Werner Angress was attached to a U.S. paratroopers’ platoon winging behind German lines on D-Day, when a sergeant told him he’d be the first to jump. “But I’ve never jumped before in my life,” Angress protested.
“That’s OK,” the sergeant said, “the newest guy always goes first.”
Angress was one of “The Ritchie Boys,” a special army unit made up mainly of young Jewish refugees from Germany, whose World War II exploits have been recorded for the first time in a documentary by German filmmaker Christian Bauer.
The German-Canadian co-production has been short-listed as one of 12 documentaries still in competition for this year’s Academy Award honors.
The Ritchie Boys got their names from Camp Ritchie in Maryland, where the ex-refugees reported for duty at the Military Intelligence Training Camp. The new recruits joked that the camp’s initials stood for Military Institute of Total Confusion.
From the beaches of Normandy until the end of the war, the Ritchie Boys served on and behind the frontlines as interrogators, psychological warriors, authors of anti-Nazi leaflets and broadcasts, experts on the inner workings of the German war machine and concentration camp liberators.
Urging German soldiers to surrender from trucks equipped with loudspeakers, they became a favorite target of enemy artillery. They encountered their greatest danger in the Battle of the Bulge.
During a last, desperate push, the German army infiltrated English-speaking German soldiers in GI uniforms into the American lines. The infiltrators often spoke English with the same German accent as the Ritchie boys.
In the heat of battle, the Ritchie boys were likely to be shot by their fellow GIs, and a worse fate awaited them if they were captured by the Germans.
Ten of the Ritchie veterans, now mostly in their 80s but with sharp minds and memories, recall their experiences in the 90-minute film.
“Our teams were bright,” Victor Brombert says, “not always courageous, not the best military, but our hearts were in it.”
The Battle of the Bulge also proved to be one of their most frustrating experiences. Through interrogations of civilians and POWs, a Ritchie team realized that the enemy was building up a massive force of troops and tanks.
Some of the team drove through the night to corps headquarters to warn of the imminent assault, only to be told to stop worrying and go back to their units. The Germans struck within hours.
Not all the recollections are grim. With the fall of Berlin, some of the boys concocted a story that they had captured Hitler’s personal toilet and latrine orderly, which made headlines across the world.
Among the 10 veterans interviewed, two went on to become distinguished university professors, while a third, Fred Howard, gained fame of a different kind by inventing L’eggs, the pantyhose packaged in eggshell replicas.
The documentary adds another chapter to the larger story of Jewish service in the fight against Nazi tyranny.
(For additional information, visit www.ritchieboys.com.)
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.