X Troop: The Top-Secret Jewish Commandos of WWII
A new book sheds light on a secret unit drawn from refugees whose deep-rooted hatred of Hitler would ensure they were a passionate fighting force.
“Every chapter of the book should have been a film,” notes Dr. Leah Garrett, whose new book X Troop: The Secret Jewish Commandos of World War II tells the remarkable story of a top-secret troop of Jewish refugees from Nazi Europe. She recently spoke with Aish.com about her book and the powerful impact it made on her life.
The Director of the Jewish Studies Center and Director of Hebrew and Jewish Studies at Hunter College in New York, Dr. Garrett was moved to research Jews’ contributions to the Allied victory in World War II by her own family history. “My grandfather and great uncle served in World War II,” she explains. In the course of writing a previous book about Jewish soldiers during World War II, Dr. Garrett had heard “a rumor that there was this secret commando unit” made up of Jewish refugees. She began researching this crack fighting troop and tracking down surviving members and their families.
Fleeing Antisemitism in Europe
With Hitler’s election to the Chancellorship of Germany in 1933, German Jews became targets of popular hatred and official anti-Jewish laws. Manfred Gans was eleven when Hitler came to power. By the time of his bar mitzvah he was already showing signs of the resistance and bravery that would soon make him one of the X Troop’s heroes.
Manfred and his family had returned home from synagogue one Shabbat in 1935. He’d chanted his bar mitzvah portion beautifully and his family was hosting a houseful of guests in celebration. Manfred gave a stirring bar mitzvah speech. “The Nazis are calling us the enemy. To them we are vermin, less than human… They are accusing us of all possible evils. What they don’t understand is that our religion, our Torah, does not allow this. Our Torah and the Jewish books teach us to be ethical and forthright. That is who we really are. The Nazis are completely wrong about us.”
Manfred’s parents looked on in horror. If someone would report his speech to the Nazi authorities the consequences would be severe. The family remained safe for the moment, but three years later Manfred’s parents sent him alone on a kindertransport, a refugee resettlement program for children in England.
In the last months of peace before World War II broke out, nearly 10,000 Jewish children fled Germany and Austria for safety in Holland and Britain on the kindertransports.
Another child who fled was Claus Ascher. When the Nazis came to power, Claus supported them, until his father Curt told him a deeply guarded secret: Curt was a Jew. Claus’ entire world view suddenly shifted. He became anti-Nazi. When Adolph Hitler visited Claus’ school for a special assembly, Claus recalled being unimpressed: “Here was one of the most powerful leaders in Europe, but to me he seemed like a peasant in a Sunday suit.”
One day in 1937, when Claus was 15, he and his father were sitting in a beer hall when Curt got into an argument with some local men. “The Nazis are helping General Franco (of Spain) against a democratically elected government!” Curt declared. Within moments two policemen entered the hall and arrested Curt. Claus made his way home.
Within two weeks, a Gestapo officer told his stunned family that Curt had died of “circulation failure” in prison. After Kristallnacht, when crowds rampaged through the streets of German and Austrian towns on Nov. 9, 1938, beating and killing Jews and destroying their property with impunity, Claus’ mother sent him on a kindertransport to Holland, then eventually to Britain.
Both these men, as well as 85 other refugees, would soon find themselves on the cutting edge of Britain’s elite forces, helping battle Nazis and win World War II.
Proving themselves in Britain
Life for refugees in Britain was difficult. One young Austrian Jewish refugee – who would later be known as Peter Masters and serve in X Troop – managed to get work on a farm. The farm owner hated him, berating him as “a no-good city kid.”
One day, as Peter labored on the farm, he was amazed to see a man who looked just like his father, Rudolf, walking towards him. It was indeed his father; he had managed to escape Vienna by hiding in a pile of coal being transported to Britain on a ship. Once in England, he tracked down his son.
Even though he was a Jewish refugee, Peter was categorized as a dangerous alien and put in a concentration camp in England.
Their happiness was short-lived. The next day, Rudolph was arrested and interned as an “enemy alien”. In June of 1940, Peter was also arrested. Even though he was a Jewish refugee, Peter – like many other refugees – was categorized as a dangerous alien and put in a concentration camp in England. Some refugees were shipped off to often brutal enemy alien camps in Canada and Australia, as well. Peter remembered a corporal screaming at him that first day, “I have the right to shoot you. You have no rights at all!”
Paul Hornig, another Jewish refugee, managed to get out of Nazi Austria and studied at Cambridge. He was arrested as an enemy alien and sent to an internment camp in Canada. The ship transporting him and 1,306 other internees was overpacked. The refugees were made to sleep on the ground in the dirty hold of the ship, while 1,345 German POWs also being transported were given the cabins.
Hans Julius Guttman, another future X Troop fighter, was shipped to an internment camp in the Australian outback. He and 2,732 internees were crammed into a ship that had an official capacity of 1,600, locked into a stifling hot hold without access to food, water or toilets for most of the day. The ship also held 244 German POWs who were given preferential treatment.
Some of the Jewish refugees had managed to save photographs and personal possessions. Some had even managed to salvage Torah scrolls and other Jewish ritual items. Gilbert recalled that the British soldiers threw most of these precious items overboard. Jewish refugees were routinely beaten. One refugee named Jakob Weiss took his own life on the ship after British soldiers took away his visa to South America.
The Pioneer Corps
These “enemy alien” refugees began a letter writing campaign to British and Australian Parliaments, detailing their mistreatments and pointing out that they were being treated worse than German POWs. Eventually, their letters paid off. In 1942, many of the alien refugees were given a choice: they could return to Britain and be freed if they volunteered for the Royal Pioneer Corps.
Started in 1939, the Pioneer Corps was designed to provide backup labor for the British army. Duties included clearing roads, packing trucks, and other mundane jobs. In 1942, it was the only unit in the British army in which enemy aliens could serve. Many of them leapt at the chance, flooding the Pioneer Corps with Jewish refugees and other refugees from Nazi Europe. A special unit designated A for Alien was created for them.
Immediately, some of these refugees distinguished themselves. A few “were constantly getting in touch with the head of their units, saying please let me fight,” observes Dr. Garrett. The message boards in Pioneer Corps units included flyers “looking for men who would volunteer for hazardous duty.” Many Jewish refugees eagerly asked to serve.
Creating X Troop
In 1942, the war was going terribly. Britain and the Soviet Union were both on the retreat. Even though the US had finally entered the war, Germany was ascendant. Winston Churchill was desperate for new and creative ways to fight.
87 men, at least 82 of whom were Jews, made it through basic training and were selected to form the top-secret unit.
Inspiration came from Lord Mountbatten, a member of Britain’s royal family and a senior military commander who’d been directing special forces as they battled the Nazis. Mountbatten suggested that Britain create a completely new unit drawn from refugees whose deep-rooted hatred of Hitler would ensure they were a passionate fighting force. Moreover, the knowledge of local mores and language that refugees had would ensure that they could be used for undercover intelligence work and for interrogating Nazi troops, as well as for fighting.
Churchill gave the new unit its name. “Because they will be unknown warriors... they must perforce be considered an unknown quantity. Since the algebraic symbol for the unknown is X, let us call them X Troop.” In the end, 87 men, at least 82 of whom were Jews, made it through basic training and were selected to form the top-secret unit.
The X Troop soldiers trained intensely in Scotland and Wales, becoming crack commandos. Their commander, Captain Bryan Hilton-Jones, realized that as Jews, they would face particular danger if they were captured by Nazi troops.
On the first day of training, Cptn. Hilton-Jones turned to one man and asked “What is your name, soldier?” The soldier said, “Hans Furth.”
“No it’s not!” Cptn. Hilton-Jones declared. “After you leave here, Private Furth will cease to exist. Every one of you will invent yourself a new British-sounding name and a new cover story to go along with it. You have 15 minutes…”
X Troops capturing German soldiers
The men looked at each other in disbelief, but they had no choice but to comply. Within minutes, they each had taken on a new name. Paul Hornig became Paul Streeten. Hans Julius Guttman became Ron Gilbert. Many of the men used these names, invented out of thin air so hastily, for the rest of their lives.
They also had to destroy every personal letter and piece of paper with their birth name on it, and concoct cover stories. Some X Troop soldiers who fell in battle were memorialized with Christian crosses on their graves, known to posterity only by their English names.
X Troop soldiers fought in crucial battles and theatres of World War II, lending their bravery and expertise to other units. X Troop soldiers were instrumental in aiding the Allied invasion of Sicily in 1943, and helped Allied troops fight up the Italian coast to Syracuse and Messina.
One of the most momentous X Troop operations was Operation Tarbrush, a secret April, 1944 intelligence mission to find out whether the Nazis had a powerful new anti-personnel mine that they were ready to deploy on France’s Normandy coast. With the D-Day Landings scheduled for June, it was crucial that the allies had this information.
Hungarian-born Jewish Lieutenant George Lane (born Lanyi Gyorgy) was selected for the mission, along with a British Captain. After relaying information back to the Allies, Lt. Lane and his comrade were captured by Nazi soldiers. In his cell, Lt. Lane was told to wash up because he was going to be interrogated by an important person. To his utter shock, Lt. Lane was taken into a room containing Field Marshal Rommel, Commander of Germany’s Wehrmacht. “You realize that you are in a very tricky situation here, Lt. Lane?” the senior Nazi asked him.
Sir, how can the British and Germans fight side by side considering what we know about what the Nazis are doing to the Jews?
Lt. Lane kept his composure as Field Marshal Rommel spoke with him at length. Britain and Germany should be fighting on the same side, Rommel suggested. Communist Russia was a natural enemy to both countries.
Risking death, Lane could no longer keep quiet. “Sir, how can the British and Germans fight side by side considering what we know about what the Nazis are doing to the Jews? No Englishman could ever tolerate such a thing.” After some more strained conversation, Lt. Lane was released. Later on, he managed to give the Allies crucial information about the location of Rommel’s office, materially helping the Allies in their D-Day plans.
Fighting at D-Day
X Troop provided key fighters on D-Day, the Allies’ assault on Nazi-controlled France, which was designed to give the Allies a toehold in northern Europe and help turn the tide of the War. It was the largest amphibious assault in military history.
In all, 43 X Troop members were placed with eight commando units on D-Day. Before the invasion, Brigadier Simon Fraser, one of Britain’s most distinguished military figures, addressed the X Troop men. “You will shortly be embarking on ships for the invasion of France,” Fraser said. “You are the tip of the spear, the fine cutting edge of the British Expeditionary Force. You men should expect a physical encounter in which you have had no equal. You know your job and I know that you will not fail. Remember the bigger the challenge, the better we play. History will tell that in our age there were giants who walked the Earth and by God we are going to prove that tomorrow!”
Landing on D-Day
X Troop member Peter Masters recalled that for him and his fellow soldiers, the war felt deeply personal. “You were praying for war. Not because you were bloodthirsty, but because if you didn’t fight, then you and all those you loved would be killed.”
Dr. Garrett notes that among the X Troop soldiers, “All of them saw the clock on the wall. They thought, ‘Maybe the Germans took my mom away but maybe, just maybe, if I fight enough, maybe it will stop the war in time for my mother to be rescued or my sister to be rescued or my brother… They were all willing to sacrifice themselves.
The contribution of X Troop was central to D-Day. Manfred Gans accepted the surrender of 25 German soldiers and led his men through heavy fire to safety. Along with fellow X Troop soldier Harry Nomburg, he’d also conveyed intelligence about Nazi minefields to Allied commanders. Geroge Saunders killed and captured large numbers of Nazi troops. He and Peter Masters had helped capture a German machine gun nest by drawing its fire. Peter Masters had also helped capture a crucial bridge. Though D-Day was a success, the war would continue to drag on for another year.
Finding Their Families
In some cases, X Troop members were able to reunite with their families. As he penetrated deeper into Europe, Mansfred Gans was driven to find his family. Alerted that his parents were in Theresienstadt Concentration Camp in Czechoslovakia, he got permission to drive a jeep to the camp that was occupied by Soviet forces.
“The next minutes are indescribable,” he later wrote in his diary. “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.”
As the war drew to a close, X Troop member Colin Anson, whose father had been Jewish, was assigned to work in the Field Intelligence Agency Technical in Frankfurt; the unit was meant to gather German scientific and technology advances for postwar purposes and also document evidence of war crimes. Anson also used his time in Frankfurt to find his mother, who’d been left behind in the city. As a Gentile, she was relatively safe.
He later recalled, “I started up the stairs and called her name and heard my mother coming down from the top floor...I rushed up and embraced her. And she said ‘Nanu’ (Good Lord! What’s all this!).” At first she didn’t recognize her own son. Sobbing, she told him how his father had been murdered in Dachau and how she’d been ostracized for not divorcing her Jewish husband after his arrest.
Many X Troop soldiers interrogated Nazis. For many, it was incredibly difficult to hear the stories of how their families and friends had been murdered. X Troop member Fred Jackson (born Peter Levy) was tasked with interrogating Nazi war criminal Rudolf Hoss, the commander of Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, where Jackson’s mother had been killed. After interrogating Hoss, Jackson recalled, “I got drunk for a week. I just could not live with myself. He was the man who had killed my mother.”
“Jews fought back.”
In the aftermath of the war, some of the X Troop soldiers embraced their Jewishness once more. Manfred Gans arranged for Judaica items to be sent to the destitute survivors at Theresienstadt. He also began to reclaim his Jewish identity and his Jewish name. Other X Troop members never spoke about their Jewish identity.
Writing X Troop: The Secret Jewish Commandos of World War II helped Dr. Garrett to strengthen her own Jewish identity. “Writing this book has made me more willing to fight, to be on the front lines against antisemitism. Jews have to be loud and strong, and when necessary and able, fight back.”