RAF 100: Call to remember sacrifice of Jewish pilots in Second World War
- Credit: Archant
The contributions Jewish members of the Royal Air Force made over the course of its 100 year history have not always been recognised.
But the sacrifices they made alongside non-Jewish colleagues are no less important to remember in the year the RAF celebrates its first century.
Records kept at the Jewish Military Museum in Camden Town show about 20,000 British Jews – many of whom were born and raised in the East End – served in the RAF in World War Two. Numbers may be higher as some didn’t identify themselves fearing capture by the Nazis. In total 900 from the tiny Jewish community were killed.
In the First World War 60,000 served with 3,500 sacrificing their lives, records show.
But many people in the Second World War believed that Jewish people weren’t doing their bit with prejudice against Jews rife in the country, according to historian Martin Sugarman.
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“Ex-servicemen know that was rubbish, but people still don’t know about Jewish service,” the author of Fighting Back: British Jewry’s Military Contribution in the Second World War said.
He added that many Jewish service personnel went on to gain the highest honours including the Distinguished Flying Medal and the Distinguished Flying Cross.
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“We want people to know about this as part of the current fight against antisemitism,” he added.
The list of Jewish heroes is long and includes flight sergeant Leslie Temple, born in Stepney in 1925, a special operator (SO) who along with the rest of 101 Squadron carried out one of the most dangerous of tasks.
What is less well known today is the horrendous sacrifice of Bomber Command’s 101 Squadron which has the highest casualty rate of the RAF, according to Mr Sugarman.
An eighth crew member who could understand German was assigned to each Lancaster bomber to listen in to communications between enemy night-fighters and people controlling them from the ground.
Many special operators – a role so sensitive it was kept secret from other crewmen – were Jewish refugees.
Flt Sgt Temple, who lived in Ilford later in life, took on the job, jamming enemy communications.
Mr Sugarman described Flt Sgt Temple’s worst moment as being over a heavily defended German naval base in Kiel on July 23, 1944.
The Lancaster had to fly a second time over its target after getting blown off course over the North Sea.
On achieving their aim heavy German fire showered the bomber in shrapnel after it was nailed by a searchlight.
In Flt Sgt Temple’s words “there was a solid curtain of bursting, hellish flak, a wall of searchlights across the sky”.
Only skipper Eric Nielsen’s “quick-thinking” and the navigator’s skill enabled the crew to crash land in Suffolk. There were more than a hundred holes in their aircraft.
And the list continues with pilot officer George Goodman, one of wartime prime minister Winston Churchill’s “Few”, RAF personnel commended for their role defending the country in the Battle of Britain.
Yet another hero is Whitechapel born RAF Sgt Nat Leaman - whose family were members of the Nelson Street Synagogue in Stepney – a prisoner of war (POW) after getting shot down over Hamburg in May 1942 when a shell ignited the Halifax bomber’s petrol tank.
At Stalag Luft III he was sent to the “cooler” after trying to cut through a fence with home-made wire cutters.
Sgt Leaman – who James Garner’s character in The Great Escape may be based on – was moved to Stalag Luft VI on the Baltic coast in June 1943.
He was in charge of trading with prison guards and persuaded clerk commandant Edouard Munkert to switch sides.
In April 1944 Nat made another daring escape attempt disguised as a guard pretending to scour the camp for tunnels, before sneaking through the gates. But when called into a nearby guardroom to sign out his bid was exposed.
At war’s end Nat fled, returning to Britain where he later worked in the fashion wholesale business raising children Sharron and Stephen with wife Evelyn Ziskind. They lived in Cricklewood, Willesden, St John’s Wood and Bushey. He died in 1982.
On Jewish service in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War Mr Sugarman said: “This focus shows we weren’t all victims and that people did fight back. Jews knew the war was a matter of life or death. It is extremely important that we remember them.”