Number of Soldiers: 40,000
Number of Fallen: 688
Number of Medal Holders: 28
In the course of World War II, about 40,000 members of the Jewish population in the Land of Israel, the “Yishuv”, volunteered to participate in the war effort against the Nazis – a high number relative to the population of the “Yishuv”, which numbered about 431,000 the day the war erupted. The high percentage of volunteers is especially remarkable considering the British Rule’s conduct towards the Jewish population.
Following the Arab riots between the years 1936-1939, the British, in analyzing the world, regional and local maps, decided to demonstrate a conciliatory position towards the Arab side; this, with the purpose of appeasing the Arab leadership in Eretz Israel and in Arab countries, so that those will stand alongside them in the war that was growing dark in the sky of Europe. It was obvious to them that the Jewish leadership and the organized Jewish population in Eretz Israel will take a pro-British stand, due to the Jews’ fate in Europe. These acts of “courtship” towards the Arabs, came “at the expense” of the Jewish population and the Zionist Enterprise. The “White Paper”, which was issued by them on 17 May 1939, and the Land Transfer Regulations, which was announced in the beginning of 1940, prevented any possibility of action, growth and development of the Jewish Settlement, land purchase, and Jewish immigration to Eretz Israel.
Amongst the Jewish population in Israel, a dilemma arose:
On one hand – it is imperative that action be taken against the British decrees.
On the other hand – the British are the ones who are rising to fight the enemy of the Jewish People, and therefore, it is imperative that they be supported.
A conflict emerged, between the Jewish and British common interest in the European and global Theatres, and the British and Zionist different positions regarding the issue of Eretz Israel. The desire to cooperate with those who were fighting against the Nazis thus marked the outset of volunteering to the British Army as an act that did not correspond with the “Yishuv” leadership’s policy. The first ones to enlist in the British Army, most of them volunteering, did so even against Institutes orders. The majority of them did it out of personal motives, wishing to take part in the fighting against the Nazi enemy, and some enlisted out of economic motives. Conspicuously present among the enlistees were the immigrants who had arrived from central Europe in the 1930’s, especially the “Ma’apilim” (clandestine Jewish immigrants), some of them not even legal, people who have experienced and understood the implication of Nazi rule.
Italy joining the war and its actions in North Africa, Syria and Lebanon turning into a Vichy-France controlled region, the bombing of Haifa and Tel-Aviv and the scores of dead and injured, all these events illustrated the danger of war approaching the borders of Eretz Israel and encouraged volunteering to the British Army.
The Institutes’ policy changed. Ben-Gurion “solved” the dilemma, declaring that “We must help the British in the war as if there was no ‘White paper’, and we must stand against the ‘White Paper’ as if there was no war”. The Jewish Agency and the National Committee, headed by Moshe Shertok (Sharet), the Jewish Agency’s Director of the Political Department, began working towards the inclusion of the Jews of Eretz Israel in the military struggle against the enemies of the Jewish People, and lead the way to mass volunteering to the British Army. There was a belief, that by virtue of our loyal participation in the war, the British will change their attitude towards the “Yishuv”, the decrees of the “White Paper” will be abolished, a road will be paved towards a political settlement with Britain, and the Hebrew Units will constitute the basis to the establishment of an independent and recognized Hebrew Army, a basis to a country for the Jews, under the auspices of Britain.
At the core of the volunteering was a conviction that the Hebrew soldier must be loyal and dedicated to the war imperative and manifest diligence in fulfilling the mission of the Hebrew Units, but nevertheless, there was an awareness that he might be sent for services that exceed the concerns of the war and stand contrary to the precept of Jewish conscience. The Hebrew Institutions instilled in the enlistees the conviction, that they must be an example, work industriously for the units’ Hebrew and military consolidation and comply with the war imperative. The volunteers responded in masses while the objectors were called “dodgers”.
World War II did not suspend the danger of Arab aggression towards the Jewish population, it actually worsened it. Early in 1941, in view of the Axis countries’ success in the theatres of combat, a sense that the Germans were destined to win the war prevailed among the Arabs, and that a Nazi victory was the Arab countries’ victory and with it Arab national aspirations will be realized. The approaching front to Eretz Israel created worry that the British will prefer to withdraw from Eretz Israel rather than fight over it. At the same time, the fear that the Arabs will take advantage of the situation and attack the “Yishuv” intensified. Added to this, was the anxiety that the Hebrew soldiers who were located far away would not be able to take part in the defense of the “Yishuv”. All this raised the demand not to divert all resources to the British Government and to leave a protection force for the “Yishuv”.
The British were interested in the local population’s support, professional and non-professional, for numerous assignments, at the front and at the rear.
The volunteers enlisted to a wide range of occupations and units in the British Army.
The first ones joined a battery of coastal guns, on 7 September 1939. And also September, 1939, enlistment to the Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps (AMPC) got started.
The first units were mixed entities of Jews and Arabs. The enlistees constituted an aiding force to the fighting army, except for one Pioneer Company that participated in the fighting retreat at Dunkirk. All the others were working Companies who engaged in digging positions and fortifications, with no organic vehicles, and most of their soldiers not even provided with arms. About 3,200 Jewish volunteers served in the Pioneer Corps. In the autumn of 1940, the Group Headquarters was set up in Egypt for the nine Eretz-Israeli Pioneer Companies that encamped in Egypt and in the Western Desert. Not the best of the British Army Officer Cadre was allocated for these units. Their command was weak from the point of view of leadership quality as well as the point of view of professional training. Overall, the morale in these units was low. In March, 1941, a decision was made to dispatch Pioneer Companies to Greece in the framework of the British Expeditionary Force, and among them were about 2,400 from the Jewish Population. On 21 April, in the wake of the success of the German offensive, it was decided to evacuate the Expeditionary Force from Greece. The soldiers from Eretz Israel were the last to be evacuated, and they remained in Kalamata, in Southern Greece, until the last day – 29 April 1941 – the day the British surrendered to the Germans. 1,510 Eretz Israeli soldiers were captured by the Germans and transported to Prisoner-of-War camps in Germany, where they stayed as prisoners-of-war until the end of the war. Another 147 managed to escape in Greece, during their journey. Those who were left went to other forces. These units were dismantled in the spring of 1942.
The establishment of the first Jewish Infantry Company was completed in September, 1940, within the framework of the “Buffs”. After that one, 14 more Jewish Companies were raised, in which about 5,300 men served. Their missions included security, guarding installations and escorting convoys in Eretz Israel. Their training exercises were extremely limited. The arms they were given were from World War I remainders. The volunteers’ hopes of going to the Front to fight the Germans and the Italians were dashed. Nevertheless, the fact that Jewish Companies were serving in a regular Infantry force in the British Army constituted an important landmark in strengthening the decision to widen the exclusively Jewish frameworks.
In 1942, three Infantry Battalions were assembled out of the “Buffs” Companies and combined with the Palestine Regiment, which was an administrative body with no operational capacity.
Yet, subsequently, it was the basis for the establishment of the Jewish Infantry Brigade Group, known as the “Jewish Brigade”.
An operational Hebrew Regiment, on its flag – the National Blue and White flag; on its badge – the Star of David on a yellow background; on its Hebrew language; on its Jewish Commander – Brigadier Levi Binyamin; and on its command staff from Eretz Israel.
Its establishment was the result of an almost five-year long struggle, at the conclusion of which, Moshe Sharet, who stood at the front of the struggle, said: “The Jewish Brigade is a prize for the efforts of the multitudes of volunteers, and a victory for the faith that burned in their hearts. It is irrefutable proof that there is reward for enduring activity, and remuneration for persistent will that incessantly pursues the goal where Jewish soldiers are granted their heart’s desire – to fight the Germans”. And indeed, the Brigade, on all its units, reached the front in northern Italy, beginning on 3 March and until 25 April, 1945, and managed to participate in the fighting against the Germans.
When the battles were over, Brigade soldiers met with survivors of the Holocaust, consoled them and strengthened their connection to Eretz Israel, conducted the preparations and then helped them immigrate, while fulfilling a central role in organizing the “Bricha” (escape) and the “Ha’apala” (clandestine immigration).
The Brigade was dismantled in June, 1946.
Its soldiers’ and commanders’ military experience played a role in organizing the “Yishuv’s” defensive force, in the War of Independence and in the establishment of “Tzahal”, the Israeli Defense Force.
Enlisting of women began in the end of December, 1941. About 4,350 of the “Yishuv’s” women served within the frameworks of the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) and the Women’s Auxiliary Air-Force (WAAF), in a wide variety of occupations: clerks, nurses, drivers and more.
About 4,000 volunteers, experts in the fields of Engineering and Construction, enlisted in the Royal Engineers (RE), on the basis of which many Engineering Companies that operated throughout the Middle East and later in Europe were established. The senior volunteer was Brigadier Frederick Kisch, who commanded the British 8th Army’s Royal Engineers in the Western Desert battles, and who bore responsibility for the successful operations on the North African front. Brigadier Kisch was killed on 7 April 1943, stepping on a German landmine grouping in Tunisia.
About 4,500 people served in transport units of the Royal Army Service Corps (RASC). They accompanied the British Army in its battles in the Western Desert in North Africa and in Italy. 140 fighters from Transport Company 462 drowned at sea when their ship, in which they were sailing from Africa to Italy, was sunk by the Germans. Transport units were the first to meet with Jews in North Africa and in Italy. And together with the Jewish Brigade, they were also the first to meet with the original Holocaust survivors in Europe.
Jewish Doctors from Eretz Israel served in all Theatres of the war, as adjuncts to British units.
The volunteers also served in Commando units – such as Middle East No. 51 Commando, Special Interrogation Group (SIG), and Long Range Desert Group (LRDG).
Enlistment to the Air-Force began in various ground services: communication, maintenance and administration. Later, Israeli volunteers were sent to flying training schools and served as fighter-pilots in the British Air-Force. One of those, Amichai Honig, resident of the City of Hadera whose parents had come from Australia, enlisted in the British Air-Force as an Australian, fought, awarded a medal, and perished during an attack on the German Navy off the coast of Greece. A number of pilots from Eretz Israel, who were staying in Britain when the war broke, served there as fighter-pilots.
Volunteering to the British Navy began in the first weeks of the war but was discontinued, then renewed in 1942. Most of the volunteers served in the cities of Haifa, Alexandria and Port-Said, in a variety of assignments, some as sailors and officers on the ships proper and some in logistics duties. Others were spread out as individuals or in small groups to a long series of ports, Navy installations and various sea vessels.