Processing Illegal Immigrants

"They were mostly Eastern European Jews, the majority Polish and Russian. They were in a bad state. Apart from the privations of a voyage from Europe packed in cargo ships with few facilities, they had been dumped on the beaches of southern Palestine and rounded up by the police and military — so much for the Promised Land. The British soldier is not of the stuff the SS troops were made from. We tried to be caring, especially with the old and infirm and, of course, the women and children. They shouted and screamed as if they were being handled by the devil incarnate. The abuse they hurled at us was obvious although we could not understand it. The younger elements among them were very awkward and obstreperous. It was hard to keep calm and patient.

We gave them a meal first, which was occasionally thrown back in the face of the server. One young woman threw a plate at a Glaswegian Para sergeant, splitting his forehead wide open; he had to be held back from felling her on the spot. They goaded us; I think they wanted to accuse us of brutality. The medical examination was the worst point. Each immigrant was quickly examined. Those women who were heavily pregnant and near their time were given the opportunity to go to hospitals in Haifa; they were all for this but when they learned they had to go alone, without their family, they soon rejoined the group. Many of the younger pregnant women did take this chance and of course they were in Palestine to stay.

The flashpoint came when the medics found that 95 percent of them were lousy with lice; the captain of the transport taking them to Cyprus would not take them aboard until they had been disinfected. We rigged up canvas and hessian screens so that this operation could be carried out with a modicum of decency, especially for the women. It entailed dusting their hair with disinfestation poweder and pumping the powder inside the clothes of the men and up the skirts of the women. All this caused another uproar; interpreters tried to tell them what we were doing but they were not having any of it. We had to push them through to the medics shouting and screaming as if they were being tortured.

During the day an American cargo ship had moored in the dock alongside us. The crew were lining the deck rails observing the hullabaloo of the proceedings down below. There was no doubt where their sympathies lay, and it was not with us. They called us Limey bastards and many other sweet obscenities; they also showered us with tins of beans and tomatoes, eggs and rubbish. One young soldier was laid out by a tin of peaches. This was too much for the Para Sgt in charge of a machine gun at the end of the dock. He opened up and used half a belt of ammunition firing just above the water line the length of the ship. This certainly had its desired effect. The Yankee sailors disappeared like rabbits down a hole. Silence reigned till we all cheered the machine gunner; it also quietened our charges, who seemed a little more amenable after the burst of fire.

I don't know what happened to the machine gunner. I would have given him a medal, but knowing the British Army he was probably disciplined and then promoted quietly when the fuss died down. We sailed for Cyprus that evening with the Jews packed tightly all over the ship; we gave them another meal which was accepted this time with a little more grace. We docked at Famagusta in the morning and passed our charges on to the Military Police with no regrets and some relief. The Jews' destination was the internment camp, but not for long; the British would be leaving Palestine and the Promised Land would be theirs."

The Honour and the Shame', John Kenneally

(Provocation, particularly if there were any reporters around was relentless and organized.)