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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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.