Refugees and Service in the Armed Forces

Some refugees were determined to fight back against those responsible for their flight, and many joined the British armed forces in the battle against the Axis powers.

Initially, refugees from Austria and Germany were not permitted to join the British armed forces. This was relaxed in November 1939, when some were allowed special dispensation from the Military Intelligence Branch of the War Office. They were restricted, however, to the Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps (renamed the Pioneer Corps in 1940), an unarmed unit that provided manual labour for British units. A training centre for the corps was located in Pwllheli on the Llŷn Peninsula in 1940.

Although this meant refugees could not fight the Nazis directly, it did mean an early release from internment, and some 4,000 male Jewish refugees enlisted in the Pioneer Corps during the course of the war. Herbert Patrick Anderson, an Austrian refugee who was stationed with the Pioneer Corps in Wales during the war, remembered training in Kent with 200 other members of “this little refugee army”. His unit was approximately 60% German, 25% Austrian, and 15% other nationalities, and around 70% of them were Jewish. Because there was no age limit, there were around 20 men who had served for the German and Austro-Hungarian armies during the First World War. 

Listen to Herbert’s story here (External)
Defensible Barracks at Pembroke Dock (courtesy Gordon Hatton/Wikimedia Commons)

Tasks included trench digging, bridge building, and clearing roads. Service in the Pioneer Corps could be dangerous, though. During a training exercise deactivating landmines at the Defensible Barracks in Pembroke Dock in April 1942, nineteen servicemen – including the German Jewish refugees Heinz Abraham, Ludwig Rosenthal and Heinz Schwartze – were killed when a mine exploded. Eight men from Herbert Patrick Anderson’s 87th Pioneer Corps unit died. He remembers that “There was a big funeral; each coffin was covered with the Union Jack, but I would imagine that very very little was inside each coffin. This was a big blow to the unit.” The rest of the unit was transferred away from Pembroke Dock shortly afterwards.

Nevertheless, for many refugees the Pioneer Corps fell short of what they were hoping. Manfred Gans, for example, felt that his time there was “undoubtedly the most frustrating period of my life; I did not have the feeling that I was contributing much to the war effort”. Herbert Patrick Anderson was similarly unimpressed when his unit was asked to dig foxholes around Carmarthenshire in anticipation of a German invasion of Britain via South Wales: “a most ridiculous duty”. Harry Weinberger refused to join the corps on principle: he claimed that it was “a ridiculous outfit, it was a bit like Dad’s Army, and I wasn’t going to do that”.

From 1942, Austrian and German refugees were permitted to enlist directly into technical units and the Special Forces, and eventually all restrictions on service were lifted. One of the most famous units was No. 3 Troop of No. 10 (Inter-Allied) Commando, nicknamed “X Troop“, which was billeted at Aberdyfi. 

Herman Rothman, who attended the hachshara at Gwrych Castle, also joined the armed forces later in the war. From a Polish Jewish family in Berlin, Herman arrived on the Kindertransport in 1939. He initially enrolled in the General Service Corps, before being transferred to the Royal West Kent Regiment, then the King’s Own Scottish Borderers. He remembers the discipline he encountered during training: 

 

To me, I equated to conform with having an easy life, and also you learn how to dodge things if you can. However, I did think I am doing it for a purpose, I think this is something which may be endemic in people like myself. You know you were fighting for a cause, and therefore everything you did was for the benefit – we were idealistic in a way, I had this idealistic thought in my mind – that everything I performed and everything I did was for the benefit of society, and intimately of course – inclusive [of] – yourself. If you want to defeat Hitler, you had to do that, and that is something which prompted me, which motivated me.

 

He requested to join the Jewish Brigade, which was commanded by Anglo-Jewish officers and fought in Italy, but, for various reasons, never transferred to the unit. During his time in the army, he experienced British antisemitism for the first time, which he found “very strange and a bit upsetting”. Despite this, he maintained religious observance, wearing the traditional tefillin and tallis, and taking Talmudic lessons with an old friend. He even had kosher food sent to him by a group in London, although he was unable to maintain this for his entire service.

He later joined the Intelligence Corps, and was among the first people to translate Hitler’s original will and testament when documents were discovered sewn into the shoulders of a jacket belonging to Heinz Lorenz, Joseph Goebbels’ press secretary. He subsequently wrote a book, Hitler’s Will, detailing his experiences.

Listen to Herman’s story in full here (External)
The Jewish Brigade being presented with a flag on service in Italy, 1945 (© IWM NA 23668)

Harry Weinberger was a Berlin-born child refugee who came to the UK with his sister in 1939. He tried to join the Merchant Navy having completed school, but was rejected since at that time Germans were not permitted. Instead, he worked at a factory at Treforest Trading Estate owned by one of his uncles from 1941 to 1944. Eventually, Harry joined the Royal West Kent Regiment, which became part of the Eighth Army in Italy. He was also a member of the Jewish Brigade, and trained with the Intelligence Corps in Germany. He remembered his time with the Jewish Brigade as “the first time I came across the Israeli attitude of looking for trouble rather than running away from trouble”.

His time in the army ended badly, after he was sent to military prison for talking back to an officer who made an antisemitic remark to him. Although threatened with a court martial, he eventually received an honourable discharge.

On his return to Britain, he became a painter, moving to London to study at the Chelsea College of Art on the invitation of Cerys Richards, who had tutored him in Wales. He later became a teacher, and worked at Lancaster Polytechnic as Head of Painting for almost twenty years. His cousin, Heinz Koppel, was also a refugee painter who lived in Wales for a period.

Listen to Harry’s story here (External)
Read more about Harry’s life (External)
Further reading

Leah Garrett, X Troop: The Secret Jewish Commandos of World War II (London: HMH Books, 2021)

Herman Rothman, Hitler’s Will (Stroud: The History Press, 2011)

‘History and background of the Royal Pioneer Corps’, The Pioneer (http://www.royalpioneercorps.co.uk/rpc/history_main1.htm)

Peter Leighton-Langer, The King’s Own Loyal Enemy Aliens: German and Austrian Refugees in Britain’s Armed Forces, 1939-45 (Elstree:
Vallentine Mitchell, 2006)

Cai Parry-Jones, The Jews of Wales: A History (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2017)

‘Royal Pioneer Corps’, National Army Museum (https://www.nam.ac.uk/explore/royal-pioneer-corps)

Nicholas Watkins, ‘Harry Weinberger obituary’, The Guardian, 25 September 2009 (https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2009/sep/25/harry-weinberger-obituary)