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A Few Military Operations, 1945-48


"The British Tommy's duties in Palestine were, at times, most unpleasant. He was a walking target both on and off duty, for Stern Gang guns. He was called upon to carry out duties that, more frequently than was generally recognized, were personally distasteful to him, including doing battle with distraught refugees. He had been cut off from social and recreational activities, most of which were within the Yishuv, by the order of the GOC. Then, on occasion, he was ordered to dig through the rubble of destroyed military and civilian establishments, in an effort to rescue some miserable victim who might still be breathing beneath the debris." No Balm in Gilead, Sylva Gelber

Whilst troops were always engaged in routine searches, roadblocks, patrolling, etc, after a particularly barbaric terrorist incident, or the introduction of a change in policy, a specific operation would be launched. There were a great many and most took the form of 'cordon and search': an entire area would be cordoned off while troops searched for terrorists and arms. The stealing, smuggling and manufacture of weapons and explosives was commonplace. Many activities were hidden in the settlements but câches and manufacture of arms could be anywhere. A secret workshop at the Technion High School, Haifa, for instance, was used for making mortars and hand grenades (Building Dreams, Efraim Margolin) YouTube have clips of secret arms manufacture. These were the early days of what became the huge Israeli nuclear, biological, chemical and conventional armaments industry developed in places like Dimona. Sometimes an operation, 'Octopus' for instance, was designed to harass and surprise terrorists by the use of snap searches and mobile roadblocks over a set period. These could net a number of suspects. A detailed list of the numerous operations and units involved can be found in Cordon & Search by Major General Dare Wilson.

Discovered arms câche
Photo: IWM

Security was impossible as Palestinian Arabs and Jews all worked with British forces, many serving in the Palestine Police. Radio and telephone communications were often compromised, and whether or not an individual wished to betray information they could be coerced.

At the beginning of an operation there would usually be a curfew such as that ordered by Major General Cassells, Commander of 6th Airborne, in July 1946. Sometimes a punitive curfew would be imposed such as that on Rehovoth after Operation Agatha when the Jews had been particularly uncooperative.

1946 - Operation 'Igloo': interception of illegal immigrants

This resulted from the policy to refuse entry to Jews arriving in Palestine without a permit, and began when the first detention camps were opened in 1946 in Cyprus. It caused great bitterness and hatred though many of the immigrants actually wanted to go to the USA or Canada which would not admit them. More than 50,000 Jews were held in Cyprus until 1949 by which time more than 2,000 babies had been born. Whilst the camps were guarded on the outside by British troops, the inmates were strictly controlled by Zionist leaders who organized education and military training to prepare them for taking over Palestine and for their future lives there.

Operation 'Agatha', 28th/29th June 1946

"... 100,000 troops and the Palestine Police
were involved. The Jewish Agency was occupied;
twenty-five Jewish settlements were cordoned
and searched; 2,659 men and 59 women were
detained." 'A Captain's Mandate', Philip Burton

Because of the escalation of violent attacks on troops and police, as well as damage to property — particularly the recent blowing up of many bridges, Sir Evelyn Barker, GOC, decided to mount a major blow against the terrorists and on the 28th June 1946, 17,000 British troops flooded into Jerusalem to carry out Operation Agatha. The Jewish Agency offices were raided and important documents seized, arms found, and the agency shut down, with a large number of Jews suspected of terrorism being arrested, including Haganah leaders. Operation Agatha almost certainly led to the bombing of the King David Hotel which is where the confiscated documents were stored.

"The Signal Regiment was involved in providing
communications and in actively disrupting
civilian communications in various towns in
southern Palestine. This disruption was
achieved by the Light Line Troop occupying
certain civil telephone exchanges and
disrupting circuits." 216 Para Sigs history site

The operation was planned in great secrecy though the Jewish Agency knew of it but not the date. Jewish intelligence services were efficient and Army and Palestine Government departments infiltrated. In preparation, some settlements were cordoned, curfews imposed and civilian communications suspended. The US was only informed at the last minute because of inevitable leaks from them to Zionists.

Capt Colin Mitchell's task was to arrest Moshe Shertok:

"Silently, my Jocks surrounded the stone block of flats where our quarry lived and, having identified his windows on the second floor, two of my men and I shinned up the wall on to his balcony like cat burglars. The windows were sealed by heavy steel shutters so there was nothing for it but to enter by the front door in a more formal manner.
        I rushed up the stairs, brandishing the Luger pistol I had brought from Austria, and hammered on the door, shouting for it to be opened. It was a hectic moment and I half expected a burst of machine-gun fire from within the flat. The door was opened by two gigantic men, who most courteously told us that Mr Shertok was not at home and we were welcome to see for ourselves. So we raced into the flat, our hosts helpfully opening doors and showing us round. Obviously, he was not here and we left, feeling rather foolish." 'Having Been a Soldier', Lt Col Colin Mitchell.

Moshe Shertok (Sharett) was in fact arrested but, obviously, not by Colin Mitchell.

Another man on the Wanted list was Yehuda Burstein who was in the Palyam (naval unit of Palmach) but left the settlement just before the search began.

Full official report on the Airborne Assault ParaData site.


Operation 'Shark', 30th July 1946

As a result of the King David Hotel atrocity, the whole of Tel Aviv and sections of Jaffa were cordoned and a house to house search conducted for terrorists and arms: a huge and unprecedented operation. An outer cordon was put in place before the troops moved up and inner cordons and curfew established before most inhabitants were awake. Complicated arrangements were made for short periods of food distribution (although a black market was quickly operating) and essential services such as hospitals and utilities were continued under military guard. The inhabitants were not as hostile to British troops as usual, being indoors and away from public view, people had the freedom to be civil and most were appalled by the King David Hotel attack. Instead of being spat at troops were more likely to be offered hospitality.

soldier standing to attention
Screening suspects
Photo: IWM

The process was for all occupants to be assembled and IDs checked. The house would then be searched and all except the elderly, infirm and children screened; suspects were then taken to Brigade Headquarters for screening by experienced CID officers. One man, Yitzhak Yisernitzky (Shamir) implicated in the King David Hotel bombing, although in his usual disguise as a Rabbi was recognized, arrested and sent to Eritrea for internment. The man who recognized him, Sergeant TG Martin, was soon murdered. Yisernitzky escaped and was given asylum in France, returning later to what had become Israel where he was implicated in the murder of Count Bernadotte. He was no stranger to murder and had helped plan the killing of Lord Moyne in 1944. In 1986 he was Prime Minister of Israel.

Mortar platoon diary for Shark | Operations Agatha and Shark on Britains Small Wars | Pathé News clip (1.14mins).

Operation 'Polly', 2nd - 7th February 1947

soldier standing to attention
Families leaving
Photo: IWM

By 1947 it was apparent that things could only get worse so it was decided that all non-essential British civilians should leave; some by air, others overland to Egypt. There was much opposition to the order and a number of families soon returned. Madge Lindsay, the wife of a Palestine Police Officer who here describes her journey to Maadi transit camp in Egypt and then on by troopship to Liverpool was one of them.

Detailed account of 'Polly' by Martin Higgins | Pathé News film of evacuation (1.03mins)

Operation 'Tiger', 27th July 1947

When Sergeant Paice and Sergeant Martin were kidnapped, Martial Law was declared in Nathanya and its surrounding area in an effort to find them. Many tense days were spent searching but veterans still don't understand why the diamond factory where they were held in appalling conditions was never searched. The Haganah was involved in the search but how sincerely is open to debate.

Lofty Rendle's account | 'Pegasus Eddie' was set up for a propaganda photo

Other operations - all following much the same pattern

In 1946 there was 'Windfall' centring on Tel Aviv and Jaffa after attacks on banks, and after the attack on the Goldsmiths Officers' Club operations 'Elephant' (Tel Aviv) and 'Hippo' (Jerusalem) were mounted. And so it went on. There were so very many, usually small and un-named. Most days towards the end there would be a curfew with or without the routine cordon and search somewhere, usually on a Jewish settlement or town which was where most terrorists and arms were hidden but sometimes, 'Camel' for instance, an Arab area would be targeted. In December 1947 troops had to intervene to stop violent rioting between Arabs and Jews at the Haifa Refinery. Over 100 rioters had been killed or injured. By 1948 many of these smaller operations were focused on relieving Jewish convoys or settlements.

Tel Aviv
Photo: Des Starbuck
Repairing Allenby Bridge
Photo: Ronald Hornsey
Photo: Edwin Jack
Deserted street
Rush to buy bread
Photo: Imperial War Museum
on duty
Operation Shark: Tel Aviv
Photo: Ronald Hornsey
Photo: Edwin Jack
Evacuees at Aqir
Photo: IWM
Great Synagogue arms find
Photo: Des Starbuck
Wolverine tank destroyer
Photo: Bill Tolley
Guarding Beisan police station
Photo: Walker
palm trees on a  bay