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The King's own loyal enemy aliens: German and Austrian Refugees in Britain's Armed Forces, 1939-45
By Peter Leighton-Langer
401 pages; GBP25
About 10 years ago in these pages, I reviewed three books by Jewish soldiers who had fought in World War II in British uniform. They had one curious thing in common: They were all German born. They had fled from the Nazis, and they served in fighting units where their knowledge of German was to come in very useful indeed.
Each told a fascinating, often moving story. What I did not realize then was that there were another 10,000 stories similar to theirs.
Peter Leighton-Langer, himself one of this select but influential company, has attempted to pull all these threads together to make a coherent tapestry. The diversity of the tales defeats him. But his main purpose, to call attention to these soldiers' deeds before the shadows claim them, is achieved.
They came to Britain by different routes: Some with their families, others alone. A fair number were half-Jewish or not Jewish at all. But most followed a familiar trajectory.
First they were drafted by the Pioneer Corps, where these somewhat mistrusted people built roads and dug ditches for the army. Then it dawned on the top brass that they could do more with this pool of highly motivated native German speakers. So they were transferred to nearly all the British army's fighting units, including the commandos, tanks, intelligence and artillery.
This rite of passage was marked by a compulsory change of name, to protect them should they be taken prisoner. Baumwollspinner became Barnes, Goldhammer metamorphosed to Gordon and Mosenthal turned into Mortimer.
Sometimes their talents found peaceful outlets. The former chef of Vienna's Sacher Hotel found his skills much appreciated wherever he went, and some exiled classical musicians formed an orchestra of formidable quality. Scientists, academics and engineers all found their niches.
Some services persisted in being cautious: All those drafted into the artillery, including the author, ended up in India on the Northwest Frontier. The Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force accepted very few former aliens. But for the most part, the pressures of war overcame reservations.
And frequently it was their language skills that made the difference. Some operated behind enemy lines, posing as German soldiers or eavesdropping on their communications, even penetrating wireless networks and sowing confusion with false information. Others interrogated captives in field conditions to gain immediate intelligence on enemy movements.
One soldier, a convinced socialist, exploited a parley with a German officer in charge of a group of soldiers by slipping round the back and persuading his men to stop fighting for the fascist cause. The parley ended unexpectedly, but pleasantly.
Even after the war, this group remained in demand, some even administering large areas of the country that had effectively expelled them years before. A few had the satisfaction of questioning and trying senior Nazis. Some were even recognized in the street. ("You are Herr Becker who lived with his mother in the Danziger Strasse - nein?") But most abandoned their former homeland and stayed in Britain for good.
Much of The King's Own Loyal Enemy Aliens, understandably, consists of the names of people Leighton-Langer and other researchers have been able to trace and a brief outline of what they did. Overall the book has a ruminative tone, dwelling on the unexpected and improbable twists and turns these soldiers' lives took. Leighton-Langer is especially intrigued by the effects the war had on their national identities. This was probably more of a problem for the non-Jews: The Jewish refugees had been forcibly severed from their German heritage. But he includes enough excerpts from personal accounts to give an impression of people who were above the average in education and standing. Many made very successful careers after the war.
Interestingly, there were equivalents in the American armed forces: A recent television documentary, The Ritchie Boys, highlighted young German-speaking refugees living in the US who received military training as interrogators and enjoyed adventurous military careers similar to the subjects of this book.
The author's prose, translated from his German original, occasionally punches above its weight, as when he writes of his conscription. "The sergeant cook was pleased to see me, because he had an enormous pile of potatoes in the corner of the kitchen and I was just the right person to peel the lot."
And his characterization of Chamberlain's war cabinet ("blessed as it was with plenty of goodwill, prejudice and ignorance") is both pithy and accurate.
And did these refugees make an appreciable difference to the war effort? Nothing can be proved, of course, but I suspect they did. Remember that the Germans did not have a large group of native English speakers to do similar work for the Wehrmacht, which must have put them at something of a disadvantage. Anyway, it is fitting that those driven out by Hitler helped to overthrow his Reich. Hitler was a destroyer of so many worlds, yet, as this book shows, he brought other worlds into being, without ever intending it. Worlds with marvelous stories to tell.