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Nations at war
Beckman, Morris. The Jewish Brigade: An Army with Two Masters. Rockville Centre, NY: Sarpedon, 1998
Acknowledgements; Foreword; Prologue; photos; maps; Index.
Appendices: Roll of Honour; Awards won by Brigaders; "To our fellow British soldiers!"; Registration for the Jewish Brigade Group; Hebrew words of command
The Allied coalition in World War II fielded units formed from a large number of nationalities. American, British, and Soviet forces (not necessarily in that order) predominated, but they were ably assisted by numerous units from Canada, Australia, France, etc. In addition, many smaller contingents came from places like Fiji, Northern Rhodesia, Jamaica, Brazil, and the Sudan. Most of the combat formations of the Allies, even these lesser-known contingents, have seen their wartime activities recorded in unit histories long before now.
Beckman's new book, however, seems to be the first attempt to piece together an English-language history of the Jewish Brigade.
As he explains throughout the book, although Jewish residents of Palestine volunteered in large numbers for service in the British Army from the outbreak of war onward, due to political considerations and other difficulties the recruits were permitted to serve only in labor, transport, and other service units. Later three mostly Jewish rifle battalions of the new "Palestine Regiment" were raised and scattered across North Africa and the Near East on garrison duty.
It was in January 1943 that the 1st Battalion of Infantry of what would be called the Palestine Regiment was formed. It comprised five companies-- A, B, C, D, and E. The battalion's war diary for 30 January 1943 listed one warrant officer Class 1, five warrant officers Class 2, five quartermaster sergeants, thirty-nine staff sergeants, fifty-four corporals, and 881 other ranks. Among the other ranks was a five per cent sprinkling of Arabs. The Jewish volunteers came from many countries-- Falashas from Ethiopia, Yemenis from the Hadramaut, Adenis, and young Zionist idealists from several western democracies. A sizeable number were European-born young men who had escaped from the Nazis-- Poles, Germans, Austrians, Czechs, and Russians. The stabilising element were the Sabras, the Palestine-born, whose parents had fled eastern Europe to work the land from barrenness to fertility. Half of the NCOs were British, because the blocking tactics of the Foreign Office and Cairo GHQ had delayed the training of Palestinian Jewish NCOs and officers. Now this state of affairs began quickly to change.
Beckman notes that during this time members of the Jewish battalions, who as he says "served two masters," were involved in stealing British weapons and smuggling them into Palestine for political purposes.
Not until mid-1944, at the urging -- nay, insistence -- of Winston Churchill did it prove possible to assemble Jews from Palestine and elsewhere into a self-contained combat formation for front-line employment. In September the British government announced its intent to consolidate the Jewish battalions into a Jewish Brigade. Recruitment increased in Palestine and Jewish soldiers from other units volunteered for the new brigade. In October 1944 the Jewish Brigade was formed at Burg al Arab in Egypt. On the last day of that month it departed for Alexandria, then by sea to Taranto, Italy. During assembly and training in Italy, preparations were made not only for combat with the Germans, but for the brigade's post-war tasks not known or approved by the British Army.
At the end of February 1945 the brigade moved into the Allied line in northern Italy and participated in the final brief campaign from the Gothic Line to the Po Valley as the German defenses melted away.
Upon cessation of hostilities, members of the Jewish Brigade, acting under instructions from Palestine rather than the British Army, began exacting revenge among those Germans at hand who were deemed guilty of war crimes. At the same time the Brigade acted as an unofficial relief agency for Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, often sending convoys on rescue missions far beyond the brigade's cantonment. A certain amount of arms smuggling continued, but most importantly the brigade opened transportation routes to ports from which, against British policy, European Jews sailed to Palestine. Among those departing were growing numbers of Jewish men of military age trained by the brigade in fieldcraft and use of weapons.
At the end of July, partly because of these illicit activities, the brigade was transferred from Italy to Belgium and the Netherlands. There the rescue and relief operations resumed until the brigade was formally disbanded in 1946.
This is not, to be sure, a typical unit history. Regimental histories of Sikh, Hindu, and Muslim battalions from India, for example, do not commonly include chapters about the historical roots of the religious groups comprising the unit, nor to do they usually devote much text to the relationship between the unit and the political struggle for independence in the unit's homeland.
Beckman, however, in this book emphasizes the historical/political/religious context of the Jewish Brigade to a much greater extent than its actual military contribution to the war effort. In that sense this is far less a traditional military history than it is an account of succoring refugees and preparing for a showdown in Palestine. Many readers will be pleased with this approach, but others will be disappointed by the lack of some fundamental information such as TOEs, exact dates for movements to and from locations, specifics of unit deployment at the front, date of demobilization, etc.
Some might also be distracted because The Jewish Brigade is written in the sort of simplistic, black and white language that seems to idealize every aspect of the brigade and its members while presuming all readers will be entirely comfortable with the author's world view. For example, referring to Rashid Ali as "Hitler's puppet" displays an inability or unwillingness to grasp the complexities of politics in the Near East.
An eye-opening account of the brigade's extra-martial affairs, but one without much military meat.
Available from online booksellers, local bookshops, or directly from Sarpedon.
Thanks to Sarpedon for providing this review copy.
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Reviewed 24 January 1999
Copyright © 1999 by Bill Stone
May not be reproduced in any form without written permission of Stone & Stone