Jordanian Military Effectiveness in the War of Israeli Independence

Glubb Pasha (1953)

The conduct of the Arab Legion against the nascent Israeli army in 1948 was, without doubt, the best performance of any Arab military against any foe of the modern era. Alone among the Arab armies, the legion acted and fought like a modern, professional military. Its units demonstrated remarkable cohesiveness, sticking together and clinging to their positions even under the most severe pressure, such as in the second battle of Latrun. The soldiers themselves regularly displayed a high level of personal courage, and there are any number of stories from both the Israeli and Jordanian sides to attest to this. The Jordanians demonstrated a good grasp of combined-arms operations, regularly integrating infantry, armored cars, and artillery better than the Israelis. Their marksmanship was very high, and their counterattacks were usually well timed and aggressive. Jordanian units covered their flanks well and were not paralyzed when the Israelis did succeed in turning them. The legion patrolled constantly, often precluding Israeli surprises and even surprising the Israelis on several occasions. Jordanian junior officers showed real initiative, seizing fleeting opportunities – such as attacking the Latrun police fort when the Israelis had left it dangerously undermanned – that proved to be critical to their war effort. Jordan’s tactical leaders led well-timed and effective counterattacks that frequently were the decisive factor in combat. Finally, legion officers regularly employed operational maneuver to gain an advantage in combat, although at the tactical level, many Jordanian attacks were simple frontal assaults.

Nevertheless, at least two qualifiers must be kept in mind when considering Jordanian performance during this conflict. First, while the Jordanians unquestionably fought better than any of the other Arab armies, and in many ways they fought as well as or better than the Israelis, their performance does not exactly rank as one of the great campaigns of military history. The Jordanians did not face a very capable adversary, and they had several important advantages in their favor. Myths of Israeli invincibility aside, the Haganah of 1948 was a very mediocre force. Its unit capabilities were uneven, with some brigades performing well and others giving a rather poor account of themselves. The Israelis were inadequately armed and trained and suffered from political infighting. They had all kinds of problems with personnel and languages and with the incompatibility of their hodge-podge of weaponry. Some Haganah units paid too little attention to reconnaissance and so were surprised by Jordanian actions that might easily have been discovered and averted. The Jordanians were able to defend the superb terrain of Judaea and Samaria, while the Israelis were mostly forced to attack from the coastal plain up into the central hills. Finally, the Israelis also had to fight five other Arab armies, which prevented them from concentrating decisive force against the Jordanians.

Despite all of these advantages, Jordan’s forces only succeeded in fighting the Israelis to a draw. The Jordanians consistently defeated Israeli attacks against their prepared defensive positions. Most of the successful Israeli offensives in the Jerusalem area (such as at Lod, Ramla, and Mount Zion) were conducted against small Arab Legion forces, while larger Jordanian units in the Old City and Latrun held their ground against numerous determined Israeli assaults. Of course, in virtually all of these cases, the Israeli attacks were clumsy frontal assaults that played right into Jordanian hands. Although the legion defeated most Israeli attacks, they fared little better in their own offensives. The only significant gains the Jordanians were able to make against Israeli resistance were the conquests of the Etzioni bloc, the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, and the Shaykh Jarrah area. All of these successes came in the first weeks of the war, before the first truce, and were all modest achievements. In none of these battles did the Jordanians face a large, well-armed, and adequately trained force. For example, in Shaykh Jarrah, a legion infantry battalion supported by artillery and armored cars defeated seventy infantrymen from the Irgun. Even with the advantage of urban terrain on the Israeli side, this was a mismatch, and the legion’s victory cannot be taken as a sign of real prowess on the part of the Jordanians. Conversely, the moment that they ran into better-trained or larger Israeli units – such as in the Mandlebaum Gate area and at Notre Dame-their attacks went nowhere.

An additional qualifier that must be attached to Jordanian performance is the contribution of the Arab Legion’s British officers. There is a consensus among experts on the Jordanian military and the 1948 war that it was the British influence and presence that was the single most important element of Jordanian military effectiveness. For instance, Brig. Gen. S. A. El-Edroos, an unabashed admirer of the Jordanian military, remarked, “The credit for the excellence of the Arab Legion’s performance during the war of 1948 and later, during the border wars of 1951-1956, must in all fairness be given to Glubb Pasha and the contingent of British officers who served with the Arab Legion from its formation in 1921 to the exodus of 1956.”‘ Col. Trevor Dupuy has similarly noted that the principal source of Jordanian military effectiveness was “decades of British leadership and military tradition.”

There is a great deal of validity to this assessment. Most of the successes the Jordanians enjoyed and most of the competent military practices they demonstrated were attributable to their officer corps, which was comprised entirely of British and Jordanians with long years of British schooling and military training. The aggressive counterattacks, battlefield maneuvers, flexible operations, and acts of opportunistic initiative were all exercised by the (British-dominated) officer corps. Likewise, the high level of individual soldiering skills found in the Arab Legion, such as its excellent marksmanship, is directly attributable to the British emphasis on long-term-service professionals, who thereby benefited from iron discipline and lengthy training. The very competent strategic direction of the war, itself another element of Jordan’s praiseworthy showing in this conflict, was entirely the product of British officering. It is hard to discount the pervasive British influence as a source of the various skills displayed by the Arab Legion in 1948.

Jordanian-Israeli Clashes, 1949-66

Almost immediately after the conclusion of the war in Palestine, Amman inaugurated plans to enhance its military capabilities both quantitatively and qualitatively. Although ‘Abdallah and his British military chiefs had generally been pleased with the performance of the Arab Legion against the Israelis, they recognized that it was too small a force to adequately defend the new nation against the variety of threats it now confronted. In the years after the Arab defeat in 1948, Arab nationalists overthrew several of the Arab monarchies and narrowly failed to unseat many others. The new regimes in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and elsewhere bore little love for the remaining monarchs like ‘Abdallah and mounted both clandestine and overt challenges to their rule. In the face of these threats, Amman began a major campaign to augment the Arab Legion.

This expansion, however, did not imply a move to a mass army. The British officers in particular were adamantly opposed to diluting the caliber of manpower by adopting large-scale conscription. Instead, they chose to retain the same long terms of service and rigorous discipline and training but accept more volunteers. In addition, as another important way of increasing the overall combat power at its disposal, Amman began pursuing newer and heavier weapons, particularly tanks and combat aircraft, to improve the firepower and mobility of the legion.

The war in Palestine had also pointed out other shortcomings that Jordan attempted to address in the years thereafter. The legion combat support and combat-service-support branches had proven to be weak links. Prior to 1948, the Arab Legion had relied on British military forces in the Middle East to take care of its various logistical and support functions as well as provide air cover, signals, and combat-engineer units. When the British pulled out of Palestine in 1948, they took these support personnel with them, forcing the legion to improvise during the war with Israel. In particular, the Jordanians had suffered from a dearth of technically competent personnel to man signals, artillery, combat engineering, logistics, and maintenance billets.

Across the board, Jordan and its British officers tried to remedy these problems and to expand and modernize the legion. In 1950, Amman established an officer cadet training school followed by training programs for technical and logistics personnel, the Royal Military College, and the Command Staff College. In 1951 King Abdallah created the Royal Jordanian Air Force (RJAF) with a small number of older British aircraft. In addition, the Arab Legion began accepting large numbers of new volunteers. Throughout the 1950s and 196os, the legion remained an extremely popular career. Its prestige was enormous and its economic benefits excellent. Indeed, by the mid-1960s, there was a long waiting list for volunteers, and many applicants resorted to bribery simply to be able to serve as enlisted men. Consequently, the legion’s strength rose from 12,000 men in nine infantry battalions and several independent infantry companies in 1949 to 55,000 men in nine infantry brigades, two armored brigades, and five independent tank and infantry battalions in 1967.

These efforts also produced some unintended problems, however. First, as part of the effort to improve Jordan’s ability to operate and maintain technical equipment, Glubb encouraged the recruitment of more technically qualified personnel, including many who simply had a passing exposure to modern machinery and electronics. The segment of Jordan’s population that most possessed these traits were the Hadaris, particularly the new Palestinian refugees. The Palestinians mostly came from the big coastal towns like Jaffa and Haifa and so had been around cars, telephones, and other mundane technology. They also possessed the largest number of young men trained in technical fields such as engineering and the physical sciences. But the Hashimites had developed a very strong relationship with the Bedouin population during the 1930s and 1940s and felt less comfortable relying on the Jordanian Hadaris; they did not trust the Palestinians at all. Most of the Palestinians looked down on the Hashimites and their Bedouin supporters as unsophisticated “bumpkins.” Furthermore, the Palestinians were intent on reconquering their homeland, a goal about which the Jordanian monarchy was ambivalent at best. Thus, Glubb’s efforts to recruit technically skilled Palestinians and Hadaris was regarded with misgiving in Amman, and such recruits were strictly segregated within the military. Ultimately, “West Bankers” were relegated to the technical services – engineering, supply and transport, maintenance and repair, medical services, and signals -and to four of the infantry brigades. The other five infantry brigades, the two armored brigades, and the independent armor battalions were all kept strictly Bedouin. Moreover, the four “Palestinian” brigades were deployed to the West Bank, while both armored brigades and up to four of the “Bedouin” infantry brigades were kept on the East Bank, between the West Bank units and the capital. Amman kept a close watch on its handful of Palestinian officers, and few were allowed to rise even as high as battalion commander (and then usually only in support units). Command in the combat units was reserved for Bedouin officers.

The second problem the Jordanians encountered derived from the manning of their new officer billets. The dramatic expansion of the Arab Legion demanded a corresponding increase in the size of the Jordanian officer corps. Amman’s response was to secure large numbers of additional British officers seconded from the British military. By 1955, British officers accounted for over half of all the officer billets in the Jordanian army, more than at any previous time. This influx proved crucial in training the hordes of new recruits being brought in to fill out the expanded-force structure. Simply put, there existed no readily available pool of trained officers in Jordan that could have been drawn upon to provide adequate training to such a large number of new personnel inducted in such a short amount of time. Had the Jordanians not been able to obtain the services of these British officers, their expansion program would have been less successful and might have failed altogether, producing a larger but far less capable force. However, the addition of more British officers created resentment among the Jordanian junior officers, who believed that they should have been given first preference for the new command assignments that opened up as a result of the expansion.

This disgruntlement eventually contributed to the dismissal of the British from Jordanian service. In March 1956 the new Jordanian king, Hussein ibn Talal, grandson of ‘Abdallah, dismissed Glubb and the other British officers from the Arab Legion and officially renamed the force the Jordan Arab Army al-Arabiyyah al-Urduniyyah). Although the young king and Glubb had some differences regarding the future course of the Jordanian armed forces, the real causes of the rupture were Arab nationalism and the ambitions of Jordan’s junior-officer corps. Many Jordanians saw the continuing British presence in the military as a lingering vestige of imperial control over the country. At best, the British officers had divided loyalties, and their conduct in the war with Israel served as proof that their first allegiance was to London. Finally, ambitious young Jordanian officers realized that their future advancement depended on removing the obstacle of the British officers. Consequently, they agitated for Glubb’s dismissal under the guise of nationalism, though really for their own self-interest.

The sudden departure of the British officers from the former Arab Legion not only created considerable “headroom” for aspiring Jordanian officers but also ushered in new headaches for the regime. In particular, the Jordanians found that few among their officer candidates were really qualified for tactical command assignments. Amman was able to find enough competent officers to fill the relatively small number of senior slots opened up by the British exodus but ran into difficulties adequately filling the much larger number of lower-ranking commands. As Brig. Peter Young, a highly decorated British commando and the commander of the Jordanian 9th Infantry Battalion until 1956, succinctly noted, “there was a distinct shortage of potential battalion and company commanders.”” Ultimately, the Jordanians were forced to make do with a number of officers who would not have passed muster under the British because they were the only men available.”

Combat Operations

Adding to the tumult caused by these changes, the Jordanians had to be constantly on their guard against Israel. Combat never fully ceased along the border even after the December 1948 ceasefire. Palestinians, Jordanians, and Israelis found reasons to snipe at each other across the ceasefire lines, raid each others’ villages, and kidnap each others’ soldiers. Israeli forces performed poorly in these operations at first, prompting Tel Aviv to set up a special elite force, Unit 101, under the leadership of Maj. Ariel Sharon, specifically for cross border raids. In 1954 the Israelis expanded this elite force by merging Unit 101 with their paratrooper battalion to form the 202d Paratroop Brigade, again under Sharon’s leadership. Sharon’s troops dramatically altered the balance along the Israeli-Jordanian border. He proved to be a brilliant tactician, his men were superb fighters, and they regularly defeated much larger Jordanian and Palestinian forces. This string of defeats, and the increasing ferocity of Sharon’s raids, forced the Jordanians to beef up the army’s presence on the West Bank, escalating the scale of combat even further. The largest and most important clash between Sharon’s force and the Arab Legion was at the West Bank village of Qalqilyah in October 1956.


In September and October 1956, a group of Palestinian fedayeen guerrillas conducted a series of attacks on Israel from the Qalqilyah area that left nine Israeli civilians dead. Tel Aviv decided to mount a reprisal raid using Sharon’s 202d Paratroop Brigade. The target of the strike would be the Jordanian military headquarters at Qalgilyah for sanctioning, or at least not preventing, the operations of this Palestinian group. Qalqilyah is about twenty kilometers northeast of Tel Aviv at the western tip of a salient that sticks out into Israel from the West Bank territories to create the narrowest point of Israel’s narrow waist. The town was defended by elements of the Jordanian 9th Infantry Battalion. At least another company of the battalion was in reserve at Azzun, several miles to the east, waiting to counterattack any Israeli reprisal raid.

On 10 October Sharon led elements of his brigade against Qalqilyah. Israel’s political leadership placed several unusual constraints on his operation so as not to jeopardize the ongoing negotiations with Britain and France for a combined military campaign against Egypt. Sharon’s plan had been to deploy a blocking force along the Qalqilyah-Azzun road; another force would seize the Zuffin Hill, which overlooked the Azzun road; a third force would clear the Jordanian strongpoints south of Qalqilyah; and another force would actually seize and demolish the military headquarters. However, Tel Aviv vetoed the capture of Zuffin Hill, and the attack against the strongpoints south of the town, they feared, would make the operation seem too large.”

As a result of these changes, the raid turned into a pitched battle. When Sharon’s units drove eastward into Qalgilyah, the Jordanian company in the strongpoint south of town opened fire on them. Although these troops did not get out of their positions and counterattack the Israelis to prevent them from reaching the military headquarters, their fire was accurate, and since it came at the Israelis from the flank, it slowed down their operation. Meanwhile, the reserve elements of the 9th Battalion came racing down the Azzun-Qalqilyah road as soon as they received radio reports of the Israeli attack only to blunder into the Israeli blocking force, which threw them back with heavy losses. The Jordanian reinforcements were considerably larger than the Israeli blocking force, however, and their size prompted the Israelis to fall back to another ambush position. The Jordanians regrouped and attacked down the road again, and again they were surprised and mauled in an Israeli ambush. Once more they fell back in disarray, regrouped, attacked again, and were again ambushed. After this third bloody nose, the Jordanian commander deployed a part of his force to move north of the road into a flanking position. It is unclear whether he intended to mount a flanking attack on the Israeli blocking force or had given up and was simply deploying to prevent the Israelis from driving farther east into Jordan.

Regardless of its purpose, this move suddenly turned things in favor of the 9th Battalion. By this time, the Israeli main body had completed demolishing the headquarters compound in Qalgilyah and were ready to withdraw back to Israel. As part of the withdrawal, the small Israeli blocking force was ordered to pull back, not west, but north to the Israeli kibbutz of Eyal, which caused them to run into the Jordanian flanking position. The Jordanians surprised the Israelis and inflicted a fair number of casualties on them. At that point, the Jordanian commander realized he had caught a small Israeli unit in a bad position and threw all of his forces against them. He attacked the pinned-down Israelis but sent part of his force west to occupy Zuffin Hill to cut their escape route west to Qalqilyah. The Israelis did try to escape westward and were then caught in an ambush by the Jordanians on the hill. Sharon eventually was forced to call in artillery and to dispatch a small force of Ares he had been holding in reserve, which cut their way through the Jordanian lines and extracted the trapped unit at the cost of one of the Arcs lost to antitank fire. All told, the Israelis suffered 18 dead and 60 wounded, while the Jordanians suffered between 120 and 300 casualties.

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