Jewish Brigade

For other Jewish regiments, see Jewish Legion (disambiguation).
Jewish Brigade

Insignia and sleeve patch of the Jewish Brigade
Active 1944–1946
Country  United Kingdom
Branch  British Army
Type Infantry
Size Brigade group, 5,000 volunteers
Ernest Benjamin

The Jewish Infantry Brigade Group,[1] more commonly known as the Jewish Brigade Group[2] or Jewish Brigade,[3] was a military formation of the British Army composed of Jews from the Yishuv in Mandatory Palestine commanded by British-Jewish officers that served in Europe during World War II. The brigade was formed in late 1944,[1][2] and its personnel fought the Germans in Italy. After the war, some of them assisted Holocaust survivors to emigrate illegally to Mandatory Palestine as part of Aliyah Bet.[4][5]


Jewish Brigade headquarters under both Union Flag and Zionist flag

After World War I, the British Empire and the French empire replaced the Ottoman Empire as the pre-eminent powers in the Middle East. This change brought closer the Zionist movement's goal of creating a Jewish state. The Balfour Declaration of 1917 signified the first official approval of this proposal, and led to a surge of Jewish emigration in 1918–1921, known as the "Third Aliyah".[6] The League of Nations incorporated the Declaration in the British Mandate for Palestine in 1922. Jewish immigration continued through the 1920s and 1930s, and the Jewish population expanded by over 400,000 before the beginning of the Second World War.[6]

Brigadier Ernest Benjamin, commander of the Jewish Brigade, inspects the 2nd Battalion in Palestine, October 1944.

However, in the White Paper of 1939, the British government under Neville Chamberlain abandoned the idea of establishing a Jewish Commonwealth. When the Second World War began in September 1939, David Ben-Gurion, the head of the Jewish Agency, famously declared: "We will fight the White Paper as if there is no war, and fight the war as if there is no White Paper."[7]

Chaim Weizmann, the President of the World Zionist Organization, offered the British government full cooperation of the Jewish community in Mandatory Palestine. Weizmann sought to establish an identifiably Jewish fighting formation (under a Jewish flag) under the auspices of the British Army. His request for a separate formation was rejected, but many Jews in Mandatory Palestine wanted to fight the Nazis and joined the British Army. Some of these were formed into separate Jewish companies in their battalions. There was a Jewish battalion attached to the British Army’s East Kent Regiment stationed in Mandatory Palestine.[5]

In all, fifteen Palestinian Jewish battalions were formed in the British Army in September 1940, and fought in the Greek campaign of 1941.

But there was no designated all-Jewish formation. Jewish groups petitioned the British government to create such a force, but the British refused.[8] At that time, the White Paper was in effect, limiting Jewish immigration and land purchases.[5]

Some British officials opposed creating a Jewish fighting force, fearing that it could become the basis for Jewish rebellion against British rule.[5] In August 1944, Winston Churchill finally agreed to the formation of a "Jewish Brigade". According to Rafael Medoff, Churchill consented because he was "moved by the slaughter of Hungarian Jewry [and] was hoping to impress American public opinion."[8]

Formation of the Jewish Brigade

1st Battalion of the Jewish Brigade on parade

After early reports of the Nazi atrocities of the Holocaust were made public by the Allied powers, the Prime Minister Winston Churchill sent a personal telegram to the US President Franklin D. Roosevelt suggesting that "the Jews... of all races have the right to strike at the Germans as a recognizable body." The president replied five days later saying: "I perceive no objection..."

After much hesitation, on July 3, 1944, the British government consented to the establishment of a Jewish Brigade with hand-picked Jewish and also non-Jewish senior officers. On 20 September 1944 an official communique by the War Office announced the formation of the Jewish Brigade Group of the British Army and the Jewish Brigade Group headquarters was established in Egypt at the end of September 1944 (the formation was styled a brigade group because of the inclusion under command of an artillery regiment). The Zionist flag was officially approved as its standard. It included more than 5,000 Jewish volunteers from Mandatory Palestine organized into three infantry battalions of the Palestine Regiment and several supporting units.

The New York Times dismissed it as a "token" while The Manchester Guardian lamented "The announcement that a Jewish Brigade will fight with the British Army is welcome, if five years late. Once regrets that the British Government has been so slow to seize a great opportunity."

World War II

Men of the Jewish Brigade ride on a Churchill tank in North Italy, 14 March 1945
Jewish Brigade soldiers in Tarvisio
Jewish Brigade troops on the Italian-Austrian border

In October 1944, under the leadership of Brigadier Ernest F. Benjamin, the brigade group was shipped to Italy and joined British Eighth Army in November which was engaged in the Italian Campaign under 15th Army Group.[5][9]

A Jewish Brigade soldier carries an artillery shell. The Hebrew inscription on the shell translates as "a gift to Hitler."

The brigade group took part in the Spring Offensive of 1945. It took positions on the front line in the Alfonsine sector, and was soon engaged in combat. On March 19–20, 1945, it initiated two attacks. The brigade then moved to the Senio River sector, where it fought against the German 4th Parachute Division commanded by Generalleutnant Heinrich Trettner. On April 9, the brigade crossed the river and established a bridgehead, widening it the following day.[10] In addition, they were represented among the liberating Allied units at a Papal audience. The Jewish Brigade was then stationed in Tarvisio, near the border triangle of Italy, Yugoslavia, and Austria. They searched for Holocaust survivors, provided survivors with aid, and assisted in their immigration to Palestine.[5] They played a key role in the Berihah's efforts to help Jews escape Europe for British Mandatory Palestine, a role many of its members were to continue after the Brigade disbanded. Among its projects was the education and care of the Selvino children. In July 1945, the Brigade moved[9] to Belgium and the Netherlands.

Overall, in the course of World War II, the Jewish Brigade's casualties were 83 killed in action or died of wounds and 200 wounded. [11]Another 78 of the brigade's soldiers were mentioned in dispatches, and 20 received military decorations (7 Military Medals, 7 Order of the British Empire medals, 4 Military Crosses, and 2 US awards).[12]


Tilhas Tizig Gesheften (commonly known by its initials TTG, loosely translated as "kiss [literally, lick] my arse business") was the name of a group of Jewish Brigade members formed immediately following the Second World War. Under the guise of British military activity, this group engaged in the assassination of Nazis, facilitated the illegal immigration of Holocaust survivors to Mandatory Palestine, and smuggled weaponry to the Haganah.[5]

The Jewish Brigade also joined groups of Holocaust survivors in forming assassination squads known as the Nokmim for the purpose of tracking down and killing former SS and Wehrmacht officers who had participated in atrocities against European Jews. Information regarding the whereabouts of these fugitives was gathered either by torturing imprisoned Nazis or by way of military connections. The British uniforms, military documentation, equipment, and vehicles used by Jewish Brigade veterans greatly contributed to the success of the Nokmim. The number of Nazis the Nokmim killed is unknown, but may have been as high as 1,500.[13][14][15]

After assignment to the VIII Corps District of the British Army of the Rhine (Schleswig-Holstein), the Jewish Brigade was disbanded in the summer of 1946.[16]

Involvement in the Bricha

Many members of the Jewish Brigade assisted and encouraged the implementation of the Bricha. In the vital, chaotic months immediately before and after the German surrender, members of the Jewish Brigade supplied British Army uniforms and documents to Jewish civilians who were facilitating the illegal immigration of Holocaust survivors to Mandatory Palestine. The most notable example was Yehuda Arazi, code name "Alon," who had been wanted for two years by the British authorities in Palestine for stealing rifles from the British police and giving them to the Haganah. In 1945, Arazi and his partner Yitzhak Levy travelled from Mandatory Palestine to Egypt by train, dressed as sergeants from the Royal Engineers. From Egypt, the pair travelled though North Africa to Italy and, using false names, joined the Jewish Brigade, where Arazi secretly became responsible for organising illegal immigration. This included purchasing boats, establishing hachsharot, supplying food and compiling lists of survivors.[17]

When Arazi reached the Jewish Brigade in Tarvisio in June 1945, he informed some of the Haganah members serving in the Brigade that other units had made contact with Jewish survivors. Arazi impressed upon the Brigade their importance in Europe and urged the soldiers to find 5,000 Jewish survivors to bring to Mandatory Palestine.[18] Jewish Brigade Officer Aharon Hoter-Yishai recalled that he doubted the existence of 5,000 Jewish survivors; regardless, the Jewish Brigade accepted Arazi's challenge without question. For many Jewish soldiers, this new mission justified their previous service in the British forces that had preceded the creation of the Jewish Brigade.[19]

Another Jewish Brigade soldier actively involved in the Berihah was Israel Carmi, who was discharged from the Jewish Brigade in the autumn of 1945. After a few months, the Secretariat of Kibbutz HaMeuchad approached Carmi about returning to Europe to assist with the Berihah. Carmi’s previous experience working with survivors made him an important asset for the Berihah movement. He returned to Italy in 1946 and attended the 22nd Zionist Congress in Basel, where he gained insight into how the Berihah operated throughout Europe. Carmi proposed establishing a second Berihah route across Europe in the event that the existing route collapsed. In addition, he also proposed dividing the Berihah leadership into parts: Mordechai Surkis, working from Paris, would be responsible for the financial workings; Ephraim Dekel in Prague would run the administrative element, and oversee the Berihah in Poland, Czechoslovakia and Germany; and Carmi, working from Prague, would oversee activities in Hungary, Yugoslavia and Romania.[20]

Jewish Brigade soldiers, assisting with the Berihah, specifically took advantage of the chaotic situation in post-war Europe to move Holocaust survivors between countries and across borders. Soldiers were intentionally placed by Merkaz Lagolah at transfer points and border crossings to assist the Jewish DPs (displaced persons).[21] For example, Judenberg, a sub-camp of the Mauthausen concentration camp, acted as a Berihah point where Brigade soldiers and partisans worked together to assist DPs. Similarly, in the city of Graz, a Berihah point was centred in a hotel where a legendary Berihah figure, Pinchas Zeitag, also known as Pini the Red or “Gingi,” organised transports westwards to Italy.[22] One of the Jewish Brigade's greatest contributions to the Berihah was the use of their British Army vehicles to transport survivors (up to a thousand people at a time) in truck convoys to Pontebba, the brigade's motor depot. These secret transports generally arrived at 2 or 3 a.m., and the Brigade always ensured that DPs were greeted by a soldier or an officer and welcomed into a dining hall with food and tea. Everyone was given a medical examination, a place to sleep, and clean clothing; and within a few days the group was moved to hachsharot in Bari, Bologna and Modena. After recuperating and completing their hachshara training, the DPs were taken to ports where boats would illegally set sail for Mandatory Palestine.[23] Historians estimate that the Jewish Brigade assisted in the transfer, between 1945 and 1948, of 15,000 - 22,000 Jewish DPs as part of the Berihah and the illegal immigration movement.[24]

Military Legacy

In 1948, after the Israeli Declaration of Independence, many Jewish Brigade veterans served with distinction in the Israel Defense Forces during the Israeli War of Independence. Many veterans would serve as high-ranking officers in the Israeli military, 35 becoming generals.[25][26]


The Jewish Brigade inspired numerous books[27] and films.[28] In 1998, filmmakers Chuck Olin (Director) and Matthew Palm (Co-Producer) released their award-winning documentary, In Our Own Hands. The film aired on PBS in the United States, and played in numerous film festivals around the world.

In Leon Uris novel Exodus, and the subsequent film, protagonist Ari Ben Canaan of the Haganah succeeds in organising the movement of refugees to Palestine, through his experience of action and use of procedures gained during the war as an officer of the Jewish Brigade.

Partial list of notable veterans of the Jewish Brigade

British Jews
Palestinian Jews

See also


  1. 1 2 Adler, Cyrus; Henrietta Szold (1946). American Jewish Year Book, Volume 48. Page 69: American Jewish Committee. Retrieved March 23, 2010.
  2. 1 2 Teaching About the Holocaust: A Resource Book for Educators. Page 27: DIANE Publishing. 1995. ISBN 1-4289-2637-2.
  3. Medoff (2002), page 111
  4. Medoff (2002), page 217
  5. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Paraszczuk (2010)
  6. 1 2 Goldstein, Joseph (1995). Jewish History in Modern Times, pp. 122-123
  7. Blum, Howard. The Brigade. Page 5.
  8. 1 2 Medoff, Rafael (2002). Militant Zionism in America: the rise and impact of the Jabotinsky movement. Page 111.
  9. 1 2 Joslen, p. 453.
  10. Jewish Brigade Group
  11. The CWGC Lists 110 names of the Palestine Regiment-of whom About 20 have non-Jewish surmames
  12. Morris Beckman, The Jewish Brigade, p. 161
  13. Morris Beckman, The Jewish Brigade, p. 213
  14. Ian Black and Benny Morris: Israel's Secret Wars: A History of Israel's Intelligence Services, p. 188
  15. Beckham, Morris (1999). The Jewish Brigade: An Army With Two Masters, 1944-45. Sarpedon Publishers. ISBN 1-885119-56-9.
  16. Watson, Graham E., Rinaldi, Richard A., The British Army in Germany (BOAR and after): An organizational history 1947-2004, Tiger Lily Publications, 2005, p.7
  17. Carmi, Israel (1960). In the Footsteps of Fighters (in Hebrew). Tel Aviv: Marachot. p. 165.
  18. Bauer, Yehuda (1970). Flight and Rescue: Brichah. New York: Random House. pp. 64–66.
  19. Hebrew University Oral History Archive (January 5, 1964). Interview with Aharon Hoter-Yishai (in Hebrew). Jerusalem, Israel. pp. (4), 22.
  20. Carmi, Israel (1960). In the Footsteps of Fighters (in Hebrew). Tel Aviv: Marachot. pp. 248–255.
  21. Dan, Haim (1972). From the Egyptian Desert to Munich: Diary of a Jewish Brigade Soldier (in Hebrew). Tel Aviv: Am Oved. p. 84.
  22. For more information on specific involvement of Jewish Brigade soldiers in Berihah missions, see Israel Ben Dor, Book of the First Battalion of Jewish Brigade Fighters, (in Hebrew), (Macabim: Melzer, 2000): 260, 264 and Gabriel Sheffer, Moshe Sharett: Biography of a Political Moderate (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996): 752-755.
  23. Gelber, Yoav (1983). Jewish Palestinians Volunteering in the British Army during the Second World War: The Standard Bearers - The Mission of the Volunteers to the Jewish People, Vol. III (in Hebrew). Jerusalem: Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi. p. 441.
  24. Haganah Archive (February 13, 1968). Oral Testimony of Liev Garfunkel, (in Hebrew). Tel Aviv, Israel. pp. 93.28.
  25. Morris Beckman, The Jewish Brigade, p. 140
  27. Amazon (2010)
  28. Olin Associates (2010)


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