Non-Jewish British soldier who fought for Israel in 1948 dies at 97
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Non-Jewish British soldier who fought for Israel in 1948 dies at 97

South London cavalry officer Tom Derek Bowden was one of 5,000 foreigners who volunteered to help establish the Jewish state, as part of a group know as the '‘Machal’

Stephen is the Jewish News' Foreign Editor

Tom Derek Bowden at Arnhem
Tom Derek Bowden at Arnhem

Tributes have been paid to the non-Jewish soldier from Britain who went to fight for the new State of Israel in the 1948 War of Independence and who later commanded Israel’s first paratrooper regiment.

Tom Derek Bowden, a South London cavalry officer who died on Monday aged 97, was one of 5,000 foreigners who volunteered to fight for the nascent State of Israel from abroad. They became known by the Hebrew acronym ‘Machal.’

He came from a wealthy family whose business products included Ribena, but he was neither academic nor interested in business and left school at 15.

He enlisted with the British Army in 1938, aged 17, and went to fight in the Second World War, where he was imprisoned in Bergen-Belsen, seeing the horrors of the Holocaust.

Growing up, he had several Jewish friends and an affinity for a community whose music, dancing and traditions he had become familiar with.

Tom Derek Bowden in uniform

Though he was not religious, and had no in-depth understanding of Zionism, he was greatly influenced by the famously pro-Zionist Christian officer Orde Wingate, who taught Jewish soldiers not to be restrained but to attack Arab soldiers at night.

Bowden led a heroic life, in which he fought some of the most ferocious battles of the Second World War, mainly in British Mandate Palestine. In 1942, he led a cavalry charge in Syria against the Vichy French. His men, wearing red cloaks, were armed with First World War rifles and sabres.

They fought under the command of Moshe Dayan, later Israel’s top soldier, and it was here that Dayan lost his eye. Bowden was also badly wounded in the battle and spent months in a Jerusalem hospital, then the home of a Tel Aviv family.

Far left: American pilot Bill Katz; Ben-Gurion; Derek Bowden,1st commander of the Paratrooper School, behind Ben-Gurion. Far right – Haim Laskov,Head of Training Command of Army at Tel Nof Air Base. Gershon Yuval, CO of Administration Wing of the Paratrooper Training School is talking to Ben-Gurion.

Six months after his leg injury, he was back on the battlefield, volunteering for a parachute brigade being recruited near the Suez Canal. His job was to drop flares ahead of parachute landings along the North African coast and in occupied Europe.

In 1944, parachuting into Arnhem, his leg was injured again and he was captured and taken to a prison camp hospital near Hanover. After an escape and subsequent recapture, he was interrogated and found to have diaries and letters from Jewish friends and girlfriends in Palestine.

“I knew I shouldn’t have [had them], but I didn’t want to part with them,” he later said. The SS officer who questioned him had until then treated him well, offering him drinks and cigarettes, but “when he saw the papers, he told me he would show me how the Germans treated Jews, and I was sent for a month to Bergen-Belsen”.

Tom on his 90th birthday.

He spent the month piling corpses onto carts and tipping them into pits during a typhus outbreak, recalling “the smell and the emptiness,” before returning to Hanover. The experience made it an easy decision to go to Haifa in 1948 to enlist.

He was given the nom de guerre Captain David Appel, partly because the little Hebrew he knew included the word ‘apple’.

1948 – Tel Nof parachute training school

After the War of Independence he founded the IDF Parachute School, wrote the manual of operations and helped lead the Tzanchanim – the Israeli Paratrooper brigade – who were crucial to Israel’s military victories in 1956 and 1967.

He met his wife Eva in Israel but later came back to England, where he became a farmer in Norfolk. In a 2018 interview with Jerry Klinger of the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation, Bowden said he helped Jews “to be part of what God started, the rebirth of the Jewish state, the first in 2,000 years”.

Harold ‘Smoky’ Simon was born in South Africa and fought alongside Bowden as a ‘Machal’ in the War of Independence, when he was Navigator-Bombardier and Chief of Air Operations.

Smoky, who now chairs World Machal, spoke to Jewish News about his recollections of Bowden, saying: “When I think of Derek, I picture him with his pipe, as he was in that picture with Ben Gurion. Derek is the man exuding confidence, who knows what he is talking about.”

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