Gerald Cottom talks about his duties in Haifa

"Periodically, maybe once a week or maybe once every ten days the word would come back that the navy had caught hold of a ship which was ostensibly going about its business travelling east to west, or west to east rather, about its business. But they soon found out that a lot of them were being chartered by Jews from southern France and used to send illegal immigrants into Palestine. And they were hopeful that if they could get landed, and the coast of Palestine by and large is wild and unoccupied apart from the odd town here and there. But the navy soon cottoned on to this and they had, I don't know, destroyers and other like ships cruising around the Mediterranean checking on ships which they had reason to be suspicious. And when they found one that was laden with illegal immigrants—and there were hundreds of these illegal immigrants on these boats. Literally hundreds of them. They escorted them into Haifa and my unit, this was then a section of men was to deal with them.

On Haifa harbour we set up a small sick tent, if you like, and when the boat was brought into harbour a number of blokes from one of the Parachute battalions, armed with pistols would go on board and take perhaps half a dozen medics with them. Sometimes I was on and sometimes I was in the sick-bay. Their duty was to move these illegal immigrants off the ship on to the dockside—and I'll tell you why in a minute—our reason for being there was to go right through the ship and find if there was anybody sick. Take them off the boat as a matter of urgency. They would go through sick-bay and if they needed to go into hospital that's where they went.

I don't know whether if you've maybe seen photographs or film of what some of these decks on these sailing ships looked like when they were full of slaves being transported to America. Well a lot of these were just like that, course after course after course of them.

My job as part of the medical section was to go round them trying to find out, trying to persuade those who were sick to say they were sick. They were desperate, they didn't know what was going to happen with the navy but they were desperate to get into Palestine and a lot of them tried to get through when they were sick. We refused to accept them and get them to tell us they were sick. All we wanted to do was try and make them better, or try and transport them somewhere where they could be be treated.

On a ship you might take off as many as a hundred who were sick. Some you really needed to, others weren't quite so sick but nevertheless you couldn't leave it to chance if they said they felt sick you had to take them at their word. And once we had got rid of that lot, the others were taken off, most of them against their will and sometimes there was a lot of fighting went on.

(Were any of them armed? Was there any armed resistance?)

I never saw anyone who was armed and they were on a highway to nothing really since the British troops were armed.

Once they were on to the dockside they went through the medical centre we set up. They weren't examined. Anyway we had to give them the once over, look over, to see if there was any evidence of visible sickness. And once that was done and they were all right they simply went to the other side of the dock ten yards away where there was another ship waiting and they were loaded on to this ship and taken across to Cyprus where we had big camps laid out and there they had to wait until it was their turn to go legally in to Palestine.

But these big camps, they ran them themselves. There were no British troops inside them, the only troops were on the outside to stop everybody escaping. But everything else, feeding, and everything else was dealt with by themselves. Presumably they had to elect committees and management or whatever.

And that went on as far as I was concerned for six or eight months. And by that time it was my turn to be demobbed to catch the next train down to Port Said.

(so when was that?)

That was in December 1947.

Sick woman getting attention

(What did people think amongst your colleagues, and that, was it ever discussed what was going on or was it another day's work? It was just accepted it was the end of the war and everything was chaos anyway.)

Well, you know, it was just another job of work. It was a peculiar job of work as far as the British Army was concerned because nobody else was doing it.

I personally never came across any antagonism when I was taking these people off the boats. Perhaps simply because I had a red cross on my arm and they recognized that what I was doing, that what I was looking for was something we could cure them of.

What a lot of them did was hand you a note in an envelope, addressed to someone, 'Can you post this or can you give it to someone who will arrange for it to be posted?' And it so happened that in our camp was a small telephone exchange with two or three Jews employed in it. And, I can't speak for anybody else, but for myself when people were giving me notes like this, you can't help but feel sorry for them because they are trying to contact somebody. So when I got back home, when we found out what was happening, we'd go into the telephone exchange and say look, I was given these notes by people on that ship that was in, can you deal with it. And they were only too pleased. What happened to the notes I don't know but I hope they all found a home."

Recorded: May 20008