Review: X Troop tells the fascinating tale of Jewish commandos trained in Wales
During World War II, a band of daring and highly trained Jewish commandos, composed of men born in continental Europe, but forged as warriors in Wales, is the subject of a thrilling new book.
X Troop by Leah Garrett tells the story of this unique squad of soldiers. The unit was the brainchild of Lord Mountbatten. He foresaw the efficacy of foreign-born but British-trained fighters whose backgrounds and languages would provide a unique skill-set and motivation in helping to liberate their home countries.
He proposed the idea to Winston Churchill who dubbed the resulting ‘British troop’ (No. 3), as ‘X Troop’. ‘Because they will be unknown warriors,’ Churchill declared, ‘they must perforce be considered an unknown quantity. Since the algebraic symbol for the unknown is X, let us call them X Troop.’
As it was composed of Jewish German-speaking refugees from the Reich, they required special protection from the Nazis.
Made in Wales
X Troop was fashioned in the north-west of Wales. The recruits were sent to the small picturesque village of Aberdyfi where they were reborn as commandos. They were told to adopt British names and to hide their European and Jewish origins from the local inhabitants.
Unlike regular army soldiers, they billeted with Welsh families in the area. Commandos were encouraged to be independent and self-reliant so there was no central camp in Aberdyfi.
These young men, many of whom were intellectuals and the sons of diplomats and scientists, had to be made into commandos, the best of the best. This was done by Bryan Hilton-Jones, another Welshman. A keen mountaineer he knew the area intimately. They adored their ‘Skipper’ as they named him.
They were shaped by the local landscape where they spent days and nights hiking over mountains with full packs and practising beach assaults, live ammo drills, rock climbing, parachuting, and demolition work.
They also spent weeks on Snowdon, doing speed marches and runs in full kit, including a fifty-three-mile run up and down the mountain. As Garrett writes, ‘the X Troopers would also come to know the highest mountain in Wales like an old friend.’
They also carried out mountain training in the nearby town of Bethesda at the famous Idwal Slabs. These were typically the toughest and most dangerous days of their training.
It served them well for their dangerous missions during the war where 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 the translation. Of the eighty-seven volunteers that passed through the ranks of this elite unit, half were killed, wounded, or disappeared without a trace.
Even though the commandos’ Jewish heritage was an inextricable part of their unit’s history and their extraordinary motivation to defeat the Nazis, this has been omitted from the official local history of the X Troop.
After the war, in 1999, some of the surviving commandos returned to Aberdyfi where they decided to commission and erect a memorial to X Troop in a park overlooking the harbour.
Although eighty-two of the eighty-seven men who served in it were Jewish, it was decided to leave out any reference to their background. Some of the reasons given, Garret writes, were it was felt that by ‘putting a reference to their Jewishness on the memorial might make it more likely to be vandalized; they didn’t want to “rub it in the face” of the Welsh villagers with whom they had billeted (an idea that suggests lingering anti-Semitism); many of them hadn’t told their friends and families of their Jewish roots and had no intention of doing so now; they were soldiers first and foremost; most were not religious; and so on.’
Today, as a result, the memorial reads: ‘For the members of 3 Troop 10 (1A) Commando who were warmly welcomed in Aberdyfi while training for special duties in battle 1942–1943[.] Twenty were killed in action.’
Another plaque set into the seawall of the park also avoids the word ‘Jewish’ (it refers to the troop as ‘eighty-six German-speaking refugees from Nazi oppression’). Likewise, the pamphlet produced for the unveiling of the memorial, The Story Behind the Monument: Penhelyg Park, Aberdovey, also does not mention they were overwhelmingly Jewish describing the unit as an assortment of Germans, Austrians, and others of various backgrounds.
Despite a campaign by Martin Sugarman, former archivist of the Jewish War Veterans of the UK (AJEX, or Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women) and author of the book Fighting Back: British Jewry’s Military Contribution in the Second World War, Aberdyfi Community Council has not reconsidered its decision.
Let us hope, as Leah Garrett writes, that the publication of this book will encourage the council to revisit its position. In the meantime, her X Troop stands as a fitting testament to a unique band of brothers who, although born elsewhere, were made in Wales.
X Troop: The Secret Jewish Commandos Who Helped Defeat the Nazis by Leah Garrett is published by Vintage priced £20.