A “Special Night Squads” unit in the late 1930s. These particularly brutal British empire auxiliaries, recruited from the Zionist militias, carried out a “dirty war” against Palestinian civilians. Some were even armed with Nazi guns. (Public domain)
Hitler’s regime allowed weapons to be sent to the Haganah in the 1930s.
Did you know that Britain’s infamous “Black and Tans” death squad, which oppressed the Irish during their war of independence, was also sent to Palestine in the early 1920s?
My colleague over at The Electronic Intifada David Cronin documented this in his brilliant book Balfour’s Shadow. 1
Cronin tells how British imperial administrators sent what they called a “picked force of white gendarmerie” to Palestine to suppress the indigenous people’s resistance to Britain’s colonial occupation and Zionist settler-colonialism. These were mostly recruited from the Black and Tans — notorious for some of the worst British crimes during the Irish liberation war.
Bringing in the Black and Tans was done at the urging of the then Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill. The “white gendarmerie” were dubbed “Winston’s own.” One British commander admitted that the unit had “had to leave Ireland because of the principle of self-determination and were sent to Palestine to resist the Arab attempt at self-determination.”
One British Army captain said that Churchill “upheld the Zionist cause and treated the Arab demands like those of negligible opposition to be put off by a few political phrases and treated like children.”
Douglas Duff, one of the first of this “white gendarmerie” to arrive in Palestine, later wrote admitting that “most of us were so infected by the sense of our own superiority over ‘lesser breeds’ that we scarcely regarded these people as human.” The police, he wrote “arrogantly dubbed all Palestinians, whether they were Muslims, Christians or Jews” as “wogs.”
After a 1922 battle against residents of Nablus who had resisted British attempts to impose a colonial census on their city, one of Duff’s comrades showed off a grizzly trophy in the canteen the next day: “the brains of a man he had splintered with a rifle-butt” which the “gloating, grog-blossomed” officer had stuffed into an old cigarette tin.
Such violent imperial racism would lead in 1936 to the outbreak of the Great Palestinian Revolt. The uprising sought to overthrow both British occupation and its accompanying Zionist settler-colonialism. It began as an unprecedented, massive general strike and — when that was brutally suppressed — escalated into an armed insurgency.
It’s fairly well known that the British recruited the Zionists to help them suppress the uprising.
These joint units were known as the Special Night Squads, established by a fanatical Christian Zionist in the British Army — Orde Wingate (modern-day British pro-Israel propagandist Colonel Richard Kemp is a big fan).
“Practically all” of the recruits for the Special Night Squads were recruited from the Haganah 2 — the largest Zionist militia operating in Palestine and the main forerunner of the modern Israeli army. Historians of the Israeli army have praised Wingate who, they say, saw himself “in practice as a member of the Haganah.”
Wingate and his fellow Zionists used particularly brutal methods to suppress the uprising.
When Palestinian freedom fighters sabotaged British colonial oil infrastructure, Wingate and his goons retaliated with collective punishment against entire civilian populations. He would round up a whole village and publicly whip the backs of the men, sometimes shooting them dead.
One British official said Wingate was guilty of “a dirty war of assassination.” But his bloody methods were applauded by the top brass.
“There is no file because it would be too embarrassing”
A few years later, during the Nazi occupation of Europe, Hitler’s goons would use very similar collective punishment methods. The Nazis learned a lot from the British empire.
But what is not as well known as the history of the Special Night Squads is the fact that some of them were also sent Nazi weaponry which was then used to help suppress the uprising.
I came across this hidden piece of history while researching my new book, Weaponising Anti-Semitism: How the Israel Lobby Brought Down Jeremy Corbyn (which is out soon: pre-order it here).
In my book I dedicate a whole chapter to the (in my view shameful) suspension and pushing out of Ken Livingstone from the Labour Party. The former mayor of London was effectively forced to quit Labour for accurately recounting historical facts: namely that “Hitler was supporting Zionism” in the 1930s, before the start of the Holocaust.
I show in some detail why Livingstone was right.
What was I slightly surprised to find was that the relatively well-known Haavara Agreement (which transferred German Jewish capital to the Zionist settler-colony in Palestine) was just the tip of the iceberg of collusion between the Nazis and the Zionist movement.
As I explain in my book:
Nazi support for Zionism even went as far as arms. [Adolf] Eichmann had a notable Zionist contact by the name of Feivel Polkes, who was an intelligence agent of the Haganah, the main Labour Zionist militia and precursor to the Israeli army. Eichmann brought Polkes to Berlin in 1937 for meetings with SS and Gestapo officials. As well as paying for his stay, Eichmann’s spy agency arranged for monthly payments to the Haganah agent “for his news gathering activities” on Jewish organisations in Palestine and elsewhere.
According to historian Francis Nicosia (who is by no means an anti-Zionist), between 1933 and 1935 the Haganah smuggled 300 barrels half-filled with Mauser pistols and ammunition into Palestine from Germany. In Berlin in 1937, Polkes expressed his gratitude to the Nazi officials for the guns, which he said had been useful to the Haganah during the recent Palestinian uprising.
Haganah agents were then active in Nazi Germany and, while it is unclear who exactly supplied the guns, Nicosia says that “it is certain that somebody in Germany did and that the [Nazi] police authorities were aware of it.” 3
There is a file on Feivel Polkes in the Haganah archives in Tel Aviv which Nicosia and other historians have been denied access to. Anti-Zionist historian Lenni Brenner was told: “There is no file because it would be too embarrassing.”
Historical facts do tend to be embarrassing for imperialists.
David Cronin, Balfour’s Shadow (London: Pluto Press, 2017), pages 20-24.
Cronin, Balfour’s Shadow, pages 53-55.
Francis R. Nicosia, The Third Reich and the Palestine Question (London: I. B. Tauris, 1985), pages 62-4.