Operation Polly, February 1947

Leaving Palestine
Photo: IWM
Brigadier Johnson
Photo: IWM

"On an evening in February 1947 it was announced on the Palestine Radio that families of British personnel were to be evacuated from the country within 48 hours. My husband, Jimmy, and 15 months old Jennifer and myself lived very happily in the Jenin Tegart, so it was with a feeling of misery and a bit of panic that the news was received at having to leave our happy home. Jennifer and I had arrived barely a year previously and were lucky in that respect as some of the wives had arrived in the country just a few weeks beforehand. But terrorism was rife and there were fears that an incident may involve British families that led the 'powers that be' to the decision for evacuation; and with all military operations being code-named, ours was to be Operation Polly.

The day after the news, a hurried shopping trip was made to Haifa for some warmer clothing as news from the UK stated that the winter was very severe along with a fuel shortage. Then followed some very hasty packing and a morning later we assembled at the front of the police station where we said all out "Goodbyes" and set off for the first leg of the journey to a military barracks in Haifa. From the Jenin Tegart the main road to Haifa stretches out like a long ribbon and to this day I can see the cluster of PPs standing on the front steps of the building getting smaller and smaller until finally we could see them no more.

Families ready to leave
Photo: IWM

On arrival at the barracks, beds were allocated in a big dormitory and there we spent the night. Next morning we boarded a train for Cairo. The journey was long and tiresome and Jennifer was a bit "niggly", no doubt wondering what was going on while I was beginning to think, "What am I doing here?" It was late evening when the train eventually arrived at Abbasia Barracks. After some delay, transport arrived in the form of army ambulances to take us to another military camp at Maadi on the outskirts of Cairo. It must have been very late when we stepped out of the transport. We found a most beautiful night with a deep saphire blue sky, a full moon, bright stars and SAND everywhere. Just for a moment I felt I was being whisked away on a white horse to the strains of the Desert Song. Then crying and tired little children brought me to earth and we were ushered into a hut and were given cups of cocoa, then told where we were to be accommodated. A hut was pointed out to me and in the moonlight it seemed to be on the top of a sand dune in the middle of the Sahara desert.

Maadi transit camp
Photo: WorldWarPhotoFind

The partitioned huts housed about eight of us, I think. I remember dropping into bed without even undressing; it was very cold and we were exhausted. Next morning was beautiful warm sunshine and the whole scene spread before us. Army huts around everywhere and THAT SAND. With a small push-chair and Jennifer I ploughed through it to find the canteen which was a good walk from the hut. After breakfast, some exploration was carried out. The ablutions were just behind our hut. They were real army style with rows of baths and basins and only a sort of shower curtain to separate one from the rest of Egypt. The "loo" was a little walk away which was probably a good thing as it was one of the "dry" variety. Hot water was supplied in the mornings and the evenings as it was boiled in huge tubs over a fire which was tended by the fellaheen. There certainly was not an abundance of British soldiers around for it to be a military camp. And it was duly discovered that most of the personnel were German POWs awaiting repatriation. They cooked all the food and also patrolled the camp at night. Behind the barbed wire around the camp there were some very rocky and barren hills which, it was said, were infested with bandits. In another direction could be seen some of the smaller pyramids and in the far distance were two large minarets with a dome between which, after seeing pictures much later, I realize must have belonged to The Citadel in Cairo.

Life went on, tannoy speakers posted around the camp kept us in touch with what was going on, and telling us where to go. I picked up a tummy bug which nothing seemed to cure even after several visits to the one army doctor in charge. One night we had some excitement when a Jeep came rushing around each hut with someone telling us to report to one of the offices. Jennifer and I had a "communal" telephone call from my husband in Palestine so I hastily removed the curlers from my hair thinking I could never take a phone call with my head covered in those unglamorous things (as they were at that time). How daft can you get in times of simple excitement? We all queued up in turn and spoke our allotted three minutes which passed all too quickly, then returned to our quarters, quite subdued.

At last, after three weeks' stay at Maadi, passages to England began to get allocated and Jennifer and I were to sail in the Circassia. Army transport whisked us off once again, I suppose it was to Port Said, but all I can remember was the job of getting out of that camp. On board, I was directed to a two-berth cabin and could not believe my good luck. However, just behind me came another PP wife with her little girl to share the cabin. Thinking there had been some mistake, I rushed off to see someone in charge only to be informed that too many families had been given passages on the ship and there was over-booking, and nothing could be done about it. However, we managed quite well and put the two children on the bottom bunk and a kindly steward lent us a mattress so that wasn't too bad until the ship began to pitch and toss in the stormy weather.

Troopship Circassia

The Circassia was still a troopship, of course, so once again we were "under orders". I can still remember the OC Troops, a stocky-figured man with a round bald head who wore a monocle; very like portrayals of the German SS. With so many children aboard there was quite a lot of washing but no drying space was provided and there were nappies and such-like draped everywhere, even on the handrails in the corridors. When the OC did his inspection and saw all this he did not seem too pleased. In no time we were supplied with the necessary drying space down some iron steps to some part of the hold which made a daily trek. Jennifer was no better and for some part of the journey I had to move into the ship's hospital with her. The weather must have saved itself up just for us and to make the whole experience even more miserable. The Mediterranean was dull and cold all the way from Port Said, and one could see some really black skies ahead at Gibralter. The steward told us cheerily that it would not be too good by the time we reached the Bay of Biscay. He was right. The weather hit us the moment we turned "That corner". Rumour had it that there was no cargo on the ship, just the troops and us, and it certainly seemed very like it when we were just tossed about like a cork. Dishes were sliding off the tables in the dining saloon and trying to climb stairs was a major operation which could only be done by timing it with the dipping and rearing of the ship's movement. Luckily I did not suffer from sea sickness and by now it was a real big passion with me just to get "HOME".

It was quite sunny when we reached Liverpool early one morning in March. But the freezing cold was evident and snow was still lying on the quayside: and there was my father, having arrived from Scotland to meet us, armed with travelling rugs, etc. No one was told the time of disembarkation, but the troops were line up aboard in full kit so we all thought it could not be long. We were there all forenoon and it was not until early afternoon that we were allowed ashore, leaving the troops lined up on the ships, poor lads. At the customs, the officials were kind to us and marked all the luggage saying, we'd "had enough", then we headed for Lime Street station. There were still a few hours to wait for a train north so we crowded around a beautiful blazing fire in the Ladies Waiting Room and as my father had been in the cold since 7.00 am and was freezing, I brought him in to defreeze, and in no time at all some official arrived and ordered him to leave. By this time Jennifer was really unwell although eventually our train left and all the way from Liverpool to our destination I sat in a crowded carriage with her bundled up on my knee, neither of us moving from this position so that it was a slightly cramped pair who arrived on my mother's doorstep in the morning. But what bliss! after a hot bath, a good meal, then some sleep, the chaos of three weeks seemed to have glided away. The doctor was called and within a week Jennifer was back to her usual self. But there was I, thinking I had been through such a mamoth experience, meeting acquaintances who asked "But why did you come home from palestine?". Ah well, such is life.

By November 1947 Jennifer and I had returned to Palestine and a nice flat in Nazareth Tegart. Even this journey was not without incident however as there was a cholera epidemic in Egypt, so we had some hold-ups at Port Said and Haifa for the usual health precautions to be taken. On the train journey up to Haifa, some PPs came on the train at Rehovoth and gaily announced that we would all be in England again by the following May. I couldn't believe it, but as you all know it was true so the whole evacuation process took place all over again, but this time much more organized and Jimmy was with us.

This is just my brief memory of Operation Polly. Many others have theirs. As time goes on the recollection fades but I feel that now it has been put down on paper, I can give it to my grand-children, as the saying goes. That is, if I should be so lucky to to have any grandchildren. I loved Palestine very much and it was a great disappointment that Jimmy and I were destined not to have that happy part of our lives there prolonged, but once again, such is life."

To Palestine Police - "Guys and Dolls", whom I met in that fair country and since through the PPOCA, my warmest wishes to you all.

Madge Lindsay. Palestine Police Old Comrades' Association News Letter No.109, December 1977.