The gifts of the Friend and the Old Man

“Everyone’s against the Jews,” Orde Wingate once said, “so I’m for them.”

To his uncle, Wingate wrote:

“Islam in reality cares nothing for the Arabs of Palestine…The potential military strength of the Jews…is the equivalent to at least two army corps…I tell you that the Jews will provide better soldiery than ours.”

The histories of the Mandate period are full of instances of Englishmen who go so balmy and daft under the sway of Islam and the Arabs that they soon begin thinking themselves to be Arabs themselves. Like converts to a new religion, they become more orthodox than the Metropolitan. With Wingate, however, it was the Jews, not the Arabs, who stole his heart, and he soon became more Zionist than the Zionists themselves. The Jews, said Wingate, had made the desert “bloom like the rose.” The Jews referred to Wingate as the Hayedid (“The Friend”).   

As the Arab revolt of the late 1930’s was suppressed in the cities by the mandate authorities, the Arab rebels ran wild and largely unopposed among the kibbutzim of the countryside, especially at night.    

Wingate sought to hit back by terrorizing the terrorists. Hitting the enemy terrorists fast and hard under cover of darkness, and given their advantages of stealth, shock, and surprise, Wingate’s Special Night Squads took back the night, and shot fear and panic into the Palestinian irregulars, who now found themselves among the hunted.

General Slim once said of Wingate that, “To see Wingate urging action on some hesitant commander was to realize how a medieval baron felt when Peter the Hermit got after him to go crusading.”

With his elite Special Night Squads, Wingate had sought to “found a Jewish Army.” His guiding inspiration was Gideon of Ophrah, who with his three-hundred, defeated the mighty Midianites and the Amelekites who “lay along the valley like grasshoppers for multitude.” (Judges 7:12).

The few, by guile and boldness outfighting the many; in those “Special Night Squads” of barely a dozen or so fighters was born the ethos of the Haganah and the future IDF, and Wingate left to his Jewish comrades in arms a legacy, one that stressed the virtues of individual initiative, swift maneuver, and preemptive action by officers leading from the front–all attributes heartily absorbed by Night Squad veterans like Moshe Dayan, Yigael Yadin, and closely resembling those of another Haganah commander named Yitzhak Sadeh.


Yitzhak Sadeh was a soldier for soldiers to believe in. Gruff, burly, and built like a tank,  the former circus wrestler and decorated First World War Russian combat veteran spent the night of the UN partition vote toasting each passing pro-partition vote with a glass of vodka. Soldier, poet, educator, and athlete, Sadeh was one of the founding fathers of the Palmach, the elite strike force of the Haganah. Those in the Palmach called him HaZaken (“The Old Man”).  

Born in Lublin in 1890, he co-founded the Ha-Halutz (“The Pioneers”) movement in 1917 with Joseph Trumpeldor, and made aliya to Eretz Israel in 1920, where he helped found the Ghud-Ha-Avoda (“The Work Battalion”). He saw action as a Haganah commander in 1921 in Jerusalem, 1929 in Haifa, and in the Arab Revolt (1936-1939), where he established the Nodedet, a mobile troop patrol unit in the Jerusalem area that conducted offensive operations against enemy forces and bases, and the FOSH, a commando arm of the Haganah. One of the true forefathers of the IDF of today, Sadeh’s greatest feat of arms in defense of the Yishuv was still to come.


Fawzi al-Qawuqji, commander of the Arab Liberation Army, had promised British High Commissioner Alan Cunningham in March, 1948, that he would make no further attacks until the British left on May 15. However, spurred on by the successes of ‘Abd al-Qader al-Husayni, the Mufti’s proxy-general, in sabotaging the Jewish road convoys and blockading Jerusalem in late March, Qawuqji, itching for glory and sniffing about for an easy feast, targeted the Jewish settlement of Mishmar Ha’emek, positioned strategically along the main road between Jenin and Haifa, for capture. Its capture would provide an excellent pivot point for the ALA forces then gathering and converging in Jenin—and, later, for forces in the Arab invasion after the mandate expired—to attack and conquer Haifa, to isolate it by blocking the Wadi Milleh valley, and to attack the vital Haifa-Tel-Aviv highway from the flank.

The ALA began shelling the kibbutz indiscriminately on April 4 with 75mm and 105mm field guns—the first heavy artillery bombardment of the war, in fact, in which most of the settlement’s houses and buildings were destroyed. An infantry assault on the eastern flank of the settlement of about 1000 followed, failed, and was repulsed; later that night, a company of the Golani Brigade reinforced the kibbutz’s defenders. After the British mediated a ceasefire to evacuate women and children, Qawuqji, smelling weakness, called on the kibbutz to “surrender its weapons and submit to Arab rule.”

The defenders spat defiance and contempt at this pompous pronouncement, and, in a spirited flourish of chutzpah,  even presented Qawuqji with a bill for which to compensate the settlement for the damage done, adding, as an afterthought, that the Arab commander should surrender his artillery to the kibbutz before withdrawing. The calculated insolence of this reply hit home. His bluff having been called, Qawuqji now took refuge in issuing more bold pronouncements. On April 8 he announced that Mishmar Ha’emek “had been conquered” and that “the Arab flag” was flying from the water tower.

Nothing could have been further from the truth.   Having been battered for several days by the ALA’s artillery, the kibbutz’s besieged and angry defenders met this false announcement with a pointed counterattack led by infantry battalion commander Yitzhak Sadeh, which drove back the ALA forces and evicted them from the surrounding villages and strongholds from which they had been arming and launching attacks.  

Sadeh knew that the Arabs’ superior numbers and possession of heavy artillery made a frontal attack on Qawuqji’s force out of the question. He then opted for a bold maneuver, one akin to what Grant did to the Confederates at Vicksburg: an indirect attack on the surrounding villages propping up his communications.

Two miles to the west of Mishmar Ha’emek lay the Jewish villages of Ju’ara and Ein Hashofet. From these villages, on April 8, Sadeh and the Palmach’s 1st Battalion attacked the string of Arab villages to the south and southeast of Mishmar Ha’emek, effectively positioning Qawuqji’s ALA between them and the settlement. The villages of Ghubayya al-Tahta, Ghubayya al-Fauga, Abu Shusha, Al Kafrayn, Abu Zurayq, Al-Mansi, and Naghnaghiya all changed hands several times in the next several days, there was brutal hand to hand and house to house fighting throughout, and no quarter given by fighters of either side to the other.

Qawuqji was slow to take notice of this threat to his south flank and rear, but when the advance guard of his final assault on Mishmar Ha’emek was ambushed in the woods to the west of the kibbutz on April 12, he realized that his entire force was now in danger of being surrounded and cut off; while he had busied himself making delusional pronouncements of victory outside Mishmar Ha’emek (and thus discouraging anyone who might have sent him aid), Sadeh had cunningly secured the Arab villages behind the settlement and to the southeast along the Jenin-Haifa road, effectively surrounding his forces and cutting off their escape route. The Arabs’ numerical superiority and a diversionary attack to the south secured their narrow escape, but Qawuqji had had enough, and he cut his losses and headed back to Jenin, a defeated man. While he later exaggerated the numbers of his enemy to mitigate his defeat, the truth was that Sadeh and some 640 Haganah soldiers took on Qawuqji and a superior force of some 2500 ALA regulars armed with heavy artillery, and, by stealthly tactics and maneuver, outfought and outgeneraled them.     

Some inhabitants of the Arab village of Abu Zurayq were killed, some were expelled, but most of the inhabitants of the other villages simply fled, frightened and demoralized by the ALA defeat and fear of Jewish attack. After the final futile attack on Mishmar Ha’emek on April 12 by the ALA, Qawuqji retreated, with a flood of refugees following in train. All the surrounding villages were then  leveled and destroyed by the Haganah to prevent them being used for hostile purposes, after their Arab inhabitants had been expelled or fled.

An attack by the Druze unit of the Arab Liberation Army on the kibbutz at Ramat Yohanan, north-west of Mishmar Ha’emek on April 13 to relieve pressure on Qawuqji, had failed, and was beaten back by the Haganah, who chased them out of the surrounding villages of Khirbet Kasayir and Hosha, from which they had launched the attack. The village inhabitants, who had gotten wind of the the defeat at Mishmar Ha’emek, fled, and the Haganah razed both villages in their wake. The Druze, whose prowess and tenacity in battle was legendary, made no less than nine attempts to retake the villages, advancing, so said one account, “with large knives sparkling between their teeth in the sunlight.” The attacks failing, the Druze, who knew a winner when they saw one, withdrew, and, sniffing the wind, later ditched the ALA and threw in their lot with the Haganah.

Had Qawuqji been successful at Mishmar Ha’emek, it would have  allowed the Arab forces to block the Wadi Milleh valley, isolate Haifa, and cut off all Jewish communications between Haifa, the surrounding area, and Tel-Aviv, thus opening up all of western Galilee and the Coastal Plain to isolation and conquest. The evidence of the massacres and expulsions at Etzion Bloc and the Old City in Jerusalem that occurred the following month suggest that an Arab conquest of this Jewish held real estate would not have been kind to its inhabitants. Parrying the thrust of this Arab attack was thus Sadeh’s great achievement for the then-embattled Yishuv, and, of course, the future state of Israel.   


Yigael Allon knew and admired both Orde Wingate and Yitzhak Sadeh. In Sadeh he saw,

“a military genius of world caliber, one of the greatest commanders in Jewish history, the father of modern warfare, the teacher of most young Israeli commanders including myself. “

Of Wingate, Allon observed that,

“the appearance of Wingate, with his extraordinary Zionist ardor inspired by the Bible, his unconventional military gifts and his outstanding courage, was an event of historic importance for the Haganah.”

While allowing for differences in the two men’s personalities, Allon nevertheless concluded,

“Both were farsighted men, fashioning their revolutionary military doctrines in obedience to the imperatives of the present with the distant past–the heroic tales of Scriptures–as their primary model. By teaching the Haganah units to patrol remote fields, plantations and roads, to ambush enemy paths, and to carry out raids against enemy bases which helped to check the enemy’s initiative, they effectively pulled the Haganah out of its trenches and barbed wire and into the open field, thus making it adopt a more active kind of defense.”    

Again and again–in the lightning armored strikes in the campaigns of 1956 and 1967, in the heroic defence of the 7th armored Brigade in the Golan in ‘73, and the victory of Entebbe, the virtues of individual initiative, bold maneuver, and swift, preemptive action would be evidenced in the heroic actions of the IDF in defence of the homeland.

Such indeed, were the gifts of the Friend, and the Old Man.  

About the Author
Robert Werdine lives in Michigan City, Indiana, USA. He studied at Indiana University, Purdue University, and Christ Church College at Oxford and is self-employed. He is currently pursuing advanced degrees in education and in Middle Eastern Studies.