THE JEWISH BRIGADE IN WORLD WAR II

By EDMUND de ROTHSCHILD CBE TD

Editor's Note: The Rothschild family have been intimately associated with the NWES since its foundation - indeed, the Foundation Stone which can be seen on the wall of the Synagogue Office was laid by Leopold de Rothschild on 7th June 1877. The stained glass rose window above the Ark was donated in memory of Emma, Lady Rothschild in the 1930s. We have a beautiful silver jug inscribed: "Presented to the New West End Synagogue on the occasion of the marriage of Edmund de Rothschild to Elizabeth Lentner on the 22nd June 1948".

The following article has been specially written for us by Edmund de Rothschild CBE TD who for many years was the Presiding Officer representing AJEX at the annual Cenotaph Service of Remembrance.

In November 1944 I decided to apply to join a new field regiment which had been launched as part of a War Office initiative to create a Jewish Infantry Brigade Group, under the command of Brigadier Ernst Benjamin. In September the Prime Minister had announced in the Commons that the Government had decided to accede to the request of the Jewish Agency for Palestine that a Jewish Brigade Group should be formed to take part in active operations. 'I know,' Churchill went on to say 'that there are vast numbers of Jews serving with our forces and the American forces, throughout all armies. But it seems to me indeed appropriate that a special Jewish unit, a special unit of that race which has suffered indescribable torments from the Nazis, should be represented as a distinct formation amongst the forces gathered for their final overthrow.

With Colonel Burns' consent I applied to join. He agreed and no sooner had the arrangements been made than I received a letter from the Chief Rabbi

"8 November 1944

Dear Captain de Rothschild,

I gather that you are considering the question of taking over the command of a Jewish Palestinian Unit that is to form part of the Jewish Brigade.

I earnestly hope my information is correct. It would mean a great deal, not only to the men under you, but to all members of the Jewish Brigade, and indeed to Jews everywhere.

From your own point of view, it should prove an excellent experience in organising and leading Jews - never an easy task. And in view of the tradition of your noble House, it is, I think, of paramount importance that you should have this experience.

There may be individuals in the Jewish units whose disappointment over British policy in Palestine has turned them against Britain, and there will no doubt be people who will use the Jewish Brigade as an argument to support their demands for further concessions in regard to Palestine. But all this should only strengthen you in your determination to stress the closest association of the Jewish Brigade created by HM Government and not by the Allied Nationals with the British Cause.

I hope that you are keeping well and I pray for your safe return to your dear ones at home.

Very sincerely yours

J H Hertz

Chief Rabbi"

I moved to the base at Tivoli, was promoted to major and joined 604 or 'P' Battery, one of the three batteries of the 200 (Jewish) Field Regiment, RA. Behind the idea for the formation of a Jewish Infantry Brigade was the thought that, together Jews might fight better than ever, and certainly In 'P' battery we quickly became a close-knit force, even designing our own flag. Officially the only flag we could fly was the Union Jack but we also flew a blue and white one with a Magen David at the centre in the middle of which my battery put a blue 'P'. When, during an inspection one day, the inspecting general asked, 'What's that flag?' I got away with, 'Sir, it is 'P' Battery standard.'

The Brigade - Chativah Yehudith Lochemeth (Jewish Fighting Force) in Hebrew - was made up of men from all over Europe. There were refugees from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Russia and Poland, but also black Falashas from Ethiopia, Jews from the Yemen and a host of others. Altogether I believe more than fifty countries were represented. The men under my command were mostly refugees from Europe, though some already had homes in Palestine.

In late February 1945 we moved up the line to the Senio River, the last outpost of the Allied advance that winter, where we took up positions beyond the southern bank. The north bank was held entirely by the Germans and our task was to clear them away as part of Allied Command's preparation for the final push in Italy. Our brigade entered the zone shortly before Passover, and throughout the whole week of the festival we were supplied with matzos instead of bread, as well as, on the first night, wine from Baron Edmond de Rothschild's vineyard at Rishon Le-Zion in Palestine, and haggadahs from which to recite the story of the Exodus, as is customary at Passover.

To begin with there was very little military action but eventually the day came when we put up a smokescreen, crossed the river and drove the Germans back. I crossed the river with Colonel Ben Artze, who was commanding the 1st Battalion of the brigade group, and later went on to become a general in the Israeli army. With the Germans in retreat, we pressed on for Bologna; 'P' Battery in support of an Italian Free Brigade unit which was mopping up Axis troops of Croats and Uzbeks. Shortly before we reached Bologna an Italian general led me to a place where he had laid out the bodies of his fallen men, many of whom were disfigured with the most horrible mutilations. When we arrived at Bologna itself, the main square was teeming with troops, shouting and waving flags and the whole city was en fete. I seemed to be about the only British officer in the place and so it must have appeared for a civilian came up to me and said 'Inglese?' and when I replied 'Si,' a bottle of fine old brandy was thrust into my hand.

We then moved on to Udine which had been liberated by the New Zealanders. It was teeming with unruly Serb irregulars, all armed, and the problem arose of how to get them to surrender their weapons. It was eventually arranged that Field Marshall Alexander should take the salute at a march-past on a dais in one of the town squares, for which I turned out part of the guard of honour with a 25-pounder gun, fully manned, on either side of the dais. This square, it so happened, led into another square with a narrow exit. As the Serbs went singing and cheering past they found they were unable to get out of the second square without surrendering their weapons.

For two days my trucks were then used to return Uzbek solders to the Russian zone. The frontier was a humpbacked bridge with a Union Jack flying on one side, the Hammer and Sickle on the other. All day long, as the Uzbeks crossed over, tearing off their medals which they had won whilst fighting for the Germans, one could hear the sound of gunfire; later we learned that they had all been shot as they reached the other side.

When a train arrived from Yugoslavia carrying Russians who had fought on the Tito front, it was my duty to provide them with food. I met the Russian colonel who was in charge of the train, and seeing a desperately sick woman, suggested she be taken off the train and taken to hospital. Twice I asked him and twice he refused.

When the war ended the mood in 'P' Battery was muted: so many of my men's relatives and friends had disappeared into concentration camps or been killed. And so rather than organise a celebration I asked the rabbi attached to the brigade to conduct a short service of thanksgiving for our deliverance, which was attended by many non-Jews as well.

On 20 June 1945 I circulated the following note to my battery.

"What I Expect of All My Battery

I was immensely proud and pleased with my Battery. You are the ambassadors of us Jews. You are the men of Eretz-Israel who are showing what Eretz-Israel is and will be. I therefore expect more of you than I would of other troops.

I expect:

  • 1. Instant discipline in obedience to all orders whatever they may be from any NCO or Officer superior to you.

    2. The highest standard of smartness in turn-out of yourself.

    3. Proper dress at all times when on duty, and when off duty out of billets.

    4. The highest standard of cleanliness and hygiene.

    5. Kit laid out in the morning properly and your billets scrupulously clean.

    6. The highest standard of saluting to ALL Allied Officers.

    7. Decent behaviour in public and courtesy to women.

    8. Personal pride in yourself, your Battery, your Regiment and your Brigade.

    9. Alertness when you are on guard duty.

    10. Hard work when you are told to get down to a job to get it done.

    11. Self-sacrifice to your comrades.

    12. Honesty in all dealings with your own pals and with civilians.

  • I am not a great believer in tremendous 'Bullshit'. I do believe, however, in a standard of which 'P' Battery can be justly proud. Bear yourselves like soldiers, like the men of Eretz-Israel and Jews you are. Onward together we march for a cause no less sacred than that for which we have just fought."

    Towards the end of July 1945 we moved to Tarvisio on the borders of Austria, Italy and Yugoslavia. Until a few weeks previously the town had been used by the Germans as a convalescent depot for their sick and wounded, and they had obligingly left a lot of supplies behind. Meanwhile, the nearby Yugoslavs had been tempted into expanding their border across a six-mile band of land, and I had to see the local commander to persuade him to withdraw.

    While there I managed to visit Hitler's eyrie at Berchtesgaden. It had already been looted and there were smashed gramophone records lying all over the place, and the ivory had been torn from the keys of his piano.

    Soon the brigade received orders to proceed on a carefully-mapped six-day journey from Leuze in Belgium. As far as I know we were the only unit of field artillery to cross the Alps, and all along the way in Germany people were surprised to see the Magen David painted on my truck at the head of the column.

    When we entered Mannheim - through an archway which still bore the repulsive legend Judenrein (Clear of Jews) - the word went out, 'Mishmerdach! Die Juden kommen! Die Juden kommen!' And people flocked towards us. All our guns had been cleaned up and I ordered my men to march at attention, so as to look as smart as possible. When several hundred people gathered around us in the main square, there was a scuffle; and out from the crowd emerged a sad, gaunt little group in concentration camp garb who came up to my truck to kiss the Magen David; it was an emotional moment. Afterwards we visited more than one concentration camp, where we saw some terrible sights.

    From Belgium, where we arrived on 2 August, we received further orders to press on to Holland, principally to supervise the lifting of thousands of German land-mines at Venlo. There I was placed in charge of a German engineering regiment, and each day I went out on to the minefield with four German prisoners-of-war, two walking in front of me and two alongside. They worked well, and once they had lifted a set number of mines they were repatriated to Germany.

    Whilst in Belgium I sent my men off in turns on what was nominally 'forty-eight hours' leave to Paris'. In fact almost every one of them went off to search the concentration camps for surviving relatives, or to try to organise their passage to Palestine - and thus in many cases were away for a period nearer to two weeks than two days. To disguise the number of men absent during inspections, I used to tell those remaining to wear their forage caps first on one side and then the other, moving down the line as discreetly as they could. When one inspecting general said to our cook, Sergeant Heller, 'I've seen you before haven't I?' Heller had the good sense to reply, 'Oh yes sir. You've seen my twin brother.' Many returned from leave despondent, with bad news or no news at all.

    However, when one man, Gunner Gasco, had not returned after a fortnight, I felt obliged to report him absent without leave. But he turned up a few days later, with a remarkable story to tell. In the Russian zone he had been taken acutely ill with appendicitis, and on producing his pay-book had been taken to a nearby hospital for a successful operation. On being released he had, purely by chance, met his sister walking past the hospital gates! Naturally I was anxious that any punishment Gasco received should be as lenient as possible and therefore obtained the Colonel's permission to punish him myself. I then had him up in front of me and told him as sternly as I could that he had let the whole side down, and asked him if he would be prepared to accept my punishment. He agreed - and his face lit up when I told him he was to be confined to barracks for twenty-eight days and afterwards repatriated to Palestine.

    In May 1946 I was demobilised and returned to England.

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