Inglorious? No. Bastards? Never. Meet the real Tarantino war heroes

The crack troops on whose story a new film to be screened at Cannes is based had their peers in the UK: 10 Commando

Jonathan Owen
Sunday 17 May 2009 00:00 BST
(jason alden)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


They are the real life "Inglourious Basterds". But in contrast to the bloodthirsty commandos sent to scalp Nazis in Quentin Tarantino's controversial movie of the same name, which premieres at the Cannes Film Festival on Wednesday, they did not mutilate the Germans whom they fought against.

The film, which stars Brad Pitt as Lieutenant Aldo Raine, is already attracting criticism because of its depiction of the violent exploits of a group of vengeful Jewish commandos. Pitt's character demands that each of his men bring him the scalps of 100 Nazis, and pledges to spread fear by the "disembowelled, dismembered and disfigured bodies we leave behind us". It is unknown exactly why Tarantino chose to spell the title of his film as he does, but it is thought it may simply distinguish it from a 1978 Italian film of the same name.

Like the soldiers portrayed on screen, the men of 3 Troop, 10 Commando, a crack unit of the British Army that was almost entirely composed of German-speaking Jewish refugees, were motivated by a hatred of Nazism and were sent on secret missions, often behind enemy lines. But any similarities end there. The red carpet treatment being given the stars of Tarantino's film could not be further removed from the grim reality experienced by men who fought a bitter and dangerous war against the German army, knowing they would face summary execution if captured and their true identities discovered.

Max Dickson, a veteran of reconnaissance missions in France, where Inglourious Basterds is set, is unimpressed by the premise of Tarantino's film. "I wouldn't like to glorify anything that has to do with killing, and that's what it always ends up with, but when you're in it and you see the blood and the gore and the mud it's quite a different thing."

Mr Dickson was born Max Dobriner in 1926 in a market town in eastern Germany. At the age of 13 he arrived in England with other Jewish children as part of the Kindertransport, having been separated from his family. He never saw his parents again – they died in the Warsaw ghetto.

Mr Dickson, now 83 and living in Tunbridge Wells, retains vivid memories of his wartime experiences.

"All I wanted to do was to fight Germans and get the war over as quickly as possible, because killing is not everybody's business and certainly not mine," he says.

"[After the war] I wanted to forget that part of my life because killing is not a very nice business and it's all I was trained for. I had to kill or be killed – it's that simple."

Colin Anson, who also served in 10 Commando, dismissed as "ridiculous" the plot of Inglourious Basterds. "It wasn't all violent gore and stabbing people and scalping them – certainly not," he says. Laughing, he adds: "I don't know how to scalp somebody."

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Born Claus Ascher in Berlin in 1922, he was motivated to join the British Army as a teenage refugee by a desire to destroy the regime responsible for the death of his Jewish father in a concentration camp in 1937. He fought with 10 Commando in the invasion of Sicily in 1943, where he was lucky to survive a severe head wound from shrapnel. "I really did feel that it was my quarrel more than anybody else, perhaps. One's motives are always very mixed and there was a certain amount of personal dislike of the Nazis, but not just because of my father. It was an evil which had to be eradicated," says the 87-year-old, who lives in Watford.

"This was not about personal revenge. It was an opposition to a nasty and aggressive system that threatened the world and had to be dealt with."

Some Jewish organisations are worried that the commandos' portrayal may send out the wrong messages. "It may reinforce negative stereotypes about Jews. I would be especially concerned if the film in any way equates the actions of American Jewish soldiers, some of whom were sent to concentration camps, with Nazis," warns Mitchell Bard, executive director of the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise. "I don't know of any evidence that they engaged in any specific acts of vengeance or missions to terrorise the Germans."

Martin Sugarman, archivist at the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women, said: "I think that most people will understand the anger Jewish soldiers felt. Summary execution – failing proper legal procedure because there was no official Allied will to do this as the Soviet threat raised its head – is probably seen as natural justice by most."

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