In the decade before the spectre of World War II cast its creeping shadow across Europe, Eric Pleasants was a headstrong adolescent attending school in sleepy Norwich. He was already making a name for himself as an amateur boxer, body builder and wrestler at this point, aided in no small part by his height and prodigious strength. In his book Zigzag: The Incredible Wartime Exploits of Double Agent Eddie Chapman – more on Eddie later – author and journalist Nicholas Booth describes Pleasants as "a gentle giant of a man… [with] the unfortunate manner of a comic-book simpleton and the physique of a fitness freak." Likewise, his character is defined by "both his strength and stubbornness, especially towards authority figures," which for a lad whose formative years were spent in the rural environs of twenties Britain must have marked him out from a young age.
While Pleasants may or may not have seemed somewhat simple in his demeanour, he was certainly not a stupid or thoughtless man. He was sufficiently self-aware that, come the outbreak of war in 1939, he seriously considered registering as a conscientious objector, but he ended up compromising by becoming an agricultural labourer instead and helping to supply food to wartime Britain. Having travelled to Jersey on a ship intending to work there for a time, he ended up stranded on the island as much of the population was evacuated. Without a return ship to board, he was captured by German forces when they occupied the Channel Islands in 1940. This set off a chain of events which, despite his seemingly unsuitable temperament, ended up with him serving in the British Free Corps, a small group of foreign volunteers whose allegiance lay with one of the most reviled organisations in human history, the Waffen-SS.
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In attempting to explain how this happened, one has to start with the methods of the German authorities in Jersey. Wanting to keep the population of the Channel Islands pacified and use the success of the occupation as a propaganda coup against Britain, German forces were considerably more lenient in their treatment of the local population than elsewhere. As such, when Pleasants was caught stealing from a German bakehouse – he had been sustaining himself through black market activities, theft and looting, having lost a job as a potato picker after a punch up with his foreman – he was not shot as he might have been if captured in a more restive area. Instead he was jailed and, after a subsequent attempt to escape back to England, he was interred in a prison camp, from where he was transferred first to Dijon in France and then to a camp near Kreuzberg in Germany.
It was in Germany that, after getting a transfer to another camp by pretending to be merchant seamen, Pleasants first met recruiters for the British Free Corps. This was in 1944 and, with supplies for prisoners running short, Pleasants and his friend John Leister were supposedly seduced with promises of more food, tobacco and alcohol, as well as the opportunity to socialise with women. According to journalist Adrian Weale and his book Renegades: Hitler's Englishmen, Pleasants told his recruiters "that they were 'stupid bastards' if they thought they would persuade anyone to join by trotting out the line about a crusade against Bolshevism; he was in it to have a good time." So his journey from potato picker to SS affiliate was complete, and the history books have it recorded that his decision to join was essentially a lifestyle choice, as opposed to a sinister ideological one.
In the prologue to his posthumously published autobiography Hitler's Bastard: Through Hell and Back in Nazi Germany and Stalin's Russia, Pleasants had his own opportunity to explain his decision to join the SS. "The fact that I joined Hitler's army has no political or moral significance for me," he wrote. "Why should it have? In a war forced upon me I was on nobody's 'side' except my own, neither traitor nor partisan, and I never fought for anybody except myself." He certainly seemed to square with himself the choices he made during the war, and the truth is that – having survived to tell the tale – we can only really assess the motivations he attributed to himself, and decide for ourselves whether they are credible. There was certainly a degree of self-justification to his accounts of his wartime efforts. "I was neither anti-British, nor anti-German, not anti-Semitic or anti-Russian," he went on. "I made my own, highly individual way through the war… I make no apology; I have no regrets."
In that same prologue, Pleasants disdains what he sees as the "pious moralising" of later historians who wrote about the British Free Corps, and their judgements on the motivations of he and his fellow recruits. While in keeping with his stubborn and defiant character, it was perhaps rather rich of him to expect people not to attribute a moral value to his actions. In hindsight he seemed to consider himself a bit of a rogue caught up in extreme events and swept towards an extreme decision, this in stark contrast to the smattering of genuine fascists and serial wrong 'uns who volunteered to the Free Corps. Nevertheless, Pleasants became affiliated with an organisation that served as Hitler's ideological crack troops, and will forever be associated with the most appalling atrocities of the war. It may well have been an act of self-preservation and self-interest, but it is hardly a surprise that many have viewed that act with profound disgust nonetheless.
Of course, were Pleasants alive today, he may well retort that nobody can judge who was not there to suffer the consequences of continued imprisonment. Likewise, one could point to the fact that he never actually saw battlefield action for the SS as a mitigating factor in his service; the British Free Corps, despite its smattering of ideologues, was generally considered to be a half-hearted farce populated by hedonistic young aristocrats and opportunistic ne'er-do-wells. That said, Pleasants did fight for the SS, though he did so in the boxing ring instead of the freezing mud of the Eastern Front or the gory dugouts of some other such theatre. This brings us back to Pleasants' career as a boxer, and his athletic endeavours before the war.
Pleasants was certainly not an aristocrat, and was in fact the son of a Norfolk gamekeeper. By the time he reached his mid teens, he began to gain a reputation as a talented amateur wrestler and pugilist. He soon picked up the nickname 'Panther' Pleasants, and began contesting professional bouts with some success. However, according to his own account in Hitler's Bastard, one day he woke up seeing double, and was eventually taken to the doctor by his father. "At the age of about 15, which was when I made my first public appearance, there was no other thought on my horizon but that I would be a boxer, and a good one, and for the next few years I never wavered in that drive," he wrote. When the doctor told him to stop boxing on account of incipient head injuries, though: "I was dumbfounded. For a moment I felt as though the world had collapsed around my ears."
This was obviously devastating news for the young Pleasants, and perhaps explains his superficial "comic-book simpleton" demeanour. Still, it would not in fact be the end of his time as a boxer and entertainer. Reflecting on his head injuries in Hitler's Bastard – eventually published in 2003 – he actually makes several insightful and empathetic comments on potential brain damage caused by fighting sports, again showing that he could be a keenly perceptive man. After his boxing career was put on indefinite hiatus, he began to focus more and more on wrestling, which for the moment came to replace the role boxing had played in his life. "I had kept in training as a wrestler right up to the time I had been imprisoned [by the Wehrmacht]," he wrote. "That, combined with my almost fanatical devotion to physical culture of any description, which I continued as far as possible in the camps, undoubtedly played a very large part in my survival."
According to Nicholas Booth's Zigzag, Pleasants went on to become a champion wrestler, bouncer and bodyguard in the early to mid thirties, while it is also claimed that he was a reservist on the British gymnastic team for the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. His hiatus as a boxer came to an end in the merchant seaman POW camp, where the various different nationalities – Australians, Canadians and soldiers from across the empire – would organise bouts between themselves to alleviate their boredom and pass the time. In Hitler's Bastard, he claims to have accrued considerable winnings after knocking out a black fighter pretending to be Kid Silver, a boxer of Jamaican heritage who had once been a contender for the European middleweight championship. While this may well have taken place, Pleasants' account of the fight has a whiff of Boy's Own gallantry to it, something that pervades much of his autobiography and makes one wonder just how reliable a narrator he is.
Later, while Pleasants was enjoying the amoral perks of the British Free Corps, his reputation as a boxer saw him selected to fight for the SS pioneer boxing team. It was late 1944 at this point and, with the situation on the Eastern Front getting desperate, entertaining SS troops must have seemed like the best way to ensure that he dodged active front-line service. He is meant to have trained for several months and then fought a bout against an SS police contestant in Prague, which he won. According to a 2002 article in The Scotsman concerning the "legion of traitors" that he had signed up to, this gave him "the dubious honour of being the reigning middleweight champion of the Waffen-SS until his death in 1997."
Perhaps most amazingly of all, Pleasants is meant to have gone on to fight a series of exhibition bouts against Max Schmeling for the entertainment of German officers. A legendary heavyweight who had been champion of the world from 1930 to 1932, Schmeling had a complicated relationship with the Nazi establishment and was certainly used by them, despite what is widely regarded as passive resistance on his part. Having been forcibly drafted, trained as a paratrooper and then wounded in the Battle of Crete in 1941, Schmeling was discharged from active duty and used instead to boost troop morale. So he found himself fighting Pleasants in officers' messes, and Pleasants in turn found that the pinnacle of his boxing career came long after he had given up on his own hopes of being a world star.
Though there are several discrepancies in Eric Pleasants' wartime records, this is as complete a picture as we have of his time as a boxer. With the war coming to an end at this point and even the most enthusiastic adherents to the British Free Corps looking for an exit, Pleasants' pugilistic endeavours – revived in the most unlikely circumstances – also reached their natural conclusion. In the last few months of the war, he married a German woman, witnessed the horrific bombing of Dresden and failed in an escape attempt as the Nazi regime began to crumble, supposedly killing two Russian soldiers with his bare hands in the meantime. Eventually he was captured by the Soviets after a brief spell as a strongman in a travelling circus, after which he was accused of espionage and sent to the Vorkuta gulag in the Arctic Circle.
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While Pleasants' tale might seem scarcely believable – and some parts of it he almost certainly embellished – such was the nature of World War II, a scarcely believable conflict in a scarcely believable era of human history. Pleasants was released around the time of the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953 and, having been forced to do hard labour in an underground coal mine, initially struggled to readapt to normal life. While one prominent member of the British Free Corps was executed for treason after the war and several imprisoned, by the early fifties it seems that Pleasants was believed to have suffered enough. So he returned to life in Norfolk, where he eventually became a PE teacher and judo instructor, going on to live a relatively quiet life.
Eddie Chapman, himself an amazing character, ghost-authored an autobiography for Pleasants in the fifties, though it is less often cited than the self-authored Hitler's Bastard. The two had met while imprisoned on Jersey, and Chapman – a kindred spirit, habitual reprobate and former double agent who was renowned for his illustrious wartime service – helped to popularise Pleasants' morally ambiguous tales of derring-do. Aside from continuing his interest in fitness, physical education and fighting sports, Pleasants clearly wanted to clear up his story on his own terms. He invested a significant amount of time in writing his memoirs, with the resulting manuscript published as Hitler's Bastard after his death.
In attempting to understand Pleasants' decision to join the British Free Corps and the Waffen-SS, we can either take his explanation at face value or come to a more sceptical conclusion. Though it may be easier to go along with the idea that he was in it for booze, better food and boxing, there is nevertheless something deeply troubling about a man willing to don the insignia and ideological trappings of Nazism in order to benefit himself, this while many of his countrymen starved. There is perhaps more than meets the eye to his story, especially considering that he was briefly a member of the British Union of Fascists while still a young man – though he did also flirt with communism. The idea that he joined the SS dispassionately and half-heartedly fits with much of what we known about the British Free Corps, but must also have made his story more palatable when he returned to a country that could feasibly have thrown him in jail, or worse.
Whatever Pleasants' feelings and motivations with regards to the armed wing of the Nazi Party, his war record indelibly shows that he fought for them rather than his own country. He may never have fired a bullet in anger, but he certainly exchanged left and right hooks with SS men in the ring and entertained their rank and file in the process. One might argue that this was all part of a subversive act, one which earned him a greater share of Germany's dwindling resources and gave him the chance to chin a few Nazis, too. Then again, there have perhaps been enough excuses made for Eric Pleasants, who despite his fascinating story remains an illusory and enigmatic man.