Ben Dunkelman was born into a well-established Jewish family in Toronto, and grew up with all the advantages and luxuries. He was a keen sportsman and was well-educated. With the full support of his father, his mother was an active and enthusiastic Zionist, and deeply committed to Jewish settlement in British-controlled Palestine.
To ensure that he grew up with awareness of his Jewish heritage, on his 18th birthday in 1931 his parents presented him with a return ticket and $500 for a trip to mandated Palestine. On completing his visit, he decided to stay for a while, and through family connections he signed on as a laborer at a privately-owned farm, Tel Asher near Kfar Saba. He remained there for a year, living and working under difficult conditions, but he learned about the land of Israel and its problems and grew to love it. A powerfully built young man, he was also assigned to guard duties, patrolling the area to keep it free from marauders and thieves. With the experience he gained in 1931/2, he returned to Palestine in 1935, guiding a group of Canadian Jewish tourists.
During World War II he volunteered as a private in the Queen’s Own Rifles regiment, and was soon sent to an officers’ course. After a year’s advanced training in England, his regiment participated in the Normandy landings on 6th June 1944, where he served as a commander of a mortar platoon of his regiment. Before the war ended he had become a major and was awarded the D.S.O. (Distinguished Service Order) for an incident in a Hochwald minefield. His popularity with the troops and his fame at home were such that the Liberal Party offered him a safe seat in Parliament; however, at the request of the men who served with him, he turned down the offer and stayed at the front. When the war ended, he also turned down an offer to command the 1st Battalion of the Queen’s Own. In his own words, “I have always been a soldier from necessity, not from choice.”
But that necessity was soon to return. Back in Toronto after the war, he settled down to enjoy his family’s affluent life-style and run the huge family clothing business, Tip Top Tailors. In spite of his dislike of soldiering, Ben Dunkelman was a romantic and a Jew, and when in 1948 the infant State of Israel was threatened with extinction, he could not stand idly by.
He became the real sparkplug of the Canadian recruiting network, the obvious candidate to head the operation. The effort to build the recruiting organization began in late January 1948. Dunkelman brought in Lionel Druker, a law student and former armored corps veteran. Druker contacted Arthur Goldberg who, on his own initiative, had already formed a loosely organized group of students, most of whom were veterans who aimed to fight for a Jewish state, but they had no idea of whom to contact or how to get there. Dunkelman left for Palestine in March and was the first Canadian volunteer to arrive in early April 1948.
Although impatient to go into action, the Haganah was not quite ready to receive volunteers in April. There was no set procedure for equipping and training the volunteers or assigning them to established units. The Haganah could easily make immediate use of air crews arriving from South Africa, Europe or North America. Planes were needed for supply and reconnaissance, and the crews were quickly put to work flying missions locally or shuttling back and forth to Europe. But for those destined for infantry, or for specialists in armor, artillery, mortars, radar and maintenance, there was little more than chaos.
Dunkelman soon found that the Haganah had no intention of establishing a separate brigade of English-speaking soldiers, and despite his protests to Haganah leaders, including Ben-Gurion, no such unit was set up. He soon tired of waiting and asked to be assigned to the Jerusalem front, where the Palmach’s Harel Brigade was fighting to re-open the road between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. At Hulda he was introduced to the Harel commander Yitzhak Rabin, and he was invited to join a supply convoy about to depart on the hazardous trip to Jerusalem. He was back in action in his second war. The convoy traveled under fire all the way, losing trucks and men, but on reaching the beleaguered city they were greeted by cheering crowds of Jerusalemites, overjoyed to see them. The British were still in the city and he could not fail to feel their hostility towards the Jews.
As an advisor to the Harel Brigade he participated in a number of engagements in besieged Jerusalem, and was also in command of a mortar unit operating there.
Soon after the disastrous failed attacks on the Latrun police fortress resulting in hundreds of Jewish casualties, American Colonel David “Mickey” Marcus, commanding Israeli forces on the Tel Aviv side of Latrun, had proposed that a search be made for an alternate route to supply the besieged city. Dunkelman was one of a group of four men, commanded by Amos Horev, who set out in a small armored car to reconnoiter the possibility. They set out on 18th May from Jerusalem, driving over what was in fact a goat’s path. They picked their way westwards through Arab-controlled territory until they reached a Jewish sentry, who at first did not believe that they had broken through from Jerusalem. The route was already known to the Israelis, as it had previously been used by a Palmach company moving on foot and carrying vitally needed supplies on their backs to the besieged city. Later the track was improved and widened both from the Jerusalem and Tel Aviv sides by hundreds of workers who labored by night until it was suitable for motor vehicles over its entire length. Although the Arab Legion continued to hold Latrun, the siege was broken and on 10th June the first motorized convoy since 17th May brought food and ammunition to the beleaguered citizens of Jewish Jerusalem. This bypass route was named “Burma Road.”
On reaching Tel Aviv, Dunkelman met with Mickey Marcus whom he had previously encountered when Marcus visited Toronto in order to recruit Canadian volunteers. Marcus advised Dunkelman of the formation of a “new brigade,” later to be the 7th, and offered him a post in it, but at first Dunkelman rejected the offer.
He then went to report to Ben-Gurion, who asked him to advise on the production of home-made four-inch mortars which had been declared unsafe by the Ordnance Corps. He found them quite safe and ready for use, and was given the authority to deliver these mortars to a waiting battalion; within two weeks the troops were trained under his command and direction, and were prepared for action.
Following the debacle of Latrun, the 7th was transferred to Ein Shemer in the north for re-organization during the first truce. Ben-Gurion gave Dunkelman command of the brigade which he joined on 5th July. The unit was in poor shape: morale was at rock-bottom. It had suffered enormous casualties at Latrun, and most of its soldiers were hastily trained and badly equipped new immigrants. However, he hardly had time to re-organize, as on the day before the first truce ended, he was ordered to move his brigade further north.
In “Operation Dekel”, using the 79th Armored Battalion as his striking force, still almost intact after Latrun, and with the two incomplete infantry battalions acting as reserves, they advanced to occupy the hills. Dunkelman’s 79th captured Shefaram on 14th July and Nazareth surrendered on the morning of 16th July.
The threat to Akko was over, and the few successes of the brigade had an electrifying effect on morale. Dunkelman was now able to begin an intensive period of training during the second truce which began on 18th July. The most affected battalion, the 72nd , almost annihilated at Latrun, was placed under the command of Jack Nursella (Lichtenstein), a long-time American pioneer in Palestine. In the second half of July and in August, many English-speaking volunteers began to arrive and were allocated to the 72nd Battalion. It’s “B” company was made up entirely of English-speakers. The “A” company, an Etzel company, included one platoon of "Altalena" arrivals. Very soon the 72nd was filled with a renewed feeling of confidence.
Thirty-six Canadians joined the 72nd and 11 joined the 79th, many of them recruited by Dunkelman earlier in the year. Other English-speakers who joined these two battalions were 114 British, 98 South African and Kenyan, 55 American, and 4 Indian volunteers. This made his ambition of leading an English-speaking brigade come true. Also attached to his 7th was a company of Druze and Circassians.
The intensive training instituted by Dunkelman was to prove effective in their next major operation. Postponed twice, once because of the assassination of Count Bernadotte, the Chief U.N. Mediator in the Middle East, and the second time because of the success of “Operation Yoav” in the Negev, “Operation Hiram” was finally launched on the night of October 28th/29th. Dunkelman’s planning and leadership of his 7th Brigade proved very effective. The operation ended on October 31st with his brigade moving from the east, capturing Meron, Jish (Gush Halav), Sasa, and Malkiya. A troop of armored cars from the 79th Battalion also participated in the capture of Tarshiha, acting as support for the Oded (9th) Brigade, moving from the west.
“Operation Hiram” was completed with very few casualties. It was no accident: the whole attack was planned in such a way that it avoided frontal assaults. For the most part, the operation had consisted of carefully planned flanking movements which were unopposed because they had crossed difficult terrain where there were hardly any enemy forces, and therefore the attacks on enemy positions came as a surprise. As a result, the brigades involved had gained a brilliant victory at low cost. In addition to the enemy casualties, the 7th captured three cannons, two armored vehicles, twenty cars, four heavy machine guns, and three anti-tank rifles. The booty also included large numbers of cattle which were turned over to local kibbutzim.
Even though the truce was in effect in the north from 18th July until “Operation Hiram” on 28th October, there were a number of minor clashes with Kaukji’s Arab Liberation Army, often breaking the truce. One day Dunkelman returned to his headquarters in Akko after being involved in directing a counter-attack against Kaukji's men. It had been a long and tiring day. There was a knock on the door and his driver Yossi told him there was a messenger outside with a dispatch from Northern Command.
“Well, why the hell don’t you take it?” Dunkelman snapped. Yossi was apologetic but insisted, “She won’t give it to anyone but you or your second-in-command and he's not here.”
Annoyed, Dunkelman flung on his clothes and stormed down to the courtyard. In his irritable mood he had not noticed that Yossi had referred to the messenger as “she.” He was surprised to encounter a slender girl in a neat brown cotton uniform, but he was too worked-up to take much notice. He snatched the envelope she held out to him and without a word of thanks he returned to his quarters. As he climbed the stairs, his anger subsided sufficiently to think about his rudeness. He made a mental note to apologize if he met her again. From the brief moment that he had seen her, he retained an impression of long wavy black hair and unusually large hazel-colored eyes.
The next day he asked about her and learned that her name was Yael Lifshitz. That day he had to travel to Northern Command headquarters which had moved to Nazareth. He traveled there together with the burly red-headed commander of his 71st Battalion, his friend Yehuda Werber. He asked Werber about her, and it turned out that he knew her well, having gone to school with her brother Avigdor. He promised to introduce her and when they got to Nazareth, he kept his word.
When he met Yael a second time he jokingly apologized for his rudeness the previous evening. His apology was accepted most graciously, since apparently some of the other officers she had to deal with were not distinguished for refinement or manners. She served as secretary to his friend Mordechai Makleff, Operations Officer at Northern Command. She had typed out the top-secret orders the previous day, and when Makleff failed to find an officer to deliver them, she had volunteered to run the errand herself, hence her arrival at his headquarters in Akko. Before leaving, Dunkelman had the opportunity to take a good and long look at her. She was very beautiful, and when he finally finished his business at headquarters, he invited her to have lunch with him, as well as with Yehuda, Yosef Eitan his second-in-command, and Yael’s boss Mordechai Makleff. They all went to Viktor’s, a nearby restaurant famous for its Arab dishes. By the time the meal was over, he had been charmed and infatuated by Yael.
The next period he was busy with the first postponed attempt to mount “Operation Hiram”, during which time he saw very little of Yael, but as he admitted to himself, she was rarely out of his mind. His friend Yehuda Werber, his adjutant Max Chinitz, and his driver Yossi appeared to have guessed their commander’s preoccupation with Yael, and they encouraged him and exhibited great interest in the budding romance, as did many men of his brigade.
Max and Yossi watched over him like a pair of mother hens. If he stopped to speak to a girl, natural behavior for a 35-year-old bachelor, they would do their best to discourage him from showing too deep an interest, but with Yael their attitude was totally different: they did everything they could to encourage him, never missing an opportunity to tell him what a wonderful woman she was. Their view was shared by Chaim Laskov, who was a close friend of the Lifshitz family. Ben Dunkelman was hooked.
He had been in Israel for six months and now felt that he needed a well-deserved leave and rest. He turned his brigade over to his second-in-command Yosef Eitan, looking forward to spending a few days with Yael, but it did not work out as planned.
When he arrived in Haifa, he found a message from Meyer Weisgal, who had just arrived from Canada with messages from Dunkelman’s parents. When he contacted Weisgal, he insisted that Dunkelman join him for dinner that evening. Dunkelman pleaded a previous engagement with Yael, so Meyer insisted that she should also come. It was embarrassing, as he had intended to propose to Yael that evening. He collected Yael in his staff car, determined to propose on the way, but tough, frank, and direct Ben Dunkelman found himself incapable of saying what he had to say.
On meeting her, Weisgal's reaction was typical. He subjected Yael to careful scrutiny and with a broad grin he pronounced, “Well, she certainly looks alright with me. Is it OK if I phone your mother and break the good news to her?” Disregarding Dunkelman’s embarrassment, Weisgal kept up the pressure throughout dinner. Finally, Dunkelman couldn't stand it anymore. When Weisgal's attention was elsewhere for a moment, he desperately hissed out to Yael as an aside, “Is it alright with you?” On seeing her wordless nod of acceptance, he proudly announced their engagement! It was one month since Yael had delivered the secret orders and received such a rude reception.
Of course Meyer Weisgal, was overjoyed and rushed out to wire Dunkelman’s mother. He was still to meet Yael’s family, but the next day met them at their home. Yael and Ben had decided to get married right away in the presence of only a few immediate friends, but the family would not hear of it, pleading for at least ten days grace so that they could invite “a few” friends. But that was not to be. Military matters intervened and the wedding eventually took place after “Operation Hiram” had been completed on 3rd October. The wedding ceremony was held at the beautiful Lifshitz home on Mount Carmel, conducted by the Chief Rabbi of Haifa.
In those days it was the Israeli custom to announce forthcoming weddings with notices in the newspapers inviting all friends and acquaintances. Judging by the turnout, the notices must have been seen and accepted by nearly the entire Army, Navy, and Air Force! Needless to say, very many of the 7th Brigade were there. The reception turned into a large-scale garden party as swarms of guests came to congratulate the happy couple. It was marred by one thing. There were still no scheduled airlines serving the new state and no members of Dunkelman’s family could reach Israel in time for the ceremony. They never forgave him for not giving them sufficient notice.
There was also one additional problem. A Druze company was attached to Dunkelman’s brigade, and Dunkelman was known to many Druze notables. An emissary from Sheikh Marzouk approached and informed him that he had grievously offended the Druze by not inviting them to the wedding. They could not read the Hebrew or English newspapers and so had not seen the wedding notices. Having accepted his apologies, the couple was invited to a wedding feast at three Druze villages, with the same ceremonies and feast at each banquet. They drove from village to village with an impressive escort of the entire squadron of 79th Battalion’s armored cars.
South African Machalnik, Lou Sack, a driver at 7th Brigade Headquarters, described the day as follows: “I drove some brass to the ceremonies at the Druze villages to honor Dunkelman’s marriage about one month after “Operation Hiram.” The event lasted the whole day, with meals from morning to evening. The tables were laden with English chocolates, Players cigarettes, masses of food and roasted lamb.”
Shortly after his return to duty, to all intents and purposes the War of Independence was over. The Egyptians had been driven back across the mandatory border of Palestine. In the Jerusalem sector the Arab Legion had been contained but the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, Latrun and the Etzion settlement area remained in Arab hands, as did the strategic salient of the Triangle which nearly cut Israel in half between Haifa and Tel Aviv. In addition, the whole of the Galilee was now controlled by Israel.
In 1949, Ben-Gurion offered Dunkelman a high military post, but at this point Dunkelman’s dual allegiance began to be felt. Almost a year had passed since he left Canada and he had married a wife whom most of his family had not yet met. He took leave from the army and on 7th February 1949 the couple left for Canada and returned on 1st April, when he decided to turn down Ben-Gurion’s offer, for the same reason he had turned down the offer of commanding the 1st Battalion of the Queen’s Own after World War II. It was now peace time, and he wanted to get out of uniform.
He remained in Israel, and ventured into a number of business enterprises. While all three of these ventures were at a crucial stage, he received a telegram from Toronto telling him that his mother was seriously ill. He dropped everything and he and Yael left for Canada immediately, arriving on 8th October 1949. After his mother passed away, and at her request, she was buried at Kibbutz Degania. Two months later, Ben and Yael's daughter was born.
Then word arrived from Israel that one-by-one his business projects had been turned down by the Israeli Government. His father in the meantime exerted pressure on him to return to work in their Tip Top Tailors business. They bought a home in Toronto, brought back their uncrated furniture from Haifa, and after the birth of their second daughter in 1951, they put down roots in Canada.
FOREWORD BY YITZHAK RABIN TO THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY BY BEN DUNKELMAN, “DUAL ALLEGIANCE” (published in 1976)
Ben Dunkelman was a certified hero of two wars. He was there when the Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada hit the beaches on D-day. He was with them when they fought their way down the bloody road to Falaise, when they captured Boulogne and the other fortified Channel ports, and when, often waist-deep in water, they fought the bitter yard-by-yard campaign to clear the Scheldt Estuary. As part of the Canadian 3rd Division, his unit frequently spearheaded the entire Allied assault – in fact, his men reached the Rhine ahead of all the other Allied forces.
Before the war had ended, Rifleman Dunkelman had become a major and had won the D.S.O. after an incident in a Hochwald mine-field. His popularity with the troops and his fame at home were such that the Liberals had offered him a safe seat in Parliament – which at his men’s request he turned down to stay at the front. At the war’s end he turned down command of the 1st Battalion of the Queen’s Own, because in his own words, he has always been “a soldier from necessity, not from choice.”
Back in Toronto after five years of war he was entitled to relax in his role as Canadian war hero, to enjoy his family’s affluent life-style, and to spend his days running the huge family clothing business, Tip Top Tailors. But for all his dislike of soldiering, Ben Dunkelman is a romantic and a Jew, and when in 1948 the infant State of Israel was threatened with extinction, he could not stand idly by. His second loyalty drew him back to Israel and war. With the aid of a forged passport he slipped through the controls of his former British allies, and joined the tattered Israeli forces as a volunteer.
I first met Ben Dunkelman in 1948 when I was a young Palmach officer commanding the “Harel” Brigade. Jerusalem was under siege and I was under orders to reopen the road from the coastal plain and relieve the capital. Ben joined us in the battle. His particular expertise was heavy mortars and he worked hard training others in their use. His skills, which he had developed as an officer in the Canadian Army,
helped clear many a mile of the besieged hilly highway.
His enterprise and bravery came to the attention of David Ben-Gurion, who was then Minister of Defense as well as Prime Minister. Ben Dunkelman was asked by Ben- Gurion to take command of the armored Seventh Brigade which was made up of a battalion of armored cars and half-track personnel carriers plus two infantry battalions. Ben led the Seventh Brigade in the crucial fighting that freed most of the Galilee. His brigade fought in the mountains of the far north and across into Lebanon as far as the Litani River from which they eventually withdrew. To this day a bridge along Israel’s Northern Road that skirts the Lebanese frontier is named “Ben’s Bridge.” It is Israel’s way of acknowledging the exploits of a brave soldier and a proud Jew who came to his people’s aid at a decisive crossroads in its history.
Jerusalem, January 1976
Sources: “Dual Allegiance” – autobiography by Ben Dunkelman
“The Secret Army” by David J. Bercusson