By Martin Sugarman
(Archivist, British Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women – AJEX - Jewish Military Museum, London)
During World War II it is estimated that about 8,000 or more German and Austrian Jewish refugees – officially labelled as “Friendly Aliens” by the authorities - served in the British and Allied Forces. After the “Fifth Column” scares and internment had passed, most were permitted to join the Pioneer Corps and then later the regular services, with a disproportionately high number serving in Special Forces and SOE. These men and women jokingly referred to themselves as “His Majesty’s Most Loyal Enemy Aliens.”(1) One of these was Jewish Commando, Peter Nagel.
Peter’s justified claim to fame is that he was the only British soldier to go on both the Bruneval and St. Nazaire Paratroop/Commando raids in World War II.
Peter was born in Berlin on January 29, 1916, the youngest of three children of Moritz (“Morny”)(2) and Margarete Nagel (nee Rudiger)(3). Margarete was a Catholic and the marriage was something of a scandal in both families at the time. The family home was in east Lichterfelde, a well-to-do suburb in south west Berlin. Peter had a sister Sabina who also survived the war in Italy and later married an Italian, surname Veludari, and her family eventually emigrated to Argentina where they had one daughter also called Sabina(4); an elder brother Lothar survived the war too and later traveled east, but no more was heard of him.
Peter’s daughter Jane Jarvis(5) told the author that Peter never really enjoyed his formal education and left school aged 16, as soon as he could. But his reports, dated 1922-26, from his Protestant Preparatory School(6) which he attended until aged 11 years (the Hansa Vorschule, located in north west Berlin) still survive in the family’s archives. They reveal that Peter appeared to excel in sports and history, but not so much in the more academic subjects(7)- a fact that reveals itself in his later character and development as a passionate and dare-devil individual. He and his brother often had fights in school, standing their ground in the face of verbal and physical anti-Semitism from other German students. Even their Principal told them, “People like you are not wanted in Germany.”(8)
The school reports also show that he passed an examination on March 24, 1926 to proceed to the very famous and traditionally Humanist Protestant Friedrichs-Werdersches Gymasium (Secondary) school in Berlin, founded in the 17th century and the alma mater of many famous Germans including the Bismarcks. How he progressed there, however, is not known. Most intriguing though is his Protestant Baptismal certificate(9) dated immediately before. The “conversion” was carried out at the Protestant church of St. Johannes (John) in Frohnau, a comfortable north west Berlin suburb, on March 23, 1926, probably in order to gain entrance for Peter into the Gymnasium. Typically, this was the way many German Jews chose to go in order to be able to progress their careers and the prospects for their children in that time. Peter was only 10 years old and clearly had no say in the matter. It must also have been an issue with his mother Margarete, as she was a Catholic! Clearly, however, Morny was very consciously Jewish, as Peter was circumcised soon after he was born, in the ancient Jewish tradition.(10)
When Morny decided to leave Germany, subterfuge had to be used to circumvent the racist anti-Semitic laws and in order to fool the Nazis, the family split up. Margarete went to Paris with the children, pretending to go on holiday(11), and Morny came on (what he told the Nazis was) a business trip to Leicester, then a world center of the woolen knitting trade. Beforehand, he had carefully arranged through his contacts with the distinguished English Wolsey family, well known in the woolen trade, to transfer the family savings through a bogus business deal, so that the Nagels would be able to use the money(12) to begin life again in the United Kingdom. Meanwhile, Peter lived in Paris for a while and did all kinds of mainly clerical jobs to earn a living, and Jane still has references he obtained from his French employers. He then made his way to England (probably in 1935 or 1936). But his mother was trapped in Paris and was interned by the French for the duration, probably as an enemy alien.(13)
Meanwhile, Peter’s father established a small but very successful factory in Churchgate, Leicester called Morna Fabrics, and a dress shop cum showroom in Soho, London, where many European expatriates were clients. Peter worked with the firm and Jane recalls Peter telling her that Morny made him work at all the “factory floor” jobs before bringing him into the management – as all good businessmen would do with a son or daughter, to “learn the trade from the bottom up”!
Peter enlisted in the army at Richborough on March 8, 1940 as a private in the Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps (AMPC), number 13081753(14)and was sent to No. 3 Centre, 93rd Company at Codford near Salisbury. His address at the time was given as 35 Lowndes Street London SW1.(15) His religion was given as Church of England, which was very typical as European Jews in British Forces were encouraged to hide their Jewish background in case of capture by the Nazis.
In a telephone interview with Leicester resident Arthur Warrington(16), a former wartime Royal Marine who knew Peter in the 1970’s, Peter said he was commissioned into the Royal Engineers(17) from the Pioneer Corps in June 1941. Short (5’ 6”) and slim, with brown hair and blue eyes(18), well educated and speaking excellent English – as well as French - Peter became an explosives expert but was very soon head hunted by MI5 (department X3) for SOE. He reported to an address at 2, Fitzmaurice Place and here it appears he was “de-Commissioned” to a Private again, possibly to protect him as a German Jew, should he be captured on an SOE sponsored raid. He was given the alias “Walker” and army number 4272711(19). But he was also later known as Pte. Newman (see below).
At SOE Special Training School (S.T.S.) No. 6 on August 14, 1941, Peter Nagel was described as in robust health, cheerful, slight build with fair complexion, and having good English, German and French ; his occupation is described as textile designer and that he was good at games and field craft but below average as a shot, although good with the Tommy gun and grenade. His knowledge of explosives was very good and he was clearly learning radio skills as his speed was recorded as 5 words per minute sending and receiving, and with very clear and concise report writing. He was mistakenly described as a Protestant but many Jews – especially if from enemy countries - hid their identities or were told to attest as non-Jews for obvious reasons. If captured they would have been executed immediately. Further remarks about him included being pleasant and enthusiastic, a clear thinker with plenty of self-confidence, quick to grasp instructions (even if complicated) , make his own plans and issue orders , but he looked younger than he was and was thus not automatically looked to as a leader by other trainees.
At No. 21 S.T.S., a Lance Cpl. Hall wrote on August 19 and 28, 1941, that Nagel was “well educated, extremely intelligent, and if not for his youthful appearance and inexperience, might be a good leader…needs tuition in leadership. Very keen all round, extremely reliable and very courageous…will be able to work on his own…would always find a way out…very good English.” On 4th September, “He was a leader on an important scheme. He worked out everything perfectly, was very calm all of the time, but his leadership was not acknowledged by his comrades as it should have been. On a few occasions they did not even obey his orders and he was not as firm as he should have been……..”
On September 5, 1941, supervisor Lt. Col. Anderson wrote that Nagel had a good sense of humor, was keen at field craft and very good at close combat having worked very hard and had a good knowledge of all the holds; very good at pistols, Tommy Gun, Bren and Browning and got 92% in the explosives test, albeit a bit impetuous. His morse was 6 words per minute and improving, and in map reading he achieved 74% and could ride a bicycle. Again it was noted that though cheerful and competent, it was doubtful he would make a good leader as he was impetuous and did not take strong enough a line when delegating duties to others – but would do well on his own.
However, in contrast, in mid October, a Corporal Donaldson at S.T.S. 6 wrote, “Nagel does not impress me very much. He is effeminate in his way of talking and in his bearing generally and he seems to me to have much too high an opinion of himself… he likes to be more English than the English themselves… also insolent and undisciplined. His attitude on life is said to be largely due to his accident in Manchester.”(20) Clearly Donaldson had a problem with Jews.
On January 2, 1942, Peter was returned to his unit (93rd PC) then at the drill hall, Redruth, having been temporarily training with the Commandos. Whilst at S.T.S. 44, a trainer, Lance Cpl. Rees, had written on January 3 that “Nagel is a socially accomplished and highly intelligent individual. By birth he is a Reichsdeutscher, by conviction a European, ideologically an anarchist, which feeds his individualism…an intelligent sense of responsibility tempers his behavior. He is also an inveterate and successful womanizer….he kicks hard and consciously against injustice without caring about the (pin)pricks…he has often found himself up against the authorities during the recent trouble here(21), but always he has stood out and maintained his position stubbornly. He has an explosive enthusiasm and would be willing to do any job where he could work alone and use his intelligence. He has relations all over Europe including an uncle in business in Marseilles, a sister in Biarritz and a mother in Paris. He would be only too ready…. to go to France for us, where he could easily get a job in his uncle’s business to serve as a cover (his uncle is violently anglophile and germanophobe). With Opoczinski(22) he was one of the few who understood the reasonableness of sending the group back to the Pioneer Corps, although for himself…it would probably be a greater blow than for any of the others, for as a Reichsdeutscher he has hardly any chance of transfer from the Pioneer Corps. If it is not intended to use him in the organization I feel that his claim for transfer to the RAF or Merchant Navy, should be very strongly backed by us.”
On January 6, 1942, supervisor Major Butler at S.T.S. 44 wrote that Peter was very good all round. Then in February came Bruneval.
The Bruneval Raid DAYS
The Bruneval Raid (Operation Biting) was a Combined Operations attack on the German radar station on the cliffs at Bruneval, 15 miles north east of Le Havre on the French coast, to capture components of a Wurzberg radar. Study of the radar would then enable the RAF to find countermeasures to the device which guided German bombers to targets in Britain. The raid used elements of the new 1st Parachute Brigade (part of 1st Airborne Division), namely C Company, 2nd Battalion the Parachute Regiment (120 men) led by Major (post war General) John Frost – later of Arnhem Bridge fame. With them would go Fl . Sgt. C. W. Cox, an RAF radar expert, to dismantle the required pieces to be “pinched.” Much needed , however, was a Commando(23) trained German speaking interpreter to interrogate German prisoners; Peter Nagel was detached from No. 2 Commando and chosen for this role. He was given the name “Newman.”
MRD Foot(24) described Peter as “a Sudetan German who was to confuse the enemy by shouting orders and counter orders in the dark.” This is confirmed in a letter from P. M. Lee of the Historical Sub-Committee of the Special Forces Club on October 16, 1990(25) to Jack Lennard of Hull AJEX. There is, however, no evidence that this “shouting” ruse was actually used, and Foot is wrong as Peter was not a Sudetan.
One wet, cold day, into a damp hut at Tilshead (on Salisbury Plain), the CSM of C Company brought before Major Frost “a small but handsome man, dressed as a private soldier in the Pioneer Corps,” detailed to report to the CO as German interpreter for a special mission. “He came from Combined Operations HQ via 1st Airborne Division HQ at Syrancote House (near Netheravon) and was “a German Jew”(26) called “Private Newman.”(27) Only Frost, Capt. John Ross (2nd in Command) and Sgt. Maj. Strachan were to know his true nationality in case he should be captured. Frost studied Newman carefully noting his many good points, toughness, intelligence, humor, he spoke fluent English and had lived in Paris, Vienna, London, Budapest, New York as well as Berlin. Given fears about German agents infiltrating refugee communities, Frost felt very uneasy about “having a Hun on the strength (of his command).”(28) Frost actually says in his book that the name and number they gave “Newman” (Peter), corresponded to that of a real soldier who had deserted between the wars. So when Peter was later taken POW at St. Nazaire (see below), the Germans cross referenced his details with the Red Cross and were satisfied he was just “an ordinary” British soldier. This almost certainly saved his life.
Next day the Company left for Scotland by train, to Inverary on Loch Fyne, and were comfortably billeted on board the ship HMS Prins Albert, but from which they spent many uncomfortable and wet days and nights practicing embarking and disembarking from landing craft with the Royal Navy – who had no idea they were Paratroops (they had been ordered to remove their parachute wings badges). Lord Mountbatten, CO of Combined Operations, came to inspect them and took Frost aside and asked if he had any worries. Frost said he was unhappy about Newman, so Mountbatten sent for him at once. Mountbatten subjected Peter to what Frost admiringly considered to be a tremendous barrage in absolutely fluent German, standing him in front of the desk and shouting at him. Peter answered quietly and smoothly, they shook hands and then Peter was dismissed. The Admiral turned to Frost and said “Take him along; you won’t regret it for he is bound to be very useful. I judge him to be brave and intelligent . After all, he risks far more than you do(29) and of course he would never have been attached to you if he had not passed security on every count.” Peter himself remembers Lord Louis’ interrogation on the ship as a pleasant and gentlemanly affair and thought the Admiral utterly charming.(30)
Next day the Prins Albert sailed to Gourock and from there C Company returned by train to Tilshead, arriving on February 14th. Here they made more training jumps(31), traveled to and from the south coast to train on the MGB’s (Motor Gun Boats), and were inspected by General “Boy” Browning, CO of all Airborne Forces. None of the men knew what was in store for them and four times the raid was postponed by bad weather. But they suspected something important , as they had been practicing on a mock up of buildings near cliffs (in fact a mock up of the whole Bruneval site) at Alton Friars.(32)
On the eve of the raid, the men went to RAF Thruxton, just west of Andover in Wiltshire, and sat waiting for the take off. Here Peter was ordered to join Frost, Ross and Strachan as they passed around the small groups of relaxed men, chatting and joking to them in turn as they sat on the edge of the aerodrome on a glorious evening , checking their gear, some singing and brewing tea, waiting for zero hour.
The raiders were dropped by parachute from 12 Whitley V bombers of 51 Squadron(33), on the night of February 27, 1942. There are books describing the raid but put simply, when the Paras landed virtually dead on target and unopposed, on the snow covered cliff area, Peter was with Frost’s Hardy section (the Company had been divided into sections to deal with planned, specific tasks and included two other Jewish participants, Lt. Peter Naumoff, commanding Drake section, and Parachute Lt. Dr. Abe Baker, commanding the medical team waiting offshore to be called in to take off the raiders after the operation was completed).
Frost’s five man team including Peter, rushed for the chateau (code named “Lone House”), where they discovered the door wide open. Blowing his whistle, Frost led the charge inside where they heard shooting from upstairs. Here a German was firing at the other sections and he was killed immediately. Leaving the house, the section then ran to the radar pit some yards away which had already been secured, and Peter was ordered to question the badly shaken German prisoner who had been taken there. He readily said he belonged to the Luftwaffe Communications Regiment. Radar expert Cox (later awarded the MM) then tore aside a thick, black rubber curtain that shielded the radar set and called to Peter, “Hey Peter, this thing’s still hot. Ask the Jerry if he was tracking our aircraft as we came in.”(34) The German confirmed this in answer to Peter’s question.
Whilst the fighting was continuing, Peter and a comrade saw a German run towards the edge of the cliff and dive for cover on a ledge. One of the veterans whose voice was on the soundtrack of the 1982 MOD film reconstruction of the raid said, “We had a young German with us as interpreter” and he (Peter) “coaxed this German back onto the cliff top and questioned him.”(35) He wore a blue uniform and was a radar operator. “Even if he was a bloody cleaner, he must know something,” says Peter’s voice, clearly recognizable with the slight German accent in the commentary. When interviewed on the Yorkshire Television (YTV) film (made in December 1976 and broadcast in January 1977 for the 37th anniversary of the raid), Peter described on camera, with his name prominently displayed as a subtitle, what happened. The German was pulled back up the cliff face and, “I tore the swastika badge from his uniform.” “Why?” asked the interviewer. “For my personal satisfaction,” smiled Peter. “Then I started to interrogate him about the number of German troops and their positions – we only had some information till then – and I thought he was lying. So I shook him by his lapels and said so, and my comrade said we should kill him. But I said no as we had to have prisoners and he was very young and started to cry and was shaking with fear, so I said we should take him along.” And they did.
As the Germans in the area began to respond, resistance increased, so having got what they had come for and with the prisoners in tow under Peter’s guard, the Paras made their way to the pick up. However, they discovered some Germans in a trench defending the route to the rendezvous beach and a firefight broke out. Eventually the Para officer commanding the group decided on a frontal charge. Peter comments on the voiceover, “They had never seen such savages (as us); they were absolutely fabulous…Grenades were thrown into the trenches and we quickly took more prisoners.”(36) In three hours it was all over.
The operation was a great success and the Royal Navy with some army units for cover, picked up virtually all of the raiders; only two were killed and six wounded with eight captured. Five Germans were killed and three important prisoners – including the technician – were taken. It was the first Battle Honour of the Parachute Regiment and Peter Nagel was proud to have taken part. General Browning’s report stated(37) that Peter’s “knowledge of the German language and of the psychology of the Germans, proved of great assistance.”
The moving epilogue occurred in December 1976, when RV Jones (the Government’s Chief radar expert throughout the war and Head of the Air Ministry Scientific Intelligence Unit; he had conceived the raid) attended a reunion of the Bruneval Raid participants(38) as part of a program for a Yorkshire Television documentary.(39) Here he met some of the few survivors (many had been killed later in the war) including one “whose expert knowledge and unusual bravery I had hardly till then appreciated, Peter Nagel…he had volunteered and…even more than Cox, perhaps, he was in a specially dangerous position if captured as the Germans would have had no mercy if they had discovered his origin; but he went, as Private Newman, and without his cool headedness we might not have brought back the radar prisoner… after the programmer that gallant man came quietly up to me and said ‘We would like you to know that if you had asked us, we would have gone on another hundred raids’ .”
The raid on Bruneval in which Peter played so significant a part was hugely important. Cribbing how the German radar worked saved thousands of civilian lives in Britain, as well as thousands of Bomber Command personnel, and Allied troops on the D-Day landings. It was also a huge morale boost for the Allies during the very darkest days of the war. Lord Mountbatten stated in the film that at the same time the raid also depressed morale in Germany; apparently General Student, founder of the German Paras, saw the film on German TV, wrote to Mountbatten, and said he was in Hitler’s HQ when news of the raid reached him. The Fuhrer was incandescent with rage!
For his part in the Raid, on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the Bruneval Operation, Peter received a Diplome d’Honneur signed by French President Francois Mitterand and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, dated June 20, 1982.(40)
The St. Nazaire Raid
Not thirty days after Bruneval, on the night of March 28th 1942, and Peter was volunteering again from No. 2 Commando, this time on the equally famous St. Nazaire raid in Brittany!(41) He was taken along with the alias this time of Pte. Walker, on the express orders of Mountbatten because, “he knew how to deal with the Germans.”(42) This raid was another Combined Operations effort, Operation Chariot, with an RAF bombardment followed by a Naval and sea borne Commando attack. The aim was to destroy the great Normandy dry dock, so neutralizing the great German battleship sea-raider Tirpitz by depriving her of repair facilities within striking distance of Allied Atlantic convoys. In addition, damage would be done to the submarine pens, so reducing the U-Boat menace.
Peter was on board the only MGB (Motor Gunboat 314) which took part, with the HQ Company, consisting of Commander Ryder (the Naval Commander) and Col. Newman (the Army No. 2 Commando Commander), both of whom later received the VC. Among those with Peter were also Privates Murdoch and Kelly, machine gunners and - like Peter - bodyguards to Col. Newman; Capt. Stanley Day (awarded an MC) the Adjutant to Col. Newman; Sgt. Steel with the all-important special radio; L/Cpl. J. Harrington (awarded an MM); and Capt. A. Terry, the War Office representative (awarded an MC). As the task force of armed ML’s (Motor Launches) and destroyers stealthily approached the Loire estuary on the final run up to the harbor targets, MGB 314 was in the van at the tip of the spear.(43) All hell broke loose from German defenses and the British ships replied with all guns blazing. Peter was re-named Walker for this raid as the name “Newman” (used at Bruneval) would have confused him with the raid commander, whose personal German and French speaking interrogator he was, and besides whom he was ordered to stay throughout the raid as special assistant.(44)
What follows now is a first hand account of the raid as Peter saw it, italicized for convenience, alternating with descriptions from the book sources. Peter wrote his own short version in the first person, in French, possibly for a French Radio or TV broadcast in France, or possibly for a BBC Radio French language broadcast – we do not know; it is not dated and is in the private collection of daughter Jane Jervis, who translated it for this article. I have altered it to reported speech form:
“I belonged to No. 2 Commando and was the German and French interpreter and also one of the bodyguards for the officers commanding the operation. I was therefore with Colonel Newman in the gunboat which headed up the convoy to St Nazaire. It was a beautiful Spring night and the waters of the port were as calm as a lake. We glided slowly towards our objective, passing a German ship guarding the entrance to the port. I could see German sailors staring at us and the tension was unbearable. My job was to be on the bridge, helping to operate a machine gun. We waited for the order to open fire; we wondered how much longer the Germans would let us continue without resistance.
Suddenly they began firing. I had never seen anything like it. The tracer bullets crossed over one another , forming a giant firework display. The enemy anti-aircraft guns installed on the roofs, fired down upon us at point blank range. My gunner fired without stopping at the enemy searchlights that were sweeping the waters of the port. The firing was so intense that nobody knew exactly what was going on. Several of our launches were hit and as they were made only of wood and filled to the brim with petrol, they exploded. I then saw the destroyer “Campbeltown” charge into the lock gates with such speed, that it seemed to jump like a horse leaping over a hedge! The violence of the shock threw up the stern and then the bow smashed into the gates – exactly as was planned, (at 1.34a.m. as described in C E Lucas-Phillips book, page 141, “The Greatest Raid of All”, first published 1958 and later in 2000 – Pan Books, London).
My gunner, Private Kelly, was wounded and I took over the gun; after a few minutes we landed and despite his wounds, Kelly had got ashore (behind me). I tried to put him back aboard but he would not hear of it; he wanted to come with us. I wanted so much to tell his parents of his bravery, and I am sure he may have been killed as I never heard from him again. If he had got back on board he would have seen England again. (Kelly was tragically later shot between the eyes and died alongside Col. Newman – Lucas-Phillips page 215. Prior to disembarking the young Kelly had been caught donning his kilt by Col. Newman, a matter of honour for the young Scotsman, and with a boyish guilty look said, “Can I, Sir?”; smiling, Newman agreed, saying “alright, if you think it will make you fight better that way.” The Colonel was latter glad he had granted what was a last wish to this courageous soldier - Lucas-Phillips page 124)(45).
Surrounded by a blazing inferno of gunfire, Peter’s MGB docked at a wooden jetty in the Old Harbour Entrance that led into the Bassin de St Nazaire, just to the west of the dry dock main target(46) . Just prior, Ryder and Newman had a friendly argument as to whether Ryder should first sink a nearby enemy boat or disembark Newman. Newman insisted that Ryder’s job was to get him and his men ashore at once. Ryder gave way and they shook hands , wishing each other luck, and were not to meet again for three years. Then Peter, the Colonel and his party, in their rubber soled Commando boots, “armed to the teeth, sprang over the side and away up the steps like young goats”, Murdoch and Kelly preceding the Colonel (Lucas-Philips page 180 and passim). They then charged at the double(47), unseen in the shadows, along a narrow road to small bridge, with heavy fire pouring above their heads, near which was a building to be used as Col. Newman’s battle raid HQ. Here they met fierce resistance and so waited for reinforcements to arrive.
“Our group hurled itself into action taking up positions on the dock side. Across the basin we could see the enormous mass of the concrete wall (submarine pens) with several submarines moored along its length. We were now in the heart of the battle as we awaited the runners with information on how the demolition groups were getting on with their tasks.”
On trying to enter the building which he had chosen as HQ, Newman bumped helmets with a German as he rounded a corner, instinctively saying sorry. The astonished German thrust up his hands in surrender. Terry questioned the prisoner in German and they were all amazed to find that this building was in fact the German HQ! At that moment they came under heavy fire from a German minesweeper in the basin, and sharply took cover.
“On my right an officer fell, and I knew he was mortally wounded, but he refused to let anyone fetch help and ordered his group to continue the attack without preoccupying themselves with him. The Germans meanwhile were everywhere, running in all directions. All the same we managed to take some prisoners. We saw some trying to hide but fired on every shadow that moved and on the blockhouse on the other side of the dock. But they spotted us and the situation became more alarming. One of our prisoners took advantage of the situation and escaped into an anti-aircraft shelter. We shelled it with grenades (there must have been others sheltering in there) but at that moment I was struck by shrapnel in my arms and legs. My arms hurt me so much I could not continue my duties and Colonel Newman ordered me back to the gun boat. But as I headed back to where I thought the boat may be, I was surrounded by Germans screaming at me. Suddenly, one jumped out, pistol in hand; I fired and he disappeared. At the same time one of our launches exploded near the Old Mole and I realized our way back was now cut off.”
Other Germans were no more than 20 yards away from Newman’s group and lobbing grenades at them. Jovially unruffled, the Colonel merely moved his team to shelter behind a shed. Having unsuccessfully tried to contact Ryder on the special radio, about re-embarking, Newman realized he must give the order to withdraw using the rain rockets (signal flares), but these had been lost at sea.
“I thus tried to rejoin Colonel Newman to let him know that nobody in this area had been able to either land or re-embark, and then, distracted, accidentally ran into a barbed wire barrier, and was caught like a rabbit in a trap. I disentangled myself and got back to my group, which had been calmly continuing the fight. The Germans, however, were just the opposite and running round in all directions and shouting in confusion and panic. One of them, badly wounded, cried out 'For the Fuhrer! For the Fuhrer!' I reported to Col. Newman what I had found but he seemed already aware of the situation.”
The battle raged on for hours with the Commandos holding their own against numerically superior German forces, and for whom reinforcements were arriving with increasing speed. About a hundred men, many wounded, had by now rallied to Colonel Newman and, albeit radiating confidence in front of his men, he knew that with rescue from the sea now no longer possible, and the major objective achieved, the men would have to fight their way out of the town to make ultimately for Spain, 1000 miles away (as had been envisaged in such an event) via a bridge over the southern part of the Bassin de St Nazaire dock, using “fire and movement” tactics. Calmly and returning effective fire at the more panicky Germans, the Colonel’s group moved forward, Peter with them, to both break out into the relatively safer countryside and also move away from the hidden explosives of the Campbeltown.
“The decision was made for us to risk everything and to make a passage across the German lines and head for the countryside. From there on it would be every man for himself (Lucas-Phillips page 216-7) . German resistance became increasingly effective and our fire weaker; we were short of ammunition, having only what we could carry (Lucas-Phillips pages 217-227).”
About 3 a.m., the Commandos defiantly dashed through the narrow dock streets, with their wounded, being fired on from windows and street corners, many of them armed only with pistols, keeping to the shadows, halting from time to time to gather together, using covering fire, overcoming pockets of resistance, allowing stragglers to catch up, some of the lame courageously dropping out, determined not to hold the others up, with Newman calmly calling “Get on lads! Get on!” Light from fires, together with a bright moon overhead, suffused the area with a dim, phantom radiance(48). The crack of guns alternated with grenade bursts and shouting voices, as Colonel Newman inspired his men forward, cracking jokes, directing fire, never taking cover.
Now they had reached the exposed Old Town Place, which had to be crossed to reach the girded escape bridge now only 70 yards away. The whole area was covered by German machine gun fire. “Away you go lads,” called Newman leading the way, and they were off, with enemy bullets sparking off steel, a stirring, olden times charge into the heart of the Germans, sending them reeling.
However, with ever lower ammunition and with German armored cars appearing at the last minute, and the wounded more and more in distress, and increasingly surrounded, the trap slowly closed and most of the Commandos had to stop and shelter in local cellars. From the cellars, most were taken POW early next morning.
“As dawn broke, I tried to cross the bridge (known now as the “Bridge of Memories” – Lucas-Phillips pages 25, 220/221) but at each attempt German machine gun cross-fire forced me to retreat. I therefore decided to hide in a warehouse between some sacks of cement (Lucas-Phillips page 226-7) . I had seen some of my comrades do the same and I hoped to find some French workmen and get some working clothes , and under this disguise get out into the countryside.
I have never known a moment of depression as bad as this in my whole life; I could already imagine myself ending up in a concentration camp. I knew Campbeltown should have exploded three hours after the beginning of the raid and nothing had happened. There I was crouching in my hole, counting the minutes, cursing that so much sweat and blood had been spilt to achieve nothing. The Germans continued shrieking and shouting till sunrise. After a few hours a German patrol started firing into my hiding place and next moment I found myself pushed with my back against a wall alongside several comrades. We were searched right down to our underclothes. I could gather from their conversation that they wanted to shoot us, but at that moment an older German Sergeant came along and sent us under close guard to a boat moored several meters away. Our wounds were dressed and then suddenly an enormous explosion occurred as “Campbeltown” went up! The lock gates vaulted into the air at 10.30a.m. The raid had been a success!”
Prisoner of War
Thus Peter was captured (for some reason Pioneer Corps records show Peter as transferred to the Royal Fusiliers in October 1943 even though he was already a POW)(49). He had been wounded by a hand grenade(50) in his arms, back and legs and unable to get away on a boat or overland, was captured just a few minutes before HMS Campbeltown blew up. Sadly his father received a letter from the War Office, via the King, stating Peter was “Missing presumed dead in action.”(51)
After being gathered on one of the quays, the British POW’s, in torn and blood stained uniforms, unshaven, limping and many bandaged, were taken to La Baule emergency hospital on a very uncomfortable old French bus, under heavy guard, a few miles to the west, with many other wounded. It was located in a villa near the sea.(52) Peter had a cursory interrogation and then was moved by truck on a journey of several hours, to another hospital at Rennes(53), and thence to Marlag und Milag Nord (actually a German Merchant Navy and Marines POW camp at Westertimke, near Bremen, Germany) by cattle truck. Here he was interrogated two or three times more but gave only name, rank and number.
Peter told his daughter Jane that the Nazis were suspicious of his slight “non-English” accent, but his mates covered for him and said that he came from Leicester and “they all talked a bit like that up there.” He was also quizzed about his dental fillings and told the Germans that his dentist was a Pole who used the continental style; this explanation was almost certainly given as a ruse to Peter by his British SOE trainers, who knew the Nazis used this technique to try and pick out German and other Jewish refugees serving in the Allied Forces. The Nazis even gave him an arithmetic test, knowing that one tended to calculate and speak arithmetic in your mother tongue and write the digit seven with a cross through – another trick to pick out Jewish fighters not from the UK - but he was quick enough to successfully pass himself off as a true Brit!
Peter remained with an organized POW party commanded by a Colonel. Whilst at Marlag he and some comrades tried to escape by tunnel but it was discovered. As a result Peter was then sent to Sandbostel Camp (Stalag X-B) between Bremen and Hamburg for one month, then returned briefly to Marlag, then finally to Stalag VIIIB at Lamsdorf in Silesia.(54)
From September 1942 he worked in a sugar beet factory, befriending some Czech youths who were engaged in sabotage and who later were probably – according to Peter - caught and liquidated by the Nazis. From here he was sent to work in a clothing factory at Jagerndorf Camp(55) where he met a Czech girl and approached her about organizing acts of resistance. However, she dissuaded him saying the locals were pro-German and her family were already in prison and she could not put them in further peril. The manager was very pro-Nazi and for the next nine months Peter lived in the shadow of discovery, until as punishment – probably for being “difficult” - he was sent to a bleak forestry camp in the mountains. Here he organized others to carry out minor sabotage such as damaging machinery; but already under suspicion and involved in a strike, he was returned to Lamsdorf camp.
At Lamsdorf and totally undaunted, he again became involved with the Escape Committee and together with an RAF pilot they escaped to Jagerndorf using forged French workers papers and contacted the Czech girl he had met there in the clothing factory. From her they obtained clothing. They also had some idea about which route to take across Austria from a British Major who had already escaped to Italy and Yugoslavia but been recaptured in Austria.
Leaving the camp they got to Klagenfurt in Austria within 36 hours, arriving on a very wet and dark night about June 20, 1944, braving the 9 p.m. curfew, after which the Germans were allowed to shoot on sight . They decided to dodge patrols and make for the railway station at Assling, but here were caught by the military police and taken to Gestapo HQ in Klagenfurt, still pretending to be French workers. They were then sent to Landeck camp and guarded by an Austrian Alpine Regiment. They kept to their story that they had stolen the clothing and were put in solitary confinement. From here they were sent yet again to another camp at Pongau and finally back to Lamsdorf. Peter testified in his post-war debrief that they had not been ill-treated at any time.
At Lamsdorf, Peter befriended a New Zealander, Sgt. Major Herd, who got him transferred after 6 weeks, to assist him at a hospital in Nuremburg. En route Peter said he was shocked to witness a large column of civilian prisoners - Russians, Poles and Hungarians - being herded on a horrific forced march by the Germans, who shot several of them in cold blood, every few hundred yards. After a few weeks, Peter was again shifted, this time to Moosburg camp, near Munich, where they were finally liberated by the American forces in Spring 1945.
Peter was awarded the War Medal and 1939-45 Star.
After the war, Peter’s record shows he was in the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers, attached Durham Light Infantry (DLI), from June 18, 1945 to May 23, 1946, from where he was demobbed. But his Soldier’s Release Book(56) reveals that he worked for some time at German POW Work Camp 248, Cinderfield Lane, Norton, near Chesterfield, since demolished. His CO’s reference states, “I have only known Nagel for one month. He has a very good appearance and has always done his job very well and is diligent. He is a most willing worker, sober and honest.”
Peter returned to Leicester and his mother was able to re-join the family there.(57) She became a British citizen in August 1946.(58) In the early 1940s, Peter had met Muriel Phyllis Owen(59), a WAAF Sergeant, and after he became naturalized(60) they married in a registry office in 1946 or 1947; their daughter, Jane Sabina, was born June 5, 1949 in Leicester. Before the war, Muriel attended the Froebel College of Teacher Training and taught Primary school children with the then revolutionary methods of play-centered learning, later taken up world wide. Though quiet and reserved, she shared Peter’s pro-democratic and anti-Nazi political views and was very committed to women’s rights – wearing trousers and smoking at a time when it was considered shocking for women to do so. Jane was brought up impressed by both parents on the need to exercise the right to vote - "good men and women died to give you the vote" – a message she has passed on to her family. In 1973 or 1974, Peter and Muriel divorced and Muriel continued to live in the family home at Waltham-on-the-Wolds. She died on November 9, 1975 in Leicester following an illness of cancer of the pharynx; Peter had cared for her right to the end, despite their divorce; her ashes are scattered in Hutcliffe gardens in Sheffield.
Jane studied psychology at Leeds University where she met dental student, Richard Leonard Jervis, who was studying at Leeds Dental School. Jane and Richard married in November 1972 and followed their respective careers of Primary Teaching and Dentistry. Their only child, Adrian Martin, was born in 1978 when they were living in Melbourne. They returned to the UK in 1980 and have since lived in Leicester.(61)
Morny handed the business over to Peter in the late 1950s. The London showroom was closed down and the business sold to Courtaulds, makers of the new synthetic yarns, with Peter kept on as Senior Manager. This was the Sixties, boom time for knitted synthetic fabrics. Business expanded and the factory moved to modern premises in Sandhurst Street, and then Kenilworth Drive in Oadby; at one time Peter ran three factories. He was the creative force, full of new ideas and practical business know-how acquired from experience in the more traditional knitting trade. His PA, Peggy Snowdon, was a great organizer and provided excellent support. Between 1950 and 1962, Peter lived in Thorpe Satchville, then the family moved to Waltham-on-the-Wolds in 1962.(62)
At one stage after his divorce, during the late 1970s, Peter lived partly in small flat at Elizabeth Court, Long Street, Wigston Magna. Here he met Arthur Warrington, who, although the caretaker, Peter became friendly with as they had both seen service in WWII. At this time Peter lived alone.(63) He then married a Yugoslav woman when in his late fifties, who soon after left him to go to America, something which greatly upset Peter.
Often after work, Peter invited Arthur into his flat for a glass of whisky and they would talk about old times. Arthur says Peter told him he had been on other Commando raids into France that were not on record, describing Peter as an unbelievably brave “little Jew-boy” (using the passé pejorative term describing Jews commonly used by some gentiles who should know better); Peter said often that although an officer to begin with he had never received officers pay.(64) Arthur also recalls that Peter was openly proud of his Jewish heritage. Despite the smallness of this particular flat it had a relatively generous area given over to his collection of religious icons and also, because of its large size, what appeared to Arthur as a Chanuka Candelabra (this was actually a large pair of double branched silver candlesticks of sentimental value, possibly brought from Germany, polished up by Jane as a child, then by Peter).
At one point there was an arson attempt on the old factory. One evening, after staying late at work, Peter was attacked by a group of young muggers as he went to his car, but they were shocked, apparently by his swift Commando style and aggressive response, and they soon ran off, much to the delight of Peter’s friends and staff on hearing the story from the police.
Peter retired in September 1979 but sadly fell ill with an aggressive form of skin cancer in the early 1980s and died of a brain tumor on September 25, 1983, aged only 67. Whilst he was ill Ray Holt, a 2 Para veteran, wrote to Peter not long before he died, asking him if he would join the 2 Para veterans again at the coming reunion at Grantham, saying, “2 Para hold you in great respect for the risk you took at Bruneval and we would dearly like to make a little presentation to you.”(65) Sadly Peter had to reply that he was too ill and when the veterans finally got to visit him later in the year, to award him a Paratrooper statuette (symbolizing the Bruneval Drop) he was too sedated to understand what was happening. For years Jane could not bear to look at the gift his comrades gave him, but today it has pride of place in her lounge. It is inscribed;
As Jane has remarked, that says it all.
Peter was cremated on September 30, 1983 and his ashes scattered in the Glade woodland area at Gilroes cemetery.(66) He had remained a member of the 2nd Paratroop Association(67) and several veterans attended his funeral where they placed a Union Jack flag on his coffin.(68) His obituary(69) appeared in the Leicester Mercury on September 28, 1983, page 5 – describing him as a local war hero and showing a partially blurred photo.
Everyone who knew Peter in Leicester liked and admired him. Both he and Muriel were outstandingly generous, always ready to help others out. They were always sympathetic to fellow refugees; among their closest friends was a family of escapees from communist Ukraine. (This particular family emigrated to Melbourne Australia, where Jane later remade contact). In the 1950s there were Jewish friends in London and friends amongst the local town of Melton Mowbray’s large Polish community. Jane has childhood memories of the ‘Polski’ shop where her parents drank real coffee and chatted before buying European food that reminded Peter of his roots – salami, ‘wurst’ (sausages), gherkins, poppy seed bread and, of course, ‘kuchen’. Peter was very modest and rarely spoke to anyone about his incredible war story, including to his daughter Jane, who has only recently really discovered just what he did. His small stature belied his incredible bravery. Jane described him as “impulsive, always challenging authority, and passionate about whatever he did.”(70) This is certainly borne out by both his SOE training reports and his volunteering to fight with the most daring of units in the most dangerous of circumstances – Special Forces.
Although he had no formal link with the local Jewish Community, he had many Jewish friends and was always proud of his Jewish roots, as is his daughter. Jane described him as having a high moral code due to his Jewish upbringing, which he stuck to all his life. She once asked him, when quite young, if he believed in God, but he said, “not after the Holocaust.”
Peter Nagel was one of a great but little known part of the Jewish “Hall of Fame” of the war period, an unsung hero, immensely courageous and daring, of whom we may be justly proud.
Sources and Acknowledgements
I have clearly named all my sources in the text or footnotes, but would particularly like to thank Jane Jervis, Peter Nagel’s daughter, for all her patience and trust, and supplying me not only with a large amount of family history but the amazing and never published account of Peter’s experience on the St Nazaire Raid – “The Greatest Raid of all.”
(1) See, among others, the superb books by Helen Fry (“The King’s Most Loyal Enemy Aliens”, Sutton 2007) and Peter Leighton-Langer (“The King’s Own Loyal Enemy Aliens”, Vallentine Mitchell, 2006) as well as Norman Bentwich (“I Understand the Risks” , Gollancz, 1950) . Also the excellent bibliographies in these books on this astonishing subject.
Source: Martin Sugarman, Reprinted with Permission