The German heroes who helped Allies against Hitler
A new book reveals the bravery of the men who joined the British forces to liberate Europe
Sunday September 2, 2007
But he was not fighting for Hitler. His name was now Colin Anson and he was a Royal Marines commando who swore allegiance to king and country. It was the same for Horst Herzberg, now Bill Howard; Ignaz Schwarz, now Eric Sanders; and Helmut Rosettenstein, now Harry Rossney.
More than 60 years later, the veterans, many Jewish or considered 'degenerate' in Hitler's Germany, will come together this week for their first reunion. More than 100 will gather at the Imperial War Museum in Lambeth, south London, to be welcomed by Field Marshal Lord Bramall, former chief of the general Staff, at a private event to mark their contribution to the allied victory. The meeting coincides with publication of a book, The King's Most Loyal Enemy Aliens, which reveals many of the veterans' remarkable stories for the first time.
'The war had broken out and we felt it was our affair as much as anyone else's,' recalled Anson, now 85 and speaking in a crisp English accent. 'We were very aware of the generosity and compassion of Britain. We owed a debt to this country for saving our lives. I wasn't opposed to Germany, but I certainly was interested in fighting the Nazis.'
Anson's father was a German First World War veteran who was disillusioned by Hitler's rise to power. He was identified as a political subversive, interned at Dachau concentration camp and murdered in 1937. Anson escaped to Britain just before his 17th birthday, although his mother was unable to follow him. In 1940 he volunteered for the armed forces, joining the only unit open to the refugees - many of whom were in internment camps - the non-combatant Pioneer Corps, known as 'the king's most loyal enemy aliens'.
Many took English names. Anson said: 'My old name began with an A and, when I had to choose a new one, an Avro Anson twin-engine flew over, so I thought right, I'll have that.'
In 1942 the enemy aliens were allowed to enlist in fighting units, and Anson was eventually attached to 40 Royal Marine Commando. During the invasion of Sicily his assault ship came under attack from German bombers.
'There were a lot of casualties and I was knocked out by the blast,' he recalled. 'I asked for bandages and the medical sergeant told me to sit against the wall and not move. Boats came alongside to evacuate the wounded and I was among the last. I thought it was because my injuries weren't serious, but I later learnt it was because they didn't expect me to last the night.'
Shrapnel remains embedded in his skull. After the war he was reunited with his mother in Frankfurt and brought her to live in Britain. In 1951 Anson married Alice Gross, a refugee from Vienna who had joined the British war effort, working in the photographic section of Bomber Command HQ at High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire. She will also travel from their home in Watford, Hertfordshire, to attend the reunion.
Helen Fry, the book's author, estimates that 85 to 90 per cent of the Germans and Austrians who fought for Britain were Jewish - many lost family members in the Holocaust - with the remainder consisting of anti-Nazis and the 'degenerate artists'. She said: 'They knew what Britain was up against. Some had come out of concentration camps and they were determined to liberate Europe.
'They all say they felt German first, not Jewish. This is the paradox: they found themselves fighting on the other side. But once they had the army uniform they were determined to be British. The general public don't realise their contribution. Some of those I interviewed for the book haven't even told their families about it. The nation should be grateful to these silent heroes.'
The risks were high: Germans caught behind enemy lines were tortured and executed as traitors. Many of those who survived helped rebuild their homelands and hunt for Nazi war criminals before settling in Britain for good. They included Sir Ken Adam, the only German fighter pilot in the RAF, who became a production designer on more than 70 films, including seven James Bonds; Lord Claus Moser, former chairman of the Royal Opera House; Martin Freud, the eldest son of Sigmund Freud, who worked as a lawyer; and John Langford, who was Churchill's bodyguard.
The man who caught Britain's most notorious traitor was also German. Geoffrey Perry, born Horst Pinschewer to Jewish parents in Berlin, was a British army intelligence officer when he apprehended William Joyce, the propagandist 'Lord Haw Haw'. Perry, who witnessed fighting in Normandy and the horrors of Belsen concentration camp, said that, despite his nationality, he had met no hostility from fellow soldiers.
'The uniform was a common denominator. Whether you were born in Manchester or Berlin then was of little importance. They knew what you did for the army.' He added: 'The army changed my name for me. At 85, I have Perry grandchildren and my other name is long gone. If you asked my grandchildren I don't think they'd be able to spell it.'