CHAPTER 2 - THE PIONEERS’ FOREIGN LEGION
The need for manpower led the Army to look for non-British recruits and recruits from the colonies.
. They first looked in France where there were thousands of “Prestataires”. These were mainly German, Austrian and Spanish political refugees and Jews who had sought asylum in France. The French authorities were hostile to these, mainly left wing, refugees. Many had been interned by the French on all sorts of pretexts such as suspect enemy agents (despite many having a record of fighting fascism), others because they had false papers and some simply because they were nationals of an enemy country. Those not interned still came under French military law and machinery existed for enrolling them. There were also men from the International Brigades that had fought in Spain and Spaniards from the republican army who had been interned by the French. There were also large numbers of Italians who were not Prestataires but were anti-fascist. With the agreement of the French government all these categories were recruited into the British Pioneer Corps. One of the first of the “Alien Companies” formed was No.185 Spanish Labour Company
The majority of the foreign intake were German and Austrian anti-Nazi refugees and Jews who had sought asylum in Britain after Hitler’s coming to power in 1933.
Many were professional men, academics or artists. The first wave of these refugees were volunteers. Many of them were left wing and were certainly not interested in fighting to defend Britain’s imperial possessions. But they saw Nazi Germany as the main and immediate enemy and its defeat the overriding priority. The politically conscious among them saw the war as an international war against fascism, whatever reservations they might have about the British ruling establishment’s war aims. Although there was no legal reason why they could not have joined any formation of the British forces, the chauvinism, anti-communism and anti-semitism prevalent in many parts of the military establishment no doubt influenced the decision to segregate them in special “Alien Companies” under British officers.
The first six alien Pioneer Corps companies, Nos.69, 74, 77, 87, 88 and 93 were formed at Kitchener Camp, near Sandwich, in Kent from German and Austrian refugees, who volunteered for service in the British armed forces right at the outbreak of war. Five of these companies joined the British Expeditionary Force in France early in 1940 and were involved in the fighting there. Before they left, each man signed the following declaration:
‘I certify that I understand the risks… to which I and my relatives may be exposed by my employment in the British Army outside the United Kingdom. Notwithstanding this, I certify that I am willing to be employed in any theatre of war.’
This declaration is a poignant reminder of their commitment to the fight against Fascism and the personal risk they were willing to take. With few exceptions, the refugees who volunteered for the British forces did not receive British nationality until 1946-7. During their active service, they still had German nationality with all the implications of that if they had been taken prisoner (1)
‘On formation companies contained three British officers, a British company-sergeant-major, an Alien quartermaster-sergeant, five British and five Alien sergeants. Only the British personnel were permitted to carry firearms.
The second wave of foreign recruits came straight from internment camps. Not, mark you, from Nazi internment camps but from British ones! After the debacle of Dunkirk in May-June 1940, and with the imminent threat of invasion, a panic gripped the British state. There was a fear that the German, Austrian and Italian nationals in Britain could constitute a “Fifth column” that would assist the German invasion forces and attack the British from within. Obviously there were some Nazi agents among them. But the greater number were Jews or political opponents of the Nazi and Italian fascist dictatorships. They were, if anything, keener than anyone else to resist the invasion. If the war was, as claimed, an international war against Fascism, then what should have counted were political beliefs and allegiances not national citizenship.
But the British ruling class, obviously, did not see the war in that light. For them it was a war of nation-state against nation-state, fighting not over ideology but over markets, spheres of influence,and colonial possessions. A German was a German and therefore an enemy, even if he had risked his life and liberty fighting Fascism. So approximately 27,000 German, Austrian and Italian refugees were rounded up and interned behind barbed wire on the Isle of Man and elsewhere. Many an anti-Nazi activist, who had escaped a Nazi concentration camp in Germany found himself interned side by side with a genuine Nazi in a British camp. This indiscriminate round up of genuine anti-Fascists was condemned in Parliament by a number of Labour MPs and trade union and Labour organisations Eventually the initial panic subsided and the authorities began to release internees after vetting.
Some 3,000 volunteered to join the Pioneer Corps. Most were sent to No.3 Pioneer Training Centre set up in Ilfracombe in Devon. But even then the British authorities still treated these new recruits as potential enemies. This is how one former internee describes his induction into the Pioneer Corps;-
‘A day or two before my release I had sworn the oath to be a loyal soldier, been accepted and given the traditional ’King’s Shilling’; I was therefore technically and actually a member of HM’s armed forces. However when I and others, released on the same day, came to be transported to our Training Centre we received a shock: we were escorted by an armed guard to the ship, still under guard on the boat, and similarly on the train from Liverpool to Ilfracombe – soldiers guarding soldiers! On arrival, still escorted by soldiers with bayonets fixed to their rifles, we were taken to the quartermaster’s stores. We were given uniforms and other equipment, including guns and ammunition! And so we were transformed from possibly dangerous (at least doubtful) individuals to armed soldiers in a matter of minutes.' (2)
Many of the recruits were professional men, intellectuals and academics. As Helen Fry explains in The Jews in North Devon, ‘Ilfracombe, like the internment camps in the Isle of Man, became a microcosm of German and Viennese cultural and intellectual life. Six Nobel laureates trained in the Pioneers in Ilfracombe and served in No.251 Company. Some of the notables who passed through on their training for the Pioneer corps included writer and journalist Herbert Freeden; the prolific author Arthur Koestler, ex-communist and later to become anti-Soviet cold warrior; Geoffrey
Perry, the man who arrested the wartime traitor William Joyce; Martin Freud, the son of Sigmund Freud; Anton Freud, grandson of Sigmund; Ken Adam, later the production designer for many of the James Bond movies; and the newspaper tycoon Robert Maxwell…Lectures and discussions were organised and were open to any military units in the area…It was not unusual for Pioneers to study while doing their army work. One man, studying for an honours Degree in English, would, whilst digging carry round his waist little papers held by an elastic band with things to be memorised. After the war he became a schoolmaster.’ (3). As well as concerts and lectures and seminars on philosophy, psychology and other subjects there were lively political discussions on marxism, fascism and the nature of the war. No wonder the Colonel Blimps(4) looked askance at these strange soldiers.
Two Czech companies, No.s 226 and 227, were also formed at Ilfracombe. These Czechs had originally been serving with the Free Czech Army in France and were involved in the fighting in France in May-June 1940. One of these soldiers, Henry Hutton tells their story, and his, in Helen Fry’s Jews in North Devon. His experience is typical of that of many other Pioneers. He came from the Czechoslovakian town of Novy Bohumin near the border with Poland. The region had both Polish and German populations and was taken over by Poland after the Munich Agreement of 1938. Henry became liable to conscription in the Polish Army in which conditions for Jews were terrible. His family urged him to emigrate to Palestine. At the time the British were refusing entry of more Jews into Palestine and Henry enlisted on one of the illegal transports through an organisation called Betar. He and ten other young people went to Krakow to await transportation by train to Romania. The Polish army put armed guards in each carriage of the train. At Constanza, on the Black Sea they boarded a Greek steamer Assimi, chartered by Betar. Trying to dodge the British naval blockade of the Palestinian coast the Assimi was boarded by a British destroyer. Everyone on board was arrested and taken to Haifa where they were interned. The captain of the Assimi was arrested, accused of smuggling illegal immigrants. The passengers were put back on board the boat and it was ordered to sail anywhere except to Palestine. Another, this time successful, attempt was made to land under the cover of darkness and Henry and his comrades eventually went to ground in Palestine. Meanwhile Germany had occupied Czechoslovakia and Henry’s parents had been expelled from their home and business. The Czech government went into exile in Paris and, when France fell in 1940, transferred to London.
Then came an appeal in the newspapers urging all Czechs to volunteer for Czech forces in exile. Many, like Henry, volunteered and were sent to France to form part of the Free Czech army. . Forced to retreat in face of the German onslaught the Czech Army retreated on foot for over 300 mile across France and were eventually evacuated from the French Mediterranean coast
‘A convoy of some 3,000 Czechs eventually sailed for England in two large ships. They were originally Czech volunteers from Palestine plus freedom fighters from the Spanish civil war. At that time a boat was sailing along the French Riviera picking up British and American civilians who were also being evacuated from France. The captain was given strict instructions that he could not carry army personnel. The commander of the Czech Forces decided to formally dissolve the Czech Army so we then became de facto civilians. The captain permitted us to board…(5)
The ships landed at Liverpool and the Czechs were sent to Cholmondeley Park near Chester by prior arrangement with the Czech government-in-exile where they were joined by several hundred other Czech volunteers who had been living all over Britain. All were expected to enlist or re-join the Czech Army, but an important political development occurred. There had been a current of anti-semitism within the Czech army-in exile whilst in action in France, and the Jewish contingent, mainly from Palestine, did not want to rejoin such an army. Once in England the Jewish contingent, which numbered several hundred, refused to re-join this anti-semitic army. They were handed over to the British military authorities and interned first in a POW camp in Shropshire and then on York Racecourse for several weeks. Their refusal to serve in the Czech army was a huge embarrasment to both the Czech and British governments – one of the things they were supposed to be fighting against in the war was anti-semitism. Many rumours and stories were circulated casting doubt on the motives of these men – talk of ‘fifth columnists and traitors’. However when British Army Intelligence officers arrived to interrogate them it became clear the allegations coming from Czech official sources were untrue. It was therefore decided to admit these Czechs into the British army as foreign nationals and they were enlisted into the Pioneer Corps. Those who had fought in the International Brigades against Franco in the Spanish Civil War and did not want to enlist in the British Army were released (6)
Henry’s Pioneer company fought in Normandy and Belgium and in the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes, helping to repulse the German attack. Towards the end of the war he and many other German and Austrian Pioneers were transferred to Intelligence to interview prisoners of war and to take part in the screening of these for Nazi party members.
Another German Jewish refugee who joined the Pioneer Corps, Horst Pinschewer (he later changed his name to Geoffrey Perry) volunteered to be dropped behind enemy lines. Later with ‘T’ Force he moved into Belgium and Germany, taking over German radio stations, such as Hamburg. He began broadcasting from that station using the same microphone that the British fascist and traitor William Joyce (nicknamed Lord Haw-Haw) had used two days earlier. Later a chance encounter in a forest led to the arrest of Lord Haw-Haw by Perry and a colleague(7). These men were typical of the thousands of Germans, Austrians and other foreigners who served in the Pioneer Corps.
At first the intention was to form separate companies of Germans on the one hand, and Austrians, Czechs, Poles, etc on the other. In the end mixed companies were formed. In the later stages of the war the segregation of aliens was relaxed and many of these foreign Pioneers volunteered for infantry and tank regiments. (A friend of mine who was in the tank corps told me he had a German Jewish wireless operator in his tank who had been transferred from the Pioneer Corps.)
There was also a `Spanish Republican' company composed of former Spanish republican soldiers. When the Spanish Civil War ended thousands of soldiers of the defeated anti-Fascist armies fled over the border to France. They were disarmed by the French and interned in camps under very harsh conditions. One way of avoiding indefinite internment was to volunteer for the French Foreign Legion and many did so. When an Anglo-French expeditionary force was sent to Norway in April 1940, one of the units fighting at Narvik was a company of the French Foreign Legion that included these Spanish republicans. After their defeat and being withdrawn back to Britain the French Military Mission in London wanted to get rid of these “subversive” and, possibly, communist elements and decided to ship them back to Franco Spain! This would have meant their imprisonment or even execution by the Franco regime! This must have been decided with the original acquiescence of the British authorities since a ship was docked at Avonmouth docks, near Bristol, ready to ttransport them back to Spain. The Spaniards mutinied and refused to board the ship. The French military mission proposed to shoot one in three of the mutineers. At this point the British intervened, relieved the French officers of their command and inducted the Spanish soldiers into the Pioneer Corps as No.1 (Spanish Company). This company saw active service in North-West Europe in 1944-45. In the 1980s I met one of these soldiers at a Corps Reunion who told me his story. He had been imprisoned in a camp near the border with Gibraltar. One night he slipped under the barbed wire, waded into the sea and swam to Gibraltar. When I met him he was the mayor of a small town in Catalonia and belonged to a Catalan nationalist party.
Other Alien Companies were raised abroad, notably No.1 (Palestinian) Company (commanded by Major H.J.Cator, M.C.) which had an interesting history. It was formed in Sarafand in January 1940 from volunteers. It was 650 strong and had men from twenty-six different nationalities, seventy-five per cent of whom were Palestinian Arabs and the remainder Palestinian Jews. After working in France on railway and road construction they were evacuated back to England with the B.E.F. and then returned to Palestine.
‘In Palestine, half the company was formed into 51 Middle East Commando and served with considerable distinction, the remaining half staying with the Corps under the designation of “601 Palestinian Company.” Major (later Lieutenant-Colonel) Cator stayed with the portion converted into a Commando unit until he was wounded in action in Eritrea.’ (8)
1 Jews in North Devon During the Second World War, by Helen Fry, Halsgrove, 2005, p.11-12. Henceforth JIND
2 Ibid p.16
3 Ibid p.16
4 Colonel Blimp was a popular cartoon character depicting a pompous, stupid, old fashioned officer
5 Ibid.p.65 et seq.
6 Ibid p.64
7 Ibid p.34
8 WHRPC p.25