Machal: the 1948 volunteers who signed up to fight for Israel

By Rachel Fletcher, April 18, 2008

Machal: The 1948 Volunteers

Rachel Fletcher talks to four people now living in Britain who signed up to fight for Israel The war of Independence brought more than 3,500 volunteers to Israel to fight. Known as Machal, an acronym for Mitnadvei Chutz L’Aretz (volunteers from abroad), most were British or American, and others came from as far afield as South Africa and even Cuba. Stanley Medicks Stanley Medicks, 82, was born in Kenya. He founded the British and European Machal Association in 1988 “My aunt and cousin came to Kenya after the war. My aunt was an Auschwitz survivor, so I learned of the horrors of the Holocaust. Then, when the Chief Rabbi of South Africa, Louis Rabinowitz, came to Nairobi to raise funds for arms, he gave a wonderful speech. I told him I had military expertise — I had been an officer in the Kings African Rifles in the second world war — and could help. I arrived in Tel Aviv on June 3, 1948. I was 23. “A group of us went to Haifa and formed the 7th Brigade under Brigadier Ben Dunkelman. I was platoon commander of B company, with 31 men. Only half were armed, with rifles, and the other half with grenades, but it didn’t worry us. We were so highly strung and so moved and full of courage it didn’t matter. We were fighting for something we really believed in. We weren’t worried about being killed — we had to do what we had to do. I have never seen such esprit de corps. “Within a week, we were sent to capture Tamra, just north of Haifa. The hill was held by the Jordanians. We just charged the hill, firing where we could. The Jordanians ran off, but the next morning they returned to another position and started firing at us. It was a Pyrrhic victory — we lost a lot of men. “The most important part of the war was when we cleared the whole of the Galil in Operation Hiram. That took three months. We captured the town of Tarshisha, then we went to Sfat. From there we went to Meron, which was held by Lebanon and Syria, and then travelled in old Egged buses to the Lebanese border. We put everything with four wheels into service. The Jerusalem-Tel Aviv road was blocked by the Arab Legion. We built another road by night. “I spent the rest of 1948 doing guard duty at Mishmar Hayarden on the Syrian border. I stayed on after the war and was a defence officer in Kibbutz Atlit, in Jerusalem, where I was responsible for constructing the sewer which runs from Terra Sancta in East Jerusalem to Mamilla in West Jerusalem. “The Machal volunteers are like a family, you can’t imagine the feeling. They say friendships forged in fire are everlasting, and it is true. I believe it is the most important thing I have ever done in my life to have helped to create, after 2,000 years, a Jewish homeland.”
Sidney Lightman Sidney Lightman, 85, is a former translator and a former JC assistant foreign editor. He lives in Golders Green “The Jewish Agency sent me to Israel with a small group of volunteers from places like Glasgow and London. We arrived in Haifa towards the end of 1948. I was 24. “I was in the Royal Navy in the second world war, so I joined the navy in Israel, getting myself transferred from the army. I was a signalman, meaning I sent and received messages with light projectors, lamps, flags and semaphore. “I was not a Zionist, but I have always been very aware of my Jewish identity. It might sound sentimental, but here for the first time in more than 2,000 years Jews were fighting for their country. I felt I wanted to help. “The navy had very, very few ships: five small ones — including, believe it or not, an icebreaker — and some gunboats. Then, in March 1949, two frigates arrived, originally from the Canadian navy. Before Canada sold them to Israel, she removed everything that could possibly be used by a fighting ship — all the depth charges, guns, the radar — because of the arms embargo. In theory, the embargo applied to both sides, but it operated effectively only against Israel. As Israel has a very long coastline, it was a great boost to have these new ships arrive. Everyone was very excited. Overnight we became a real navy and we never looked back. “We did a lot of coastal patrols, accompanying other vessels from port to port. On one occasion, we took almost the entire Israeli government for a cruise around Cyprus for a long weekend, when David Ben-Gurion was prime minister, and with other ministers including Golda Meir. It was very crowded on board. That was quite a red-letter occasion. “I’m very glad I volunteered. It was very exciting being there almost at the birth of the state.”
Naomi Pope Burma-born Naomi Pope, née Mariano, 79, is a retired fashion designer “I was born in Rangoon, Burma, in 1929. Just before the war, I came to England with my mother, sister and brother for a holiday, then, when the war started, we stayed on. I joined Habonim in Ealing and became very Zionist. I went to Israel illegally on the Exodus ship. The British stopped the boat and took everyone off and we were sent to Hamburg, where we stayed in displaced-persons’ camps. Hagana took us to France and then to Israel by boat. We arrived in January 1948. I was 18, and joined a group of people who were founding a new kibbutz, Kfar Hanasi, before joining Gadna, the Israeli youth corps. “Gadna was part of the army, although there wasn’t actually anything formalised — just a lot of people defending Israel. At one point I was in the Galil, where I saw more of the war. There were about 40 men and 10 girls there. I was very strong, luckily, so I got jobs that other women couldn’t do, like heaving things around. “Gadna stationed me in Sarafand, where I was an attaché to an officer who went round camps — such as they were — inspecting and delivering arms. Nothing was regular; it was all ad hoc. “In Sarafand I also made designs for flashes for the army to wear. I was also good at art, so I drew a lot of maps which needed to be taken round to different people; there was no other way of reproducing them. “A lot of people came to Israel out of idealism, not knowing much about it but wanting to help at a bad time. There was an enormous feeling of goodwill.”
John Altmann John Altmann, 78, was born in Germany and now lives in Golders Green “In the second world war, I lost my parents, a younger brother and my home. I came to Britain from Germany on the Kindertransport in 1939 when I was nine. At the end of the war, I had nobody and nowhere to go. I was just angry. “I went to Israel on the infamous Altalena. [David Ben-Gurion gave orders to fire on the ship after the Irgun forces on board refused to surrender their arms]. Three of my friends were killed on board. I was 18 and in absolute shock. Those of us left on the ship jumped into the water and swam 50 yards to shore. We were sick as dogs from the sewage. “I went to Ramat Gan army camp, said, ‘I’m here’, and the next day I was in the front line at Latrun. It was discovered that I had enormous technical ability with weapons. Later, I found out that my German ancestors were blacksmiths for five generations. “I had a severe attack of malaria— in an 800 man battalion, at any one time 200 would be out with dysentery and malaria — but I had to go back to the front line. Many of us got hearing damage during the war — mine started then. We had guns and mortars from Czechoslovakia which we put into use at the double, but we didn’t know how to protect our ears. After a battle, I couldn’t hear for three days. “It was not nearly as glorious as the history books tell you. At any one time, Israel was within two days of defeat. The Israeli air force was all Machal, and they did the most important work. They got us out of trouble in various places. If not for them, I don’t think we would have survived. They were fantastic. “When we went to war, we all had a gun and two grenades, and were told to use the last grenade if we got taken prisoner. We had enormous casualties. Jordanians and Egyptians were alright to prisoners, but the Syrians and Palestinians would cut their throats. “The main battle was getting the Arabs out of the Galil. The big push was in October 1948. It took us a couple of weeks. We even took some prisoners, Yugoslavs and Germans fighting for the Arabs. They were cocky and shocked to be captured. We gave them each a pack with bread or matzah and a bottle of water and they had to walk back to Sinai. “In Atlit, I had guard duty for a couple of weeks. I was in charge of a dozen officers and soldiers would play cards. Twenty or 30 years later in my shop in Maida Vale, an Arab gentleman walked in and said he recognised me from somewhere. It turns out he was in the POW camp. He used to come to England every year and visit me after that. We were very good friends. There were no hard feelings.”

Last updated: 1:20pm, September 16 2008