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Tom Derek Bowden, The British War Hero Who Fought For Israel

Earlier this week, Tom Derek Bowden, a non-Jewish soldier from South London who set up Israel’s first paratrooper regiment, was laid to rest.

Bowden was described as “a hero of Israel” who lived “an extraordinary life,” which included fighting for Britain in the Second World War and getting injured in a cavalry charge in Syria alongside Moshe Dayan, Israel’s future military leader, who lost an eye in the same battle.

Despite not being Jewish or religious, Bowden went to fight for the new State of Israel in the 1948 War of Independence as one of 5,000 foreign fighters known by the Hebrew acronym ‘Machal.’ He later commanded Israel’s first paratrooper regiment and wrote the IDF’s first operations manual.

Bowden 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.

During the war he was imprisoned in Bergen-Belsen for a month, where he saw the horrors of the Holocaust first-hand, and later said this played a role in his decision to fight for Israel.

He also had several Jewish friends while growing up in south London and developed an affinity for a community whose music, dancing and traditions he had become familiar with.

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 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.

His leg was badly injured in battle but six months 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 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”.

He spent the month piling corpses onto carts and tipping them into pits during a typhus outbreak, recalling “the smell and emptiness,” before returning to Hanover.

The experience made it an easy decision to go to Haifa in 1948 to enlist. Israeli called him Captain David Appel, because one of the only Hebrew words he knew was the word for ‘apple’.

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 – which was crucial to Israel’s military victories in 1956 and 1967.

This remarkable man was interviewed just last year, on the occasion of the modern state of Israel’s 70th anniversary.

May his memory be for a blessing.

About the author

Picture of David Lange

David Lange

A law school graduate, David Lange transitioned from work in the oil and hi-tech industries into fulltime Israel advocacy. He is a respected commentator and Middle East analyst who has often been cited by the mainstream media
Picture of David Lange

David Lange

A law school graduate, David Lange transitioned from work in the oil and hi-tech industries into fulltime Israel advocacy. He is a respected commentator and Middle East analyst who has often been cited by the mainstream media
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