The best soldiers of the Red Army?

Permit me to come back on the subject of Victory Day celebrations and Russian (Soviet) veterans. I’m coming back on it because this is a neglected aspect of World War II history.

When I watched those Jewish-Israeli Soviet veterans marching in Israel last week-end, I started looking for some books or articles on this subject. After all, this blog is not called “Books and Bayonets” for nothing.

And I found an excellent article by historian Kiril Feferman about the “’The Jews’ War’: Attitudes of Soviet Jewish Soldiers and Officers Toward USSR in 1940-41” in The Journal of Slavic Military Studies (vol.27, no 4, 2014), which is edited by none other than military historian David M. Glantz.

This article covers the attitudes and motivations of Jewish soldiers who fought under the hammer and the sickle banner during WW2. Before the Nazi invasion of June 22, 1941, “[…] a minority of the Jewish military men held indifferent or even hostile attitudes toward the Bolshevik regime.” But that was to change.

The German attack against the USSR “[…] promptly transformed all Jewish soldiers and officers into the staunchest anti-Nazi force and hence, probably one of the most reliable groups in the Red Army. This occurred even before the knowledge of the Holocaust became widespread.”

What motivated them to act in such a way? A combination of the desire to be fully recognized as citizens of the Soviet Union, of avenging the persecution of the Jewish people by Nazis or even the fact that they simply had no alternative because they knew what would happen if they fell into the hands of the Nazis.

All in all and based on the works of other academics, Feferman observes that “[…] the Jewish contribution to the Soviet victory over Germany was not lower but probably even exceeded in relative terms that of other Soviet peoples.”

It is unfortunate, in the context of the Western discourse, that the essential contribution of the Red Army to the victory of 1945 is overlooked or undermined. It is also a fact that the Jewish soldiers contribution on the battlefield is a neglected area of collective memory.

It would be an act of legitimate and deserved gratefulness not to restrict this remembrance to a couple of days in May or in the few pages of an excellent academic journal.

Montgomery and Israel

Marshal Montgomery in North Africa during WW2. Source: http://thetim.es/1Pdl3es
Marshal Montgomery in North Africa during WW2. Source: http://thetim.es/1Pdl3es

Martin Sieff just wrote a brilliant book review in the Jerusalem Post about Monty’s Men, a reappraisal of the contribution of Marshal Montgomery’s forces during WW2 by British military historian John Buckley.

In my opinion, the most significant and insightful passage of that piece is the following:

“In addition to these stunning achievements, Israelis have never woken up to the crucial fact that Montgomery twice played a central, critical role in protecting the Yishuv, the Jewish community in Palestine in the pre-state years. Firstly, he saved them from massacre by suppressing the 1936-39 Arab uprising, the first true intifada. Then he rescued them from total genocidal extermination by annihilating the Nazi drive to conquer the entire Middle East at the Battle of Alamein, in November 1942.”

You can understand why the book review is titled “The Yishuv’s unlikely guardian angel”.

Even though I’m a huge fan on Monty, I have to admit that my knowledge about this part of his career is lacking. And I gather I’m not the only one.

In his recent book about Orde Wingate – who is held in very high esteem in Israel for his role forming the Special Night Squads (SNS), a unit in which Wingate recruited future legends like like Yigal Allon and Moshe Dayan – Simon Anglim briefly refers to Montgomery and his involvement in the military affairs of the Mandate:

“The other major factor [in fighting the Arab uprising] was the arrival in Northern Palestine’s of the British Army’s most capable and ruthless senior commander, Major General Bernard Montgomery, assuming command of the 8th Division, including the 16th Brigade, in December 1938. Montgomery’s favoured pattern of operations could have been lifted straight from Calwell or Simson: the British were ‘definitely at war’ and any return to civilian control could only follow the complete destruction of the rebels in battle. There was a resumption of cordon and sweep operations by mobile columns, with the specific aim of killing insurgents, and greater use than before of night-time raids on villages suspected of harbouring guerrillas , now involving all units, not just the Night Squads.” (p. 85).

Of course, this is not sufficient to quench my curiosity about Monty’s military role during the British Mandate in Palestine. But it’s a pretty good starting point.

And knowing that many – not to say most – of the British officials in Jerusalem were then harboring if not anti-Semitism at least a relatively high level of resentment towards the Jewish people, it’s good to know that Orde Wingate has company in Monty as friends of the Yishuv.