Jewish fighters in the North African desert during World War II

England’s empire at the start of World War II consisted of the Commonwealth, dominions, colonies and mandated territories such as Palestine and Transjordan. One quarter of the world’s population was part of her empire and covered over 30% of the earth’s land mass. England marshaled all of it during the war to help bring about the defeat of Hitler’s Germany.

Palestine’s Jews were probably the most unique of all the Empire’s soldiers. Everyone else went to war because it was their obligation as British subjects to do so. But, for the Jews it was more. There was a personal vendetta to settle with the hated Nazis.

By the beginning of the war in 1939 rumor was already filtering into Palestine that the Nazis were doing more than just expelling Jews according to the Nuremberg laws of 1935. Krystalnacht in 1938 was an eye opening experience for Jews everywhere. After the invasion of Poland it took another step in a darker direction.  The Jews were being systematically murdered within occupied Poland.

Jews in the coffee shops of Tel Aviv and in the fields of the  kibbutzim were worried that they weren’t hearing from their loved ones back home like they had been previously.

Why are there no letters?

While the world remained highly skeptical Jews in Palestine had no illusions about what was happening in Europe. This was very different from the other peoples of the empire.

Consequently, Jews fought with a ferociousness and vigor that England recognized very early on as an asset. They were used as normal conscripts as well in commando and special operational formats. Over thirty thousand Palestinian Jews served in the Kings army. German Jews as well as Austrian and some other nationalities were of particular use in the area of spying, information gathering, and assassination, all behind enemy lines where the enemy was supposed to feel safe and secure.

Some of these refugees had only immigrated a year or two previously. Because of this German Jews for example, were almost indistinguishable from their Nazi enemy.  England used this fact to get at the enemy like no other could do. Hitler’s hatred of Jews and his subsequent mal treatment of the German Jewish community was about to bite him right on his backside.

Their courage and valor putting their lives on the line was recognized over and over again by their commanding officers. These men were working behind enemy lines, some deeply embedded into German units, and completing missions that they were sent to do. Anything from gathering intel about operations to slitting throats in the dead of night were on their agenda. Stopping transports on the road faking trouble up ahead and then gunning down the soldiers and taking the contents of the trucks as booty back to their bases in Eastern Egypt.

They fought in Libya, and in Egypt against Rommel’s German army. I have heard although I have yet to confirm that 25%, that’s one in every four soldiers, of Bernard Montgomery’s 8th army that stopped Rommel at el Alemain was made up Palestinian Jews in October of 1942.

The problem of Jewish interference in their North African war plans became intolerable for the German high command. Jewish commando exploits in North Africa began to filter back to Berlin and right onto Hitler’s desk. Rommel reported beginning to see his soldiers breakdown from the strain that any new soldier they didn’t know might be a Jew in disguise. In short North African German soldiers were getting “spooked” by the very thought of it. Something had to be done.

Siegfrid Westphal one of Germany’s top generals during the war wrote in his memoirs that Hitler sent out a communiqué that intelligence had reported many “political refugees” in North Africa. This quote doesn’t mention Jews specifically,  but the implication is clear, although it should be noted that other occupied nationalities were also fighting with the Free French and the English. They were “to be dealt with in the harshest of terms.” Turn them over to the SS and let them extract whatever they can from them before murdering them.

Westphal also wrote about the fighting in Libya with the Free French at Bir el Hacheim which carries for France the same mythology as the Alamo does for the Americans. That oasis was defended  by the Free French First Brigade, and alongside it the Thirteenth Half Brigade of the Foreign Legion under General Marie-Pierre Konig.

Westphal continues:

“According to OKW, Konig also had a Jewish Battalion under his command. We received a radio signal from Hitler ordering that all captured Israelites (a euphemism for Jews used by the Nazis) be ‘slaughtered in battle’…” Hitler just wanted them dead as fast as possible.

Obviously, the main credit has to go to the Americans who landed on November 8th in Algeria, at the same time the British stopped the German drive toward Asia at el Alamein and was beginning to push the Germans back across the Egyptian Libyan border. In a classic giant pincer move the Americans pushed east as the British pushed west and the Germans fighting on both fronts could not sustain their positions.

But the contributions of Palestine Jews, many of whom did not survive the war,  cannot be overlooked in the overall victory in North Africa.

I sometimes wonder if this kept Hitler up at night. I hope it did. His greatest enemies, worse than the communists, worse than the socialists, worse than English and the Americans, the Jews, were causing him all these problems in North Africa. Can’t you just see him slamming his fists on the table, his face turning beat red and yelling at his generals with those piercing blue eyes, “the whole German army can’t handle a few Jews!” Maybe that happened, Maybe not, but you sure can visualize it knowing what we now know about Hitler.

It might be true because by the spring of 1943 the last Axis soldiers left North Africa, and, with it, the idea of ending the war by invading and taking the Allied oil supply in the Middle East. You might say that the German defeat in North Africa was the beginning of the end of the 1000 year Reich.

About the Author
Larry Hart has been writing and commenting on Jewish issues since 1985. His body is in the U.S., but his heart is in Israel.