In November 1944, the Allies managed to gain considerable ground in Europe, including the capture of the key Belgian port of Antwerp. A vital German stronghold remained on the nearby island of Walcheren, however, but when the Allies eventually decided to take it, they had two secret weapons. Their names were Freddy Gray and Maurice Latimer, and they used their fluency in German to convince many enemy troops to surrender.
Born Manfred Gans and Moritz Levy, respectively, they were part of a remarkably successful British commando unit primarily made up of Jewish refugees like themselves, fighting under assumed identities.
Their remarkable story is told in a new book named after the unit – “X Troop: The Secret Jewish Commandos of World War II,” by scholar and author Leah Garrett.
“I think it’s always so important for me to shed light on the fact that during World War II, [there were] all these places where Jews could fight back the way these guys did,” Garrett says. “It’s incredible that these guys did this.”
She notes that Gans' proudest achievement was “how many people [he] got to surrender without having to kill,” including an entire platoon. “They were nothing like the Inglourious Basterds of Quentin Tarantino, revenge-filled guys … they followed the rules of war. They were totally ethical, not revengeful. [They were about] beating the Germans so they could right their wrongs.”
Arguably less well-known outside the United Kingdom, the 87-member X Troop contributed mightily to Allied efforts. Its members took part in an early attempt to strike back in Western Europe with the 1942 Dieppe raid, as well as the D-Day landings two years later. They were active through the end of the war and beyond, including the hunt for Nazi war criminals.
Members of the X Troop survived persecution in their former homelands, but many of their family members fell victim to the Holocaust. The uncertain fates of their loved ones back home motivated the X Troopers, who knew that they themselves could not divulge their Jewish identities; if they died in combat, their graves would be marked with crosses rather than Stars of David.
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For Garrett, the book was a chance to put into practice the concepts she teaches as head of the Jewish Studies Center at Hunter College, at the City University of New York, while continuing to follow a source of personal fascination.
“X Troop” is her second consecutive book about Jews who fought in World War II; her previous volume, “Young Lions,” chronicled best-selling Jewish novelists in uniform, including Joseph Heller, Norman Mailer and Herman Wouk.
It also has a personal connection: several of her family members, including her grandfather, fought for the Allies.
Garrett was able to speak with two surviving members of the X Troop, though both have since passed away. One was the prominent economist Paul Streeten (born Paul Hornig), while the other kept his identity secret to the grave. He is identified in the book as Victor Davies.
She focuses her narrative on three other X Troopers whom she felt best represented the original group: Gans, an Orthodox Jew who reverted to his birth name after the war; Peter Masters, a Viennese artist born Peter Arany; and Colin Anson, né Claus Ascher, who was raised in an assimilated family.
Some were German citizens stripped of their rights under the Third Reich, or Czech or Austrian citizens similarly persecuted after Nazi takeovers. All fled to England through various routes, but were considered enemy aliens – the homelands that had persecuted them were now at war with Britain. They were interned in miserable conditions, with some suffering further aboard the infamous ship Dunera, which took them to internment in Australia.
“Beatings were common, and bored guards made Jewish refugees run barefoot over broken bottles they had smashed, all while Nazi POWs howled with laughter,” Garrett writes, noting that the officer responsible for the ship’s internees, Maj. William Patrick Scott, “was a rabid antisemite and sadist who enjoyed torturing the Jews in his care.” After their situation was brought to light, they were allowed to return to England.
When the war broke out, the only military unit that would welcome the refugees was the Pioneer Corps – an engineering unit – but there was no fighting involved. However, they became more valuable after then-Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Lord Mountbatten decided to create a commando force made up of units of refugees from occupied European countries.
Unlike existing commando units, which were either sea-based or land-based, these commandos could fight on land, sea or air, drawing upon both physical fitness and quick-thinking skills such as counterintelligence techniques – a precedent-setting combination of brains and brawn.
Its members would never fight as a collective group, but rather be embedded into other units, which was another groundbreaking move. “There had never been anything like these commandos,” Garrett says.
Some of the recruits were excellent athletes, including accomplished runners Streeten and Gans. For others, the learning curve was steeper than the 3,500-feet (1,066 meters) peak of Mount Snowdon, which they had to climb during training.
Garrett cited an interview Gans had given in which he said the most important aspect of training was the confidence it instilled in him. “They did not know they were capable of it, but they survived it, thrived in it,” she explained. “They came out deeply confident, ready to take risks, fight on the front lines.”
In interviews Masters had given during his life, “he talked about how brutal and hard the training was,” Garrett recounts. “He never thought he would be capable of doing this stuff. Many of these guys were Jewish intellectuals from Mitteleuropa.” But like Gans, Masters said they eventually started to realize abilities they never knew they had.
Heart-tugging reunion at Theresienstadt
German-speaking X Troopers persuaded many of their former countrymen to surrender. A Hungarian-born X Trooper, George Lane (born Lanyi Gyorgy), made use of his observational skills after being captured. He was interrogated by none other than Field Marshal Erwin Rommel; Garrett credits Lane with revealing the location of Rommel’s headquarters to the Allies, noting the subsequent raid on the German general’s car that left him severely injured.
Most dramatically, X Trooper Gans made a trek through enemy territory to Theresienstadt (aka Terezin), on his own initiative. He and a private arrived two days after they set out, and Gans experienced an improbable, heart-tugging reunion with his parents, Moritz and Else Gans, in the concentration camp.
They were rocked by the camp’s hellish atmosphere of death, starvation and typhoid fever. Yet emaciated Jews shouted “Mazel tov!” when the Ganses miraculously reunited.
“Quickly the news gets out in the camp,” Garrett writes. “The impossible has happened. A son has returned to seek his parents and has found them. Not all the Jews in the world have been killed. The Nazis have not triumphed everywhere.”
“It was amazing, totally amazing,” Garrett says. “As I wrote the book, with each chapter I kind of thought, Are you kidding me? Every chapter basically blew my mind – George Lane having the meeting with Rommel; the guys coming ashore on the D-Day landings and Walcheren; Gans going to rescue his parents. I felt like there could be 10 full books within one project.”
After VE Day, as other units went home the X Troop was needed in Europe.
“They did a huge range of things in the denazification effort,” Garrett says, “from having guys go capture Nazis and interrogate them, to going through documents.”
After the end of the war, initially the British government would not let the commandos who had fought for their country return as citizens. Garrett notes this had more to do with one individual, a possibly antisemitic British administrator who was eventually overruled.
In the end, she says, the X Troopers were grateful for their adopted country, and showed that via the complex narratives of their postwar lives. Many remained in Britain, kept their new names and raised their families as Anglicans.
A monument to the unit in Aberdovey, Wales, does not mention that its members were primarily Jewish, despite efforts to change this by Gans and Masters, as well as by Lane’s ex-wife Miriam Rothschild, who herself worked as a code breaker during the war.
Martin Sugarman – author of a book about Jewish military contributions to Britain during World War II called “Jews Fighting Back,” and a former archivist for the Jewish War Veterans of the United Kingdom – also tried to have the memorial’s wording changed multiple times.
While this is very much a story about Jews fighting back against evil, it is also a more universal tale of refugees, as Garrett noted when she wrote an opinion piece for CNN that compares the X Troop with refugees and immigrants in the United States who face deportation.
“These guys all knew what evil looked like,” Garrett says. “They did not want it in their new place. Political refugees know of what evil looks like. We have to listen to them.”