X Troop

BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

“At the nadir of World War Two, in Britain’s darkest hour, a group of Jewish refugees from Germany, Austria and Hungary volunteered for a top secret mission to fight as commandos on the front lines against the Nazis. Determined to wreak havoc on Hitler’s regime, the eighty-seven men of the No. 10 (Inter-Allied) Commando, 3 Troop–-better known as X Troop–-saw the war as personal. They played a crucial role in the D-Day landings and killed, captured, and interrogated their way across occupied Europe all the way into the heart of the Third Reich.”

Thus begins X TROOP: THE SECRET JEWISH COMMANDOS OF WORLD WAR TWO by Leah Garrett, a Hunter College historian. Her scrupulously-researched, crisply-written book tells the little-known story about a brigade of highly trained young men who gained a fearsome reputation fighting in France, Italy, Greece, Yugoslavia, Albania, the Netherlands and Belgium. “And when the war was over and most of their comrades were going home,” Garrett writes, “these extraordinary men went hunting for Nazis in the rubble of Hitler’s Europe.”

Garrett focuses her attention on three of the commandos, stand-ins for the full brigade: Manfred Gans, Peter Masters and Colin Anson. Those were their military names, not their real names. Born in German-speaking countries, they had come to England as Jewish refugees. To become commandos they had to take on British identities and learn to speak unaccented English. This was aimed at protecting them should they be taken prisoner in battle. If recognized as Jews, they would have been killed on the spot.
The trio made it to England when they were teenagers. They were Kindertransport refugees, part of a small group of Jewish youngsters allowed by the Nazis to emigrate to the U.K. In recent years the Kindertransport experience has been glorified and romanticized, with British families being hailed for the way they took Jewish kids into their homes and treated them in kindly, benevolent fashion.

X TROOP tells another harsher, more honest story. Many Brits treated the Jewish youngsters coldly and cruelly. The British government sent thousands of them to internment camps for enemy aliens (which were packed with Nazi prisoners of war). One such camp was Warth Mills in Bury, Greater Manchester. “The floors and walls were filthy with grease and mold and pitted with decay,” Garrett writes. “The windows were broken. The rats were unafraid of the internees and made their nights a particular hell, especially since they slept on the ground on thin mattresses filled with straw. When it rained, water poured in through the roof and flooded up from the sewers. The former cotton mill factory had no tables or chairs and no electric light. The internees ate their meals standing up or on their filthy cots. The food was sparse and poor. Buckets served as toilets.”

Although some of the internees were eventually placed with families, most were transferred to camps in Australia (along with large numbers of adult Jews). They made the two-month journey aboard a converted passenger ship, the HMT Dunera. The ship had an official capacity of 1,600 but 2,732 refugees were crammed on board. Most of the refugees had seen their family members carted off to concentration camps–-or had been in the camps themselves. “From the moment of embarkation they were treated cruelly by the British seamen. Their suitcases, passports, visas, letters and even personal photographs were taken and later destroyed. Some of the refugees had managed to salvage Torah scrolls and Jewish ritual objects from synagogues the Nazis had torched. These were ripped from their hands and thrown overboard, and they were violently searched. One father who tried to keep his son’s precious violin from being destroyed was viciously beaten, and the instrument was taken. No receipts were given for any of the confiscated property.”

Additional horrors faced them in the Australian internment camps, which were even worse than the British ones, especially Hay, located in the middle of New South Wales–-“dry, barren and furnace hot.” Among the Hay internees was Sigmund Freud’s grandson, Walter Freud, who wrote a private account of his internment. “The worst aspect was the fact that nobody in the whole world seemed to like or want me or mine. We were thrown out of Germany under threat of death, and when we thought we had found a new home in England were again thrown out unceremoniously. The earth did not seem to have a single spot where we could live undisturbed.”

Men like Gans, Masters and Anson might have spent the rest of WW II in Australia if it hadn’t been for the creation of X Troop by Lord Mountbatten and Winston Churchill, who saw the need for a special unit of commandos. “Rather than coming from the ranks of the army or navy, No. 10 Commando would be composed of soldiers made up of displaced nationals such as Poles, Norwegians, and Frenchmen. Each of the units would have their own distinct uniform...and would be used for different missions depending on their native languages. They would be unified by the shared desire to drive the Nazis out of their home countries. These commandos, highly trained and highly motivated, would lead the way when the time came for the Allies’ invasion of Europe.”

The British unit, No. 3, was comprised of Jewish German-speaking refugees and would be Britain’s secret shock troops in the war against Germany. “They would kill and capture Nazis on the battlefield. But that would not be all. They would also immediately interrogate captured Germans, be it in the heat of battle or right afterward. The men’s fluency in German would enable them to get essential intelligence that would guide the next moment’s choices rather than having to wait to interview prisoners until they were back at headquarters.”

X TROOP follows the fortunes of Gans, Masters and Anson as they respectively fight on several of WW II’s battlefields, sometimes on the front lines, other times behind the scenes with Yugoslavian, Italian and Albanian partisans. Always they fought with ferociousness and skill, surviving hand to hand combat, bombardments, near starvation. Two of them were seriously injured but insisted on being returned to No. 3 when they had recovered. As Gans, whose parents had perished in Bergen-Belsen, put it, “I was absolutely determined to see the end of the Hitler regime; nothing was going to stand in my way.”

In the final pages of her book, Garrett makes this comment: “The X Troopers were the opposite of Quentin Tarantino’s vengeful Jews in his film, ‘Inglourious Basterds.’ Rather than wreaking personal revenge on the Germans, they followed the rules of war. They coolly collected battlefield intelligence from the enemy and outwitted them using their intellect rather than brute force. And even in extreme instances, such as when Anson confronted the man who had been responsible for his own father’s death, they refused to compromise their own moral standards.”