The GACHAL And The MACHAL
The GACHAL (note: the GACHAL stamp is the previous one, featured with the Hebrew article) –
About 23,000 young Jewish men and women, most of them Holocaust survivors, volunteered in Europe and North Africa, and following their Aliya (immigration to Israel) they fought in Israel's War of Independence alongside the ranks of the locally born and raised fighters. They were known by the Hebrew acronym "GACHAL" (Giyus Chutz La'Aretz, meaning: overseas drafting). Accounting for about a quarter of the IDF's (Israel Defense Forces) manpower, and one third of the front line fighters, their critical contribution to Israel's victory in the war is undisputed. Many of them fell defending a country in which they had lived only for a very short time.
Recruitment of GACHAL began toward the end of 1947 in the displaced persons camps in Germany, Austria and Italy. Shortly after, it was extended to other countries in Europe and to North Africa. It also took place in the detention camps in Cyprus. Compulsory recruitment started in February 1948, requiring any person under the age of 35 (married couples with kids were exempt) to join Hagana - the underground military organization of the Jewish community in Palestine. At that time, immigration to Palestine was severely limited by the British Mandate authorities, so most of the recruits spent their time in training/Aliya camps abroad, the majority of them in Italy and France. The training comprised physical exercises, hand-to-hand combat, endurance hikes, Hebrew courses and what-the-Land-of-Israel-is-like education, etc. There was practically no training with real arms (wooden guns were used as substitute).
The vast majority of the overseas recruits arrived in Israel only after the state was declared on May 14, 1948. Initially, they were sent to their assigned military camp on their day of arrival. Later on, they were given between few days and a month of vacation to adjust a bit to their new country and to meet relatives. Their presence in the front lines was clearly felt during the later stages of the war, in the last months of 1948, when they accounted for one third of the total fighting force which numbered about 60,000 fighters. In some brigades they even accounted for over half the manpower. The 858 overseas recruits who fell in the war account for 19% of the total number of fallen soldiers.
No firm policy was ever formulated which took into consideration the special needs of the overseas recruits and their unique sensitivities as survivors of the Holocaust. For many Holocaust survivors, the military service was the first encounter they had with the country's veteran population. Many of the commanders of Israel's fighting forces developed a negative bias towards the overseas recruits, believing that they were not up to their locally raised counterparts in fighting ability and motivation. The nickname "Gachalchik" had a negative nuance. Problems of communication (most of the overseas recruits spoke little or no Hebrew) and the vast difference in background between the Holocaust youths and their experiences and that of the local youngsters, contributed to the development of this bias.
The recruitment of Holocaust survivors remains an emotionally charged issue. It is indeed heartbreaking to hear the stories of so many individuals, some of them the last remaining members of entire families, who fell in the battles just few years after they had gone through the horrors of the Holocaust, after few more years of difficult life in DP camps, and on the verge of fulfilling their dream of starting new life in the independent Jewish state.
In retrospect though, many of the recruited survivors have pointed out that the part they played in the war for Israel's independence gave them the feeling that they owned the country. It also helped them to alleviate some of the feelings of revenge which had motivated them immediately after the end of WW-II. "Revenge of Redemption" is how they define this feeling.
The following quote from the poem "One of the GACHAL", written by the famous Israeli poet Natan Alterman, appears on the stamp's tab:
"And a homeland awaited him...
But he gave back his life
Some time in the night, dying for its sake."
The MACHAL –
During Israel's War of Independence some 3,500 volunteers, men and women, Jews and non-Jews, from 43 foreign countries, rallied to the defense of the Yishuv (the Jewish community in the Land of Israel) and the nascent Jewish state. Most of the overseas volunteers arrived during the 2nd period of the war, after the British Mandate had ended. However, a considerable number enlisted in the Hagana and other underground forces, and were active in the struggle against the British even before the State of Israel was proclaimed on May 14, 1948.
Primarily, they were motivated by Jewish solidarity and concern for the security of the small in its struggle for survival. Most had been soldiers in the armies of their countries of origin during World War II and felt the need to offer their military experience, skills and technical knowhow. Some were members of Zionist youth movements. Some, including non-Jews, were moved by the plight of the Jewish people. They had witnessed the calamity of the Holocaust and wanted to come to the aid of the beleaguered Yishuv.
The first volunteers, some 240 men, operated within the framework of Ha'Mossad Le'Aliya Bet, the organization responsible for the clandestine immigration to Mandatory Palestine. Most of these volunteers were Americans, with no professional maritime experience. The volunteers helped to prepare and outfit the "American Ships" of Aliya Bet (including the most famous ship, the Exodus) and served as their crew members on their voyages to Palestine.
Volunteer recruitment for the war was set in motion and began to take shape in the first months of the fighting (end of 1947 and early 1948). The numbers of volunteers grew steadily as the day of the proclamation of the state drew nearer. There was a further spurt in the numbers after the first cease-fire, which ended in July 1948. The overwhelming majority of the volunteers came from English-speaking countries (USA, Canada, South Africa and Britain), and were generally posted to units according to their skills and war experience. MACHAL men and women fought and served in every branch of the IDF, including Artillery, Infantry, Armored Corps, Medical Corps, Signals and the Navy, often in key positions of command.
When problems arose in the acclimatization of volunteers, many English speakers were posted to the reorganized 7th Armored Brigade. The military authorities thought that concentrating them in one unit would ease their absorption, solve social alienation, overcome the language problem, and in general make it easier to handle the special difficulties of the motley group of overseas volunteers. To further ease their acclimatization into the military network, the IDF Manpower Branch, in September 1948, set up a special department to deal with overseas volunteers. It was at this time that the group's name was officially designated as Machal, the Hebrew acronym for "Overseas Volunteers."
But for all its good intentions, the IDF Manpower Branch's Machal Department did not last very long. The military authorities were soon beset by numerous problems that resulted in a gradual tightening of restrictions regarding the acceptance of overseas volunteers. By the end of the War of Independence only a trickle of Machal was being accepted to the IDF, mainly specialists in specific fields, selected according to need.
The influence of overseas volunteers was especially felt with regard to the fledgling Israel Air Force (IAF), as most of its aircrew and technical personnel were overseas volunteers. It is clear that without Machal, it would not have been possible to operate the various aircraft that reached the country: the Flying Fortress (B-17) bombers, the Messerschmidt (M-109) fighter planes, the Spitfires, the Commando (C-46) cargo planes, and the Dakotas - the aircrafts that gave the Air Force control of the air. About 70 percent of the IAF personnel were overseas volunteers who had been recruited in sixteen countries. They served as pilots, navigators, radio operators, air gunners, aerial photographers, and bomb-chuckers.
The Hagana's Air Service was set up in November 1947. Many local Jews had volunteered for the British Army during World War II, but only a few had been accepted into the Royal Air Force (RAF). Hence there was a shortage of skilled, experienced manpower in the country. This gap was filled mainly by airmen who had been recruited in North America by the Hagana mission there.
One of the IAF's outstanding achievements during the war was the more than 100 flights carried out in Operation Balak, the name given to the air bridge that brought Messerchmidt fighter planes and military equipment from Czechoslovakia to Israel. Most of the air and ground crews handling these flights, which involved complex logistic problems, were Machalniks. The combat aircraft brought to the country were assembled in Israel and served the IAF in various ways. Their first mission on May 29, 1948, was halting the Egyptian forces, near Ashdod, in their advance northward toward Tel Aviv. Spitfire fighter planes, bought soon after from Czechoslovakia, were ferried to Israel by Machal pilots in two operations called Velvetta I and Velvetta II.
After the war, the vast majority of the Machalniks returned to their home countries, but many decided to stay and become Israelis. In 1993, a monument was dedicated in memory of the 119 overseas volunteers who lost their lives in Israel's struggle for independence. Nine of them were non-Jews and four were women. It is located at Sha'ar Ha'gai, near the exit from the "Burma Road." A memorial plaque lists the 119 names: 98 were in the Army, 19 in the Air Force, one was in the Navy, and another was killed on an Aliya Bet ship.
At the dedication ceremony of the monument, on Memorial Day, April 25, 1993, the then Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, said: "They came to us when we most needed them , during those difficult, uncertain days of our War of Independence in 1948".
The GACHAL and MACHAL stamps were issued in 1997. Designer: R. Kantor. The GACHAL stamp is the previous stamp, featured with the Hebrew article.