They did their bit - the story of three centuries of military heroism

From Trafalgar to Helmand province, Jews have a distinguished record in the armed forces


By Simon Round, November 15, 2012
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World War Two service personnel enjoy a Shabbat dinner. Some 60,000 Jews fought in the British forces during the conflict. Photo: Courtesy of the Jewish Military Museum

World War Two service personnel enjoy a Shabbat dinner. Some 60,000 Jews fought in the British forces during the conflict. Photo: Courtesy of the Jewish Military Museum

Sadly, there are not many Jews who fought in the Second World War who are still able to march. But those who can will be polishing their medals to parade down Whitehall on Sunday, in honour of their comrades who fell in the 1939-45 conflict and those before and since.

If last year’s attendance at the annual Association of Jewish ex-Servicemen and Women (Ajex) parade is a guide, there could be around 800 veterans at the ceremony, the numbers bolstered by those who have served since 1945.

However, if all those Jews who fought for their country in two world wars were still able to attend, there would be enough people to fill Wembley stadium — with another 15,000 spilling out on to the pitch.

Those who have researched the subject of Jewish involvement in the armed forces all agree that the contribution has been disproportionate to the numbers in the community. It is a long history of courage under fire that dates back to a time before Jews could even officially serve the Crown in the military.

Captain Alexander Schomberg, who had to convert to Anglicanism to join up, captured the Heights of Abraham from the French in the battle for Quebec while skippering the frigate Diana, in 1759. There is also an account of Jewish men who served on the HMS Victory with Nelson and there were Jews at Waterloo, the Crimea and more than 3,000 fighting in the Boer War.

But it was in the First World War that British Jews served their country en masse. In excess of 55,000 volunteered or were conscripted, and, in this most savage of conflicts, a large number lost their lives. Five also won Victoria Crosses, the first of whom was Frank Alexander de Pass, who was killed in 1914 while attempting to take an enemy trench for the second time.

Roz Currie, curator of the Jewish Military Museum in Hendon, feels that this war marked a watershed for the British Jewish community. “One of the narratives from the First World War was that large numbers were serving as British soldiers for the first time, sometimes only a few years after arriving as immigrants.”

There may have been horrendous casualties, but there was also a sense of self-esteem and of belonging — even more so when the Jewish Legion was founded in 1917. The first Jewish fighting force seen for some centuries was lobbied for and served in by those twin pillars of Zionism, Vladimir Jabotinsky and David Ben Gurion, under the banner of the Royal Fusiliers.

Petty Officer Tommy Gould, winner of the Victoria Cross. Photo: Courtesy of the Jewish Military Museum

Petty Officer Tommy Gould, winner of the Victoria Cross. Photo: Courtesy of the Jewish Military Museum

Following the Balfour Declaration, in which the British government stated that it “viewed with interest” the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, Jews signed up to the British army in order to force the Ottomans out of Jerusalem. The legion did not quite rout the Turkish army but did see active service in the Dardanelles.

On November 18 1921, with the memories of the trenches still fresh in their minds, a group of Jewish ex-servicemen laid a wreath for their fallen colleagues. They have returned pretty much every year since.
Even more Jews — some 60,000 — served in the armed forces in the Second World War.

These included many refugees from Austria and Germany who were initially interned as enemy aliens, but who eventually played a crucial part in the war effort, particularly in military intelligence.

Historian Martin Sugarman, the author of Fighting Back, about the British-Jewish contribution to the armed forces and a new book about Jews who were Japanese prisoners of war, says these soldiers and their commanding officers realised that Jewish servicemen were particularly vulnerable if taken prisoner.

“A lot of Jews registered as Church of England rather than Jewish. German-born Jews, for example, knew that if they were captured, they and their families would suffer, although they did not realise the full horror of what was going on in Europe. Jews would often would be encouraged to change their names — Cohen or Goldstein would become Gordon, Johnson or Smith because their commanding officers knew that they were taking a double risk.”

A few were also in jeopardy from men in their own units. Currie says that antisemitism was by no means universal and was certainly not experienced by all military personnel, but there were some appalling instances during the Second World War.

“Some veterans say there was no antisemitism. Others say there was quite a lot. I’ve heard horrific stories about people being beaten up by their own side and even stories of soldiers who were attacked so savagely that they had to be invalided home. But then there are others who would say that their Jewishness was just part of the banter that went on. I think it varied.”

What is not in dispute is the contribution by the men and women who fought for Britain. In the two world wars, Jews were decorated in large numbers and eight won the ultimate award for bravery — the Victoria Cross.

But, for decades after the war, if you were curious to discover more about their bravery, you would have had a tough job. This troubled Henry Morris, who served four years in the Fleet Air Arm as an electrician during the war, although he jokes that he practically never saw a ship.

Morris, now 91, says that he was standing at the Ajex parade during the 1980s when it occurred to him that there was no record of the contribution made by Jews in the armed services.

“Every military organisation of any description has its own museum. We had contributed to the Crown for over 300 years and there was nothing to show for it. A sixth of the Jewish population served in the war. There wasn’t any branch of the services that we did not join and excel in.”

He wrote a record of every Jew who died in the conflict and founded the Jewish Military Museum.
However, it can still be tough to get the word out about the Jewish war effort.

Sugarman says: “Whenever there are exhibitions featuring the contribution of minorities, we tend to get left out, perhaps because Jews are not seen as distinguishable enough from the mainstream population.”

It is estimated that there are between 300 and 600 Jews currently serving in the armed forces and last year, for the first time, they were eligible to receive a kosher meal pack — 250 years late perhaps but a formal recognition that the needs of Jewish servicemen and women are important.

Another development has also been welcomed by Ajex. As the number of living ex-service personnel diminishes, so their families have become determined to keep their memory alive.

On Sunday, hundreds will march wearing the medals of their loved ones. There may be few left who recall the terrible sacrifices which were made, but those who fell will continue to be remembered.

The Ajex parade is on Sunday November 18 2012 from 2pm. Full details at www.ajex.org.uk. The Jewish Military Museum is in Hendon, London NW4: opening hours 10am-4pm Monday-Thursday. Next Sunday opening December 2. Details at www.thejmm.org.uk or call 020 8201 5656. Booking essential

Last updated: 11:33am, November 15 2012