Terror in Galilee: British-Jewish Collaboration and the Special Night Squads in Palestine during the Arab Revolt, 1938–39
The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History
In 1938 in British Mandate Palestine, British army officer Orde Wingate organised and led a joint British-Jewish military unit, the Special Night Squads (SNSs), to defeat Palestinian rebels fighting against British rule and Jewish immigration to Palestine during the Arab revolt, 1936–39...This study argues that joint intelligence gathering operations introduced the British army to Jewish agents and the possibilities of collaboration—Wingate was an intelligence officer—before detailing combined military operations in the field with the irregular SNSs. The originality of this article comes from its dissection of how British soldiers brutalised Jewish troops by training them in well-established British counterinsurgency methods that targeted civilians and villages close to rebel attacks.
Away from the control of established British military chains of command, the SNSs were especially tough in their war with Palestinians and they fought a ‘dirty war', an operational method absorbed and normalised by Jewish soldiers serving under British command. This article is a military and imperial history that details the quotidian brutality of pacification, opens up wider debates on how imperial powers collaborated with loyalist colonial minorities, shows how regular armies used irregular forces in pacification campaigns and suggests that post-colonial regimes such as Israel carried over such methods of control.
When the British army deployed to Palestine in April 1936 at the start of the Arab revolt against British colonial rule and Jewish immigration to the country, it collaborated with the Jewish settlers there as a ‘loyalist’ force against Palestinian insurgents. The army readily turned to minority communities for colonial control, to recruit as soldiers, divide its enemies and to gather intelligence: Sikhs and Gurkhas in India, or after 1945 Turkish Cypriots, aboriginal trackers in Malaya, Kikuyu loyalists in Kenya and Protestants in Ireland.
Jewish military collaboration with the British army is the subject of this article, leaving aside the recruitment by the colonial government of thousands of extra Jewish settlement and supernumerary police, almost 15,000 according to one source. Army-Jewish collaboration started with shared intelligence gathering, a combination that morphed into joint military units, notably the unconventional Special Night Squads (SNSs) that fought in Galilee in northern Palestine in 1938–39 and were led by the Nazareth-based British Army intelligence officer Captain Orde Wingate, a dedicated (Christian) Zionist who died in Burma in 1944 leading irregular forces against the Japanese. British commitment to the SNSs initially took the form of three platoons of 37 British soldiers based in Jewish settlements such as Hanita and Ein Harod and commanded by three subalterns seconded from Brigadier John Evetts’ Haifa-based 16th Brigade: Lieutenants Mike Grove (Queen's Own Royal West Kent Regiment), Robert ‘Rex’ King-Clark (Manchester Regiment) and H. E. N. ‘Bala’ Bredin (Royal Ulster Rifles). Evetts had ‘encouraged’ Wingate to reconnoitre Galilee and draw up a ‘detailed plan’ for the ‘establishment of Jewish counter-insurgency units which would operate at night with the support of British troops … . The policy had the blessing of Force Headquarters in Jerusalem but because it was considered to be an irregular practice few papers ever mentioned it.’
Wingate led patrols and was wounded doing so at the village of Dabburiyya in July 1938. Large numbers of Jewish soldiers from the Zionist defence organisation Haganah (The Defence) keen to get formal military training from the British passed through the SNSs, including many future Israeli commanders such as Yigal Allon and Moshe Dayan. Haganah became the Israeli army in 1948.
The supreme general officer commanding (GOC) in Palestine in early 1938, General Archibald Wavell, had lent his support to Wingate, but his successor, General Robert Haining, and the high command in Jerusalem were uncomfortable with unconventional warfare and the army eventually demanded Wingate's departure from Palestine in October 1938, spurred on by reports of SNS brutality...
This study of the SNSs argues that tough, often brutal, exemplary action was standard military counterinsurgency practice for the British soldiers leading the SNSs, easily employed by them against local civilians and insurgents, and then passed on to Jewish soldiers training and fighting with the unit. British military counter-rebel practice and doctrine had always been harsh and openly targeted civilians but soldiers’ humanity, civil oversight, legal strictures, public and press scrutiny, rebel counter-measures and the colonial state's hierarchy of race—with ‘white’ insurgents usually treated less harshly—mitigated military action.
Moreover, soldiers rotated through Palestine on time-bounded regimental tours of duty on what was for them another interesting colonial posting and they were not interested in the country's fate and so had no personal animosity for Palestinians beyond their being in revolt. When asked whether he or his men knew anything about Palestine before shipping out from the UK in 1938, King-Clark remembered in his memoirs how ‘at that time, in the Army at least there was almost total indifference in and ignorance of political affairs—among the younger officers and men, anyway'. This was not the case with the independently minded SNSs. The mercurial Wingate was a fanatical supporter of a Jewish state and he filled the SNSs with Jewish soldiers training for a future war of survival against the local Palestinians, which would come in 1948. This, alongside the lack of a formal military chain of command, meant that brutality by the SNSs quickly spiralled out of control, upsetting senior officers mindful of the negative impact of atrocity stories, and was one of the reasons that they eventually curtailed and then closed down the unit. It is difficult uncovering the brutality inherent in military operations but the night-time actions of the SNSs are especially murky and ‘wild', as will be discussed below.11 British SNS brutality prompted Jewish soldiers, taught them how to deal with insurgency and insurgents and set this within a colonial legal framework of collective punishment and punitive action that normalised draconian action.
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