Churchill Archive for Schools - Themes_Key questions_Jews in the Secon

Could Britain have done more to help the Jews in the Second World War?

Source 6

Discussion in the Cabinet of the formation of a Jewish brigade by the Secretary of State for War on 26th July 1944 [from the Prime Minister’s Personal Minutes]


➜ CHAR 20/153/1

We've highlighted the parts of the document which appear in the transcription below.

Simplified Transcript

1. The idea of a Jewish brigade is a good one. The brigade should be sent to Italy to work with other units.

2. I like the idea of Jews fighting the murderers of their fellow Jews. The USA will be particularly supportive of the idea.

3. You have raised a number of points of detail, here are my thoughts:

5a: All military units can be split up in wartime situation. I do not think this unit is any more likely to be split up.

5b and 5c: I believe the Jews would want to fight the Germans. We do not need to have a rule saying the War Office would not send the Jews to fight the Japanese. We should just not do it.

5g: I will consult the King and the Cabinet but it seems reasonable that the Brigade should have its own Jewish flag.

4. If I am able to visit Italy I will talk to the generals. Meanwhile please work with the Jewish organisations. The main thing is that this is a good idea and it is right so we should get on with it. It will be very popular in the United States as well. If you make an announcement I would like to see a draft.

Original Transcript

Secretary of State for War                            M. 901/4.

(Top Secret.)

1.    I am in general agreement with your proposals, but I think the brigade should be formed and sent to Italy as soon as convenient and worked up to a brigade group there as time goes on by the attachment of the other units.

2.    I like the idea of the Jews trying to get at the murderers of their fellow-countrymen in Central Europe, and I think it would give a great deal of satis-faction to the United States.

3.    The points of detail which occur to me are: -

Your paragraph 5(a) – I do not think this brigade should be any more liable to be split by serious military emergencies than any other unit in the Middle East. On the contrary, only a serious emergency should affect it, considering what it represents.

Your paragraph 5(b) and (c) – I believe it is the wish of the Jews themselves to fight the Germans anywhere. It is with the Germans they have their quarrel. There is no need to put the conditions in such a form as to imply that the War Office in its infinite wisdom might wish to send the Jews to fight the Japanese and that otherwise there would be no use in having the Brigade Group.

Your paragraph 5(g) – I will consult the King about this. I cannot conceive why this martyred race, scattered about the world and suffering as no other race has done at this juncture, should be denied the satisfaction of having a flag. However, not only the King but the Cabinet might have views on this.

4.    Should I be able to visit Italy I will discuss the details of this with General Wilson, and also very likely I shall see General Paget. Meanwhile please go ahead within the lines proposed and negotiate with the Jewish Agency. Remember the object of this is to give pleasure and an expression to rightful sentiments and that it certainly will be welcomed widely in the United States. Let me see the form of any announcement that is made.

WSC 26.7.44

What is this source?

This is an extract from one of Churchill’s ‘Personal Minutes’ from July 1944. Churchill’s ‘Personal Minutes’ were official directives and were used by him to give orders. This source is one of a series of exchanges between Churchill and the Secretary of State for War on the possibility of forming a Jewish Brigade in the British Army. Churchill is responding to a number of points and issues which the Secretary of State has sent to him in a previous note. 

Background to this source

Despite the differences of opinion on immigration policy to Palestine, Jewish organisations such as the World Zionist Organisation worked closely with the British Government as part of the war effort. Chaim Weizmann, the President of the World Zionist Organization, sought to establish an identifiably Jewish fighting formation under the control of the British Army. His request for a separate formation was rejected, but many Jews in Palestine (which was a British controlled territory) wanted to fight the Nazis and joined the British Army. Some of these were formed into separate Jewish companies in their battalions.

After early reports of the Nazi atrocities of the Holocaust were made public by the Allied powers, the Prime Minister Winston Churchill sent a personal telegram to the US President Franklin D. Roosevelt suggesting that 'the Jews... of all races have the right to strike at the Germans as a recognizable body.' The president replied five days later saying: 'I perceive no objection...'. Although the proposal to set up the brigade had such high level approval it was taking a lot of time to sort out practicalities and Churchill is commenting on this.

How can we use this source in the investigation?

Remember we are hoping that this source can be useful to us in investigating whether Britain could have done more to help the Jews. Sources usually help historians in two ways:

Surface level

  1. What is Churchill’s opinion of the formation of a ‘Jewish Brigade’?
  2. What does the document tell you about Churchill’s feelings about the response by the Secretary of State for War and the War Office to the proposal to set up a Jewish Brigade?
  3. Do you think that Churchill and the Secretary of State for War were in agreement about the importance of setting up a Jewish brigade?
  4. Where does he intend to place the ‘Jewish Brigade’?
  5. What two reasons are given for the formation of a ‘Jewish Brigade’?

Deeper level

Which of the inferences below can be made from this source?

On a scale of 1-5 how far do you agree that this source supports this inference? Which extract(s) from the source support your argument?
The British Government were in favour of a Jewish Brigade.

The formation of this brigade would be useful for propaganda purposes.

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Need help interpreting the source?

  • As always this source needs some interpretation. There was clearly support for forming a Jewish Brigade but the War Office was struggling to manage the detailed practicalities.
  • It is interesting to consider exactly why Churchill was so keen – it was probably not for military reasons.
  • A useful exercise would be to view the whole document on the Churchill Archive (here) and assess the relative importance of the Jewish Brigade to other issues in the minutes.

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