The Historama
Alex Ben-Arieh
P.O.Box 32128
Tel Aviv, Israel 61321
Phone: +972-547-680-086
Fax: +972-3-546-1971

The Israel Military Resources Page
A Brief Survey of the Foundations of the Israel Defence Forces

The purpose of this essay is to introduce newcomers to the myriad of names and trends which led up to the creation of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). It is a brief survey which focuses only on organizational developments; key personalities, militaria and ideological trends will be examined in the near future as separate pages on each mentioned formation are written. This essay focuses on the period up to 1948, when there were two totally separate Arab Palestinian and Jewish "communities" in Palestine, and focuses on the Jewish community ("Yishuv") in Palestine; when I accumulate enough materials I will also add sections on Arab/Palestinian formations.

The military establishment we call today the "Israel Defence Forces", established on 28 May 1948, and now almost 58 years old, is not the product of a smooth, straightforward evolution of a single or a few major entities. Like much of modern Israel's economic, political and religious history, the development of the country's military is the result of numerous, oftentimes ad-hoc, complimentary and competing, tendencies, personalities and organizations establishing footholds, developing, uniting - or separating - until a moment in which authority from above forces these organizations to consolidate.

The roots of the IDF are over 100 years old. Although modern Jewish settlement of Eretz Israel began in the 1870's, with the development of more settlements in the region came the need for the settlers to protect themselves from bandits and marauders. Around the turn of the 20th Century, the Jews began to employ the services of Circassians (Caucasian Moslems) to protect their colonies. A few years later, in 1907, a small group of settlers decided to become self-reliant on their own protection and established a self-defence organization ('Bar Giora', named after a famous Jew who fought against the Romans in the final rebellion which preceded the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 A.D.), which in turn grew into a wider, national self-defence entity in 1909, called 'HaShomer' ('The Watchman' or 'The Guardsman').

Early members of 'HaShomer' at the beginning of the 20th Century.
Note their Arabian appearance. Photo: Pearlman, p. 20.

During the First World War, the Ottoman Turkish authorities outlawed HaShomer, although it continued to exist in an underground form. Simultaneously, on the Allied side, other Zionist political and military leaders succeeded in convincing the British to use Jewish volunteers in their war effort, and a Zion Mule Corps of around 650 Jewish volunteers from Egypt and Palestine joined the British and Anzac forces in Gallipoli. After the Allied withdrawal from there, in 1917, additional elements of the Zionist movement succeeded in persuading the British Government to raise 3 battalions of Jewish volunteers - the 38th (made up of British volunteers), 39th (made up of American and Canadian volunteers) and 40th (made up of Eretz Israel volunteers) Royal Fusiliers, City of London - who, collectively, were known as the Jewish Battalions or also as the Jewish Legion. The Legion fought in the Palestine campaign of 1917-1918, and with the unit's disbandment in 1919, remnants of the force were dispersed in a few directions: some joined the HaShomer of the settlements, others formed ad-hoc defence units, like the 'Jerusalem Self-Defence Corps', and others - particularly from the 40th Battalion - formed the 'First Judean Battalion' in the framework of the British Army, in 1919. Though it falls outside the framework of this essay, Jews with wartime combat experience also came to Eretz Israel from the Ottoman, Austrian, German and Russian armies - among others.

Ze'ev Jabotinsky (center) and soldiers of the Jewish Legion (note the Star of David emblems on the shoulders of the two soldiers in the forefront). Jabotinsky, together with Joseph Trumpeldor, was instrumental in encouraging the British to create all-Jewish combat units to fight in Palestine, in World War I. Jabotinsky later founded the 'Revisionist' Zionist movement and the 'Betar' youth movement (dedicated to Trumpeldor). Photo: Allon, p. 48.

Labor Battalion men: watchman Zvi Nisanov and members of the Labor Battalion who helped defend Tiberias during the Arab riots of 1921. Photo: Lossin, p. 123.
As a result of changing policy in the new British Mandate and frustrations within the Jewish Community ('Yishuv') as a result, the Judean Battalion was disbanded (1921) and armed former Legionnaires who operated outside the framework of the Mandate's policies were arrested, in 1920. The movement for more assertive and independent self-protection on the part of the Jewish settlers led to the disbanding of the HaShomer organization and the establishment of a more unified broader-based entity, Hagana ('Defence'), under the auspices of the Jewish Community's ('Yishuv') labor union, the Histadrut. Simultaneously, the political spirit of certain areas of the former HaShomer organization found their expression in a new formation called the 'Labor and Defence Battalion' ('Gdud Ha'avoda'). The Labor Battalion became a movement staffed by new immigrants from the Third Aliya (immigration wave) from Eastern Europe and by young Socialists; it promoted physical training and national development. In time, the Labor Battalions cultivated individuals of a caliber that the Hagana selected to be its future instructors and leaders. During the 1920's these main Jewish defence organizations established branches to both acquire and domestically produce weapons.

Though not directly related to the Zionist armed sources of IDF, Jews served and received training in the paramilitary formations of the Mandate. The British Army policed the region until the creation of the Civil Government, in 1920, and on July 1st of that year the Palestine Police was born. Until 1926, there also existed in Eretz Israel the Palestine Gendarmerie, the British Gendarmerie, and various British military units. In that year, the two Gendarmeries were disbanded, with some of their personnel joining the Palestine Police Force, while the bulk were transferred to a new formation called the Trans-Jordan Frontier Force. The TJFF was created to patrol and defend Trans-Jordan's northern and southern borders, though training took place in Palestine and the units was used frequently during periods of unrest there (when the TJFF was disbanded in 1948, the bulk of its force was absorbed into the Arab Legion, which existed from 1920 to 1956). The PPF was now divided into a British and a Palestinian section.

At right: A Jewish policeman of the Tel Aviv Municipality (note the municipality's emblem on his hat). His badge number appears in Hebrew letters on his collar. Photo: Lossin, p. 236.

Although graduates of Jewish movements existed in Eretz Israel for many years, the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe during the '20s and '30s, together with rising Arab political awareness and riots domestically, in 1920, 1921, 1929 and again in 1936-39, forged the presence of a stronger right-wing 'Revisionist' (more activist self-defence) Zionist movement promoted by Ze'ev Jabotinsky. The ideology he promoted found expression in the uniformed 'Betar' ('Brit Trumpeldor' in Hebrew - the Association of [Joseph] Trumpeldor, a Jewish military hero) youth movement which arose in 1923 and existed in many European countries and Eretz Israel, and operated on militaristic lines. In the course of the 1930's Betar opened training facilities in Europe for air and sea training. In 1931, there was a split in the Hagana, and a new Revisionist offshoot organization called the National Military Organization, known in Hebrew as the Irgun Zva'i Leumi, or 'Etzel', or also the 'Irgun', was born.

Betar members marching in Warsaw during the 3rd World Betar Congress,
September 1938. Photo: Markovitzky, p. 62.

The Arab revolt of 1936-39 led to the Mandate's creation of a special supernumary force connected to the Palestine Police, called the Jewish Settlement Police (also known as 'Notrim' in Hebrew, or also by the Turkish nickname 'Ghafir' by the British). This was the Mandate's first officially sanctioned armed body for the protection of the Jewish Community. As it turned out, in the political climate of this time, most of its members were also members of the Hagana. The duality of the Noter's orientation signaled a change in the Hagana movement's perception of self-defence, and it too began to promote activist self-defence: attacking actual and potential Arab marauders (instead of reacting to attacks); participating actively in the dual task of establishing secure settlements while also promoting greater settlement of Eretz Israel. The doctrine of "coming out from behind the fences" was expressed best by a mercural, unavoidable figure in the history of Jewish self-defence, called Yitzhak Sadeh, who formed unoffical, covert roving units of selected Hagana men and 'Notrim', called 'Noddedot' (Mobile Forces, in English). Later, the Mandatory authorities also equipped units of Notrim with vehicles and these units, called 'Mobile Guards', or 'Mannim', 'Mishmarot Na'im' in Hebrew, patrolled between settlements and pursued marauders.

At right: A Jewish Settlement Policeman ('Noter'), Zvi Ben Gershon, on duty, 1938. Note the distinctive hat which was a compromise in style for headwear acceptible to Arabs and Jews without being unique to only one of them. Photo: Allon, p. 82.

Simultaneously, though in a separate path completely, Capt. Charles Orde Wingate of the British Intelligence, organized the 'Special Night Squads', promoting the concept of coming out from behind the fences, and training its members in night attacks, mobility and diversionary tactics. In the climate of terror and instability of those years, other 'supernumary' bodies were created to which Jews volunteered: legalized private guards called 'ghafirs' and unpaid volunteers who were uniformed and armed, serving as 'Special Constables'.

At left: Jewish Sergeants of the Special Night Squads in the Jezreel Valley. Photo: Lossin, p. 257.

The pressures of the 1936 revolt led to consolidation and restructuring of the Hagana command: that year, the 'Jewish Agency', which had become the Jewish Community's government in the making, established a civilian National High Command ('Mifkada Artzit'), whose chairman was a de-facto 'Minister of Defence', and which appointed a 'General Staff' to run the Hagana. In that year the Hagana implemented an operation to erect stockade and tower settlements around Eretz Israel. Drawing on the lessons established by Wingate and the 'Noddedot', the Hagana command - Yitzhak Sadeh, in effect - established its first fully functional nationwide mobile units known as 'Field Companies', called 'Plugot Sadeh' or 'Fosh' in Hebrew, in 1938.

At right: The raw material: Yitzhak Sadeh, a former Czarist and Red-Army soldier who founded the Labor Battalions and later commanded the 'Fosh', flanked by 2 'Fosh' members - Moshe Dayan (a future IDF Chief of Staff) on his right and by Yigal Allon (a future commander of IDF's Southern Command). Note the presence of 'Notrim' in the background by their hats. Photo: Lossin, p. 259.

The end result: a unit of Sadeh's 'Fosh' (field companies) passing through the Arab village of Yasur.
Photo: Allon, p. 98.

Political, military and anti-Semitic events of the '30's also impressed upon the Jewish Community's various movements the need to appreciate the uses of air power. During these years sports related flying clubs arose, as did a Palestinian subsidiary ('Palestine Airways') of Imperial Airways. In the latter half of the decade the interest in air-power crystallized further: all the air clubs were amalgamated into the Aero Club of Israel ('Klub Ha'teufa Le'Eretz Israel'); the Irgun launched an underground force called the Palestine Flying Services ('Sherutai Eretz Israel Le'Teufa'); and the Jewish Agency's own flying company called Aeroplane ('Aviron') also started to train pilots.

Members of Hagana's 'Aviron Company'. The first flight course with ten students
took place in Afikim, in 1937. Photo: Alpher, p. 151.

1939 marked another turning point for Jewish defence: Wingate was transferred from Palestine; the SNS was disbanded and many of its men absorbed into the British Army; and the Hagana reorganized itself again. The 'Fosh' were replaced by a less mobile but permanent 'Field Force' of men with military training called 'Chail Sadeh', or 'Chish' in Hebrew; men with basic firearms training were formed into a homeguard 'Guard Force', or 'Chail Mishmar', 'Chim' in Hebrew. With the Arab revolt still raging, Yitzhak Sadeh also created covert 'Special Companies', 'Plugot Meyuchadot' or 'Pum' in Hebrew, to wage counter-terror actions against the Arabs.

The 12th Company of the East Kent Regiment (the 'Buffs') training in the Jezreel
Valley, Palestine. Photo: Lossin, p. 296.

However, the developing force of Jewish self-defence split into many different organizations during the Second World War. Though vocal in their support of a uniquely Jewish fighting force, for much of the war the British Government obliged Palestinian Jews to serve within the existing framework of their armed forces. As a general trend, Palestinian Jewish soldiers served 'anonymously' in all branches of His Majesties Forces - the Royal Air Force, Royal Navy, Infantry, Royal Engineers, Royal Ordinance Corps, Royal Pioneer Corps, etc. Nevertheless there also existed units almost completely staffed by Palestinian Jews: in 1940, the Army created an 'Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps' (AMPC) of Palestinian Arab and Jewish volunteers, which was sent to the Maginot Line; between 1940-41, there emerged a Palestine Motor Transport Works Services Company made up of Palestine Motor Companies, which served in the western desert of North Africa; the 1039th Port Operating Company also served in the same theater; Commando 51 fought in Eritrea; a sapper unit operated in Egypt. The exigencies of war forced reluctant hands however: in 1941 Jewish girls began joining the Palestine Auxiliary Territorial Service (PATS). Between 1940-42 fifteen all-Jewish companies of Palestinian Jews were raised and attached to the East Kent Regiment (the 'Buffs'). Re-organized into 3 battalions, this force was renamed the Palestine Regiment, and served in rear-guard duties in Palestine, Cyrenaica and Egypt until 1943. In September 1944, the British Government sanctioned the creation of the Jewish Brigade (also known as the 'Jewish Brigade Group' and the 'Jewish Infantry Brigade Group', which was based on the Jewish battalions of the Palestine Regiment.

Jewish Brigade solders guarding a group of German prisoners of war. Note the Star
of David emblem and unit identity shoulder flash on the Brigade soldier's sleeve.
Photo: Allon, p. 140.

The 'Palmach' trains for unconventional, partisan and guerilla warfare. Photo: Lossin, p. 299.
Under the surface, there existed open cooperation between the commando branch of the British military machine and the Yishuv: Hagana and Irgun members assisted the British in special missions and campaigns - in Iraq, Syria, the Balkans, and North Africa - even in 'Popski's Private Army'. The special relationship between the Jewish underground and the British 'Special Operations Executive' (SOE) led to the creation of Hagana's elite 'strike companies' - 'Plugot Machatz', or 'Palmach' in Hebrew - for commando, irregular and guerilla-styled operations. The Palmach represented in sprit the fighting doctrines of the SNS; the changing fortunes (and policies) in the war - for and against the Allies - also left the formation dependent on itself for its own survival: its members worked the land of the Kibbutzim in order to sustain the formation, and in the course of the war it developed its own 'unconventional' form of command and leadership, which together with its philosophy to "...learn to fight with whatever is available rather than with what is theoretically desireable," represented the ideology which this formation would eventually bequeath to the IDF. During the war it comprised special language-companies: an Arab company, a German company and a Balkan company, and also developed air and sea elements - the 'PalYam' (Palmach Naval Arm) and the 'PalAvir' (Palmach Air Arm).

The wartime years were not quiet domestically, either. Although the British implemented restrictive policies against Jewish immigration, the Jewish Agency (and therefore the Hagana) openly supported the British in the war against Germany, while the Irgun agreed to cease fire for the time being in order to support the British. However, in 1940 a more radical group split away from the Irgun. In light of Britain's immigration restrictions, this splinter-group viewed the British as much as the enemy as they did the Germans, and so was formed an organization called 'Freedom Fighters for Israel', or 'Lochamei Cherut Israel', or 'Lechi' in Hebrew (also known as the 'Stern Gang', after their leader Avraham Stern). The Lechi waged an underground/terrorist war against the British, until in February 1944, sensing a change in the Allies' fortunes, the Irgun joined in the revolt as well.

Two men of the Irgun. Note the shoulder patch with the Irgun's emblem: a rifle superimposed on a map of Transjordan-Palestine with the words 'Rak Kach' (Only Thus). Photo: Allon, p. 187.

Between the years 1945 and 1946, all three organizations - Hagana, Irgun and Lechi - cooperated together more or less in the armed 'Jewish' or 'Hebrew Revolt' against British policy in the Mandate. Ironically, the military experience acquired by the Jewish Brigade was not immediately felt, as it continued serving in Europe through much of 1946. The experience the Brigade gained after the war was mostly in clandestine immigration of Jewish refugees in Europe. However, the clandestine nature of Brigade soldiers' unofficial duties dovetailed with the generally covert period of the Jewish self-defence movement: between the years 1945 and 1948, in the vacuum following the Allied victory in World War II but the continuing restrictions of British policy in the Mandate, the movement in total engaged in clandestine warfare against the Mandate, immigrant smuggling, arms procurement, and arms manufacture and dispersion.

During this period, the forerunner of Israel's key armaments company was born - 'Ta'as', 'Ta'asiya Tzvait', or the 'Military Industry' - arose and manufactured crude and simple weapons. Similarly, the founder of an airborne smuggling arm for immigrants, trained air-crews and war materiel - 'Schwimmer Aviation Company' - shortly became Israel's aircraft manufacturing company, IAI, with the founding of the State. The clandestine acquisition arm of Hagana, 'Rekesh' ('Rechishat Neshek', or Arms Acquisition) also came into being. With immigration being one of the key elements to the success of the Zionist enterprise - both for populating Eretz Israel and also for defending it with able-bodied people - the concepts of this activity overlapped with those of arms procurement and manufacture. And so it came into being that 'illegal' immigration was managed by a 'Mossad' (Institute), which in 1951 became Israel's external secret service. During the late Mandatory period, covert operations, the security of the covert operations and intelligence gathering was also conducted by the Hagana's 'Information Service', or 'Sherut Yediot', 'Shai' in Hebrew, which was founded in 1940. On 10 November 1947, the precursor to the Israel Air Force was founded, when the Aero Club and the PalAvir became the Hagana's 'Air Service', or 'Sherut Avir' in Hebrew.

An unusual fighter in the service of the Jews: a Czech-manufactured (C-210 Avia) German Messerschmitt
Bf-109 in the service of the 'Chayl Ha'Avir' (Israel Air Force), Summer 1948. These, together with a few British Spitfires formed the backbone of the Air Force during the War of Independence. Photo: Cull et. al., p. 186.

Smartly outfitted new IDF recruits in 'hitelmacher' hats being inspected by Col. Chaim Laskov, the Director of Training (and a future IDF Chief of Staff). Photo: Pearlman, p. 158.
There was no specific movement after the war of demobilized soldiers or former partisans into the Jewish self-defence formations which one can single out, although many of them did join any of the existing armed or paramilitary police forces in Palestine. Israel's War of Independence unofficially began with the United Nations resolution to partition Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state, on 29 November 1947 and evolved through different phases. On the eve of the War, there existed the 3 main armed movements, Hagana, Irgun and Lechi, together with their related armed branches - Palmach, 'Chish', 'Chim', and Hagana's 'Youth Battalions' ('Gdudei Noar', or 'Gadna' in Hebrew) - plus Jewish personnel in Mandatory police forces. Added to this was a loosely assembled 'movement' of foreign Jewish (an non-Jewish) volunteers for who served in all branches of the nascent self-defence forces under the collective Hebrew name of 'Machal' - 'Mitnadvei Chutz La'Aretz' (Volunteers from Outside Eretz Israel).

The War of Independence evolved from a period of covert conflict with the British, who attempted to police the Jewish and Palestinian Arab populations, and guerrilla and irregular warfare between Jews and Arabs for the consolidation of control of transportation arteries, remote settlements and strategic vantage points - with intervention by the British in certain instances - to open warfare in the field between the Jews and six Arab armies when the British left the Mandate on 14 May 1948 (and independence was declared). From that moment onwards, the Jewish self-defence movement had to operate in a manner similar to modern field armies and less as a collection of underground armed formations - this was a challenge which the Irgun managed to overcome. With varying degrees of coordination and autonomy, the main Jewish armed organizations fought together in all engagements until 28 May, when the Israeli Provisional Government promulgated the law for the creation of a national army to be known as the 'Israel Defence Forces'; the 'Sherut Avir' became the Israeli Air Force (or 'Chayl Ha'Avir').

The newly founded Israel Defence Forces on parade sporting British Mk III helmets. Photo: Pearlman, p. 158.

Built upon the foundations of the Hagana, from that moment onwards, the Government absorbed or forcibly assimilated armed elements from outside the main Hagana forces. Irgun and Lechi forces in Jerusalem continued to exist independently until 17 September, when following the assassination of United Nations mediator Count Folke Bernadote of Sweden, the IDF forced them to integrate with them; the independent-minded and unconventional Palmach was integrated into the IDF on 7 November.

Some Sources Cited:

Alpher, Joseph; 'Encyclopedia of Jewish History'; Massada Publishers, Israel, 1986.
Alon, Yigal; 'Shield of David'; Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1970.
Cull, Brian, Shlomo Aloni and David Nicolle; 'Spitfires Over Israel'; Grub Street, London.
Golan, Aviezer; 'The War of Independence'; Ministry of Defence, Tel Aviv, 1974.
Herzog, Chaim; 'The Arab-Israeli Wars'; Random House, New York, 1982.
Lossin, Yigal; 'Pillar of Fire'; Shikmona Publishing, Jerusalem, 1992.
Markovitzky, Jacob; 'The Etzel Lexicon'; Ministry of Defence, Israel, 2005.
Nordeen, Lon; 'Fighters Over Israel'; Guild Publishing, London, 1991.
Pearlman, Moshe; 'The Army of Israel'; Philosophical Library, New York, 1950.