his studies and was far too old to be of any military value; Oswald Job a British resident in Paris who later parachuted into Britain near Poole in Dorset as a spy, was immediately captured and hung in March 1944; Maurice Turner who was taken with the others by Amery to Paris where he contacted the Resistance and escaped back to Britain with their assistance; the last recruit and the only one to actually join the British Free Corps in November 1943 was seventeen year old Kenneth Berry, captured at the age of 14 while serving as deck-boy on a merchant vessel. Amery's lack of success led to him being dropped by the Germans in October 1943 and the "English Legion" became a purely Waffen SS project.
In the Summer of 1942 the England Committee had decided to established a special camp to separate potential collaborators from other British POWs, Stalag 111d near Berlin. This in turn was divided into an officers' camp (special detachment 999) and a rank and file camp (special detachment 517), both of which were presented by the Germans as "holiday camps" away from the poor rations, hard work and cold of normal camps. However the security for the camp was run by the Abwehr, the German intelligence service. One of the prisoners separated and sent to Stalag 111d for an initial examination, from February and August 1942, was Battery Quartermaster John Brown, Royal Artillery, a former member of the BUF. He had been captured after Dunkirk and had developed a good relationship with the Germans, which he exploited to run a very efficient Black Market operation among conscripted foreign workers. Some of the profits he used to buy "luxury" items such as extra food, medicine for the camp hospital and even musical instruments for the camp band. He also had a hidden radio so was well aware of the war's developments. At Stalag 111d he had quickly realised something was amiss, after his visit he returned to Belchammer, his normal camp. There he had met Captain Julius Green, a Jewish-Glaswegian officer and the camp's dentist. He handed over to Brown the codes and the means to pass intelligence back to London through the MI9 (Escape and Evasion) Network. It was a gamble, Brown was an ex-Fascist, but by the end of 1942 had realised that the Germans were probably going to lose the War. He also knew many other POWs thought him to be a collaborator, so did the Germans!
Brown decided to get back to Stalag 111d as soon as possible, not only were the conditions far better, he was suspicious of what the Germans were planning. After a carefully orchestrated row with all the senior British NCOs at Blechammer he persuaded his friend the Commandant, Rittmeister Prinz Von Hohenlohe, to transfer him back to Stalag 111d. He arrived on the 12th June 1943 where he was selected by Major Heimpel of the Gestapo to be senior British NCO of Special Detachment 517 based at Genshagen, a suburb of Berlin.
Having finished his pamphlets for Dr. Hesse, Cooper went to Berlin for two weeks leave, once again meeting Oscar Lange who took him around Genshagen introducing him as Bottcher, German for Cooper. Cooper didn't speak English whilst in the Camp but was asked by Lange to interview Frank Maton a pre-war BUF member, captured in Crete in 1941, who had volunteered for the Waffen SS. Before his leave was over Lange had got Hesse to transfer Cooper to the Foreign Office and briefed him as to the true reason for the "holiday camps", the isolation of potential recruits for an "English Legion" to fight Soviet Communism. From the 1st June 1943 Cooper became the senior NCO for the nascent British SS.
Brown had early on realised that something funny was afoot at Genshagen, all the British POWs were ex-fascists, some stool pigeons and many openly pro-German, hardly the typical group of British prisoners. He needed allies so he engineered the transfer of trusted black-marketeers from Blechammer to help him to screw up the German plans when the first batch of two hundred prisoners arrived in August 1943 for their "holiday".
In September 1943 Brown learnt the real reason for Genshagen while nursing Carl Britten a fascist POW suffering from malaria. He discovered that the Germans were recruiting in Genshagen for an "English Legion" and reported it by coded letter back to MI9 who informed MI5's counter subversion F Division. The Germans, having established a nucleus of renegades, decided to move them to a Cafe-Bar at Schonholtzerstrasse in Pankow on the 1st November 1943 due to heavy bombing of Berlin and to further isolate them from the POW population. Cooper remained in Genshagen, trawling the "holiday-makers" for possible recruits and befriending Brown, to whom he boasted about massacring Jews and Russian POWs.
Brown recalled after the war Cooper claimed to have "...taken part in atrocities against the Jews and had killed several Jews himself" and that "he used to boast about it openly at Genshagen". He also fantasised about the Gauleiter post that he wanted after Britain's defeat and that he was going to settle the score with people who had refused him work in 1939!
In November 1943 SS Hauptsturmfurher Hans Werner Roepke was appointed liaison officer with the "English Legion" and the Pankow renegades started to be joined by dubious "recruits" from a special interrogation camp at Luckenwalde. These men joined either under threat of punishment (usually for sexual relationships with German women) or a mixture of aggressive intimidation and promises of a British SS-Brigade. The pressed men were very unhappy about joining the "English Legion". When Cooper found out about the new recruitment methods he intervened to allow the less willing recruits to leave, believing a genuine anti-Communist volunteer force could still be recruited . As a result the 23 recruits of the "English Legion" in November 1943 were reduced to just 8 men by December.
Roepke's first job was get the "English Legion" into shape assisted by the so called "Big Six", Cooper, Francis Maclardy, Roy Courlander, Edwin Martin, Alfred Minchin and John Wilson, the key players in the formation of the "English Legion". The name decided on was "British Free Corps" after rejecting a German suggestion of the British Legion! They were to be part of a force to confront the menace of communism, but the SS and the Foreign Office insisted on a minimum of thirty, a platoon's worth, to make it credible. The SS also insisted on waiting for a suitable British Officer to lead it. The British SS they were not required to take an oath to Hitler, were not tattooed with their blood group (as all SS men were) and were not subject to German Military Law, but they would wear German Uniforms.
On the 1st January 1944 at a party at Genshagen Cooper had announced the formation of the British Free Corps. Roepke found them a base at St. Michael Kloster in Hildesheim near Hanover, a former monastery converted to training camp for foreign volunteers where they moved to in February 1944. They were issued with uniforms, allowed to visit the town unaccompanied and have girlfriends. Cooper remained at Genshagen looking out for recruits among the "holiday-makers", occasionally visiting to give German lessons, teaching them basic drill and how to give a convincing Nazi salute. Also in February 1944 Private Thomas Freeman a commando from Stalag XVIIIa in Austria joined. As a post war intelligence report makes clear "Private Freeman was a member of the British Free Corps but has been cleared of suspicion as it is now abundantly clear the he joined with the object of escaping and sabotaging the movement". He was successful in both cases. In his debriefing by the intelligence service he remembered Cooper's boast , "He had himself shot over 200 Poles and 80 Jews in one day by merely lining them up against a wall and shooting them down. This was in Warsaw." Freeman was a subversive element from the very beginning and a more sympathetic character than Brown. When his turn came to pair-up for a recruiting drive he told another BFC member Wilson, rather than seek out convinced fascists he knew "The right sort of bloke to make a real mess.." His intelligence and ability came to Roepke's attention, and on the 20th April 1944 he was promoted at the same time as Cooper to Oberscharfuhrer, the equivalent of staff sergeant. The 20th April was a significant for the BFC as a whole with the distribution of unit insignia and a batch of promotions to the growing band of the British SS.
Cooper was detailed to establish a transit camp in a villa in the Grunwalde district of Berlin, and to weed out undesirable elements before they joined the BFC proper, to get them to sign recruiting forms and inform them of their conditions of employment. Cooper however was an SS man, which made him deeply unpopular with recruits from the more liberal atmosphere of the British and Commonwealth armies. As one recruit later recalled after watching Cooper practice his goose-stepping technique, "intelligent but a stupid bastard as well."
In June 1943 the steady trickle of recruits had raised the British Free Corps to a strength of 23 effectives worrying Freeman enough to make his move. With his ally Ellesmore a Belgian masquerading as a South African, whose particular favourite form of sabotage was beating seven shades of shit out of the unpopular ex-BUF member Maclardy in the showers, they got the 15 most recent recruits to sign a letter requesting that they return to their POW status. The Fascist element around the "Big Six" were furious and convinced Roepke to charge Freeman and Ellesmore with Mutiny on the 20th June 1944. They were interned at Stutthof concentration camp near Danzig from which Freeman successfully escaped in November 1944 making it to Russian lines. The D-day landings on the 6th June 1944 sent the BFC into a tail spin especially Cooper who immediately told Brown to forget his involvement in "atrocities" and Wilson that he had been a "bloody fool".
However without the ability of Freeman the BFC suffered a serious reversal of fortune and had to continue with acquiring pressed men rather than genuine recruits, one of the new batch had five escape attempts under his belt already and another, the only officer to date, Lt. Shearer was actually in a mental hospital when he had signed up. His mental health was so bad that the Germans repatriated him on health grounds! The bad feeling degenerated into farce when Tom Perkins of the BFC was arrested after he stole a pistol and sold it to a foreign worker. This led to the so called "football pitch mutiny" which led to 7 BFC members being sent to an SS punishment camp near Schwerin, 1 being returned to the Stalags and Perkins being despatched to an isolation camp. On the 4th September 1944 two key fascists in the BFC, Maton and Courlander, transferred to the SS Kurt Egger propaganda regiment, taking advantage of their travel documents to Belgium deserted back to the British near Brussels.
German frustration at the BFC's incompetence led them to be despatched to the SS Assault Pioneer School in Dresden on 11th October 1944 in an attempt to knock them into shape for the front. By now the BFC had only 14 volunteers. Further disasters were to follow when Roepke was replaced by the near crippled Obersturmfuhrer Dr Walther Kuhilich whose injuries effectively prevented him even visiting the unit. Cooper had had enough, the war was going against Germany, he wanted out of the BFC, he approached the Germanic Administration on the 7th November 1944 only to have himself placed under close arrest for various anti-Nazi crimes he had been accused of, dismissed from the BFC and sent to a training Battalion of the Leibstandarte Adolph Hitler Division of the SS. He was to spend the next six months until 6th April 1945 working, ironically enough, as a military policeman at Spreenwagen railway station checking passes.
He was then ordered to join the HQ of the Germanic Panzer Corps on the 9th April 1945, Cooper could see the writing on the wall burning most of his SS documents and packing a civilian suit before joining his new unit at Steinhoffl on the river Oder. The state of collapse that was already taking over the Third Reich meant he did not arrive until the 11th of April when much to his surprise he was invited to dine with General Steiner, the Corps commander. Steiner wished to know about the BFC, the remnants of whom had just been attached to his unit's armoured reconnaissance Battalion. He was unsure what to do with them and worried what the post-war implications would be for him should he actually commit them to combat against the Red Army. Cooper told the general that they were not fit for combat duty but could probably used as support troops. Cooper and the General visited the BFC, Steiner gave a short speech of welcome and attached Cooper to them. On the 16th April 1945 Cooper took the remains of Britain's contribution to the crusade against communism, without a shot being fired on anger, out of the line and into the Transport company of Steiner's HQ staff based at Templin. A lack of food however forced Cooper to take a truck and some men back to Berlin to collect Red Cross parcels which the BFC, as POW's, were still receiving.
On the 18th April 1945, the final act of the farce commenced. Cooper returned to find that a British Officer had finally been found for the BFC. SS Hauptsturmfuhrer Douglas Berneville-Claye, late of B squadron, 1st SAS regiment, deserves an investigation in his own right. Much to Cooper's utter dismay this officer gave a speech telling the BFC that the British would be at war with the Russians in a matter of days and that he personally had come to lead them, along with two armoured cars, into action against the Red Army. Cooper at last showed some spirit telling Berneville-Claye "You've come to drop them back in the shit after I just got them out of it!", this was the only time the BFC wholeheartedly supported Cooper, one BFC member later recalling "For once he had spoken like an Englishman". Berneville-Claye left to find the nearest British unit to surrender too, making sure he discarded his black SS uniform for an SAS smock that he had kept for just such an emergency.
Cooper and the rest of the BFC continued until the 29th April 1945 operating as a transport company, driving trucks, directing traffic and evacuating civilians. On the 29th April Steiner ordered his entire command to break contact and head West to surrender to the advancing Americans rather than the Red Army. On the 2nd May 1945 Cooper and the remnants of the British Free Corps contacted the advancing Americans, most having discarded their German uniforms. They were handed over to Captain D.B.Hart MC of a British phantom reconnaissance liaison team who promptly arrested the lot of them.
Cooper was taken to a British Military prison in Brussels, and in September 1945 to Britain to face trial for High Treason, found guilty and sentenced to death, his sentence was commuted. He was released in January 1953, into a world dominated by a new war all be it a cold one. He is believed to have travelled to Japan.
Whilst English Law does not allow a person to be tried for the same crime twice, his conviction for High Treason does not prevent the investigation of him as a war criminal for such events as described by Roy Futcher of the BFC, who recalled Cooper boasting that he "had been in parties that had rounded up Jews in Poland and thrown women out of top storey buildings." Along with the claims he made to Brown and Freeman, he surely has a prima face case to answer.
While Anarchists will never stand in the way of genuine justice, it is a tad hypocritical for the British State fifty years later to prosecute ageing East European Nazi puppets but not their British counterparts. Today he would be seventy seven years old, but the consideration of age was never one the Nazis took account of. He may not be alive, but given the vast resources of other bodies better equipped than Black Flag, we could at least offer, should his grave be found, to dance on it.