by Martin Sugarman
London: Vallentine Mitchell / Portland, Or.: International Standard Book Services, 2010. Pp. xxii, 474.
Illus., appends., notes, biblio., index. $74.94. ISBN: 0853039003
The repeatedly-presented thesis and theme of this book, in part a collection of articles, is that British Jews, though comprising one-half of one percent of the population, during the Second World War some 20 percent of British Jews served in uniform, far above their proportionate numbers. Contrary to the anti-Semitic sneer that Jews were cowardly and shirked their patriotic duty, and despite encountering bias from the streets of London to the officer corps, archivist and military historian Martin Sugarman attests, Jewish men and women actively participated in every facet of the war effort, both in the armed forces and as noncombatants.
Exhaustively researched and meticulously documented, Fighting Back invaluably reminds Jews and non-Jews, Britons and others that Anglo-Jewry was there among the RAF pilots and aircrew in the Battle of Britain and later with Bomber Command over Germany, in the thick of the commando raid at Tobruk, fighting as “Paras” (Paratroopers) at the Battle of Arnhem, men and women both carrying out vital clandestine operations in France, behind enemy lines, as undercover agents and saboteurs for the Special Operations Executive (SOE), served in the Fire Service amidst the worst of the Blitz (an estimated 85 percent of Civil Defence in the East End were Jewish), and labored as code breakers at Bletchley Park to crack the Germans’ Enigma code.
It may be impossible to account for all of the British Jews who served. While Jews had fierce incentive to destroy anti-Semitic Nazism, they faced great risks if captured by the Germans; accordingly, many, particularly refugees from Germany, served literally under noms de guerre or otherwise hid their Jewish identity.
One might quibble about the inclusion of these non-British refugees as well as of the 30,000 Jewish volunteers from the British Mandate of Palestine, including Moshe Dayan. Sugarman having served in the Israeli Army, the latter might be forgiven, and their effective omission from British historical records understandable in light of later events, if not forgivable. As for the refugees from Germany and Occupied Europe, once suspicion of them died down sufficiently, they proved to be a great asset – especially those who spoke German fluently – and they were dubbed “His Majesty’s Most Loyal Enemy Aliens.” One might also protest that, while he barely touches on the war against Japan here – though it is the focus of his 2014 study Under the Heel of Bushido: Last Voices of the Jewish POWs of the Japanese in the Second World War, the book devotes entire chapters to topics outside the scope of World War II, such as the Jewish Company of the Shanghai Volunteer Corps, the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War [inadvisable, one might think, as it later opened Jews to the charge of being disloyal internationalist Bolsheviks] and British and Commonwealth forces in the Korean War.
As facts testify, Jewish not only served, but served with distinction: three soldiers were awarded the Victoria Cross and another three the George Cross, 168 the Military Cross, 188 the Distinguished Flying Cross, and over a thousand were Mentioned in Despatches; additionally, nearly a hundred others received foreign honors, including the US Bronze Star (12), and France’s Legion d’Honneur (9) and Croix de Guerre (40). (Many of the exploits of the SOE went unrecognized and are still shrouded in secrecy.) Huge chunks of the book consist of long lists of names of Jewish personnel who participated in each branch of war service, but readers are spared tedium by sections spotlighting and whole chapters devoted to detailed descriptions of individual acts of bravery that bring the stories to life, that, as Sir Martin Gilbert puts it in his Foreword, “give flesh and blood to these statistics.” Readers might find the chapters on SOE operations, with their daring exploits, narrow escapes, and treacherous betrayals, of special fascination.
In a war where ordinary people became extraordinary and the exceptional seemed commonplace, the unique circumstances and remarkable character of Britain’s Jews nevertheless merit them additional honor. Despite its flaws, Sugarman’s volume admirably fills a gap in both Jewish (particularly Anglo-Jewish) history and in the scholarship of World War II.
Fighting Back is also available in a paperback edition, $32.95, ISBN 978-0-5303-3910-5