Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Leo Lessman's War Diary: The Great War Turns Into a Trench War

In our last post, we presented Leo Lessmann, the son of a Jewish publisher from Hamburg who joined the Imperial German Army at the beginning of the First World War. We showed the first photos from his diary, which captured his enlistment to the army during that time.

Lessmann's unit, Field Artillery Regiment no. 103 (FAR 103), was part of the main German effort in the west, and according to Lessmann's diary, his unit moved through Belgium and northern France. The regiment took part in the Battle of Le Cateau, the second large battle between the German army and the British expeditionary force (BEF) to France. The BEF--the first substantial British army sent to fight in Europe since the Napoleonic wars--landed in France on August 10, 1914, and encountered the advancing German army by the town of Mons, Belgium on August 23. The British army was a small force, and made up of long-serving professional soldiers who specialized in accurate marksmanship, unlike the conscripts in the German and French armies. The British 'Tommies' inflicted heavy losses on the German army, but ultimately retreated before the overwhelming German artillery fire. Two days later, the British commander Sir Horace Smith-Dorien (whose son was killed in the King David hotel bombing on July 1946, as we recounted previously) chose to strike back at the German army and prevented the Germans from chasing the retreating BEF.

The German army continued its advance into northern France, aiming to encircle the French army and the BEF, but the commander of the northern German Army, General von Kluck, changed the direction of his army's movement and turned to aid the army to his south. With that move, he exposed his flank to a French counterattack. The French and the British then struck on September 5 in the Battle of the Marne (famed for the use of Parisian taxis to transport thousands of soldiers to the front) and pushed the German army back. The Germans retreated towards the river Aisne, east of Paris, took the high ground in the area and began digging trenches. At the same time, the "race to the sea" began – a series of attacks aimed to outflank the opposing armies that went from north of Paris to the northern districts of France (Picardy and Nord-Pas de Calais), and Flanders in Belgium. The attacks were repulsed and a line of trenches set up, extending from the North Sea to the border with Switzerland.
Map of the "Race to the Sea" (Wikipedia)
Leo Lessmann's unit participated in the battles on the river Aisne and later in battles in Picardy, especially by the town of Arras. After the failure of their initial maneuvers, and as hope for a quick victory faded, both sides began to entrench themselves. It was a natural reaction to the massive firepower displayed in the war – a combination of fast shooting, long range artillery in combination with machine guns with a rate of fire of 400-500 rounds per minute, and rifles with an effective range of 400 meters at least (here's an excellent short clip by historian Dan Snow, produced by the BBC, on the trenches in WWI). . This wasn't a new phenomenon. Over the years, as firepower intensified and effective rifle ranges grew, soldiers dug into the ground in search of shelter and as a means of defense. Trenches were also for offensive purposes, being a relatively safe place for staging the troops before the assault, as gathering in the open was inconceivable. As the war carried on, the trench systems became more complex and more fortified – especially from the German side, which was on the defensive most of the war on the western front. The trenches were the definitive symbol of the war and drew the lines of the battlefield (literally!) for years.

Here are some of the photos in Leo Lessmann's diary:

Leo Lessmann (in the center) with infantry soldiers in a trench by Beaurains, a village south of Arras.
German soldiers digging a trench

An artillery piece, part of Lessmann's regiment (Lessmann is sitting on the right side, wearing an officers hat with a visor), stationed by the village of Beaurains

Sunday, November 16, 2014

World War I Centenary: Leo Lessmann's War Diary

2014 marks the centenary year of the start of World War I, the war that changed the 20th century and still leaves its mark on our own days. (For example, recall that ISIL declared the end of the Sykes-Picot agreement when it abolished the border between Syria and Iraq.) As promised, we will try to present different collections from the Israel State Archives connected to WWI. Here is a unique and fascinating one: Leo Lessmanns's war diary. 

Leo I. Lessmann was born in 1891 to a well-to-do Jewish family in Hamburg. His father was the publisher of the Jewish weekly "Israelitisches Familienblatt" (the Jewish family paper). Leo volunteered for a one-year service in the Imperial German Army, a special voluntary short-term form of active military service open for enlistees up to the age of 25 (the usual term of service was 2 years), created for high school graduates for the purpose of building a pool of suitable men for reserve officers.

On August 2, 1914, Lessmann, just a day after war was declared, volunteered to serve, as did millions of other young men across Europe. He served in a field artillery regiment. His unit had 77mm cannons, and their usual assignment was supporting infantry units on the frontline. Lessmann served through all 4 years of the war, in the western front opposite the French and British armies.

After the war, Lessmann returned to Hamburg and joined his father's publishing business. In 1937, he compiled an impressive war diary to which he added photos he took during the war, as well as letters, maps, newspaper cuttings and a printed description of his military service during the war. His daughter, Mrs. Eva Ein-Dor, deposited her father's diary at Israel's state archives and allowed us to publish photos from it. 

Two years ago, Tom Segev published in Ha'aretz a short but fascinating article on the diary (you can see it here).

The first two photos we chose to publish (more to come in the weeks ahead) show Lessmann on the day he enlisted to serve in the Great War. Lessmann joined his reserve unit, got a crew-cut haircut and received his uniform and equipment. Soon, Lessmann's unit joined the German army's great push through Belgium, in what is known today as the "Schlieffen plan" –named after its planner, chief of Imperial German General staff General Alfred von Schlieffen. The plan's intent was to outflank the French army, stationed on the French-German border, from Belgium, defeating and destroying it swiftly, with a fast movement of the entire German army to the east to defeat the Russian army.  
Leo Lessmann in Imperial German army uniform. The captions says "first time in Feldgrau (the nickname of the color of the uniform, a combination of green and gray).

Caption: Shaven from Langenweddingen - my old friend from my active service and me. (Langenweddingen is by the city of Magdeburg in east Germany, and situated east of Hanover. Most likely it housed the recruitment depot of Lessmann's reserve unit.)

Monday, October 6, 2014

From Low Probability to the Yom Kippur War: Telegrams from Golda's Bureau to the Israeli Embassy in Washington, 5-7 October 1973


On 12 October 1973 Prime Minister Golda Meir said during a discussion in her bureau: "I say this with full awareness of its significance – we never faced so grave a danger in 1948". Her words show the difference between the Yom Kippur War and Israel's previous wars, which is still felt today. Even 41 years later, the war still arouses public interest and controversy in Israel.

Today, on the 41st anniversary of its outbreak on 6 October 1973, the Israel State Archives publishes a selection of 14 telegrams exchanged between Golda's bureau in Tel Aviv and the Israeli embassy in Washington between 5–7 October. Some of them were declassified especially for this publication, and they focus on the central diplomatic aspect of the war – the contacts between the Israeli government and the US Administration, especially with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. This story has been told many times from the American point of view: for the first time the ISA is revealing the Israeli side in order to help to complete the puzzle. Two of the telegrams are in English, and the rest are in in Hebrew. They can be seen on the Hebrew version of this post.

The publication is accompanied by summaries of the minutes of the consultations of the war cabinet on 6-7 October published by the ISA in 2010. The telegrams and the minutes show the reversals of fortune suffered by the Israeli leadership during these fateful days – from attempts to prevent the outbreak of war on 5 October, to confidence on the first day of the fighting that the war would soon end with a decisive victory by Israel, followed by the catastrophe of the second day, when the leadership found itself at war for the heartland of Israel.
 Golda Meir and Simcha Dinitz on a visit to the US before the war.
Photograph: GPO
5 October – "Low Probability"

On Friday, 5 October, the Yom Kippur fast, the holiest day of the year, when Israel generally comes to a standstill, was about to begin. However, during the preceding few days, intelligence reports were piling up about a high alert in the Syrian and Egyptian armies and massive deployment of their forces on Israel's borders. Nevertheless, IDF Military Intelligence maintained its assessment that there was a "low probability' of the outbreak of war. During the night, disquieting reports had arrived of a major evacuation of the families of the Soviet advisors in Egypt and Syria, with the help of a fleet of planes sent by the USSR to Damascus and Cairo. In view of the reports, a general alert of the highest order was declared in the regular forces of the IDF, but still without calling up the reserves. Meanwhile the head of Israel's overseas intelligence agency, Mossad, Zvi Zamir, had been called to London for an urgent meeting with Egyptian agent Ashraf Marwan.

In the consultations held that day in the prime minister's bureau in Tel Aviv, the head of Military Intelligence, Eli Zeira, continued to claim that the probability of war was low. However the participants, including Minister of Defence Moshe Dayan, Chief of Staff David Elazar and Zeira himself were less convinced about their assessment. They had begun to think that an outbreak of hostilities was possible: perhaps there would be a war and perhaps it would even start on Yom Kippur. However they were confident in the ability of the IDF regular forces in their current dispositions to deal with any threat or military activity which might develop until the reserves could be called up. In the meantime there was no need to call up the reserves.

The director-general of the Prime Minister's Office, Mordechai Gazit, sent a telegram in the evening to Mordechai Shalev, the minister in Washington who was then in charge of the Israeli embassy (Ambassador Simcha Dinitz was in Israel due to a death in the family). In the telegram Gazit sent Shalev the government's evaluation of the possible reasons for the current tension: either that Egypt and Syria were afraid of an Israeli attack, or one or both of them intended to attack Israel. Kissinger was asked to send a message through diplomatic channels to Egypt, Syria and the USSR that Israel had no intentions of attacking its neighbours. However, if they dared to attack it – Israel would respond with all its strength and determination. In the margins of the telegram it was added that if it turned out that there was a reasonable possibility of the Arabs opening fire, then Israel request immediate provision of a number of items of military equipment (See Telegram No. VL/760).  

Shalev replied that he had informed General Brent Scowcroft, Kissinger's assistant at the National Security Council, about the telegram and its contents and Scowcroft promised to relay it immediately to Kissinger, who was in New York. Scowcroft added that American intelligence agreed with the estimate that the deployment of the Egyptian and Syrian armies was defensive, but he found it difficult to understand the  meaning of the landings of Soviet planes in Cairo and Damascus. It was decided to keep the communications channels open even during Yom Kippur (See Telegram No. VL/952)
 October 6 This Evening the War Will Start

On the morning of 6 October 1973, at 03:50 a.m on Yom Kippur, the ringing of the telephone woke Prime Minister Golda Meir, after sleep had eluded her for most of the night. On the line was her military secretary, Israel Lior, who told her a message had arrived from Zamir, saying he had heard from Ashraf Marwan that Egypt and Syria were about to launch a combined attack on Israel that evening. A few hours later a telegram arrived with the full report from Zamir, with detailed information on the Egyptian plan which, according to the source, had a 99% chance of being carried out (Marwan left a 1% chance for the possibility that Sadat would change his mind at the last minute).

A short time later, Golda was already making her way to her bureau through the empty Tel Aviv streets, with only a small number of people on their way to synagogue. At 07:30 she arrived at her bureau and received from Lior the details of Zamir's full report. Now that the die was cast, Golda took action on several levels, including vigorous diplomatic efforts to persuade the US to accept Israel's evaluations and positions and perhaps to avoid war; if not, to rush vital arms supplies to Israel. On her instructions, a telegram was sent to the embassy in Washington and to Foreign Minister Eban, who was at the UN General Assembly in New York, with details of the news and an instruction to keep policy-makers in the US informed on what was happening (See: Telegram No. TA-14).

At 08:05 a consultation was convened between the prime minister and Dayan, Elazar and Zeira, with Deputy Prime Minister Yigal Allon and minister Yisrael Galili who had been brought urgently from their homes in Kibbutz Na'an and Kibbutz Ginossar respectively. The meeting focused on the extent of mobilization of the reserves, on which Dayan and Elazar disagreed. COGS Elazar supported extensive mobilization of the fighting forces, while the minister of defence said that partial mobilization of two divisions and the Air Force was sufficient at this stage. The second issue discussed was the possibility of a preemptive military strike. The COGS presented the advantages of this step, which would destroy the Syrian air force, hit the anti-aircraft missiles and give the Israeli air force freedom of action during the fighting. Dayan was opposed for political reasons. The prime minister, an elderly woman with no military experience, was forced to decide between them  On mobilization, Golda decided in favour of the COGS because 'if there really is a war, we need to be in the best position possible'. With regard to a strike, like Dayan, she presented the political difficulties involved, and postponed the decision till later. In fact she had decided against it. She assumed that Israel would need significant American diplomatic support and military aid in the coming days, and was guided by advice given by Secretary Kissinger to the previous Israeli ambassador in Washington, Yitzhak Rabin, and to Simcha Dinitz – never to put Israel in a position where it would be accused of having started a war, and would find it difficult to get political and military aid from the US (For the minutes of the consultation, see the ISA publication).
Henry Kissinger and Yigal Allon, on one of Kissinger's visits to Israel
At 10:15 Golda Meir met with the American ambassador in Israel, Kenneth Keating, and updated him on the situation. In reply to a direct question, Golda promised that Israel would not initiate a pre-emptive strike, "although it would make the situation much easier for us"; but Egypt and Syria should be aware that Israel knew of their plans and would repel the attacks and hit back hard. She expressed confidence in Israeli victory, and suggested that the US should still try to talk to the Egyptians and the Soviets in order to prevent the outbreak of war, as reported in a telegram to the embassy in Washington (See: Telegram No. VL762/A).
Later the minister in Washington, Shalev, reported that after receiving the first urgent message from Keating, Kissinger telephoned him and said that he had begun vigorous diplomatic efforts to prevent war. The secretary asked him to inform the prime minister immediately that her message in the telegram of 5 October (See above) had been transmitted to the Soviets, who had even agreed to cooperate, and to the Egyptians, and cautioned Israel against initiating a pre-emptive strike. Some 45 minutes later, Shalev reported that Kissinger had called him again and told him that Keating's full report had arrived, and the message that Israel was not planning a pre-emptive strike had been passed to the Soviets and the Egyptians. "We have hereby undertaken a commitment that you will indeed not initiate any action", said Kissinger (See: Telegrams Nos. LV/954, 955).

At 12:00 an urgent government meeting began, after ministers had been rushed from their homes. During the argument as to how to deal with the Syrians, if only Egypt opened fire, the wail of a siren was heard, and Lior entered and announced that the Syrians had opened fire, and apparently the Egyptians as well. Golda's reaction was: "So they did surprise us, after all… I am angry that they surprised us". She repeated this several times during the coming hours. The siren at 14:00 broke the peace of the holy day and Israel radio came on the air and began to announce the outbreak of fighting and to broadcast call up codes for the mobilization of reservists. At a stroke Israel found itself making frantic preparations for war. People living in the north could hear the noise of battle in the Golan Heights like a continuous roll of thunder. 
The outbreak of fighting was accompanied by vigorous diplomatic activity. The Israeli leaders tried to prevent a meeting of the Security Council and adoption of a ceasefire resolution, before Israel had thrown back the attackers, and to ensure a supply of vital arms from the Americans. "There will be no ceasefire before the situation returns to what it was before", declared the prime minister. In a telegram sent from the prime minister's bureau to the embassy in Washington and the foreign minister in New York on the night of 6 October, they were told under no circumstances to accept proposals to convene the Security Council for a ceasefire resolution: "On both fronts, we intend to fight until we have pushed the last of the Syrian and Egyptian soldiers back over the ceasefire lines", it said. Shalev reported that the Americans were indeed working to prevent a meeting of the Council (See: Telegrams Nos. VL/765, LV/965).

The first reports from the front were optimistic. In discussions at the bureau and at the additional government meeting that met that evening at 22:00, there was a fairly confident feeling that the IDF was in control of the situation, and that it would soon strike a decisive blow at the Arab armies, who would realize what a huge mistake they had made. That evening Defence Minister Dayan spoke on television. He mentioned a number of local victories for the Arab armies, especially the Egyptians, and explained why Israel had not initiated a pre-emptive strike and did not mobilize the reserves until it was certain that a war would break out. He expressed his confidence that "we will be able to smite them [the enemy] hip and thigh" (Judges, 15:8); and concluded with a confident statement: "And I believe that we can say with confidence "G'mar hatima tova [A good conclusion]" (traditional Yom Kippur blessing) (See: Dayan's speech on television). The end of the first day of the war thus found the leadership confident and convinced of the IDF's ability to repel the enemy armies and strike hard at them within a short period of time.
At 01:30 a telegram was sent to the embassy in Washington and to Eban in New York, written by Allon, summing up the first day of fighting for Kissinger. Allon reviewed the situation and passed on Israel's estimate that the Egyptians were planning to transfer major forces to the front, in order to reach deep into the Sinai Desert. The text of the telegram radiated optimism on the IDF's ability to stop the Arab attacks. Allon summed up with the words: "Taking into account the fact that for political reasons which he [Kissinger] is aware of, we did not begin with a preemptive strike, and are concentrating on the containment stage; despite minor successes, especially by the Egyptians, the situation is satisfactory" (See: Telegram No. VL/769).  




7 October – War for Israel's Heartland

The second day, 7 October, was one of the most dramatic days of the Yom Kippur War. It began with optimism on the part of the government. On this basis Israel made every effort to prevent a ceasefire that would perpetuate the existing situation. Golda wrote another telegram, expressing her appreciation to Kissinger for stopping the initiative of Egyptian Foreign Minister Ziyat to call for a special session of the General Assembly. She repeated that it was undesirable to convene the Security Council until the Egyptians had been pushed back to their own side of the border, which she thought would take about three days. She added that Israel was planning to attack strategic targets deep in enemy territory, but promised that there would be no attack on civilian targets (See: Telegram No. VL/770). During the early hours of the morning feverish contacts took place between the Israeli foreign minister and his staff and the US State Department on the issue of convening the Security Council. Eban reported that Kissinger had said in a telephone conversation that the Americans could not oppose this move and were therefore considering doing so themselves, in order to adopt a resolution on a ceasefire and a return to the 6 October lines. They would draw out the discussion as much as possible, so as to enable Israel to act on the military front. In any case, according to Kissinger, the American strategy was dependent on Israel's  agreement (See: Telegram No. NR/46).

However, as time passed it became clear that the optimistic reports were not supported by reality. During the night of 6/7 October and the following morning the military situation. The Egyptian army widened the bridgeheads it had constructed and deployed additional forces across the Suez Canal. During the night many of the outposts that constituted the "Bar-Lev Line" along the Suez Canal were surrounded, and some of them were captured by the Egyptian army. The situation in the north was desperate. In the centre and the south of the Golan Heights, the main Syrian force broke through the IDF's lines and penetrated deep into the Heights, nearly reaching the bridges over the Jordan River leading to northern Israel. They faced only by sparse Israeli forces that were unable to stop them.


School children filling sandbags in Ramat Gan, 7 October 1973
Photograph: Hanania Herman, GPO.
At 07:30 the prime minister crossed the lawn that separated her bureau from the IDF's command headquarters (the 'Hole'), and heard an update from COGS Elazar. "We have had a bad night," said Elazar, and added details about the difficult position on the Golan Heights, while the situation at the Suez Canal "was a little better". This was the first in a series of consultations that day on the serious events at the fronts. At 14:50 the war cabinet was convened for another consultation, revealing the full extent of the deterioration in the military position. It focused on the report presented by Defence Minister Dayan, who had just returned deeply concerned from a tour of the fronts. His words produced an atmosphere of gloom and doom. He described a grim scenario in which the Arabs would not stop their attack. This was not the time to think of counter-attacks but rather of the defence of Israel itself. They "will come to fight us for the land of Israel itself" and therefore "descent from the Golan is not a solution, since they will go on to the Hula valley…..to conquer Israel, to finish off the Jews." The prime minister agreed with Dayan's assessment andsaid: "There is no reason for them not to continue, not only now. They've tasted blood… This is the second round since 1948". (See a summary of the  record of the consultation)

Moshe Dayan at a press conference, 6 October 1973
Photograph: Chanania Herman, GPO 
Despite the bleak picture, the prime minister continued to express optimism in a message to Kissinger, writing that although the fighting was fierce, the military estimate was "that with the entrance of the reserves… a change in our favour is about to take place". She reminded him of her decision to avoid a preemptive strike, which could have greatly improved Israel's position, and urged him to postpone the discussion in the Security Council till the fourth or fifth day, "when we have reason to assume that we will be in an attacking position, instead of a defensive one". An assessment sent with the telegram wrote that Israel hoped to push back the Syrians and the Egyptians over the ceasefire lines by the end of the day and even to cross them in order to improve the situation (See: Telegram No. VL/773). Nevertheless Golda's mood was grim and she even feared for Israel's survival.

At a government meeting held at 21:00 in a sombre atmosphere, the minister of defence presented a report of the IDF's heavy losses, alongside a slightly more encouraging description of the situation on the fronts. Several ministers, such as Allon, began soul searching and drawing conclusions (this meeting was not released for publication).  No operative decisions were reached but the general consensus, as reported in a telegram from Galili to Eban in New York, approved by the prime minister, was that the goals remained the same as before: "A. To drive back the Egyptian army to the other side of the [Suez] Canal; B. To drive back the Syrian army over the ceasefire line on the Golan Heights, C. During those two actions, to inflict severe blows on the two enemy armies" (See: Telegram No. VL/778).

Following the reports on the grave military situation, the Israeli leadership changed its demands for military aid from the US. No more requests for individual items were made, but rather demands for massive aid, especially of fighter planes and tanks, with the prime minister exerting the full weight of her position (See Telegram No. VL/775). During the night, Shalev reported on a meeting between Dinitz, now back in Washington, and Kissinger, in which Dinitz "presented him with [the prime minister's] urgent request for Phantoms (planes)". Dinitz also reiterated Golda's decision not to order a preemptive strike, partly on Kissinger's advice, and claimed that this put the US under a moral obligation to help Israel. Kissinger praised Israel's decision, but said that supplying planes was very difficult. He told Dinitz that he had received a message from Sadat's adviser Hafez Ismail, according to which the Egyptians had no intentions of expanding the bridgeheads they had established, and if Israel would announce its willingness to withdraw to the '67 borders, they would be prepared to open negotiations on this. The secretary of state added that he was only transmitting the information and was not making any recommendation to consider it (See: Telegram No. LV/982). The Egyptians repeated this proposal several times during the coming days.

During the night the atmosphere in the prime minister's bureau began to improve. At 20:50 Lior reported that Deputy COGS Israel Tal was preparing reserves for a counter-attack and that things would return to their previous state or even better. Close to midnight a consultation was held with Yitzhak Rabin, who reported on a visit to the southern front with the COGS. Rabin stated that it was decided to launch a counter-attack against the Egyptian army the following day, which would be carried out gradually: only one of the three divisions there would attack at any one time, because "only these tanks stand between Tel Aviv and the Canal", as he put it. He ended with the statement that despite the difficulties and problems with Israel's forces, "all in all, the situation is satisfactory" (See above).



Commanders consult on the Southern front, among them ex-COGS Yitzhak Rabin, COGS Elazar and head of the Southern command Shmuel Gorodish, 8 October 1973. Photograph: Shlomo Arad, GPO

Monday, September 15, 2014

The British Mandate prepares for war

September 1 marked the 75-year anniversary of the German invasion of Poland, the start of the Second World War and the beginning of the Holocaust. The anniversary of this momentous event offers an opportunity to explore the part British-mandated Palestine played in the war.

The Munich agreement (September 29-30, 1938) is regarded today as the apex of appeasement towards Nazi Germany. At the summit in Munich, Adolf Hitler, Italy's Benito Mussolini, Britain's Neville Chamberlain and France's Édouard Daladier decided to hand over the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia to Germany in order to prevent war in Europe. The Munich agreement went down in history as a symbol of cowardice and incompetence against cruel tyranny and of the peaceful delusions of the 30's.
The Munich summit, September 29th 1938 (Wikicommons/Bundesarchiv Bild 183-R69173)
Nevertheless, it seems that the British government (or at least the government of Palestine) saw the Munich crisis as a wake-up call and a sign to prepare for the eventuality of war. Immediately after the Munich crisis, the Jerusalem district commissioner, Edward Keith-Roach, wrote to the Chief Secretary of the Palestine government (the head of the British administration in Palestine) and reported that he had conducted a survey in the stores of his district, and found that they were not adequate and ready for an eventuality of war, in terms of foodstuffs and other essential supplies.
Eduard Keith-Roach (Wikipedia)
The Palestine government responded quickly. The High Commissioner, Harold MacMichael (March 1938 – August 1944) wrote to the Secretary of State for the Colonies regarding the limited stocks of wheat and maize under the supervision of the Palestine government. Due to Palestine's economic stagnation and estimates that a rise in taxes and tariffs would worsen the economic situation, MacMichael asked for financial help from Britain in order to prepare Palestine for an emergency situation. The reason for the declining economic situation was the Arab revolt of 1936-39, which damaged the economy of Palestine, one of the few regions in the world that was least hurt by the economic depression of the 30s.
(Harold MacMichael (Wikipedia

The next stage was forming supervision on supplies in Palestine. John Shaw, senior assistant to the chief secretary (later he became chief secretary and was known for his involvement in the controversy concerning the warning given before the bombing of the King David hotel in July 1946. We wrote about it here) wrote to Jeffrey Walsh, the economic adviser to the Palestine government (later killed in the King David hotel bombing) and asked him to conduct a survey of the situation of the supply of essential foodstuffs. A committee was formed to control supplies to Palestine and the director of Medical Services, Colonel George Heron was appointed as the Controller of Supplies, Walsh was appointed as his deputy. Other members of the committee were Keith-Roach; Frank Mason – Deputy Director of department of Agriculture and Fish; Donald Finlayson – Deputy Director of department of Customs, Excise & Trade; Donald Gumbly - Director of Civil aviation; Michel Abcarius – Senior Assistant Treasurer, the Arab representative in the committee; Bernard Dov Joseph – Head of the Political department of the Jewish agency, was the Jewish representative in the committee and Arthur Rawdon Spinney – as the representative of the merchants and distributers. An army officer was appointed by the General officer commanding in Palestine to liaison with the army.
Geffrey Walsh (Zoltan Kluger/Israel State Archives)
The committee researched the supply problems of different foodstuffs to Palestine and contacted different governments (such as Australia, Burma, Siam and other) in regard of supplying food and other essential supplies, studied the possibilities of supplying fuel of different types (following Joseph's warning to Walsh that supplying fuel must be of the highest priority – transportwise and regarding the operating of agricultural machinery), considered options of rationing of food and other supplies and started to form a special administration for the controlling the supplies. From the different reports it can be seen that the Palestine government was not the only British colonial government (although Palestine was not a colony but a League of Nations mandate) – the Ceylon (Sri Lanka today) and the Malaya (Malaysia and Singapore today) are also mentioned as beginning to store food in preparation for war. 
The Middle East map during WWII (Wikipedia)
The basic premises for the work of the committee are also interesting: the committee agreed that the Mediterranean Sea would be closed to shipping, and so would be the entrance to the Suez Canal from the north. The southern approaches to the Canal would be open as well as sea lanes to India, China and Australia. Overland highways and train lines to Syria, Iraq and Egypt would remain open and not hampered. These were very logical ideas – Italy was seen as a potential enemy (although it is strange that the ability of Italy to block the horn of Africa from her bases in Somalia and Ethiopia and Eritrea was not mentioned). Japan's entry to the war was not envisioned – but Japan itself did not plan to enter the war in 1939, and only her defeat in the Khalkhin Gol in August 1939 caused her to change its strategy and turn to south-east Asia and against the USA. The planners also could not envision the fall of France on June 1940 or the Iraqi revolt in May 1941.

In April 1939, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Malcolm MacDonald, explained in his letter to high commissioner MacMichael (regarding MacMichael's letter from October 1938) that he must expect problems of supply also in the Red sea (not only in the Mediterranean) – probably an indication that there was a threat that Italy would try to block the sea lanes in the horn of Africa. MacDonald also wrote that there was no guarantee that Britain would be able to assist the Palestine government financially and it would have to organize its own purchase of food; Colonial office would try to assist. While preparedness for war was regarded a theoretical but possible in October-November 1938, the annexation of Czechoslovakia (or what remained of it) in March 1939, made war look inevitable.

Another sign of the gathering storm was the forming of a new organization – Air Raid Precautions(ARP). The ARP started initiating preparedness for air raids – installing sirens, preparing bomb shelters and other measures. Here are orders for preparing the Haifa harbor against air raids – a possibility that became a reality a year later when the harbor was attacked by Italian, German and also Vichy-French bombers.
On September 1st 1939, the day Germany invaded Poland, the Posts and Telegraphs department in the Palestine government issued a series of instructions on exporting records, films and restrictions on sending and receiving telegrams and letters to and from places abroad. Although Britain declared war on September 3rd, these instructions were for war time in the knowledge that war had just broken out.

The supply committee later evolved into the War Supply Board. Its director was Sir Douglas Harris, a member of the Palestine government's executive council and a veteran and well respected colonial office officer. The board was responsible on a series of different control offices, responsible for Industry, Food, Medical supplies etc. The Citrus control board was formed to help market one of Palestine's most important exports – the citrus fruit, which was hurt from war. Another interesting office was the controller of Salvage – an office responsible for recycling and repairing broken or derelict equipment of different kind. The War supply board cooperated with similar groups in the British Empire – one in east Africa, India and the "Spears mission" a supply group attached to the Free French government in Syria and Lebanon after they were conquered form Vichy France in May 1941 (named after General Edward Spears, the British laision officer with the Free French government in Syria and Lebanon). The War supply Board also cooperated with Middle East Supply Center (MESC) – the main Allied supply center outside Europe, situated in Cairo.

The Israel State archives hold a large collection of documents concerning the War Supply Board and its different bodies in Record Group 18 – The Emergency Economic Control. RG 18 gives us a fascinating look inside the economic activity in British mandated Palestine and its neighboring countries during WWII.   

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Update on the "Campaign to Eradicate Illiteracy" Publication

Yesterday (September 9), the first part of the Hebrew publication on the Campaign to Eradicate Illiteracy was published on our Hebrew blog.

Another post in English based on a booklet published in 1965 called "School Comes to Adults" appeared on our English website.

An illustration from the booklet:
Arab fathers and sons study together

Monday, September 8, 2014

World Literacy Day, 8 September: Israel's Campaign Against Illiteracy, 1964

Today is UNESCO World Literacy Day. To mark the occasion and the 50th anniversary of the first campaign in Israel against illiteracy, the Israel State Archives presents a new publication on adult education on its Hebrew website.
When mass immigration started after the establishment of the state in 1948 , many of the newcomers came from countries with a poor educational system or had missed schooling due to World War II and other upheavals. Although efforts were made to teach them Hebrew, it was often assumed that the first generation was a "lost generation" who would manage as best they could; their children would be educated and know Hebrew well.
 In 1961 a second wave of mass immigration began, mainly from North Africa and Romania. In the same year a census was held for the first time since 1948. The census also measured the level of education of Israel's citizens and showed that illiteracy was a serious problem, affecting almost a quarter of a million adults aged 14 and up. Over 162,000 could not read or write at all in any language, two thirds of them women. 96 thousand were semi-literate (defined as those who had attended up to 4 grades of elementary school). At the time there was free compulsory education only up to age 14.Most of the illiterate came from Asia and Africa, but there were also 20,000 illiterate people and 50,00 semi-literate people from Eastern Europe. Illiteracy was also found in the Israeli Arab community, which had lost much of its educated classes when they fled abroad during the war in 1948.
On the initiative of Education Minister Zalman Aranne, it was decided to take action against illiteracy and to teach Hebrew to adults. In January 1964, the "Campaign to Eradicate Illiteracy" was launched, which continued into the 1970s. The first head of the campaign was Yitzhak Navon, then head of the Culture Unit in the Education Ministry and later Israel's fifth president. The participation of women soldiers was organized by Colonel Stella Levy , commander of the Women's Corps of the IDF.
Yitzhak Navon watches a mother of ten learning to read, 1 May 1964
Photograph: Government Press Office
 
The subject of tension between the Mizrachi immigrants (from Asia and Africa) and the old established, mostly Eastern European veteran population, which was in charge of absorbing them, is a sensitive one, even in Israel today. Navon came from an old established Sefardi family from Jerusalem, while Levy was born in Syria. The Campaign to Eradicate Illiteracy is an example of the efforts made as early as the 1960s to help the immigrants to improve their economic situation and social status and to overcome the gap which had opened up between them and their own children.  
Soldier teaching women students in their home.
Photograph: IDF Archives
Women soldiers doing their compulsory service, who volunteered to teach students in remote settlements where illiteracy was very high, played an important part in the programme. The soldiers were given a short preparatory course and further instruction at intervals. The documents in our collection shows that they learned about teaching reading and writing and how to prepare a lesson,  but also about the history and culture of the Jews in the Middle East.
The full publication, which includes 30 documents, photographs, films and a map, most of them presented to the public for the first time, will appear over the next few days. 
 

Monday, September 1, 2014

Temporarily shutting down the Israel State Archives


"The Jews Stand By Great Britain and Will Fight on the Side of the Democracies" : 75 Years Since the Outbreak of the Second World War, 1 September 1939


Over the last few months, archivists, historians and the media have been preoccupied with the 100th anniversary of the First World War. However, this week also marks the 75th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War, which had such devastating consequences for the Jewish people.

At the time the Zionist movement faced a major clash with the British government. In May 1939 Britain issued a White Paper severely restricting Jewish immigration to Palestine and Jews' right to buy land, as part of its efforts to end the Arab revolt and to win Arab support in the coming war with Germany.  This decision condemned masses of Jews trapped in Europe, who might have found refuge in Palestine, to persecution and later to death. Nevertheless Chaim Weizmann, the president of the World Zionist Organization, realized that if Britain was going to fight Nazi Germany, the Jews could not stand aside. They would have to support it and even to join the British Army.

In August 1939 the Zionist Congress was held in Geneva. In his speech to the Congress Weizmann harshly criticized the British government for its betrayal of the Mandate and the Jewish people. On 22 August news arrived of the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact between the USSR and Germany, making the invasion of Poland possible. The Congress was hastily wound up, and, as the borders closed, Weizmann and his family returned to London.
Slogan on a German troop train on its way to Poland
 "We're going to Poland to thrash the Jews"
Photograph: Yad Vashem
 On 29th August he wrote to Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain to  confirm previous declarations "that the Jews stand by Great Britain and will fight on the side of the democracies…The Jewish Agency has recently had differences in the political field with the Mandatory Power. We would like these differences to give way before the greater and more pressing necessities of the time." You can see this document in the ISA's commemorative volume (in Hebrew) on Chaim Weizmann, who became Israel's first president.

Weizmann and the heads of the Zionist movement saw recruitment to the Army as a duty, but also hoped to form a Jewish fighting force which would pay political dividends after the war. This hope was only partially realized. Nevertheless Palestine played an important role in the British war effort in the Middle East and the ISA holds many files of the Mandatory Government on wartime production, emergency organization and related subjects. We'll show you some of these another time.

Weizmann and his wife Vera paid a heavy price during the war, when they lost their son, Michael, a pilot in the Royal Air Force, who failed to return from an operational flight over the Bay of Biscay in February 1942. Weizmann's other son Benjamin served as an anti-aircraft gunner in England and suffered a breakdown from which he never fully recovered.

Michael Weizmann in RAF uniform
 Photograph: Yad Chaim Weizmann,Weizmann Archives, Rehovot, Israel