30 June 2017
Subtitled, “A True Story of Blood, Betrayal and Deceit,” this is the story of four men who were traitors during WWII. Indeed, this book takes the inter-weaved stories of these four men from 1930 to 1945, during a tumultuous time of political upheaval in Europe. Of the subjects included in this book, I had previously read a biography of William Joyce (‘Lord Haw-Haw’) and a biography of the cabinet minister Leo Amery, whose son, John Amery, caused both his parents, and brother, much embarrassment when he went over to the ‘other side.’
The other two men in this book are Harold Cole and Eric Pleasants, who were both small time criminals, who ended up basically using the war for their own ends. Harold Cole was a fantasist who posed as a member of the resistance and betrayed just about everyone he could for money and his own safety (this included the woman pregnant with his own child). Eric Pleasants shared similiarities with Cole and was one of the very few British servicemen (not that he actually did any service) to be convinced to join the British Free Corps. While John Amery, who first attempted to create the ‘Legion of St George’ (the precursor to the British Free Corps) a British unit formed of POW’s, imagined a huge fighting unit which he would lead as it marched in a victory parade, the reality was a group of men who just about made it into double figures, from around the Commonwealth, who were all hoping for an easier time than the boredom of a prison camp. More interested in drinking, partying and trying to protect themselves with aliases and cover stories, these men were not even useful as a propaganda tool for the Germans.
While both Cole and Pleasants were self interested and motivated by greed, cowardice and the possible opportunities of war, Joyce and Amery were more interesting characters. Oddly, all the men seemed to share some experiences, such as the adoration of uncritical mothers. However, both Joyce and Amery also shared an early interest in fascism. Joyce was involved with the British Union of Fascists (BUF) run by Oswald Mosley. Tipped off about being arrested before the war – some say by MI5 spymaster, Maxwell Knight (there is much about this in the biography of him by Henry Hemming) – Joyce and his wife, Margaret, decided to flee to Germany. There, Joyce became the voice of the notorious Lord Haw-Haw, broadcasting propaganda across the airwaves. The amoral John Amery spent all of his life, from childhood, in endless trouble and later fell under the spell of French fascist, Jacques Doriot. Having left his father with mounting debts and embarrassment, this became much worth as he followed Joyce to Berlin.
In fact, it is interesting to read that Joyce’s nose was put a little out of joint by the appearance of John Amery; the two men sharing a mutual dislike of each other. Amery’s broadcasts were less impressive than Joyce and he was relegated to giving talks to crowds who were interested in him as the son of his father, rather than for any oratory qualities he may have possessed. Leo Amery had offered his resignation to Churchill, but, to his credit, the Prime Minister refused to accept it, and public sympathy seemed to be with John Amery’s father. When arrested, Amery seemed to hold out hope that his father would help him out of yet another disaster, and was told bluntly by the man escorting him back to Britain that he should leave his father out of it, as he had ‘suffered enough.’
I found this a well written account of treachery in wartime. All of the men concerned seemed to try to excuse their behaviour, but even many of the Germans looked askance at their position. The word ‘traitor’ was rejected by most of these men – only Joyce actually accepted that he had been a traitor and, oddly, he was the one man who could have had a valid legal excuse for his actions, not truly being a British citizen. However, all of the men were certainly viewed as traitors, despite their dislike for the word and what it represented. Also, even though Joyce and Amery believed in the political system they were supporting, they ended up like Cole and Pleasants, missing the country they were betraying. Like later traitors, Guy Burgess and Kim Philby, they found life in exile less to their taste than they had hoped. This follows them as they have to face the consequences of their actions and choices. A good read and an excellent debut. I will certainly be interested to read more by Josh Ireland.