March 29, 2020

Volunteering During Israel’s War of Independence

Initially, the “Anglo-Saxon” 4th Anti Tank Unit didn’t have an actual antitank gun so they trained on a wooden dummy gun. Tom Tugend (fourth from left without a cap) was the squad leader.

Editor’s note: This article was written in 1948, during Israel’s War of Independence, when the author was serving as squad leader in an anti-tank unit composed of volunteers from English-speaking countries. His unit was part of a force encircling an Egyptian regiment in the Negev’s Fallujah Pocket, commanded by Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser, who would later become Egypt’s president.  

The sergeant hands out hard fruit candies from a tin container. We move out by a narrow trail through the mountain-ringed circular valley across the Fallujah-Hebron road, past the last Israeli guard.

“Good luck, boys.” 

Final remarks always sound artificial in books or movies, but in our mood of slightly heroic renunciation, the words feel singularly appropriate.

We turn left, cutting through our minefield. It is a cool night with a half -moon. Some 1,200 yards in front of us looms the trapezoid-shaped hill that marks the village of Iraq al-Manshiyya, protecting the western approaches to Fallujah.

We are through the minefield and cut to the left, walking along the side of the wadi. In the center of the file, immediately behind the lieutenant, the radio operator listens intensely to the instructions coming over his walkie-talkie. Once in a while, he moves forward a few steps and whispers to the lieutenant.

The man in front of me drops suddenly and before he hits the ground I am down, too. The lieutenant crouches forward and checks the file. We wait 10 minutes. Then we slowly move forward again.

I am intensely alert and aware of everything around me. Every movement or noise makes a sharp impression on my senses. Everything I see, hear and smell etches itself into my memory.

Eight hundred yards ahead of us, our searchlights play their beams on the top of the hill. Suddenly they are turned off and the file of men is etched sharply against the skyline. The scene reminds me of screen shots from various bad war films.

The man behind me silently passes forward a box of machine-gun ammunition. I shift my rifle to my left shoulder and recover the distance.

Some 140 yards from the bottom of the hill, we walk around a clump of prickly pears. This is the landmark. I look at my watch: 10:45 p.m., so we’ve covered 1,200 yards in three-quarters of an hour.

I am intensely alive and aware of everything around me. Every movement or noise makes a sharp impression on my senses. Everything I see, hear and smell etches itself into my memory.

The lieutenant whispers to me in English. He lies down beside the radio operator and the first-aid man. Two riflemen, 10 yards to his right, two riflemen two yards to his left. We are 50 yards from the Egyptian bunker. We can hear the voices of the Egyptian guards across a slight rise to our left.

Tom Tugend in Israel in 1948.
Photos courtesy of Tom Tugend

Four of our men peel away and slowly crawl forward: The sergeant with a PIAT (Projector, Infantry Anti Tank) rifle, two machine gunners and one man with wire cutters. Forty yards from the bunker there’s a sharp click and they are through the wire, inching forward. Suddenly, a flash and a shell explode. A few rifle shots from across the rise, but no fire from the bunkers. Either the enemy guards are dead or too clever to give away their position. Our Spandau machine gun opens up. Silence. One more round from the PIAT.

The four men crawl back. The sergeant whispers and we move back, too. Fifty yards farther, a red flare goes up. We drop to the ground. A few rifle shots. The flare dies. We jump up and immediately drop down again as a green flare rises above us, curves and drops beside me.

We are walking very fast now. After a few hundred yards, my stomach muscles loosen, the tension slowly drains from my body and in its place creeps a profound tiredness. My senses are dulled; the box of ammunition gets heavier with every step. I put one foot in front of the other automatically.

Our first guard challenges us: “How was it? Did you hit anything?” “Nothing much,” we say depreciatingly, and a bit contemptuously, as soldiers talk to those who stayed in the rear.

There is lukewarm tea in the tent. No jubilation or self-congratulations. It is part of the daily job. Only the talk, a little too intense, and the laughter, a little too loud, hint at the tension of the last two hours.

There will be another patrol tomorrow night, and another a day after that, and so on. n

Tugend served in the Israel Independence War after serving in World War II, during which he fought with the U.S. 25th Infantry Regiment, which was attached to the First French Army during the fighting in France and Germany.

Uncle Sam recalled Tugend at the start of the Korean War, during which he was in a less combative position as editor of the Foghorn at the Letterman Army Hospital on the grounds of the Presidio in San Francisco. The Foghorn was a weekly newspaper for GIs wounded in the Korean War. Tugend was named to the French Legion of Honor, holding the rank of Chevalier (Knight).