X-Troop: The Secret Jewish Commandos Who Helped Defeat the Nazis, Leah Garrett (Mariner Books: Boston), 2021.
It is well-known that Jews did their part to defeat Nazi Germany in World War II. Many Jewish men and women from America, Great Britain, Canada and elsewhere in Allied lands joined the military and fought the Nazis with rifles, tanks, ships and airplanes. Others, such as the “Ritchie Boys” — named for the American camp where over 20,000 men and women were trained — were German-speaking Americans and immigrants who made huge contributions to the Allied victory through their interrogations of German prisoners-of-war. Nearly a fifth of them, like our own local Ritchie Boy, Wayne State University Professor Emeritus Dr. Guy Stern, were Jewish.
A recent book, X-Troop: The Secret Jewish Commandos Who Helped Defeat the Nazis by Leah Garrett, however, reveals the ultimate level of Jewish participation in the war. This top-secret unit took the fight to the enemy, attacking Nazis behind the front lines as well as interrogating prisoners on the battlefield. Like other commandos, they were highly trained, the toughest of the tough. But, unlike other commandos, X-Troopers were largely Jewish men who had escaped the Nazis occupation of Europe. They really had a serious loathing for Hitler and his followers.
Garrett, director and professor of Jewish Studies at Hunter College, CUNY, conducted painstaking, extensive research for her book. She visited archives around the world and searched recently declassified top-secret files. Although she notes that more files will be declassified in the future, Garrett’s exhaustive work results in an outstanding history of X-Troop, most of which was unwritten until her book debuted.
Garret also gives X-Troop a decidedly personal touch. Much of her story is told by the commandos themselves as well as through living family members and associates. This is one of the strengths of the book.
The story of X-Troop — to be precise, No. 10 (Inter-allied Commando), 3 Troop — begins in 1942 when Churchill created this top-secret commando unit. It was not the first or only commando unit. During the darkest days for the Allies in 1940, when there was a need for small victories if nothing else, Great Britain developed the first commandos. These were men who were extensively trained in personal combat skills for missions behind enemy lines.
X-Troop, however, was special. Most of its 87 members were refugees from Germany or Austria. Many had lost family members during the Holocaust, and they all hated the Nazis. For a measure of protection if captured, they were given British cover names and histories once they signed-up for X-Troop.
Garrett provides a fine account of the missions and battles in which members of X-Troop participated, as well as their pre-combat training in Wales and Scotland. This is the critical where, when and how of the story. But what really carries the book over the threshold from a detailed, solid history into a compelling narrative is her focus on the who of X-Troop. Although she writes about a number of the unit’s members, their wide-ranging education, social pre-war social-status and experiences once they fled the clutches of the Nazis, Garrett focuses much of her attention on three X-Troopers to great effect: Peter Arany who became Peter Masters; Manfred Gans (Fred Gray) and Claus Ascher (Colin Anson). After the war, by the way, many of the men maintained their Anglo names and their Jewish traditions.
Garrett begins her book with personal stories of X-Trooper experiences before joining the commandos. How they escaped Nazi occupation and their plight as second-class citizens in the UK (including a harrowing tale of deportation to Australia), the prejudice against them and their labors in Pioneer Brigades or work brigades before they could join the military. Despite the obstacles, they answered the call to join X-Troop.
After extensive, grueling training, the Jewish commandos would play a critical role on D-Day and, subsequently, fight, sabotage and interrogate their way into the heart of Germany. In one spectacular mission, and perhaps the most touching story of the book, one of the commandos rescued his parents from the Theresienstadt concentration camp. By the end of WWII, the combat record of X-Troop would have few equals.
X-Troop is a fine work of historiography. For some readers, the details of particular missions might be a bit more than they might wish; military history buffs will be thrilled with these finely crafted reports. Any reader will, however, greatly appreciate the personal stories of some of the toughest Jewish fighters of World War II and their contribution to defeating the Nazis. This is a good read.