The Nazi invasion of Palestine, 1942

haganah 1942
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What would have happened if the Nazis had invaded Palestine in World War II? They came close, so close that preparations had to be made to defend the Yishuv (community) in Palestine.

This is how it happened.

When Italy entered World War II on the side of Germany in June of 1940 they attacked the British in North Africa from their bases in Libya with the strategy of moving through Egypt pushing out the English, taking the Suez Canal and moving into Asia and capturing the Mosul oil fields of Iraq, and possibly bringing and early end to the war with an Axis victory.

The Germans fully realizing the potential of knocking out Britain early if this could be accomplished sent German troops into North Africa in January 1941 to try and complete the strategy.

Erwin Rommel, the overall commander in North Africa, better known by his nom de guerre “the Desert Fox” was an excellent tactician and strategist. By June of 1942 he succeeded in pushing the English all the way into Egypt and was poised at el Alamein to push the British out of Cairo and Alexandria and to take the all important Suez Canal.

The Jews of Palestine recognizing their vulnerability if Germany were to cross into Asia, Jewish Palestine would be a target for Hitler’s SS. The Jews were well aware that they were expendable if Egypt fell to the Germans, the only alternative for the British  would be to fall back, bypassing Palestine, to Iraq and fighting to the last man saving the Iraqi oil fields if necessary.

The Yishuv in such a scenario was left to its own devices.

Palestine’s Jews had no illusions about what to expect from German occupation. They knew the Nazis were mass murdering Jews in both Russia and Poland. From a number of sources they had enough data before the British or the Americans, to accurately know what the Nazis were doing to their loved ones in Europe.

On or about August 6, 1942 twenty four Nazi SS commissioned and non commissioned officers flew to Athens to prepare for the SS assignment in Palestine. Based on the same Einsatzkommando that had already murdered over one million Jews in the USSR, they planned on small SS groups overseeing larger local units carrying out the extermination. The Nazis fully expected Arab cooperation as all reports had shown them sympathetic to the Nazi cause, and in 1942 fully expected a German victory.

Documents show as early as 1937 German Arab collaboration against Jewish interests in Palestine proliferating.   A delegation of Palestine Arabs told the German government continued Jewish immigration would eventually create a Jewish state which, the Arab Palestinian delegation emphasized was not in either German or Arab interests.

By July of 1942 as Rommel tightened his grip on Eastern Egypt and was bearing down on Alexandria, the Jews of Palestine contemplated their strategy.

Surrender was discussed but quickly dismissed. Yitzhak Tabenkin, a Zionist activist and later Israeli politician, reflected what  most of the Yishuv felt,  “If we are destined to fall, let us fall here…the Hebrew flag in the Land of Israel will be worthless if the Jews of Palestine do not rise up in a last heroic attempt to defend it.”

Guerrilla actions were talked about, to harass and slow down the Nazi advance. But, there was one idea, with an original approach that some historians say would have never worked and others are not so sure.

The Carmel Plan

The Yishuv, with British blessing devised a proposal to take up the entire population and build an enclave in the Carmel mountains, near the city Haifa, with relatively perfect cover with high ground stations for defense and survival for one half million people. Bounded on three sides by mountains and the fourth by the Mediterranean.

Roads on these mountains could be guarded fairly easily be an inferior force. They were winding, switch backed, single lane, and were perfect for a Thermopylae or Agincourt type defense.

Completely planned out by Yitzhak Sadeh, commander of the Hagannah, and Dr. Yochanan Ratner, a leading Palestinian architect and the department head of Agriculture at Technion University,  they believed the Yishuv could survive there months or even years if necessary providing they can get resupplied on a regular basis from Allied forces, through air drops, submarines at night and larger equipment brought in by plane.

To accomplish this the Haganna  planned to build and rebuild a temporary landing strip on the beach  to handle incoming and outgoing planes. Figuring the strip would be bombed by Axis forces on a regular basis, the Haganna just assigned a regular team to go back in whenever that happened and just rebuild the strip again. The Germans would bomb it at night, the Jews would go back and rebuild it the next day.

Once they got going with agriculture and proper defenses the Haganna with British help would launch guerrilla operations to disrupt communications, transport, intelligence gathering  and attacking and  harassing  German troops.

The British really liked the idea of a Jewish commando, working behind enemy lines to confound the Germans. This was not knew as Palestinian Jews had been used quite successfully in this capacity for months in the fight for North Africa. From the Palmach and Haganna ranks they developed a squad of German speakers with Aryan looks to infiltrate and kill up close, German troops at any time of the day or night.

With the “German squad” as the Jews called it they could get right up next to them, eat with them, wax easily about Berlin night clubs and women they left behind without them ever suspecting  they were really Jews.  The intelligence gathering alone was worth gold. Then totally unsuspected attacks from that vantage point, the British high command agreed would be a major winning point for allied intentions.

This kind of attack worked really well in North Africa and not just with the Jews. The Australian “rat patrols’ as they were known, like the Palestinian squads without the use of language or looking German used to sneak into enemy camps at night and slit the throats of four or five soldiers quietly, and then steal their way back out of camp again. This kind of thing spooked German troops and made them very uneasy.

The “desert rat”  kind of commando operation was also envisioned for the occupation of Palestine.

The Yishuv planned full communities with farming and living as close to normal as possible. Hide outs in the mountain sides would be manned 24/7 spotting Axis troops making their way on foot for surprise attacks would themselves be caught in crossfires with Jewish forces.

Some have called this folly. Tom Segev, a “new historian”, suggests that it never would have worked, calling it suicide “a sort of Masada, Musa Dag and Stallingrad all rolled into one.”  Segev maintains it never would have been operational calling it a “fantasy.” Of course, he has the benefit of living in a time without limited choices of survival.

Others were more favorable to the idea. Historian Howard Sachar said after describing the genius and thoroughness of the plan  commented “the scheme of defense plainly did not reflect the mentality of a ghettoized European Jewry, nor even of European nations already under the Nazi heel, it was rather the militant approach of a totally new Zionist community.”

It never came to fruition because the remarkable British defense at the second battle of el Alamein in August 1942 led by field marshal Bernard Montgomery succeeded in pushing the Germans back out of Egypt. The following month the Americans landed in Algeria and a classic military pincer strategy with the Americans driving the Germans east and the British pushing them west eventually forced Germany out of North Africa all together by the following spring.

Palestine was saved. And, never came that close again to a Nazi invasion for the duration of the war.

There is no way of knowing if it would have been successful or not. The constant bombardment of enemy planes would bring lots of casualties and keep the Yishuv on the move. But, with all things considered the Haganna deemed it “possible.”

If you go to the Dania Quarter of Haifa today, you will see rusty iron train rails driven into the ground like huge red spikes to stop tanks from rolling through. They are the only remnant of the preparations for the Carmel plan prior to a Nazi invasion during the war.

Note: During an earlier incarnation of this story, one commenter, told me that he was seven years old in 1942 in Palestine and that he remembers his teacher talking to the little kids about a German invasion and how they would have to deal with it when that happens.

There is an even more interesting anecdote to this story.

As to why it might have been everything the Haganna planners thought it would be. The ruling Yishuv  cabinet officers told Ben Gurion that the “Carmel plan” if implemented stood a 50-50 chance of surviving at least the next couple of years of the war.

These were the same cabinet officers six years later on May 12 1948 two days before Israel declared its state advising then Prime Minister to be David Ben Gurion that they had the same 50-50 chance of surviving an Arab invasion.

And, we all know how that turned out.

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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.