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The SIG: behind the lines with Jewish commandos

Martin Sugarman

<plain_text><page sequence="1">The SIG: behind the lines with Jewish commandos MARTIN SUGARMAN The British forces in the Second World War spawned many 'special', or uncon? ventional units. Some were well known, such as the Army Commandos, the SAS (Special Air Service) and the LRDG (Long Range Desert Group). But among the most ambitious, daring and mysterious were the Jewish commandos of the SIG. Colonel Terence Airey - who ran G(R) Branch (formerly Military Intelligence Research at the War Office in London) - wrote in March 1942 that part of the recently disbanded No. 51 Middle East (Jewish) Commando, consisting of many German-speaking Palestinian Jews, was to be formed into 'a Special German Group as a sub-unit of M E Commando . . . with the cover name "Special Interrogation Group", to be used for infiltration behind the German lines in the Western Desert, under 8th Army ... the strength of the Special Group would be approximately that of a platoon'.1 The letter continued: 'The personnel are fluent German linguists . . . mainly Palestinian (Jews) of German origin. Many of them have had war experience with 51 Commando. ... it is essential that they be provided with transport; a) one German Staff car b) two 15 cwt. Trucks.'2 A second letter added: 'this issue [of transport] is of high operational importance'. The SIG were a subgroup of D Squadron ist Special Service Regiment. Some were also recruited, according to Maurice Tiefenbrunner (Tiffen), my main informant (see Appendix 1), directly from the Palmach, the strike arm of the Jewish underground army, the Haganah3 and Etzel (the Irgun), a semi-legal Jewish underground group. Two of the Irgun members were Dov Cohen and Israel Carmi (later an officer in the Jewish Brigade and the Israel Defence Forces) and another recalled by Tiffen was Karl Kahane. All three survived the War. The SIG's true strength has never been made known, though it was prob? ably about twenty-eight, according to Tiffen. Other recruits he remembers coming from Jews in the Free Czech Forces (about eight), the French Foreign Legion (perhaps two) and German-speaking French Jewish troops. Tiffen recalls their first training base as having been at Geneifa near Suez. When he returned from Eritrea with the 51st Middle East Commando, he and his comrades were visited by a British captain looking for German-speakers, whom he knew he would find at Geneifa. In fact the War Diary of the 51st Commando survives, and a cryptic entry by the CO for 17 March 1942 describes the arrival at Burgh 287</page><page sequence="2">Martin Sugarman el Arab 'of a Captain Buck, to select German-speaking personnel with a view to certain work'.4 The British commanding officer of the SIG, Captain Herbert Cecil A. Buck, MC, 3/1 Punjabis and Scots Guards, was an Oxford scholar who, like his Palestinian Jews, spoke fluent German. He had served with the Punjabis and once, when he had been wounded and captured by Germans in North Africa at Gazala, he had escaped using an Afrika Korps uniform. Surprised by how easy it was for a German-speaker to pass unmolested through Axis lines, he had had the idea of setting up the SIG. Historians are still unable to agree on what SIG actually stood for. Peter Smith5 calls them the Special Identification Group, as does Eric Morris;6 but in his index, Morris also refers to them as the 'Special Intelligence Group'. Colonel Airey, referred to above, calls them 'Special Interrogation Group'. Whatever their title, Ariyeh Shai (known as Sheinik, according to Tiffen), a Jewish veteran of 51 Commando and of SIG, was an early volunteer and described his training: 'situated somewhere at the far end of an isolated group of desert encampments ... we received no promises. Capt. Buck had warned that lives would depend on our ability to wear our disguises faultlessly, to learn to perfection the slang prevalent among the soldiers of the Afrika Korps, and to drill in accordance with all the German methods. "If your true identity is found out", said Buck, "there is no hope for you". Contacts with other British units were nil', in order that they live, eat, drill, speak and behave like Germans. At about this time the Revd Isaac Levy, Senior Jewish Chaplain to the Eighth Army, travelling west from Mersa on his duties, had been told that a somewhat unusual outfit was to be found in the vicinity of a vague map reference. Picking our way through a fairly clearly marked minefield,7 my driver and I ultimately discovered ... a special Commando unit undergoing intensive training. Except for the CO, all were Palestinian Jewish volunteers. I met the men in a shed which was crammed full of German uniforms and equipment. I learned to my intense surprise and profound admiration that this unit was destined to be taken behind enemy lines for special Commando operations and sabotage. ... All their activities were conducted in German, daily orders were published in that language and often in the dead of night a man would be suddenly awakened and he had to speak in German. None must be caught by surprise. These men knew the risks were they to fall into enemy hands. . . . denied the status of POW, they would be shot out of hand. The most painfully distressing aspect of my encounter with these superbly brave men was the confidential information transmitted to me by several of them.8 In conversation with the author in April 1997, the Revd Isaac Levy, now Honor? ary Chaplain to the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women, described how 'the camp was even more off the beaten track than the norm to be expected in the Western Desert; at first I thought they were prisoners of war. On seeing my Jewish Chaplain's badges, however, they spoke freely to me about their 288</page><page sequence="3">The SIG: behind the lines with Jewish commandos Plate i In Tel Aviv, 1942 (left to right): a Free Czech soldier, Walter Essner (the German traitor), Maurice Tiffen and Rosenzweig. concerns.' He went on to specify what these were: 'They were convinced that one member of their group was untrustworthy, possibly a German who had been living in Palestine before the War and was a fifth columnist, and not Jewish. They wished me to notify the CO, which I duly did, but he assured me their doubts were unfounded. It subsequently transpired that the men's suspicions were justified.' In fact two Germans, Walter Essner (or Esser) and Herbert Brueckner, had been conscripted from a POW camp to train the SIG. Tiffen describes Brueckner as big, brash, fair-haired and in his twenties, and Essner as quiet and good natured in his thirties.9 They had been members of the French Foreign Legion before the War, professing to be German anti-Nazis. When they had been captured in November 1941,10 serving in the 361st Regiment of the Afrika Corp, they had been recruited by the British 'Combined Services Detailed Inter? rogation Centre' (CSDIC) as double-agents. But Tiffen explains that they were not trusted by the Jewish members of SIG, who opposed the idea of the two actually going into action with them. But Buck insisted and the orders were obeyed. 289</page><page sequence="4">Martin Sugarman Tiffen describes how each day the SIG were awakened by cries of Kompanie aufstehen! ('Company get up!'), followed by twenty minutes of strenuous PT,11 and trained all hours of the day and night with German weapons, were ques? tioned suddenly on their German 'identities' and were taken to the mess room goose-stepping. They learned German marching songs, and about whom and when to salute. The strenuous training welded them into a team skilled in hand? ling explosives, desert navigation and unarmed combat, as would be required by a special raiding force. They were also all expert mechanics and drivers of German vehicles.12 Some of their earlier exploits included taking captured German vehicles behind enemy lines near Bardia and setting up roadblocks. Dressed as German military police, they stopped and questioned German transports, gathering cru? cial intelligence. On other forays, unspecified by Gordon Landsborough in his book,13 they would carry out sabotage behind German lines while wearing German uniforms, or would simply pull in at German camps, speak to troops and gather information. On one occasion, Tiffen even lined up to draw pay from a German field cashier. He explained later how he was so caught up in his trained role as a German soldier, that he hardly had time to dwell on the danger of what he was doing. On other occasions, he described how he and other SIG mingled with German POWs to gather intelligence and to learn how they behaved. In June 1942 the SIG were given their first major task: to assist the founder of the SAS - the charismatic Major David Stirling - to blow up German airfields on the coast, 100 miles west of Tobruk, at Derna and Martuba. These were threatening the supply convoys for Malta, the base of supreme importance in the struggle to starve Rommel of the supplies he needed to defeat the Allies in North Africa. When Buck was approached by Stirling about the raid, he was absolutely delighted; it would enable him to show what his Palestinian Jews could do.14 Tiffen describes how the SIG were to meet the SAS at Siwa oasis, work out detailed plans and leave no later than 8 June. They would go in on the night of 13-14 June with fourteen men and an officer (Lieutenant Jordain) of the Free French Squadron, escorting them hidden in the back of two captured Afrika Korps trucks and a command car. Cowles, however, claims the SIG had four vehicles with Afrika Corps strip and insignia - a Knevelwagen (a military version of the VW), one Opel, one German 3-ton lorry and a 'captured' British 30 cwt lorry - and eight SIG men.15 Tiffen says there were twelve SIG men, four in each of two lorries and the rest in the command car, five of whom had been in 51 Commando and two others who were Free Czech Jews.16 Morris and Tiffen claim they were posing as German guards openly escorting French POWs in captured Allied trucks. 290</page><page sequence="5">The SIG: behind the lines with Jewish commandos Whatever the case, the raiders set out from Siwa after three days of checking supplies and weapons and of gathering last-minute intelligence from Eighth Army HQ, escorted by the Long Range Desert Group under Captain Guild on 6 June. This patrol was to establish a rendezvous point and wait for the com? mandos after the raid, according to Cowles. After four days the SIG team changed into German uniforms; Buck was a private driving the lead vehicle,17 and next to him were Essner and Brueckner as NCOs. Ariyeh Shai was the driver, Corporal Schubert. Atop each truck was an SIG 'guard', posted German style as a lookout. Each SIG man carried a Luger, machine gun, bayonet and grenades, and - according to Cowles - the French were dressed in khaki overalls with blue forage caps, and carried grenades and a .45 automatic pistol each. Each lorry also concealed two ready-mounted machine guns. That day the British lorry broke down, but was taken in tow by Buck's vehicle. Then Shai describes how 'we saw a roadblock with a red and white barrier and guard room, about 4 pm in the afternoon. A skinny Italian soldier wearily waved us down and demanded the password.' Captain Buck was non? plussed for a moment, since British Intelligence had supplied them with the password only for May ('Fiume') and not for June.18 Buck or Brueckner now flourished their forged orders in the sentry's face, saying they had been on a mission before the old password was changed, but this failed to convince the guard. Then a major arrived, suggesting they go to the guardroom to discuss the matter over a glass of wine. Buck and Brueckner went, playing their role superbly, explaining they had to deliver the trucks from Agedabia to the Derna workshops. But the genial major would not relent, as he had orders to let no one through without the password. Buck looked at Brueckner and the German took the hint. 'You are holding us up', roared Brueckner in German. 'I'll report you to your superiors. Keep out of the way. Don't you see German soldiers are coming back from the desert?' Eventually they were allowed to pass through, but the sources do not explain how an NCO got away with speaking to an Italian major in that manner. In the evening the convoy met another roadblock. A fat German corporal waved them through, warning that 'British Commandos reach even out here', and advising them to park in the transit camp a little further on. So as not to arouse suspicion, Buck did as he was advised. At the camp they filled up with fuel, chatted with German soldiers, bought some provisions at the local canteen, and 'Corporal Schubert' even stood in line to get some supper - 'lentils and dumplings'. The French, in hiding, watched this with amusement from slits in the truck canvas sides. Shortly afterwards, the convoy left unnoticed and parked several miles down the road, overnight. On the afternoon of the next day, 13 June, the party carried out a reconnais? sance of the airfield targets to be hit that night. Brueckner drove, taking Jordain 291</page><page sequence="6">Martin Sugarman and four other men. They saw one airfield with Messerschmidt uos and the other with Stukas. The two fields at Martuba were not investigated for fear of arousing suspicion. All returned safely by 5.30 pm. The commandos were parked within 5 miles of the two Derna airfields, at the agreed post-raid rendezvous. They were to split into two parties - one led by Buck and Essner, in a truck with three SIG men and five of the French who would attack one of the Martuba airfields, and the other led by Jordain (the French CO) and Brueckner, with the other nine French SAS and three other SIG, including two named Hass and Gottlieb, to be taken in two parties to the two airfields at Derna. Swinson claims Buck stayed at the rendezvous point to coordinate the operation, while Tiffen says that he himself was at the rendezvous with the command car and another SIG member, to act as liaison between the two groups. Whatever the truth, so far all had gone well. Clearly, however, they would have to obtain the proper password, so Brueckner and Essner had earlier in the day been sent to a nearby German post to ask what it was, and, astonishingly enough, had been told it. The challenge was 'Siesta' and the reply, 'Eldorado'. Cowles gives a different version: Buck typed a letter to be given to the fat German NCO they had met earlier, requesting the password, and two SIG men - again Hass and Gottlieb - volun? teered to deliver it. They took the Knevelwagen and found the German, who quipped that he was not sure even he knew it; they all laughed merrily and went to look for an Italian guard who gave them the passwords by looking in an index book of some kind. They all then saluted each other and the SIG men left.19 Buck, with Essner, left for their target at Martuba with the first party. The other group left in another lorry at 9 pm, from a point 3 kilometres north of the Carmusa crossroads to Derna, first to drop Jordain's group off and then the second Derna group under Corporal Bourmont. But before this could be done, while passing through Derna itself, Brueckner stopped the truck near the cinema, on the pretence that the engine was overheating, and went to a nearby German guardroom or garage. Cowles claims the French could hear the cinema's film projector running,20 but Landsborough's source says that Brueckner exclaimed 'something has fallen off the truck; I am going back for it', and then walked off into the night. One SIG man in the cab said 'Brueckner is away a long time'. The other replied 'I am uneasy. I do not trust Brueckner. I think he might play traitor.' Yet another source claims that Brueckner waited till they were 200 yards from the airfield before betraying the raiders.21 Whatever the truth, the next the French knew was that the truck was surrounded by Germans who ordered, 'All Frenchmen out!' Jordain says he heard the crunching of foot? steps and, when peering out to check what was happening, was dragged out of the truck by two Germans.22 The commandos refused to give up without a fight and came out with guns blazing. They inflicted many casualties on the Germans, fighting until over 292</page><page sequence="7">The SIG: behind the lines with Jewish commandos whelmed. In the melee, only the commander, Lieutenant Augustine Jordain, and Shai escaped.23 Buck, having succeeded in his raid in destroying twenty enemy planes, returned to the rendezvous with the remainder of his party and received the news about the second French group from Jordain in shocked disbe? lief.24 All Jordain's Frenchmen had been either captured or killed.25 Jordain said he had seen two SIG men - one of them Hass - hurling grenades with reckless abandon at the enemy and then, on the brink of capture, blowing themselves up with grenades, together with the truck. Tiffen, however, who remembers clearly hearing the gunfire and explosions of both raids, recalls Jordain returning with four survivors in the pitch dark. He also says that they learned afterwards that two SIG had been captured and then shot. Cowles writes that months afterwards Jordain learnt that four of the French had been captured on the airfield and three more later in the desert.26 Two others met up with the Martuba group, but this rendezvous had been betrayed as well. They fought off a German attack, but were all eventually captured, leaving Jordain the only French evader of the raid. After waiting for any stragglers, the handful of survivors then made their getaway towards Siwa with the lorry and abandoned the command car. They then waited for almost a week at Baltel Zalegh for other latecomers, but none came. Tiffen describes how at one point they fooled a German plane into holding its fire by laying out a swastika flag on the sand. Much of the above description is supported by evidence given by two Luftwaffe ME 109 pilots - Lieutnant Friedrich Korner (captured 5 July 1942 at El Alamein) and Oberleutnant Ernest Klager (captured 3 July 1942 also at El Alamein).27 In their interrogation they claim that 'the Germans already knew that a group of English saboteurs would carry out a raid on German aerodromes in Cyrenaica dressed in German uniform . . . being organized by an English colonel. As a result, a state of alarm had been ordered as from sundown on all aerodromes.' Koerner continued: Brueckner got out [of the truck], saluted the [German] CO and stated that he was a German soldier acting as driver of a German lorry containing a party of heavily armed English troops in German uniform with explosive charges to destroy aircraft. The CO was rather suspicious at first, but the driver pressed him to organize as many men as possible with all speed, and as heavily armed as possible, to disarm the raiding party. The lorry was immediately surrounded and the occupants forced to get out. A few seconds after the last one had got out there was an explosion inside the lorry and it was completely destroyed. A melee developed and it was believed that all the raiders had been shot. However, on the following morning a wounded man presented himself at Derna hospital saying he was a wounded German soldier needing treatment. For some reason the doctor became suspicious and on examination it turned out that he was not a German soldier but a Jew from Palestine [this is almost certainly one of the two Tiffen says was shot later by the Germans]. Brueckner claimed to the Germans that he was a German POW who had been approached by the English to drive a German lorry for 293</page><page sequence="8">Martin Sugarman them behind the lines. He had at first refused, but money had been offered which he again refused. However, the sum increased and he accepted as he felt it was the best way of getting back his freedom. Brueckner was flown to Berlin and awarded the Deutsche Kreuz in gold (Buck later believed it was silver). But Morris claims that he was killed in the fighting, as reported also in the 'Most Secret' post-raid report by Buck.28 (The incident is, incidentally, described in a newspaper report in the Jewish Chronicle, 13 July 1945.) Tiffen had argued to Buck that using Germans as trainers was one thing, but taking them on a raid was tempting providence. Buck did not listen, and Tiffen was proved right. In another statement in the post-raid report, Buck said that Brueckner and Essner had been 'cleared' by Intelligence, and that he 'considered it was a necessary risk for training purposes and initial operations to have men who had recently been in the German army and knew the ropes'. The report reminded critics that up to that point Brueckner and Essner had 'provided intelligence with very valuable information about German dispositions and had extracted information from many POWs on behalf of CSDIC'. Essner had behaved well during the raid, but was closely guarded by Tiffen on the way back to the base and then handed over to British MPs with a warning that he may try to escape. This he did and was shot. Swinson, however, alleges that Essner was later caught in Cairo trying to contact German agents and was 'shot trying to escape' by SIG men.29 Whatever the truth, most of these events were revealed only years after the War, with just a slight hint at the mysterious group's activities in a very brief article in the Jewish Chronicle of 24 September 1943, that referred to a 'Palestinian Jewish Commando unit' that was 'spotted and surrounded'. The raid on Tobruk An audacious land and sea raid on Tobruk in North Africa, designed to lay waste the vital German Afrika Corps supply port, codenamed 'Operation Agree? ment', took place on 13-14 September 1942 and involved elements of the RM, RN, RAF, SAS, SBS, LRDG and a six-man Special Forces group of the SIG.30 Taking part were again Major David Stirling's SAS, Lieutenant-Colonel Vla? dimir Peniakoff of the Libyan Arab Force (Popskis Private Army - PPA) who had been born in Belgium of Russian Jewish parents, and Colonel John E. 'Jock' Haselden (killed in action on the raid) an Egyptian-born son of English and Greek parents who in November 1941 had guided into shore the abortive Special No. 11 Commando raid in its attempt to kill Rommel at Beda Littoria.31 It was in this operation, 'Flipper', that Colonel Geoffrey Keyes had won a posthumous VC. Haselden was an Arabic linguist and wealthy cotton-mill owner, as well as a member of MI (Military Intelligence) Research, who had been back and forth behind enemy lines since the War began. With Haselden on 'Flipper' there had 294</page><page sequence="9">The SIG: behind the lines with Jewish commandos Plate 2 In Egypt, 1942 (left to right): Maurice Tiffen, Corporal Drori, Goldstein and Rohr, all with 51st Commando and later in SIG. been members of the Palestinian Jewish 51st Commando, notably Corporal Drori who spoke both Arabic and German.32 On the Tobruk raid, Haselden was Officer Commanding the Commando Group Force B, codenamed 'Picture'.33 The land-based assault, striking from the desert via Kufra Oasis, was codenamed 'Daffodil'.34 LRDG Patrol Yi, led by Captain David Lloyd-Owen, were acting as guides from Kufra to the perimeter of Tobruk, for the eighty-three Commandos and an SIG team with eight 3-ton Canadian Chevrolet trucks. (In the Battle Plan the SIG were described cryptic? ally as 'Special Detachment G(R)\)35 Later, Yi were to take part in another part of the raid. It was the Commandos and the SIG men who were to penetrate Tobruk by bluffing their way through the perimeter fence, with the SIG posing as German guards as they had done at Derna and Martuba, and assault the coastal guns of Mersa Umm es Sciausc east of the harbour with the rest of Force B. The detachment of SIG were 'to play a special part in the proceedings',36 with Buck and Lieutenant T. C. David Russell, Scots Guards, who was also fluent in German. Two other British officers allegedly attached to SIG were 295</page><page sequence="10">Martin Sugarman Captain H. Bray (4th Indian Division) and Lieutenant D. Lanark, Scots Guards. In 1989 it emerged that Gordon Landsborough, in his 1956 edition of Tobruk Commando, had - due to War Office restrictions - used noms de guerre for many of the Commandos, and the true names were revealed only in David List's 1989 introduction to the book: 'Bray' was in fact Buck, and 'Lanark' was Russell. It also emerged that the Nazi traitor Brueckner was really called Brockmann. In German uniform and speaking German, the SIG carried German weapons, pay books, insignia, cigarettes and chocolates, and even love-letters to fictitious wives in Germany, composed by an SIG man and copied, complete with forged German stamps and frankings, by ATS women in Cairo. The same women, dressed as civilians, posed with the SIG in their German uniforms and a Berlin background was dubbed on. One Jewish SIG member, Weizmann, called his 'girlfriend' Lizbeth Kunz, the name of a well-known Nazi who lived in his street in Berlin before the war; if it came to it, he could truthfully claim that she was a real person. The SIG men were constantly tested on this detail in their docu? ments - names, addresses, jobs - and German Army typewriters and stationery had been procured from British Intelligence for the documents. As Landsbor? ough says, 'the Palestinians never faltered, never protested'.37 The SIG were to play the role of German guards transporting three truck loads of British POWs to a camp at Tobruk. As Smith says, 'this was high bluff and indeed required nerves of steel and much courage', since they would have been shot out of hand as spies had their disguises been penetrated (see Appendix 2). The earlier betrayal meant that the Germans already knew of the SIG's existence, which is why Buck took only four or five of the SIG with him, as opposed to the dozen or so who might have been required, especially as Buck also planned to kidnap a German general who was supposed to be staying in the old YMCA in Tobruk.38 The deep motivation of these men, who had fled Nazi Germany as Jewish refugees and whose families had been or were being mur? dered in the Holocaust, could not be in question. The small SIG team travelled to Kufra in RAF Bombay Transports, and there met the LRDG and other Commandos. The SIG continued drilling in German uniform and using German commands as their British comrades looked on in amazement.39 They were Corporal Weizmann and Privates Wilenski, Berg, Hillman and Steiner.40 A Naval Signal of 12 September 1942, from C-in-C Mediterranean to Deputy Commander Operations Middle East, stated that 'Buck and 6 OR's operating with Haselden may be wearing German uniform. Their recognition signal is "red handkerchief".'41 They kept themselves to themselves because, although it was known that the traitor had been a Nazi, the SIG were looked on with suspicion following the betrayal of the French group the previous June. One LRDG veteran, Jock Fraser, told the author of Massacre at Tobruk that 'We all distrusted these guys though some were very brave men'. So great was the danger, that their SIG 296</page><page sequence="11">The SIG: behind the lines with Jewish commandos Plate 3 On leave in Tel Aviv (left to right): Dov Cohen, Rosenzweig, Tiffen and Walter Essner. 297</page><page sequence="12">Martin Sugarman names were not real: David List explains that Steiner was 10716 Private Hillman (SAS Regiment), Berg was Rohr, Weizmann was Opprower and Wilenski was H. Goldstein. There was also a Private Rosenzweig, but Tiffen does not remem? ber his English alias. Something is known of Weizmann/Opprower's back? ground. His father had been murdered by the Nazis and he had been sent by his family to Palestine aged 16. He volunteered for the British Army at the outbreak of war in 1939, but when he was given only administrative work, hitch? hiked to Egypt and volunteered for active service. He was charged three times for breaking camp to get into the front line, before the SIG recruited him.42 Steiner/Hillman was a short, broad Austrian Jew, son of a Viennese butcher. Aged sixteen he had been imprisoned for anti-Nazi activity and then escaped to Palestine where he joined the Pioneer Corps thinking they were a fighting unit. He served with them in France in 1940 and then joined the tough 51st Middle East Commandos and fought in Eritrea.43 Seven days before the raid - 6 September - the main part of Force B left Cairo for Tobruk. It was only 300 miles behind the lines, but involved covering a distance of 1800 miles by their roundabout route. Morris says the raiders left Kufra on 5 September to travel 800 miles to Tobruk, which seems more likely and is in any case borne out by Lloyd-Owen's report, which says they left at 1760 hours precisely on that day.44 Gordon Landsborough describes how they travelled south to El Kharga (500 miles inland), then west to Kufra (to meet the SIG) and then north to Hatiet Etla.45 Here, 90 miles from the target, they rested on the night of 10 September. (Kennedy-Shaw, however, omits the fact that the SIG even took part in the raid.) The plan was for them - at 2 am on 14 September - to call in Force C from seaward, if they had managed to silence the guns of Mersa Umm es Sciausc. A Jewish British officer and cartography expert, Captain Ken Lazarus, was in charge of SAS Squadron 2 with Stirling the same night, when they launched a diversionary attack at Benghazi.46 The Commando convoy of lorries did not attract particular attention from the German and Italian patrols because so many Allied vehicles had been cap? tured by the Axis forces. The trucks bore the Afrika Corps motif, painted using captured German stencils by Steiner/Hillman, and identification marks on the cabin roofs to ward off prowling Stukas. Across the bonnet was a wide white stripe - a Beutezeichen, or 'booty-mark', which was painted onto captured Allied vehicles - and the divisional sign ER 372, which Intelligence had discovered was a real division stationed near Alamein. The vehicles carried thirty fake POWs each, instead of the usual forty, because of the need to hide the arms and uniforms they contained. The SIG carried the requisite fake passes and ID documents. Landsborough claims that only four trucks were used, with one SIG driver in each and Buck in the front one, dressed as a German officer. About 4 miles out, just three trucks continued, the fourth being disabled by 298</page><page sequence="13">The SIG: behind the lines with Jewish commandos having its distributor cap removed. This was buried near the front left wheel, should it be needed for escape later. At the drop-off point there was an emotional parting with the LRDG; they cheered each other goodbye for they knew that many of the Commandos would be going to their deaths. Lloyd-Owen notes in his post-raid report that Haselden had failed to arrange a rendezvous with him in case of a land withdrawal,47 which proved a costly mistake. On approaching the perimeter road across scrub land, they saw two German trucks coming towards them on the same course. They simply sped by without pausing. Then a red German light spotter plane approached and circled twice just a few hundred feet above them, but it too passed on.48 On reaching the main metalled road to Tobruk they merged easily into the regular traffic flow to the perimeter fence of the base. They were merely waved through by Italian guards, even though Buck leaned out to show his documents. The SIG men, playing their parts fully, behaved as Germans did, swearing at their Italian allies as they drove past. Inside they met a fast-moving convoy coming in the opposite direction. The middle truck was struck a glancing blow by a German staff car carrying, accord? ing to Weizmann, a high-ranking officer, but nobody stopped. The German convoy halted and angry voices were heard, but eventually, after a tense moment, the Germans sped away. Further on they were accompanied for a while by two heavily armed motor-cycle combinations and a solo of German military police who were irritatingly inquisitive. The Commandos released the safety catches of their guns, but there was no attempt to stop them and the motorcycles turned off.49 They came to a rock face looming in the darkness at about 9 pm, and Haselden, nodding casually towards it, said 'that's the bomb-proof oil-storage depot we must destroy later tonight'. All around the three speeding trucks were tented enemy camps and lines of German and Italian troops going about their duties. But then Buck's Chevrolet halted and he and the SIG driver got out and walked out of sight. A fence had been built across the turn-off they were meant to take, but soon Buck and his driver returned; they had found a new track further on. The convoy continued for another fifteen minutes, when they were met with a harsh challenge in German; one of the Commando officers got out and walked into the darkness. Soon he returned with a German rifle, having silenced the enemy sentry. Another 500 metres and they stopped, got out of the trucks and put on full combat kit. Nearby were the buildings of the administrative centre for the coastal defences they were to silence. At 10.30 pm the RAF softening-up bombing raid began. On reaching their first objective - a small villa to be used as their HQ- Haselden and the four or five SIG men, with Buck and Russell, burst in and drove off or killed the Italian platoon holding it. One was captured, but was later killed 'trying to escape'. Knocking out various German machine-gun posts and a wireless station and 299</page><page sequence="14">Martin Sugarman negotiating mine fields, Force B began taking casualties, but at 2 am they sig? nalled Force C to land, using the to our ears unfortunate codeword 'Nigger' (the alternative, 'Cloud', was never used).50 However, under heavy fire and in darkness, only two of sixteen motor torpedo boats were able to land a handful of reinforcements. Buck, Russell, Wilenski and Weizmann cleared some more positions alone, while the Commandos dealt with several others. The SIG team then moved, as planned, a little inland to guard against counterattack from that direction, and captured and held four ack-ack gun emplacements. Through the night they held these positions against sustained attacks by Italians attempting to recapture the guns. Eventually they rolled grenades into the barrels and destroyed them. The enemy, now fully alerted and prepared, regrouped as the sun came up and closed in on B Force, outnumbered and short of ammunition after a fierce fire-fight. Weizmann and Wilenski were met by Berg who told them that Buck had ordered them to destroy all their German documents and uniforms, to find British uniforms and destroy the lorries. Haselden, from his HQ^in the captured villa, had ordered the destruction of all the coastal guns, and then every man for himself. It was clear that the Tobruk raid had failed, reinforcements would not be coming from the seaward invasion as planned, and they had to move fast to save themselves. Berg moved off, while Wilenski and Weizmann destroyed one lorry with petrol and then moved to a cave, stripped off, burnt everything that would incriminate them, and proceeded, naked, to find uniforms. They had eventually to take these from two dead Commandos. Buck suddenly re-appeared with Russell; they had apparently been on some other SIG mission, perhaps to try and release the Allied POWs in Tobruk (part of the original plan, had 'Agreement' succeeded), or to capture the German general in the old YMCA. There was also talk of breaking into the enemy garrison's strongroom and stealing German funds. To this day it is not known precisely what the SIG had in mind. Haselden ordered all the remaining force to re-embark on the last two trucks and to try and break out (others made vainly for the sea, but were then driven inland and in small groups tried to head east back to Allied lines). Russell brought a truck up as Steiner appeared, still in German uniform. Buck yelled to him to take it off, even though he himself was still dressed as an Afrika Korps officer. As they made to get away, the ever-calm and brave Haselden in the lead truck decided to halt and cover the escape of those behind him. He led a forlorn charge singlehandedly against the encroaching Italian forces, with Russell, Buck, Berg, Steiner and another Commando called Watler following him. Berg was wounded and Haselden was killed. Steiner called his CO's name, but there was no answer. In the melee, and still in half-light, Steiner grabbed Berg and dragged 300</page><page sequence="15">The SIG: behind the lines with Jewish commandos him away.M Others were forced to surrender because they had no food, water or ammunition and were carrying wounded comrades. Only six of Haselden's group escaped to make a run for Allied lines, including Lieutenant Russell and (according to Landsborough) Buck, Berg and Wilenski. Weizmann was with them, but was wounded later breaking into an Italian camp for food and after seventeen days was unable to go on and agreed to be left behind. Local Arabs handed him over to the Italians, who passed him to the Gestapo. He was tor? tured for five days - at one point he had to dig his own grave and stand in front of a firing squad - but he revealed nothing. An Afrika Korps officer eventually had him released to a POW camp.52 After many close calls and terrible hardships the rest of the group reached Allied lines on 18 November. Despite every effort by Lloyd-Owen, Naval Signals testify that he lost all contact with Force B early on in the raid and was unable to search for or rescue any survivors the next day.53 Another escape party, led by Lieutenant Tommy B. Langton of the SBS (ex-Irish Guards), included nineteen-year-old Private Steiner/Hillman who had lost his left boot in the fighting and had had a foot lascerated by barbed wire. Knowing he would be shot if caught, he changed his name to Kennedy and was known as 'Ken' by his comrades, since it was known that the Germans knew his identity.54 After several weeks, during which they were on occasion fed by friendly Arab villagers - Steiner saved the group several times by negotiating in his excellent Arabic for food and obtained a new pair of boots - some of his party reached Allied lines, on 13 November. Steiner ended up at No. 1 South African Conval? escent Depot.55 The failure of this raid marked the end of the SIG as a fighting force, and surviving members were transferred to the AMPC (Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps). From here, several joined No. 2 Commando and fought with them until the end of the war in the Balkans, Italy and the Adriatic. According to David List, Steiner/Hillman later joined the SAS, as did Tiefenbrunner and others. Wilenski/Goldstein - who had fought on the Mersa Matrul and Fuka raids with L detachment LRDG - was captured after Operation Agreement, but then later fought with Buck in the Far East SAS against the Japanese.56 Tragically, Russell was murdered in Yugoslavia working for SOE in August 1943, and Buck was killed with the SAS in the Far East in 1945. Smith's account of the Tobruk raid is inconsistent with Landsborough's, who spoke with eye-witness survivors, while Smith used PRO records that were at the time alleged to have been partial and contradictory. What, however, is not in doubt is that the SIG were extremely brave and willingly placed themselves in dangerous situations from which they knew they might be left to fight their own way out. They should all be remembered with pride. 301</page><page sequence="16">Martin Sugarman Appendix i Maurice Tiefenbrunner was born on 18 December 1915 into an Orthodox Jewish family in Wiesbaden, Germany, as one of eight children. He was something of an athlete and scholar, and his father was a devout and well-known teacher. On 28 October 1938, Jews of Polish origin, like Maurice's family, were deported by Nazi law to Poland. A brother in Antwerp managed to obtain papers for Maur? ice, then aged 22, to enter Belgium, which he achieved after hair-raising adven? tures via Warsaw, Prague and Rotterdam. From Antwerp he contacted Jewish agents of the Irgun, illegally transporting Jewish refugees into British Palestine, and travelled via Paris and Marseilles to a ship with a group of twenty others. He eventually set sail with 950 Jewish refugees on the SS Parita, a vessel built to carry 250. After spending seventy days, instead of the intended ten, wandering between Rhodes, Smyrna and other ports, begging for food from passing liners (including twenty bottles of beer from one passing cruise ship), his group took over the ship from the Greek crew, hoisted the Zionist flag and beached it on the sea front of Tel Aviv on 22 August 1939, on a Friday night. Thousands of Tel Avivians came out to greet them with food before they were interned at Sarafand army camp by the British. Two weeks later, when war broke out, Maurice was declared 'legal' in an amnesty. Maurice (and thousands of other Palestinian Jews) joined the Pioneer Corps, because they were allowed by the British to enlist only in non-combattant units for political reasons. He fought in France, and escaped in 1940 via St Malo with hundreds of other Palestinian Jewish troops fighting with the BEF. Regrouped at Aldershot, he joined the 51st Middle East Commando and fought in the battles in Gondar and Keren in Ethiopia/Eritrea. He was wounded trying to rescue a wounded comrade, promoted and mentioned in despatches. He later returned to Egypt with the 51st Commandos and took part in an early raid on Tobruk, in December 1941, in which they inflicted heavy casualties on the Ital? ian garrison before withdrawing. Since they were now down to one-third strength, the 51st were disbanded at Geneifa, which is where Buck recruited Maurice and other Jews into the SIG around March 1942. Maurice and five friends were ordered by Buck to accompany him to King Farouk's palace on a secret mission to persuade him not to 'back the wrong side'. The attempt succeeded. After the SIG raid with the Free French in June 1942 described above, Maur? ice took part in a few smaller raids and was then recruited, with about fourteen other surviving SIG men, into the SAS under Stirling. He took part with other Palestinian Jews in one of the several Commando raids from naval destroyers on Rommel's HQ in the summer of 1942 in the Derna area. Rommel was not there at the time, but Tiffen remembers that many German officers were killed before his force re-embarked with no casualties. 302</page><page sequence="17">The SIG: behind the lines with Jewish commandos Plate 4 Maurice Tiffen (centre back) with 51st Commando near Gondar.</page><page sequence="18">Martin Sugarman In December 1942 Maurice, still with the SAS and now together with five remaining members of the disbanded SIG, following the large raid on Tobruk in which he did not take part, went with Colonel David Stirling and Major Oldfield on a 100-man raid behind Italian lines, with the aim also of destroying German targets on the way. Maurice, at the rear of a convoy of fifty vehicles, in a jeep that broke down, was seen by Italians and, with his driver (from Lancashire), was surrounded by armoured cars. They had time to destroy any sensitive documents which might have incriminated them before they were cap? tured on 18 December 1942. When the Italian army collapsed he was taken, with eight other important SAS prisoners, by Italian submarine to Bari. On the way they tried to overpower the crew, but failed and were punished by being locked up. As the Allies advanced on the POW camp at Bari he was moved to a POW camp at Udine. His cover (prepared before the raid) was that his name was Tiffen, and that he had been born in Montreal, but taken to Palestine as a child. Then Italy surrendered, but when the POWs were about to be liberated by the advancing Americans the Germans appeared and shipped them off, in dreadful conditions, to Wolfensgarten in Austria. A group, including Maurice, tried an escape en route, but were recaptured. Then they were shipped to Thorn in east Germany; but as the Russians advanced they were force-marched yet again for five days to Fallingsbostel near Hannover, where he met POWs from the famous 'Wooden Horse' escape from Stalag 7 and Palestinian Jewish friends he had known in 1939 - forty of whom had been captured in Greece and Crete in 1941. He was finally liberated in May 1945 after thirty months as a POW. When the Allies separated SS from Wehrmacht prisoners, the Germans retali? ated by separating Jewish POWs from others for several weeks. Other than this, Maurice says, he suffered no discrimination as a POW, although there are British POW eye-witness accounts of Palestinian Jewish troops who were murdered by Germans in Crete and Greece.57 Back in Britain, he was tracked down by Captain Buck who tried to persuade him to join the SAS fighting the Japanese, but he declined. Maurice and his new wife, Friedet, enjoyed several nights out in London with Buck. Some weeks later, Buck's sister telephoned Maurice with the sad news that he had been killed in a plane crash while on a raid against the Japanese. Maurice would have been on the same raid had he accepted Buck's invitation. Demobbed, Maurice fought in the Israel War of Independence in 1948.58 At various times, therefore, Maurice has worn the insignia of the 51st Middle East Commando, SAS, and the 'neutral' overalls of the SIG - not to mention the Pioneer Corps and the Israel Defence Forces. For many years after the War he lived in North London and Israel with his wife Friedel and their large family, but he is - at time of writing - living in his eighties happily in Jerusalem. He holds the 1939-45 Star, Africa Star, France and 304</page><page sequence="19">The SIG: behind the lines with Jewish commandos Germany Star and War Medal. He was Mentioned in Despatches for courage in the battle of Keren in Ethiopia. Maurice is one of the last - and perhaps the only - survivor of the SIG. As 10428 Acting Sergeant Maurice Tiefenbrunner, also known as Tiffen, formerly also of the 51st Middle East Commando and SAS, he was able to give first-hand accounts of some of the incidents described above. The interview took place on 6 July 1997 at the home of his daughter, Judy, in Edgware, London. Other information was included in letters exchanged with Maurice from his home in Jerusalem, Israel. Appendix 2 (See page 2q6.) PRO HW 1/643: Message intercepted and received in German by British Intel? ligence interception on 13 June 1942 and forwarded to Prime Minister Churchill as file CX/MSS/1071/T6. Most secret document - only to be opened by an officer - from Supreme Command of The Army to Panzer Army Africa - are said to be numerous German political refugees with Free French Forces in Africa. The F?hrer has ordered that the severest measures are to be taken against those concerned. They are therefore to be immedi? ately wiped out in battle and in cases where they escape being killed in battle, a military sentence is to be pronounced immediately by the nearest German officer and they are to be shot out of hand, unless they have to be temporarily retained for intelligence purposes. This order must NOT be forwarded in writing. Commanding Officers are to be told verbally. I am grateful to my friend and former teacher, Dr John P. Fox, visiting lecturer in Holocaust Studies and International History, for pointing out this document to me, as further evidence of what the SIG faced if captured. Acknowledgements I would like most sincerely to thank Maurice Tiefenbrunner for speaking to me and writing at length and for providing me with unique first-hand accounts of his experiences as well as some rare photographs. I am grateful to Jeffrey Tribich and his mother Mala Tribich (a Holocaust survivor) for their help in putting me in touch with Maurice in July 1997. Equally, I wish to thank the patient staff of the Imperial War Museum Reading Room and of the PRO at Kew for all their help, as well as Sean Waddingham, whose enthusiasm for naval history prompted me to write this long-planned article on the Jewish men of the elite SIG. 305</page><page sequence="20">Martin Sugarman NOTES 1 Charles Messenger, Middle East Commandos (London 1988) 109. 2 PRO WO 201/732, 'Most Secret'. 3 Eric Morris, Guerrillas in Uniform (London 1989) 85. 4 PRO WO 218/159. 5 Peter Smith, Massacre at Tobruk (London 1957) 27. 6 Morris (see n. 3) 84. 7 Revd Isaac Levy, Now I Can Tell - Middle Eastern Memoirs (privately published 1978) 49. 8 Ibid. 50. 9 Morris (see n. 3) 86. 10 PRO WO 201/727. 11 Virginia Cowles, The Phantom Major (London 1958) 135. 12 Ibid. 135. 13 Gordon Landsborough, Tobruk Commando (London 1956) 31. 14 Cowles (see n. 10) 135. 15 Ibid. 136. 16 PRO WO 201/727. 17 Cowles (see n. 10) 137. 18 A. Swinson, The Raiders (London 1968) "5 19 Cowles (see n. 10) 139. 20 Ibid. 140-1. 21 Morris (see n. 3) 89. 22 Cowles (see n. 10) 141. 23 R. Miller, The Commandos (London 1981) 8S. 24 W. Seymour, British Special Forces (London 1985) 196. 25 David Lloyd-Owen, Providence Their Guide - the Long Range Desert Group (London 1980) 89. 26 Cowles (see n. 10) 142. 27 PRO WO 201/727. 28 PRO WO 201/727, headed 'Capt. Buck's Party'. 29 Landsborough (see n. 12) 33, quoting Swinson. 30 A poor and not very accurate Hollywood movie, Tobruk, directed by Arthur Hiller and starring Rock Hudson, Nigel Green and George Peppard, was made in 1966. It portrayed the SIG role in this raid, but tended to mix elements of their work on other raids too. It was filmed in Yuma, Arizona. 31 Smith (see n. 4) 27. 32 J. Ladd, Commandos and Rangers of World War Two (London 1978) 123. 33 Smith (see n. 4) 54. 34 Morris (see n. 3) 125. 35 PRO WO 201/749. 36 Smith (see n. 4) 55. 37 Landsborough (see n. 12) 68. 38 Ibid. 51. 39 Smith (see n. 4) 60. 40 Ibid. 81. The last two names, presented by Landsborough as of two people, refer to the same man. 41 PRO WO 201/750 File 1403. 42 Colonel T. B. Langton, unpublished MS, Imperial War Museum. 43 Ibid. 44 PRO WO 201/745. 45 Landsborough (see n. 12) 34. 46 W. B. Kennedy-Shaw, The Long Range Desert Group (London 1989) 25. 47 PRO WO 201/745. 48 Unpublished MS by M. Tiefenbrunner in the author's collection, and at the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women's Museum of Jewish Military History. 49 Smith (see n. 5) 88. 50 PRO WO 201/750. 51 Post Raid Report - PRO WO 201/742. 52 Landsborough (see n. 12) 215. 53 PRO WO 201/750. 54 Norman Bentwich, / Understand the Risks (London 1950) no, 181, identifies an Austrian Jewish refugee who served on the Tobruk raid as Captain F. Hillman/J. Kennedy, MC, MM. This is almost certainly the member of the SIG team. 55 PRO WO 201/741. 56 Leah Rabin, in her book Rabin: Our Life, His Legacy (New York 1997) 54-5, describes how: 'In 1941, whilst at summer camp ... a dashing British officer on the Haifa-Tel Aviv road gave me and a girlfriend a lift on an army lorry loaded with Indian soldiers. Although he was British, this Captain was born and bred in India. Since he loved music and opera and was a stranger to Tel Aviv, I casually invited him to stop by and visit our home. Home hospitality to the Forces was very in vogue, but I never expected to hear from him. Well, he sent a letter two weeks later asking if he could call. I was only thirteen at the time. "Leah, what kind of relationship have you established with a British Officer?" my parents asked. One Saturday afternoon he appeared at our door. Captain Buck turned out to be a multilingual cultural whiz. My father and 3o6</page><page sequence="21">The SIG: behind the lines with Jewish commandos mother took a shine to him, and the Captain even lost his heart to my sister Aviva - who by no means lost her heart to him. Later Captain Buck moved to the ... Commandos and was assigned to work with the "German Platoon" of the Palmach - learning everything from German slang to German songs, gearing up for a mission behind enemy lines in the Western desert. . . . When the War was over, his marriage to a prewar sweetheart was tragically cut short as his RAF plane crashed en route to a military location. I learnt about this from Yitzhak Ben Aharon, a prominent Labour Party leader, who had been a close friend of Captain Buck when they were prisoners.' 57 A letter of 12 November 1997 to the author, from E. Horlington, of the British Veterans of the Greek Campaign Brotherhood, says 'I know of one case where 12 Jewish Pioneer Corps men were found with their throats cut in a cave SE of Kalamata. This is attested to by the Chief Clerk to the Senior British Officer at Kalamata.' 58 Woodside Park Synagogue magazine, September 1963, and his unpublished autobiography seen by the author. 307</page></plain_text>