Feb 2006 Journal

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Churchill's 'unknown quantity': A unique commando troop

In Aberdyfi's Penhelyg Park, in a stunning setting overlooking Cardigan Bay, a monument commemorates the members of a unique commando troop who were billeted in the area for nine months in the midst of the Second World War. The monument was unveiled in May 1999 by Meuric Rees CBE, the former Lord Lieutenant of Gwynedd, in the presence of 28 survivors from the UK, New Zealand, Australia, the USA and Canada.

The commando troop was the brainchild of Earl Mountbatten, then Chief of Combined Operations. Its formation was authorised by Winston Churchill himself, who, regarding the troop as an unknown quantity, described it as 'X Troop'. In the legal language of Aliens Tribunals, the recruits were 'refugees from Nazi oppression'. Of over 350 such refugees who volunteered for unidentified 'dangerous duties', 86 were chosen initially.

The refugees were mainly of German or Austrian nationality, their principal distinction being their fluent German and their potential to reach the highest standards in commando skills. (Interestingly, neither the monument nor an official leaflet devoted to it contains any reference to the Jewish origins of most of the soldiers.) Aged mainly between 18 and 25, some had already been active in resisting the Nazis, but the majority still had to prove their worth. For many, their wait included a period of internment and service in the initially unarmed Pioneer Corps, the first unit of the British Army to accept alien recruits.

The purpose of 3 Troop, as it came to be called, was to produce soldiers who, whether attached to other elite troops in the front line or behind enemy lines, would carry out intelligence, interrogation and reconnaissance tasks.

Under Army Council Order, each recruit was obliged to adopt a British name and identity. One man who chose 'Smith' had to choose another name as he couldn't pronounce it properly!

On the Troop's arrival in Aberdyfi (then Aberdovey) in September 1942, only the local policeman shared its secret. Locals suspected it but kept quiet. Billetted in private homes, the commandos entertained the village with a variety of lectures and social events. Two Troopers married local girls.

The Troop's commanding officer was Bryan Hilton-Jones, a Cambridge modern languages graduate. Training included camouflage, rock-climbing, demolition and street fighting. The men did not qualify for commissioned rank until mid-1944, by which time it was evident that the 3 Troopers could not attain their full potential as a specialised elite without adequate status. With the removal of the restriction on promotion, eighteen 3 Troopers became officers.

Although a self-contained unit, 3 Troop was part of 10 Inter-Allied Commando, which at the time consisted of, among others, a Dutch Troop in Portmadoc, a French Troop in Criccieth and a Polish Troop in Fairbourne. Within 10 Inter-Allied Commando, 3 Troop was also known as 'The British Troop'. With the exception of 3 Troop, each component of 10 Commando trained to fight as an entity.

By the end of the war, individual 3 Troopers had taken part in the Italian and Adriatic theatres, including the invasions of Sicily and Normandy and the campaign from the Maas to the Elbe. They won praise for their special contributions. A total of 20 members of the Troop were killed in action and 22 were wounded or disabled.

In April 1946, Major Hilton-Jones MC noted that 'This band of "enemy alien" volunteers earned for itself a not unflattering reputation ... in no small measure due to the sincerity and wholeheartedness put into his services by every member of the "Troop". For them perhaps more than for many others it was a question of self-respect and self-justification.'

Last September, the Old Comrades' Association of Army Commandos was wound up in a moving ceremony on the parade ground of the Royal Marines museum in Portsmouth. Only three former 3 Troop members attended the final reunion. But several family members of former 3 Troopers were there too - delighted to have taken part in the ceremony to mark the end of a brotherhood which had meant an enormous amount to them all.

I am grateful to Colin Anson and William W. Dieneman for providing me with background information and photographs for this article. A detailed study of 3 Troop is to be found in Peter Masters, Striking Back: A Jewish Commando's War Against the Nazis (Novato, California: Presidio Press, 1997) - H.S.
Howard Spier

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