THE LAST OF THE SEVEN, by Steven Hartov (Hanover Square August 2022), is a beautifully written historical novel based on the exploits of a special commando unit consisting of German and Austrian Jews who joined a special-ops unit of the British Army during WWII. Because they were fluent in German, their assigned unit was with SIG, the Special Intelligence Group. Their highly classified mission involved parachuting behind enemy lines and masquerading as German soldiers, in an effort to bring a top nuclear scientist out of Germany. It was for that reason, X Troop, became their nom du guerre. That ragtag group of volunteers, also known as the “lost boys,” were orphans playing soldier, having lost family, friends, and home, but not hope, as they sought to join the battle against the Nazis.
X Troop, under the leadership of “Major Butler” played a key role in the North African campaigns, especially in the battle of Tobruk, and the Normandy Invasion. Butler’s charges, all Jews, which he and his fellow officers referred to as their “FJD” – “filthy Jewish dozen” – were on the receiving end of relentless anti-Semitic tropes, to which the landsmen in arms grit their teeth and endured the abuse; they had more important tasks ahead than parrying callous canards. Despite Major Butler’s obvious display of prejudice, it was not surprising that the British Combined Operations command thought nothing of assigning him to lead a group of Jewish commandos, because anti-Semites “salted all the British ranks.”
Vulgar witticisms in Yiddish, Italian, German, Cockney, American, and British expressions ricocheted off the walls of the remaining buildings which managed to withstand the crushing onslaught of the German war machine. Expletives were part and parcel of the military lexicon because it reduced stress, enhanced bravado, and lessened fears of imminent death. For those reasons, their superiors tacitly encouraged the men to use obscenities, by setting an unmistakable example.
What would a novel be without a love interest and this story does not disappoint. Lieutenant Bernard Froelich, after suffering a severe leg wound, found transport to a monastery in Sicily, which doubled as a field hospital. It was there he met the lovely Sofia, the ice girl, a name she earned because she doled out refreshing treats of ice chips to the wounded, while leaning on a single crutch. Sofia had lost one leg, nevertheless she found a way to contribute to the war effort.
Once Froelich recovered, he reluctantly had to leave Sofia, and return to the battlefield. But first, he along with his fellow X Troopers, had to undergo a stretch of specialized advanced commando training in preparation for a critical game changing mission. Their drill sergeants and officers drove them so hard that the commandoes would just as soon kill them as the enemy. It was only then, when they reached that wrathful state, they were ready to engage the enemy.
In war, one always expects the unexpected; this story does not disappoint. There was a chance meeting between Lieutenant Froelich and Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, at which time they shared a cup of tea. There was another instance, when unwittingly a German Messerschmitt came to the rescue of the British commandoes by shooting down an English Spitfire that mistook them for the enemy. And because of the crucial part X Troop played during the Normandy Invasion, it gave rise to the legend that their heroism inspired Winston Churchill to sign the order to create the Jewish Brigade. The fog of war breeds strange bedfellows and for the commandoes of X Troop, it made no exception.
The book contains vivid descriptions of the heroic exploits of soldiers and civilians facing wartime casualties and imminent death. The nature of casualties suffered, and the manner of death, give credence to the well-worn expression, “War is Hell.” Because the commandos’ missions were beyond dangerous, they were certain they were destined to die. However Lieutenant Froelich did not share their pessimistic view. Strengthened by the belief he would live to fight another day, survive the war, and enjoy a rendezvous with his love Sofia, he soldiered on.