Thursday, July 21, 2016

Israel and Guinea Renew Diplomatic Relations after 49 Years: Foreign Ministry Documents on the Breaking of Relations, 5 June 1967

Yesterday, 20 July 2016, the renewal of Israel's diplomatic relations with the West African state of Guinea was announced, 49 years after they were cut off. In the Foreign Ministry files at the Archives we have some interesting documents describing how Guinea severed its relations with Israel on 5 June 1967, the first day of the Six Day War.

Nahum Gershom, the ambassador in Conakry, the capital of Guinea, reported on 27 May to the African Division of the Foreign Ministry  during the "waiting period" of tension following Egypt's closing of the straits of Tiran, that President Ahmed Sékou Touré  had sent a letter of support to the Egyptian leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser. However the ambassador had managed to see the secretary-general of the foreign ministry and explained Israel's case to him, also giving him the document in French shown below, and there was much sympathy for Israel among the people.

Nevertheless Gershom was not surprised when, at 12:30 on 5 June, he was summoned to the Foreign Ministry and told that relations would be severed and all the Israeli representatives, including agricultural advisers, must leave at once. Gershom wrote that as soon as he heard that war had broken out, he assumed that this step would follow. Nasser had sent telegrams to all the African states friendly to Egypt, asking them to cut off relations with Israel, and the Guinea radio station had begun to broadcast military music. These events are described in another letter to the African Division. You can see Gershom's letters on our Hebrew blog.

Even before this Israel's relations with mainly Muslim Guinea were deteriorating, as the Guineans had adopted a strongly anti-Israel line including condemnations at the UN and international conferences, and anti-Israel publications in the local media.  Israel established diplomatic relations with Guinea in 195, immediately after it received independence from France. But relations with the new state were always problematic, due to the pro-Soviet line and dictatorial methods of its leader  Sékou Touré, one of the prominent leaders of the first generation of emerging African states.  

Ahmed Sekou Toure, Wikipedia

Guinea was the only African state to break off relations with Israel after the Six Day war. Burundi and Mali suspended their ties but did not break off relations. However most of the African states did so in 1972 and 1973. Many of them resumed relations with Israel in the 1980s after the peace treaty with Egypt. 

 .Nations Online Project, map of Guinea

Thursday, July 7, 2016

How Idi Amin Personally Threatened Israel Over the American Movie "Victory at Entebbe"

The operation to liberate the Jewish hostages at Entebbe in Uganda on July 4, 1976 stunned the world and captured the imagination of creators of many--writers, newspapermen, and of course movie producers. For good reason: Operation Jonathan, as it would become known in Israel, had all the makings of a first rate action movie--terrorists hijack an aircraft to a distant land, a tyrannical ruler assists them, and a daring commando unit releases them while its commander falls during the rescue. Unsurprisingly, immediately after the dust had settled on "Operation Jonathan," different producers in Israel and abroad sought to make a movie about it.

They acted with great speed. Less than six months after the operation, in the middle of December 1976, the television movie Victory at Entebbe premiered, featuring famous Hollywood stars such as Kirk Douglas, Richard Dreyfuss, Burt Lancaster, Anthony Hopkins, Elizabeth Taylor, and others.

Different adaptations of Entebbe portrayed the operation in different ways but they all had one thing in common: the "bad guy" (in addition to the German and Arab hijackers) was the leader of Uganda, Idi Amin Dada, who was known for his brutal repression of his political opponents. It is no wonder, then, that "Victory at Entebbe" evoked the wrath of Amin.

In December 1976, he sent a telegram to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and protested his and Uganda's depiction as accomplices in the hijacking. The ruler of Uganda repeated his claim that he acted to save the hostages while Israel abused his "hospitality" and sent troops "purposely to destroy lives of innocent people." Evidence proved, however, that Amin and his army were accomplices (as can be seen in the Foreign Ministry documents we published on our Hebrew blog). The wording of Amin's telegram was undiplomatic and included veiled threats: "Those who are now rejoicing will one day suffer and some of them will come and kneel before me for mercy and will write a different story about their fate." All this was dictated by Amin himself.

Idi Amin (Wikipedia)
Two more movies were produced on Operation Jonathan: a television movie named Raid on Entebbe in January 1977 (with Charles Bronson as Dan Shomron) and later that year an Israeli feature movie named "Mivtsa Yonatan" (Operation Jonathan). Its cast included some of the most famous names in Israeli film and entertainment of that time: the singer Yehoram Gaon as Yoni Netanyahu, the singer Arik Lavie as Dan Shomron, and actors such as Shaike Ophir, Gila Almagor, Shmuel Rodensky and many others.

N.B: The operation to rescue the hostages in Entebbe was originally code-named "Operation Thunderbolt." It was actually a Hebrew translation of the name of the 1965 James Bond movie "Thunderball." This was the name the IDF computer came up when Dan Shomron, the commander of the operation looked for a good code name. Following the success of the operation, the Israeli government decided to change the name to "Operation Jonathan" in memory of Lt. Col. Yehonatan Netanyahu. In the rest of the world, it's widely known as "Operation Entebbe."

Monday, July 4, 2016

Leo Lessman Fights in the Battle of the Somme – The Centenary of the WWI Battles of Verdun and the Somme

On July 1, Britain marked the centenary of one of the traumatic events in its history, the Battle of the Somme. Here we present some more photographs from Leo Lessman's war diary, showing scenes from the German side of the battle.

This year marks the centenary of two of the greatest battles of the First World War, the Battle of Verdun (February - December 1916), and the battle on the river Somme (July - November 1916). The battle of the Somme is regarded as one of the bloodiest in world history. The importance of these battles goes beyond military history--they profoundly influenced the warring countries: Germany, France and Britain. The continuing struggle and terrible losses undercut the foundations of society in these states, which were never the same afterwards.

At Verdun, the Germans planned to draw the French into battle for a position which they would feel compelled to defend at all costs. Verdun was such a position. A fortress city since the Roman period, it was the last French position to surrender in the 1870/71 Franco-Prussian war and was a source of pride for the French in their defeat. The chief of staff of the German army, Erich von Falkenhayn (of which we have written before) believed that the French would not cede Verdun and it was a chance to "bleed the French white." He planned a series of limited attacks on positions on the perimeter of Verdun, which would draw the French to concentrate forces and fight for them. Falkenhayn planned to concentrate massive numbers of artillery and butcher the French, forcing them to retreat and even stop fighting.

The offensive opened on February 21st and was a success at first. The Germans took some key positions. Just as they hoped, the French decided to fight and defend Verdun. They moved large number of troops to the Verdun front, and rotated units every 2 weeks, to lessen the attrition in battle. They also massed their own artillery and showed the Germans that they could inflict heavy losses. In the end, the French recaptured all the land taken by the Germans, but at a terrible cost – it is estimated that both sides lost between 714,000 to 972,000 troops – killed, wounded and missing.

The Allied Somme river offensive was planned in December 1915 as the great offensive of the year against Germany. The German offensive in Verdun made the battle even more important – as a means to draw Germans forces away and to aid a great Russian offensive (the "Brusilov offensive" June – September 1916). Verdun changed the planning – the French could not lead the attack and the British were now the main force with French support. The British army was now a large volunteer army, made up of men who had answered Field Marshal Horatio Herbert Kitchener's call for "100,000 volunteers". 2.5 million men answered the call. "Kitchener's army" had all the enthusiasm and patriotism in the world, but it lacked sound training and experience (most of those who could have trained them better, the professional army, were either dead, wounded or prisoner).
World War I recruitment poster featuring Lord Kitchener/Wikipedia

On 0730, July 1st 1916, after a weeklong bombardment, the British soldiers "went over the top" – climbed out of the trenches, formed groups and started advancing towards the German lines. The British commanders told their troops that the heavy artillery had demolished the German lines, and that all they had to do is cross "no-man's land" and take the German lines.  This was not true. British patrols and raids mounted during lulls in the bombardment found that German barbed wire was intact and that many German units were well dug in. This information was not received by British high command.  The German soldiers were protected in underground bomb shelters and were mostly unscathed by the heavy fire.

As the assault commenced, the German troops ran to their positions and opened fire on the oncoming British troops. The concentration of the British soldiers in large groups made the slaughter all too great – 57,000 casualties, 21,000 of them killed. It was the largest number of casualties for a single day of fighting in the history of the British.  The British catastrophe was larger than statistics can show.   The British units were "Pals battalions" – whole units recruited from the same geographic area, from cities and villages. Friends, neighbors, co-workers all volunteered together – and were killed together. In one morning, thousands of women were bereaved. The losses crossed all social boundaries.

 The battle did not end after one day. The British resumed their attacks, and the Germans counter attacked. The German Army commander on the Somme, Fritz von Below ordered his troops:" the vital thing is to hold on to our positions at all costs…The enemy should have to carve its way over heaps of corpses". The battle raged all summer. The thunder of guns was heard as far away as London. In September the British introduced a new weapon – the tank, but it did not achieve the break through expected.

The battle ended by November. The British forces conquered an area in the depth of 10 kilometers in the German lines. The cost was terrible – 600-700,000 casualties (150,000 killed) for the British and French, 450, 000 Germans (164, 000 killed).

According to his diary, Leo Lessman fought in the Battle of the Somme (Somme-Schlacht). His unit was stationed by Bapaume, a town in northern France, just outside of the area the British were planning to attack. Lessman's 103 Field Artillery regiment provided close cover fire to the German front line forces, who were trying to stop the British. The album does not show photos of the battlefield but Lessman took many pictures of Bapaume, which was badly hit during the battle (here are more photos of the damage in Bapaume from the Bundesarchiv/Wikicommons).
 The Germans retreated from Bapaum in March 1917, when the German army conducted a strategic retreat to a new, heavily fortified line that was supposed to spare them another Somme blood bath. A year later, in March 1918 during the great German Spring offensive, the Germans retook Bapaume. It was finally liberated by Australian troops in September 1918. (Bapaume has a Chemin des Anzacs since).
A hotel in Bapaume, damaged in a bombardment

Townhall of Bapaume, damaged in a bombardment
Hospital road in Bapaume
A German observation balloon, near Bapaume

 A street concert in Vaulx, probably in the vicinity of Bapaume
Infantry reinforcements on the way to the front, Vaulx (near Bapaume)

Ruins of what was the village Serra (west of Bapaume). The village changed hands several times and was totally destroyed