Commentary

Book excerpt: ‘X Troop: The Secret Jewish Commandos of World War II’

The incredible World War II saga of the German-Jewish commandos who fought in Britain’s most secretive special-forces unit — but whose story has gone untold until now.

June 1942. The shadow of the Third Reich has fallen across the European continent. In desperation, Winston Churchill and his chief of staff form an unusual plan: a new commando unit made up of Jewish refugees who have escaped to Britain. The resulting volunteers are a motley group of intellectuals, artists, and athletes, most from Germany and Austria. Many have been interned as enemy aliens, and have lost their families, their homes — their whole worlds. They will stop at nothing to defeat the Nazis. Trained in counterintelligence and advanced combat, this top secret unit becomes known as X Troop. Some simply call them a suicide squad.

During the night, the US 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions and British airborne and glider troops had landed in Normandy in an attempt to capture key roads, towns, and bridges. The RAF had bombed the coastline. Then came the minesweepers and air and naval bombardments. Sword, like the other beaches, was protected by German beach obstacles and 75 mm and 155 mm guns from shore batteries and by 88 mm guns inland. There were also snipers, mortars, and machine guns trained on the beach from the summer houses along the shore, as well as pillboxes in the dunes. The British Third Infantry Division would land at 7:25 a.m. and secure the beach while the Royal Engineers would clear the mines and the obstacles. They would be followed shortly thereafter by the commandos.

Huddled belowdecks in his landing craft, infantry (small), in the early morning hours of June 6, Peter Masters knew they were in the vicinity of Sword Beach when suddenly all the naval guns in the world seemed to let loose at once. The Royal Navy was softening up the coast in advance of the main invasion.

[Peter Masters was the nom de guerre of Petar Arany, a Jewish Austrian refugee who had escaped to Britain as a teenager and had been interned as an enemy alien before being selected as a member of a top-secret commando unit called X Troop. The X Troopers, nearly all Jewish refugees like Masters, were German speakers who were trained in counter intelligence and advanced combat techniques. To protect themselves from execution if captured they took on fake British names and personas. The X Troop had proven itself so valuable to the British military, that the men had been parsed out in small groups to assist existing commando units. Masters has been chosen for the Bicycle Troop (officially known as No 1. Troop of No. 6 Commando). If all had gone according to plan, in the early hours of D Day a coup de main force of 181 glider troops led by Major John Howard, should have landed by glider and taken Pegasus Bridge over the Caen Canal near Benouville. At first light the Germans would have almost certainly counterattacked, and they would need to be reinforced as quickly as Bicycle Troop could get there.]

While some of the others on the landing craft began singing to calm their nerves, Masters remained silent and focused. He thought about the fact that finally he was getting his chance to strike back. He was confident that if he could get off the landing craft in one piece, he could bring the fight to the enemy. “I felt well-trained,” he would later recall, “and definitely a better-than-even match for what I was likely to encounter.” As the surf got rougher, Masters battled his seasickness by reading the comic novel Cold Comfort Farm. Finally, after hours of being tossed about in the midst of the naval shelling and rocket fire, the beach was in sight. As sirens began to sound, Masters optimistically dog-eared his paperback and put it in his pocket.

“Attention on deck! Attention on deck!” a naval rating yelled.

The shelling continued and Masters thought he could hear return fire coming from the shore.

“Get your bicycles and prepare to land!” someone shouted.

Peter went up to the chaotic, heaving deck and desperately tried to find his bicycle among the tangle of bikes that had been stacked in a messy pile. “Attention on deck!” the naval rating kept yelling. On the horizon behind him, Peter could see an enormous flotilla of ships that seemed to go on forever. Ahead, the beach was obscured with black smoke.

More men were throwing up now.

Spray was coming over the sides of the landing craft.

Peter could see the muzzle flashes from machine-gun fire up beyond the dunes.

The landing craft hit the shallows. Masters looked at the shore and noticed that the houses he had seen in the model back at Southampton were no longer there; they had all been blown to smithereens.

“Attention on deck! Attention on deck!”

Heavy gears began turning and the ramp in front of him began to creak downward. Peter was hit with a startling realization: “This may be the last thing I ever do.”

It was 8:41 a.m.

Bicycle Troop, D-Day invasion. (HMH Books & Media)
Bicycle Troop, D-Day invasion. (HMH Books & Media)

• • •

The ramp was steeper than Peter Masters had been expecting, and it was already slick with diesel, vomit, and greasy sea spray. The landing craft was pitching up and down in the surf like an angry sea monster. France was burning, the sky was gray, men were yelling, sometimes screaming. This was not a good day or a good place to die. At the very least, Masters decided, he was going to get off this bloody boat.

Wheeling his bike with one hand, he held his tommy gun and the guide rope with the other and jumped into the cold, waist-high surf, which to his horror was turning red from the blood of the dead and dying of the Eighth Infantry Brigade, which had struggled ashore before them.

Staggering through the waves, Masters labored to stay upright with his bike; his tommy gun with its thirty-round magazine; his heavy backpack containing extra ammunition, four grenades, a pickaxe, and a two-hundred-foot hemp rope that would be used to cross the canal if the Germans had managed to blow up Pegasus Bridge. All over the Normandy beaches that morning Allied soldiers were drowning under similarly heavy loads.

Peter made it through the breakers and stumbled onto the sand. Field Marshal Montgomery, Brigadier Lovat [the commander of No. 1 Special Service Brigade which included the commando units of the X Troopers], and Major Hilton-Jones, the CO of X-Troop, had told the men over and over, “Don’t stop on the beach! Advance! Advance!” These words were ringing through his head as he stood there gasping. The very worst thing would be to get stuck between the sea and the German defenses, an easy target for the enemy. Although Masters did not know it, this very situation was happening on Omaha Beach, a few miles to the west, where American soldiers were being slaughtered by the hundreds as they struggled to get off the heavily defended beach exits.

But Masters found it hard not to stop and gape at the horrific scene in front of him. The air smelled of diesel and brine, gunpowder and death. Behind him dead men and parts of men were being pitched about by the surf. In front of Masters a dying soldier kept trying to stand up in slow motion, but he had lost too much blood. Nearby Masters saw two men digging frantically into the sand, trying to hide from the bullets and mortars. It was a Sisyphean task as the waves kept filling in their useless trench.

A few brave men charged the enemy defenses and were mowed down. Others were frozen in fear, just sitting on the sand, a look of emptiness in their eyes. Everything seemed to be going wrong. The beach should have been cleared already. The commandos were supposed to be doing their fighting inland. Peter stood with the other members of Bicycle Troop, unsure what to do next.

Then Peter saw the towering figure of Brigadier Lovat, still wearing his white turtleneck sweater under his battle dress uniform, emerging from the very next landing craft and wading through the surf. The next man out of Lovat’s landing craft was shot in the face and fell into the sea. The man after him was Lovat’s personal piper, Bill Millin, wearing his full kilt and carrying his bagpipes. As his kilt floated away from his body into the surf, he began playing the jaunty “Hieland Laddie,” one of Lovat’s favorites.

As Masters watched in amazement, next down the ramp was the Skipper [Major Hilton Jones]. Lance Corporal Peter Masters stood at attention and absurdly found himself saluting his CO. Lovat, Millin, and Hilton-Jones all began moving forward, and Peter would be damned if he was going to stay there with the dead and dying, so he moved forward too. [Peter and the Bicycle Troop made it off Sword Beach and headed inland toward their rendezvous with the glider troops who had taken Pegasus Bridge.]

Bicylce Troop at D-Day. (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)
Bicylce Troop at D-Day. (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)

As Bicycle Troop rode through the small villages, people opened their doors and yelled, “Vive La France, vive les Tommies!” In one small hamlet the bicyclists pedaled hard to avoid a sniper in the church steeple. They continued east toward Bénouville which lay on the outskirts of their ultimate aim: Pegasus Bridge.

On a hill before the village their lead cyclist was killed by machine-gun fire. He fell to the ground with, as Masters vividly recalled, “one wheel of his bike . . . spinning in the air as if it, too, had been mortally struck.” Captain Robinson ordered the men to ditch the bikes and deploy behind the hill. They could not proceed until the enemy was dealt with.

“Ah, Corporal Masters,” Robinson said. “Now there is something you can do. Go down to that village and see what’s going on.”

Masters, happy to finally be chosen, asked how many men to take with him.

“No men, Masters, just you.”

Fine, thought Peter, I can do that. He explained to Robinson that he would sweep around the village and approach from the side to get the needed intelligence.

“You still don’t seem to understand what I want you to do. Go down this road and see what’s going on in this village,” Robinson said.

Masters understood. They were going to send the funny-talking stranger to draw the Germans’ machine-gun fire. During their training back in the British Isles they had been warned that some of the Brits might see them as an expendable suicide squad, and now it seemed this warning was coming true.

To Masters it “felt rather like mounting the scaffold leading to the guillotine.” But he didn’t take it too personally; drawing the enemy’s fire might truly be the most effective and quickest means of getting through Bénouville and reaching their objective, even if he was killed in the process. Peter walked alone down the middle of the road, like a hero in one of the Westerns he had watched in the Welsh cinemas. He was terrified but reminded himself that this was for the greater good. It was just a pity, he thought, that all his years of training were going to go to waste.

Then he remembered a different movie, one he had seen in 1939 called Gunga Din, starring Cary Grant as Sergeant Archibald Cutter, a British Army warrant officer in colonial India. To disarm an angry mob in one scene, Cutter had yelled that they were all under arrest.

Perhaps that could work here.

Where the lead bicyclist had fallen, Masters cleared his throat and bellowed in German: “All right! Surrender, all of you! Come out! You are completely surrounded and don’t have a chance! Throw away your weapons and come out with your hands up if you want to go on living. The war is over for all of you.”

There was an eerie and unnerving silence, but no one fired at him.

Masters looked back at Captain Robinson, who motioned at him to keep moving forward. So Peter continued down the road until the inevitable happened.

A German popped up from behind a small wall. He looked at Masters, considered him for a moment, and then shot at him. In response Masters went down on one knee, aimed his tommy gun, and fired back. Both of them missed.

Peter pulled the trigger a second time. The tommy gun jammed. He dived for cover to give himself time to clear the gun. The German fired another burst. Masters tried to shoot back, but his gun jammed again. He ripped out the magazine, cleared the breech, cocked it, and just as he was about to fire he heard a noise from behind him. The men of Bicycle Troop were charging with fixed bayonets. He got up and joined them, and they roared into the village as most of the Germans hightailed it across the fields, perhaps persuaded by Masters’s Gunga Din speech and certainly encouraged in their flight by the glint of the fixed bayonets.

[The story of Peter Masters’s gambit on the road to Benouville would go down in X Troop lore. But this tale — like the tale of X Troop more broadly — has never been told in full. Until now.]

Peter Masters (HMH Books & Media)
Peter Masters (HMH Books & Media)

Excerpt from “X Troop: The Secret Jewish Commandos of World War II” by Leah Garrett. Copyright © 2021 by Leah Garrett. Reprinted by permission of HMH Books & Media.

“X Troop: The Secret Jewish Commandos on World War II” is available for purchase.

Leah Garrett is a professor at Hunter College. Her last book, “Young Lions: How Jewish Authors Reinvented the American War Novel,” won and was short-listed for several major literary awards. She lives in New York City with her husband and their two daughters.

Editor’s note: This is an op-ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, haltman@militarytimes.com.

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