Wednesday, Aug 10, 2022

Winston Churchill’s ‘X Troop’: The Secret Jewish Commandos Who Fought The Nazis

A new historical work about WW II British unit comprised of Jewish refugees known as “X Troop” has brought the extraordinary saga of an elite group of Jewish commandos out of the shadows.

Written by Prof. Leah Garrett, the book draws on declassified military documents, diaries and memoirs to retrace the remarkable odyssey of 87 commandos, most of them recruited from the ranks of young Jews who had fled Germany and Austria after Kristallnacht.

Some had been imprisoned in concentration camps. Many were teens sent to England on one of the famed kindertransports. When war broke out in 1939, these young people and all Jews of German nationality residing in England were suddenly considered “enemy aliens.”

In one of the most shameful episodes in contemporary British history, the Jews were imprisoned, often under wretched conditions, in camps on the British Isle of Man, in Canada and in Australia.

For several dozen of the refugees, however, life soon took a breathtaking twist, transforming them from enemy aliens to a select group of commandos entrusted with the most sensitive and dangerous British missions.

Churchill’s Game-changer

By 1942, most of the European continent lay prostrate under Nazi military might. The German rampage seemed unstoppable. Desperate for a game-changer, Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Chief of Military Operations Lord Mountbatten came up with a daring strategy to create an elite commando unit of German-Jewish refugees.

They reasoned that the men’s fluency in German coupled with their abhorrence of Hitler could be channeled toward a foremost military goal—infiltration behind enemy lines to gather crucial intelligence from captured German POWs, ahead of the planned Allied invasion.

The recruits—18 and older—were brought to London where they were interviewed and screened by top generals, and where they learned the dangerous nature of the work they would be doing. “Everyone in the group volunteered,” writes Garrett. “They were burning with a desire to overthrow the Nazis.”

The unit’s name, “X Troop” was chosen by Churchill himself, who noted that [the commandos] “will be unknown warriors… disguising their true identities. Since the algebraic symbol for the unknown is X, let us call them X Troop.”

Suicide Squad

The men of X Troop carried out some of the most daring missions of the war, landing at Normandy on D-Day, securing vital positions and fighting all the way into the heart of Germany. Many also fought in Belgium, Italy, Holland and other Nazi-occupied lands. Their war was a personal one; they were on a mission to defeat the barbarians who had killed their families and torn their lives apart.

The missions they were sent on were so high-risk, the commandos were sometimes referred to as the “Suicide Squad.”

“Frequently wounded, they often simply walked out of field hospitals, returning to their units to continue the struggle. Even when the war was over, the X Troopers performed invaluable work in hunting down and convicting Nazis for war crimes,” the author writes.

In order to operate behind enemy lines, the men were sworn to secrecy about their true identities as Jews. They were instructed to create new British identities with British-sounding names and a cover-story of their British origins. If caught by the Germans, they would have a better chance of surviving as British POWs than as Jews.

The identity change meant destroying any connection to their real selves; burning every letter from home, every picture, every token of the past.

The newly formed X Troopers were taken to Wales and Scotland where they went through a brutal boot-camp regimen. This involved days and nights of scaling mountain cliffs saddled with supplies and military gear; digging fox holes in the blistering heat and frigid cold; live ammo training; demolition work and parachuting.

Once scorned as stateless refugees and “enemy aliens,” these young men emerged as hardened commandos, several of whom went on to play crucial roles in Allied operations.

Their true identities remained top secret. Only one official, a secretary at MI5, the British Security Service, who worked in the casualty division, had access to the list of the men’s original names and places of origin.

The rupture from their past lives, in conjunction with the clandestine nature of their mission, helps shed light on why the story of these Jewish commandos has been buried for so many decades.

Another reason for their obscurity is that after assuming new names and identities, the commandos were no longer known as Jews and were not kept together as a unified force. After completing a grueling course in advanced combat and counterintelligence, they were assigned individually, or in groups of two or three, to various Allied troops and divisions.

Many had come from assimilated homes, and the reinforcement of Jewish identity they experienced as fellow refugees, and later as a “band of brothers-in-training,” slowly unraveled when that training period ended.

Glimpses of the X Troopers

The author’s research into declassified military documents yields several fascinating profiles of some of the members of this group.

“George Lane” (Jewish birth name Lanyi Gyorgi) was sent on a top-secret mission into France in the weeks before D-Day, where he gathered intelligence that enabled the Allied leadership to move forward with the landings as planned. Captured on a subsequent mission, he was interrogated by German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, who never suspected that the British soldier facing him was in fact a Jew from Budapest in disguise.  [See sidebar]

One of Lane’s fellow X Troopers was “Ian Harris” (Hans Hajos), a German Jewish refugee “who once single-handedly captured an entire German regiment with nothing but a Tommy gun. He received the British Army’s Military Medal for killing scores of fanatical Hitler Youth SS during the Rhine crossing,” author Leah Garrett writes.

Another member of X Troop was Peter Masters (Peter Arany) from Vienna, who was chosen to land at D-Day as part of the extraordinary ‘Bicycle Troop.’ In this ingenious operation, British soldiers, after landing on the beaches of Normandy, carried collapsible bicycles to the shore and then furiously pedaled with them to reach an outpost being temporarily manned by British parachutists, outmaneuvering German forces hot on their trail.

After being used as a decoy to successfully draw out a German machine gun nest, Masters was one of the first Allied soldiers to make it to Pegasus Bridge, a key objective in the early Normandy campaign.

The author focuses special attention on the story of Manfred Gans, an Orthodox Jew from Borken, Germany whose wartime achievements almost defy belief. Drawing on Gans’ memoir, “Life Gave Me A Second Chance,” and unsealed military documents, Garrett portrays a riveting saga marked by fierce battles and military actions that took a staggering toll on Allied forces. Against seemingly impossible odds, Gans repeatedly escaped disaster.

Operating under the British name Fred Gray, Gans was at the forefront of the D-Day landings, killing, capturing and interrogating countless Nazis, and seizing German beach fortifications. He and other X Troopers played a notable role in Allied successes in France, Germany, Italy and Holland.

Gans and his X Troop comrade Maurice Latimer had landed on D-Day at Sword Beach with a unit called “41 Commando.” Even under fighting so intense it would wipe out half of their unit, Gans managed to capture 25 Germans and to elicit from them under interrogation the safest path through the heavily mined beach, writes Garrett.

As the fighting continued over the following days, Gans and Latimer helped take heavily fortified German positions.

Courage and Bluff

After the Normandy campaign, the Allies had pushed eastward toward Germany. A port was needed to shorten their supply lines and the best choice was Antwerp. But for Antwerp to be used safely, the Allies first had to evict the Germans from the island of Walcheren.

Plans were laid for an assault on the island, according to Garrett’s historical account. On the night of October 31, 1944, Gans and Latimer and their fellow operatives in 41 Commando began the attack.

“They men landed on the island’s beaches and had to navigate heavily-mined dunes, and then fight their way through German-occupied towns. Artillery fire rained down from a lighthouse but only two of the 28 Allied tanks that were supposed to take out enemy fire had made it safely ashore,” the book relates.

The commandos froze. No one knew what to do. “Suddenly, Gans moved forward with his Tommy gun on his hip. Striding down the main street toward the lighthouse, he yelled in German, “Come out and surrender before our tanks go into action!”

To his shock, the bluff worked. The German officer in charge emerged. Gans told him he was a British commando with an army behind him, persuading the officer it was suicide to keep fighting. The Germans in the lighthouse surrendered.

Gans went on to capture several more important positions. A week of intense fighting along the dunes and in the villages of the island took a heavy toll on both sides, with high casualty rates. Finally, Gans and Latimer together captured a high-ranking German officer who helped negotiate the island’s surrender.

For his heroism, Gans received a rare battlefield commission. In a letter to a friend around this time, Gans marveled over the “amazing” fact that “in four years, I went from being a homeless refugee to being a commissioned officer in an elite commando unit, without ever going to officer’s training school.”

Gans was wounded several times but each time returned to the battlefield. Then in May of 1945, in the waning weeks of the war, he had the unique opportunity to liberate his own hometown, Borken.  There he discovered that his childhood home had served as the town’s Nazi headquarters, while his parents’ wine cellar had been converted to a torture chamber. His parents, Moritz and Else Gans, had vanished in 1939.

The Search For His Parents

Shortly afterwards, Gans received a tip from survivors that his parents had escaped to Holland but had been betrayed by local Nazi sympathizers and herded to Theresienstadt. This was a walled ghetto and concentration camp, about 30 miles from Prague, that the Nazis used as a transit camp to ship Jews from Germany and Austria, as well as Dutch and Czech Jews, to the killing centers of Treblinka and Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Not knowing whether or not his parents were still alive, Gans was determined to find answers. As the war was nearing an end, the SS was massacring Jews by the tens of thousands to cover up Nazi atrocities. Gans knew time was running out.  He approached his commanding officer, Major Norman Peter Wood, and explained the situation. He requested a jeep, transit papers, a driver, a machine gun and some cans of petrol for the 400-mile trek across Germany to Theresienstadt.

Major Wood told him it was madness. Despite Germany’s collapse, the war was not officially over yet. Thousands of SS troops had sworn to heed the Fuhrer’s call to fight to the death. But Gans was insistent and Wood relented.

Gans and his driver headed out before sunrise. Over the next two days, they raced across German-held territory and straight into the advancing Soviets who had already liberated Czechoslovakia. Gans bluffed his way through several checkpoints and roadblocks, waving his transmit papers at Soviet troops who frowned in disbelief that a British officer could be so many hundreds of miles from his base, but let him through.

They finally arrived at the concentration camp, where Gans prepared himself for the worst. Theresienstadt had just been liberated the day before by the Russians; typhus had broken out and none of the inmates were permitted to leave. Gans was surrounded by dying Jews, many of whom just wanted to touch an American soldier.

He was stunned speechless to learn from the camp’s registrar, a young Jewish woman, that his parents were still alive. The registrar consented to get into Gans’ jeep to direct him, and to inform his parents before he entered, to prepare them for the shock.

Gans recorded their reunion in his diary: “The next minutes are indescribable. I suddenly find myself in their arms. They are both crying wildly. It sounds like the crying of despair. I look at father and in spite of having prepared myself for a lot, I have to bite my teeth together not to show my shock. He is hardly recognizable. Completely starved and wrecked.”

The news quickly spread through the camp. Shouts of “mazel tov” filled the air, buoying the hopes of people barely clinging to life that they too might merit the joy of being reunited with loved ones.

More than 155,000 Jews passed through Theresienstadt, including 15,000 children, until it was liberated on May 8, 1945. 35,440 are known to have perished in the ghetto from starvation and illness, and 88,000 were deported to be murdered. The survival of Moritz and Else Gans for over a year in this place of death was clearly miraculous.

Appealing To the Dutch Royal Family

With typhoid fever spreading through the camp, the Russians quarantined the inmates and ordered Gans and his driver to immediately leave. But that wasn’t the end of the story. Gans drove straight to Breda, in The Netherlands, where he secured a meeting with Princess Juliana of the Dutch royal family. The family had been evacuated after their country fell to the Nazis and had only just returned from exile.

At Gans’ passionate urging, the princess promised to get the Dutch Jews released from the camp. This was extraordinary as the Dutch generally treated their surviving Jewish citizens with great callousness after the war. The princess made good on her pledge, however, and helped relocate the Gans couple and hundreds of other Jews to Eindhoven in The Netherlands. Gans’s parents ended up immigrating to Israel, where one of their sons had settled before the war.

Following the war’s end, Manfred Gans stayed on in Europe for a time, playing a pivotal role in de-Nazification efforts, interviewing scores of top-ranking Germans and obtaining information for the Nuremberg trials. After he was demobilized in August 1946, he returned to England where he completed an undergraduate degree in chemical engineering, followed by graduate studies at MIT.

He settled in New York with his wife Anita Lamm, also a German Jewish refugee, and their two children. He passed away in 2010.

A Promise Kept

“My father never glorified his actions and seldom discussed the war and his experiences when I was growing up,” his son Daniel, a prominent developer in Hoboken, N.J., recalled in an interview. He spoke of poignant moments he experienced while going through documents his father left him when he passed away.

Among them was a diary written by Moritz Gans during his years in captivity in Bergen-Belsen and Theresienstadt. One of the last entries is a faded line, penned with a shaky hand, “Manfred arrived today!” recording the wondrous moment when he had embraced his beloved son after fearing he was dead.

Along with Moritz Gans’ diary, there were also some carefully preserved letters. One was from a couple that had made a home for young Manfred when he reached England as a 16-year old, shortly before the war broke out. The letter was addressed to Manfred’s parents still in Germany.

“This couple wrote to my grandparents about something my father had told them that touched them to the core,” Daniel Gans shared in the interview. “He was just a young lonely refugee at that point. But he told them of a promise he had made to himself that he would find a way to go back to Germany, war or no war, and get his parents…

“And so he did. A promise kept against all odds.”

*****

A Meeting with Field Marshall Rommel

X-Troop describes a hair-raising incident that occurred when Jewish George Lane and his fellow commando, a mine expert named Roy Wooldridge, were captured by the Germans in 1944. The men were separated, blindfolded and then driven to what turned out to be Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s headquarters in the French countryside.

Lane tried to prepare himself for Nazi torture that might force him to abandon his cover story and reveal his Jewish identity. As they arrived at a German headquarters, a guard ordered him to straighten himself up — “You’re about to be interrogated by someone important.”

Lane was then led into a study where he found General Rommel standing at the fireplace. Instinctively, Lane saluted, anticipating several worst-case scenarios to which this meeting might lead. But what followed was a relatively humane conversation in which Lane conversed in flawless German, to Rommel’s surprise. The German commander never dreamed he was talking with a Jew from Budapest.

Tea was poured and Rommel asked after “my friend, General Montgomery”—the commander of the British army in the offensive against Rommel’s German and Italian forces.

According to author Garrett, Lane said he didn’t know Montgomery but said that he imagined he would see him soon, as Montgomery was busy “preparing the invasion.” The German field marshal later wrote to his wife about an “extraordinary interview with a sensible British officer.”

After further interrogation without the brutality he had anticipated, Lane was taken back to his cell. He subsequently escaped and made his way back to his base where he was debriefed in full, including logistical information he was able to provide about Rommel’s headquarters.

In another fascinating glimpse, the book details an incident in April 1945 when Germany knew the war was lost, in which Corporal Ian Harris, a Jewish X Trooper from Vienna, got a tip-off that German officers in a headquarters near Osnabruck were prepared to give themselves up.

When he arrived, he discovered an entire SS battalion. A Nazi major came out and roughly asked Harris, whose uniform bore no insignia, what he was doing there. He had come to accept their surrender, Harris respectfully informed the major, although he knew they could easily shoot him. The two eyed each other suspiciously.

Then Harris broke the tension by proffering a pack of British cigarettes and introducing himself as a British major. He intuitively understood the proud German officer’s need to surrender only to an officer of high rank. The two then worked out surrender terms and “Major” Harris drove slowly back to Allied Headquarters, with an entire German garrison trailing behind him.

*****

Heroes Who Paid A Steep Price

Author Garret delves into the troubled issues of identity that plagued the Jewish commandos after the war. For quite some time, they were not granted full British citizenship, which the men believed was due to anti-Semitic forces in the government. This was devastating to soldiers who had served their host country so courageously.

“They were hurt; and lacked the confidence that they could be British and also Jewish,” Garrett writes. “All those who stayed in the UK kept the names they assumed as X Troopers. Who they were before the war did not really exist anymore, nor did their families and communities. It was too painful for them to mentally return to their pre-war life in Germany or Austria.”

“Except for Manfred Gans and Peter Masters [who settled in the United States],” writes Garrett, “it appears none of these men lived openly as Jews after the war and several even converted.”

Despite their outstanding military service and extraordinary success, these commandos were tragic casualties of the war, in that their rightful identities were stripped from them and never reclaimed.  They thus paid a very steep price for their heroism.

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