The Special Interrogation Group
The German Jews in World War Two
From April 10,1941 to November 27, 194,1 the German army under the
command of Erwin Rommel laid siege to the city of Tobruk in Libya. Rommel
was the best and most successful general in the German army, and he commanded
the Afrika Corps, which had conquered most of North Africa and was now ready to
invade Egypt. It was the intention of the German forces to move from Tobruk,
only 90 miles east of the Egyptian border, and capture the Suez Canal. This
would not only have cut Britain’s lifeline to India but would also have
allowed the German forces to capture Israel. Already, the Arabs were plotting
with Hitler to establish concentration camps for the Jews in the Holy Land and
the “Mufti” of Jerusalem was anticipating becoming the “Führer” of a
In this desperate situation, the British army recruited a number of
German Jews then living in British occupied Israel. These German Jews had fled
from Germany and gained some military experience in the Jewish defense forces in
Israel: the Haganah, the Irgun,
and the Palmach. Others had been members of the French Foreign Legion.
A British officer, Herbert Cecil A. Buck, thought of the idea of
recruiting German speaking Jews to infiltrate the German army surrounding Tobruk
to carry out acts of sabotage and set up roadblocks behind German lines. Because
of their fluency in German, it was also intended that the Jewish unit members
could collect so-called “intelligence” as to German plans.
The special unit of German Jews was in fact assembled and called
“Special Interrogation Group.” It consisted of only 38 men, including Karl
Kahane, who had been a member of the German army for twenty years since he
fought for Germany in World War I. Also included was Dov Cohen, who had been a
commander in the Irgun.
The unit was commanded by Herbert Buck, who recruited two German
prisoners of war to train the Jewish men in desert navigations as well as
handling of German weapons and explosives. The Nazi prisoners were Walter Essner
and Herbert Bruekcner, who also
taught the Jewish unit German marching songs and provided Buck with German
identity documents. The British copied these papers and gave each member of he
Special Interrogation Group (SIG) a so-called German identity card.
The SIG began by driving captured German vehicles behind German lines
near the town of Bardia where they set up a road block. Dressed as German
military police, they stopped German transports, questioned German soldiers, and
relayed important information to he British command.
On June 3, 1942, the SIG was assigned its first assault mission. They were to destroy a German Luftwaffe (Air Force) airfield one hundred miles from Tobruk in the Italian colony of Libya (Italy was allied with Germany in world war two).
During the night of June 13-14 as the raid was in progress, the German
prisoner of war, Hebert Brueckner, escaped from the unit and reached a German
Nazi outpost. He betrayed the SIG men, leading to the capture and murder of most
of the Jewish men. Essner, the other Nazi prisoner of war, was unable to escape
because he was closely guarded by Maurice Tiefenbrunner, a surviving member of
SIG, who published his experiences in a 1990 book “A Long Journey Home.”
Tiefenbrunner was later captured by Italian forces and sent to an Italian
POW camp. From there he was moved to a POW camp in Germany. He survived and was
released in 1945.
In 1967 an American movie called “Tobruk” was released by Universal Pictures. The movie starred Rock Hudson and George Peppard. This movie is a fictional account of the siege of Tobruk and includes the exploits of the German Jews serving in the British units. The movie includes various “heroics” and also depicts an anti-Jewish British officer who makes all kinds of racist remarks.
The actual end of the Tobruk siege was achieved by British, Australian,
and New Zealand forces and slowed down the advance of the Germans towards Suez.
The German army nevertheless invaded Egypt and were finally stopped at the
battle of El Alamein between October 23 and November 11, 1942. El Alamein is
only fifty miles from Alexandria, Egypt, and 80 miles from Suez.
The battle was won by General Bernard Montgomery and put an end to Nazi
ambitions in the Middle East.