D-Day anniversary: The ‘enemy aliens’ who fought for the Allies

D-Day anniversary: The ‘enemy aliens’ who fought for the Allies

On 6 June, 1944, the Allies launched the largest seaborne attack in history, landing in Normandy, France. The D-Day operation marked a major turning point in the Second World War. Sophie Eastaugh finds out more about the Jewish veterans involved in the invasion, which next week marks its 70th anniversary.

  • Royal Navy veteran Bill Howard – now aged 94, from Kingsbury
Bill Howard, centre, with fellow naval petty officers
Bill Howard, centre, with fellow naval officers

“I was born in Germany and went to Britain in 1937. Because of my non-British birth, I didn’t qualify for commission as an officer in the Royal Navy. I became a petty officer in the American sector.

D-Day was supposed to be on 5 June, but because of the bad weather they put it back to 6 June. Although the weather still wasn’t perfect, they decided there was no point in delaying it further.

Grateful for their lives, many German Jewish refugees wanted to volunteer to fight for Britain
Grateful for their lives, many German Jewish refugees wanted to volunteer to fight for Britain

I was on board a ship, intercepting enemy transmission and passing the information to the bridge. The naval guns went off about 3am and went on and on for hours on end.

We were bombarding the coastline non-stop. First the battlewagons started shelling the big ones,then the cruisers, which I was on. The noise was just unbelievable.

I can’t recall any serious return enemy fire. We seemed to have outmaneuvered them completely at that point. I can’t remember being terribly scared, because I was young, 24 or so, and I was gung-ho. So the fear factor disappeared.

We didn’t go ashore – we stayed on board. There were ships everywhere, an enormous number all around us. We must have been there about three or four days, off the coast of Normandy. Then we started going on convoys to Russia, escorting other ships.

We didn’t know anything about the success of the operation at first – all we did was fire away like mad and hope for the best. About a week later, we were told we had succeeded in making it possible for troops to land and go ashore – that was the whole purpose of the exercise.

The day certainly stands out for me with my experiences at the front. In the end, it became one of the most important turning points in the war.”

  • Historian Helen Fry, author of Churchill’s Secret Soldiers, which details the 10,000 Germans who fought for Britain, an estimated 90 percent of whom were Jewish.
Historian and author Helen Fry
Historian and author Helen Fry

“These refugees made an immense contribution to the war. Many of them fled with their lives from Germany, or had survived concentration camps. When they came to Britain they couldn’t be conscripted, because they were still technically German. The extraordinary thing is every single one of them volunteered and put their lives on the line when they didn’t have to.

These veterans have talked passionately about the fact that this was their war – they weren’t going to sit back and let others do the fighting for them. They had seen too much in Germany not to do their part.

They wanted to see Hitler’s downfall and give something back to Britain for saving their lives. They were fully aware of what they were facing and the fact they might not come back.

From the middle of the war, the government lifted the restrictions on letting “enemy aliens” fight, and started to use them for top secret,

incredibly dangerous operations behind enemy lines.

At D-Day, there were more than 200 German refugees who fought in the tanks. We don’t know exactly how many German-speaking refugees

actually landed because they changed their names to English names. If they’d been captured and their German identity discovered, they’d have been treated as traitors and executed – that was an added danger.

These German-Jewish refugees took part in the major campaigns of the war, including D-Day. Some of them were parachuting in just hours before D-Day, preparing the landing zones. Others landed with their tanks the day after. They were used for specialist intelligence operations, like interrogating German prisoners of war.

D-Day had an extra dimension for them – they were facing fellow Germans in combat. Many of them had begun to feel British, and the British army uniform contributed to that feeling of British identity.

They were returning almost as British soldiers, and they were incredibly proud of that.

There had been so many low points during the war, but for those who took part in D-Day, the enormity of the preparations meant there was a unified feeling that they were going to succeed.”

• The LJCC is hosting a special events to mark the  70th anniversary of D-Day: The 70th Anniversary of D-Day with historian Helen Fry and veterans on Wednesday, 11 June, 1pm to 3.30pm

Details: www.ljcc.org.uk  or call 020 8457 5000

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