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Jonathan van der Veen
Heterodox Contrarian

British WW2 Historian Discusses Jewish Stories on D-Day

Recently we honored the 80th anniversary of D-day, the Allied naval invasion of France, which helped end World War Two by defeating Nazi Germany. I invited British Historian Helen Fry to discuss the Jewish contribution to World War Two, and in particular, D-day.

As a historian, Ms. Fry has authored and edited over 25 books on World War Two, covering a wide variety of topics. These include, but are not limited to: “Espionage & Spies,” “Expert on Secret Listeners,” and “The Man Who Saved MI6.” Moreover, Ms. Fry is an ambassador for the National Centre for Military Intelligence and serves as a trustee of both the Friends of the Intelligence Corps Museum and the Medmenham Collection. Ms. Fry is also a recipient of the Lifetime Contribution Award for Jewish Military History and Education, awarded by The Jewish Military Association. She works in London.

We have rightly seen a flurry of celebrations, remembrance, and commemoration of the D-day anniversary. However, these events are typically focused on the combined military efforts of the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada (to a lesser degree) to invade Normandy. It is easy to understand why, as each country had a beach to invade. The US landed at Utah & Omaha, the UK landed at Gold & Sword, and Canada landed at Juno. Nevertheless, there are countless other stories of heroism, service, and sacrifice on D-day besides the naval landings, including airborne paratrooper landings behind enemy lines, the French Resistance sabotaging infrastructure and the Special Operations Executive (SOE) conducting clandestine operations. Moreover, there were many people outside frontline service who also served their nation and contributed to the war effort. This article will tell some of the stories Helen Fry collected and shared with me.

Service to one’s country is a noble duty to perform and one that was expected and eventually mandated by the introduction of conscription in Britain following the outbreak of hostilities with Germany in 1939. In spite of the dire nationwide need for young and healthy recruits to the armed services, Ms Fry remarked that Jewish refugees to the UK were actually barred from military service for a long while. “We’ve got the younger generation, 18, 19, 20, you know, that were old enough <for military service>, Jewish refugees that could enlist in the British army. Now, when war broke out on the 3rd of September 1939, They were technically known by an awful term: enemy aliens.”

This meant that all Jewish-German refugees were forbidden from joining the military at the beginning of the War. Nevertheless, Ms. Fry explained that as the war progressed into 1940 and the Allied situation drastically deteriorated with the fall of France on June 25th of that year, the UK was increasingly desperate for manpower. As a result, the military opened up non-combat roles for Jewish refugees. Ms Fry cited the numbers, saying: “So from early 1940 right the way through to the end of 42 Up to 6,000 to 7,000 German Jewish refugees joined the Pioneer Corps, and another 3,000 joined a bit later, sort of in the middle of the war. And the really important thing about this story is that, unlike the British lads, they, these enemy aliens, could not be conscripted.”

Ms. Fry continued telling me about the roles of the Pioneer Corps. They spent the next couple of years doing forestry work, constructing coastal defenses, and working on the docks. Nevertheless, Ms. Fry said, this wasn’t their idea of serving the war effort: “But they’re all really frustrated because this is not their idea of fighting Hitler.” Finally, by 1942, the British government realized the strategic value of having almost 10,000 German speakers who are Jewish and, therefore, ardent anti-Nazis who could be relied upon to not be traitors or double agents.

So, the government started embedding these native German speakers into a variety of roles, including the Special Operations Executive (SOE), which is Britain’s World War Two spy agency. However, at this point, the allies still are not in Europe; so, their job is primarily intelligence gathering behind enemy lines and serving as translators. Others serve at Bletchley Park, decoding German communications. There was also a women’s auxiliary corps set up. But what many of these men most wanted was frontline combat service. So, the so-called ‘X Troop’ was created of 100 refugees to England, 90% of which were Jewish soldiers. However, Ms. Fry pointed out me that “unlike our other commando units that serve together, they were broken up, and they were attached to different commando units.”

One of the first soldiers Ms. Fry spoke about was Willie Field. Helen told me that Willie Field, a Jewish soldier, was actually born ‘Herschfeld.’ Mr. Field had an incredible story of survival and service. He landed D-Day plus one with the Royal Armored Division.

Asked why he wanted to fight for Britain, Willy showed immense gratitude for his host nation and replied, “I wanted to give something back to Britain for saving my life.”

Willy wasn’t speaking in hyperbole. In fact, the United Kingdom was partly responsible for saving Willy’s life and that of countless other Jews who sought refuge in Britain against Nazi persecution. However, his story gets even more incredible. Unlike the vast majority of Jewish refugees who fought for the United Kingdom, Willy was not amongst the Kindertransport, which brought 10,000 Jewish refugees (mainly unaccompanied children) to England. Rather, Willy had survived and managed to escape Dachau concentration camp.

When I asked how he accomplished this miraculous feat, Helen conveyed how impressed she was with his resilience and said, “When when you think he’d survived Dachau, five months in Dachau, his old employer managed to get him out, and he survived so many times and fought for 11 months on the front line as a sole survivor.”

Reflecting upon the momentous events he had partaken in, Willy Field remained humble. Despite his own heroic service, Willy said, “But for all the risks, I never once regretted being part of the biggest invasion force ever to land in the Normandy beaches in June 1944, even though it brought personal losses.”

Another Jewish soldier who participated in D-Day was Bill Howard. Like Willie Field, Bill had also Anglicized his name, which was originally William Hertzberg.

The first time Ms. Fry mentioned a Jewish soldier anglicizing their name I didn’t think much of it; earlier in our conversation, however, Ms. Fry had mentioned to me the vast number of Jews who had fled Germany in various waves of refugees, most notably the Kindertransport. So, learning that they rejected their old names to try and assimilate, I wondered how these Jewish people felt about returning to Germany after the war. Ms. Fry noted that it was very uncommon: “There’s one or two exceptions. I said to them, ‘But how could you know if you’ve just come out 38, 39 or before?’ They said, ‘We just had a feeling. We just knew deep inside that we were not going back.’ And I think that’s interesting because they did believe that ultimately Hitler would be defeated, and I thought they couldn’t rebuild their lives.”

Bill Howard was one of those who never returned home. Bill served in the Royal Navy, and interestingly, he was serving aboard the only British ship providing support off the coast of Omaha Beach, with the rest being American. Bill Howard was, therefore, given a front-seat view to one of the most awe-inspiring military operations ever undertaken in history, unmatched in its scale before or since. Reflecting on what he saw, Bill said, “Our guns started opening fire in the early hours of the morning and carried on for hours. The noise was unbelievable. I watched as the troops landed on the beach. It was awe-inspiring. These boys were the real heroes!”

Although not directly in the frontlines storming the beaches, naval servicemen were very much an important part of the war, and were in constant danger. Despite common misconceptions throughout the war, the British seaman consistently had higher casualty rates than other branches of the armed forces -particularly unarmed merchant mariners who were targets of German submarines, the infamous U-boat. So, knowing all this, Helen elaborated on the crucial role Bill played in the war, which was helping track enemy naval movements.

Upon finishing our discussion of these brave men’s service in World War Two, Ms. Fry said why she thinks re-telling their stories is so important: “I think historically people don’t see Jews as fighting back, do they? They always think of them as being a passive victim or something. My guys were very conscious of that. You know, they said we did fight back.”

I couldn’t have agreed more with this sentiment, which was a big motivator for me to invite Ms. Fry to speak. In most WW2 documentaries, Jewish aspects of the war are understandably limited to Kristallnacht and the Holocaust, both of which are well documented also in film. However, by telling the other stories – those of survival, service, and heroism, not just
victimization, Helen Fry has underscored the underrepresentation of Jewish fighters in our collective knowledge of World War II.

If you found this interesting, Helen Fry’s new book ‘Why I Became an X Troop Commando: A Life of Colin Anson, the German who Fought for Churchill’ is being released in September and covers much the same ground, but in greater detail.

About the Author
I did my BA at Mount Allison University in Canada, studying History & Political Science. Thereafter, I began to pursue a degree in Journalism but took a hiatus from school to accept numerous job offers. I got my start in writing working for ERETZ: the Magazine of Israel in Tel Aviv, Israel. From my homeland Canada I have been published by both the National Post, and Jewish Post & News. The paper I currently write for and help publish is The Jewish Post -the successor to the now defunct paper: The Jewish Post & News. As a researcher and writer, I believe that applying historical context along with an in-depth knowledge of regional identity and political ideologies is the best way to identify and explain current geopolitical trends as well as forecast growing tension and unrest in future areas of conflicts -militarily, politically, and economically.
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