Formation of the X troops on the Idwal slabs. ()
NEW YORK (Tribune News Service) – Life as they knew it was taken away.
The Nazis took everything: their families, their homes and their countries. In the end, all they had left was their names. Then they gave up their birth name to participate in the fight.
“X Troop: The Secret Jewish Commandos Who Helped Defeat the Nazis” by Leah Garrett tells the story of young men from Germany, Austria and Hungary who became British commandos. There were 87 members on the team, but Garrett wisely focuses on a handful.
By presenting the story this way, Garrett, a professor at Hunter College, introduces readers to little-known heroes of World War II. Their daring missions are the ones the movies celebrate. Yet their lives left them with little reason to rejoice and every reason to fight back.
“They played a crucial role in the D-Day landings and killed, captured and interrogated on their way through occupied Europe to the heart of the Third Reich,” writes Garrett.
Drawing inspiration from interviews with survivors, their families, and deep dives into archives around the world, Garrett fills this narrative with mind-boggling detail, from what the Commandos ate to the rugged terrain they traversed and what The weather was as they rappelled down the mountains.
The Gans family in Israel after the war. (Gans family)
It’s a story that becomes even more astonishing when you realize how young they were and, initially, untrained.
“This motley group includes a semi-professional boxer; an Olympic water polo player; a previously Orthodox Jew obsessed with science; and painters, poets, athletes and musicians, ”he wrote. “At this point in the war, the summer of 1944, most of their relatives who could not escape were murdered in the death camps.”
It wasn’t just that they were young men adrift in the world. At the time, tragically, there were a lot of them. What differentiated them were their abilities. As Garrett reminds readers, these “highly assimilated” young men came from educated families, spoke multiple languages, and could move easily in different situations.
This was precisely what the British needed.
The X Troop was such a secretive unit that only a few senior officials even knew of its existence. It began in the summer of 1942 when Lord Mountbatten, who had commanded the combined operations, “made a bold suggestion” to Churchill.
“They should create a new special commando unit, unlike anything used before,” Garrett told the Prime Minister. “Rather than coming from the ranks of the army or the navy, Commando No. 10 (allied) would be made up of soldiers made up of displaced nationals such as Poles, Norwegians and French.
Each unit had a distinct uniform, although all wore the famous green beret. Among these units was the X Troop.
These soldiers spoke two languages, one of which was German with perfect German – which many did, even as their country turned against them. This fluidity allowed them to work quickly on the battlefield. They didn’t need interpreters.
But first, they had to become elite soldiers. It began by taking on new, anglicized names. No one was aware of their new identities. And they didn’t know how they would find their families – if anyone were to survive.
Garrett explains how their risk was fourfold: “as Allied commandos, who Hitler had ordered to shoot on sight; as refugees from Europe, who still had family who could be killed by the Gestapo; as Jews, who were themselves the targets of state-sanctioned killings; and as German or Austrian nationals, who would be considered traitors for having taken up arms against their homeland.
And yet, they were eager to do it. The men had survived until now because they had escaped. In some cases, parents packed them on Kindertransport. Others stayed with their families and spent years staying one step ahead of the Nazis. Now was the time to stop running and come home to fight.
“X Troop, Secret Jewish Commandos of World War II”, by Leah Garrett (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Many had always wanted it. Manfred Gans, who used the name Fred Gray when he was in X Troop, has always been brave. The son of a wealthy man from Borken, Germany, a “picturesque medieval town” near the Dutch border, Gans’ courage was clear at his Bar Mitzvah in April 1935.
During the rarely controversial kind of speech, Gans said, “The Nazis call us the enemy. To them we are vermin, less than humans, cheaters and crooks. They accuse us of all possible evil. What they don’t understand is that our religion, our Torah, doesn’t allow it. … The Nazis are completely wrong about this.
As remarkable as it is to have a copy of such an old Bar Mitzvah speech, Garrett even reports the reaction of Gans’ parents – “a mixture of horror and resignation”.
As life became untenable for German Jews, Gans’ parents sent him and his brother to England. At first he was excited to live abroad and find out where they all thought he would be safe. Two years later he was arrested and taken to a British internment camp. He packed a suitcase full of engineering manuals.
There he joined other young men who, classified as foreigners, had no right to fight for the Allies. Yet they were more than willing and able to fight; they wanted to.
In 1940, the British government sent thousands of German internees to Australia. The conditions were appalling as the ship was overloaded with refugees. The sadistic commander attacked the Jews. When the ship finally arrived, an Australian doctor summoned aboard was so horrified by the conditions that his report led to the ship’s captain’s court martial.
Yet the young men were transferred and did all the physical labor assigned to them. That was all for the war effort. These men who would become heroes weren’t the type to sit idly by. But their life took on meaning and motivation when they became X Troop.
Their commander, Major Brian Hilton-Jones, inspired loyalty and went through grueling exercises with them. They needed to be put into shape quickly. This included a 53 mile run, hauling gear along the cliffs of Wales. They swam in freezing waters, rappelled down cliffs, and helped each other become a true unit.
They learned to parachute behind enemy lines, to maneuver a field machine on the shores of a lake, and to maintain and shoot firearms. Many have become excellent shots. They pushed themselves beyond endurance.
“Many of them still struggled with the trauma of being forced to deny their identity as the Nazis wiped out their families,” Garrett writes.
Finally, they were in the war as they wanted: as commandos fighting to restore civilization.
When they captured the Germans, they immediately questioned them, gleaned the necessary information, and continued on. Yes, they killed Nazis, and some said absolutely no regrets. They also spoke to many and led them, safely, to surrender.
X Troop was among those who stormed the Normandy beaches on D-Day. And they kept advancing as bullets passed them.
As the war dragged on, Gans persuaded an officer to let him take a battered Jeep he used to drive through occupied Europe and meet his parents in the Theresienstadt concentration camp.
He must have left them there – temporarily. Soon the war finally ended, and part of that victory was due to the heroes of X Troop.
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