The British White Paper of 1939 hit the 450,000 Jewish citizens of Mandate Palestine with the force of a sledgehammer. Despite growing numbers of Jewish refugees having to flee for their lives to escape Germany's Nazi killers, the White Paper signalled a complete renunciation of the Balfour Declaration. Totally ignoring the Declaration, which defined the terms of its Mandate over Palestine, the White Paper called for the proposed "Jewish Homeland” to be part of an independent Arab majority Palestine within 10 years. The White Paper further limited Jewish immigration to Palestine to 75,000 souls over a 5 year period, after which the Arab majority would have the right to decide on any further immigration. Faced by the double edged sword of the abandonment of the Balfour Declaration and the Nazi threat to European Jewry, embittered Jewish Agency chairman David Ben Gurion declared "We will fight the White Paper as if there is no war, and fight the war as if there is no White paper," signalling the official approach that would be followed by Palestinian Jewry during the Second World War.
Palestine Post Headlines 18 May 1939
Following Ben Gurion’s lead, World Zionist Organisation President Chaim Weizmann, offered the services of the Jewish residents of Palestine in support of the British war effort. Weizmann proposed the establishment of an identifiably Jewish military formation to serve within the structures of the British Armed Forces. Fearing that the creation of such a formation would form the embryo of a trained Jewish army once the war ended, Britain approved the posting of Palestinian volunteers into the Services Corps as non combatants, with the proviso that the number of Jewish recruits must be matched by an equal number of Arab recruits. The Jewish Agency subsequently paid Arabs to “volunteer” in order to maintain equity for the establishment of the unit, but by the time training began, most of the Arabs had deserted, leaving the unit almost completely Jewish.
The month of May 1942 saw the Allied forces in North Africa in dire straits, as German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s Panzerarmee Afrika pushed the British 8th Army back towards Egypt, leaving the Allied troops holding the Libyan port of Tobruk isolated and vulnerable. The defensive line known as the Gazala Line, which stretched south eastwards from Gazala in the north to Bir Hakeim, which lay almost due south of Tobruk, had to be held to allow the British 8th Army an opportunity to retreat or face total destruction by Rommel. The retreat had to be conducted in an orderly fashion, otherwise huge numbers of British soldiers would end up in prisoner of war camps and the North African war would be lost. Egypt and the entire Middle East, including Palestine, were in danger of falling into German hands The situation was nearing desperation and a vitally important delaying action was ordered by the British High Command.
The Gazala-Bir Hakeim defensive line - May 1942
The First Free French Division under the command of General Marie-Pierre Koenig was ordered to hold the advancing Germans off for as long as possible, affording the British 8th Army an opportunity to retreat toward Egypt. The British high command drew a line between Gazala and Bir Hakeim, and ordered Koenig to delay the Germans west of the line for as long as possible. Koenig was advised that the British had deployed a “brigade” to hold the southern end of the line close to Bir-el Harmat, a "brigade" which in reality consisted of a battalion of inadequately armed mine layers, without anti-aircraft or any other heavy weapons. They were however armed with a grim determination to give a good account of themselves against the vastly superior German forces. The battalion was composed of 400 tough Jewish Palestinians, originally volunteers posted to the Service Corps, commanded by fellow Jewish Palestinian, Major Liebmann. They were deployed at Bir-el Harmat on 26 May 1942, and immediately dug themselves into their defensive position while also laying strategically placed minefields in the approach areas of the anticipated enemy attack.
A German tank battalion took up offensive positions at Bir-el Harmat on 2 June, after which the German commander, upon realising that the enemy was not in a strong position, approached them under a flag of truce, with a demand that they capitulate or face total destruction and death. While delivering his message he asked Major Liebmann about the strange flag of the British force. Liebmann proudly answered that they were Palestinian Jews and that this was the Jewish Flag, the Star of David, and that they would not concede defeat, but would rather fight to the last man. The amazed, but very impressed German commander returned to his own lines and ordered the commencement of the attack on the outnumbered Jewish force.
The German attack began with a heavy artillery bombardment by 88mm cannons followed by repeated aerial onslaughts from Luftwaffe Stukas, but despite the concerted attacks, Liebmann and his men held on defiantly. The Germans now launched their tank battalion in an attempt to dislodge the Palestine Jews from their position, which resulted in a significant number of tanks being destroyed as they tried to cross the strategically prepared minefields, with very few tanks actually penetrating the defences. Undaunted, the Jewish troops jumped onto the few invading tanks that had survived the minefield, setting them alight with Molotov cocktails, which resulted in the tanks ending up as burned out wrecks. The Germans eventually called off the attack and withdrew, abandoning the smouldering remains of their tanks and leaving their dead behind, as they returned to their own lines.
Following rearming and regrouping, the Germans, reinforced by an Italian tank battalion, renewed their attack on the small Jewish force on 5 June, once again to no avail, Major Liebmann and his men stubbornly clung to their position. The relentless artillery and air attacks eventually resulted in the destruction of Liebmann's British army water source, but the Jews held on, despite having no water. The attack continued into a second day, but notwithstanding heavy losses, Liebmann and his men still stubbornly refused to surrender to the enemy, who once again withdrew to regroup. Relief came on 10 June in the form of a message to Koenig, based at Bir Hakeim, from British High Command to withdraw from their positions as the objective of an orderly retreat to safety had been achieved by the men and equipment of the British 8th Army. The dogged defence had achieved its objective. The order was passed down the line from Bir Hakeim, reaching the British force of Jewish Palestinians holding Bir-el Harmat, and on the night of 11 June the Free French Forces and the battalion of Palestinians vacated their positions under cover of darkness, to regroup at the French command centre at Gasr-al-Abid. The Palestinian battalion had suffered terrible losses, with only 100 of the original 400 strong force surviving the 8 day German onslaught, which they had withstood in a magnificent show of bravery.
From the safety of Gasr-al-Abid, General Koenig watched the bedraggled remnants of what he believed was a British brigade stagger with their wounded into the Free French military base. Liebmann reported to Koenig, informing him that while they were a British army formation, they were in reality a Jewish Palestinian battalion serving with the British Army. The flag under which they had marched in was being taken down and folded up by one of the Jewish soldiers, and Koenig wanted to know why their flag was being lowered. Liebmann told Koenig that British standing instructions forbade the Jewish Palestinians from flying their own flag, the Star of David, and it was being lowered so as not to flaunt the British rules. Koenig immediately ordered the Jewish soldier to unfurl the flag and instructed one of his men to fix it to the front of his command vehicle, alongside, and with equal prominence to the Free French Flag which adorned the vehicle. Koenig then ordered his officers and men to come to attention and salute the Star of David flag, making this the first national salute honouring the flag of the future State of Israel.
General Marie-Pierre Koenig
After his retirement from the French Military Forces in 1951, Marie Pierre Koenig was elected to the French National Assembly (Parliament) on a Gaullist ticket, serving as Minister of Defence during the period 1954 to 1955. Koenig had become an ardent admirer of the Jewish people and later a staunch supporter of the reborn State of Israel, following his encounter with Major Liebmann and his brave band of Jewsih warriors. During his tenure as French Defence Minister, Koenig established a close working relationship with Shimon Peres, then Israel’s Director General of Defence. This relationship resulted in Israel acquiring a wide variety of armaments from France, including AMX-13 light tanks and Dassault Mirage III French jet fighter aircraft. The cherry on the top was French assistance in the establishment of the nuclear reactor at Dimona, now known as the Shimon Peres Negev Nuclear Research Centre. An orchard known as the Marie Pierre Koenig Grove was established close to Nazareth in the Lower Galil, in recognition of his significant contributions to the development of the State of Israel.
Despite the heroic action of the Free French Forces and the Palestinians under major Liebmann from 2 to 10 June 1942, Tobruk fell to Rommel on 21 June 1942, which resulted in 32,200 Allied soldiers, including 10,720 South Africans becoming prisoners of war. This was followed by a German victory at the first Battle of El Alamein in July 1942, before an Allied Army under the command of British General Bernard Montgomery recaptured the important railway centre on the Egyptian border in November 1942. This victory at El Alamein laid the groundwork for the eventual expulsion of German and Italian forces from North Africa. During 1944 the British Government saw fit to establish the Jewish Brigade, which included large numbers of Palestinian Jewish soldiers, who formed part of the British forces that fought their way through Italy. The Brigade later rendered invaluable service in assisting surviving victims of the Holocaust to reach Israel and a new life. The video on the link below tells the moving story of the Jewish Brigade and the magnificent service they rendered during the Second World War, and the sterling humanitarian work they did in assisting Holocaust Survivors after the liberation of the concentration camps.
Shoulder Flash of the Jewish Brigade