Driving the Nazis from the Middle East

Review of Gershom Gorenberg’s War of Shadows: Codebreakers, Spies and the Secret Struggle to Drive the Nazis from the Middle East. published by Public Affairs (New York 2021) pp. 476

Eighty years ago, the North Africa campaign pitted Reichsmarschall Erwin Rommel — the Desert Fox — against British forces. This resulted in a year later with the great victory of El Alamein in June 1942. If Montgomery had failed in defending Egypt, Walther Rauff and his einsatzgruppen were gleefully waiting in the wings, ready to enter Palestine and practice the deadly techniques they had finessed in Poland.  This is the Jewish story behind the broader episode related in this detailed work by the Jerusalem-based writer, Gershom Gorenberg.

With Italy’s entry into the war in 1940, Mussolini’s aircraft bombed Tel Aviv and Haifa, an event conspicuously celebrated by the Mufti of Jerusalem. Italian forces then threatened Egypt from Libya. However it was the arrival of Rommel and the Germans which sparked a wave of frantic departures by Egyptian Jews — for Turkey, Sudan and Palestine. The author remarks that King Farouk was already making quiet overtures to the Germans via Franco’s envoy in Cairo.

British Empire forces in Tobruk, less than 100 miles from the Egyptian border stubbornly held up the Nazi advance. If those forces had been driven from Egypt, they would probably have regrouped to make a last stand, protecting the oil reserves in Iraq — and Palestine’s Jews would have been left to their fate.

Hitler’s plan was for Rommel to join up with other Nazi forces, emerging victorious from the Soviet Union and marching through the Caucasus towards the Middle East. As history records, the Germans did not prevail at either El Alamein or Stalingrad.

War of Shadows testifies to Churchill’s forethought in sending three armoured regiments to the Middle East at the height of the Battle of Britain, providing a launchpad into Italy and ultimately Germany.

Gershom Gorenberg briefly describes the exploits of the SIG (Special Interrogation Group) — mainly German Jews who had escaped to Palestine. They were trained to goosestep, sing German songs, use ‘Panzer-armee Afrika’ slang — and were sent in Nazi uniform and vehicles to wreak havoc behind enemy lines.

Gorenberg describes too, the difficult discussions that were taking place within the leadership of the Yishuv, the Jewish settlement in Palestine, about a possible German invasion. Some were opposed to joining British forces because they were the occupying power in Mandatory Palestine. Gorenberg mentions the far Left who objected, but the Right actually went further — Avraham Stern sent emissaries to the German Legation in Beirut.

Figures such as Yitzhak Tabenkin and Yitzhak Gruenbaum advocated an armed resistance if the Germans invaded Palestine. A defiant enclave in the Carmel mountains would hold out — and if it fell, then future generations would remember this new Masada. Gorenberg interestingly discovered that the religious Zionist leader, Moshe Haim Shapiro, opposed resistance, believing that some would survive in a Nazi ghetto.

Gorenberg’s research is impressive, especially the role of Bletchley Park in the intelligence game to outwit the Germans. His book is a highly detailed account, but nevertheless accessible to a general readership — with the writer doubling up as narrator. It is a timely reminder of what was and what could have been.

Jewish Chronicle 9 April 2021

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