Portrait from 1932
14 March 1912|
|Died||19 December 1945
Wandsworth Prison, London, England
|Cause of death||Executed (hanging)|
|Occupation||Activist, Member of British Free Corps|
John Amery (14 March 1912 – 19 December 1945) was a British fascist who proposed to the Wehrmacht the formation of a British volunteer force (that subsequently became the British Free Corps) and made recruitment efforts and propaganda broadcasts for Nazi Germany. He was executed for treason after the war.
Amery was a problem child who ran through a succession of private tutors. Like his father, he was sent to Harrow, but left after only a year, being described by his housemaster as "without doubt, the most difficult boy I have ever tried to manage". Living in his father's shadow, he strove to make his own way by embarking on a career in film production. Over a period, he set up a number of independent companies, all of which failed; these endeavours rapidly led to bankruptcy.
At the age of 21, Amery married Una Wing, a former prostitute, but was never able to earn enough to keep her for himself, and was constantly appealing to his father for money. A staunch anti-Communist, he came to embrace the fascist National Socialist doctrines of Nazi Germany on the grounds that they were the only alternative to Bolshevism. He left Britain permanently to live in France after being declared bankrupt in 1936. In Paris, he met the French fascist leader Jacques Doriot, with whom he travelled to Austria, Italy, and Germany to witness the effects of fascism in those countries.
Amery claimed to his family that he joined Francisco Franco's Nationalists during the Spanish Civil War in 1936 and was awarded a medal of honour while serving as an intelligence officer with Italian volunteer forces. This was untrue although the lie achieved wide circulation. In fact Amery first visited Spain in 1939 after the civil war had ended and stayed for only a few weeks before returning to France, where he remained even after the German invasion and the creation of Vichy rule.
In Europe during the Second World War
In France, Amery soon fell foul of the Vichy government and made several attempts to leave the country but was rebuffed. The German armistice commissioner Count Ceschi offered Amery the chance to leave France and go to Germany to work in the political arena, but Ceschi was unable to get Amery out of France.
In September 1942, Hauptmann Werner Plack got Amery the French travel permit he needed, and in October Plack and Amery went to Berlin to speak to the German English Committee. It was at this time that Amery suggested that the Germans consider forming a British anti-Bolshevik legion. Adolf Hitler was impressed by Amery and allowed him to remain in Germany as a guest of the Reich. During this period, Amery made a series of pro-German propaganda radio broadcasts, attempting to appeal to Britons to join the war on communism.
The British Free Corps
The idea of a British force to fight the communists languished until Amery encountered Jacques Doriot during a visit to France in January 1943. Doriot was part of the LVF (Légion des Volontaires Français), a French volunteer force fighting with the Germans on the eastern front. Amery rekindled his idea of a British unit and aimed to recruit 50 to 100 men for propaganda purposes, and to establish a core of men with which to attract additional members from British prisoners of war. He also suggested that such a unit could provide more recruits for the other military units made up of foreign nationals.
Amery's first recruiting drive for what was initially to be called the British Legion of St. George took him to the Saint-Denis POW camp outside Paris. Amery addressed between 40 and 50 inmates from various British Commonwealth countries and handed out recruiting material. This first effort at recruitment was a complete failure, but he persisted. Amery ended up with two men, of whom only one, Kenneth Berry, joined what was later called the BFC. Amery's link to the unit ended in October 1943, when the Waffen SS decided his services were no longer needed, and it was officially renamed the British Free Corps. Amery continued to broadcast and write propaganda in Berlin until late 1944, when he travelled to Northern Italy to lend support to Italian dictator Benito Mussolini's Salò Republic. Amery was captured in the last weeks of the war by Italian partisans, who handed him over to British authorities. The British army officer sent to take him into custody was Captain Alan Whicker, later a prominent British broadcaster.
After the war, Amery was tried for treason; in a preliminary hearing, he argued that he had never attacked Britain and was an anti-Communist, not a Nazi. At the same time, his brother Julian Amery attempted to show that John had become a Spanish citizen, and therefore would have been technically incapable of committing treason against the United Kingdom. His counsel, meanwhile, tried to show that the accused was mentally ill.
However, these attempts at a defence were suddenly abandoned on the first day of his trial, 28 November 1945, when to general astonishment Amery pleaded guilty to eight charges of treason and was immediately sentenced to death. The entire proceedings lasted just eight minutes.
Before accepting Amery's guilty plea, the judge, Mr Justice Humphreys, made certain that Amery realised what the consequences would be, i.e. it guaranteed that he would immediately be sentenced to death by hanging, because there was no other permissible penalty. After satisfying himself that Amery fully understood the consequences of pleading guilty, the judge announced this verdict:
John Amery ... I am satisfied that you knew what you did and that you did it intentionally and deliberately after you had received warning from ... your fellow countrymen that the course you were pursuing amounted to high treason. They called you a traitor and you heard them; but in spite of that you continued in that course. You now stand a self-confessed traitor to your King and country, and you have forfeited your right to live.
In order to calculate the correct parameters for hanging Amery (e.g. required height of the noose above the gallows trapdoor and length of subsequent "drop" to ensure a swift death) his height and weight were recorded shortly before his execution: he measured 5 feet 7 inches and weighed 140 pounds. Amery was hanged by Albert Pierrepoint, assisted by Henry E. Critchell, in Wandsworth Prison at 9.00 am on Wednesday, 19 December 1945. A few hours later, on the same day that he was executed, Amery's body was buried in an unmarked grave in Wandsworth prison cemetery. This practice was standard procedure because bodies of executed prisoners were regarded as property of the British government, and therefore remained in the custody of the prison where they had been executed. Wandsworth prison cemetery is situated inside the walls of the prison, and therefore it cannot be visited by the general public. Amery's body has remained there ever since.
In an article which was to be published in the Empire News and Sunday Chronicle, but which was suppressed as the result of pressure from the Home Office, Pierrepoint described him as "the bravest man I ever hanged". Greeting the hangman at the appointed hour, Amery reportedly quipped: "Mr Pierrepoint, I've always wanted to meet you, but not, of course, under these circumstances...". A proof copy of this article is in the Prison Commission files at the United Kingdom National Archives, but it is contradicted by another archive file: the Prison Commission official who wrote this stated that "Amery did extend his hand and said 'Oh! Pierrepoint.' Upon which Pierrepoint took his hand and placed it behind his back for pinioning and that the conversation was entirely limited to that remark".
An epitaph written by his father appears in The Empire at Bay. The Leo Amery Diaries. 1929-1945:
|“||At end of wayward days he found a cause
“Twas not his Country’s” – Only time can tell
Ronald Harwood's play An English Tragedy, charting the weeks leading up to Amery's execution following his arrest in Italy and trial in London, adapted for radio by Bert Coules, was broadcast by BBC Radio 4 on 8 May 2010 and 13 April 2012. The cast included Geoffrey Streatfield as Amery and Derek Jacobi as Leopold Amery.
The finale of series 7 of British crime drama Foyle's War is loosely based on Amery's case. Like Amery, the fictional character of James Deveraux is born to a distinguished British establishment family, having MPs and Government Ministers as relatives. Like Amery, Deveraux pleads guilty and is first warned and then sentenced by the judge with almost identical words. However, in the end Deveraux turns out to be a British spy serving the MI9 and reporting German troop movements.
- GRO Register of Births: JUN 1912 1a 719 CHELSEA - John Amery, mmn = Greenwood
- Faber, 2005
- "Amery sentenced to death: "A self-confessed traitor."". The Times (50312). 29 November 1945. p. 2.
- "John Amery". Stephen-stratford.co.uk. Retrieved 2012-04-24.
- Casciani (2006)
- John Amery, L'Angleterre et l'Europe [England and Europe], Documents et Témoignages: collection d'essais politiques 1, (Paris, 1943) 48 p.
- Casciani, Dominic, How Britain made its executioners, BBC News online 1 June 2006 [accessed 22 July 2007]
- Faber, David, Speaking for England: Leo, Julian and John Amery, the tragedy of a political family (London ; New York : Free Press, 2005) ISBN 0-7432-5688-3
- Weale, Adrian, Patriot traitors : Roger Casement, John Amery and the real meaning of treason (London : Viking, 2001) ISBN 0-670-88498-7
- West, Rebecca, The meaning of treason, (London : Phoenix, new edn. 2000) ISBN 1-84212-023-9
- John Amery biographical sketch, psychiatric report, his radio broadcast, leaflet, and The Times article.
- Info related to his trial
- British Volunteers in the German Wehrmacht in WWII by Jason Pipes
- Daily Mail article on John Amery