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OVERSEAS VOLUNTEERS IN ISRAEL’S WAR OF INDEPENDENCE 1947-49
A BRIEF SUMMARY
WHO WERE MACHAL?
The word MACHAL is an acronym for the Hebrew, Mitnadvei Chutz L’Aretz, meaning “Volunteers from Overseas.”
Most of the overseas volunteers had served in the Allied Forces during World War II, and they brought their much-needed expertise and experience to the fledgling IDF. These Machalniks, men and women, Jews and non-Jews, over 4,500 in number and from 58 countries, fought valiantly and served with distinction in every branch of the IDF, including Air Force and Navy, Artillery, Armored Corps, Infantry, Medical Corps., Engineers, Communications, Radar, Anti-Tank, etc., and many Machalniks held key positions of command. The Machalniks certainly made a significant contribution not only towards winning the War, but also in laying the foundations on which Zahal is based – Army, Air Force, Navy.
Yitzhak Rabin, Former Prime Minister, said of the overseas volunteers: “You came to us when we needed you most, during those hard and uncertain days of our 1948 War of Independence. You gave us not only your experience, but your lives as well. The People of Israel and the State of Israel will never forget, and will always cherish this unique contribution made by you – the volunteers of Machal”.
Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion, put it this way: “The Machal Forces were the Diaspora’s most important contribution to the survival of the State of Israel”.
The Overseas Volunteers came with a high sense of purpose and a shared feeling of pride and privilege in knowing that they were helping to create and defend the Jewish homeland. After the war, most Machalniks returned to their home countries, but a significant number stayed on in Israel. They helped to found settlements or worked in their chosen fields, and became integrated into the life of the new born State. Over the years, many others returned to become part of the “Ingathering of the Exiles”.
AIR FORCE (IAF)
The Israel Air Force (IAF), which was born in the heat of battle with the onset of the War of Independence, was unique in aviation history in that most of its air and ground personnel were overseas volunteers.
Some 90% of the World War II (WW2) trained aircrews were veterans who had served mainly in the American, South African, British, and Canadian Air Forces. In fact, at the operational level of the Air Force, the “language” in use was English. Many key positions of command were held by Machalniks, as heads of squadrons, and in other branches including Operations, Intelligence, Engineering, Maintenance, Radar and Meteorology.
The IAF’s Air Transport Command (ATC), which delivered much-needed weapons and equipment for the Air Force and Army via a vital air bridge from Czechoslovakia to Israel, was manned and operated almost entirely by the overseas volunteers. The same was true of most of the other flying units, including 101 Squadron with its Messerschmits and Spitfires, and 69 Squadron with its B-17 heavy bombers; 103 Squadron with its heavy transports and medium bombers; and 35 Flight with its medium transport and Harvard “dive-bombing” aircraft. About 425 Machal aircrew members served in the IAF and ATC. After acquiring its combat aircraft, the IAF speedily succeeded in establishing air superiority over the enemy air forces.
Most of the IAF’s airplanes were secretly acquired in overseas countries, mainly in the USA, South Africa, and Britain, and covertly flown to Israel by volunteer flyers over devious and hazardous routes,and often at great risk to themselves. Five were actually killed in doing so, three of them non-Jewish.
General (ret.) Herzle Bodinger in 1995, during his tenure as Commander of the IAF, put it this way: “The role of the non-Israeli aircrews was decisive, both in achieving Air Force objectives and in laying its organizational foundation. The legacy of their special contribution accompanies us to this day”.
There was no radar nucleus at all in Israel in 1948, as the British had barred Palestinian Jews from working on radar. Fortunately, the early Machal volunteers included a number of WW2 radar veterans from South Africa, USA, Canada and Britain, who established the first radar unit named “505 squadron”, under the aegis of the nascent Israel Air force.
The first two radar stations were constructed from bits and pieces of scrapped British army equipment. A training school for operators was subsequently established in Haifa, and by mid-1949, radar stations were operating on Mount Meron, Mount Carmel, Tivon, Safed, Givat Olga, Hirbiya, and Bat Yam.”
The first commander of the Israel Navy was American Machalnik Paul Shulman, a graduate of the Annapolis Naval Academy. Paul played a key role not only in commanding and establishing the Israeli Navy, but also in the acquisition of Aliyah Bet vessels in the USA. He was supported in this important task by veteran naval officers and able-seamen from the USA, Britain, Canada, South Africa, and other countries. A commando unit of the Israel Navy succeeded in blowing up the “KING FAROUK”, the flagship of the Egyptian Navy.
The ten Aliyah Bet ships acquired in the USA (including the famous “Exodus 1947”), brought over 31,000 “illegal immigrants” to the shores of Palestine in the face of the British blockade. These ships were manned by some 240 Machalniks – mainly from the USA. Machalniks from France, England, Eastern Europe, and Latin America, were also on the ill-fated “Altalena” which was organized by the Irgun Tzvai Leumi (“Etzel”).
This Corps was made up of many Machal volunteers, including 83 doctors, 87 nurses, and other medical professionals. The largest medical contingents came from South Africa, England, and USA.
Most of the 12 field brigades had Machal medical officers. Machal doctors, nurses, and medics manned most of the front line casualty hospitals. Two doctors were killed in action while treating the wounded - one from the UK and one from Morocco.
The nucleus of this Corps was mainly World War II veteran Machalniks. In addition to training Israeli Army personnel, their accomplishments included laying and clearing minefields, blowing up bridges, building the Burma Road which relieved the siege of Jerusalem, and preparing the 2000-year-old Roman road which was used to outflank the Egyptians in the Negev/Sinai border battles.
THE SCIENTIFIC CORPS (CHEMED)
This small group of specialists also included quite a number of Machal men and women.
Here again, Machal made-up a large proportion of the artillery units, and served as commanders and instructors.
This unit was manned entirely by Machalniks from the English-speaking countries – Canada, U.K., South Africa, Australia, and America. Despite the scarcity of anti-tank weapons, this unit served in every battle area. About 10 South Africans out of a total of 50 men, served in this unit.
The largest contingents of Machalniks who served in the Palmach came from France, South Africa, Canada, UK, USA, and Latin American countries. There were about 380 Machalniks in the three Palmach Brigades – Yiftach, Harel, and Hanegev, with the largest number in the Hanegev Brigade, particularly in Gedud 9 (“Beasts of the Negev”). A French-speaking Commando Company was led by a non-Jewish officer, Teddy Eytan (Thadee Difre).
GOLANI (NO. 1 BRIGADE)
2 Machalniks from the USA who died in action were kibbutz members in the lower and upper Galilee.
CARMELI (NO. 2 BRIGADE)
Maxim Kahan, a South African, was the commander of this brigade. Five other South African medical personnel served in this brigade, as well as a number of Machalniks from other countries.
ALEXANDRONI (NO. 3 BRIGADE)
Machalniks who served in the Alexandroni Brigade came from UK , USA, South Africa, Scandinavian countries, Finland, and other European countries.
KIRYATI (NO. 4 BRIGADE)
Machalniks also served in this brigade.
GIVATI (NO. 5 BRIGADE)
Some groups of Machalniks, from platoon to company strength, served in this Brigade, including many French and North Africans, Canadians, British, Scandinavian, Czechs, Russians, Bulgarians, and two South African medical officers.
ETZIONI (NO. 6 BRIGADE)
12 Machalniks who served in this brigade died in action. The brigade also included Machalniks from the USA, Canada, and South Africa.
7TH ARMOURED BRIGADE
Canadian Machalnik Ben Dunkelman, a highly decorated infantry officer of the Canadian 3rd Division in World War II, commanded the 7th Brigade.
More than 300 Machalniks, primarily from English-speaking countries, served in the 7th Brigade, mainly in the 72nd Infantry and 79th Armoured Battalions.
8TH ARMOURED BRIGADE
In 1948, the 82nd Tank Battalion of the 8th Armoured Brigade was the only unit in the IDF to be equipped with tanks. Two British Cromwell tanks were stolen from the British at Haifa Airport by two non-Jewish deserters, Flanagan and McDonald, who were sympathizers of the Haganah. Both men then joined the “B” Company of the 82nd Battalion, manned by South African, British, Canadian, American, Latin American, French and Czech Machal.
The Haganah had wanted four Cromwell tanks, but unfortunately, only the two deserters Flanagan & McDonald were qualified tank drivers. Two Haganah men who were “truck drivers” tried unsuccessfully to drive the other two Cromwells, which then had to be abandoned.
The Haganah also succeeded in acquiring one unserviceable Sherman tank by bribing the British soldiers in charge of the tanks. After extensive repairs the Sherman became operational, and was also attached to the 82nd Tank Battalion.
The “A” Company of the 82nd was equipped with lighter French Hodgekiss tanks, manned by experienced Gachalniks from East European countries.
The 88th Battalion of Mortars of the 8th Brigade was manned by Machalniks from South Africa, Britain, U.S.A., Holland, The Belgian Congo, Switzerland, France, Brasil, China and North Africa.
The 89th Mechanized Commandos was also manned by Machalniks from South Africa, U.K., Canada and the U.S.A.
ODED (NO. 9 BRIGADE)
There was at least one platoon of Latin-American volunteers in the 91st Battalion of the 9th Brigade, plus some Machalniks from other countries.
During the period 1945 to 1948, about 400 new immigrants arrived from free Western democratic countries. They settled in kibbutzim, moshavim, and in the towns, of which many became front-line battle areas in the War of Independence which can be said to have started in November 1947, following the famous United Nations Resolution of November 1947.
When World War II veterans were being recruited for service in the IDF in preparation for the War of Independence, a large number of volunteers who did not have military experience were deployed to kibbutzim, moshavim, and settlements. These volunteers helped to replace Israelis who were drafted into the IDF, and they became defenders of their settlements in the teeth of the invasion of six Arab Armies on 15th May, 1948. Within the spirit of true volunteering, these front-line volunteers could be deemed to be counted as “Machalniks – Volunteers from Abroad”.
123 Machalniks were killed or went missing-in-action during the War. Many were wounded, and some were taken prisoners-of-war. A Memorial was erected at the entrance to the Burma Road in the Sha’ar Hagai Forest, to commemorate the Fallen Machalniks. A memorial plaque lists the names of the Fallen in Hebrew and English, and the countries from which they came.
Most Machalniks returned to their home countries after the War. About 550 Machalniks (16%) stayed on in Israel, or returned later to make their homes here.
Today, there is an annual constant stream of 150—180 young Jewish volunteers from all over the world who continue to come to Israel to serve in all branches of the IDF, many in combat units, and a number have died in action.
Machal veterans living abroad are able to maintain ties with Israel through “World Machal” and its affiliated associations in a number of countries.
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