Jewish Armed Forces in the British Mandate

What is the history of the Jewish Armed Forces in Mandate Palestine?

The following narrative was primarily adapted from the Israel Ministry of Foreign AffairsarticleFrom Hashomer to the Israel Defense Forces: Armed Jewish Defense in Palestine by Me’ir Pa’il, Ph.D., the academic director of the Galili Center for Defense-“Haganah” Studies.

Before the British Mandate

From the time the modern Jewish community in Palestine (the new yishuv) became an entity following the first and second aliyot (waves of immigration) – from 1870 until the outbreak of World War I in 1914 – every Jewish town, neighborhood, moshava (village), farm, moshav and kvutza (cooperative and collective settlements, respectively), faced the necessity of protecting itself. At the time, protection was necessary mainly against local Arab thieves, individuals and organized gangs.

Jewish security organizations evolved in several phases. At first, Jewish settlements designated at least one person to be responsible for the security of the built-up area and, when necessary, the fields. This guard, armed with a personal weapon (a rifle and, in most cases, also a handgun) operated by day and by night, on horseback or on foot. As time passed, these guards hired Arabs for guard duty, especially at night. The method proved inefficient because soon the Arab guards began to collaborate with the thieves and bandits. As a result, in a few settlements (Zikhron Ya’akov is one example) young Jewish settlers organized small groups for guard duty on a voluntary basis, having learned the art of guarding and securing their settlements from the very few professionals.

In these circumstances, with guard duties in most settlements carried out by Arabs, and in some villages by young Jewish “irregular” volunteers – the Bar Giora organization was founded in 1907 in the home of Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, who later became Israel’s second president, in Neve Tzedek, near Jaffa. Bar Giora established the first communes of Jewish guards at Sejera. From within these communes of workers and guards Hashomer was founded in 1909, defining itself as a countrywide organization that would assume responsibility for the security of as many Jewish settlements as possible. Hashomer’s condition, before undertaking to guard and secure any settlement, was that only Jewish laborers be employed in it. Hashomer was thus able to regard these laborers as a reserve for guard duty and quickly organized its operations in a three-tiered hierarchy: a small core of founders (veterans of Bar Giora); a larger circle of active guards, members of Hashomer; and the Jewish laborers, who termed themselves a “labor legion”, as reserves.

In 1913, the Hashomer leadership established relations with the institutions of the Zionist Organization in Europe, but this connection was disrupted in August 1914 when World War I broke out. Hashomer continued its security assignments in Palestine as before, taking pains to deny the Ottoman regime any pretext to liquidate it. An additional security organization came into being at this time: the Jaffa Group, comprised of young people who provided security services for Tel Aviv and the Jewish community in Jaffa. The leading personality in Hashomer throughout its existence (1909-1920), was Yisrael Shohat; the main figure in the Jaffa Group was Eliyahu Golomb.

World War I

In Palestine under Ottoman rule, young men who lived in the moshavot around Zikhron Ya’akov formed an organization called the Gideonites. During the war, this organization served as the basis for NILI (the initials of netzah yisrael lo yeshaker – I Sam. 15:29), which engaged in active espionage for Great Britain, under the leadership of the agronomist Aaron Aaronson (See “Spies Like Us” in the Sources). On the other hand, during the war several thousand Jewish residents of Palestine were inducted into the Turkish army; a few of them were trained and appointed as officers and NCOs in the Turkish army. Examples are Moshe Sharett, Dov Hoz (who later deserted to the British army), Alexander Aaronson, and Elimelekh Zelikovich (Avner); the latter eventually became a senior commander in the Haganah.

Important developments in the military sector of the Zionist enterprise took place during World War I in the British army, which fought against the Turks. The first of these developments occurred in Egypt in 1915, when the Zion Mule Corps was formed, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel John Henry Patterson, an Irishman, and Captain Joseph Trumpeldor. The Zion Mule Corps joined the British Expeditionary Force that landed on the Gallipoli peninsula in the Dardanelles (May 1915) and saw action there until the British were forced to evacuate their strongholds (January 1916). Almost all the soldiers of this corps were Jews who had been expelled by the Turkish authorities from Palestine because of their alien citizenship.

Only after the setback in Gallipoli and relentless petitioning in British government circles in London by Jabotinsky, Rutenberg and Trumpeldor did the British War Office agree, in September 1917, to the formation of a new infantry regiment based on nearly one hundred veterans of the Mule Corps who had come to Britain, plus Jewish emigres from Russia who had settled in Britain and agreed to join a Jewish combat unit. Thus, the 38th Royal Fusiliers came into being in southern England under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Patterson, the former commander of the Zion Mule Corps, which had been dismantled. In February 1918, the 38th Fusiliers was transferred to Egypt, and took part in the British offensive of September 1918 under General Edmund Allenby. The regiment, then stationed in the Jordan Valley near Jericho, participated in crossing the Jordan river eastward in the direction of Salt. Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky was a deputy commander of this regiment, with the honorary rank of lieutenant.

A second Jewish regiment, the 39th Royal Fusiliers, was formed in Britain immediately after the 38th shipped out. The 39th Fusiliers, composed of Jewish volunteers from the United States and Canada, plus Jewish emigres from Russia, was sent to Egypt in April 1918 under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Eliezer Margolin, who had led a battalion in the Australian expeditionary force on the French front. During its maneuvers in Egypt, this regiment began to absorb Palestinian Jewish volunteers who had enlisted in the British army after the British occupied the southern half of Palestine. The trained half of this regiment fought alongside the 38th Royal Fusiliers in September 1918.

A third Jewish regiment, the 40th Royal Fusiliers, was created on the basis of Jewish volunteers from the United States and Canada (including David Ben-Gurion and Itzhak Ben-Zvi, who had been expelled from Palestine by the Turks, as well as Dov Joseph and Nehemia Rabin). This regiment, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Samuel, reached Egypt in August 1918 and began to take on Jewish volunteers who had come over from Palestine (including Eliyahu Golomb, Dov Hoz, Berl Katznelson, and several members of Hashomer). The 40th Royal Fusiliers was transferred from Egypt to Palestine, but too late to see action.

Almost all the members of the three Jewish regiments were discharged immediately after the end of World War I in November 1918. Those from Britain and Palestine returned to their respective countries and some of those from North America settled in Palestine to realize their Zionist convictions. Representatives of the Zionist Executive in Britain and Palestine persuaded the British authorities to establish a Jewish volunteer regiment (commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Eliezer Margolin), as part of the armed forces garrisoned in Palestine. This regiment, known as the First Judeans, was organized in 1919 at Sarafand (now Tsrifin), but the British did not allow it to take part in either the incidents in Tel Hai and Jerusalem in 1920, nor during the Arab disturbances in May 1921. Thereafter, when vi
olence broke out on the border between Jaffa and Tel Aviv, Margolin sent part of the regiment into action on his own initiative. In response, the British disbanded it.

The First Twenty Years of British Rule in Palestine (1919-1939)

The disbandment of the First Judeans vindicated those Zionist leaders who argued against reliance on British patronage for the development of a military force. In 1920 the Haganah was formed as a “grassroots” military organization, admittedly illegal from the British point of view but regarded by its founders, who were also the founders of the Histadrut (the General Federation of Jewish Labor), as a full-fledged national armed force, subordinate to an elected political leadership and authorized to use its military potential in defense of the yishuv’s interests. For its first ten years, the Haganah was subordinated to the elected public institutions of the Histadrut, since the elected political institutions of the Zionist Organization and of the yishuv were not yet prepared to accept responsibility for this illegal military entity.

In the aftermath of the 1929 disturbances, and after two years of discussions among leaders of Zionist parties across the political spectrum, the Haganah was transferred to the joint authority of the Jewish Agency Executive and the Va’ad Leumi (National Council). In 1931, the Haganah was placed under the authority of a parity committee – an evenly-split political High Command composed of six political figures – three representing the “Left” (among them Eliyahu Golomb and Dov Hoz) and three representing the “Right” (among them Sa’adya Shoshani and Yissaschar Sidkov). Thus the Haganah became a national military organization, subordinate to the nation’s elected leadership. Although the British, as well as the Arabs, considered the Haganah illegal, the yishuv regarded it as a legitimate popular military organization. Every rural settlement – moshava, moshav, kibbutz – and every Jewish town or neighborhood was affiliated with the Haganah, and the identity of the Haganah district commander was known to most inhabitants.

In 1931 a group of Haganah members seceded from the organization, refusing to accept the authority of the parity committee – High Command. Shortly afterwards, from 1932 on, the breakaway group, headed by Avraham Tehomi, became known as the National Military Organization (Irgun tzeva’i le’umi) or its acronym, Etzel. This organization received the full backing of Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s Revisionist Party and partial support from factions of the right-wing General Zionists and the Mizrahi.

During the disturbances of 1936-1939 – called by the Arabs the “Arab uprising” – strategic interests persuaded the British governments in Jerusalem and London to allow a certain degree of military collaboration between the British army and police and the Haganah. This cooperation gave the Haganah a measure of legality for three years, manifested in the Supernumery Police venture that lasted until 1948 and in the fraternity of arms with Captain Orde Charles Wingate.

In 1938, the Jewish Agency Executive decided to appoint a nationwide leader for the Haganah; a non-partisan personality who would be chairman of the High Command. The first to fill this position was Yohanan Ratner. Some eighteen months later, in September 1939, after thorough discussion by the High Command and the political bodies to which it was subordinate – the Jewish Agency Executive and the National Council – it was decided to appoint a professional Military General Staff (M.G.S.) which would be in command of all military components and operations of the various Haganah bodies. The M.G.S. functioned under the authority of the High Command; the first Chief of the General Staff was Ya’akov Dori (Dostrovsky).

Betar, the Zionist youth organization founded in Eastern Europe in 1923, is an acronym for “Brit Trumpeldor”, named for the hero of the Zion Mule Corps and the name of the fortress that was the last bastian of Jewish sovereignty to fall to the Roman invaders two thousand years ago. In 1926, Betar became the official youth organization of the World Union of Revisionist Zionists. A great many Betarim received military training in the Diaspora countries before going to settle in Eretz Yisraeland later were high officers in the Israeli Defence Forces.

In the late 1930’s, it was Betar’s Plugat HaKotel that came forward to provide the “defence force” needed to protect Jews praying at the Western Wall from Arab molestation. And in 1938, when Jabotinsky, in the face of the infamous Macdonald White Paper, gave the signal for the formation of “Aliyah Bet” to “illegally” transport Jews from Nazi-occupied Europe to Palestine, it was to Betar that he delegated the responsibility for organizing the transports and guiding the immigrants to their ports of embarkation.

Etzel experienced a crisis during the first year of the Arab “disturbances.” In April 1937, half of its members (about 1500), led by Avraham Tehomi himself, abandoned it and returned to the Haganah. The other half continued in Etzel, which now answered to the political authority of the Revisionist Zionist Organization under Ze’ev Jabotinsky. Etzel rejected the Haganah’s moderate policy against the Arabs, the so-called “restraint” (havlaga) doctrine of the elected Zionist leadership, and adopted a policy of intimidation and terror.

The Arab rebellion was quelled in the 1938-39 period by British forces in cooperation with the Haganah, which mobilized more than 20,000 Jewish supernumery police plus the field troops under Yitzhak Sadeh and the special night squads of Captain Orde Wingate.

Major-General Charles Orde Wingate, a Christian British intelligence officer in Mandate Palestine, risked his military career by secretly training special “night squads” (the Palmach) to carry out missions against Arab raiders and thus deter attacks on the Yishuv. Inspired by biblical figures like David and Gideon, Wingate helped shape the Israel Defense Forces? core military doctrines of deterrence and independent initiative.

Wingate is quoted as saying to a Jewish friend:

  • I count it as my privilege to help you fight your battle. To that purpose I want to devote my life. I believe that the very existence of mankind is justified when it is based on the moral foundation of the Bible. Whoever dares lift a hand against you and your enterprise here should be fought against.

World War II (1939-1945)

After about two decades of activity, clear indications of extensive professional institutionalization became evident. “Regional Defense” had come into being, as had Field Troops that operated for about two years (1937-1939). By this time, the Haganah had created a Field Corps, a Medical Service, a Signals Corps, an Intelligence service, Aliya Bet (which handled illegal immigration), an arms industry and services for the procurement and storage of weapons. The country was divided into operational districts and a professional military journal called Ma’arakhot (campaigns) made its debut. In 1941, the “Youth regiments” (Gadna) and the “Strike Force” (Palmach) were formed. In the same year, the tenets of the Haganah, emphasizing the national and Zionist character of the Haganah, as the sole military force of the Zionist enterprise and of the Jewish state-in-the-making, were formulated:

  • The Haganah is the military force of the Jewish people which strives for political independence in the Land of Israel.
  • The Haganah answers to the authority of the World Zionist Organization in conjunction with the organized Jewish community in the Land, is at their service and obeys their orders.
  • The functions of the Haganah are:
  • to defend the Jewish community in Palestine against attack on its people, property, and dignity;
  • to defend the Zionist enterprise and the political rights of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel; and
  • to defend the Land of Israel against enemy action from outside it
    s borders, commensurate with its capabilities and political circumstances.
  • The Haganah serves the entire nation, the entire yishuv, and the entire Zionist movement. Its flag is the national flag – blue and white. Its anthem is the national anthem, Hatikva. Any Jewish man or woman willing and able to undertake the tasks of national defense may join the Haganah.
  • The Haganah is absolved from the laws of the non-Jewish government. Its existence, its weapons and its operations are subject to painstaking secrecy. Those who breach this principle do so at the risk of their lives.
  • The Haganah educates its members to allegiance to the Jewish people and Eretz Israel, love of freedom and Jewish revival, courage, endurance in the face of suffering and adversity, willingness to sacrifice, respect for human life, honesty of character, simplicity and respect for human and Jewish values.

When World War II broke out and Britain took on a key role in fighting against Nazi Germany, the Zionist leadership realized that direct or indirect military action against the British was out of the question, even though the British White Paper policy (May 1939) severely restricted Jewish immigration and land-acquisition rights. David Ben-Gurion, chairman of the Zionist Executive, ruled that the Zionist movement and the yishuv would cooperate with Britain against the Nazis on the military level but would continue to resist the White Paper in matters of immigration and settlement.

The Etzel, in contrast, was engulfed in controversy. The Revisionist leadership ruled that, notwithstanding the White Paper, Jews should cooperate with Britain against the Nazis on the military level. A smaller group, led by Abraham (Yair) Stern, deemed Britain to be the bitter enemy of Zionism, which should be fought militarily by means of guerrilla action and terrorism. After Jabotinsky died in 1940, this group seceded from the Etzel and began to operate separately under the name “Etzel in Israel” (popularly known as the Stern group). After the murder of Stern by the British in February 1942, the new leaders of the group (Natan Yellin- Mor, Yitzhak Shamir, and Yisrael Eldad) reorganized their underground group under the name Lohamei Herut Yisrael (Jewish Freedom Fighters) and its acronym, Lehi.

The Lehi (from the Hebrew acronym for Fighters for the Freedom of Israel), was a right-wing paramilitary organization of some 300 members whose deeds had repercussions far beyond its size. Founded by Avraham Stern, even during World War II the Lehi emphasized anti-British rebellion. Stern even made a bizarre attempt to contact Vichy Syria in his struggle against British rule in Palestine. Continuing after Stern’s shooting death by police in 1942, the Lehi squeezed funds from Jewish shopkeepers, robbed banks, and indiscriminately shot British policemen.

The 1944 Lehi assassination of British minister-resident Lord Moyne accelerated mainstream Zionist denunciation of extremist groups and sundered cooperation between the British and Zionist authorities in Palestine, even as the Nazi death machinery continued to swallow European Jewry.

Of great importance to the development of armed Jewish defense in Palestine were the more than 30,000 Palestinian Jews who enlisted in the British army in the course of World War II. In the last stages of the war, the Jewish Brigade Group was established and saw action against the Nazis in northern Italy. The Palestinian Jews in the British army and air force learned a broad range of military subjects – combat, administration, technology and logistics of a modern army – and transferred this knowledge to the Jewish defense forces in Palestine. This was to be of great use to the Israel Defence Forces, offspring of the Haganah, to be established during the War of Independence.

The Anti-British Struggle (1945-1948)

After the end of WWII, between October 1945 and the beginning of the War of Independence in December 1947, the Haganah was the largest and most important Jewish military force that operated against the British. Its acting chief of staff, Yitzhak Sadeh, was the most senior and most authoritative personality in the “Jewish resistance movement.”

The Haganah carried out anti-British military operations – liberation of interned immigrants from the Atlit camp; the bombing of the country’s railroad network (“Night of the Trains”); sabotage raids on radar installations and bases of the British police mobile force; sabotage of British vessels that engaged in deporting clandestine immigrants and destruction of all road and railroad bridges on the borders (“Night of the Bridges”). It was also the Haganah, under Shaul Avigur (Meirov), that operated the mass clandestine, illegal immigration from Europe and North Africa in 1944-1948, on the escape (Beriha) trails and maritime routes, as well as overland from Middle Eastern countries.

Furthermore, the Haganah provided military protection for the country-wide Jewish settlement enterprise, which took place in defiance of the constraints imposed by the British land laws. One such operation was the establishment of eleven settlements in the Negev on the night after Yom Kippur 1946, under the command of the deputy chief of staff of the Haganah, Yosef Avidar (Rokhel).

The Etzel and Lehi were, of course, also active in the resistance movement, their many operations focusing mainly on individual terrorism and guerrilla warfare against the British. Examples are the bombing of the British government and military headquarters at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, raids on British air force bases at Qastina and near Kfar Syrkin, liberation of Jewish prisoners from the prison in Acre, and sabotage of the railroad repair workshop near Haifa.

The War Of Independence (1948-49)

In the daily Order of the Establishment of the Israel Defence Forces, issued in the midst of the invasion by Arab armies on May 31, 1948, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion made the following statement:

  • Vast is the debt that the yishuv and the Jewish people owe the Haganah during all the phases of the founding [of the state], in Petah Tikva, Rishon Lezion, Gedera, Rosh Pina, Zikhron Ya’akov and Metulla, via Hashomer of the Second Aliya vanguard, the Jewish Legion in the First World War [the three fusilier regiments, the 38th, the 39th and the 40th], the defenders of Tel Hai and the steady growth of a national defense organization in the period between the two world wars, the formation of the supernumery police corps during the disturbances of 1936-1939, the founding of the Palmach and the Field Corps, the mass volunteering in the Second World War and the formation of the first Jewish Brigade and up to the mighty struggle by the Haganah in the first half of the war against us, from 30 November 1947 to 31 May 1948. Were it not for the experience, the planning, the operational and command ability, the loyalty and spirit of valor of the Haganah, the yishuv could not have withstood the terrible, bloody ordeal that has come upon us these past six months and we would not have attained the State of Israel. In the annals of the Jewish people, the chapter on the Haganah will glow with a grandeur and pride that will never tarnish.

Thus, it was the Haganah that was responsible for defense, security, retaliation, and counterattack against the Arab-Palestinian enemy, the foreign Arab volunteers and the Arab regular armies which invaded Palestine after 30 November 1947, the beginning of the War of Independence. It accomplished this mission until June 1, 1948, when the Israel Defence Forces – the IDF – officially came into being, several days after the provisional government passed a resolution to this effect (May 26). The IDF was not an ex nihilo product but an evolutionary and natural development of the Haganah, having inherited from it the General Staff and its Chie
f, the combat units, the operational and logistical formations, the air and naval arms, procurement and manufacture of arms, intelligence services and mobilization systems. It was the IDF, the offspring of the Haganah, that brought to an end the military campaign that the Haganah had begun in the War of Independence.

Consolidating the IDF

After the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, a key element of Ben-Gurion’s concept of government was the integration of Israel’s independent military forces into a unified military structure. On May 28, 1948, Ben-Gurion ‘s provisional government created the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), the Hebrew name of which, Zvah Haganah Le Yisrael, is commonly abbreviated to Zahal, and prohibited maintenance of any other armed force. This proclamation was challenged by the Irgun, which sailed the Altalena, a ship carrying arms, into Tel Aviv harbor. Ben-Gurion ordered Haganah troops to fire on the ship, which was set aflame on the beach in Tel Aviv. With the two camps on the verge of civil war, Begin, the leader of the Irgun, ordered his troops not to fire on the Haganah. Although the Altalena affair unified the IDF, it remained a bitter memory for Begin and the Irgun. Begin subsequently converted his armed movement into a political party, the Herut (or Freedom Movement). By January 1949, Ben-Gurion had also dissolved the Palmach, the strike force of the Haganah.

§ One Response to Jewish Armed Forces in the British Mandate

  • Susan Zur-Szpiro says:


    I am trying to find out about my father’s involvement in the Haganah and the first Naval intake following Independence. His name was Shimshon Zur, and he was born Georg Felsenstein. He took the name Sella between giving up Felsenstein and ending up as Zur. His birth date was 11th December 1929 and he lived in Haifa. Also, I would appreciate finding out if he was commended in any way. I know he told me that he studied refrigeration and engineering. I am coming to Israel next week and hope that I will be able to find out some details about his past role in developing the State of Israel of which he was so proud. He died on 1st November 1980 in Haifa, though he lived in the USA and England several years in between. I hope you can help me.

    Thank you
    Susan Zur-Szpiro

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