“X Troop: The Secret Jewish Commandos of World War Two” by Leah Garrett (Mariner Books, 2021)
Leah Garrett is the Professor and Director of Jewish Studies at Hunter College, CUNY. She has published five books on Jewish history, and has won and been shortlisted for numerous literary awards. Her most recent book, X Troop: The Secret Jewish Commandos of World War Two, tells the story of a group of heroic Jewish refugees who left the safety of Britain to wage war against Hitler. An excerpt is below:
X Trooper Corporal Ian Harris (original name Hans Ludwig Hajos) was a standout soldier. Fearless and determined, he was in his element in combat, and relished fighting. With dark hair, a broad face, and a thin mustache, he looked like a young Clarke Gable. Harris was raised by a Jewish family in Vienna who had converted to Protestantism in order to protect themselves from rising antisemitism. He had been educated in a Protestant, military boarding school which became a “hotbed” of National Socialists.
He did not know he was Jewish until he was 13, and a defining moment occurred at his boarding school: “One day they all started beating up this little fellow and said ‘You bloody Jew,’ and I was standing there and much to my surprise all of a sudden I joined in and hit him. And he turned around and looked at me and said ‘You too?’ I shall never forget the face of this little fellow.”
The rage he felt towards the Nazis was deep. When he was 18, he ran away from school and back to Vienna because he could no longer take the pressure of being a Jew in a Nazi school.
In 1939 he made it to England and was soon chosen for the X Troop, where he recalled of the training that “It was very tough. I enjoyed it immensely.” Ian Harris was the tip of the spear in battles from the D Day landing onward through France and into Germany.
On April 6th, 1945, X Trooper Ian Harris crossed the River Weser with the 45 Commando [unit]. They faced a ferocious response. Along the river bank, the Hitler Jugend had dug drenches and were fighting every inch with accurate small arms fire.
Corporal Harris led the way. It was a scene of utter confusion. Some of the Germans were attacking, others were trying desperately to surrender. He ran along the front, capturing Germans and ordering them to the rear. As he reached one of them, he saw him reach for his grenade. Harris smashed his Tommy gun into the man’s teeth and tore off the German’s jacket with the grenade and threw it into the river. He kicked him, the man fell, and he took him prisoner. As he did so, Harris realized that they had over-run a series of German slit trenches. Behind him were 15 or so commandos who were all about to all be mowed down by German machine guns.
He had to act or they would all be killed.
Harris ran straight at the Germans, firing his Thompson.
He shot two men dead, grabbed the third, and threw him down the bank.
Then two of the enemy rushed at him. He and the Germans were out of ammunition. It became a hand to hand melee. He was able to disarm them and take them prisoner. Harris was not done fighting, but what could he do without ammo?
Coming up behind him, he saw a terrified replacement private lugging a Bren Gun.
“What the hell are you waiting for, man? Give me your Bren!” Harris yelled.
The gunner knew that this lunatic would kill him with his bare hands if he didn’t do as he was told. He handed over his Bren Gun. Harris started shooting at the remaining Germans who were running straight towards them. An entire platoon was trying to overrun their position. Harris hadn’t seen anything like it in the war. The Germans fell left and right, but just kept coming. The Hitler Jugend SS were fanatical and fearless and were seemingly undeterred by the British fire, but finally their advance spluttered out.
Harris’ beret had fallen off his head. He found it, picked it up, and put it back on again just as the magazine of his Bren Gun exploded from a bullet’s impact, and fragments flew everywhere including straight into his eye. He fell and then rolled down the bank. Corporal Harris was alive but seriously wounded. He was loaded on a dinghy to be ferried back across the river for medical care.
Of the Germans he had killed and wounded that day, he had no regrets at all. “These were the SS and some might have been my former classmates. I knew all about them and I felt so proud that I had accomplished what I had set out to do — get my own back.”
Harris survived, although he lost his eye and wore, with considerable dash, an eye patch for the rest of his life. For his acts of bravery, he was awarded the Military Medal and this moved him deeply: “There weren’t many medals going around for refugee boys from Vienna…”
The citation for his award was signed by Field Marshal Montgomery. “The courage of this NCO has seldom been surpassed and he undoubtedly saved the lives of many of his comrades by his spontaneous action. His unceasing determination to get at the enemy will always be an inspiration to all.”
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Author: Leah Garrett
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