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Duties — many, and probably unpleasant

map of palestine

"1946 Ramat David. There was no dialogue between ourselves and the Jews. They hated us for preventing boatloads of their people from entering Palestine illegally. Their hate was of an intensity I found hard to comprehend. For us life was a long monotonous round of guards and patrols. During the hours of darkness only duties took us outside the barbed wire of the camp's perimeter. By necessity we were imprisoned by our own security, but it mattered little, for beyond our confines there was no joy, no laughter, no milk of human kindness in that Holy Land. Not for the first time politicians back home had given the British soldier a bed of nails to lie on and put him in a no-win situation." 'Enduring the Hour', Trevor Hall.

As well as the routine army duties that everyone was used to there were also those covering security and peacekeeping. For the men just arrived from action in Europe this was not an easy adjustment and they learned as they went along. Sometimes instead of trying to keep Arabs and Jews apart, they had to try to stop Jewish or Arab infighting as Tony Lycett witnessed. They were doing their best to deal with civilians whose hostility was very physical and verbal, and a ruthless enemy frequently disguised in British uniforms. There was also the propaganda press often lined up when an illegal ship docked or a colony was to be searched and eager to send anything that could be interpreted as proving how beastly British troops behaved. As well as the general duties below, there were men like Charlie Powell manning a Fire Station in Haifa, medics like Gerald Cottom in Sarafand Military Hospital, or those repairing vehicles or aircraft.

Soldier in uniform, aircraft behind him
Gen Montgomery
Photo: Bill Dutton

Occasionally there would be escort duties for visiting generals, politicians or others who had to be kept safe and for whom extreme smartness, plenty of 'bull', would be required.

Sarafand PO
Photo: Wilfrid Paine

The Army Postal Service was particularly important; everyone looked forward to hearing from Home, especially during wartime. Letters were usually numbered as they often went astray either because a unit had moved or the carrier succumbed to enemy action. In Palestine soldiers were able to send home a monthly parcel, free, which was likely to contain oranges or souvenirs from the Holy Land. There was also a ration of free airletters so no excuse for not writing to your family. General counter service was part of Wilfrid Paine's duties which included complicated currency exchange resulting from soldiers constantly moving around the Middle East. Another of his duties was to pick up the mail from Cairo at Lydda Station where he became friends, and remained in touch, with the Station Master, Mr Seidenberg.

Funeral duty

A particularly distressing and all too frequent duty was attending funerals. Many men had to be pall bearers for a friend's coffin, be part of a firing party, or be part of the security detail — terrorists were not above attacking during a funeral service.

Occasionally it was possible to combine work with a spot of sightseeing. Tony Lycett drove the Brigade MO on a water-seeking expedition which took in the Dead Sea and Jerash. They brought back lots of samples but none, unsurprisingly, were promising. An interesting trip though.

In addition to general police duties and peace keeping, the Palestine Police also had the more mundane duty of trying to control the traffic

Patrols

Frequent inspections
Painting: Jack Piper

Patrolling is an activity familiar to anyone who has served in any force anywhere but in Palestine it was particularly hazardous. There were all manner of dangers: roadside bombs, mines and mortars, as well as ambushes and sniper attack. And there were many kinds of patrols: Jim Hartstone recalls a patrol made when he had only been in Palestine a week with the Black Watch Battalion. The patrol's mission was to look for deserters and absentees in the brothels of unsavoury parts of Jaffa. In the second part he describes his meeting with a Palestine Policeman. ParaData map showing route numbers

Buck Adams of the Palestine Police used to patrol on horseback from Jerusalem or Bethlehem. Harold Jennings, also a Palestine Policeman, tells of a camel patrol to the Dead Sea: first spending the night in a Bedouin camp and then travelling over very difficult terrain down to the Sea.

Sometimes, however, a patrol might result in a touch of embarrassment:

"My platoon was patrolling at night, on foot, through the countryside and we saw in a distant field a moving light and figures milling about. Being a young enthusiastic officer I assumed they were terrorists probably burying explosives so I sent two sections on ahead and around. They were to advance on the group when I fired a Very pistol flare. After a long wait I fired the flare and true to their training it was a perfect maneuver and the group was soon surrounded by armed soldiers. This little escapade got our unit mentioned in the local paper because they were beekeepers taking advantage of the darkness to move some hives." Alan Cathcart, KRRC 1946/7, by email, May 2011.

Or a call out could become farcical:

"I responded to a 999 call early one evening concerning the 'Flats' (a Haifa brothel) and on arrival found three other mobiles outside plus foot patrols. All the girls were hanging provocatively out of their windows cheering the policemen and shouting lewd comments to them, with the policemen replying accordingly. It resembled a scene from a French farce and was quite amusing on the whole. Who could blame the policemen for being protective? Some of them were obviously valued customers. I don't think I was popular when I chased all but one car away. They could show their gratitude outside working hours." My Trinity, Eric Howard.

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Guard Duty

Morning after guard
Ein Shemer

Bombardier Sydney Smart talkS about guarding the Latrun prison and Trevor Hall goes on to describe general guard duty. If you got a bit bored you could always write home - part of a letter from Harry Devey, Pay Corps:

"I am writing this letter while am on guard so you can see they haven't wasted much time getting me on this stunt but I don't mind doing it because it is being done in the army's time and I would rather do this than office work any day. It is a very different effort to the usual Pay Corps stunt for there are three of us (my two pals and I) sitting on the top of a tower with a bren gun, two rifles, and a couple of hundred rounds of ammunition and orders to shoot if anything happens and believe me we shall.
        It reminds me of the old infantry days doing this stunt again only of course this isn't training. You would laugh if you could see us now eating our dinner behind camouflage netting with a loaded rifle in one hand and a fork in the other and they talk about Monty's new army? But never mind we get a laugh out of it. I have just received some mail, the first for over a week, five letters at once, two from home, two from Ron and one from Kev so that cheered things up a lot. I had a good laugh over the bit about 'hope I am enjoying my holiday out here'. Well I must say it's the first time I've heard of anyone spending a holiday in a tower with a Bren but I suppose there is a first time ..."

John Falconer had the particularly unpleasant, not to mention spooky, guard duty in a morgue watching over the body of a terrorist. (NB the 'back' is to a different site.)

Searches

Searches could take the form of searching individuals in the street or at a roadblock or bigger operations such as Operation Elephant which was launched in March 1947 after the terrorist attack on the Goldsmith Officers' Club. An entire area would be cordoned and searched with varying degrees of resistance from those enclosed.

"Very soon we were involved in early callouts, and when I say early callouts sometimes starting at three o'clock and going into the Jewish settlements to seek out terrorists and weapons. ... They resented us, obviously, their objective was to take over Palestine as quickly as they could, obviously disregarding the Arabs. And we were in the middle of it. Tony Lycett, 3 Para.

Searching a kibbutz would meet with great hostility but large quantities of arms could be hidden in all kinds of unlikely places: a children's nursery, a sewer or even under a children's playground with the swing supports hollow and acting as ventilation ducts. If the troops were lucky the inhabitants would be preparing to attack somewhere and so at least some arms would have been removed from their hiding places. These searches were used by Zionists for anti-British propaganda, particularly for the US market. Reporters and cameramen would be assembled and people would, as usual, be encouraged to provoke the troops in the hope of a 'good' picture. Some of the major searches such as after the King David Hotel outrage were called off and suspects released before completion apparently due to pressure from politicians in the UK. British forces were constantly up against vacillation and interference from those who should have supported them.

"We were constantly engaged in 'soft shoe' silent night patrols, raids and searches. One of the most bizarre of these was to search an Armenian church for hidden arms while a service was in progress. As the Jocks with loaded weapons crept into the dim church, the monks continued their chanting, taking no notice of us. As we tiptoed through the incense-scented gloom, searching in dark corners and feeling walls for hiding places, we knew that they were watching us from the corners of their eyes and I wondered whether any of them were disguised terrorists who would suddenly draw guns and the solemn chanting would be interrupted by a gun battle among the pillars." 'Having Been a Soldier', Lt Col Colin Mitchell

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Riot Control

Jack Medlock of the Palestine Police describes the drill after the command: "On the left, block street"

"...baton and shield men in front, the armed party behind them with the odd numbers facing the rear. I still remember each move of the drill but this was not all. Each man had to be capable of reading the riot act in the three official languages. To help overcome this latter bit, we all had the necessary words of the riot act pasted inside our headgear. It was by no means unusual to see one of us at unguarded moments reading aloud and staring intently at the inside of his cap.

For self protection from stone-throwing mobs we were equipped with shields. I think these were converted from plough discs; the convex side would be towards the mob. This was fine for one's own protection but being convex in shape any object bouncing off your shield was almost bound to hit the chap standing next to you. The shield was carried on your left arm. In your right hand, instead of the proverbial police baton you carried a shortened pick handle, wonderful weapon, very effective." Palestine Police Old Comrades Association Newsletter

Communications

Keeping communications open was particularly difficult and somewhat hazardous since it could mean being very exposed to snipers. Messengers often had to go from command to unit rather than orders be phoned through either for security reasons or because lines were down as telegraph poles were often sabotaged. Terrorists would drill into them, insert a small bottle of acid, a detonator and some explosives. The acid would eat through to the detonator and bring down the pole. Switchboards, often with civilian operators, were notoriously insecure so, for instance, Penny Skip, ATS, with five subordinates, was sent from Britain to Palestine to run the switchboard on Mount Carmel because of the impossibility of guaranteeing security using local staff.

Roadblocks

Tel Letwinsky roadblock
Photo: Fred Wragg
Lincolnshire Regt

Roadblocks were set up everywhere, some more permanent than others. Camps and other bases would usually have one outside but after a terrorist incident, a cordon of roadblocks would be quickly set up to try to prevent terrorists escaping. Roadblocks were difficult to operate, however, as the civilian population didn't take kindly to being searched and yet could, and often were, concealing weapons and suchlike under voluminous clothing. It wasn't particularly rewarding either since terrorists would melt into a Jewish or Arab area where they would be willingly, or not so willingly, hidden. Those on roadblock duty could also be vulnerable to sniper fire. Some soldiers though were lucky:

"Thankfully, no more port duty for us. We were to man roadblocks on the various entrances to Haifa. Each platoon, with a couple of Palestine policemen, searched all vehicles, both Jewish and Arab, for arms, ammunition and hashish, which the Arabs were fond of running. My platoon dropped lucky; we manned a roadblock halfway up Mount Carmel, overlooking the city. It was one of the most beautiful spots in the world: the views out to sea and of the city were magnificent. It was very green and flowery and the scent of jasmine at night was overpowering. This was the upper-class residential area of the city and we were not troubled much.
        We did dig out a few rifles and pistols which we confiscated. We also caught one young Arab with an urn full of hashish which he insisted was for his Jewish customers. There were numerous incidents on the outskirts of the city and spasmodic exchanges of fire; arson and looting were commonplace. Happily ensconced in the aristocratic heights of Mount Carmel, my platoon was not involved; we were there for three weeks and it was like being on holiday." 'The Honour and the Shame', John Kenneally.

The 'catch' could be unexpected.

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Protection of trains

The railway was a favoured target for attack, either the line itself or stations and signal boxes, by Jewish terrorist particularly so were constantly patrolled by units who each had their particular section. The Arabs were more interested in freight trains, especially those carrying building materials. Troops would constantly go up and down their section of the line, either on foot or a vehicle adapted to run on rails, searching for mines and looking out for ambushes. There were, however, a great many attacks and many troops were killed or injured on their way to Haifa.

Road Convoys

Convoys were many and varied: from Egypt through Palestine to Iraq or Persia, or, for instance, bringing up replacement pipes for an oil pipeline damaged by terrorists. Many servicemen spent a great deal of time living rough in the desert since the journeys could take days or even weeks. There were many hazards, not just from terrorists but from mechanical breakdowns of the vehicles or nature itself - sand storms or locusts. If you were lucky there would be a welcoming base to overnight in but otherwise you slept where you stopped. ParaData map of convoy routes

"My first experience was
harbour duties in Haifa.
Men who had done this duty
before warned that it was a shocker."
'The Honour and the Shame',
John Kenneally

Intercepting illegal immigrants

This was one of the most disliked duties as it meant preventing people who were often in a very distressed condition from landing in Palestine and either diverting them to camps in Cyprus or to a detention camp such as the one at Athlit. illegal immigrants

Training and Education

Ready to jump
Photo: Des Le Pard
Go!
Photo: Des Le Pard

updated For a while Palestine was a parachute training base for troops throughout the Middle East but it was found that the extreme heat could cause problems and the rocky ground was not ideal for landing; there were a number of accidents. Consequently it was discontinued.

Gunnery practice
Photo: Sydney Smart

Standard training such as gunnery practice had to continue along with all the other duties that Palestine imposed though troops arriving towards the end or just after the war were not particularly enthusiastic. Many had already had plenty of practice across Europe and/or the Western Desert and up through Italy. Troops also had to learn how to control rioting civilians without killing anyone, no matter the provocation. There was a Battle School at Kfar Vitkin as well as the Middle East School of Infantry at Acre amongst other training centres. For the conscripts who had been rushed through basic training it was all new but for veterans it was a constant frustration to be peacekeepers and not to be able to deal with a violent situation in what they knew would be the most effective way. They were told that if they killed anyone without an extremely good reason then they would be on a murder charge and they often only had the standard issue of five rounds.

There was also the opportunity to learn many skills which would continue to be useful: driving, mechanics, first aid, carpentry and, of course, particularly for the Palestine Police, Arabic and Hebrew. There was also experience in organization and admin as well as involvement, either behind the scenes or on stage, in the many shows put on to entertain a few or many. Towards the end of the Mandate more emphasis was put on education and preparation for demob.

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Dennis Skinner on duty
Photo: Dennis and Gerald Skinner
There's always paperwork
Photo: Leif Thomsen
Waiting for mail
Photo: Wilfrid Paine
Chief mourners
Arab prisoners, Latrun
Photo: Leif Thomsen
Mounted Police Patrol
From a drawing by Michael Hook
Latrun Monastery
Photo: Leif Thomsen
Searching a suspect
Photo: Des Church
Arms find at Doroth
Photo: IWM

Basil Davie on
road block duty, 1947
Armoured cars on patrol
Photo: Ian Walker, Kings Own Hussars
Morning shave
Photo: Dennis and Gerald Skinner
Gunnery training
Photo: Sydney Smart
On a training exercise
Photo: Dennis and Gerald Skinner
Road up Mount Carmel