South African Military History Society

September 1983 NEWSLETTER

Past meeting - Johannesburg - 11th August 1983

The main speaker was Chief Rabbi B.M. Casper who presented the Society with some of the lesser known aspects of the Mediterranean theatre during World War II and provided an insight into the non-military side of military history. Rabbi Casper was educated at London and Cambridge, took his Rabbinic ordination in London & Jerusalem and served as a rabbi in Manchester and London. In 1941, he was commissioned as a Chaplain R.A.Ch.D. in which capacity he served in England and Egypt. After his appointment as the Senior Chaplain of the Jewish Brigade Group, he saw action in Egypt, Italy, Belgium and Holland. Since the war, Rabbi Casper has been Dean of Students at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and Chief Rabbi of South Africa since 1963. He is the author of six books and numerous articles. The subject of his talk was taken from his period of service with the Jewish Brigade: "Experiences as a Chaplain of the Forces during World War II".

Rabbi Casper began by sketching in some of the background to the formation of the Jewish Brigade Group. The Jewish Agency for Palestine which was regarded as a sort of government in embryo by the Jewish population of Palestine and accorded de facto but not de jure recognition by the British, had for some time been recommending the creation of a Jewish fighting unit. It was felt that, although there were Jews in most of the Allied units, it was necessary to establish a Jewish unit as such in order that the Jews might hav eth eopportunity to be seen as taking a full part in the fight against Facism[sic] and standing up to their oppressors. The Jewish Agency's original proposal was for a Jewish Army to be raised from volunteers from all over the world, particularly from the United States. When this idea was turned down, they scaled down their suiggested unit to a Corps, and then to a Division, and finally to a Brigade Group. Rabbi Casper described the pleasure, pride and excitement of the men of the 1st Jewish Battalion, the Palestine Regiment when, on 20 Sept. 1944, they heard the announcement that a Jewish Brigade was to be established and that it would form upon the Palestinian regiments then existing.

Prior to the creation of the Jewish Brigade, there had been a number of Palestinian units in existance.[sic] These were primarily company-sized formations of Pioneers, Transport or Engineers and had seen service from Abbysinia to Tobruk and from Greece to Iraq. The establishment of the Palestine Regiment (originally intended to contain 3 Jewish and 3 Arab battalions but the Arab units were never formed) reuslted in larger Jewish units being present but these were used for guard duties and lines of comminication work. This did not satisfy the Jewish Agency who wanted an officially recognized and designated Jewish fighting force of which the Jewish Brigade became the first in 850 years.

The new unit was a totally self-sufficient entity with their own artillery, RE, transport, workshops, signals and ambulance sections attached enabling it to be moved and used as an independent force. The Brigade was built up to full complement in Africa and then moved to Italy where they did further training in the snow and cold of the Italian mountains near Rome. On 25th March 1945, the Jewish Brigade saw action for the first time in the assault on the Gothic Line. In April, they took part in the liberation of Bologna and were still in the vicinity when the war ended in May. Most of the Brigade's immediate post war activity centered around the succor ofthe refugees or Displaced Persons who thronged all of Europe at that time. Rabbi Casper told of many examples of the efforts to which the men of the Jewsih Brigade went intrying to find their friends and relatives who had been caught up in the maelstrom of the war and oftheir unselfish generosity to the helpless and homeless whom they encountered. To a great extent, these activities were material in starting the stream of 'illegal immigration' to Palestine. It is estimated that almost 18 thousand refugees were passed through the lines of the Brigade on their way to an escape from the vast graveyard which Europe had become for them.

At a later stage, the brigade was moved from northern Italy to Belgium and Holland (passing through Germany in the most rapid manner possible) where they assumed occupation duties and continued their self-imposed search and save mission. In April of 1946, the Jewish Brigade was disbanded and most of the 500 men returned to Palestine. There they began to play a different role from that they had performed during wartime and helped to contribute to the formation, foundation and protection of the modern state of Israel.

In support of his talk, Rabbi Casper showed a number of slides showing the men and officers of the Jewish Brigade in inforaml situations. Among these photographs was one showing a younger version of the speaker himself wearing one of the first shoulder flashes issued to the Brigade and performing a Passover seder service immediately behind the front lines. Other shots included the Star of David shoulder flash mentioned above, distribution of Matzoh for Passover, a shell labelled, in Hebrew, "A present for Passover", the Palestine Symphony Orchestra playing before the departure to Italy and the cemetery near Ravenna.

Dr Felix Machanik presented the thanks of the Society to Rabbi Casper for his talk, describing it as a saga and an unknown story well worth hearing.

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Before the principal speaker began his talk, the Chairman reported briefly to the Society on the results of the Mafikeng trip and the events and talks involved. A more detailed report on this trip will appear in next month's newsletter. In brief, it was a very good week-end which was greatly enjoyed by the members and guests who participated in the excursion. Casualties were described as light to non-existant.

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The reliable firm of M-G-H was represented by another episode of 'Military Magazine' entitled "Off to War". This dealt with the ships which took part in the Falklands conflict. We were treated to the usual excellent standard of slide and description covering the conversion of the civilian craft to vessels of war and their subsequent activities in the South Atlantic.

Under the heading of "Other items of interest", Major Hall announced that the Scribe has been elevated to the position of Vice-Chairman (perhaps for his intense interest in and knowledge of vice) and that he had responded to the honour by announcing his imminent departure ofrthe United States. Felix Machanik made the presentation of a book and a magazine to the new Vice-Chairman as a going-away present and to remind him of the Society while abroad. The grateful response to this gesture included a reminder to the Society that they were not losing a Vice-chairman but rather gaining a foothold in California.

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Darrell Hall also announced that a braai will be held in the Museum grounds on the 28th October and that those wishing to attend should return the booking slip included with this newsletter at the earliest possible date.

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The Old Kit Bag - Various Items
The current issue of the Journal has been sent out to all paid-up members of the Society. If you have not yet received your copy, please check to ensure that you are a member in good standing or that your post has not gone astray.

The new index to the Journal has also been completed and is now available through the Museum. Members are reminded that the Indexes of the Journal are not included in their subscriptions, but must be purchased separately.

A second reminder that the principal social event in the Society's calendar is the braai which will betaking place on 28th October. Anybody who has attended these events in the past will recommend them as being great fun for all participants and your Scribe can heartily recommend your taking part. An early return of the enclosed booking slip will be very helpful to the committee in making the necessary arrangements and getting the appropriate number of supplies. The cost of the braai is R6.00 per head or per mouth.

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Rod Murchison (788-4810(B))
(Scribe - on the transfer list)

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