HL Deb 04 July 1944 vol 132 cc636-46

LORD STRABOLGI had the following Notice on the Paper: To ask his Majesty's Government whether they are aware of the proposal that, in addition to the one million Jews already serving in the Armed Forces of the United Nations, facilities should be afforded for the formation of a Jewish Army under British or United Nations Command to fight on any required battlefield and to be composed of volunteers not at present liable to compulsory military service, such as Stateless refugee and Palestinian Jews, together with volunteers from neutral countries, and territories liberated from the enemy; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I should like to thank my noble friends Lord Templemore and Lord Southwood for arranging a time for this Motion which I have had on the Paper for some weeks and also for the compliment of fixing it on American Independence Day. There is a similar Motion on the Order Paper in another place in the names of fifty-three Members of Parliament of all Parties, and my proposal is supported by some of your Lordships here. I am not putting this forward officially on behalf of my noble friends on these Benches, but I have discussed the matter with my right honourable friend Mr. Greenwood who knows the subject very well and he is very favourable to the proposal contained in my question.

As my noble friend Lord Croft knows, this question has nothing to do with Palestine or with the politics of Palestine, for which he is no doubt very grateful. It does not affect those Jews who are serving or eligible to serve in our own National Forces. It does not affect the Jews who are serving in the forces of our Allies. For instance, it does not affect the 600,000 Jews serving in the Russian Army, of whom 30,000 have been decorated for valour and 120 have been given the highest award—Hero of the Soviet Union. It does not affect General Chernyakovsky whose northern group of armies captured Minsk and are now heading for East Prussia and Konigsberg. This does not affect that kind of Jew at all. They are already provided for in their own National Forces. It does not affect the Jews in the French Foreign Legion who formed the bulk of the Force under General Koenig at Bir Hakeim. Nor does it affect the 30,000 Jews in Palestine who joined the Eighth Army and other British Forces, many of whom are now serving in Italy with distinction. It does not affect men like Brigadier General Kish, chief engineer of the Eighth Army and pioneer of mine clearance, who was killed in Tunisia. Nor does it affect the 24,000 refugee Jews of all nationalities in Marshal Tito's Army in Yugoslavia.

The object is to recruit Stateless and refugee Jews, Jews in neutral countries and the Jews in Egypt, Iraq, Teheran and Turkey. In the Middle East countries and in North Africa there is a permanent Jewish population of 600,000 and my plea is that the very many able-bodied men in these communities should have an opportunity of serving against the common enemy. For instance, 5,000 young Jews are now ready in the Argentine to join such a force and should have an opportunity of taking part in the war. It may be said by my noble friend these people, or at any rate many of them, can join our Pioneer Corps. No one underrates the value of the Pioneer Corps but these men want to go into combatant units; into front line units. Others again are deeply religious men and hesitate to join ordinary units because there may be a difficulty about religious observance, whereas in a Jewish Army it could be easier to keep those observances. There is a precedent for that in what occurred during the last war. As to the numbers concerned the estimate of the number of men of military age, many of them already trained soldiers, including the untouched reservoir of man-power in Palestine, is between 100,000 to 150,000 or the equivalent of ten divisions. These are recruits who would be willing to serve anywhere in the world.

I need not stress to your Lordships the sentimental appeal that such a force would make to Jews everywhere. Hitler has declared the Jew to be his enemy Number 1. They offer themselves as our ally Number 1. As to the practical steps to be taken I suggest as a start that the Jewish battalions now serving in Italy could be increased and formed into separate divisions. These are Palestinian Jews who form separate battalions and are now serving in Italy. There is no reason why we should not take into these battalions other Jews from the Argentine, Egypt and Turkey, and from other countries and liberated areas. These recruits should not be limited to battalions but their numbers could be increased and later on they could be formed into divisions and then into corps.

I suggest that this offer should be seriously considered, apart from all other grounds, because as the war develops man-power becomes of ever greater importance. Already we have had appeals from the President of the United States and our Prime Minister for all the available man-power and General Eisenhower has made a striking declaration of the importance of man-power in the great battles that are now raging on the Continent and which will increase in intensity. All your Lordships are well aware of that point. Here is an offer of a very large number of ardent soldiers whom we can have for the asking.

This project has very wide support in the United States and a Committee which has been working on it for some time had the support of the late Colonel Knox. It has the support now of Mr. Stimson, Mrs. Roosevelt, many States Governors, General Hershay, the officer corresponding to our Adjutant-General who has the responsibilities of man-power in the United States; and also the support of all the trade union leaders in America with one exception, Mr. John Lewis, who is always in a minority. It also has the support of the Presidents of many American universities and the Bishops and clergy of both Protestant and Catholic Churches, and of 250 Senators and members of the House of Representatives. The first Chairman of the American Committee is a well-known American gentleman, Dr. Samuel Church, and Senator Johnson, the President of the Carnegie Institute, is now Chairman. In this country besides many of your Lordships and Members of the House of Commons there is a similar Committee which had the support of the late General Wingate and of Field-Marshal Sir Philip Chetwode, Field-Marshal Lord Plumer and many others with wide experience who believe that this would be a valuable contribution to the war effort of the United Nations—a great body of young men, many trained soldiers, whose zeal in the struggle against Hitlerism is beyond doubt. They only ask to be allowed to serve in Jewish units and brigades in the front line and to wear their own badges as in the case, for example, of our own Scottish regiments.

Just before the outbreak of war Dr. Weizmann, on behalf of the Jewish Agency, who really I suppose is the spokesman for the great majority of Jews throughout the world, offered to Mr. Chamberlain, then Prime Minister, help from Jewry all over the world in every way, including man-power. A few days later the war actually broke out. Dr. Weizmann offered to raise a Jewish fighting force to start to fight side by side with the British forces and under British command. He offered 10,000 men at once, and eventually 60,000, most of them in America, then neutral. This offer, after much consideration, was rejected on the grounds of lack of equipment. One can understand that being the case at that time. When the United States was still neutral and this country was in great peril in 1940 the Committee of which I have spoken were busy in the United States and they offered to raise at once—that was in 1940–100,000 Jewish volunteers for His Majesty's Army. This offer was also rejected again on the ground of lack of equipment. We who know the situation in regard to the position in 1940 can quite understand the reasons then given; but now another 100,000 Jews, most of them not liable for military service at all, offer their services as combatants. I understand the munition difficulty has been got over now. We have abundant arms and munitions of all kinds and I would suggest that His Majesty's Government should very carefully consider this matter before they reject this offer. I beg to move.


My Lords, I should not like this Motion to be passed over without saying a word or two upon it. As the noble Lord has so earnestly pressed upon the House it is undoubtedly the case that Jews throughout the world greatly desire to be able to join in this fight, against the greatest enemy that has ever afflicted them, in the form of some identifiable Jewish unit. The fact that a very large number of Jews obviously are in the various units that are scattered throughout the world does not altogether satisfy this demand and if the War Office can find some way of dealing with this very sincere and very natural desire it would certainly be responded to on a very large scale by those who have as great a desire, perhaps the greatest desire in the world, to destroy the Fascist and Nazi régimes against which we are fighting.

As to the scale upon which something of this kind can be organized at this stage of the war, naturally the noble Lord who speaks for the War Office will have far more knowledge than anyone outside can have. He will know that at the present time these matters have been raised between the great Jewish Agency and the Secretary of State for War, and that we are anxiously awaiting some sort of answer to the questions that have been put to him. In particular, they would like to press what was pressed something like a year ago, this very modest request for the formation at least of a Jewish brigade the basis of which could very easily be those battalions of the Palestine regiments that are at present serving in Palestine and Libya, who are, as they feel, wasting their time on guard duties when both officers and men are not only ready but anxious to take part in the actual fighting. They feel very strongly that they have not been given perhaps the sort of deal which they expected when they volunteered. None of these men are conscripts, they are all volunteers. If something can be done by the War Office to relieve the present situation I think they will be doing an act of justice and conceding something for which perhaps these men have the right to ask. The least that a man can ask for is the right to fight against his enemies in a properly organize unit—and that is all this demand amounts to—on the scale of a division or a brigade. At this period of the war I really think that might be acceded to.


My Lords, my remarks to-day, as the noble Lord rightly conjectured, will be confined to the military aspect of the proposal that a Jewish Army should be formed to take part in the war under British or United Nations command. The case for the formation of such an Army is based on two main propositions—namely, that there is a shortage of man-power, and that as many as ten or twelve divisions could be formed from Jews who are not yet serving, or who are not liable to compulsory service, or who are not at present eligible to serve in combatant units.

With the proposition that there is a shortage of man-power, no one could be found to quarrel; and if it could be found that ten or twelve divisions could be trained and equipped for service the combatant nations—I am convinced in this case I car speak for all of them—would welcome the addition of ten or twelve divisions to their forces. The question is whether in fact those divisions could be made available from the sources mentioned by the noble Lord, and whether the men from which they would be formed could, by and large, make a more valuable contribution to the Allied war effort as members of such formations than they would if they continued in their present capacities.

The noble Lord spoke of an Army comprising Jewish infantry divisions, Jewish Commandos, Jewish Air Squadrons and Jewish Tank Corps. I would like to take the snore simple proposal of the formation of some considerable number—ten or twelve, I think—Jewish infantry divisions which he postulated in the earlier part of his speech. Now, an infantry division requires a first-line strength of some 18,000 men, of whom, be it noted, quite a considerable proportion are employed in the various Services, such as R.A.S.C., R.A.M.C., R.E.M.E., Signals, etc. Twelve such divisions thus demand 216,000 men. The matter does not end there. Each infantry division requires several thousands of men per year to replace battle casualties and normal wastage by sickness and other causes; so that, to nourish the twelve divisions, a large reservoir of Jewish man-power would have to be available.

Lastly there is the obvious fact that an infantry division cannot live on nothing. It must have behind it its administrative tail, and its proper complement of Corps, Army and lines of communication troops. We find, therefore, that twelve infantry divisions really represents a man-power commitment far in excess of the capacity of any resources mentioned by the noble Lord, even including the 30,000 men he expects to get from Europe, to whom I will refer in a moment. It may, of course, be said that the Corps, Army and lines of communication troops need not necessarily consist of Jews; but the problem of finding them from other sources is obviously one of the greatest possible difficulty. There is also the consideration that these troops themselves will require reinforcements to make good normal wastage.

The sources of supply mentioned by the noble Lord were Palestine, the Middle East and Near East countries, French North Africa, European countries such as Spain, France, Yugoslavia and Italy, Great Britain and the U.S.A., and South America. The recruitment of Jews from these very diverse countries presents a large number of different problems. To mention only a few, the Jews in Palestine have already contributed a large proportion of their man-power to the Armed Forces of the Empire, and any considerable further recruitment would lead to a dearth of man-power for her essential industries. The great majority of Jews in this country, the U.S.A., and French North Africa are either serving already, or are engaged in work no less essential to the war effort. Any suggestion that Jews already serving, especially in the technical arms in which so many of them are engaged, should transfer out of these arms into newly-created Jewish formations would be entirely unacceptable, since it would cause a really serious degree of dislocation. The same applies to the Jews serving under Marshal Tito; he would be very reluctant to part with any considerable number.


I did not suggest taking Marshal Tito's men away from him. I said this did not apply to them. They are already serving.


I beg the noble Lord's pardon, I thought he meant men already trained in that country might be found to take their part. We are left with recruits from France, Italy, the countries of the Middle and Near East, Spain and South America. The number of recruits forthcoming from these countries must necessarily be largely a matter of speculation, especially since most of them would be liable to military service in their own countries, and recruitment in large numbers could only be with the consent of the respective Governments. Further, the different backgrounds from which they would come, their different languages and national characteristics would obviously impose difficulties in the way of welding them into a coherent whole.

This brings me to the question of the equipment, organization and training of the proposed force. The noble Lord said that there was now no question about equipment. I hope he will forgive my saying that this is to take an unduly optimistic view of the situation. It is true that our Armies to-day are among the best equipped in the world: but the equipment of as many as twelve new divisions is obviously a major task which could not be undertaken without a considerable diversion of effort. The carriage alone of such a large quantity of equipment to such place as might be chosen for the mobilization of these divisions would entail a heavy transport commitment.

Organization presents an equally big problem. War daily becomes a more complex and specialized art. Supposing that we were suddenly to find ourselves with some 250,000 Jews drawn from four different continents and many times that number of nations, I think the complexity of the problem would be appreciated. We would first of all have to find transport to bring them all to some central place, in itself no small problem, and we would have to find accommodation for them there. We would then have to try to sort them out into the jobs for which they were best fitted as individuals. Officers and non-commissioned officers would have to be selected, headquarters and staffs created, and indeed the whole complicated task of creating a large force out of a number of polyglot individuals would have to be undertaken with the added disadvantage that there would be no ready-made cadre upon which to build. This would evidently be a process which would take months, but which would have to be undertaken before any training except of the most elementary nature could begin. The training of a modern Army is also a lengthy process, more particularly in the technical arms, such as the Artillery, Medical Corps, Signals and so on. The minimum time within which a formation could be trained so as to be fit for battle would be eight months, and might well take as long as a year. I would mention in passing that this organization and training would have to be supervised by British or United Nations personnel—I do not think it could be done by anyone else—and this would represent a very considerable diversion of effort from the main task of winning the war as quickly as possible.

The noble Lord puts forward his plea for a Jewish Army on the very understandable ground that the Jews are anxious to strike their own blow against their oppressor Germany. But for reasons that I have indicated their capacity for doing so would not eventuate for many months to come and, with God's good grace, Germany will, we hope, have gone down to defeat long before a Jewish Army could, on the most optimistic view, be ready to take the field. This brings me to the noble Lord's alternative proposal which is very much more in keeping with the idea put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, that the Palestine Regiment should be expanded into a Jewish Division and that this should be used in active operation against the enemy by whom I presume the noble Lord means Germany. The difficulties which I have mentioned before apply to this proposal also, though in a lesser degree. Moreover, the organization and training of such a division would take many months. This would interfere unduly with the preparation and movement of formations which are likely to be more immediately called upon to fight against the enemy, and we therefore regard this also as not being a practicable proposition. Whether the organization of a smaller specifically Jewish formation—for example, a brigade or a brigade group—would be practicable, I cannot say to-day. But I can say that the possibility is being very darefully studied.


My Lords, I am greatly obliged to the noble Lord for his reply and I am not a bit downcast as a result of it, especially having regard to the last part of what he said. A number of us who are interested in this matter—we are all members of one House of Parliament or the other—asked my right honourable friend the Minister for War to receive us in a deputation. He is going to do so but he thought it more courteous to your Lordships to wait for this debate before we were received by him. We will now renew our request to the Secretary of State, and I know that he will see us. I think that we shall be able to clear away some of the technical difficulties which have been referred to by my noble friend to-day. One difficulty can certainly be cleared up, that of language. In my view, there is really no language difficulty. Yiddish is the international language which is used among these people, and, quite apart from that, many of these people have travelled nearly all over the world as refugees and they are very good linguists. If my noble friend thinks that ten divisions is an over estimate, why hot five? I think some of these questions can be got over easily, and I was very grateful to the noble Lord for what he said about the possibility of a brigade being formed out of the existing Jewish battalions.

I know the War Office language very well by this time for I have suffered under it for a good many years. I think the War Office rather misses the spiritual side of this question. The War Office authorities pay tremendous attention to the morale of their own regiments, the British regiments. The same sort of consideration applies here and I do not think they quite appreciate that or understand the tremendous sentimental appeal, the urge that this formation would give, and the pride that these long-suffering people would take in an effort of this kind. They can fight, as my noble friend knows, and they only want an opportunity of showing their prowess. I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.