jump to main content

site search
by freefind

Withdrawal of forces from Palestine

"Their hands were not stayed by weakness, however, but by a powerful sense of moral limitation on harsh behaviour towards Jews." One Palestine Complete, Tom Segev

"The Jews were now fortifying their country settlements and one of our duties was to escort convoys of food and non-military supplies to these settlements through Arab territory. The Arabs accused us of being pro-Jewish, and the Jews when they did not get the protection for which they had asked, accused us of being pro-Arab. At times we were against both — emotionally and in action." 'Having Been a Soldier', Lt Col Colin Mitchell

Conical tents, old vehicle in foreground
Military Camp, Ludd, 1917

In February 1947 the British Government announced that responsibility for Palestine would be handed back to the UN and troops would be withdrawn from Palestine by June 1948. Agreement between Arab Palestinian and Zionist leaders had proved impossible and Britain had no support from erstwhile allies or disloyal factions in Britain. Zionists claim that it was increased terrorist activity that drove out the troops but many atrocities such as the Goldsmith Officers' Club attack came after the decision to withdraw and a smooth, planned withdrawal over nine months is hardly a 'flight'.

line of marines on quayside
Marines leaving for Haifa
Photo: IWM

The UN appointed the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) most of whose members had little, if any, knowledge of the Middle East, let alone Palestine. Their solution, partition, with Jerusalem as a separate entity, was announced at the end of November to the joy of Zionists and despair of Palestinian Arabs. This 'solution' had been recommended by the Peel Commission in 1937.

Since the end of WWII troops had been slowly going home but this now speeded up. Young and inexperienced conscripts provided some replacements but this and the merging of units meant no one knew anyone so security breaches were easy. General Hugh Stockwell was given command of 6th Airborne and arrived in September 1947 with a remit to prevent loss of British lives and effect a smooth withdrawal. Violence increased while troops withdrew and some fresh troops were brought in including Royal Marines in January 1948 and 2/Btn The King's Regiment (Liverpool) at the end of April from Cyprus, plus 3 Commando Brigade from Hong Kong.

"2nd Infantry and other units in Jerusalem
no longer went out at night. If supplies were
needed they grouped and went in convoy through
the raging battles, dispersed to where they
needed to be, then reassembled at a point to
drive back under heavy guard. If they missed
the return then they had to stay the night
in an army camp." Forgotten Conscripts, Eric Lowe

By the end of 1947 the battle for Palestine was beginning in earnest: Arabs were attacking Jewish colonies and convoys, and Jews were pursuing their 'facts on the ground' policy by attacking and destroying Arab villages and ejecting the inhabitants. The British and the Trans Jordan Frontier Force (TJFF) were trying to stop Arab irregulars infiltrating from Syria. Violence reigned. Jerusalem itself was besieged and food and water became a problem. Security was increased and the city divided into three Zones with perimeters of barbed-wire. The army requisitioned some strategically-placed homes to set up security posts. Road convoys bringing supplies to Jerusalem were frequently attacked by the Arabs with much loss of life. British forces sometimes escorted convoys but the Haganah preferred to do it themselves even if it was risky as happened with the Hadassah Hospital convoy.

explosion in street
Ben Yehuda explosion
Photo: Wiki

Some troops felt strongly about events and deserted to the Arabs or the Jews, adding to the security problems since they were well trained and knew army procedures. Some deserted with their weapons, including tanks and PP Eddie Brown and Cpl Peter Madison helped bomb Ben Yehuda Street with great loss of life. Many of those who joined the Zionists like Paddy Cooper, Johnny Burrows and others stayed on in the new Israel; some of them eventually came home, were arrested and served prison sentences for desertion.

The British are criticized for not actively defending the Arab villages but there were insufficient troops and the US had refused assistance in the form of troops or other support (many US and other factions, including British, were actively supporting the Zionist takeover and had powerful backing). General Stockwell had specific orders that troops should only be used for defence. He was in liaison with both Arabs and Zionists and knew how strong the Haganah were (contrary to myth) and that the Palestinian Arabs, though they had plenty of courage, were badly organized, equipped and trained so stood no chance against the Zionists. Consequently, the Haganah was quickly able to occupy territory way beyond that designated by the UN.

On 14 May 1948, General Sir Alan Cunningham, the last High Commissioner in Palestine, left Haifa in Euryalus, to end the British Mandate. At midnight Zionists declared the State of Israel.

Palestine Police

stone building with high tower
Nebi Yusha Police Station

The Palestine Police also needed to be disbanded and was finally stood down when the Mandate ended. DS Adolph, MC, returned to London to run the Rehabilitation Centre for Palestine Police and had jobs to find for over 3,000 men; most transferred to the Metropolitan Police or Colonial forces in Africa or Malaya. Their equipment too was disposed of — legally and illegally. This included their horses which were mostly ordered to be shot to the distress of all. In July 1948 a PP detachment was inspected by His Majesty King George VI.

"Eight lovely horses I had to shoot (from Jalama Police Station) but I took very careful preparation to ensure that nothing went wrong, and so only eight bullets were used. However, I have often reflected on this and wondered if it would not have been better to have turned them loose and let them find a home for themselves." Palestine Betrayed, Robin Martin

Leaving all posts and bases was a delicate business. Station Officer Robin Martin had command of Nebi Yusha police station in the north which he had to hold with young, inexperienced and unreliable constables who were not above sleeping on guard. Departure dates were kept very secret and Martin's Superintendant was offered £30,000 paid into any British bank by the local Jewish community for information. This was refused but such offers were commonplace and presumably some were accepted. They finally left in early May when two trucks suddenly turned up and the lieutenant in charge said:

"'I have come to take you lot out. We have only half an hour — don't delay. Pack all you can of your kit into the trunks, as quickly as you can.' I then handed over the post to the Arab Sergeant, Sgt Farris, with the arms and ammunition. I was supposed to take the two Bren-guns with me, but the Sergeant insisted, quite rightly, that he couldn't be expected to hold the post without them. So, contrary to instructions, I left one gun with him. I wished him well, for he was a friend of mine, with whom I had served years before at Givat Olga and Toubas. Our small British contingent was then evacuated to Nazareth Police HQ where I stayed for two days." Palestine Betrayed, Robin H Martin


After fierce fighting the post was overwhelmed by Zionist forces and a memorial to the Jewish Fallen is now there. The village was mostly destroyed and the villagers forced out.


Maintaining normal duties

The reason I made such a point of the sleep is that during the past fortnight things have been buzzing. Actually last night was the first time my boots had been off for six days - a glorious relief. As you probably read in the papers Dov Gruener and his three pals (they were, incidentally, three of those we caught on our road block at Lydda - the fourth was shot) were hanged last Wednesday morning. 22nd April 1947, letter from Des Le Pard to his girlfriend, Barbs.

In spite of reduced numbers camps still had to be protected, convoys and individuals provided with escorts and all the usual army admin procedures continued. Regardless of daytime duties, troops had to stand guard every other night too; the army was so short of troops that Eric Lowe and colleagues from Nathanya convalescent camp were called upon to escort and stand guard when suspicion fell on the Arab Supernumary guards. The Arabs claimed to have been ambushed and their weapons stolen; they were immediately locked in the cells. (Forgotten Conscripts, Eric Lowe). It may have been true but no one believed the story.

The well-organized Zionist state-in-waiting was already beginning to take over security duties in some areas:

"When I worked with the Jewish technicians I've mentioned, I would pick then up at a location in Tel Aviv which we had previously agreed upon; Dizengoff Street being one such pick up point. But to enter Tel Aviv I had to pass through a checkpoint at a place called Citrus House, head offices of the Palestine citrus fruit growers association, on the border of Jaffa (at that time an Arab town) and Tel Aviv.
         I followed this procedure for some weeks and soon noticed changes happening. What I can only describe as Jewish soldiers (actually members of the Jewish 'underground army' the Haganah) dressed in the same uniform as I was wearing except their unit identification signs were in Hebrew, and bearing British Army rifles and revolvers) were the ones calling my driver to halt and examine our identification papers. I also noticed that their webbing equipment (the belts and bags with which soldiers are draped) was a new model that we Brits had heard would soon be issued to us. But the Haganah beat us to it! Here were the Zionists whom we were fighting in other parts of the country, giving us permission to enter Tel Aviv.
Peter Davies, Signals

Gradual withdrawal to Haifa

"on 14th May 2 King's Group with a column of 130 vehicles began to withdraw to Haifa, whilst the remainder of the Division left the following day south through Rafah to Egypt. The King's column of military, police and government vehicles was escorted by a squadron, plus an additional troop of tanks and reached the port without incident nine hours before the Mandate expired." The Three Week Deployment, 2nd Battalion, the King's Regiment (Liverpool) in Palestine, 29th April-18th May 1948, Lt Col Robin Hodges in The Bulletin of the Military Historical Society 50th Anniversary Number (No.193) August 1998, p.36

soldier  on guard on ship with refugees
Refugees from Haifa

40 Commando was responsible for security of Haifa Port while troops were withdrawn and it became such a safe enclave that it was used as a thoroughfare by Arabs and Jews from one part of town to another. General Stockwell wanted a controlled withdrawal with no more British deaths and negotiated with Arabs and Jews to ensure this. The negotiations led to Palestinian Arabs who wanted to leave being escorted from Haifa, and the Haganah occupying it. Police Report during evacuation of Haifa. Peter Kosminsky's film 'The Promise' includes a graphic portrayal of this. Arabs had been asked not to flee but with the attack, massacre and rapes at Deir Yassin as an example (Haganah loud-speakers reminded everyone) most were understandably afraid to stay. Refugees also believed that they would be returning. The British now held a strip of land from Acre to the Egyptian border.

"Both sides were making desperate efforts to build up their weapon stocks, and it became unsafe for military vehicles to travel singly on country roads, lest they be stopped by Arab road-blocks.Those manning the blocks were quite peacable: they just wanted the weapons, and there were occasions when it was politic to comply. Sometimes they wanted the vehicle as well, and there were many awkward confrontations. In fact a great many British vehicles had to be surrendered to locally superior forces. There was a radio codeword (Maybug) which was used on these occasions, and it was used often." An Undistinguished Life, Andrew Gibson-Watt..

Philip Brutton was held up by Fawzi-al-Kawykji's men and demanded to see him. He was taken on a tour of the stronghold and, "There, said the Druze strongman, are all your Maybugs!" (A Captain's Mandate) By this time a number of troops had deserted and joined Arab or Jewish forces either in sympathy or for the money. Ken McSherry was ambushed by Arabs led by army deserters who stole his vehicle but still delivered the mail he was carrying! To steal weapons, Arabs tended to only shoot if met with resistance but Jews were likely to shoot out of hand.

Col Vernon 41 Field Regt, RA, had an eventful withdrawal but managed to take some revenge on terrorists before finally leaving Sarafand for Haifa.

Eric French too had an exciting time, first in Latrun (an important strategic point and site of much later fighting) and then leaving Sarafand. He came home in the Empress of Scotland, (previously named Empress of Japan) after a detour to Aqaba.

British Pathé clip of 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards leaving Mount Carmel, Haifa.


Disposal of equipment

"It was one of the greatest packing exercises
in history. No1 Base Wkshops REME had 20,000 tons
packed and still managed to add their chapel to it;
they went to Cyrenaica, East Africa, other places
in ME and some to Egypt to close the accounts."
Forgotten Conscripts, Eric Lowe

Palestine held a huge amount of stores and the port was very busy as stores not destroyed, sold or stolen were packed for shipment to the UK or elsewhere and troops worked all hours as civilian employees were disappearing or arriving tired from fighting all night. There was plenty of paper work associated with returning stores so it was not always meticulously done as staff were overwhelmed with the volume; confusion reigned, perfect for fiddling. Some more unusual items were discovered and returned such as crates of mustard gas which caused some consternation. They were taken to Haifa very carefully and disposed of at sea. Explosives too had to be dealt with.

"Shipload after shipload of military supplies
were being taken away day and night from
the start of 1948. It wasn't just supply and
troopships using the harbour, hospital ships
taking away the sick and wounded were still
weaving in and out of the dock. The evacuation
was creating problems for normal business traffic
in the port." Forgotten Conscripts, Eric Lowe

Not only were stores being sold, officially or otherwise, entire bases and hospitals were; the value was enormous and many on all sides cashed in on the possibilities. Armoured vehicles were in demand and though many were taken to Egypt or were destroyed who knows how many found another owner. On 10th May a detail was dispatched from 3 Base Workshops, Khayat Beach, to Sarafand to destroy some turrets. REME Maj Doel with WO McCarthy and L/Cpls McGregor, Rigby-Jones and Sharpley were sent to do the job. Terrorists offered them money not to but refusing the bribe they destroyed the turrets. Returning to Sarafand they were ambushed and though they fought bravely were all killed. Being honest was dangerous.

Andrew Gibson-Watt was involved in the courts martial of some of those selling kit to Arabs or Jews. They were mostly RAOC or technical corps who had easiest access and included a colonel, a captain and a number of quartermaster-sergeants. However, according to Gibson-Watt they were just "a drop in the ocean". Men had no idea what they were going home to so it isn't surprising that some succumbed to temptation, especially when it was so easy and the equipment going to be destroyed.

"I also remember sending men to Beer Sheba to dismantle the overhead telephone system and bring back the copper wire. Even two years after the end of the war, the world-wide demand for the stuff could not be fully met so we had orders to recover as much as we could. But the Bedouin beat us to it. Once they discovered what we were doing they promptly headed south ahead of us and did their own dismantling. I think my lads were tickled pink to have some entrepreneurs assisting then in their task. (Years later I did hear that my team of signallers had also gone into the copper recycling business by leaping over the Bedouin, recovering the copper wire and taking it over the border into Egypt where they sold it). I spent the last few weeks packing up expensive technical equipment to ship from Haifa port and trucking other stuff up to Wadi Rushmeir near Haifa where it was destroyed by army flame throwers." Peter Davies, Signals


Leaving Jerusalem

Jerusalem was still under siege and some troops left by rail and others in road convoy. Senior Army and Government personnel left by air to Haifa from Kalandia. A few, like Edwina Payton, who stayed on with local Arab workers in order to destroy documents, stayed to the last minute and then flew out.

"The railway was very dangerous: "The first part of the journey from Jerusalem to Lydda is a single line running through a deep gorge. On one side there are slopes and on the other a steep drop down to a Wadi bed. The railway line twists and turns and of course most of the corners are blind. At 08.00 we set out with our load of ammunition and our double escort. As we approached Battir, some 8 miles from Jerusalem, we noticed that we had an audience. On the hillside dozens of Arabs gathered to watch our efforts. Despite the situation we were still not given permission to load our weapons. The signal just short of Battir was against us, and so we came to a halt. A few minutes later the 'line clear' signal was given and we moved off slowly toward the station. At this time it was noticed that the rear half of the train had been uncoupled and left behind.
       The Captain jumped down and ran to the engine where by threat of a revolver he halted the train and then forced the driver to reverse back to the rest of the train where we re-coupled it. At this point we were ordered to load our weapons and be prepared to return fire.
       We then proceeded slowly through the station, returning the fire of the Arabs vigorously. After a few hundred yards the train once again halted, this time due to two large boulders placed across the line. Captain Babbage then ordered several of us to remove them. We did so undercover of fire from our other members of the escort. Whether or not the Arabs were reluctant to actually kill us, on this occasion we escaped unharmed." Epitaph for an Army of Peacemakers, George Webb

After evacuation of Haifa the Phoebe's captain held a cocktail party on board for all the Jewish notables. "They were all there - mayor, councillors, Haganah commanders, the lot. The captain showed them round the ship and took them up to the bridge, where they found a huge panoramic montage-map of Haifa, which being built on a hill, is all visible from the harbour. This caused great interest, and the notables all clustered round the panorama identifying their various offices, headquarters, strongpoints and so on. The captain then told them that with the gunnery equipment at his disposal he could at that range put a six-inch shell, first time, not only into any building, but through any window, of his choice. this had a softening effect on the company." (An Undistinguished Life, Andrew Gibson-Watt).


By land to Egypt

"In those days not many service personnel could drive, so as the May deadline approached we tried to teach some to drive to enable us to get as much of the equipment into Egypt as possible. It was mostly desert so as long as they could drive in a straight line and get into gear they passed. My last memory of Palestine was the Jews and Arabs fighting to get into the rear of the camp as we were leaving through the main entrance."
Peter Allchorn, Driver at Petah Tickva, quoted in Forgotten Conscripts

Once the Zionists had unilaterally declared their new state, Arab armies invaded; only irregulars had been involved before trying to defend villages from the Haganah and other groups. British troops met Egyptian Army travelling opposite way and a British convoy was mistaken by Egyptian pilots for Israelis and was bombed. Troops were glad to get out safely.

"The 612 vehicle Group at Rafah was the last post for vehicles that were to cross into the Sinai Desert and Egypt. It was a busy time at 612 and remained so until June 5th, three weeks after the end of the Mandate. Many vehicles destroyed here in spite of Capt Malcolm Stone the CO being offered bribes by Egyptian army officers for Staghounds. Rafah also had welcome facilities for troops on the long drive to Egypt, showers and laundry."
Forgotten Conscripts, Eric Lowe

Some regiments stayed on to finalize things

"Haifa enclave stretched from Athlit, the huge seashore Templar castle some six miles south of Haifa, where 6th Field Regiment RA had their camp to the northern perimeter of the Haifa airfield in the plain between Haifa and Acre. In the town itself, there were British and Jewish spheres of occupation. By consent we were allowed into theirs, but they were not allowed into ours. The road down to the docks from our headquarters was held in an iron grip by 40 Commando, RM, who also controlled the dock area. There was no trouble, nor likely to be any given the strong naval presence, including HMS Ocean but no chances were taken... It was now a peaceful life here going to nightclubs and restaurants, swimming while the stores were being ferried away (those that hadn't been stolen). An Undistinguished Life, Andrew Gibson-Watt who left on 30th June.

4/7 Dragoon Guards and the Grenadier Guards were occupying Peninsula Barracks, Haifa, until 1st July 1948, some units were billeted on ships such as the Orduna.

Even at this stage it was possible to find entertainment outside camp. In By Sea and By Land Robin Neillands mentions Prossi's Restaurant on Mount Carmel Avenue for Sunday Lunch and their rather good whiskey sours, and the Piccadilly:

"One night we were enjoying a quiet beer, as was our wont, when a large number of Irgun Zvi Leumi came in, wearing denison smocks, carrying sten-guns and dripping with grenades. They had just returned from capturing Acre and had come to celebrate. Very soon they started being rude, so as we were heavily outnumbered we decided that discretion was the better part of valour and left very swiftly via the open window. After this the Piccadilly became off limits."

Troops still in Palestine after Mandate ends: Paradata site.

"The setting sun appeared to be blood red as we reached the borders of Egypt and Palestine at Rafah. For us, at least the job was done. We had no feeling of victory, nor indeed of shame. Sorrow, yes. Frustration, yes. Looking back over the years and seeing what has happened in the Holy Land since that eventful day, where Jews still kill Arabs and vice-versa, we ask ourselves what was achieved by our presence?
             Without recognition from successive British Governments or apologies from the Israelis for the conduct of men like Begin and Shamir. Men that they the Yishuv, despised and called murderers, but who escaped retribution and later became Prime Ministers of their State whilst we are ignored. Forgotten Conscripts, Eric Lowe

group of soldiers near truck
Escort duty, near Haifa
Photo: Denis Osborne
group of soldiers near truck
UN Partition proposal
many army vehicles parked
Vehicle park
Photo: Viv Giles
"Most units just packed their kitbags and left but for RAOC and REME it was a different matter. Thousands of tons of war and army surplus had to be taken away. Factory equipment and machinery had to be dismantled and that which could not be used in combat, sold locally along with tents, pots and pans and staff cars. Surplus weapons and ammunition were thrown into the sea." Forgotten Conscripts, Eric Lowe
desolate palestine hills
Desolate Palestine hills
Photo: Denis Osborne
tracer crossing the sky
Tracer over Jerusalem
Photo: Illustrated News
burnt wreck of haganah truck
Burnt out Haganah truck
troops with weapons
In the hills
Photo: Denis Osborne, 120 MU
"Near Sarafand, where we were based, the British commander of the Arab gendarmerie, an old friend of mine in the Gordon Highlanders called Dick Gammon, one day woke up to find that his entire command had deserted with their weapons. He was hearbroken as he had a great liking for Arabs." 'Having Been a Soldier', Lt Col Colin Mitchell
interior of lydda airport
Lydda Airport interior
Photo: Daphne Mawby, WAAF
desolate palestine hills
Rooftop guard, Jerusalem
armoured car, man in turret
Armoured car
Photo: PP Sgt Tom Quelch
"Prior to evacuation of Aqir I was given the job to damage brand new Auster (using a sledgehammer on the engine] which could not be evacuated back to Egypt. Jews came and collected next day and were flying within 48hrs. Were these the origin of the IAF? Especially when Israeli pilots mounted these with a bren gunner."
Roy Newbury
three soldiers in front of tent
Aqaba camp
Photo: Eric French
overhead view of troopship orduna
SS Orduna, an old vessel used
as a billet before leaving for UK.
Source: Suez Veterans' Assn
palm trees on a  bay