When we think of the D-Day landings, the last thing most of us envision are bicycle troops taking the lead and scouting ahead, yet these troops played a pivotal part in the operation.
During WWII, the British Army under the request of Winston Churchill established the No. 10 Commando. No. 10 Commando was a multinational unit, consisting of volunteers from all over German-occupied Europe.
The unit was highly trained and would assist in spearheading amphibious landings. Their multilingual abilities made them exceptionally useful in the war across Europe, and their own personal experiences gave them extreme motivation to take down the German war machine.
The birth of X Troop
No. 10 Commando was divided into individual sub-units of recruits from different areas, which were referred to as troops. One of the most interesting of these groups was No. 3 Troop, also known as “X Troop.” X Troop contained 130 men from enemy countries who were technically “enemy aliens.”
One of X Troop’s members was Peter Masters, who had fled Vienna with his family in 1939. As Austrian Jews, they were persecuted by the Nazis and anxiously awaited the dreaded knock at their door from the SS. While in Vienna, they had to report hourly to local authorities. Once the family saw a car belonging to the Gestapo outside their home, they made the wise decision to flee.
While preparing to escape, Peter’s grandfather bravely chose to stay, as he believed he would slow the family down. He would eventually be arrested and murdered by the Nazis, a testament to his extreme bravery, but it also shows the terrifying proximity to this same fate the rest of the family was in if they hadn’t escaped.
After successfully fleeing continental Europe and reaching England, Peter’s hopes of joining the fight against the Nazis were destroyed when he was subsequently locked away as an enemy alien.
Luckily for him, he was offered to join the top-secret X Troop, which finally gave him the opportunity to fight for his home and his family, many of whom were still in Austria. Each man in the unit had to adopt an entirely new British life story for themselves, which included changing their name. Peter had changed to his more British-sounding name from Peter Arany.
After extensive training, Peter found himself returning to Europe on June the 6th 1944 as part of the D-Day invasion.
Bicycle Troop on D-Day
X Troop never operated in combat as a single force, as its members were instead attached to other units participating in actions. On D-Day, Peter was attached to a bicycle troop, as this would enable him to move much faster than the massive numbers of men landing on the beaches.
He exited the landing craft with his Thompson submachine gun, a bicycle, and a pack laden with grenades, ammunition, a 200-foot rope, and a pickaxe. He reached the blood-stained sand and paused, catching his breath and processing the horrific sights all around him, despite being instructed to move inland as fast as possible.
Joining the death and chaos was legendary figure Brigadier Lord Lovat, coming ashore behind Peter. Next to him was his piper Bill Millin, who Lovat had told to play his pipes during the assault, something which was banned by military command.
Lovat defied these orders and said to Millin, “Ah, but that’s the English War Office. You and I are both Scottish, and that doesn’t apply.” This sight inspired the men, including Peter, to move, following Lovat and Millin across the beach.
After crossing the beach, Peter’s personal mission began, linking up with the rest of his bicycle troop rapidly heading inland and leaving the scene on the beach behind. Their destination was Pegasus Bridge that spanned the Caen Canal, which, if all had gone to plan, would have already been captured by a small group of British paratroopers.
As the bridge was far behind enemy lines, the men would need reinforcements as soon as possible. The Bicycle Troop encountered Lord Lovat once again before continuing on past the mined, cratered, and flooded landscape that was Normandy at the time.
As the unit approached the village of Bénouville, the lead cyclist was killed by gunfire. The troop’s commander ordered the men to take cover, and chose Peter to scout ahead in the village and establish the situation. Peter was likely chosen by this officer due to being an Austrian, which made many in the British ranks uncomfortable and regard the men of X Troop as cannon fodder.
After explaining he would circle around the village to gather information, the officer ordered him to take the main approach into the village, which Peter saw as a suicide mission. However, with his orders, he headed into Bénouville.
On his way, he believed the best odds of success were if he came in with the confidence of a man with overwhelming forces behind him, something he didn’t have in reality.
In German, he shouted into the village “All right! Surrender, all of you! You are completely surrounded and don’t have a chance! Throw away your weapons and come out with your hands up if you want to go on living. The war is over for all of you.”
After a brief pause, the Germans in the village responded with gunfire. Unleashing a burst from his weapon, Peter’s weapon jammed and he dove for cover. Alone and defenseless, he thought this would be his end — until he saw the Bicycle Troop charging into the village to meet the Germans with fixed bayonets, most of whom fled at this sight.
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Leaving the village, they dashed to Pegasus Bridge, which thankfully they discovered was in British hands upon their arrival. Just under an hour after, Lovat and his men would also arrive.
Later, Peter would interrogate a German officer and march 40 prisoners of war to British lines.
After fleeing his home to escape the Nazis in 1939, Peter returned to Europe four years later, taking the fight to them and doing his bit on one of the most decisive days of the war.