top of page

Zionism, The British Mandate, World War Two and the 1939 White Paper

Following Britain's declaration of war on Germany in September 1939, Jewish Agency for Palestine Chairman, David Ben Gurion said "We will fight the war as if there were no White Paper, and we will fight the White Paper as if there were no war." The contradiction in terms inherent in Ben Gurion's statement presaged the difficulties of converting his promise into action. The injury to Moshe Dayan's eye followed by the loss of 23 Palmach members at sea while on a British mission, were two of the tragic consequences of Ben Gurion's policy.

The fateful 1939 White Paper

The 1939 British White Paper on Palestine set out plans to end Zionist aspirations for a Jewish State in two distinct ways. Firstly, Jewish immigration to Palestine was to be limited to 75,000 between 1939 and 1944, thus ensuring an Arab majority, while secondly, the Jewish homeland could only be established as an element within an independent Arab Palestinian State over a 10 year period. Needless to say, the White Paper was rejected by the Jewish leadership, as it was in direct contradiction of the Balfour Declaration as well as the terms of Britain's Mandate Over Palestine. The Arab Nationalists on the other hand rejected the White Paper because they insisted on no Jewish immigration and no Jewish homeland.

Ben Gurion’s Conundrum

Following Britain's declaration of war on Germany on 3 September 1939, Jewish Agency Chairman David Ben Gurion stated unequivocally "We will fight the war as if there were no White Paper, and we will fight the White Paper as if there were no war." This statement indicated the dilemma in which the Jewish leadership in Palestine found itself. On the one hand they did not want to impede the British war effort against Germany, given the latter’s anti Jewish policies and activities, while on the other hand they remained determined to establish an independent Jewish homeland and to continue with unlimited immigration of Jews into Palestine, particularly with huge numbers of Jewish refugees seeking safety amongst their brethren in Mandate Palestine. The stage was set for Britain to be both an ally and an implacable enemy at one and the same time. Britain, on the other hand, had to balance the need for suitable reconnaissance and sabotage personnel in the Levant as well as in Europe, with the dangers inherent in training and arming the members of an essentially hostile paramilitary group dedicated to bringing an end to British Mandate rule in Palestine.

British Blockade of Palestine

The Haganah and the Irgun worked relentlessly to rescue beleaguered Eastern European Jewry by hiring ships to transport refugees to Palestine. The British authorities continued their persistent, and often violent blockade of the Eastern Mediterranean to intercept ships carrying Jewish refugees, referred to as “illegal immigrants'' from disembarking and entering Palestine. Between July 1939 and May 1948, some 123 ships made 145 recorded voyages, carrying over 100,000 refugees in attempts to breach the blockade. The success rate was around 50% with just over 75 ships apprehended by the British, resulting in the arrest of 50,000 refugees who were interned in detention camps on the islands of Cyprus and Mauritius, while 1,600 drowned as a result of shipping tragedies. Approximately 6,500 refugees managed to enter Palestine "illegally" after the White Paper had been issued, while an estimated 40,000 were returned to displaced persons camps in Europe, with many of them very cruelly returned to be accommodated in the very same concentration camps, now designated displaced persons camps, in which they had been held by the Nazis.

Irgun and the British Army - from allies to implacable enemies.

While the British authorities were employing ships and manpower to enforce their blockade, Irgun leader David Raziel, appointed as supreme commander by Ze’ev Jabotinsky in 1938, believed that the Arabs were the greater enemy. Following the outbreak of the Second World War, he adopted a policy of treating the British as military allies in the fight against the Nazis. This strategy resulted in the breakaway of Avraham Stern, founder of the more extreme LEHI, determined to take the fight to the British, hoping to drive them out of Palestine. Raziel’s policy led to him becoming the leader of a 4 man combat team that went into Iraq on the orders of the British military command. The team’s objective was to sabotage Iraq’s main oil refinery near Baghdad, with the purpose of cutting off fuel supplies to Iraq’s German allies. The four man team, consisting of Raziel, Ya’akov Meridor, Ya’akov Aharoni and Ya’akov Terzi were accompanied by a British officer. After landing in Iraq on 17 May 1941, the assault team was given a new task. They were to carry out a reconnaissance mission in preparation for a British attack on Fallujah and supply fresh intelligence for British military headquarters. The team was spotted on 20 May by the pilot of a German aircraft who strafed them, killing Raziel and the British officer. The remainder of the team managed to escape and return to Palestine, where Meridor succeeded Raziel as Irgun Commander, immediately reversing the group’s policy by declaring war on the British Mandate Authorities.

Meridor later handed the command over to Menachem Begin, with attacks on the British presence in Palestine as the Irgun’s primary objective. Meridor would later join Begin in Israel’s first Knesset in 1949, serving as a Member of Knesset until 1984, including holding ministerial office from 1981 to 1984. Ya'akov Aharoni had a distinguished career as an Irgun combatant, including command of the successful raid on the Beit Dagan police station on Yom Kippur, 27 September 1944. Beit Dagan was one of four police stations that were attacked while British police were expecting Irgun action at the Kotel (Western Wall) where the blowing of the shofar at the end of the fast had become a contentious issue after Arab complaints. Aharoni was arrested several times by the Mandate authorities and eventually exiled to Kenya, returning to Israel in July 1948, after the independence of the State of Israel had been declared. David Raziel’s death while on British military duty resulted in a reversal of Irgun policy, changing Britain from ally to sworn enemy, becoming a significant thorn in the British side right up to the independence of Israel.

David Raziel’s grave on Mount Herzl

Enemies and Allies - The British Army and the Haganah.

One of the important considerations in Ben Gurion's decision to co-operate with Britain was that Palestinian Jews would be given military training by the British Army. This training was vital to prepare for the war that would have to be successfully prosecuted against the Arabs before an independent Jewish State in Palestine could become a reality. From the British perspective, the desperate need for manpower in the Middle East in the period 1941 to 1943, resulted in a policy that balanced manpower needs with the fear of training fighters viewed as enemy, who could later use that training against Britain. Two incidents in particular, both of which highlight the cost of Haganah cooperation with the British Army and the compromises which had to be made. One incident involved senior Haganah leader Moshe Dayan, and could well have cost his life, while the other was an ill conceived plan to sabotage an oil refinery in Tripoli. Both went badly awry with tragic consequences.

Moshe Dayan and Orde Wingate - Dual Loyalties

Moshe Dayan began his military career by becoming a member of the Haganah paramilitary force at the age of 14 in 1929, later joining the Notrim or Guards, a British sponsored Jewish auxiliary police force. The Notrim were established in 1936 to assist police in the protection of Jewish communities and settlements during the 1936 to 1938 Arab riots. The Notrim had an initial strength of some 6,000 men, which was later expanded to total strength of almost 14,000 militarily trained men, with Dayan serving as a Patrol Commander in the Notrim. He was later transferred to the Special Night Squads where he served under the command of British Captain Orde Wingate, a dedicated Christian Zionist whose sympathies lay firmly with the Jewish residents of Palestine. Wingate identified fully with Zionist aspirations for an independent Jewish State in Palestine, publicly propagating his support for a Jewish State during a visit to Britain. His open bias led his commanders to the view that his position as an intelligence officer in Palestine had been compromised and he was transferred back to Britain. During the Second World War he rose to the rank of major general, but was considered an eccentric and unconventional officer by his peers. He died in an air crash in 1944 while on his way to do an assessment of the situation of Chindit Indian troops in Burma. Paying tribute to Wingate, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill said "(he was) one of the most brilliant and courageous figures of the Second World War … a man of genius who might well have become also a man of destiny"

Orde Wingate and his Special Night Squads

Back to Moshe Dayan, senior member of Haganah and avowed opponent of the British Mandate, while at the same time a member of the British armed forces fighting against Nazi Germany. This dual loyalty saw Dayan as a member of FOSH, the commando arm of the Haganah, established by Haganah commander Yitzhak Sadeh in mid 1937. FOSH was the embryo that grew into the Palmach, founded in 1941, with Sadeh as its first commander. The establishment of Kibbutz Hanita as a Tower and Stockade Kibbutz on 21 March 1938 was a strategically important military project, and not one of the typical kibbutzim established by idealistic pioneers. Situated on the Lebanese border in northern Galilee, the kibbutz importantly established a Jewish paramilitary presence in an area where there had previously been no Jewish settlement. With the Jewish Agency under the illusion that Palestine would be divided into Jewish and Arab areas as visualised in the 1936 Peel Commission report, a Jewish presence in the area was of vital importance. The Peel report was later superseded by the 1939 White Paper, which changed the equation dramatically.

Hanita was the only Tower and Stockade Kibbutz that was not built near an existing kibbutz where the building material could be stored and prefabricated close at hand for clandestine transport to the new kibbutz, followed by an overnight construction. There were no roads leading to the selected site on the hill where the ancient biblical town of Hanita had been located. This meant that the material for the construction of the Tower building and Stockade fence had to be carried by hand or pack donkey over rough terrain. The task was carried out by a 400 strong contingent of men and women, many of them members of the earlier mentioned Notrim, the Police unit established by the British Mandate Authorities. The establishment of Hanita was considered of great strategic importance prior to the establishment of an independent Jewish State, and for this reason much of the operation was captured on film. You can watch the video, which is part of the Steven Spielberg Jewish Film Archive housed at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem by clicking on this link - Apologies for some poor film quality in this is an old, but nonetheless very informative video

L to R - Moshe Dayan, Yitzhak Sadeh and Yigal Alon- Kibbutz Hanita 1938

Dayan’s membership of the British created Notrim, effectively made him a member of the British armed forces, and it was in this capacity that he was assigned to a reconnaissance task force. The small force consisted of Arab guides and Palmach members of Notrim, under command of the Australian 7th Division. The task force was based on Kibbutz Hanita, at that time Dayan’s home kibbutz, with its proximity to Lebanon making it an excellent base for infiltrating Lebanon on reconnaissance and other missions. While on such a mission on 7 June 1941 in preparation for Operation Exporter, the British invasion of Vichy controlled Syria and Lebanon, Dayan’s unit captured and secured two bridges crossing the Litani River in Southern Lebanon. The overall commander of Exporter, British General Sir Henry Maitland had undertaken to relieve Dayan’s unit by 04:00 the next morning, 8 June, but the relief force never arrived, leaving the infiltrators vulnerable to enemy action. The unit decided to attack a nearby Vichy police station, capturing the position after a short battle. While lying on the roof of the police station building, using binoculars to scan Vichy positions on the other side of the Litani River, Dayan’s binoculars were hit by a French sniper’s bullet. The projectile shattered the binoculars, with glass and metal fragments exploding into Dayan’s left eye. He had to wait for over six hours before he could be evacuated, with the damage to the eye so severe that his eye had to be removed. The damage to the eye socket and muscles was so extreme that surgeons were unable to fit a prosthetic eye, compelling Dayan to wear the iconic black eye patch that became his trademark.

Writing about his eye patch in his biography, Dayan said "I reflected with considerable misgivings on my future as a cripple without a skill, trade, or profession to provide for my family." He added that he was "ready to make any effort and stand any suffering, if only I could get rid of my black eyepatch. The attention it drew was intolerable to me. I preferred to shut myself up at home, doing anything, rather than encounter the reactions of people wherever I went.” He was able to overcome this fear and the eye patch became an iconic symbol of his bravery and leadership, propelling him to become Chief of Staff of the IDF followed by a long political career. While Moshe Dayan's service with the British forces almost cost him his life and led to the loss of his eye, the injury and the iconic eye patch in many ways shaped his personality and the direction his life would take. He attained hero status and enjoyed a successful, although controversial military career, followed by an equally successful and equally controversial political career.

Lt. Gen. Moshe Dayan - Chief Of Staff, IDF

Operation Boatswain - Joint British Army/Palmach Operation.

Operation Boatswain was a direct result of Winston Churchill's fear that the German Army using Vichy French airbases in Lebanon and Syria would carry out an air attack on the British controlled Suez Canal. Disregarding the advice and recommendations of his senior commanders, Churchill took the view that such an attack was likely and would sever Britain's sea link with its Asian Empire. Operational plans were prepared for the Palestine based British, Australian and Free French armies to attack Syria and Lebanon to end the potential threat. The planned operation was designated Operation Exporter, with Operation Boatswain designed to sabotage the Tripoli fuel depots and cut off supplies for the Luftwaffe and render it ineffective during Operation Exporter.

The personnel for Operation Boatswain consisted of 23 Palmach members under the operational command of Lt. Zvi Spector, with Special Operations Executive officer, Major Sir Anthony Palmer accompanying the attack force as an observer. The combat group was given the use of a British police patrol boat, which was normally employed as a patrol vessel on the lookout for Aliyah Bet boats carrying “illegal immigrants”, in reality Jewish refugees from the war in Europe, seeking safety amongst their Jewish brethren in Palestine. The operational plan called for the combat platoon and the observer to disembark off Tripoli, leaving three Palmach men with the boat while the others carried out the sabotage mission on the Tripoli fuel storage depot. The use of the police launch was a boon to the Haganah Aliyah Bet operatives as there was one less police patrol boat searching for immigrant ships for them to worry about, a small benefit resulting from the military cooperation between the Haganah and the British.

The task force set off from Haifa on Friday, 18 May 1941, bound for Tripoli in the police launch, the Sea Lion, and disappeared, never to be seen or heard from again. Several bodies washed ashore in the Tripoli area, where they were found by Yosef Kostika, a Haganah agent based in Tripoli. From the evidence, Kostika speculated that the boat had gone down, either as a result of an attack by a German submarine, or as the result of the accidental ignition of the explosives carried on board for the sabotage operation. Later sources have suggested that the boat was intercepted and sunk by a Lebanese coast guard vessel, with no definite information right up to the present time. Whatever the circumstances, the operation ended in a disaster with the loss of the 23 Palmach members and the British observer.

The 23 Palmach members are remembered in Israel as Kaf Gimel Yordei Ha-Sira (כ׳׳ג יורדי הסירה), which translates as "the twenty three who went down with the ship". They have been remembered in several ways, one of the Aliyah Bet ships was named in their honour, as are many streets in Israel. A memorial to the "23" was erected on Mount Herzl and another in Tel Aviv overlooking the Yarkon River. Maj Anthony Palmer's name was included on the Tel Aviv memorial, so there are in fact 24 names. The ultimate insult to the memory of the "23" came from the British authorities who recorded Palmer’s name in its memorial and database, while refusing to recognise the "23" as British servicemen. The British government totally ignored the 23 heroic Palmach members who had given their lives engaged on a sabotage mission ordered by the British military command, while holding British military ranks and wearing British army uniforms. Justice was finally done when Martin Sugarman, archivist to the British Association of Jewish Ex Servicemen and Women provided conclusive proof to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in 2014 that they were in fact members of the British armed forces. The 23 names were finally added to the British memorial records in January 2015. A very sad indictment of the British authorities that it took 74 years before these heroic fighters were eventually given due recognition.

Kaf Gimel Memorial - Mount Herzl

Kaf Gimel Memorial Tel Aviv with 24 names

90 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page