Two years after ordering the mass internment of German refugees at the start of the second world war, the British government put a small, elite group of them in military uniforms and sent them on a secret cloak-and-dagger mission to occupied Dieppe to snatch an Enigma coding machine from under the Nazis’ noses.
A new book published later this month presents extraordinary evidence that the refugees, all Germans who had fled from Nazi-annexed Sudetenland, were at the centre of military planning for the daring and ultimately disastrous August 1942 raid on Dieppe. The idea was that while British and Canadian troops staged a frontal assault on the port, a group of five refugee soldiers would break into a hotel used by Nazi military commanders and steal both the Enigma machine and the code books that enabled the Germans to send encrypted military communications across Europe.
Under the direction of Lord Mountbatten and Ian Fleming, at the time a senior naval intelligence officer and later the author of the James Bond books, the Sudeten Germans spent a month training in Wales, using Harlech Castle as a stand-in for the Hotel Moderne in Dieppe to practise breaking into a heavily secured location and recovering sensitive German-language documents at high speed.
As Leah Garrett, an American university professor, recounts in her book X-Troop: The Secret Jewish Commandos of World War Two, the raiding party never got close. The troop convoys crossing the channel under cover of darkness were spotted by a German patrol boat, and by the time the soldiers reached the Dieppe beaches, they were greeted by a fearsome barrage of artillery and machine-gun fire. del 6,000 troops sent to Dieppe, quasi 1,000 were killed, più di 2,400 were wounded, and nearly 2,000 were taken prisoner.
While the story of the Dieppe disaster has been told many times, the role of the refugee commandos has never previously come to light – much less the notion that the entire raid was designed as a distraction so they could seize an Enigma machine unnoticed.
Garrett unearthed a long-classified, after-action report written by one of the Sudeten Germans, known by his Anglicised name Maurice Latimer, who said his orders were “to proceed immediately to German General HQ in Dieppe to pick up all documents, etc of value, Compreso, if possible, a new German respirator”.
“Respirator” was almost certainly a code word referring to the Enigma machine. Code breakers at Bletchley Park near Milton Keynes had partially decrypted a three-rotor Enigma machine in 1941, revealing key information about the whereabouts of German U-boats but, by the following spring, the Germans had switched to a new, four-rotor machine that was much harder to crack.
Getting hold of one of the new machines was seen as a high priority, because British ships were once again coming under attack, endangering food supplies and other key provisions and equipment for the home front.
George Lane, a Hungarian sergeant who helped trained the five Sudeten Germans, was married to one of the Bletchley Park code breakers – suggesting a further connection between the raiding party and Mountbatten’s strategic thinking. A few months earlier, Lane had been invited to join the Special Operations Executive (SOE), formed during the Battle of Britain to conduct espionage, sabotage, and information-gathering in Nazi-occupied Europe.
It was a welcome turnaround in fortunes for Lane, who had tried to join the Grenadier Guards after the outbreak of war only to be tagged as an “enemy alien” along with tens of thousands of other refugees from central Europe and relegated to the menial work of the Pioneer Corps. His luck was that SOE needed people fluent in European languages – a need that soon spawned the creation of an entire commando unit made up of largely Jewish refugees that became known as X-Troop.
A majority of those refugees had spent the summer and autumn of 1940 in British internment camps – a panic move by Winston Churchill’s government as the Nazis overran the Netherlands and Belgium and Italy entered the war on the Axis side. They protested in vain that they were passionate anti-Nazis, not German “fifth columnists”, and subsequently joined the Pioneer Corps as a way to prove their loyalty to their host country.
The best of them were then selected for X-Troop, and subsequently saw action in North Africa, Sicily and in France after D-Day.
As Garrett reconstructs the timeline, Mountbatten had just come up with the X-Troop idea in the summer of 1942 when he realised he was going to need German speakers for the Dieppe raid. Pinching an Enigma machine was another of his areas of responsibility. The plan he and Fleming formulated would require participants to identify the relevant code documents and, possibly, to interrogate captured German soldiers.
Of the five men on the mission, tuttavia, none got close to the Hotel Moderne, and only Latimer returned in one piece. One of his fellow soldiers was killed, one was badly wounded, and the other two were captured and spent the war in German hard labour camps.
The X-Troop idea remained very much alive, tuttavia. The day after the Dieppe raid, the captain in charge of the secret troop, Bryan Hilton-Jones, was hard at work interviewing potential new recruits from the Pioneer Corps.
“Having gone through the horror of losing most of his first group of men in a botched operation,” Garrett writes, “Hilton-Jones vowed that this would never happen again … He would train them harder than any other unit in the British Army.”