During World War II, some 20,000 Jews, 6 percent of the country’s overall Jewish population, served in Britain’s Royal Air Force (RAF), of whom 900 gave their lives. The proportion of Jews among those who fought in the Battle of Britain—the epic aerial confrontation in which the RAF successfully repelled Germany’s efforts to bomb the United Kingdom into submission—was twice Jews’ proportion in the total population. But, notes Robert Philpot, the story of Anglo-Jewry’s contribution to the war efforts is little known:
When the British novelist Alan Fenton told a business acquaintance that his two much older brothers had died in World War II, he encountered a surprised response. After what Fenton recalled as an “embarrassed pause,” his lunchtime companion said: “I didn’t think Jews fought in the war.”
In addition to the story of Fenton’s twin brothers, both of whom were pilots, Philpot—drawing on testimonies collected by the Royal Air Force Museum—recounts the experiences of some other Jewish airmen:
Michael Oser Weizmann—the son of Chaim Weizmann, Israel’s first president, [and a] scientist like his father—was also an RAF pilot and worked for the Coastal Command Development Unit. Its job was to develop new technologies and tactics for coastal command aircraft in the Battle of the Atlantic. Weizmann, who flew Whitley bombers, was killed at the age of twenty-five in February 1942, when a plane he was traveling in developed engine failure and ditched in the Bay of Biscay.
Some of these pilots were quite frank about their motivations:
“Sir, I am a Jew, and my war with the enemy began long before September 1939,” Bernard Kregor told an officer who asked him why he was volunteering for the especially perilous task of navigating bombers.
The risk taken by Jews who joined the RAF was particularly high. If they were shot down over enemy territory and survived, an uncertain fate awaited them if it was discovered they were Jewish. Some Jewish airmen chose to remove their identity disc, which displayed their religion, before they took off from the UK. Others, however, refused to. Alfred Huberman, who took part in 38 operations, is still alive at the age ninety-seven. “I was born a Jew and I’ll die a Jew,” he said of his decision not to remove his disc.