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Camplife in Palestine

map of palestine
Wilfrid Paine's billet
Sarafand Garrison

"Our Loggia has a marble floor, with purple bougainvillea from roof to balustrade, and we look down through leafy palms on marble steps, falling in shade towards the sea, while around the orange groves bask in the sun." 'It is Bliss Here', Myles Hildyard.

Accommodation wasn't all quite like this and it certainly helped to be an officer. 'Home' usually varied from rough tented camps in which many soldiers lived for years, to hostels and more established barracks. Lance Bombadier V Emery of 112 LAA Regiment RA, describes life in Camp 71 at Hadera in 1945/6.

Wherever you were billeted the weather was something to get used to as it could be remarkably hot, cold, wet or even snowy. Sand storms could blow up and the Khamsin was something to be reckoned with; in the season one could be expected every fortnight. Many soldiers also became accustomed to travelling through or living in desert country.

"One unit I visited a few days ago had spent a fortnight on nothing but drain-digging. After one day's rain their camp was in the nature of a shambles. Tents were blown down; the cookhouse was awash; the officers' mess was more like a stable; men floundered through the lines with mud above their ankles; and wellingtons were worth their weight in gold. All after one day's rain." Henry Longhurst, The War Illustrated, 21 December 1945.

An unfortunately placed temporary camp in a wadi could be suddenly and completely washed away after a downpour on nearby high ground.

A few of the Camps

Sarafand barrack room
Photo: Hayden Randles

The camps were known and are mostly remembered just by a number. Camp 21 was near Nathanya, 69 at Latrun, 71 near Hadera, 153 at Tireh near Haifa and 410 was for the ATS in Allenby Barracks in Jerusalem. The following camps are particularly well-remembered:

Sarafand Garrison (the Aldershot of Palestine) was huge and established having been a peace-time camp which then grew throughout the war. Most servicemen seem to have spent some time here. There were many facilities: NAAFI, cinema, swimming pool, library, hospital, etc.

"Lydda camp, where we are now, has really lived up to
expectations as far as living conditions are concerned and
it is a vast improvement on the other joint which was
nothing but a large expanse of sand, covered with tents
and surrounded by a still larger expanse of sand! The only
grouse we have about this place is the fact that if we do
have any time off it is impossible to go anywhere."
11th November 1946, letter from Des Le Pard
to his girlfriend, Barbs.

Khayat Beach, near Haifa The location was fine, very close to the good beach along which was the Crusaders' castle at Athlit. A Military Cemetery is also here.

Petah Tikva, a Jewish agricultural settlement (the first modern one) but now just an urban sprawl, was also one of the main bases. In 1946 Italian POWs were waiters, cooks, etc here so apparently the food was rather good.

There were many others, some very temporary with few facilities, others a bit more comfortable and near towns full of new experiences.

"I chose that particular day when we moved into the transit camp to decide to have a shave. Not by my own hand but by an Arab barber. and he frightened the life out of me because he was using a slasher not a safety razor. Anyway, after he'd finished, we all got chance to take transport into Haifa and walk around there. And find out what Arabs were all about because none of us had really seen one before." Gerald Cottom, Medic, 3 Para.

Patrick Byrne describes life at the Palestine Police camp at Sarona.

Life for the men, particularly in the final few months confined to camp except for duties or operations, was grim and boredom a big problem. Danger, which could come from anyone anywhere was ever-present so nerves were strained and there was little relief. A few understandably took to drink. They weren't even safe in barracks:

"1947. The next move was the 'hot spot', Jerusalem. Here all tents had a protective concrete wall, shoulder height, built inside tents. Those who were against British forces would suddenly drive past at very fast speed and machine gun the camp. Night foot patrols were hazardous. Automatic fire would suddenly open up (without tracer bullets) from the insurgents. It was difficult in a built up area to locate their firing position. Bombing was frequent." Basil Davie, Irish Guards.

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Food (and Drink)

"During my time in the Army I could not recollect a week going by without corned beef and Spam popping their heads up in some concoction or other. Hot and cold, boiled and fried, plain and in batter at any time of the day. I never tired of it. I take my hat off to the Army Catering Corps. Thinking back to the time when we had no Christmas dinner thanks to our drunken cooks I'm inclined to put my hat back on again - but no, we survived. Bully beef and Spam in excess, a choice of two jams, bread as usual containing the extra protein of live weevils, lashings of tea and two bottles of beer. A repast fit for a King!" 'Enduring the Hour', Ted Hall.

The sudden abundance of food after England was much appreciated, even if camp cooking wasn't always what it might be. Instead of one egg a week you could have as many as you liked just for breakfast, and egg and chips seem to have been the standard meal in the NAAFI and local cafés.

Beer also made life more bearable: one Christmas Ted Hall was sent to pick up a load of beer in Jaffa and found himself in the middle of a gun battle where a bit of name dropping helped.

As few fridges were available, one way to make drinks cold was to wrap a block of ice in hessian and put it with the drinks in an ammo box. On his jaunt to the Dead Sea and Jerash Tony Lycett also said that the officer's batman would put a bottle of Stella in a wet sock and hang it out of the Jeep. Very effective, apparently. He didn't say whether anyone else was offered a drink.

Recreation and sport

"21st March 1948:
An afternoon of battle
and bullets, and the Army
playing football among them.
Another lovely day."
Sir Henry Gurney's Diary.

All the usual army activities continued as far as the security situation permitted as commanding officers considered sport particularly important in maintaining morale. There was cricket and football, of course, whether organized inter-unit matches or just casually around the barracks; boxing, athletics, motor-cycle events, gymkhanas, dog shows, competitive sports days (Ted Hall describes the 1st Infantry Division, RA's, Sports Day at Tel Letwinsky in August 1947), tent pitching competitions, and so on. As far as possible inter-Regiment competitions continued not just in Palestine but throughout the Middle East and officers still managed to get in some shooting whenever they could. There were also many cultural events such as concerts, either with an orchestra or gramophone records. Tel Aviv was particularly rich in cultural opportunities thanks to the many Jewish refugee professional musicians. For everyone there was the cinema; often visited many times a week though not without hazard:

"John and I were in the cinema in the German Colony, Jerusalem, and the film included a lot of shooting. As usual in such circumstances we sat at the rear of the cinema, often with other friends, but it was not until we left the cinema that we realized that there was actual shooting going on outside. With bullets ricocheting around us we literally laid down in the gutter, crawled along to the end of the road and quickly entered another friend's premises which were above the local Police Station." Dot Foster (Court) by email, July 2009

Going to the cinema was a major activity (along with egg, chips and beer somewhere), either Army Kinema Corporation (AKC) shows or, before troops were confined to barracks, in the local townships. The open air cinemas were pleasanter than the indoor ones as everyone smoked so much. One problem with open-air cinemas though was, of course, the likely background noises of pi dogs, donkeys and traffic with perhaps a delicate counterpoint of gunfire and the odd explosion. In some places Palestinian Arab and Jewish employees had to go on separate nights to prevent fights breaking out. The North Palestine Circuit of AKC serviced 12 camp cinemas, circulating a total of 35, usually new, films in the two week period so there were plenty of films to see. Transporting the films could be risky and sandbags were put on vehicle floors to give some protection from mines.

"Outside the cinema were those ubiquitous vendors selling just about everything. Favourite among which was ice-cold, freshly squeezed orange or grapefruit juice, quite delicious and irresistible. There were also mountains of roasted and salted monkey nuts, still in their shells, which were also delicious and irresistible. So much so in fact that I don't remember ever once going to the cinema when the floor was free of a thick carpet of monkey nut shells. Sweets, chocolate and ice cream were also available. There was also a small café, the Victoria Café, just outside the camp gates where we used to go for 'supper' usually consisting of a mixed grill washed down with half pints of port and lemon!!!" 'Straight from the Horsa's Mouth', Ted Mold.

Occasionally there would be entertainments and concert parties by visiting famous, and not quite so famous, stars of film or theatre:

"On to Rafah Ordnance Camp. Its immensity alarmed me a little till I discovered that the English there were quite few. We drove to our tent and found it beautifully laid on with blue rugs over rush matting, chest of drawers, dressing-table and even a jam jar full of flowers. Dinner in officers' mess eaten on a long narrow verandah watching the stars come out and listening to a small regimental dance band, on loan from Haifa for six days, playing for our entertainment. Lights failed but it was really rather lovelier in the starlight." October 6 1944, The Time of my Life, Joyce Grenfell

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Other activities

"The officers' mess members had the use of
what was effectively a private country club, at
Capurnaum on the north end of the lake (Galilee).
This was a big villa originally owned by the Mond
family, called Villa Melchett. It was a lovely place
to picnic and spend the afternoon swimming,
or sailing in a cutter which was kept there."
'An Undistinguished Life', Andrew Gibson-Watt

Card and board games were popular and there was always reading especially as troops could get books from Egypt which, although badly printed, were banned at home. Lady Chatterley's Lover, for instance. Towards the end of the Mandate when troops were confined to barracks except when on duty these were some of the few options available. There was the NAAFI but the men had very little money to spend so buying meals and drinks was not always possible. Those making money from all the illegal trading, of course, were not quite so restricted.

Except when the unrest became too great officers enjoyed the kind of life they were used to leading at home: plenty of socialising plus hunting and shooting particularly around Lake Huleh (an area of marshland since drained for agriculture). Their leisure time was a world away from the men's.

Sightseeing

Troops also took advantage of visiting Jerusalem, Bethlehem and everywhere they could of the Holy Land they had all heard so much about. The army, YMCA and churches organized tours, and troops also travelled about independently when possible. A group from the Palestine Police went on a trip to Nablus to sample the delicious kunaffi for which it is famous.

Animals domestic and not quite so domestic

Where there are troops there will almost certainly be dogs and Palestine was no exception. Trevor Hall tells the story of Dog at a camp near Petah Tikvah. Rabies and occasionally anthrax, however, were an ever-present danger because of the pi-dogs roaming free and sometimes all the dogs in camp would have to be destroyed—a not uncommon occurrence to the distress of all.

Sydney Smart's Royal Artillery unit in had a typically unfortunate experience with their dogs:

"There was one occasion when the CO decided to have a gymkhana and he decided to have a dog race. A friend held the dog, the owner ran the length of the field and they let the dogs go. But instead of the dogs going to the owner they attacked each other and it was absolute mayhem in the middle of the field. After separating them the CO ordered that all dogs on camp were to be destroyed. They had one chap, Darkie Challis, who had a small black and white terrier and he would not let them take that dog. He would carry it about everywhere with him in a pack." Sydney Smart, interview, June 2010

British troops weren't the only ones with dogs: 2/1 Australian Machine Gun Battalion picked their dog, Horrie, up in the Western Desert. He travelled secretly with them to Greece, was evacuated to Crete on the Costa Rica (survived its sinking) and Palestine, before eventually getting home to Sydney where the authorities tried but failed to confiscate it.

Not all animals were pets:

"Camels and donkeys although not really wild were left to graze in the scrub and against a background of palm trees looked quite exotic and biblical. Spiders as big as golfballs I could do without, as I could scorpions, but gekkos were absolutely delightful. They were like miniature prehistoric monsters and could run very fast and go up a perpendicular wall with the greatest of ease. Having one in your tent was a Godsend as they made short work of insects and flies besides keeping you entertained. The other really wild life were the wild dogs, pi-dogs, which roamed and hunted or scavenged in packs and were very dangerous, especially so being rabid." 'Straight from the Horsa's Mouth', Ted Mold.

And Wireless Sgt Ron Jones had a strange encounter while on guard in Lydda.

Trading — legal and definitely otherwise

There was always someone, Arab or Jew, ready to buy something whether a blanket (which would get you beer money) or a tank. Many soldiers were tempted by the large amounts offered to sell a weapon such as a Thompson machinegun for which you could get £125, a huge sum in 1947 when pay counted in shillings per day. Eric Farthing recounts how for a tank you could get £28,000. Some were caught and court martialled but many weren't.

There was also a long-established drug smuggling run from Beirut down to Egypt which the war rather interrupted. This was an Arab venture. One method was to put the drugs into a cigar tin and insert it under a camel's skin but it took a long time for camels to amble down the Levant to Cairo; far quicker to persuade soldiers to carry it in a truck. In Egypt, after the war, some Afrika Korps POWs and British soldiers even got together and set up business selling army kit to Arabs.

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Thieving

Arabs were usually responsible for the unobtrusive general stealing; Jewish terrorist gangs tended to make violent wholesale attacks to obtain arms and ammunition. John Meyers' unit was fortunate to get a break in Palestine from the fighting in Italy but learned to be careful of thieves:

"Left Mena for Palestine. Arrived Gedera, Palestine. Although this was a rest period, we had to be on our guard, as the locals were experts at thieving. Our small arms (rifles etc.) were usually chained to our beds while we slept. Even then they've been known to steal sheets from under a sleeping person, by tickling one side causing one to roll over, rolling up the sheet, tickling the other side causing one to roll back, leaving the sheet free to be taken. At least we did have beds of sorts which were a novelty!"

Guarding against stealing was a constant concern and very difficult as thieves were keen, skillful and audacious. On 7th Dec 1947, one theft was particularly cheeky:

"The ten-foot high barbed wire perimeter fence was strung on iron stanchions with battery operated jeep headlights mounted on tripods acting as searchlights. The guards had a roving commission at all times with access to searchlights for night scanning. Even so, one morning it was discovered that an empty marquee, which had been adjacent to another marquee housing Military Police had vanished! 'Consternation in the Camp' was putting it mildly. Thank God it didn't happen when I was on guard. It appears that the fence had been cut, the guy ropes had been cut, the marquee lowered and tied up then tied to a camel which had dragged it out into the scrub to a nearby clump of palm trees where the thieves were waiting. Having so far been undetected they then disappeared with the camel and marquee into the night." 'Straight from the Horsa's Mouth', Ted Mold.

Camp
Photo: Reg Baker
ALWAYS a weapon to hand
Photo: Bill Tolley
Chez nous
Photo: Dennis and Gerald Skinner
Some new experiences
A beer anyone?
Everyone smoked
Photo: Leif Thomsen
Boating was popular
Photo: Leif Thomsen
Open air cinema
Photo: Fred Wragg,
Lincolnshire Regt
Busy pool in Sarafand
Photo: Leif Thomsen
Alhambra Cinema, Jaffa
Photo: Matson Collection
Passing the time
Photo: Gil White
Drinks in Nazareth
Photo: Leif Thomsen
Dennis and Tinker
Photo: Dennis and Gerald Skinner
Ernie Carver