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Illegal Immigration to Palestine


"We had seen Belsen in Germany before coming here. They looked so desperate to get into Palestine, so many a blind eye was shown and they crept through. In spite of this, when we were in more central parts of Palestine we met so much hostility. They seemed to hate us far more than the Germans had done." 'Palestine Scrapbook', vol 4, Edited by Eric Lowe.

"For European Jews it was seen as a safe haven and this little Arab country was expected to provide shelter and accommodation for displaced European Jews in such numbers that larger countries were refusing to accept them." 'Forgotten Conscripts' by Eric Lowe.

Orders: "Minimum force to be used at all times and no retaliation,
whatever the provocation."

USA≈3.79 million sq miles
Canada≈3.85 million sq miles
Palestine: about 1000 sq miles
depending on your politics.

In 1939 the British government published a White Paper suggesting that Palestine should be an independent state, governed by both Arabs and Jews in demographic proportion and for the next five years there should be a quota of 75,000 Jewish immigrants; numbers thereafter to be agreed with the Arab majority. Neither Arabs nor Jews were happy. The Palestinian Arabs didn't see why they should give up any of their country on the say-so of some foreign government. Jews claimed there was a moral argument that they should be allowed to colonize Palestine in order to establish a Jewish state—though the moral argument of not depriving Arab Palestinians of their homeland seems not to have been considered and the Jews' predicament was not the fault of the Palestinian Arabs.

The British are still reviled for trying to curb immigration to Palestine but other countries closed their doors tightly: in 1939 when the SS St Louis and the Orduna sailed from Europe with over 900 refugees Hitler enjoyed a propaganda gift as Germany had permitted the sailing, but Cuba, the US and Canada all refused entry even though they knew of German persecution. The US and elsewhere even refused to accept any of the children Nicholas Winton was bringing out of Germany in his 'Kindertransport'. People like James McDonald, the League of Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, tried to draw attention to what was happening to Jews in Germany but was ignored. Britain had taken many children in the Kindertransport and many people who applied to come as servants but there was much unemployment and unions in Britain, were afraid of competition for jobs. Professionals, unless they already had families abroad were not welcome mostly anywhere.

In 1938 the Evian Conference was held to find safe harbour for Jewish refugees but it failed partly because Ben Gurion had made it absolutely clear that only Palestine was an acceptable destination. His interest was political, not humanitarian. Perhaps more Jews would have survived Hitler's Final Solution if Ben Gurion had been ignored but as it was, only the Dominican Republic and Australia took a civilized stand and admitted some refugees. The US only used quotas already in place.

"Saw a poodle in a jacket fastened with a pin,
Saw a door opened and a cat let in:
But they weren't German Jews,
my dear, but they weren't German Jews."
Say this City has Ten Million Souls,
WH Auden

At the end of the war the whole of Europe was on the move: prisoners and refugees were trying to get home, others were fleeing the Russians. Jews who wanted to go home to Eastern Europe found that their homes and businesses had been taken over by Germans, Poles, Rumanians, etc. and many who returned found only danger and destitution. For instance, in 1946, in Kielce, Poland, 42 concentration camp survivors were murdered—not an isolated incident. Although war criminals were being rounded up, those who might be useful like von Braun, the rocket scientist who'd used slave labour from Mittelbau/Camp Dora were welcomed to the US which, with Canada, still had no welcome for refugees (Operation Paperclip).

"It is a story summed up best in the words of an anonymous senior Canadian official who, in the midst of a rambling, off-the-record discussion with journalists in early 1945, was asked how many Jews would be allowed into Canada after the war. His response seems to reflect the prevailing view of a substantial number of his fellow citizens, 'None', he said, 'is too many.' None is too Many, Abella and Troper.

Minesweeper HMS Stormcloud
on Palestine patrol

Responsibility for intercepting illegal immigrants fell mainly on Royal Navy patrols, assisted by the RAF, as it was by sea that most would-be immigrants were conducted. Both were usually acting on intelligence received from British agents in European and US ports. The army was responsible for intercepting clandestine landings along the coast and for receiving immigrants when the ships were escorted into Haifa; they also watched the borders as although most refugees tried to come in by sea some came overland.

The troops disliked these duties as is clear from Trevor Hall's description of boarding the San Dimitrio in October 1946. It had been spotted by an RAF reconnaissance plane and escorted anxiously (it was overloaded and very unstable) to Haifa by HMS Chivalrous. British servicemen were caught in the middle of a political mess but had great sympathy for those in the 'little death ships'.

Gerald Cottom, a Medic in 3 Para, often had to go on board to find those who were in need of medical attention. He describes the difficulties and how he would take letters addressed to people in Palestine and pass them on to Jewish employees in the army camp at Haifa.

The US, French and Russian governments plus disloyal members of the British government, did not support Britain in trying to control immigration to Palestine as they were either Zionists or did not want the refugees themselves. In the US anti-semitism was rife (see the 1947 film 'A Gentleman's Agreement') and Truman had an election coming up so by supporting Zionists he gained their votes, and by refusing entry to Jews he gained racist votes. He did not himself think highly of Jews as shown in his diary for 21st July 1947. Europe, ravaged by war, its cities and infrastructure shattered and starvation threatening many was in no position to take in refugees. The French were disgruntled about Britain beating Vichy forces in the Middle East and sinking the French fleet at Oran (presumably they would have preferred the Germans to make use of it). Although the French authorities did begin to try to prevent sailings from French ports, local port and town authorities in Europe could usually be bribed to let Jews through. The Russians wanted access to the Mediterranean and expansion of their own power.


Interception Procedure

When a ship was stopped the usual routine would be to check whether medical assistance or food and water were needed and then to escort it to Haifa. The refugees were often in an appalling, half-starved state and in such overloaded and cramped situations with sanitary arrangements somewhat lacking, infestation and illness was prevalent.

Initially illegal immigrants were taken to Mauritius but the war made this impracticable and so Athlit Camp was used for internment of illegal immigrants as well as a transit camp for those arriving legally. After the war they were taken to camps in Cyprus where they set up their own autonomous communities; when the Mandate ended they all got to Palestine. John Kenneally graphically describes the process for checking over the immigrants and sending them on their way to Cyprus. Those who were too sick to continue travelling were taken to hospital. Those captured after a clandestine landing on the coast went usually to Athlit Camp.

The landings could happen very unexpectedly and Des Starbuck, RAF, and some friends relaxing on a beach were embarrassed to find themselves in the middle of a landing and rounded up with all the refugees. There was always plenty of encouraged confusion and often well-organized media coverage to agitate anti-British press in the US. Then as now images and film could tell whatever story a government or editor wanted. For instance, reports of bottles of water being taken from the immigrants but no mention of how anything and everything was used as a weapon and that there was plenty of fresh water waiting for them. British troops were also indignant at nonsense reports of refugees being helped on their way with rifle butts.

Gerald Skinner, Royal Artillery and based in Haifa, also had to escort illegal immigrants off the ships and on to other, seaworthy, vessels that would take them to Cyprus. They would eventually leave the camps (British Pathé clip, 7min 28secs) for Palestine.

Nearly 80 ships were intercepted between 1945 and 1948. Sometimes there was little or no resistance but occasionally it was violent with injuries, sometimes fatal, on all sides. It wasn't at all unusual for troops to be met with a hail of anything the immigrants found to hand. Royal Marines and Paratroopers were regularly sent aboard and some boarding parties were met with scalding steam hoses, firebombs, pistol shots and attacks with axes. The refugees always sang the Hatikvah, a Zionist song. Some British soldiers also used to sing it though not with the same words. A number of the ships, ie Northland, were fitted with defensive barricades but the Royal Navy worked out ways of overcoming these with as little risk to life as possible.

It was a very difficult experience for everyone and there are many stories of the period, one being that of Commander William E Messinger's and HMS Providence's involvement in the rescue of more than many refugees from the Athina/Rafiah shipwrecked on Sirna Island in the Dodecanese. Commander Messinger's son has a website with many photos.

Zionist propaganda against the control of illegal immigration was relentless and this kind of rhetoric illustrates what British troops were up against.

"No peacetime operation has been more testing for the Royal Navy than the interception of illegal immigrants to Palestine between 1945 and 1948. Success was achieved through the seamanship and professionalism of the sailors in the warships' boarding parties. It was required to support the British government's efforts to control the conflict between Arabs and Jews. Over 50 years later that underlying conflict continues." The Royal Navy and the Palestine Patrol, Ninian Stewart.

HMS Bigbury Bay

Grounded illegal immigrant ship

"Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!" Text on Statue of Liberty
Photo: Charlie Powell

US protest in Chicago
Barricaded ship
Illegal immigrants being removed from ship
Illegal immigrants being removed from ship
Memorial poster
Photo: Ove Nielsen
SS Northland
SS Northland
Grounded illegal immigrant ship