In 1942, Winston Churchill and his generals decided to create a secret commando squad, known as X Troop, made up of Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria. Leah Garrett tells the story of one member, Peter Masters, and his participation in the invasion of Normandy, in this excerpt from her new book on the unit:
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 . . . X Troop. The X Troopers . . . were German speakers who were trained in counterintelligence and advanced combat techniques. To protect themselves from execution if captured, they took on fake British names and personas. The X Troop had proved 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.
Soon after landing in France, the Bicycle Troop found itself dismounted outside a village in which a German unit was guarding passage to a bridge the Jewish commandos had been ordered to take. At this point, Captain Robinson, Masters’s commanding officer, ordered him to “go down to that village and see what’s going on.”
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.
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.
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.
More about: Jews in the military, Winston Churchill, World War II