Rice, Smith, Taylor, Bates, Latimer, Platt…seem unlikely names for Czech heroes. However, these were the pseudonyms used to hide the identities of Czechs who, 75 years ago, volunteered for ‘hazardous duties’ in one of the most clandestine units in the British Commandos: ‘X’ Troop, N°10 (Inter-Allied) Commando. Formed in July 1942, the Czechs became the first members of ‘X’ Troop.
X-Troop, N°10 Commando
The central role of the X-Troop was to provide native German speakers to accompany raiding forces to act as interpreters, translators, interrogate prisoners, and encourage the enemy to surrender.
Little is known about the first group of seven or eight privates brought to Wales on July 24th, 1942 by Capt. Hilton Jones, and his Hungarian-born sergeant, ‘George Lane’ (Georg Lanyi). It is known that they were mostly German-speaking Sudeten Czechs and, like most members of the troop, probably of Jewish extraction. Furthermore, it was recorded that they already had ‘operational experience.’ Some members, such as ‘Latimer’ and ‘Taylor,’ had fought with the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War, while others, such as ‘Bates,’ had spent much of 1941 undergoing SOE (Special Operations Executive) training at schools in Arisaig, Wokingham and elsewhere.
While the initial group was most likely all Czech, the troop was later joined by other ‘friendly enemy aliens’ most notably from Germany, Austria, and Hungary. At full strength, the troop consisted of just under 100 men. The entire troop spoke fluent German.
To hide their true identities, members of X-Troop had to use an English sounding ‘Nom de Guerre.’ Moritz Levy became Maurice Latimer, Jan Theilinger became John Taylor, Gustav Oppelt became George Bate(s), and so on. But the deception went further, they were all issued with pay books and army numbers making them members of regular British units, e.g. the Royal Sussex, the East Kents (Buffs), the Royal West Kent and the Hampshires. Each was told to make up a cover story which would stand up to interrogation. Indeed, some claimed to be Welsh to explain their strong accents! False mailing addresses and next-of kin were provided. So complete was the cover, even today, there is uncertainty as to the real identity of some of the ‘X’ troopers.
What photographs there are show X troopers wearing the cap badges of their ‘regular’ regiments or the non-descript General Service Badge. It is therefore debatable whether the Czech members of X-Troop ever wore the regulation commando red on dark blue ‘CZECHOSLOVAKIA’ which went with the ‘N°10 COMMANDO’ shoulder flashes and the Combined Operations recognition badge. There were, nonetheless, other clues these were elite troops, i.e. Commandos. The cloth parachute badges are sewn on the sleeves of their battledress blouses (signifying parachute trained), their Denison smocks (N°10 Commando were one of the first units to be issued with these loosely fitting camouflaged jackets), green berets, rubber soled boots, Tommy guns and Colt pistols. As X-Trooper Ian Harris (Hans Hajos) remembered in Helen Fry’s touching biography, German Schoolboy, British Commando: ‘’we had [in the Commando] equipment no one else had…We were given Shetland wool pullovers’’. He wrote to his parents ‘’they are treating us like gentlemen here.’’
Based successively in Aberdovy (Wales), Achnacarry (Scotland), Eastborne and Littlehampton on the South Coast of England, they became one of the most highly trained groups in the British army. To fight in the Commando required a particularly wide breadth and depth of specialist training. Training programmes included: parachuting, boat landings, concealment, mountain climbing and abseiling, use of silenced weapons. More unusual skills such as picking locks, driving trains and identifying German army units were also mastered.
Tragedy at Dieppe
The first action seen by men from the Inter-Allied Commando was the ill-fated raid on Dieppe on the 19th August 1942. The raid set out to prove that it was possible to attack and seize an occupied port for a short period of time and to gather intelligence. While the majority of the soldiers who took part in the raid were Canadian, they were supported in their centre and flanks by N° 3, 4 and 40 (RM) Commando and elements of N°10 (IA) Commando. Fifteen members of the French Troop were attached to the commando units involved in the raid to act as interpreters. However, it is known five of the Czechs from the newly formed X-Troop, namely: Platt, Rice, Latimer, Bate, and Smith, also went on the raid.
Ian Dear, the author of Ten Commando 1942-1945, commented on the Czechs involvement: “As far as can be ascertained their role was to go with the troops that were to break into the town hall and the German Headquarters and find and remove any documents of value from it.”
N°10 (IA) Commando Historian, Nick van der Bijl, notes that: ‘’Privates ‘Bate’, ‘Rice’ and ‘Smith’ were attached to Royal Marine Commando A [later renamed: 40 (RM) Commando] with orders to break into Dieppe Town Hall…Privates ‘Platt’ and ‘Latimer’ were attached to a detachment from 2 Field Security Section, Canadian Intelligence Corps…with orders to search the German HQ and look for items of intelligence interest, in particular, a newly issued German respirator [anti-gas mask].’’
In a scene that could have come straight out of spy thriller, van der Bijl, goes on to describes how a “Lieutenant Goronwy Rees had recently been commissioned into the Welsh Guards…and was posted to GS (Intelligence) at GHQ, Home Forces when he was instructed to collect a sealed parcel from a sergeant underneath the clock at Victoria Station and then give it to the Czechs. He neither received nor asked for a receipt. Travelling to Bridport, he met up with 3 [‘X’] Troop but was unable to distribute all the contents, which turned out to be thousands of francs for the Resistance, because not every Czech was available. He assumed they were on some sort of suicide mission.’’ In an even stranger twist, after the war: ‘’Rees was later exposed as one of the Cambridge…. Communist spies along with Donald McLean, Kim Philby, and Anthony Blunt.”
If this reads like something from of the pages of a James Bond thriller, there may be a reason.
The Commando Veterans Archive, in an entry related to the history of the 30 Commando Assault Unit, points out: “In Nicholas Rankins book Ian Fleming’s Commandos, and later in a programme titled Dieppe Uncovered screened on the 19th August 2012, documents would appear to reveal that in fact an Intelligence Assault Unit was formed for the Dieppe Raid by Commander Ian Fleming RN [later author ‘James Bond’] and operated covertly on the raid as a Platoon of 40RM Commando under Lt H.O Huntingdon-Whitely, their role to “pinch” signals intelligence documents, etc. from German Naval HQ at Dieppe.” Did the Czechs, therefore, form part of Commander Ian Fleming’s Intelligence Assault Unit? Like so much related to X-Troop, we are left with more questions than answers.
The fate of the Czech X-troopers reflected the overall carnage at Dieppe. Of the first group, Bate was killed, and Rice and Smith were captured. None got anywhere near the Town Hall. Though taken the prisoner, Rice and Smith were never seen again. Lieutenant Rees later wrote, he “imagined that they disappeared on the beaches of Dieppe and that their names …never appeared in any official record.”
As for the other Czechs, Platt was wounded in his left leg and became the Troop’s storekeeper for the remainder of the war. Platt’s post operation report recounted: “As I was about to land [from a Tank Landing Craft -TLC] just behind the first tank ashore we were given orders by shouting to come back owing to a very heavy fire. We made a second try at landing…at a different place. Another tank was landed. During this landing, we were surprised by German mobile artillery. Nobody could land because the ramp was down and the fire was directed right into the TLC. While trying to land under cover of a tank at about 0945 I was wounded in the leg. I made no more attempts to land…”
Latimer, who was in a different TLC, recounted an equally desperate story: “Shortly after 0600 a landing was attempted….three tanks were landed. I saw one hit by a direct shot. It blew up. MG [machine gun] and howitzer fire were intense (cross and frontal fire).” Undaunted Latimer continues: “our small detachment waited its chance. We swam around from the galley of the TLC. We came onto the stony shore, lay in a hollow and looked around. The Germans were waiting for us on the beach. We could see some of them behind the rocks and sand about 120 yards away. It was impossible to go forward. We swam back to another TLC. The steering gear and main door were broken. The TLC was tugged home by gunboats.”
Latimer was the only one, from the initial group of five Czech Commandos, to return without being wounded, killed or captured. He later went on to serve with distinction in both the Normandy campaign and the attack on Walcheren.
One Officer and 43 other ranks of X-Troop, by now officially renamed No 3 (Miscellaneous) Troop, took part in the Normandy landings in June 1944. Once again, they didn’t fight as a single entity. Instead, they were divided up into small detachments of between two and five men and attached to other commando units.
As with Dieppe, casualties were high. Some X-Troopers died on or before they managed to reach the beaches. Others died fighting to keep the Orne bridgehead. All those attached to the newly formed No 41 (Royal Marine) Commando were killed or wounded. By now, well trained and battle hardened, some X- Troop members, were “disgusted” at N°41 (RM)) Commando’s level of training. In conversation with historian Ian Dear, X-Trooper, Sergeant ‘Freddy Gray’ (Manfred Gans), commented: “we couldn’t get the buggers off the beaches”. [Author’s note: By the time of the attack on Walcheren, 41 (RM) Commando had become masters at amphibious assaults].
Latimer was injured while leading a diversionary attack on the strongly fortified radar station at Douvres. When he came across a German, rather than make any noise, he hit him over the head with his Colt 0.45 pistol. However, in doing so, he injured his finger (which later went septic). A few days later, a full-scale attack on the strongpoint was launched. Gray recounted the incident. At first, there were no signs of any Germans: They were all underground. However, never short to use his initiative, when Latimer found a periscope, he kicked it in and threw a phosphorus grenade down it. Gray commented: “in no time at all the doors opened and out they came.”
Out of the 44 members of X-Troop who fought in the Normandy campaign, twenty-seven were either killed, wounded or taken a prisoner of war.
Attack on Walcheren
As the allied armies swept across France, to prevent the allies using the port of Antwerp, the German’s had fortified the island of Walcheren which dominates the mouth of the Scheldt. N°s 41, 47 and 48 (RM) Commando, supported by detachments from N°10 (IA) Commando, were tasked with taking the island. Latimer found himself among those from X-Troop involved in the landings at Westkapelle on the North-Western part of Walcheren. Both Sergeant Gray and Corporal Latimer were attached to N°41 Commando who had been tasked with clearing Westkapelle.
Again, in conversation with historian Ian Dear, Sergeant-Major Gray recounted how Cpl. Maurice Latimer persuaded an artillery observation unit located in the Westkapelle Tower to surrender. The enemy firing had all but ceased except for the one tall tower at the end of the village. Freddy gave his Tommy gun to Maurice and strutted down the Main Street conspicuously unarmed, shouting at the top of his voice: “Ergebt Euch alle – Ihr habt keine Chance!” (Surrender – you don’t have a chance.) In response, a German sergeant came out and started laying down his conditions for surrendering.
Latimer, a Socialist, had a pragmatic and populist approach. Gray remembers: “He thought that the common man was much better than those in charge… so he went behind my back and, more importantly, behind the [German] sergeant’s [back] and got the Germans in the tower to surrender without any conditions at all. He led them out the back so their sergeant wouldn’t see them. Then he told the sergeant he might as well give up also as he had no troops left.”
Gray also recalled an incident, later in the Walcharen campaign, when he and Latimer were tasked with infiltrating enemy lines and taking a prisoner: “We set out at about 3 am, crossed the minefields and established ourselves behind the German lines. We picked up a few prisoners who were carrying coffee and interrogated them and asked where their commanding officer was. They were very reluctant to tell us. I told them I’d shoot them and they cried. While I was interrogating them, Latimer drifted off somewhere. Then I suddenly saw a figure come out of a bunker and stand there in the half-light asking where his coffee was. I knew this was the man we wanted and was about to tackle him when out of the sky – or so it seemed – flew Latimer and landed right on this officer. Latimer was small and wiry, but he was one of the world’s best rugby tacklers. He knocked the man to the ground, and that was the end of him.” In true X-Troop style, the German Officer was then persuaded to go round his own strong point and order his men to surrender.
With the German surrender on 8th May 1945, most members of X-Troop became part of Intelligence units, tracking down war criminals, acting as interpreters and interrogators, and infiltrating Nazi resistance groups.
One interesting anecdote from the period, immediately after the end of hostilities, was that when Gray heard that his parents might be in the Theresienstadt (Terezin) concentration camp, in Czechoslovakia, he drove the 450 mile journey from Walcheren to Czechoslovakia and managed to persuade the Soviet authorities to let his parents be taken to England.
With demobilisation, most of the Troop applied for and were granted, UK citizenship. Most went on to have distinguished careers in civilian life. Platt is believed to have lived in Canada (but may have died in South America), while Latimer and Taylor stayed in the UK. Their service in N°10 (Inter-Allied) Commando, with its close links to British Intelligence and the SOE, ruled out their safe return to, what was then, Soviet occupied Czechoslovakia.
Lack of Recognition
Many can draw inspiration from X-Troop: Not every Jew, not every German, and not every Czech sat idly by while Nazi tyranny engulfed Europe. As former X-Trooper ‘Peter Masters’ wrote, “Getting back at the Nazis was an ever present motivation.” While films such as ‘’Inglorious Bastards’’ seek to portray Jewish Commandos as merciless killers, as far as X-Troop were concerned, the reality would appear more nuanced. In particular, by persuading significant numbers of German troops to surrender, often at great personal risk to themselves, X-Troopers, such as Latimer, undoubtedly saved lives on both sides.
Altogether 130 men passed through X-Troop, of whom 19 became officers. Twenty-one were killed in action and at least another 22 wounded.
Members of the Troop were awarded one MC (Military Cross), one MM (Military Medal), one Croix de Guerre, one MBE (Member of the British Empire), one BEM (British Empire Medal), one Certificate of Commendation and three Mentioned in Despatches.
Jewish military historian, Martin Sugarman, comments: “The numbers of awards are derisory considering their exploits and the inevitable death sentence they faced if captured – not to mention the danger to any of their surviving relatives in Nazi Europe. Many details of the men were known to the Gestapo and reprisals would have been immediate.”
Peter Masters believed that the paucity of decorations might have been the result of the fact that the Troop never fought as a unit but were detached to serve with other Special Forces. As there was probably an unwritten “ration” of awards per raid, or per unit, a Commanding Officer was loath to recommend for awards men who did not belong to HIS unit.
A memorial to all the members of 3 ‘X’ Troop. No.10 (IA) Commando was erected in Aberdovy, North Wales, where the troop had trained. The inscription on the reverse reads: “This British Army Commando Troop initially consisted of eighty-six German-speaking refugees from Nazi oppression who were given fictitious names and identities as British nationals for their own protection and effectiveness. Commanded by Major Hilton-Jones MC, their special duties were reconnaissance, interrogation, and intelligence. Deployed singly or in small groups, they rendered distinguished service in the defeat of Hitler’s Germany.”
At Ashton Wold, in Northamptonshire, the Hon. Miriam Rothschild, wife of the Troop’s first Sergeant, ‘George Lane,’ planted a grove of trees on the grounds of her house in memory of those of 3 ‘X’ Troop who were killed.
In 2009, a memorial to Czech and Slovak soldiers, such as Bates, who trained at the SOE’s training school near Arisaig, Scotland, was unveiled. Former Arisaig trainee, Col (retd.) Jaroslav Klemeš, read the Remembrance. Poignantly, the memorial was declared a War Grave, “as too many of them were buried in places known unto God.”
Unfortunately, to date, in the Czech Republic, the specific Czech contribution to this elite unit hasn’t been fully appreciated and, as a result isn’t part of the Czech Republic’s shared national conscience (in contrast to say, ‘Operation Anthropoid,’ the assassination of Heydrich). This lack of recognition doesn’t represent any deliberate effort to downplay the role of these Czechs, but rather reflects the relative paucity of information about those Czechs who served in X-Troop.
Czechs who served with 3 ‘X’ Troop, N°10 (Inter-Allied) Commando
|Nom de Guerre||Name||Service Number||Note|
|Pte. George Bate(s)||Gustav Oppelt||5550123/13801860||KIA Dieppe|
|Pte. C. Rice||Unknown||Unknown||KIA (murdered)? Dieppe|
|Pte. J. Smith||Unknown||Unknown||KIA (murdered)? Dieppe|
|Cpl. Latimer Maurice||Moritz Levy||6436346/13118701||WIA Normandy|
|Pte. Platt||Plateck/Platschek||Unknown||WIA Dieppe|
|Pte. John Taylor||Jan Theilinger||6305478/13118712||Invalided (grenade accident)|
WIA: Wounded in Action. KIA: Killed in Action. Source: Jewish Virtual Library/ Commando Veterans Archive
While no formal memorial exists in the Czech Republic one Czech re-enactment group, headed by former Cheb Museum Archaeologist and Military Expert Martin Sedivy, has sought to keep the memory of this extraordinary group of commandos alive through an active program of re-enactment and educational events.
It is hoped that by marking the 75th Anniversary of the formation of X-Troop, the contribution and sacrifice made by these Czech commandos will be recognised and that a more complete picture will emerge.
The article is dedicated to the memory of those Czechs who served with ‘X’ Troop, N°10 (Inter-Allied) Commando.
Prague, 24th July, 2017
The author would like to acknowledge that the article draws upon the work of others. Notably: Ten Commando 1942-1945 by Ian Dear, No 10 (Inter-Allied) Commando 1942-45 by Nick van der Bijl, Fighting Back by Martin Sugarman, The Jewish Virtual Library, The Commando Veterans Archive, Striking Back- A Jewish Commando Writes by Peter Masters, and German Schoolboy, British Commando by Helen Fry.
The author is a British National living in the Czech Republic. Anyone with information about Czech, or other, members of 3 ‘X’ Troop, N°10 (Inter-Allied) Commando is kindly asked to make contact with The Commando Veterans Archive (www.commandoveterans.org), The ‘Hand of Steel’ (Ocelová pěst) reenactment group, or the author (email: [email protected]).