Nathan Abrams reviews a new book about the true history of those Jewish commandos who fought against the Nazis and helped to win World War II.
The idea that Jews went like sheep to the slaughter during the Holocaust is a common one. But a spate of recent books is challenging that idea.
One of those, X Troop: The Secret Jewish Commandos Who Helped Defeat the Nazis by Leah Garrett, is about a group of daring Jewish commandos, trained in Wales, and sent to the continent to fight against the Nazis. They were described as a ‘suicide squad’ and many did not come back alive. At least eighty-seven volunteers passed through the ranks of this elite unit, and half of them would be killed, wounded, or disappear without a trace.
The formation of X Troop traces back to July 2, 1942, when Britain was on the brink of defeat. Lord Mountbatten made a bold suggestion to Winston Churchill: a new special unit of commandos, different from anything used before should be created. These commandos, highly trained and highly motivated in peak physical and mental form, would lead the way when the time came for the Allies’ invasion of Europe, driven and unified by the shared desire to drive the Nazis out of their home countries. This unique commando force required an unusual skillset: advanced fighting techniques combined with counterintelligence training.
Rather than coming from the ranks of the army or navy, No. 10 (Inter-Allied) Commando was made up of soldiers drawn from displaced foreign nationals including French (No. 1), Dutch (No. 2), Belgian (No. 4), Norwegian (No. 5), Polish (No. 6), and Yugoslavian (No. 7). Each unit had a distinct uniform although they all wore the famous green beret, and each was used for different missions depending on their native languages.
The ‘British troop’ (No. 3), known as X Troop, was composed of German-speaking refugees from the Reich. Many were brilliant young men, sons of diplomats and scientists. The vast majority of them were Jewish, having fled their homelands, often leaving relatives and family behind at the mercy of the Nazi murder machine. Their anger and hunger for revenge were palpable.
But because nearly all of X Troop were Jewish refugees from the Third Reich, they also would need to be diligently protected. The secrecy of this special unit was baked in from its very conception. Only six men, including Churchill and Mountbatten, knew of this top-secret plan. The prime minister himself gave the group its distinct name. As he explained, ‘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.’
These men, many of whom had been interned as enemy aliens or sent to Australia in horrific conditions, were reborn as British soldiers. Initially, the British didn’t trust them because they were German, Austrian, or Hungarian. So, they put them in detention camps, often in appalling conditions. Eventually, though, the men were selected or volunteered for unspecified ‘hazardous duty’, which they were told would entail extremely dangerous work that involved taking the fight directly to the Nazis. Every man offered a place in X Troop accepted the mission.
To work behind enemy lines, they shed their earlier lives as refugees and adopted new British identities. If they were recognized as Jews, they would be killed instantly, and the Gestapo would hunt down their families if they were still alive. Each volunteer was given a few minutes to pick a new British persona, then they had to destroy any connection with their old selves, burning letters from home and throwing out any belongings with their names on them. This change remained permanent for those killed in battle, as many were buried under their nom de guerre and a marble cross.
Once they had their new names and identities, the X Troopers underwent tough commando training in Wales and Scotland. They spent days and nights hiking over mountains with full packs and practised beach assaults, live ammo drills, rock climbing, parachuting, and demolition work.
X Troop became Britain’s secret shock troop in the war against Germany. Highly intelligent, intellectual and highly motivated, they infiltrated behind enemy lines to kill and capture Nazis on the battlefield, at once interrogating prisoners, enabling them to gather intelligence in the heat of battle without having to wait for translation. When they were called on to fight and shoot and kill, they did so both bravely and extremely effectively. And even after the end of the war when the unit was formally disbanded, the X Troopers were central to the denazification campaign: routing out hidden party members (almost capturing the head of the SS — and one of the central architects of the Holocaust — Heinrich Himmler), uncovering sensitive intelligence, and gathering evidence for the Nuremberg trials.
These men were the model of the moral mensch. Whenever possible, the X Troopers used their intelligence to outmanoeuvre the Nazis and to capture them before a shot was fired. 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 one X Trooper confronted the man who had led to his father’s death, they refused to compromise their own moral standards.
In this regard, Leah Garrett writes, ‘the X Troopers were the opposite of Quentin Tarantino’s vengeful Jews in his film Inglourious Basterds.’
X Troop: The Secret Jewish Commandos Who Helped Defeat the Nazis by Leah Garrett is published by Vintage priced £20.