The murder of Captain Brownscombe

Captain Brian Brownscombe was murdered by a Nazi officer after being taken prisoner.Brian “Basher” Brownscombe was a son of Herbert Henry and Edith May Brownscombe of Watchet, Somerset.He served with 181 Airlanding Field Ambulance.

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The medical officer had been awarded the George Cross after keeping a wounded soldier afloat for five hours, following the disastrous Sicily Landings, after his glider crashed into the sea and sank.He landed in Arnhem on September 17, 1944, as medical officer with the 2nd South Staffords. He set up a hospital in a museum, but after the Germans overran the position, he and all the wounded soldiers were taken prisoner.

During Market Garden he was again attached to South Staffordshires were he served as the Regimental Medical Officer. He left England by glider on 17 september 1944 and landed near Wolfheze. Soon after landing he and other medical personnel set up a Regimental Aid Post (RAP) into a farmhouse (Reijerscamp) to treat any landing casualties. Casualties were light and they soon moved to their pre-planned positions. (Red Berets and Red Crosses page 90)

They were then captured by the Germans. Like most medical personnel Brownscombe continued to treat wounded in the Arnhem area. He first worked in St Elizabeth’s Hospital and after a few days he went to the Municipal Hospital at Arnhem. There he was killed by the German Karl Lerche.

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Private George Phillips was working in the Municipal Hospital and remembers that one evening just after he had finished a stint of duty that Captain Brownscombe was killed. He was shot by a drunk SS NCO. George still can see him lying on the stretcher with a hole in the back of his head. He said they were completely knocked out by this and he was the only British medical officer in the hospital. The SS NCO responsible for the killing was tracked down after the war and stood trial as a war criminal.”

His murderer, Karl-Gustav Lerche, twice changed his name after the war in an attempt to avoid retribution, but he was finally caught and stood trial as a war criminal at Munich in 1955, where he was sentenced to 10 years’ hard labour.

But for the actions of his former lover, Lerche would never have been brought to justice. He had been doing odd jobs in Munich and had taken up with a woman called Charlotte Bormann. In September 1952 she walked into her local police station to denounce the man she had come to despise. Tired of his lies, Bormann told police that the man she knew as Gunther Breede was both a fraud and killer. In reality he was named Karl-Gustav Lerche who had admitted to killing a British POW in the war. Bormann, too, had form, although not of the criminal kind. The 54-year-old had married and divorced three husbands. Notably one of them was the nephew of Nazi leader Martin Bormann.

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The issue wasn’t just that the dashing Captain Brownscombe, known as ‘Basher’, had been shot off the battlefield; it was that he’d been shot after an evening of merry drinking with his captors. It had been an unusual gathering. Shortly after landing near Arnhem in September 1944, as part of an audacious Allied plan to reach Germany’s Ruhr area through the Netherlands, 28-year-old army doctor Brownscombe had been captured by German forces. He had plenty of company: during the Battle of Arnhem, which raged from 17 to 25 September, 6,000 of the 10,000 allied soldiers deployed in the immense operation were captured, while 1,400 were killed.

The battle also having resulted in vast numbers of British and German wounded soldiers, Brownscombe and the two other captured British doctors were assigned to duty at the German army hospital. In fact, the collaboration was a minor success, with the doctors going about their work in the spirit of Hippocrates. Watching this friendly co-existence, a Waffen-SS officer also stationed in Arnhem decided that it would be good to socialise with the British POWs.

On the afternoon of 24 September, the happy-go-lucky member of the Waffen-SS Kurt Eggers propaganda unit ;Waffen-SS Unterscharführer Knud Fleming Helweg-Larsen, invited Brownscombe, his two fellow British medics, Brian Devlin and James Logan and British army chaplains Daniel McGowan and Alan Buchanan along with Waffen-SS officers Karl-Gustav Lerche and Ernst Beisel for drinks in the officers’ mess. “We sat there and drank some bottles of red wine, apricot brandy and whisky,” Helweg-Larsen later told a British army interrogator. “The conversation was friendly. I interpreted for the two Germans.”

After a while, the two other Waffen-SS officers left, while Helweg-Larsen kept drinking with the Brits. “We were all pretty merry, but Brownscombe was the most sober of the party or carried his drink best,” Helweg-Larsen told the interrogator. The group parted company at dusk, and Helweg-Larsen invited his new friend Brownscombe over to the SS officers’ living quarters for a last drink “to show him that the SS were not so bad as English propaganda made out.”

Some 10 people including Lerche gathered at the SS billet, and “we drank and sang English and German songs.” Afterwards, a driver took Helweg-Larsen and Brownscombe back to the hospital. They stepped out, still chatting away, sharing stories and agreeing to stay in touch after the war. “He said I was too good to be in the SS and I said he was too good to be in the English Army,” Helweg-Larsen recalled. The evening’s goodbye was a lengthy one, as they kept shaking hands and patting each other on the back then continuing their conversation. During one such handshake, the Dane reported, Brownscombe collapsed in front of him, dead.

Suddenly Lerche appeared, holding a pistol. When the Dane asked what had happened, Lerche said that he’d had to do it, adding that Brownscombe had a happy death. Though Helweg-Larsen had himself killed a Danish newspaper editor several years earlier, he remonstrated with Lerche: “[Brownscombe] had been our guest and you had drunk with him.” Rather bizarrely, the pair left the dead officer on the ground, where his fellow POWs found him. The next day, Father Buchanan buried Brownscombe and placed a wooden cross on his grave.

Lerche who had been a member of the Waffen-SS Kurt Eggers propaganda unit, which was   a German Waffen SS propaganda formation which publicised the actions of all Waffen SS combat formations, seeing action in all major theatres of war with the exception of North Africa,

was sentenced to 10 years of hard labour in 1955 by a court in Munich. But eventually only served 5 years.

It is somehow ironic that someone related to Martin Borman got some justice for Captain Brownscombe.

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