The Christian Godfather of the Israeli Army

UnknownSadly only a few know the heroic story of Lt. Col. John Henry Patterson (pictured). Jerry Klinger, the President of the Jewish-American Society for Historic Preservation ( has authored a detailed account of this extraordinary man.

At a tribute in Patterson’s honor Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: “There is no exaggeration; Patterson was the commander of the first Jewish fighting force in nearly two millennia. And as such, he can be called the godfather of the Israeli army.”

At that event Klinger was seated in the front row with the guest of honour. Of the comment by the Prime Minister, Klinger wrote: “It was a curious statement to those who knew nothing about Colonel Patterson. Patterson was a Christian. A Christian was the Godfather of the modern Israel Defense Forces, not a Jew.”

The connection becomes even more intimate when we learn Patterson was the sandak (godfather) of Yonnie (Jonathan) Netanyahu, elder brother of the Prime Minister. Yonni born in 1946 was named for Patterson and for Jonathan’s grandfather. Yonni like his godfather rose to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. He was killed in the 1976 Entebbe raid.

Bridge Builder

imagesPatterson led an adventurous life. Historians list him as an Anglo-Irish soldier, hunter, author and Zionist. He wrote ‘The Man-eaters of Tsavo (1907) which detailed his bridge building assignment and a battle with hungry, man-eating lions. He was commissioned by the British to build a railway bridge over the Tsavo River (Kenya) 1988-89. The work was hindered when frequent lion attacks depleted the work crew and demoralized those who remained.

Patterson learned tiger hunting skills serving with the Brits in India. More than a hundred of his bridge-builders were killed by giant-sized lions and Patterson resolved to eliminate the problem. After a difficult campaign Patterson killed two gigantic lions.

Klinger reports: “They were incredibly huge beasts measuring over nine feet in length from their noses to the tips of their tails. The lion corpses were brought into camp for the men to see. It took eight men to carry each one.”

Patterson wrote a book ‘The Man-eaters of Tsavo.” It was a best-seller and enjoyed numerous printings. There were three movies made from the book. The most recent, “The Ghost and the Darkness” in 1996 starred Val Klimer.

Patterson was appointed Game Warden of a reserve in East Africa in 1908. A couple on safari, Audley and Ethel Blyth were mysteriously shot. Although Patterson was investigated for the crime, no evidence led to him, nevertheless tongues wagged. He was shunned by the powers-that-be and resigned from the army in 1911. World War 1 broke out three years later.

Patterson returned to uniform and was sent to Flanders. The Turks feared the Jews would side with Britain and expelled them out of what was then Palestine. The desperate Jews fled to Egypt.


The Jewish refugees, Patterson and a Russian activist Vladimir Jabotinsky would soon connect alongside a one-armed Russian Joseph Trumpeldor. Jabotinsky and Trumpeldor were avid Zionists and Patterson already a Jewish sympathizer soon embraced the cause.

The Jews wanted to fight with the Brits for ‘Palestine.’ They were offered a support and supply role as mule drivers. Jabotinsky offended by the offer, refused. His passionate friend Trumpeldor accepted but a problem remained. Who would lead this unusual unit? Enter Patterson, a non-Jew and a very experienced fighter. Patterson wrote about that moment in his book, “With the Zionists in Gallipoli.”

“It was strange, therefore that I, so imbued with the Jewish traditions should have arrived in Egypt at the psychological moment when General Sir John Maxwell, the C-in-C in Egypt, was looking for a suitable officer to recruit a Jewish unit. A Jewish unit had been unknown for 2,000 years, since the day of the Maccabees, those heroic sons of Israel who fought so valiantly, and for a time so successfully, to wrest Jerusalem from the Roman Legions…. It is curious that General Maxwell should have chosen me (to command a Jewish unit), because he knew nothing of my knowledge of Jewish history and my sympathy for the Jewish race. When as a boy I eagerly devoured the records of the glorious deeds of the Jewish military captains, such as Joshua, Joab, Gideon, Judas Maccabee, I never dreamed that I in a small way would become a captain of a host of the Children of Israel.”

Klinger wrote: “The Zion Mule Corp was organized, six hundred and fifty men strong. With the blessing of the chief Rabbi of Alexandria, they sailed for Gallipoli. They sailed with and as part of the British army opening the first step in the creation of the later Israel Defense Forces.

The tragedy and inspiration of Gallipoli followed. The Zion Mule Corp came through a wicked war with ‘courage, purpose and steadfastness.’

After the torrid campaign Patterson was hospitalized. Jabotinsky who watched events closely was distraught when the British disbanded the Zion Mule Corps, ignoring promises of legitimacy, made to the Jewish refugees when they signed on.

The Jewish Legion

Furious Jabotinsky spearheaded a campaign to begin a Jewish legion but the British leadership wanted none of it. Lord Kitchener openly opposed the Jewish unit and thwarted the plan .Then on June 5, 1916 Kitchener sailed for a high level meeting with the Russians.. His ship hit a mine and Kitchener was never found.

He was replaced by Captain Amery who had served with Patterson in the Boer War and at Gallipoli. Meetings began with Jabotinsky, Patterson and Amery. It turned out Amery was keen for Jews to help Britain win control of Palestine from the Turks. The Jewish legion was approved.

When the formation of the Jewish Legion commenced the leadership was an important consideration. When the debate commenced, Jabotinsky declared: “There is only one nominee ….even though he is not a Jew, he must be our colonel; and I hope that one day he will be our general: Patterson!”

The appointment was officially confirmed July 27, 1917. “Never in Jewish history has there been in our midst a Christian friend of his penetration and devotion.” Vladimir Jabotinsky said. 67 years after his death, the ashes of Lt Col John Henry Patterson were transferred for burial in Israel.

Ron Ross is a Middle East consultant for United Christian Broadcasters (Vision FM). Previously he was radio news editor for Bridges for Peace in Jerusalem, Israel. His career started at WINTV (Email:







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