Mike Flanagan in front of a Cromwell tank in Israel, 1948.

Virtually unknown World War II military hero was born in Mayo

By Tom Gillespie

IT is quite extraordinary that part of Mayo’s military history includes two ‘founding fathers’ from Foxford. One is the very well-known Admiral William Brown who founded the Argentine Navy and the second is Sergeant Mike Flanagan who was the founder of the Israeli Armoured Corps.

Flanagan is well-known and revered in Israel but is virtually unknown anywhere else.

Sgt. Flanagan is a hero in Israel and the tanks he acquired from a British Army depot near Haifa in 1948 are very much on display in the Armoured Corps Museum in Latrun. The Foxford man, who joined the British Army in 1942 to fight Nazism and who landed in Normandy on D-Day, 1944, ended up providing the Jewish underground with two British tanks in 1948.

Mike Flanagan was born in Foxford on May 15, 1926. He served with the British Army during World War II, and participated in the liberation of the Nazi-operated Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

Following the war, Flanagan was stationed in British Mandate Palestine. Being sympathetic with the emerging state of Israel, on June 29, 1948, Flanagan (along with his tank commander, Harry McDonald) stole two British Cromwell tanks and drove them to Israeli forces in Tel Aviv. These became central to the Israel Armoured Corps.

The tanks were hidden in Givatayim and later formed the basis of the Israeli Armored Corps.

The Cromwell tanks are currently on display at the Armored Corps Memorial Site and Museum in Latrun. Flanagan is considered one of the most famous deserters from the British Army in Palestine.

Flanagan subsequently converted to Judaism, adopted the Hebrew name Michael Peleg, and married Ruth Levy, a fellow soldier whom he had met on active service.

They lived in Israel on Kibbutz Sha’ar HaAmakim. Flanagan served as a reservist in the 1956 Sinai campaign, the 1967 Six-Day War, as well as the Yom Kippur War in 1973. He supervised the tank repair unit at the Armored Corps base in Julis throughout this time.

After his retirement from the Haganah and the death of his wife he emigrated to Canada. He died on January 26, 2014, aged 87 years, and was subsequently buried in Sha’ar HaAmakim cemetery alongside his wife and son.

He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Valor from the Wiesenthal Center in the United States. The Israeli Defense Forces honoured Flanagan for his immense and critical contributions to the formulation of the IDF.

This amazing story is the subject of a book, Sergeant Flanagan Foxford and Israel, written by Captain Donal Buckley, who was involved in establishing the Mayo Peace Park in Castlebar.

To coincide with the publication of the book, Donal is organising a guided tour to the World War One Western Front battlefields from June 12 to 16.

However, this is more than a battlefield tour. This will be a wonderful opportunity for students of Irish history as it will cover the Act of Union, Home Rule, the 1916 Rising and how the Independence struggle interweaved with World War One.

The tour will be the ultimate explainer of that period and will also examine the peace process in Ireland and how the Irish soldier in WWI became the common ground of understanding and reconciliation and of course they will also visit the Island of Ireland Peace Park in Messines.

During this tour, which will visit the Irish participation in the battles of Mons, Ypres, Messines and the Somme, will give priority where possible to people who wish to visit family graves.

For complex historical reasons many graves of the Irish, especially Nationalist fallen, have never been visited by their relatives and this tour will address this issue for those taking part, where it is possible to do so. If you want to experience WWI trenches, museums, cemeteries and see what weapons were used and what Irish monuments have been constructed then this tour is for you. Donal has eight vacancies and must have commitment before the end of January. Please note that the programme will be adjusted to suit changing situations and personal requests.

Tour booking direct with GTI Travel (01) 8434734 or via Captain Donal Buckley Military Heritage Tours Ltd., Woodfield, Derryhick, Parke, Castlebar, F23 KX 39, or phone (094) 9031344 or email dbuckley@anu.ie.