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Jewish Defense Organizations: The Jewish Brigade Group

(1944 - 1946)

The Jewish Brigade Group was the only military unit to serve in World War II in the British Army — and, in fact — in all the Allied forces — as an independent, national Jewish military formation. It was comprised mainly of Jews from Eretz Yisrael and had its own emblem. The establishment of the Brigade was the final outcome of prolonged efforts by the Yishuv and the Zionist Movement to achieve recognized participation and representation of the Jewish people in the war against Nazi Germany.

In 1940, the Jews of Palestine were permitted to enlist in Jewish companies attached to the East Kent Regiment (the “Buffs”). These companies were formed into three infantry battalions of a newly-established “Palestine Regiment.” The battalions were moved to Cyrenaica and Egypt, but there, too, as in Palestine, they continued to be engaged primarily in guard duties. Chaim Weizmann and Moshe Shertok (Sharett), head of the Jewish Agency Political Department, lobbied the British government to allow the Jewish soldiers to participate in the fighting and the right to display the Jewish flag

In a letter to Weizmann in 1944, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill stated that his government was prepared “to discuss concrete proposals” in the matter of the formation of a Jewish Fighting Force. Churchill was much more receptive to the idea than his predecessor, Neville Chamberlain. Chamberlain disapproved of an all-Jewish Brigade, fearing that it would give more legitimacy to the Jewish yearning for national independence. British policy since the White Paper of 1939 no longer favored partition and, therefore, symbols of Jewish independence were not encouraged. As more and more information came to light over the tragedy in Europe, however, the British bowed to Zionist demands for a Jewish military unit.

It was not until September 20, 1944, however, that the British government agreed to the establishment of a “reinforced brigade” which would be fully trained and then join the troops at the front. The brigade was composed of the three infantry battalions of the “Palestine Regiment,” a field artillery regiment, and various other service and auxiliary units, largely made up of the Palestine Jewish units – particularly of the Royal Army Service Corps, which had seen service in North Africa. Brigadier Ernest Frank Benjamin, a Canadian-born Jew serving in the Royal Engineers, was appointed brigade commander; the battalion commanders were British, while the company commanders were mostly Jewish. Some refugees and “illegal” immigrants also joined the brigade, and some Jews serving in British units were transferred to it. The total strength of the brigade was approximately 5,000.

After a period of training in Egypt, the brigade was moved to Italy, where it joined the Eighth Army and continued its training until the end of February 1945. It then took up positions on the Alfonsini sector of the front, where it soon engaged in the fighting, initiating two attacks (March 19–20, 1945). Moving to another sector of the front, on the Senio River, the brigade found itself facing a German parachute division. The three battalions crossed the Senio on April 9, establishing a bridgehead which they broadened the following day. The brigade’s casualties consisted of 30 killed and 70 wounded; 21 of its men were awarded military distinctions and 78 were mentioned in dispatches.

In May 1945, the brigade was moved to northeast Italy, and it was there that it met for the first time with survivors of the Holocaust in Displaced Persons camps, bringing them Jewish and Zionist culture. Rescue committees were established in the brigade units to care for the Jewish refugees, while maintaining secret contact with the Jewish authorities’ Merkaz la-Golah (“Diaspora Center”; see BeriḼah). The brigade thus became a major contributor to the care of the Jewish survivors of the ghettos and concentration camps. Without neglecting their military duties, the Jewish soldiers extended systematic aid to the refugees, provided them with clothes and educational facilities for their children, guided them across the frontiers, and smuggled them into Palestine.

These activities continued when the brigade was moved to Holland and Belgium in July 1945. Some members of the brigade were attached to the tracing service of the occupation authorities and, in their search for surviving Jews, got as far as Poland and Czechoslovakia.

In the summer of 1946, in the wake of the increasing tension between Britain and the Yishuv, the authorities decided to disband the brigade. Most of its men were returned to Palestine and discharged there. Apart from its contribution to the war effort against Nazi Germany, the brigade fulfilled two historic functions: it was a decisive factor in strengthening the staying power of the Jewish survivors and refugees in Europe, and the experience it gained in military organization and in battle subsequently became one of the foundations of the Israel Defense Forces. Many of the officers of the Israel army, among them two chiefs of staff, Mordechai Makleff and Haim Laskov, had seen previous service in the Jewish Brigade.

Skills gained in the Jewish Brigade, and in the British army in general, were put to use during Israel’s War of Independence. More than its military value, however, the Jewish Brigade served as a symbol of hope for renewed Jewish life in Eretz Israel.

 


BIBLIOGRAPHY

L. Rabinowitz, Soldiers from Judea (19452); Esco Foundation for Palestine, A Study of Jewish, Arab and British Policies, 2 (1947), 1020–35; Y. Lifshitz, Sefer ha-Berigadah ha-Yehudit (1947); D. Ever-Hadani, Am be-MilḼamto (19543); Y. Bauer, Flight and Rescue: Brichah (1970), index; idem, From Diplomacy to Resistance (1970), index; B.M. Casper, With the Jewish Brigade (1947); Z. Shefer, Sefer ha-Hitnaddevut (1949); Y. Allon, Shield of David (1970).


Sources: Joint Authority for Jewish Zionist Education;
Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.