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Attacks on British Forces

The snaking wire; the cold eyes at the casement,
The torn up tracks beneath the heartless sky;
The Snipers crack, the bomb thrown in the basement;
The young who murder and the old who lie,
To save the thankless who will die tomorrow.
The Manger and unholy armoury,
The bullets peddled in the way of sorrow;
Hate boils the crucible, and as it spills;
Cockneys and Celts in the Judean hills,
Men from cool shires where life is dearly priced,
Contain the slaughter ... even as they wait,
To mount the last guard at the Jaffa Gate
To look the last time on the tomb of Christ.
Graham Layfield, 1st RHA, Gunners in Palestine, November 2003.

"But infirmity of purpose in Whitehall, and the lack of a clear political policy, resulted in the death of many young British soldiers; it was against these things that I fought. There is much to be learnt from a study of how the problem was handled by the Labour Government of that day—chiefly how not to handle such matters." The Memoirs of Field-Marshal Montgomery

King David Hotel explosion
Photo: Imperial War Museum

British forces were attacked by all and sundry as they tried to keep the peace between Palestinian Arabs and incoming Jewish colonizers. Zionist attacks were the most common though and it was impossible to counter them efficiently because of influential Zionist support in the US and UK and indecisive British politicians. In addition the French were actively supporting Zionist groups even during the war itself. In addition, many Palestinian civilians, both Arab and Jew, had jobs with the army, police and Administration so security was impossible. Although constantly accusing the British of being like the Gestapo, the terrorists counted on the very fact that the British did not use Gestapo methods, and whilst the Arab Revolt had been dealt with harshly nothing like such severity was meted out to the Jews. The only defence, apart from constant vigilance, was good intelligence produced by informers and men like the Palestine Police CID Officer, Thomas Wilkins who did much to combat terrorist gangs and, being so successful, was murdered in September 1944.

"I shall never forget being shown
a large wall map of Palestine
on which were marked in red all
these so-called vulnerable points.
The map looked more like a child
suffering from an attack of measles
than a display of serious military
dispositions." Call to Arms,
Gen Sir Richard Gale

At first attacks came mainly from gangs such as Irgun and Stern as during the war the Haganah considered it in their best interests to have a truce and to enlist while the Germans were being fought. By serving with the British Army, Jewish troops were trained and made useful contacts. The Haganah continued to publicly deplore terrorist activity but by 1946 the truce had gone and, together with the Jewish Agency, they were implicated in such atrocities as the King David Hotel bombing.

Arabs also attacked but not to the same extent. They had lost their leaders and most of their weapons in the suppression of the Arab Revolt before the war. In addition, Palestinian Arab society was typically rural as opposed to the mostly urban Jewish society; they were untrained, there was no unity and they were usually peasant farmers with old-fashioned weapons - some leftover from Turkish occupation. They had little foreign support or funding and no active propaganda machine.

"One cold and foggy dawn my crew and I were on our way to repair telephone cables damaged by gunfire along the road. I thought it would be a sensible precaution to tell the mukhtar of the Palestinian village on the side of the road and the head of the Jewish settlement some hundreds of metres down the road on the other side what we would be up to for the next hour or so and to request them to be good enough, should they be inclined to open up upon each other, to hold their fire for a while. Well, they clearly had a better plan - after an hour one group opened fire on my little gang and than the other did likewise. We left." Peter Davies, interview in 2000 with BADIL

Attacks were numerous and varied; the rail link from Haifa to Egypt being a particular favourite. Billets, social centres and offices were targeted (such as the Goldsmith Officers' Club) as well as prisons, vehicles and individuals; kidnappings and floggings were also carried out. There could be a sudden hail of stones (plenty available) or the far more lethal bombs, a sniper's bullet or road mines.

Many of the explosive devices were home-made and so presented a particular challenge:

"District asked for two volunteers to attend a Bomb Disposal Course in Jerusalem. I don't know how many fools applied but I was one of the Twelve Apostles that found themselves rather hurriedly in Jerusalem. For our tutor we had a hightly experienced Sapper Major; His opening words to the twelve of us as we sat in the classroom in the Police Depot at Mount Scopus were as follows: 'Gentlemen. I have seen Bomb Disposal service in France, the African campaign, Sicily, Italy, France and Germany, and now here. I am wise and experienced, but here I haven't a bloody clue.' It was like a sentence of death." My Trinity, Eric Howard.

It is impossible to detail all attacks but below are a some of the more notorious.

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Attacks on Troops

"This struggle is not
directed against you."
Terrorist pamphlet.

These could be by sniper or bomb or could take the form of kidnapping and then murder, holding for a while and/or public flagellation. Humiliation was and still is a deliberate weapon there. A particularly barbaric attack was the kidnapping, torture and murder of Sergeant Clifford Martin and Sergeant Mervyn Paice which led to difficulty in controlling enraged troops in Tel Aviv, anti-Jewish riots in England and condemnation by people worldwide, including Jewish groups (though no assistance in finding the murderers). Snipers could pick men off in the streets, manning roadblocks or even in barracks any time; the orange groves, hills and rocky terrain of Palestine providing plenty of cover. The pointless killing of Cpl Short, 4th/7th Royal Dragoon Guards near Jaffa was typical. Nowadays the practice is more refined and snipers have an officer with them who singles out particular targets in protests. A unit was always in danger and a particularly heinous attack was that which killed 7 men, mostly unarmed and in bed, of 5 Para in Tel Aviv. Troops were always in danger: Pte Patterson, 2nd Battalion Royal Lincolnshire Regiment, was shot dead in his bed during a terrorist raid on Tel Letwinsky camp.

All British personnel were at risk whether troops, police, Civil Servants or civilians. Retired Major HA Collins was kidnapped and put in a sack after being hit and chloroformed. He was released later but died because of the terrorist's ignorance in how to use chloroform. The Attorney General, John Bowes, represented the Government in court against habeas corpus applications from detained illegal immigrants. After resisting 3000 applications in just one day in November 1946, he found the Palestine Police and Army waiting at home to escort him out of the country because of a known imminent assassination attempt:

"... he was escorted to Kalandia airfield outside Jerusalem in a convoy of armoured cars. He flew out in a Puss Moth aeroplane normally reserved for the air officer commanding Palestine - just he, the pilot and room for one suitcase. It had an open cockpit and navigation was by flying to the coast, then turning left and following the coastline along the edge of the Sinai desert. When they spotted Port Said they turned south and followed the Suez Canal towards an RAF airfield near Suez. This reliance on visual navigation was made more hazardous because of a sandstorm. Providentially, with fuel low, a break in the storm occurred just at the right moment to spot the canal and they landed safely as darkness fell." When the sun never set, Alice Boase.

Attacks on Vehicles

Roadside mines and fused bombs were a constant danger and killed and injured many troops. One technique was to simply pull a string of mines across the roadway in front of an approaching vehicle. Sometimes one or all the mines would be a dummy thereby being a means of stopping a vehicle, making the occupants more vulnerable. It was necessary to be very vigilant and look for anything suspicious:

"In the present day, in Afghanistan, they know all about these. That technique had been used several times in Palestine to blow up vehicles. In fact, two of our chaps were killed. I was escorting the commanding officer to a conference. They were in vehicles fore and aft of his staff car and the leading one caught the mine and they were killed." Eric Farthing, Light Dragoon Guards, interview November 2010.

Sometimes bombs would be 'command-wire' whereby a wire went from the concealed bomb to a waiting terrorist nearby (orange groves were popular cover) who would detonate it. Eric Farthing describes a counter-measure:

"Attacks went on and seemed to get worse in intensity as the months went past. On one occasion we had to take a troop of tanks to destroy an orange grove because vehicles had been shot up constantly and a number of vehicles had been destroyed. We took our tanks up and down the orange trees which seemed a shame as the trees were in full fruit but we destroyed the lot because it was a danger."

Captain Philip Brutton had a narrow escape from one of these. Another hazard was a strong wire across a road at head height which could kill or injure anyone in an open-topped vehicle or on a motorcycle; decapitation was not unknown. This tactic was countered by fixing a vertical length of steel to the front of the bonnet. Dropping a grenade into the hatch of a tank was also tried so a mesh covering was sometimes placed over the opening. The machine gun attack in which Sgt Lambert was killed was typical. Troops had to be wary of home-made mortars too which could be rapidly dug into the side of the road, used quickly and moved. Constant patrolling and intelligence was the only way of combating such violence.

Terrorists were also fond of dressing up as Arabs or British troops. Sometimes, wearing the distinctive red beret of the Parachute Regiment they would pretend to be needing a lift and if the vehicle stopped to pick them up they would open fire.

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Attacks on oil installations

Throughout the Mandate attacks by both Arabs and Jews on oil installations and pipelines were common and posed a real threat to the UK economy and the war effort. One particularly big fire in Haifa burned for 19 days and the smoke plume could be seen from Jerusalem.

The Palestine Railways were regularly attacked

"I was having breakfast in the restaurant car when,
between Gaza and Lydda, there was a loud thump
and the train stopped at once. We got out and
went back down the line, to see a dreadful sight.
Two coaches packed with soldiers had been bombed.
Wounded men were trapped in the smoking wreckage
and the smell of death was everywhere."
An Undistinguished Life, Andrew Gibson-Watt.

For the British the worst rail attack was at Rehovoth on 29th February 1948 when 28 soldiers were killed and more than 30 injured. Andrew Gibson-Watt, an officer in the Welsh Guards returning from leave, was a lucky survivor. He had earlier survived the attempted blowing up of his vehicle in Jerusalem. However, on 31st March forty civilians were killed in another rail atrocity. Arabs usually attacked freight trains but Jews attacked trains carrying people.

Ex-Bombardier Jim Parritt's eyewitness account of terrorist attack on train at Binyamina. Lt Tony Hetherington, 41st Field Regt, was the unfortunate officer i/c train on the occasion.

Major Plowman, RAPC, experienced an attack at Rehovoth which killed five soldiers, three civilians and injured 39. This was another one of many. NB All the images of train wrecks in Palestine are general and not necessarily specific to the attack in question.

Short British Pathé clip of result of attack on Haifa/Cairo train.

Aircraft were not immune
"When flying at about 250 feet on a photographic sortie (with 651 Air Op Sqdn) over Jaffa, an Arab fired at my aircraft and put a bullet through the roundel on my tailplane. I was about to signal to a troop of 17/21st Lancers to deal with the Arab when a Jewish machine-gunner opened up with tracer and shot away my windscreen and three of the four struts holding up the mainplane. This made the plane unstable and unsafe but I was able to fly the Auster very gently and at low speed to the airstrip at Petah Tiqva about fifteen miles away." Col J Cameron-Hays MVO, Gunners in Palestine, November 2003

Syrian Orphanage

The Syrian Orphanage was also known as the Schneller School after Father Schneller who arrived in Palestine from Germany in the 19th century and cared for children from Syria and Lebanon. It closed early in the war and was taken over by the British Army when it became 'Schneller Camp'. It was some distance to the north of Jerusalem and 90 Battalion Royal Army Pay Corps was stationed here when it was attacked in March 1947.

Private Harry Devey describes the attack and on Britain's Small Wars site there is another witness account by Private Edward Worley.

"The Jews of America are for you. You are their champions. You are the grin they wear. You are the feather in their hats. You are the first answer that makes sense—to the New World. Every time you blow up a British arsenal, or wreck a British jail, or send a British railroad sky high, or rob a British bank, or let go with your guns and bombs at the British betrayers and invaders of your homeland, the Jews of America make a little holiday in their hearts" Letter to the Terrorists of Palestine, Ben Hecht, New York Post, 14th May 1947.

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I hear they are debating
this in the House
Roadmine damage
Photo: Ernie Carver
Whilst stationed at Acre one of our half-tracks went out on patrol. They got as far as a nearby village and got shot up. They were all killed. One of our tanks had to go out and tow them in. We later had the unpleasant task of cleaning the vehicle out. 'Hec' Taylor, 1st RHA, from Gunners in Palestine, Nov 01

 

Annexe roof, King David Hotel
Photo: Joyce Faris
Acre Prison 1942
Photo: unknown
Clifford Martin and family
April 1943
Rocks placed on roads to provide easy targets for snipers.
Almost ready for action
Photo: Leif Thomsen
Fire at Shell installation
Photo: Dennis and Gerald Skinner
Aftermath of the fire
Photo: Dennis and Gerald Skinner
Position of Syrian Orphanage
Photo: Alan Cathcart

 

"The two terrorist organizations, the Irgun and Stern gangs, were understandably emotionally crippled individuals, hardened by Nazi and Soviet persecution, whose families had largely been brutally murdered, and whose viewpoints in consequence were wholly exclusive to anyone else's." A Captain's Mandate, Philip Brutton