Page 1: Biography
Courlander, Roy Nicolas
Clerk, soldier, prisoner of war, collaborator
This biography, written by J. A. B. Crawford, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.
Roy Nicolas Courlander was born in London on 6 December 1914. His mother, Edith Cater, married Leonard Henry Courlander, a cinematographer, in London on 4 November 1920. They divorced in 1933 and Roy went to live with Leonard Courlander in the New Hebrides. In November 1938 he arrived in New Zealand and found work as a clerk with the Land and Income Tax Department in Wellington. He appears to have been a reasonably intelligent and well-educated man.
In June 1939 he and several other men were caught breaking in to a house in Napier. Courlander claimed to be an innocent bystander, but was sentenced to 18 months’ probation. He then moved to Auckland, where he met Joan Beryl Marchand. They were married on 30 September 1939 at Remuera. Three days later Courlander enlisted in the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force. He was posted to the 18th Battalion and sailed for Egypt in January 1940. He studied German and became a keen member of the battalion intelligence section. In December 1940 he was promoted to lance corporal.
Courlander went with the New Zealand Division to Greece and was captured at Kalamata on 29 April 1941. He briefly escaped from the train that was taking him and other prisoners of war to Stalag XVIIID at Marburg (Maribor), Yugoslavia. Courlander acted as an interpreter at the camp and later with a working party on farms in Austria; he was elected the party’s ‘man of confidence’. In mid 1943 Courlander was sent to the Genshagen ‘holiday’ camp in Berlin. There he began to collaborate with the Germans, making propaganda radio broadcasts and in January 1944 becoming a founding member of the British Free Corps (BFC), a tiny national contingent under the control of the Waffen-SS. Courlander was one of the BFC’s leaders and was placed in charge of recruiting. He visited many prison camps attempting – with little success – to recruit new members for the BFC. These activities earned him the hatred and contempt of other prisoners of war. In April 1944 Courlander was made an Unterscharführer (sergeant).
By mid 1944 Courlander may have realised that Germany would lose the war. He and a friend from the BFC decided to escape by volunteering for service on the western front with a propaganda regiment and then defecting to the Allies. They were sent to Brussels where, during the confusion that accompanied the withdrawal of German troops from the city, they seized the opportunity to desert. Courlander then joined a group of the Belgian resistance and was wounded in street fighting against the Germans. After he made contact with British troops he made no attempt to deny his involvement in the BFC or broadcasting on German radio, but from the outset stated that his actions were motivated by a desire to escape and to sabotage the BFC.
The Allied authorities found Courlander’s explanations singularly unconvincing, and in October 1945 he was found guilty by a court martial, convened by the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force in England, of voluntarily aiding the enemy while a prisoner of war. He was sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment, and sent back to New Zealand to serve his time at Auckland’s Mount Eden prison. He continued to proclaim his innocence and with the help of his wife and lawyer waged a determined campaign to win his freedom. They gathered new evidence favourable to Courlander and raised legal issues about the conduct of his court martial. Beryl Courlander died of cancer on 9 March 1949.
Courlander’s sentence was reduced by the New Zealand army to nine years with hard labour in May 1950. On 2 October 1951 he was released from prison and discharged from the army. On the same day, at Auckland, he married a close friend of his late wife, Margaret Josephine Spence (née Young). Courlander now worked for a business directory company. He was a heavy drinker and mixed socially with a rather bohemian group in Auckland. During the late 1950s he was active in the New Zealand Social Credit Political League. His second marriage ended in divorce in 1968. During the 1960s Courlander went to live in Australia. He died at Lethbridge Park, New South Wales, on 1 June 1979.
Roy Nicolas Courlander was a plausible rogue with an exaggerated sense of his own importance. Most returned servicemen despised him, but some were convinced that he was the victim of a miscarriage of justice. There can be no real doubt that Courlander was guilty of collaborating with the Germans; however, what motivated him to do this is unclear. He was most probably an opportunist who saw the BFC as a means of improving his quality of life. It is, nevertheless, possible that initially he joined the BFC with the intention of escaping, but then found the comparative freedom, significant perquisites and prominent role too appealing to give up.