Refugee to elite Commando

Photo of Captain 'Fred Gray', real name Manfred Gans, a British Commando who took part in the D-Day Landings.

On the face of it, Corporal Fred Gray was just another British commando landing on Sword beach on D-Day.

In reality, he was Manfred Gans, one of hundreds of refugees who had fled Nazi Europe for Britain and subsequently volunteered for the military.

Gans was serving with No 3 Miscellaneous Troop of 10 Inter-Allied Commando. This was a unique unit – also known as X Troop – formed almost entirely of Jewish refugees from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and other European countries.

On D-Day, 44 of these personnel were dispersed among commando units leading the Normandy Landings, with Gans attached to 41 Royal Marine Commando.

Their rigorous training meant they possessed specialist skills in camouflage, climbing, compass marching and lockpicking, in addition to classic commando skills in explosives, fieldcraft and combat.

Their ability to speak German also made them popular as battlefield interrogators and interpreters, with Gans using his training and interrogation techniques to extract critical information from the enemy on D-Day. 

He recalled leaping through a hole blasted in the Germans’ barricades on Sword Beach, and, in his native German, asking the captured Nazis on the other side to show him the path through their land mines.

They promptly complied, and the British marines following Gans were the first to make it to the rendezvous point that day.

This tactic – of using his native language to lull the enemy into a false sense of security, prompting them to give up key information – was an interrogation technique Gans would employ many times during the war.

At the end of the war, Gans raced across the remains of Nazi territory in a jeep to liberate his parents, who continued to be held in Theresienstadt concentration camp after the war had ended.

Gans was later commissioned and attained the rank of captain.

This story was contributed by Martin Sugarman, Archivist at the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women.

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