Manfred Gans had been waiting for this moment for the whole war, and now that it was here, he was stuck on desk duty.
He had done his best since fleeing Nazi Germany in 1938 to keep track of his parents as they tried to escape the Nazis, and he had vowed to himself that he would rescue them as soon as he could. It was probably impossible, he knew, but as a highly trained British commando, it was slightly less impossible for him than just about anyone else on the planet.
But first, he had to get back into the field of battle.
Gans was part of an elite, top-secret unit called the “X Troop,” made up of German-speaking Jewish men scattered across the British front lines of World War II, dubbed by some as “the real ‘Inglourious Basterds.’ ” With the help of declassified documents, letters, diaries, interviews and in-depth research, historian Leah Garrett tells the story of these men — including Gans’s incredible journey — in the 2021 book “X Troop: The Secret Jewish Commandos of World War II.”
“We have this vision of Jews during the Holocaust — which is true — that they were victims and slaughtered or that nice Gentiles rescued them,” Garrett told The Washington Post. “And this story is so unique … and optimistic in its own strange way, that these guys could fight back and get their agency back.”
Most of the 87 men who eventually served in the X Troop came to England when they were teenagers aboard “Kindertransport” trains, where they were assigned to farms, schools and hostels around the country for care. But not Gans. Though he grew up experiencing antisemitism, he came from a prominent Orthodox Jewish family, and in July 1938, when he was 16, his parents privately arranged his move to England. In London, he stayed with family friends and got a temporary visa.
It’s rarely remembered today, but when World War II broke out in 1939, the British government, at Winston Churchill’s behest, immediately declared its 70,000 German and Austrian immigrants “enemy aliens,” even though the vast majority — about 55,000 — were Jewish refugees. And like Japanese Americans and Japanese immigrants in the United States, they were sent to internment camps in the U.K., Canada and Australia. Gans was sent to a filthy camp near Manchester, where the rats were plentiful and food was scarce, and then to a camp on the Isle of Man, where Jews were held alongside pro-Nazi Germans.
By 1940, some of the young men in the internment camps were allowed to go free if they volunteered in the Royal Pioneer Corps, a noncombat army unit that performed manual labor jobs like airfield construction and guarding bases. Even then, they were kept in segregated “alien” units and watched closely. Most of them, like Gans, were highly educated, in the best shape of their lives and aching to fight the Nazis.
In the summer of 1942, at the height of Hitler’s power and at the suggestion of Lord Louis Mountbatten, Churchill made an about-face. Not only would some German-speaking Jewish men be allowed to enlist, but they would be trained as commandos.
Ordinarily, commandos would be at the tip of the spear, capturing enemies, who would then be sent far behind the front lines to interpreters with the interrogation skills needed to extract information. It could be a slow process, and often their intel came too late to be helpful on the battlefield. But the X Troop trained as commandos and interrogators. They could capture enemies and grill them in German right then and there, mid-battle, when what they learned would be most helpful.
The British formed similar units for immigrants with other language skills; there was also a French troop, a Dutch troop, Polish troop and so on. But the German-speaking Jews were meant to be a secret weapon, so they were dubbed X Troop.
They were also forced to shed all aspects of their previous lives. They took on English names like George Lane and Colin Anson — Gans went by Fred Gray — and while undergoing grueling training in Wales, they practiced their backstories and English accents on locals. (They were apparently not very convincing, but the locals were happy to play along, Garrett wrote.)
These young men formed lifelong bonds with one another, but once they made it out into the field, they didn’t fight together. “They’re parceled out in two and threes, because they become so valuable,” Garrett said. That’s how X Troopers ended up playing crucial roles in some of the most important battles in World War II — roles that until recently were top secret.
In July 1943, X Troopers were in commando units in Sicily, clearing beaches of barbed wire and lookouts undercover of darkness before the rest of the Allied forces invaded. The capture of Sicily was a key first step in forcing Italy to surrender.
X Troop Lt. George Lane carried out reconnaissance missions in Normandy that were so vital, D Day might have been scrapped without the information he provided. Then during the last of these missions, he was captured and interrogated by Nazi Field Marshal Erwin Rommel himself, who did not recognize the young man as a German-speaking Hungarian Jew. With the help of other British prisoners of war, he relayed Rommel’s location to London. Months later, Rommel was seriously injured when his car was strafed by Allied fighter aircraft, effectively ending the war for him. (He later died by suicide.)
When D-Day finally arrived on June 6, 1944, Gans landed with British marine commandos on Sword Beach in France, with orders to advance three miles inland by the end of the day. His first thought upon hitting the beach, he later recounted to the BBC, was, “At last I’ve come back!”
When British sappers blew a hole in the Germans’ steel barricades, Gans leaped through the gap and, in perfect German, ordered the Nazis on the other side to show him the path through their land mines. The British marines following Gans were the first to make it to the rendezvous point that day — and without a single casualty.
In another mission, as the Allied forces made their way into France, Gans was assigned to a British tank battalion attacking a German radar station. He noticed a small periscope poking out of a bunker, inserted a grenade into it and then shot the grenade with his gun, filling the bunker with noxious fumes. About 150 Germans came out, waving white flags, and surrendered to the handful of marines.
On more than one occasion, X Troop commandos, including Gans, persuaded much larger German forces to surrender, using bravado and their language skills to convince the enemy they were surrounded when they weren’t.
As more and more of Europe was liberated and the end of the war seemed near, Gans was assigned to noncombat work in the Netherlands, which he found frustrating. In March 1945, a few days after his hometown in Germany, which was just over the Dutch border, fell, he visited, spotting German civilians he had known his whole life who had turned against his family. His childhood home had been used as a torture facility by the Gestapo.
His parents were long gone. The last he had heard, they had been moved from Bergen-Belsen to the Theresienstadt concentration camp in what is now the Czech Republic.
By early May, he couldn’t wait another minute. Though it was clear the war would end soon — rumor was Adolf Hitler was already dead — there was still intense fighting in some places, and the Nazis were massacring Jews as fast as they could before they were forced to surrender. If his parents were still alive, they might not be for much longer.
That’s how Gans ended up in a British military jeep, speeding through the heart of the Reich as it crumbled, on a 400-mile quest to save his parents. He had food rations, a few extra tanks of gas, a machine gun, a handgun, a bag of grenades and — to drive — a young private named Bob.
Also, the brakes on the jeep did not work.
They left at dawn on May 7, 1945. By the end of the day, Germany would surrender, but they had no way to know that. That night, they slept in a German barracks in Münster that had been taken over by American troops. The next day, they made it as far east as Kassel before hitting the Soviet front line, where the Red Army refused to let them cross.
On the third day, they drove south before heading east again, arriving into the town of Aue with a flat tire. While the driver worked on repairing it, they were surrounded by German troops and civilians. Neither the Americans nor the Soviets had arrived there yet, and they were barraged with angry questions. There was a “lynch mob atmosphere,” Garrett said. They left as quickly as they could.
After crossing the Czech border, they encountered thousands of German soldiers, who, seeing their British uniforms, demanded to be able to surrender to them. Gans refused. Later, he recalled a German woman, a civilian, begging him, “Please, you have to protect us. We cannot live under the Russians. They will rob us.”
“Your soldiers have done far worse,” he told her.
At another point, they met a few British prisoners of war walking on the road. They were rail-thin. “You ought to see what they did to the Jews,” they told Gans.
Czech resistance fighters guided them to the gates of Theresienstadt, where the Red Army had arrived the previous day. The Soviet guards, shocked to see a British officer, let him through.
Inside, it was a horror. For part of the war, Theresienstadt was a “model camp,” a Potemkin village designed to trick the outside world into believing the Nazis were treating Jews well. There was no extermination area, and the prisoners here, mostly “cultured” Jews and the elderly, were fed decently, had entertainment and ran their own newspaper.
But the days of carrying on the charade were long gone. When Gans arrived, tens of thousands had died of disease and starvation. Their bodies lay everywhere. Those still alive remained because, in the chaos of war, the Nazis had forgotten to exterminate them, according to Garrett.
Hundreds of starving people surrounded Gans’s jeep, and soon they directed him to a registrar’s office. The Nazis kept meticulous records of their cruelties. In this case, that was beneficial. Soon, he was driving to the building where his parents were supposed to be. Though they were German, they were in an area of the camp housing Dutch prisoners, since they had been hiding on a Dutch farm when they were arrested.
Once there, Gans asked another prisoner to go in and tell his parents the news. He was afraid that if he surprised them, the shock might be too much for their weakened bodies.
Then he went in. He described it this way in his war diary: “The next minutes are indescribable. I suddenly find myself in their arms. They are both crying wildly … I look at Father and in spite of having prepared myself for a lot, I have to bite my teeth together not to show my shock. He is hardly recognizable. Completely starved and wrecked.”
News of the reunion spread quickly in the camp, and people surrounded the building, shouting “mazel tov” and breaking into song. They stayed up almost the whole night, talking, drinking tea and looking at the stars.
The Soviets didn’t let Gans take his parents away from the camp. He wouldn’t have done it anyway; the journey back would have been too dangerous. He left his parents the next morning with a large box of rations and, they told him, “the will to live.”
Gans and his driver arrived back at his post at 3 p.m. on May 10, carrying a dozen Allied prisoners of war they had picked up along the way. Gans also had a letter from the leader of the Dutch prisoners, which he hand-delivered to the Dutch princess; she had just returned from exile to re-form a government. Soon, the Dutch prisoners at Theresienstadt, including Gans’s parents, were flown back to safety in the Netherlands.
Most of the commandos in the X Troop didn’t have families to whom they could return; mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters were killed in the Holocaust. So they chose to continue using their English names and became British citizens. In her book, Garrett refers to each man by the name they stuck with after the war. Gans was the rare exception to return to his given name. He had his parents and his siblings, who had also escaped abroad, and even a grandmother who survived.
Gans got a degree in engineering in the U.K. before marrying a childhood friend and immigrating to the United States. They had two children, Daniel and Aviva, and Gans had a successful consulting career. Gans died at his home in New Jersey in 2010, at 88.