Hitler’s hangmen: the secret plot to kill Churchill

Brian Lett reports on a Nazi plan for a mass POW breakout and attempted Fascist coup in wartime Britain.


In May 1940, Britain faced imminent defeat at the hands of Nazi forces in Europe. Britain’s leaders feared a German invasion of the homeland.

On 10 May, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain resigned, and Winston Churchill took over. One of the first things Churchill did was to order the arrest and detention of all known Fascist leaders in Britain under the wartime defence regulations.

The fear was that, in the event of an invasion, British Fascists would rush to help the invading Germans, and that Sir Oswald Mosley would order his many followers to take up arms against the government. The evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk at the end of May and beginning of June confirmed the likelihood of an imminent German invasion of Britain.

British Fascists salute their führer – Oswald Mosley – in 1934. The large interwar British Fascist movement was a dangerous fifth column during WWII.

During the late 1920s and 1930s, there were a large number of Fascists openly expressing their views in Britain. Shortly after Benito Mussolini came to power in Italy in 1922, the first of a number of Fascist parties was founded in Britain. Eventually, there would be Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, Arnold Leese’s Imperial Fascist League, and Jock Ramsay MP’s Right Party.

The militarism of the Fascists appealed to many veterans of the First World War. The ‘threat’ of Communism was very real throughout Europe, following the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, and there were Communist MPs in the House of Commons.

The British Fascists were violently anti-Communist as well as anti-Semitic. After the Nazis took power in Germany in 1933, their anti-Semitism became more extreme. One of their complaints was that ‘World Jewry’ was seeking to take control in Britain and elsewhere, and if not stopped, would dominate the world.

Leading British Fascists: Oswald Mosley was a former Labour government minister and the leader of the British Union of Fascists.

The British Fascist network

The first edition of Mosley’s newspaper Blackshirt, in February 1933, bore the banner ‘Britain First’, since the Fascists purported to be strongly patriotic. The front-page article was an attack on the British Parliament – ‘Parliament blethers while Industry Dies’ – and called for a Fascist revolution in the system of government.

Trying to set ‘the people’ against Parliament was a classic Fascist tactic (and indeed remains a tactic used by many modern populists). Mosley modelled his style of oratory, and much else, on Adolf Hitler.

Arnold Leese, a retired army veterinarian living in Guildford, was probably the most anti-Semitic of the Fascist leaders, churning out pamphlets condemning Judaism. He was jailed for six months in 1936 for this, but, having served his sentence, continued to lead the Imperial Fascist League with vigour and anti-Semitic vitriol.

Jock Ramsay MP – more formally Captain Archibald Maule Ramsay – was a Scot whose family seat was Kelly Castle near Arbroath. He was elected as a Conservative and Unionist MP in 1931, was subsequently re-elected, and remained an MP when war broke out.

Jock Ramsay was a Tory MP and leader of the Right Party.

He founded a secret Fascist society called the ‘Right Club’, which quietly recruited and sought to place Fascist sympathisers in positions of influence. Ramsay planned to have Fascist agents of his Right Club everywhere. According to his own list of members, Ramsay succeeded in recruiting 11 MPs.

The damage that the Right Club could have done in the event of a German invasion was enormous. Ramsay hoped that he would lead a Fascist government in Britain after the Germans had defeated his country.

Churchill’s crackdown

There were many other Fascists and Fascist organisations in Britain by 1939. It was only after Winston Churchill took over as Prime Minister that a crackdown took place. Mosley, Leese, Ramsay, and hundreds of other leading Fascists were imprisoned on the grounds that they were a threat to national security.

Much of the information on their activities was gathered by a network of MI5 agents headed by spy chief Maxwell Knight. There is now a feast of available information on the activities of all the main characters in the British Fascist movement in previously secret MI5 files, which were opened at the National Archives, Kew, a few years ago.

Arnold Leese was a rabid anti-Semite and leader of the Imperial Fascist League.

Knight’s agents infiltrated many of the Fascist organisations, including the Right Club. His agents’ reports are startling. They reveal vehement pro-Nazi, anti-Semitic, and anti-government views.

Because of the detentions, the head was temporarily cut off the beast. However, there had been thousands of active British Fascists before the war, and there can be no doubt that many of the foot soldiers were in due course conscripted into the British Armed Forces.

One example was Theodore Schurch, a member of the British Union of Fascists who served with the British Army in North Africa, acting as a spy for Axis forces, before finally defecting to them. He was executed after the war.

An unanswered question is how many other British soldiers remained secretly pro-Fascist and pro-German. The evidence suggests that a number did, but just how many, and how well organised they were, remains unknown.

Invasion fears

All possible preparations were taken by the British in 1940. The Battle of Britain was fought in the skies, the Home Guard was on full alert, the Auxiliary Units were trained as ‘stay behinds’ behind an advancing German front-line – but the invasion never came.

In the summer of 1941, Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, and the latter joined the Allies. In December 1941, after Pearl Harbor, so did the United States of America. By 1943, the fear of an invasion of Britain had ebbed away.

The British government began to release some of its Fascist detainees, since it was felt they no longer threatened national security. In June 1944, on D-Day, the Allies successfully invaded Normandy and began to fight their way through France and into Germany. Allied casualties were high, but they took hundreds of thousands of German prisoners.

By agreement, half of those captured were sent to prison camps in the United States, half to the United Kingdom. By late November 1944, more than 250,000 German troops were on British soil – largely ignored by the British government, which believed victory was now certain and would be achieved by Christmas 1944 or early in 1945.

Eden POW camp, Malton, Yorkshire, now a visitor attraction. By late 1944, there were a quarter of a million former German soldiers on British soil: a potential army of insurrection.

Indeed, the government was by now content to release some of the most dangerous British Fascist detainees. By November 1944, Ramsay, Leese, Mosley and most of the other leading Fascists were free men. Orders were issued, moreover, to stand down the Home Guard permanently.

The Nazi prisoners

Hitler, on the other hand, did not overlook the fact that he had, in a sense, a quarter of a million troops in Britain. Many of them were recently captured, almost all were front-line troops, and they included many Waffen SS and other fanatical Nazis. Many, too, maintained an iron Nazi discipline, both in the British and the US camps.

This discipline was maintained by a brutal imposition of Nazi Vehmic Law – an ancient system of vigilante law dating from medieval Westphalia, and adapted by the Nazis to ensure absolute obedience. The implication, for a German prisoner of war, was that the war was not over – he remained on active duty, awaiting the Führer’s orders.

Under the Vehmic system, those found guilty of anti-Nazi activities would be beaten to death by a Nazi mob, and then their bodies would be hung by the neck in a public place for all to see. In the prisoner of war camps, the public place was usually the camp latrine block.

The Vehmic system also provided that anti-Nazis would be reported to the authorities back in Germany, and their families might then be executed and their possessions seized.

Thus, in the majority of camps, the German prisoners remained active troops, awaiting their next set of orders. Hitler issued those orders in the late autumn of 1944. His invasion force was already in Britain. He intended to use them to full effect in his final attempt to avoid defeat by the Allies.

The Nazis remained in alliance with the hard-line Italian Fascists. Most of the Italians brought to Britain as prisoners of war were content that the war had ended for them, but by no means all. There were prison camps, such as at Doonfoot in Scotland, that contained committed pro-Mussolini Fascists. They, too, were not forgotten by Hitler.

The Battle of the Bulge

Hitler’s final throw of the dice, the Battle of the Bulge, a major counter-attack through the Ardennes, was launched early on 16 December 1944. The objective was to divide the US and British armies, to get behind them both, and to force them to sue for peace. Hitler would then be free to concentrate his forces on the Eastern Front.

The plan for the Bulge included a unit of English-speaking Germans, dressed in US Army uniforms, who were to infiltrate behind US lines and cause as much chaos as possible. According to some of those captured, this unit was also to head for Paris with the objective of attacking US HQ and assassinating US Commanding General Dwight Eisenhower.

Also in December, there was to be a counter-attack down the Serchio Valley in Italy by German and Italian forces, with a number of the Axis forces dressed in their enemy’s uniform.

Hitler’s masterstroke, however, was to be in Britain. He planned to mobilise his 250,000 front-line troops there, to unite the units from the various prisoner of war camps together, and to march on London.

On 16 December 1944, Winston Churchill was in London. If Churchill and Eisenhower could be assassinated simultaneously, the Allies might fall into disarray.

Hitler’s plan in Britain depended on a successful breakout from the Le Marchant prisoner of war camp in Devizes, Wiltshire. From that camp, 7,000 troops were to break out, killing their guards, seizing weapons from the arms store, then attacking the two US hospitals adjacent to the prison camp.

The Keep of Le Marchant Barracks, Devizes, where the mass breakout was planned to begin.

Once the Nazis had seized the two hospitals, they would have had an ample supply of US hospital vehicles, and US uniforms, enabling them to operate across Britain, hopefully all the way to London.

There were also plans to seize armoured vehicles and a nearby RAF airbase. From Devizes, the Nazis would join up with 10,000 men who had escaped from a camp near Sheffield, and with others from Wales and Scotland. If all went well, they would then link up with other escaped German units from all over Britain, and also with Fascist Italians.

There is clear evidence that the Nazis in the Devizes camp were being helped by British Fascists, and with such help, they would have had every chance of reaching London in their stolen hospital vehicles. By December 1944, almost all available Allied front-line troops were fighting in mainland Europe, and the quality of most Allied troops in Britain was vastly inferior to the troopers of the Third Reich.

The Fascist fifth-column

In December 1944, most of the significant British Fascist leaders were free men. Ramsay, for example, was a free man after more than four years in prison. Therefore, the Nazi escapees would have had help if they had succeeded in reaching London.

Ramsay was still a serving MP: he had refused to resign during his time in custody. He had access to the House of Commons (now sitting in the House of Lords chamber because of bombing), and, as a Conservative and Unionist MP, could sit within feet of his sworn enemy Winston Churchill. He had, quite literally, the key to the door of Parliament if his Nazi friends wished to use it.

A grim relic of Nazi Vehmic Court ‘justice’ in a POW camp – in this case, the body of Werner Drechsler, hanged and displayed at Papago Park POW camp, Phoenix, Arizona.

On 16 December, a meeting was planned for all the ex-detainee British Fascists in London, under the guise of a ‘social’. There can be little doubt that the meeting was to be used for announcing to all of Britain’s Fascist leaders that a major breakout of German prisoners was about to begin, and giving them their orders to provide the Nazis with assistance.

Happily, fortune was on the side of Churchill and the British government. Newly captured prisoners of war were interrogated upon arrival in Britain by both British and US interrogation units. These units contained many German-speakers, but they required appropriate training.

On 8 December 1944, two US officers from an interrogation team of the XVIII Airborne Corps, Captain Frank Brandsetter and Captain Joseph Henzel, entered the Le Marchant camp as part of a familiarisation exercise. They both spoke fluent German.

They walked into the German sergeant-major’s office unannounced, and found a number of men gathered there and in conversation. The talking quickly ceased upon the arrival of the Americans, but not before Brandsetter and Henzel had heard the words ‘arms store’.

Arms store

They reported what they had heard to their superiors. Why would German prisoners of war be talking about an arms store? Eight days before the intended breakout, an investigation into what the Le Marchant prisoners were up to began.

When interrogated, some of the Nazi prisoners talked, and revealed the plot for a mass breakout. Some said that they had been assisted by a number of British soldiers – presumably British Fascists. The Allied authorities gathered as much information about the plot as they could, and quickly decided that they must take decisive action to prevent it.

On the afternoon of 14 December, two days before the intended breakout, front-line British troops from the 6th Airborne Reconnaissance Regiment, who had been resting not far away, took over the Le Marchant camp and arrested 32 of the plot’s ringleaders.

Elsewhere throughout Britain, security in prisoner of war camps was greatly increased and searches took place for tunnels and hidden weapons. In the event, in most camps, the breakout was prevented, or only a few men escaped. The exception was at Doonfoot, Scotland – possibly overlooked because it was not a German camp – where 97 Italian Fascists successfully tunnelled out. They were soon re-arrested.

Subsequent to the failure, the Nazi Vehmic Court acted swiftly. Within days, one of those arrested at Le Marchant camp, Feldwebel Wolfgang Rosterg, was tried as an informer, convicted, brutally murdered, and his body hung up on display in the latrine block of Camp 21, Cultybraggan, Scotland, to which Rosterg and others from Le Marchant had been transferred. The evidence suggests that he was entirely innocent.

Despite Allied victory, British Fascism was not extinguished. Even after Hitler’s death and Nazi Germany’s surrender, the old British Fascist leadership regrouped and rebuilt.

In April 1946, Ramsay, no longer an MP, commented that the Nazis had been fully justified in their methods against the Jews – the Holocaust was, in Ramsay’s view, a justifiable way of solving ‘the Jewish Question’.

Meanwhile, Arnold Leese busied himself, and his network, smuggling Nazi war criminals out of British prisoner of war camps with the hope of getting them to South America.

Many British Fascists continued to believe in the re-birth of a Nazi Reich. •

Brian Lett QC is a military historian and author. His latest book, Hitler’s Hangmen: the secret German plot to kill Churchill, December 1944, has just been published by Greenhill Books.
Photos: WikiCommons.