Untold Story

by | Oct 21, 2021 | Book Reviews

X Troop—
The Secret Jewish Commandos of World War II

Leah Garrett

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2021

351 pages

Ask most American Jews about Jewish warriors and they will promptly mention the Maccabees and contemporary Israeli soldiers. In X Troop—The Secret Jewish Commandos of World War II, author and historian Leah Garrett, provides a long overdue addition to that list with a well-researched account of Jewish/British Commandos and their extraordinary contributions to the defeat of Nazi Germany.

The opening chapters take readers to late 1930’s Germany and Austria where well-established Jewish families must cope with the Nazi’s steadily escalating anti-Jewish measures. In 1938, following Kristallnacht, many desperate Jewish families make the heart wrenching decision to send their children to England as part of the Kindertransport. Rather than providing a collective, historian’s description of this time-period, the author combines meticulous research and a storyteller’s touch to introduce individual families and their sons as they try to escape the Nazi’s ever tightening grip.

Upon arrival in Britain, these young men are initially placed with relatives, sympathetic families, and charitable organizations. However, when England declares war on Germany, the boys who were outcasts in Germany due to being Jewish are now seen as a threat to their new home due to being German. They are promptly rounded up and placed in internment camps much as the Japanese were in the U. S.. Garrett’s account of the deprivation and gratuitous cruelty suffered by the occupants of internment camps in England, Canada, and Australia shines a spotlight on a dark and little-known chapter of British history.

As the war continues, Winston Churchill recognizes the potential value of adding German speaking refugees to British commando units. All the better to include German Jews seeking an opportunity to fight against Hitler and his antisemitic regime. Eighty-seven volunteers are selected for “X Troop” and undergo extremely intense commando training. Previously urban, intellectual German Jews are quickly transformed into fit and ferocious warriors who even take on Anglo names and identities in case they are captured.

Instead of fighting as a single unit, the X-Troop commandos are embedded with other British commando squads where their fluency in German can have the broadest impact. This disbursal complicates the author’s task. Rather than tracing a single commando squad through the war, the narrative follows individual Jewish commandos from unit to unit, campaign to campaign and operation to operation. At times, the shifting narrative, combined with abundant military acronyms and the commandos’ dual identities can be daunting. However, readers are rewarded with astonishingly detailed accounts of each commando’s missions during critical engagements including the Normandy Invasion, the Battle of the Bulge, and the post-war de-Nazification of Germany.

The X Troopers’ bravery and ability to interrogate German prisoners in the heat of battle repeatedly provide crucial, actionable intelligence regarding German positions, numbers, armaments, minefields, and more. One Jewish commando uses his fluency and charm to convince the Germans to surrender their garrison on the Island of Corfu without a single shot being fired. Another helps lead his force through minefields on Normandy Beach based on intel gained from captured Germans. Yet another single handedly captures hundreds of German soldiers. The X Troop commandos suffer heavy losses with many killed, wounded, and missing in action, but some survive the war and play key roles in de-nazifying post war Germany and bringing Nazi war criminals to justice.

Franky, it is astonishing that this fascinating historical tale has remained untold for decades. Whether a fan of World War II history or just looking to add to your list of Jewish war heroes, X Troop is that rare blend of historical treatise and gripping war story that will educate, engage, and inspire.

Skip Sacks is a native of Norfolk and is Virginia State Counsel for Stewart Title Guaranty Company. Sacks has served as an adjunct professor at ODU and occasionally reviews books to honor the memory of his father, Hal Sacks, who wrote hundreds of book reviews for this publication.

Leah Garrett will be in Tidewater on Thursday, October 28. See page 28.