I am a retired British Army officer and a published Military Historian. During my army career I spent a lot of time in the Middle East and became very attached to the land and its peoples—besotted is I think the word my friends use. After leaving the army I decided to write a book on the British military involvement in the area, but a book with a difference.
Instead of looking at big battles and the involvement of units like most history books, I am looking at the individuals involved. My methodology is to collect medals awarded to individuals and research them as deeply as possible. I should explain at this point that most British military medals are inscribed with the soldier’s name around the rim.
Most of my subjects had been Arabs when a friend drew my attention to some medals belonging to Jacob Aptekman, who served in the Royal Fusiliers in World War I and whose number, J-4707, indicated he had enlisted in the Jewish Battalions which made up the Jewish Legion. Fortunately, I was able to buy the medals at auction and thus began my involvement with Jewish history and genealogy.
Jacob Aptekman's WWI Service
Record Cover Sheet
To begin with all went smoothly—Jacob’s World War I service records were available on Ancestry.com and that gave me a good basis. But thereafter he disappeared. I wondered, however, if he had served in World War II. According to the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women, a man of that name did, but in the RAF. And according to the London Gazette, he won a minor gallantry award.
So now what I needed was his World War II service record. But that is still held by the Ministry of Defense and to get a copy you need the subject’s date of death and, if that was less than 25 years ago, you need the permission of his next of kin. And in any case, were these two people one and the same? I telephoned the Ministry of Defense Archives and a very kind woman broke the rules sufficiently to confirm that they had the same date of birth.
So enter JewishGen. I signed on and posted an inquiry to the JewishGen Discussion Group asking for help to find Jacob Aptekman and his family—and friends appeared from everywhere, especially from Israel. In no time I had his burial details and one of my new friends even drove to the village where he died and interviewed the historical society secretary and his former relatives. She then e-mailed me with his grandson’s phone number.
So here is Jacob Aptekman’s story; all thanks to the warm helpful reception I received on JewishGen. I thank all those who worked so hard to get the details for me.
J-4707 Corporal Jacob Aptekman
39th Battalion Royal Fusiliers
Royal Air Force
Jacob Aptekman was born on 15 August 1895 in Azov in the Don Region of Russia, the son of David and Deborah. His early upbringing was not Jewish but rather he grew up in close proximity to Cossacks and from them learned how to ride horses and use weapons. His father died when Jacob was about five years old, and he was sent, without his mother, to live with an uncle in the city of Koban in North Ossetia. After a few years, his sister's husband told him about the Jewish settlements being established in Palestine and that they were looking for people like him who knew how to handle horses and weapons. He was 18 years old when he decided to go.
In order to avoid the limit placed on Jewish immigration to Palestine by the Ottoman Turks he bought a set of papers from a Gentile named Mamanov. He seems to have used the two identities at the same time throughout his life but retained his original name for his British Military service. He was then instructed to report to an address in Odessa.
Traveling there by train from Koban took four to five days after which he was put up in a hotel with a group of young people destined to be part of the Second Aliyah, or wave of pioneers to Eretz Israel that began in 1904 and ended in 1914. Once a few dozen would-be immigrants had been gathered, they sailed for Jaffa—a six-day voyage. It was 1913 when he reached Palestine.
Jacob settled first in Rishon Le Zion just south of Jaffa. Founded in 1882 by Russian Jewish immigrants, Rishon Le Zion was the second Jewish farm colony established in Palestine. He initially worked the vineyards of Rishon Le Zion and Rehovot, then with cattle in Gedara but in due course he was employed as a watchman in Rishon Le Zion—an innocent enough term that says more than appears at first sight.
Bar-Goria and HaShomer
In 1907 some of the early Jewish immigrants to Palestine decided to band together for self-protection. As a result, the Bar-Giora—named after Simon Bar-Giora, one of the leaders of the Jewish Revolt against the Romans in about 70AD—was formed in 1907. In 1908 the name changed to HaShomer—or Guild of Watchmen—which in turn was one of the groups that made up the Haganah in 1920. Members received some rudimentary military training and wore something approaching a uniform of rather Arabic appearance.
With the outbreak of the Great War in 1914 the Turkish Government declared the HaShomer an illegal organisation and many members, including Joseph, were moved by HaShomer from town to village as they were needed and always just a step ahead of the Turks. In Petach Tikvah they lived 18 to a room before moving to Hadera and then on into Galilee and through Wadi Ara to Tel Adashim and on again to Yavne'el where he stayed for a year and a half. Conditions there were very bad, their clothes were patched, they used sacks to protect their legs while on guard in the mud and the rain, and slept on straw covered by their abaya. When attacks took place in the area they were moved as needed to protect Jewish settlers.
Finally the Turks caught up with Joseph and he was conscripted as a labourer and worked on paving the road from Mascha (today Kfar Tavor) to Tiberias and later on the road from Rosh-Pina to Safad. Conditions were very hard—no clothes, no food except a loaf of bread and a cup of lentils without salt or oil each day. Finally a small group of five or six, including Jacob, deserted and moved to Degana and Tazemach where they rented a room and found work sawing wood for Turkish train locomotives.
A further move took them to Poria where they guarded the almond and apricot orchards until after the harvest when they moved to Kineret and worked on the land removing stones. Working alongside them was A. D. Gordon, one of the revered founding fathers of the Labor Zionist movement and Socialist Zionism.
Following a spy scandal involving an alleged British agent named Yossef Lishansky, the Turkish hunt for HaShomer members was intensified and Jacob was arrested along with others. They were initially held in Jerusalem but later, while they were being transferred to Damascus, Jacob and some 17 others broke out, chased away their guards and escaped. They initially hid out in the mountains where local Jewish girls fed them. They approached the English Army as it came near, but were initially arrested as spies. They were taken to Ramla and later released.
Jacob went back to work as a guard in the orange orchards of Rishon Le Zion, but when recruiting started for the Jewish battalions of the Royal Fusiliers he joined up.
The Royal Fusiliers
The soldiers of the 38th and 39th Battalions of the Royal Fusiliers were almost entirely Jews from Britain, Russia, America and Canada. The 40th Battalion was composed of Jews from the Ottoman provinces of Palestine and other areas; they included some 90 Jewish ex-prisoners of war from the Ottoman Army. Jacob’s enlistment is dated 16 June 1918 and he gave his mother, Deborah Cherokow, of Vladikavkas, Russia, as his next of kin. He was initially allocated the number 1228, subsequently changed to J-4707.
Private Aptekman was initially posted to the 39th Battalion and only transferred to the 40th on 1 December 1918 after the war was over. He was appointed unpaid Lance Corporal on 28 of February 1919 and granted paid rank on 25 of July that year.
On 4th of November he was posted to the 38th Battalion and on 30th of April 1920 was appointed paid acting Corporal. The 38th was retained on local duties in Palestine after the remainder of the Jewish Legion was disbanded. Its name was also changed to 1st Judeans. However, it was itself disbanded in 1920 and on 27th December Jacob again became a civilian. Coincidentally, this is the year the Haganah was formed.
Jacob’s address on discharge was given as Segal Colony, Rosh-Pinna near Saffed in Galilee. Rosh Pinna was founded in 1882 by group of Romanian Jews as the first lasting settlement in the Galilee. The settlement was named Rosh Pinna, or “Cornerstone”, after Psalm 118:22: "The stone which the builders refused is become the head stone of the corner."
Following a major clash in 1920 between Arabs and Jews at the settlement of Tel Hai, Jacob moved there. In 1922 he was sent to the Borochov workers settlement which later became a suburb of Tel Aviv—here he was charged with recruiting and training members of the Jewish underground force— the Haganah.
In 1921 Jacob married—or at least formed a formal liaison with—Chaya Zoltolovsky, a girl he had met on the boat to Palestine in 1913. Many Jews of their generation were rejecting the traditions of their European ancestors in order to create a new kind of Jew, a fighter who also tilled the land. Many marriages were simply publically announced agreements to live together and share what they had.
The couple were among the very first founders of the HaShomer moshav or agricultural settlement of Tel Adashim in the Jezreel Valley, but also lived in other HaShomer settlements in Galilee, Kfar Giladi and Tel Hai. Jacob may well have been involved in the defence of all these places. His first son, Yitzhak, was born in Safat in 1922.
The following year the family moved briefly to Jaffa/Tel Aviv where Jacob joined the police. He served the Tel Aviv police for three years and was involved in the defence of Jaffa and Jerusalem during the Arab riots.
His second son, David, came along in 1923, and in 1926 the whole family returned to Tel Adashim where Jacob remained a farmer until his death in 1970. In 1934 Jacob and Chaya separated, and Jacob formed a liaison with Miriam Glik from Haifa whose father Tzvi was a policeman in Tel Aviv.
Jacob and Miriam Aptekman
Jacob’s grandson, Avinoam Mamanov, says that from all the stories he has heard from his father and people who knew his grandfather he can form a picture of the man who was Jacob Aptekman Mamanov. He says Jacob was physically very strong, absolutely independent and not especially sociable, though he had a lot of close friends in the moshav. He played a small accordion or garmoshka at social gatherings and was considered by all to be the mukhtar or leader of the moshav. Mukhtar, he says, is an Arabic term, adopted by the Jews to depict the natural leader of a village but not an elected position.
But that was not the end of Jacob’s military career. It seems certain that he continued to be involved in some of the unofficial military activity of the period between the wars and running up to the Arab revolt of the late nineteen thirties.
Royal Air Force
In 1940 a further opportunity presented itself. The Battle of Britain was raging and the Royal Air Force withdrew hundreds of ground crew from squadrons based in the Middle East and replaced them with locally enlisted airmen, among them Jacob Aptekman. He was allocated the service number 774989, which is from a block of numbers allocated to local Middle East enlistments. He gave his first name as Yakob, the Hebrew version of Jacob.
Jacob enlisted in the RAF on 23rd of July 1940. Just a few days earlier on the 14th, he had taken the precaution of legally marrying Miriam, or Marina as the RAF would have it. At the time of his enlistment he was described as 5-feet 5-inches tall with black hair, brown eyes and a fresh complexion. His occupation is listed as farmer.
Jacob Aptekman's WWII Service Record
View the full record here..
His initiation into the RAF was at RAF Ramleh, which is today Ben Gurion International Airport. On 30th of August 1940 he joined 70 Squadron, a long serving Middle East Command unit which, when he joined, was operating Valentia 1 bomber-transport aircraft and was based at Heliopolis near Cairo. The Valentia was a clumsy bi-plane aircraft from another age, no match for any modern Axis aircraft it might have come upon. It could carry up to 25 fully armed troops and gave sterling service lumbering around Arabia and North Africa.
In September 1940 the squadron was re-equipped with the modern Wellington 1C and moved to Kibrit airfield. On 18th September, 70 Squadron commenced operations in North Africa in support of the 8th Army. It remained at Kibrit until September 1942 and thereafter moved forward to a whole series of airfields as the army advanced into Libya and Tunisia.
On 15 November 1943 the squadron was relocated to Djedeida, an area about 20 miles west of Tunis which comprised two airfields, designated Djedeida No 1 and, 10 miles to the north, Djedeida No 2. These airfields put industrial targets in the North of Italy, such as Genoa, Turin and Milan within easy reach and reduced the need of mounting targets by Bomber Command from the UK.
Finally in December that year the unit moved to Cerignola in Italy on the east coast between the heel and spur of the Italian boot, remaining there until dispersed in October 1945.
Meanwhile in the London Gazette of 2nd of June 1943 Cpl Y Aptekman is listed as having been awarded a Mention in Dispatches. He’s just one in a very long list of RAF, SAAF and RNZAF officers and NCOs and it seems likely the award was for service rather than gallantry. He would have been 48 years old.
Throughout his RAF career Jacob was employed as an Armourer and although appointed unpaid acting Corporal almost as soon as he joined, he was not finally appointed to the rank—and paid—until 1944.
The war in Europe ended on 8 May 1945 and in July that year Jacob was on the move. He reported to 54 Personnel Transit Centre on the 8th and on the 23rd he was officially back in Palestine at Ramleh Air Base.
However, in the meantime he surfaces in the Palestine Post of 15 July 1945 in which he’s named as one of “seven locally enlisted Palestine Jews who were released under the Demob Scheme in Ramleh on Tuesday” after five years service—the men’s trades are noted as including “electricians, armourers, clerks, instructors and aircrafthands”. It’s also noted “a goodish supply of equipment—shoes, pullovers, shirts, underclothing, socks, towels, gloves, kitbags, brushes, trousers, toilet articles, etc.—may be kept by the released airmen”.
The Final Chapter
Some of Jacob Aptekman's Medals
Click this link for details regarding all his medals and decorations.
Following the Second World War Jacob went back to farming. But that was not the end of his military life because during the 1948 War of Independence he volunteered for service the nascent Israeli Air Force. He was then 53 years old.
Avinoam writes: “My grandfather was not a warm, genial person. I do not think he was the best father, certainly not according to today's standards. My father worked very hard as a child, suffered hardships, but so did most of the children of his generation in the outlying farming communities. I was fortunate in that my father decided to raise his children differently.”
This old warrior died in Tel Adsham in 1977 at the age of 82. Miriam followed him in 2000.
Click this link for more information regarding the many military decorations and awards bestowed on Jacob Aptekman.
Hillsborough, Northern Ireland
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