On Memorial Day, remember this secret troop of Jewish commandos from World War II

Leah Garrett is a professor at Hunter College. She is the author of “Young Lions: How Jewish Authors Reinvented the American War Novel” and “X Troop: The Secret Jewish Commandos of World War II.” The views expressed here are her own. View more opinion on CNN.

This year marks the 80th anniversary of America’s entry into World War II. As one of our most studied conflicts, it often feels as if all the stories about it have now been told. This is not the case.

Leah Garrett

As America marks a Memorial Day in transition — a de-escalating pandemic alongside rising anti-Semitism, political division and racism — an untold story from this long-ago war not only sheds a light on a crucial chapter in the Allies’ success, but also offers insights about the upsurge in hatred and xenophobia in the United States and abroad, along with the crisis at the southern border.
    For the least three years I have been working on excavating the unknown story of a remarkable secret Jewish commando unit, who former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill named X Troop. Made up of German and Austrian Jewish refugees, all the X troopers had suffered violence and hatred in their birth countries. Arriving alone as teenagers in the UK on Kindertransport in the late 1930s, they understood profoundly that the Nazi scourge of murderous hatred had to be stopped.
      I wrote my book while working as a professor and director of Jewish Studies at Hunter College, City University of New York. Hunter is one of the most diverse universities in the country, and our president, Jennifer Raab, is a tireless advocate for our many Dreamer students. Most of my students have no Jewish background, and yet they were completely fascinated by X Troop. Like the X troopers, many of my students came to a different nation because their parents felt they were in profound danger in their home countries. And for both the Jewish refugees in the UK and migrants at America’s southern border, the government distrusted them so much that they were initially locked away.
        When the war broke out, these Jewish refugees were interned by the British as enemy aliens, often in horrific conditions in camps in the UK, Australia and Canada. But once they were selected for this top-secret commando unit of German speakers, they became among the most efficient fighters in the British forces.
        Yet they had to do their work in secret, since to protect themselves and any family members still alive in Germany, they were required to hide their Jewish identities and take on fake British names and backstories. These German Jewish lads had to assume the persona of tea-drinking, cricket-loving British officers.
          X troopers underwent tough, extensive training in Wales and Scotland that included live-ammunition drills, winter seaborne landings and survival exercises that included having to make their way to London after being dropped off without money or rations in the Scottish Highlands. They were so schooled in counterintelligence that, as one later wrote, they knew more about the German military than many of the Germans themselves.
          Bicycle Troop landing at Sword Beach in Normandy France, on June 6, 1944.

          Here are just some examples of what these refugees in British uniform accomplished. Lt. George Lane (real name: Lanyi György), an aristocrat who had been a member of the Hungarian Olympic water polo team, undertook secret operations into Normandy in the weeks before D-Day and gathered crucial intelligence on German mines that enabled the invasion to take place. Sgt. Paul Streeten (Paul Hornig) was on one of the first boats to land at the Sicily invasion, and successfully routed the Italians until receiving a serious shrapnel wound.
          Lt. Peter Masters (Peter Arany) was one of the first land forces to reach Pegasus bridge in France, and secured vital intelligence that enabled the British to cross the Rhine at Wesel. Cpl. Ian Harris killed and captured so many German SS soldiers that he was awarded a military medal. Sgt. Maurice Latimer seized a crucial outpost on Walcheren in the Netherlands by tricking the Nazi garrison there. Sgt. Colin Anson’s interpersonal skills and bravery assisted in the bloodless surrender of a garrison of SS soldiers on Corfu. And after being central to a whole string of Allied successes in France and the Netherlands, Lt. Manfred Gans drove across Germany as the war was ending and, incredibly, rescued his own parents from the Theresienstadt concentration camp.
          X trooper Ian Harris leading captured German prisoners in April 1945.

          Although the X Troop were initially a group of despised refugees, they turned the tables, landed at Normandy and fought all the way into the heart of the Reich in their attempt to right a world gone seriously awry. As Peter Masters (Peter Arany) later noted in his biography, “Striking Back: A Jewish Commando’s War Against the Nazis,” where other British soldiers would draw straws for who had to do the most dangerous missions, the X troopers drew straws for who had to stay behind.
          Yet after the war, it took years for the men to be naturalized because they were still formally considered “enemy aliens.” Even while waiting for their naturalization, X troopers were central in the British denazification efforts, interrogating top Nazis, gathering crucial evidence for the Nuremberg trials and capturing Nazis and their sympathizers. Though their wartime service was directed against the German menace, for those who came to the United States, they continued to devote their energy to making the world better, particularly for the poor.
          After receiving a Fulbright to study art in New York City, Peter Masters worked for the government on antipoverty programs and helped design the groundbreaking Profiles of Poverty exhibition at the Smithsonian. Paul Streeten became a famous economist who was a senior economic adviser to the World Bank on issues related to the needs of the poor. Manfred Gans became an MIT-trained chemical engineer responsible for many patents. After he retired, he worked for the United Nations, traveling to developing countries to help adopt or repair chemical plants and factories. All of them were strong supporters of America’s civil rights movement.
          Similar to Japanese-Americans who were interned in the United States and then became the heroic and fierce fighters of the 442nd Infantry Regiment, once the X troopers were given the chance to join the British Army, they worked harder than just about anyone to destroy the evil they knew firsthand.
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            As we celebrate Memorial Day, I feel intense gratitude towards these soldiers, some of whom I met while writing “X Troop.” These men fearlessly fought against evil and were willing to sacrifice their own lives for the greater good. I think the commandos would have been disheartened that anti-Semitism is on the rise in the country they loved and believed in. With them no longer with us to fight these dark trends, we can use their lives as an example of the importance of combatting racism and anti-Semitism and rooting out the impulses that enable hatred to grow.
            Like countless refugees to the United States, the X troopers knew only too well how precious freedom was and devoted their lives to making their new country better. And this is a lesson that I kept being reminded of as I wrote the book while I taught Hunter students, many of whom were refugees and dreamers who faced deportation, hatred and prejudice. They know what freedom means. They know how tenuous democracy is. And in order to survive as a country, they are absolutely central to our ability to become better and stronger.

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