When World War II broke out, Winston Churchill was more than determined to win the war, adapt to modern warfare, and toss out the window all the 19th-century rules of engagement. This meant he would be more than willing to employ all necessary means to defeat the enemy forces. And he did just that—unconventional and unique units spawned from the British troops. First, there was Special Air Service, Long Range Desert Group, and then the ambitious and daring Special Interrogation Group (SIG).
The Idea of Blending In
The idea of SIG came from Captain Herbert Buck. He was a fluent German speaker who was once captured by the Afrika Korps in late 1941 when he was in North Africa. He managed to escape by wearing bits of a German uniform and successfully went his way back to the Allied lines. The experience gave him an idea that if one spoke German, dressed, and acted like them, they could efficiently operate behind without the Germans knowing they were from the Allies.
He proposed the idea to the Middle Eastern heads of the Special Operations Executive, the wagers of Churchill’s “ungentlemanly warfare.” Unsurprisingly, his plan was approved. The age range and the exact number of the volunteers that joined Buck’s group were uncertain but what we know for sure was that the majority of them were Jews who fled to escape the Nazi’s antisemitism, immigrated to Palestine, and then joined the British Army when the war broke out.
Learning to be a German
From the very beginning, Buck was clear about the nature of their task and its risks. Once captured, they were more likely to be tortured and executed by the Gestapo.
The group began training with two German Afrika Corps prisoners of war who claimed to be against the Nazi regime and agreed to train the recruits. The operatives were uncomfortable with the idea, but Buck naively shrugged off the complaints and insisted they go ahead with the training.
They started their training in the morning, being woken up with harsh German commands until the time they went to sleep. Everything was done in German. They wore German army uniforms, taught them German army terms and army slang, and they sang German army songs. Each of them was given a German identity and their own cover story involving photos of fake wives and girlfriends and forged documents. They were building a whole new identity out of them.
First Big Operation
The SIG’s first big operation was in June 1942.
They were tasked to attack two German airfields at Matrub and Derna. The plan was that they would disguise themselves as Germans and escort 33 French prisoners of war. The group successfully passed through the roadblocks, and the German soldiers even warned them to be careful as there was news that the English operatives were in the area. They also lined up in a German camp and had their fill in the field kitchen.
They successfully attacked Matrub and destroyed 20 aircraft without getting caught. However, the team assigned to Derna was not as successful. This other group was accompanied by one of the German prisoners of war who trained them, Heinrich Buckner. He was driving the truck when he suddenly halted and claimed that there was some mechanical problem. He then set off to a nearby German camp to ask for help. When he returned, he was accompanied by a troop of Nazis who ordered all of them to get off the truck. Two of the Special Interrogation Group, Eliyahu Gottlieb and Peter Haas, perhaps paranoid about getting caught and tortured, came out and fired their shots. They were killed, and only one of the operatives made it to the rendezvous, Lieutenant Augustine Jourdain, despite being wounded.
There was another intelligence gathering while the whole raid was taking place. This one consisted of three operatives: Karl Kahane, David Stirling, and Blair Mayne. Again, the three were successful, with Kahane even giving an unsuspecting German sentry a mouthful of all the known German swear words.
End of the SIG
SIG operatives ended after they took part in a major raid of the port Tobruk in September 1942. It was pretty much the same tactics; this time, they would have to work the land side, and then the British Navy would bombard the port so that a commando raid could be launched from the sea.
Everything was going well in the beginning until they discovered that the fort was defended better than they thought. The bombardment had little effect, and by the time the Allies had asked for backup, about 750 of their men had already died, gone missing, or were wounded. Captain Buck was captured, too, and he spent his next three years in the German POW camps.
After this, the members of the SIG were absorbed into other units, and many of them, fortunately, survived the war.