According to Winston Churchill, and few historians would dispute him, the turning point in World War II was the battle of El Alamein in the North African desert. Until then, the news had been almost all bad for Britain and her allies.
It was to the battle at El Alamein that Churchill referred in his famous “end of the beginning” speech:
“I have never promised anything but blood, tears, toil and sweat. Now, however, we have a new experience, a remarkable and definite victory. A bright gleam has caught the helmets of our soldiers, and warmed and cheered all our hearts: Rommel’s army has been defeated! It has been routed! It has been very largely destroyed as a fighting force!
“Now, this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is perhaps the end of the beginning.”
The key confrontation at El Alamein extended from October 23, 1942, to November 5, 1942 (see map). The British under the leadership of the flamboyant Field Marshal Montgomery lost 13,500 men. The Nazis, under the legendary Field Marshal Rommel, lost 55,000.
But what if the Nazis had won the battle of El Alamein and Britain had lost?
At stake were the great oil fields to the east, strategic positions controlling the sea, air and land routes to India and Australasia, and politically sensitive countries in the Middle East that were critical to Great Britain and its Commonwealth of nations—and through them to the entire free world.
Long before the final confrontation at El Alamein, there had been a lengthy series of North African battles between Britain and the Nazis. Before it began, the outcome of the inevitable confrontation at El Alamein was by no means certain.
Prudent Allied planning required consideration of a possible defeat as well as a hoped-for victory. Part of a small, secret band mapping a strategy in case of defeat was a solitary rabbi-archaeologist named Nelson Glueck. Documents recently released under the Freedom of Information Act now allow his story to be told for the first time.
Rabbi Nelson Glueck was ordained after graduating from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati in 1923. In 1928, after obtaining his Ph.D. at the University of Jena in Germany, young Rabbi Glueck went to Jerusalem to study at the American School of Oriental Research, where he worked with the renowned Biblical archaeologist William Foxwell Albright. Of Glueck, Albright wrote: “[He] was the first of my students to master the obscure art of dating Palestinian pottery.” In 1932–33 and again between 1936 and 1940, Glueck served as the school’s director. He surveyed the vast areas of Cisjordan and Transjordan, looking for ancient remains; and he excavated everything from a site he identified as Biblical Ezion-Geber (“Where Is Ezion-Geber? A Reappraisal of the Site Archaeologist Nelson Glueck Identified as King Solomon’s Red Sea Port,” in this issue) to a Nabatean temple of the Roman period. With a spade in one hand and a Bible in the other, protected from the desert sun and wind by an Arab kefiyeh, Nelson Glueck was the real-life Indiana Jones of his day, searching the wilderness for his past.
In 1941, Glueck had come back to the United States to 020teach at Hebrew Union College. He was restless, however. United States involvement in the war seemed inevitable—indeed, imminent. When it came, Nelson Glueck acted quickly: The week after Pearl Harbor, Glueck wrote to Dr. Walter Livingston Wright, Jr., Near East Section, Office of Coordinator of Information, Washington, D.C.
“Dear Dr. Wright:
“I want to offer my services to the Government under any conditions, anywhere.
“I should be prepared to serve at home or abroad. I should be glad to get on a freighter and go to the Near East or any other part of the world; to do anything here in Washington, or elsewhere which might be desired.
He wrote similar letters to other government officials.
On March 23, 1942, Glueck went to work for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), which after the war was absorbed into the Central Intelligence Agency and became the major intelligence arm of the United States government. He was compensated, according to the records, at about the level of a Lt. Colonel in the army—$400 per month, plus $10 a day for living expenses. The $400 was to be used, at Glueck’s request, to pay for life insurance premiums on his life, because as a civilian he was not insured by the government.
A government official in this country, pursuant to cabled instructions, advised the rabbi’s wife, Helen, according to the recently released records, that her husband Nelson arrived safely in Cairo on May 4, 1942.
From Cairo, Glueck was dispatched to Transjordan. During the entire trip, he engaged in archaeological reconnaissance. That was his cover.
But the real purpose of his trip was to provide information that could be needed in the event of a British defeat in the coming battle of the desert. According to Dr. Helen Glueck, after the war her husband developed what might be called “protective amnesia” about his OSS days. Dr. Helen Glueck wrote me:
“It was very strange, but it took Nelson many years to talk to me about the OSS … Nelson also told me that after he came home he could never remember his code name [Bill] even though he had used it daily for communication, etc.—just blocked it out.”
In the end, however, “he finally told me,” his wife wrote, what the main purpose of his reconnaissance was: It was to provide:
“ … for an escape plan were the British to have lost the battle of El Alamein. They would have had to escape through the Wadi Araba up into Palestine. Hence he was to map every trail in order to plan a road; every spring, every unusual formation which would be of help in a retreat.”
She added: “He often told me how grateful he was that his plans were never utilized.”
One way Glueck communicated his information to his superiors was, I believe, by means of newsletters written by Glueck from Transjordan to his colleagues in archaeology and to others in America and elsewhere who were interested in his archaeological pursuits in the Near East. After reading all these reports—and they read like Glueck’s letters from an earlier period when he wrote to those who supported the American School of Oriental Research—I recognized that these letters helped him communicate information and were also his cover. In fact, I compared them with a mimeographed letter I had received from Glueck during the 1967 war. The style and detail are identical.
Could it be that when Glueck wrote about the number of Polish soldiers in Jerusalem, or when he described a location that was to be excavated, he was conveying information to the OSS? I believe so.
A message on July 12, 1942, from Jerash, Transjordan, is exemplary of this type of coded message:
“One of the most remarkable things I have seen in Transjordan is a monumental underground reservoir, about 300 to 350 metres long, about 4 metres wide and 10 metres high which is at the foot of this village [Hakima] and was dug apparently in Roman times. An underground canal leads from it to a large reservoir at the village. Neither is in use today. Were they repaired, there would be enough [water] for thousands of people.”
A bit further he adds:
“We came into the village of Kherja at about 4 p.m. today. We got to a wonderful spring, Ain Abdeh, at about 2 p.m. It pours out in three streams into a cave, which serves as a small reservoir.”
Glueck, seemingly, is signaling that sources of water in the desert can be found in these locations, were this area to become strategically important in battles with the Nazis or their allies.
Also, Glueck refers to what he hears or does not hear:
“There is no news about the war here. It hardly exists for these people. However it does influence their lives. Army projects are employing thousands of laborers; army purchases are raising the prices of the local products. When peace comes there is going to be a collapse of prices and an unemployment problem which will be comparatively serious. I recommended to H. M. Foot, the Assistant [British] Resident [of Transjordan], the other night that after the war the government employ 10,000 men planting trees, fencing in forest areas, building up ancient terraces again, plastering ancient cisterns, and undertaking anti-erosion projects of every kind.”
He related that he was moving from village to village:
“July 16, 1942. Thursday. It is 10:15 a.m. and we are sitting in the shade of a huge fig tree in the Wadi Gheweilbeh, near the source of the strong spring, Ain Gheweilbeh … The spring comes out into a clean cave. It belongs to one man and is not used except for watering the gardens.
“Another village, the village of Yubla. Still another village, the village of Aqaba; still another village, the village of Sama, and then the village of Fuara, the 021village of Som.”
It is patent to me that Glueck is passing information about water holes along to his superiors in Washington.
In order to blend in with the Arabs, Glueck used a horse for transportation and dressed like an Arab soldier with a kefiyeh around his face.
A later letter indicates that Glueck had even made plans to organize a guerrilla war, working in cooperation with friendly Arabs, if the Nazis had overrun the British and occupied the Middle East.
“I had made plans, should the Germans have broken into Palestine and Transjordan, to organize a guerrilla band of picked Arabs whom I have known for many years and together with similar bands under the leadership of men like H. M. Foot, Assistant British Resident of Transjordan, to fight against the Germans. We would have found sufficient Arabs to have carried on such warfare for a very long time.”
After the British victory at El Alamein, Glueck continued to work for the OSS, reporting conditions as he found them.
His importance is reflected in a memo from Gordon Loud, Glueck’s OSS contact, dated November 2, 1943, in which Loud opposes using Glueck for a supposed irrigation survey of North Syria and Iraq. The proposal to use Glueck in this way was made, according to the Loud memorandum, by the White House to General William J. Donovan. Loud opposed this plan because, among other reasons, Glueck “is needed in Transjordan to carry out plans already laid which he alone can accomplish.”
In addition to his “archaeological” newsletters, Glueck also reported to his superiors orally on several trips back to the United States.
On August 15, 1945, his work completed, Glueck resigned from the OSS.
In American Archaeology in the Mid-East (American Schools of Oriental Research, 1983, p. 103), Philip J. King criticizes Glueck for working for the OSS during the war:
“By compromising his political evenhandedness during World War II, Glueck lost the confidence of Arab friends. In that period he was engaged by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) as an observer in Transjordan while carrying out his archaeological surveys. It is an unwritten law in the Mideast that archaeology and politics should never be mixed; when they are, it is always to the detriment of archaeology.”
King’s conclusion may be correct, but Glueck was determined to do everything possible to defeat Hitler and his Nazi philosophy.
On his 42nd birthday, June 4, 1942, Glueck wrote from Jerusalem to his OSS superior, whose name was blotted out by either the OSS or by the CIA censor:
“ … Our interests in Oriental Research are naturally conditioned by our American traditions and our American outlook on life. The passionate sense of freedom and democracy that pervades our fair land of the United States of America is closely akin to the essential religious teachings, which, anciently sprung from the soil of the Holy Land, remain as young and meaningful as ever. It is to preserve our American way of life that we must win this war (italics mine). And what is more important, must win the peace that shall follow it. No one can know better than an archaeologist, what it means to look toward the future with an eye to the past. No one can hope more ardently than the historian, that those who will run towards the horizons of tomorrow will yet find time to scan what may be read from the ruins of days gone by.”
Nelson Glueck was a strong and determined personality, energetic, vigorous and erudite. A rigorous scholar, he was an archaeologist of international importance. When the evidence required it, he could graciously give up previously held positions. So far as the record I have examined discloses, he never regretted his work for the OSS; he was in the service of the freedom he so cherished at a time when it was locked in a death struggle with Nazi tyranny. For Nelson Glueck, freedom was a higher cause than archaeological neutrality.
Incidentally, Glueck believed that the Germans too were using archaeologists as undercover agents. Fritz Frank, a German scholar who surveyed Transjordan in the 1930s and who was the first to discover the site of Tell el-Kheleifeh which Glueck later excavated and identified as Biblical Ezion-Geber was, according to Glueck, working for the Germans as a spy. In an early letter to his OSS superior, Glueck wrote:
“In 1934 the famous German spy, Fritz Frank was working in the Wadi el-Arabah ostensibly on an archaeological mission. He definitely is not an archaeologist. A few days before the present war broke out, he and other native born Palestinian Germans disappeared. I have reason to believe that they are working in Transjordan and Sinai.”
Fortunately, the plans Glueck proposed for a retreat from El Alamein and for a guerrilla force of friendly Arabs to fight the Nazis never had to be used. But the archaeological community can be proud indeed that Nelson Glueck at this time in history, was a partisan and not an impartial archaeologist. For Nelson Glueck, putting freedom first was not lack of passion for archaeological values, but a recognition that there are even higher values.
For further details, see Floyd S. Fierman, “Nelson Glueck and the OSS During World War II,” Journal of Reform Judaism, Summer 1985.
According to Winston Churchill, and few historians would dispute him, the turning point in World War II was the battle of El Alamein in the North African desert. Until then, the news had been almost all bad for Britain and her allies. It was to the battle at El Alamein that Churchill referred in his famous “end of the beginning” speech: “I have never promised anything but blood, tears, toil and sweat. Now, however, we have a new experience, a remarkable and definite victory. A bright gleam has caught the helmets of our soldiers, and warmed and cheered all […]