Brad Pitt’s Aldo Raine might have been in the “Nazi killing” business, but for the real Inglourious Bastards, killing Nazis was secondary — obtaining information came first. A group of renegade commandos who aren’t hellbent on building up their collection of Nazi scalps just isn’t as appealing to Quentin Tarantino’s body of work though. I’m sure something along the lines of “how will the audience know these motherf*ckers are real badasses if they aren’t cutting off heads?” ran through his mind. Making the Basterds a group of soldiers seeking brutal revenge was obviously a smart move on Tarantino’s part; he does violence and humor incredibly well and it paid off with $300 million at the box office. Hollywood’s an expert at spinning history into blockbuster success, but there’s little of it in Inglourious Basterds — or Italian director Enzo G. Castellari’s 1978 version, The Inglorious Bastards.
The Basterds did exist though, and they pulled off some pretty insane feats of heroism — they just never had a guy nicknamed “the bear” who was bashing Nazi heads with a baseball bat.
With Tarantino’s version celebrating its blood-soaked five-year anniversary this week, it had me wondering where the inspiration for the movie came from, and what sort of mission this group of Jewish commandos embarked upon.
The real Basterds were a British commando force of largely Jewish exiles from Germany and eastern Europe who were dubbed by Winston Churchill as X-Troop (which sounds just as cool as “the basterds” IMO). Only the smartest and bravest were selected, and their knowledge of various European cities and villages was especially vital to the allied forces. Each man was given a British sounding name as it was imperative they not be signaled out as Jewish — Ganz became Grey, Stein became Spencer, and so on.
The commandos might not have been taking Nazi scalps, but each who joined the mission had a terrible backstory of leaving behind friends and family with the Gestapo and wanted to get revenge. Via Daily Mail:
“I craved revenge on the Nazis,” said Colin Anson, who, as Claus Ascher, had witnessed his father being dragged away to Dachau. As a schoolboy in Vienna, Hans Hajos (Ian Harris) was horrified when on the day Hitler’s forces marched into Austria two of his classmates denounced the maths teacher as an anti-Nazi and marched him to prison. “I couldn’t wait to fight the Nazis. I knew they would have killed me and my family if we had stayed in Austria and I hated them.”
Killing wasn’t the unit’s primary objective, but it was something they were specially trained in, and they went through survival and unarmed combat drills in the Welsh mountains that included learning to set booby traps. Along with special skills and new names, the soldiers had to develop entirely new backgrounds since being outed as a Jew would result in being killed instantly or sent to a concentration camp.
Having the alias of John Spencer on paper is one thing, but what about the Hungarian or Polish accent? Daily Beast writer Kim Masters’ father Peter Masters was one of the basterds and recounted that most of the men had “pretty lame” stories to explain their accents. One would say he was shipped off to boarding school, another had parents that were both Eastern European traveling salesmen, anything to avoid being outed as Jewish if taken prisoner.
Perhaps the most harrowing of X-Troop’s missions was their involvement with D-Day. Several of the commandos were sent into Normandy on three separate occasions weeks before the invasion to gather information on a new trigger mine being laid out by the Germans. The men were sent in by boat and upon reaching shore had folding bicycles to move about on the land. It was on this third mission that commando Lieutenant George Lane found himself encountering a Nazi commander. While photographing a German fortification the group was discovered by a German unit and the members of X-Troop were forced to swim back to their boats waiting offshore. Lane and another member swam back to shore where they hid until dawn before being picked up by a German patrol boat.
The two men were then expecting to be shot, but handed over to Field Marshall Rommel, the German commander in the west, who wanted to meet a “gangster” commando. It was only Lane’s poor imitations of a Welsh accent that saved them from being executed with the German officer saying “Perhaps you are not a gangster at all” and sending them to a prisoner of war camp instead of execution.
Other run-ins with the Nazi forces didn’t end without bloodshed. During the Normandy landings, members of X-Troop were on land and equipped with their bicycles when a member of the group went after a German outpost alone. Earnest Lawrence had taken an outpost occupied by a single German soldier and shot the man when he reached for his gun. While looking through the man’s belongings Lawrence was taken captive by German forces and never heard from again. Another member of X-Troop, Harry Andrews, had the option of joining his parents in South America, but instead opted for the commando unit. He would later step on a mine while the troop was on patrol in Normandy, sending its ball bearings exploding up into his guts.
In all, out of the 88 members of X-Troop, 21 were killed in action and 22 were wounded — a 50 percent casualty/injury rate. It’s not known how many soldiers the commandos took down, but there was likely no scalping, in fact when they did have to perform executions as it wasn’t met with the joyous excitement portrayed by Eli Roth. Kim Masters told NPR one such execution that her father was a part of and the impact it had on him:
“My father told the story in his book about a friend of his who was ordered to shoot two prisoners by an officer because they had no one to guard these prisoners and they couldn’t let them escape. And my father was just horrified, the guy who had to do the shooting was horrified. My father says in his memoir that he prefers to think he would have shot the officer rather than shoot these two prisoners.
And the stories of abuse were very, very rare, you know? And I think that you could say they didn’t want to tell them, but I believe they genuinely did not commit atrocities as a general rule and that were very elite and highly trained troops.
The movie took some criticism from the men who are still alive and their families for Tarantino’s Dirty Dozen-like approach to history. The members of X-Troop might not have rigged a movie theater full of Nazis to go up in flames, but they definitely played a crucial role in the Allied Forces’ triumph over the Third Reich.