Boarding Illegal Ships

"We received the welcome we had come to expect from the Jews. some of our comrades had quite a struggle boarding the San Dimitrio. All of us were left in no doubts about our unpopularity.

Made secure in Haifa harbour, with a tug preventing her from capsizing, the 75-year-old, 750 ton vessel listed dangerously to port. She had taken some twelve days to cross the Mediterranean. Hanging on to the rail on the starboard side, I looked down the steeply sloping deck of this most unseaworthy ship and I was convinced that a guardian angel had sailed with the San Dimitrio

All of us were aware of the ever-growing numbers of illegal immigrants trying to enter Palestine and this was the largest single attempt yet.

Our orders are to transfer the passengers to two British ships and take them to Cyprus. 'Minimum force to be used at all times and no retaliation, whatever the provocation.'

The stench of unwashed bodies and the unsanitary conditions of this vastly overcrowded ship assail my nostrils. These fellow human beings with the deathly pallor of the ghetto and concentration camp on their skin, with all their belongings in rag-bag bundles, under arms and strung round necks and over shoulders. Every face is etched with the mark of suffering. We stand between them and their 'promised land', their hopes and desires. So great is my pity I want to stand aside and say to them "You have suffered enough, go and make your new homes and good luck to you."

Some have the bowed heads and downcast eyes of those whose hopes have been cruelly dashed. Others have staring, frightened eyes reflecting hurt and misery. For a brief moment my piece of chocolate brought a spark of happiness, to be replaced by even more misery when a man's hand snatched the chocolate and threw it down at my feet. He spat out words which were foreign to me but their meaning was clear.

"Calling you names won't hurt you," they told me when I was a young boy; well, they were wrong. These Jews with eyes that blaze hate at me and call me 'Nazi bastard' and 'fascist swine' are hurting me. So are their sly kicks to my shins and I feel defiled by their spittle on my skin and my clothing.

My pity is replaced by a burning hate of these people. Have they forgotten so soon that it was Britain that stood alone against their Nazi persecutors while other countries dithered? Up until recently Briton and Jew stood shoulder to shoulder in a common cause; now, by the politicians, we are divided.

Some in our ranks fought in North Africa and Italy. How do they feel, I wonder? I look across at Lofty Rendle, he joined up under age and went through the hell of Arnhem with a battery of Light Air. Too many painful memories for him to talk about, but he is always willing to express his appreciation of the valiant Dutch who sheltered and helped him and others, during Operation 'Market Garden'. His hate for these Jews who spit in his face and call him a Nazi bastard must be more intense than my own.

"Hold steady, lads!" comes the word of command from the Sergeant-Major. Despite all the insults and provocation, our discipline prevents any retaliation and well they knew it and they take advantage of it. I look left and right along the line of my fellow gunners who wear the white spearhead of the 1st Infantry Division and I am proud to be in such company and glad that we are able to 'turn the other cheek'.

White de-lousing powder showing up on their dark clothing, they shuffle off the San Dimitrio. Half covered with oilskin and bound with a frayed leather belt the bundle dropped near my feet. Instinctively I bent down, picked it up and handed it back to a lady dressed all in black. She smiled her thanks and gently touched my hand. Thin and unkempt, her dark clothing emphasised the waxen pallor of her finely chiselled face. Her smile showed even white teeth and lit up her big brown eyes under which were rings as black as her shoulder length raven hair. A few good dinners, a fortnight in the sun, bathed and groomed and dressed in some new attire and here is a young lady with such beauty as to rival Hollywood's best. If anyone should ask, "What value is a flicker of friendship from just one among the so many that hate you?", my reply would be, "Of a value sufficient to make me forget my hate for a while and sufficient for me to know that I shall remember her smile and her touch to the end of my days."

Down the ramp and along the dockside, fellow gunners had put aside their steel helmets for berets and some of the weak and overburdened had put aside their hate and were allowing the soldiers to give them a helping hand.

I watched the lady in black walk slowly to the Cyprus-bound ship. She turned, looked back, smiled and gave a brief wave. I waved back. "Love one another," I murmured to myself...

Illegal immigrants totalling 1,279 were successfully taken off the San Dimitrio and put aboard the Empire Heywood and the Ocean Vigour. The worst part of our task was over.

Alert and on guard I looked down through the hatch at the passengers below. some slept the sleep of exhaustion, others blazed with a hate that denied them sleep. Loud cursing further along the deck brought smiles to our faces. A voice of authority rings out and all is quiet again. "what was that all about?" I enquired of 'Knocker' Hall when he came to relieve me.

"Paddy's been down with a bucket of tea for the Jews and one of the bastards tripped him up and he's scalded his bloody foot!"
Enduring the Hour, Trevor Hall.

NB — The San Dimitrio (also known as Latrun), previously a Swedish lake steamer, sailed from La Ciotat, France, and was intercepted by HMS Chivalrous on 30th October 1946. It was listing very badly and HMS Octavia and HMS Providence arrived to assist. Conditions on board were unspeakable with no sanitation and its passengers in a bad way though initially able to offer some resistance.