Choosing Sides

It is important not to confuse deserters with the volunteers from abroad who fought in Israel's Mahal unit.

Dakia Karpel
Dalia Karpel
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Dakia Karpel
Dalia Karpel

No one has yet done a comprehensive study about deserters from the British Army during the 28 years of British Mandatory rule in Palestine, asserts historian Benny Morris. It is also important not to confuse deserters with the volunteers from abroad who fought in Israel's Mahal unit. In 1948 thousands of such volunteers were serving in the Israel Defense Forces, including about 150 non-Jews, most of whom served in the air force. The 7th Brigade, which operated in Galilee, was addressed in English, because its commander was Ben Dunkelman - a Jewish volunteer from Canada.

The most famous deserters from the British Army were Harry MacDonald, a Scottish tank commander, and Mike Flanagan, an Irish mechanic, who stole Cromwell tanks and burst through the gate of the British base in Haifa. The two tanks became the "core" of the IDF's first tank battalion, and the two deserters took part in the War of Independence in IDF uniform. MacDonald later immigrated to Canada. Flanagan stayed in Israel, converted to Judaism, supervised the tank repair unit at the Armored Corps base in Julis, and married and raised a family here. The remains of the two Cromwells are on view in the Armored Corps Museum at Latrun.

According to the historian Yoav Gelber, 53 British soldiers deserted to the Arab side, while only a few joined the Jewish side. One deserter joined the defenders of the Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem, and after the fall of the quarter was taken prisoner by the Jordanians along with all the other soldiers and civilians. Another deserter, George Shelley from New Zealand, was taken prisoner by the Egyptians but escaped, reached Cyprus and returned to Israel.

Gelber: "The personnel reports of the British Army in Palestine at the end of March 1948 note there were 53 deserters, six of whom turned themselves in. Sixteen Englishmen deserted from the British police force. A few British deserters were killed or captured while aiding the Arabs. According to a British intelligence report, two or three were killed while preparing an explosive device in Nablus, though a different version says they were killed while dismantling a booby-trapped car that was brought into Nablus by a Lehi man disguised as an Arab, but which was discovered before it went off in the wake of an informer.

"Another Englishman was killed in the village of Qaluniya in Operation Nahshon. Three were killed in the attack on Neveh Yaakov; another three were captured on the same occasion by the British Military Police and tried. Two Britons were captured on Mount Zion and two were killed at [Kibbutz] Ramat Rahel. Another two were later taken prisoner by the Givati Brigade. Some of the deserters joined the Army of Salvation whose commander, Qawuqji, afterward dragged them with him to Galilee, as documents seized in Nazareth show. In contrast, there is no documentation of British deserters in the Haganah other than the three already mentioned. There were probably more deserters in April 1948, but not in the dozens."

John Patrick Cooper's comrades in 1948.

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