Jewish commando who found his parents alive in Nazi death camp

A new book tells the story of the X Troop, a secret squad of Jewish fighters who operated deep in Nazi territory


In May 1945, British army commando Manfred Gans received a tip-off that his parents might be in the recently liberated Nazi death camp of Theresienstadt, and still alive.

Lieutenant Gans — a member of X Troop, a secret “shock” commando unit composed mainly of Jews desperate to strike back at the Nazis — rushed to acquire a jeep, driver and supplies and sped 400 miles across war-ravaged Europe to Prague, about 40 miles from the camp.

Gans managed the journey in three days and astonished the camp’s Russian guards when he turned up in his British officer’s uniform.

He was directed to a central register where he told a young Jewish woman: “I am looking for Moritz and Else Gans.” She found their names, and told him: “I think you are lucky.” She got into Gans’ jeep to direct him “along roads filled with dying people”.

Gans asked the young woman to go to his parents first, to prepare them for the shock. She did so, and soon all three were embracing and crying with joy. Outside, shouts of “mazeltov” filled the air.

This story is one of many extraordinary episodes documented in X Troop: the Secret Jewish Commandos who helped defeat the Nazis, a new book by Leah Garrett about Gans’ unit.

The 87-strong commando team, most of whom hailed from often comfortable homes in Germany, Austria, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, have been compared to the Jewish revenge squad in Quentin Tarantino’s film Inglourious Basterds.

Unlike the Inglourious Basterds, however, they did not kill the Germans they arrested – but did operate deep in enemy territory and sometimes came face to face with top Nazis as part of their undercover work.

X Trooper George Lane, a Hungarian Jew, had a bizarre “afternoon tea” with Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, and lived to tell the tale.

Lane and his colleague, an expert in mines called Captain Roy Wooldridge, were captured by the Germans in 1944 and were separated, blindfolded and then driven to what turned out to be Field Marshal Rommel’s headquarters in the French countryside.

Lane was nervous that torture would cause him to abandon his cover story and reveal his true identity. Because his blindfold did not fit properly, he was able to make a mental map of his surroundings, which he managed to report on once he was free. Meanwhile, his German guard told him to clean himself up —“because you are to be interrogated by someone important”.

He was led into a study, and Rommel was standing at the fireplace. Instinctively, Lane saluted, and an odd conversation ensued in which the British operative spoke to Rommel in perfect German. Tea was poured and Rommel asked after “my friend, General Montgomery”. Lane said he didn’t know him but that he imagined he would see him soon, as Montgomery was busy preparing the invasion. Rommel later wrote to his wife about an “extraordinary interview with a sensible British officer”. Lane was then taken back to his cell.

Another member of the unit, Corporal Ian Harris, born Hans Ludwig Hajos in Vienna, got a tip-off in April 1945 about a German headquarters near Osnabruck where the soldiers were prepared to give themselves up.

When he arrived, Harris discovered an entire SS battalion. A major came out and asked Harris, whose uniform bore no insignia, what he wanted. He said he had come to accept their surrender, though he knew they could easily kill him. To break the ice, Harris offered the Nazi major a packet of Gold Flake cigarettes and pretended that he, too, was a major — though in fact he was a lowly corporal. The two agreed surrender terms over dinner and Harris drove slowly back to Allied HQ, with an entire garrison trailing behind him.

Trained to crack commando standards in Aberdovey, Wales, all these men had in common was that they were Jewish — and they were desperate to get into the war and defeat the Nazis.

X Troop, or Number 3 Troop, was formed in 1942.

Of the original 87, many had arrived in Britain as teenagers with the Kindertransport. After a brief lull in which they gained an education and learned English, their hopes of entering the war to fight for Britain were dashed when they were rounded up and arrested as enemy aliens, to be interned in camps on the Isle of Man.

Eventually — after repeated pleas to be allowed to join up — they were permitted to enrol in the Pioneer Corps — not a fighting unit, but a labour force.

It was a conversation between Lord Mountbatten and Winston Churchill that finally led to the creation of X Troop in 1942. Mountbatten suggested the launch of a special new unit of highly trained commandos made up of displaced nationals.

As well as killing and capturing Nazis on the battlefield, the X Troopers would use their language skills to interrogate captured men and use the intelligence to help decide next steps in the fighting.

Twenty X Troopers were killed between 1942 and 1943, a fact recorded on a memorial to them in Aberdovey. There is no mention that they were primarily Jewish.

However, there are now plans to erect a separate monument to the X Troopers at the National Arboretum in Staffordshire, which will contain both English and Hebrew inscriptions.

‘X Troop: the Secret Jewish Commandos who helped defeat the Nazis’ is by Leah Garrett (Chatto and Windus, £20)

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