By Dr. Jason Fenton - One of the Volunteers
MACHAL PLAYED A KEY ROLE IN THE WAR
It needs to be remembered that Machalniks, Jews and non-Jews, men and women from some thirty-seven different countries formed the nucleus of the Israeli Air Force and Navy, staffed the Medical Corps with doctors and nurses, many of whom had experience with head wounds or had seen service in MASH units in WW II. Machal volunteers also played an important role in the heavy artillery and tank units and furnished military and technical expertise in many crucial areas.
Mickey Marcus, the commander of the Jerusalem front directed the building of the Burma Road' that saved modern Jerusalem before he was killed in a tragic accident, was a Machal volunteer as was Ben Dunkelman, a Canadian volunteer, who became commander of Hativa Sheva (7th Brigade). It was Ben Dunkelman who led Operation Dekel (Palm tree) that resulted in the capture of Nazareth and the entire lower Galilee. The first tank commanders and senior infantry commanders were Machal volunteers, and the RADAR installations were operated by Machalniks.
The first C.O.C of the Israel Navy, Paul Shulman, an Annapolis graduate, was a Machal volunteer, as were many of the captains of Israel's growing navy. Indeed, at least fifty percent of the officers and crew of the Israel Navy were Machal volunteers. One such volunteer was Allan Burke, a former Royal Navy Commander, who went to Israel in 1948 and became an important force in the development of the Israel Navy, while Monty Green, an ex-British brigade major, helped organize the new Jewish army and was the IDF's first quartermaster-general.
There was another ex-British major and non-Jew, Thomas Bowden who was better known in Israel under his nom de guerre of David Appel (his Jewish girlfriend's last name) who volunteered his services. After serving in the 7th Brigade at the battle for Latrun, he was asked to form Israel's 1st Parachute Regiment. Now the commander and chief instructor, he secretly made his way back to England and purchased some used army surplus parachutes from an army-navy surplus store in London's Tottenham Court Road and brought them back to Israel where they were quickly copied and used with brilliant effect by the newly formed parachute unit.
The first pilots, the first air and ground crews in Air Transport Command and in the Fighter and Bomber Wings were almost all Machal volunteers. In fact the language of the 'Israel' Air Force was, by necessity, English throughout the war. Nor can we forget the incredible job done by Al Schwimmer and 'Swifty' Schindler who created a fictitious Panamanian airline known as LAPSA from the ground up that ferried the bombers, fighters, transports and all manner of weapons to a country until then without any air force and precious few guns to defend itself against the well-armed enemy at its gates.
They bought, borrowed, and stole planes and spare parts and hired the pilots to fly them to Israel - a highly dangerous, not to say illegal, endeavor during which a number of Machal pilots and air crew lost their lives and some others were arrested by unfriendly governments. In all, 19 Machal flyers lost their lives flying for Israel, as well as three ground crew personnel killed in action. And we should remember Hank Greenspun (Z'L), a decorated WWII hero who, almost single-handedly and at great personal risk, procured many of the weapons, munitions, and spare parts that IAF Air Transport Command ferried to Israel.
Air Transport Command can also claim one other distinction. Back in 1948 and 1949, when the Government needed a plane to fly some Israeli dignitaries or other VIPs to important functions, they would dust off one of the pilots and then dust off one of the ATC transports, lay down some carpet, paint the plane a pleasing shade of blue and white, and rename it the 'To and From' Airline. And the nattily uniformed 'Israeli' pilots, who flew EL AL in those early days and spoke such excellent English, were the very same casually-attired American pilots who flew the ATC transports on their regular weapon-smuggling runs from Tel Nof AFB to Zatec, Czechoslovakia and back again.
MACHAL - THE FORGOTTEN VOLUNTEERS!
The only negative
in this story is the realization that the history of these dedicated Machal
volunteers is not taught in Israel beyond a very rare and cursory mention.
In point of fact, very few Israelis or Jews in general, other than those
who were involved in the War of Independence, even
know what the name "Machal" stands for. More's the pity, for this
band of dedicated men and women, Jews and non-Jews alike, although relatively
few in number, added a quality and experience that was critical for a new
army whose fighting experience had been mainly limited to underground action
and guerrilla tactics.
There was a downside to all this, for the human cost was high. Estimates have varied, but 119 Machalniks were killed in action and many were wounded - mostly from the U.S., South Africa, Canada, and the U.K. As then Prime Minister Rabin said in a speech at the Machal Memorial at Sha'ar Hagai on the Jerusalem Road in 1993:
"Families of Machal that lost their dear ones, the volunteers of Machal, the Director-General of the Keren Kayemet, and the Chief Rabbi of the Israel Defence Forces.
Dear friends, Machal, the volunteers of Machal, were a special group, a group of people - Jews and non-Jews - from 29 countries that managed after participation in the Second World War to remain alive, to come, to volunteer in the service of the newly born State of Israel, in the newly organized Israel Defence Forces, and to contribute far beyond their number to our capability to fight the most decisive war of all the wars that the State of Israel had experienced - our War of Independence - the war that its results decided if we will be or will not be as a Jewish State.
Formally, the War of Independence ended in 1949, when we signed armistice agreements with our four neighbouring Arab countries that invaded with the purpose to throw us into the sea and failed. But, let's be frank, 45 years after the Declaration of Independence of the State of Israel, we still continue our War of Independence. It was called in different terms: Kadesh Operation, the Six-Day War, the War of Attrition, the Yom Kippur War, the war in Lebanon, and all the attacks, terror and others, between all the wars.
Today, as Prime Minister and Minister of Defence, it is my main responsibility, on the one hand, to leave no stone unturned on the road to achieve peace, but peace that will give security to the State of Israel. I know what you have done; I know the tremendous contribution of Machal to our strength in the longest and most painful war that we have ever experienced.
I'll never forget the attack on Faluja at the beginning of the operation that had to break the siege of the Negev and liberated Beersheva; how the First Tank Battalion of the Israeli Army, composed of an Israeli armoured personnel carrier, 13 Renault tanks manned by Russian immigrants and 2 Cromwell tanks that were manned by Jews and non-Jews, Armoured Corps volunteers from Britain. And the network of the battalion commander had to be in three different channels: Hebrew, Russian, British. Try to imagine how to co-ordinate such an attack in three languages!
Prime Minister Rabin concluded with these words, "These volunteers that brought about the beginning of our Armoured Corps, gave us not only your experience, but your lives. The people of Israel, the State of Israel, will never forget it. We will ever cherish this unique contribution made by you, the volunteers of Machal. And for that, thank you, thank you very much."
About four hundred of the volunteers either stayed in Israel after the war or returned later to live. The rest of us volunteered to help, fought until final victory, thought briefly about staying, and then returned to our own countries to try to pick up the pieces of our lives, once again.
Those were exciting, amazing, and often dangerous times that seemed larger than life, and those of us who participated in Israel's War of Independence will never forget them.
David Ben Gurion, Prime Minister of the Provisional Government of Israel, addressed a New Year's Message to the People of Israel on October 3, 1948. This is an excerpt from his speech:
Almost by definition, and by self-selection, those who volunteer to leave their home countries and fight in a far-away war are an odd breed, be they Frenchmen in the American Revolution, Americans in the Spanish Civil War, or Western Jews in Israel's War of Independence.
Our motives for going to Israel were diverse and not always clear to ourselves. Many had fought in Word War II and found it hard to settle down. Some were imbued by Zionist ideology, others suddenly discovered their commonality with the Jewish people. Some were genuine idealists, others came to escape personal problems. Almost all, I think, were drawn by the chance to take part in a truly epochal event, for which generations of Jews had yearned for close to 2,000 years.
I hope that when you are next in Jerusalem, you will make a point of visiting the Machal Memorial at Sha'ar Hagai in the Jerusalem Hills, a site chosen because it was the center of some of the most intense and brutal fighting during the War of Independence, where Jewish convoy after Jewish convoy tried to break through the Arab Legion's stranglehold on Jerusalem to bring food and water into the beleaguered city. There, at Sha'ar Hagai, you will see the inscription from the Prophet Joshua whose message of hope still resonates down the ages:
All of us who volunteered were fortunate to participate, not only in a glowing chapter of history, but in possibly the last 'good' war of this century, in which the divisions between right and wrong were unblurred and the righteousness of our cause unquestioned.
For all of us, being part of Israel's rebirth remains the single most memorable and important act of our lives. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, this was, indeed, our finest hour. For this we owe Israel far more than Israel owes us!