By Brigadier Arthur Sisson CBE
This article was originally written in 1999 as the concluding chapter of an informal history of the Airborne Gunner Regiments which served in the Far East from 1944 to 1947. Its main purpose was to stir the memories of other surviving Indian Airborne gunners and provide them with a good nostalgic read. Recent events in Israel have sharpened interest in the political and military content of the narrative, and most of the “regimental gossip” has been removed from this version. However, the article remains essentially a snapshot of regimental life in Palestine in 1947-48, through the eyes of a junior captain, rather than a military history essay. The author makes no bones about his imperfect recollection of events which happened over 50 years ago and has drawn heavily for factual data on the book “Cordon and Search”, published in 1949, which records the exploits of Sixth Airborne Division in Palestine. The resultant mixture of recorded fact and dragged-up memories provides a revealing insight into the daily lives of those who served in Palestine in 1947-48 − a nasty campaign which is perhaps more “forgotten” than it should be.
87 Airborne Field Regiment did well in Palestine. Its main operation, the transhipment of 4,500 Illegal Jewish Immigrants from Haifa to Hamburg via Marseilles, was very difficult, very unpleasant and they did it extremely well. In the hurly-burly of the last months of the Mandate, the re-formed regiment did all that was asked of it with distinction. 87 Airborne Field Regiment’s tour of duty in Palestine was, indeed, a fitting tribute to the hard work and enthusiasm of its predecessors in 159 Parachute Light Regiment and 23 Parachute LAA/Anti-Tank Regiment who in 1945 had prepared so eagerly for war with Japan but were never put to the test.
THE REGIMENT JOINS 6TH AIRBORNE DIVISION IN PALESTINE
Formation of the Regiment
87 Airborne Field Regiment RA was created in early 1947 from the amalgamation of 159 Parachute Light Regiment and 158 Parachute Field Regiment (formerly 23 Parachute LAA/Anti-Tank Regiment), the two remaining regiments of the divisional artillery of 2nd Airborne Division. 159 Regiment were stationed in Quetta, under command of 50 Independent Parachute Brigade and 158 Regiment were at Malir, near Karachi, under command of HQRA, who were also at Malir.
With Indian independence only a few months away, the redeployment or disbandment of these two British regiments was clearly imminent. In both regiments the repatriation of wartime soldiers was still a steady source of wastage; also a significant number of officers and senior NCOs were transferring to Indian Artillery units – the new Indian Army was enthusiastically forming a parachute artillery capability which had not formerly existed in Indian Airborne Forces.
The remainder of the two regiments amalgamated to make one full strength regiment, earmarked to join 6th Airborne Division in Palestine as the third regiment of the divisional artillery. The majority of the new regiment came from 159 Regiment, including the Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel M I Gregson, MBE. 159 Regiment’s RHQ remained intact and organized the amalgamation and the move to Palestine.
Two of the three Battery Commanders came from 158 Regiment. The amalgamated regiment continued to be titled 159 Parachute Light Regiment until shortly after its arrival in Palestine some weeks later.
Deployment to Palestine
The voyage from Karachi to Suez in HMT Devonshire, a modern, purpose-built troopship, was enjoyable and uneventful – blue skies, calm seas and, by contrast with earlier voyages in the other direction, no U-boats or enemy aircraft to worry about . One event I do recall was the Adjutant, Peter Knott, becoming seriously ill only a few hours out from Karachi. A recent injury to his hip in a road accident had become infected and an emergency operation had to be carried out at sea. He was to spend the next four months in hospital at Suez.
One consequence of this event was that I unexpectedly found myself Adjutant of the new regiment and was to remain so for the next 9 months On arrival at Suez, the regiment staged in open desert near Suez for several long weeks doing very little at all. Once the Sphinx and the Pyramids had been looked at, and the Long Bar at Shepherd’s and other Cairo nightlife had been visited, there seemed little reason for further hanging about. I am not sure why we stayed so long – possibly our camp was not ready or the guns had not arrived. I do not recall any serious training for our role in Palestine during this waiting period. In the event we had to learn fast, on the job.
One feature of the long wait at Suez was a simmering feud between certain factions of the regiment and members of a resident Guards battalion. The favoured site for confrontations was The Blue Kettle Club at Ismailia. Eventually a pitched battle took place, involving extra work for MOs and much damage to the Kettle Club. The resultant fines and confinements to barracks took care of the remainder of the the waiting period for a fair number of the regiment’s soldiery. Eventually the regiment moved up to Palestine by train. It was a tedious but uneventful journey, though we had our first sight of things to come – tanker wagons lying alongside the track, derailed by terrorist action the previous day. Patrolling the railways was to become one of the regiment’s many low profile but manpower-consuming tasks in the year ahead.
The regiment’s first camp was a pleasant site near Binyamina. Living accommodation and many offices and stores were tented, but messes and cookhouses were good, well-equipped buildings and, unlike Bilaspur, the climate was mellow and we had no complaints after our weeks in the open desert at Suez. The site dated back to the North Africa campaign when troops from the 8th Army came to camps such as this in Palestine for retraining and R and R (Rest and Recuperation).
6th Airborne Division in Palestine
When 87 Regiment joined 6th Airborne Division in March 1947, the division had already been in Palestine for 18 months. The end of the war in Europe found them at Wismar, on the Baltic. They were quickly withdrawn to UK to prepare to move to the Far East to join 2nd Airborne Division in the final campaign against the Japanese, but although advance parties deployed in early July, no major movements had taken place when the war came to an end after the nuclear attack on Japan in August 1945. 6th Airborne Division was then selected to form part of the Imperial Strategic Reserve, stationed in the Middle East, and they moved to Palestine in September 1945. Palestine was chosen because it had good facilities for airborne training – the intention was that they should avoid becoming involved in internal security duties. This illusion was to last only a few weeks.
Till the end of 1946, 6th Airborne Division were deployed in South Palestine, covering the cities of Tel Aviv, Jaffa and Jerusalem as well as the desert around Gaza. In January 1947, they redeployed to the North Sector, their place in the south being taken by 1st and 3rd Infantry Divisions. It was a change for the better – the lush coastal strip and rolling hillsides of the north made a welcome change from the dusty southern desert, though the dangers and frustrations of daily life remained much the same.
The Divisional Artillery
The Parachute Brigades were invariably allotted territorial areas of responsibility, but the divisional artillery regiments in 6th Airborne Division normally remained under command of HQRA with no territorial responsibilities. Whilst they needed to carry out sufficient gunnery training to ensure that they could support the division in a major operation if necessary, they also had to earn their keep as military manpower in an over-stretched situation. Consequently they became professional jacks-of-all-trades, and it was a well-known feature of the Division that there was virtually no task which the Gunners were not prepared to undertake. 87 Regiment thus found itself, in March 1947, in Northern Palestine with new guns and a jack-of-all-trades role about which it knew nothing. The regiment was to operate almost exclusively in the coastal strip between Haifa and Hadera – a beautiful, classic Mediterranean shoreline. I remember saying to myself that I must return to enjoy it properly when the troubles are over. I have not been back and the troubles are not over.
Palestine was governed by Great Britain under a mandate of the League of Nations which came into force in 1923. In May 1939, the British Government decreed that Jewish immigration into Palestine should be limited to 75,000 for the next five years, after which no further immigration would be permitted without Arab consent. The five year period was later extended because of the war, but the 75,000 limit remained unchanged.
Following the Holocaust, Europe was flooded with homeless Jews whose eyes turned naturally towards the Promised Land. The Jews in Palestine believed passionately that these refugees should be allowed free entry and that the imposition of an immigration quota was unnecessary and inhuman. This, above all, was the root cause of the Jewish hatred for the British soldier in Palestine. The British Government, however, was stuck with its fundamental policy on Jewish immigration which, though constantly reviewed, was never changed throughout the remainder of the Mandate. It was a no-win situation – the Arabs, just as politically-conscious and capable of armed violence as the Jews, watched every political move like a hawk, and on the subject of immigration were predictably uncompromising.
Jewish and Arab Forces
The Jewish forces ranged against the British in Palestine fell into three categories. The largest, the Hagana, was essentially a moderate organization, born from the age-old requirement for Jews to defend their settlements and land against all-comers. The Hagana was virtually a Jewish National Army into which most young men and some women were enlisted for national service. The second category, the Irgun Zvai Leumi (IZL) were much more dangerous. Originally a breakaway group of the Hagana, they were openly opposed to Britain, well trained and equipped, and they carried out a wide range of murderous attacks against British targets. The third category, generally known as the Stern Gang, were a group of desperadoes who specialized in assassinations. The effectiveness of all these forces was greatly enhanced at this time by the influx, from all over Europe, of experienced underground fighters who had fought against the Nazis and survived.
Against all these organizations the British Army was required to use “minimum force” – a familiar enough setting nowadays, but in 1947 we found it far from straightforward after the war years when “maximum force” had been the norm. We had carried out Internal Security (IS) operations in India from time to time but the opposition had been amateur compared with this and the eyes of the world had not been upon us as they were to be in Palestine.
The Arabs in Palestine were neither friend nor foe. When not engaged in tribal squabbling, they were busy clearing the decks for their fight against the Jews when the Mandate ended and the British left Palestine. So far as the British were concerned, they had no quarrel with what we were doing in Palestine – supressing Jewish immigration and engaging Jewish forces in action. Hence, they gave us no trouble and vice versa. They were, nevertheless, armed and ferocious when the situation arose and “accidental” gunfights between British troops and Arabs did take place from time to time.
Regular Arab forces such as the Arab Legion and the Transjordan Frontier Force (TJFF) provided formal detachments in support of British military operations in Palestine. They efficiently carried out frontier patrols and many manpower-consuming duties such as static guards and patrolling the railways and oil pipelines, and their withdrawal at the beginning of 1948 left a large gap in our capability, some of which was to be picked up by 87 Regiment.
Shortly after we arrived in Palestine the Army issued an edict that use of the word “terrorist” was banned. Apparently the term implied that such people inflicted terror on those engaged with them, and this we could not accept. I recall much searching for other words to use for these people in this and similar IS situations in years to come. I do not know what current Service policy is, but I have enjoyed feeling free to use the word occasionally in this narrative. Possibly the problem has gone away – “common usage” sometimes does the trick. The Oxford Dictionary says that the term refers specifically to Jacobins in the French Revolution and Russian revolutionaries in 1866. Terrorism is not new !
87 Airborne Field Regiment was to be continuously engaged in IS operations during its year in Palestine. These fell into three quite separate phases:
•March to July 1947 – when the main role of the regiment was the transhipment of Illegal Jewish Immigrants (IJIs); •
July to November 1947 – when over half the regiment was at sea escorting 4,500 IJIs back to Europe on the Exodus operation, while the remainder “held the fort” in Palestine. When it became clear that the troops on Exodus would not be returning for many months, if at all, the main task in Palestine became the re-forming of the regiment.
• December 1947 to March 1948 – when the tempo rose as the end of the Mandate approached, Jews and Arabs started to fight each other in earnest, and every IS job in the book was on the daily agenda.
MARCH TO JULY 1947
Transhipment of Illegal Jewish Immigrants
We were required to get on with our new work immediately, especially the main task of transhipment of Illegal Jewish Immigrants. This commitment had been taken on by HQRA in its jack-of-all-trades role when the Division had moved up to North Palestine in January 1947, so the other divisional artillery regiments were only a few weeks ahead of us in knowing what to expect and how to deal with it.
At this time, IJI ships were arriving at Haifa at the rate of two or three per month. The international organization which set up these ships was vast and well backed financially. American influence was very apparent and the critical eyes of US organizations and the US press were always upon us.
Two other factors were also apparent:
• Ship owners, ships’ crews and many others along the route were making plenty of money out of the business;
• The countries from which the IJIs came gave the system every encouragement; nobody wanted refugees in 1947 (any more than they do now !).
Every Jew in Palestine supported illegal immigration – even the moderates. Britain virtually had the world against her in striving to limit Jewish immigration into Palestine to its lawful level – except for the Arabs, of course! The ships were generally old and battered and came in all sizes – from 100 to 5,000 tons. Their main hope was to slip through the British blockade and land their passengers at prearranged beaching points from where the passengers could disappear inland. Occasionally one of the small ships was able to do this and the task of rounding up the escapers was formidable. Beach-watching piquets to prevent such happenings were toilsome and boring and not particularly effective.
The standard procedure was for the RAF, operating from Palestine, to spot the ships as far out as possible and alert the Navy who shadowed them until they approached the coast of Palestine. Once inside the 3-mile limit, the Navy boarded the ship and took control sufficiently to enable the ship to be towed by them into Haifa port. These boardings by the Navy were almost always opposed and casualties to boarding parties were often severe.
Once in port the transhipment of IJIs was an Army responsiiibility, organized by HQRA 6th Airborne Division. I recall that initially the three gunner regiments all had preferred roles – 53 (Worcestershire Yeomanry) Airlanding Light Regiment (renamed 33 Airborne Light Regiment later in 1947) did the initial boarding, taking over control of the ship from the Navy, and arranging the movement of passengers from ship to shore. This was never easy and sometimes very unpleasant. Apart from straightforward exchanges of violence, there was often a high degree of passive resistance – women and children, as well as the men, would wrap themselves round stanchions and have to be prised free and frog-marched or carried off the ship one at a time.
The next stage was to sort them out on the dockside, and this was the standard role of 87 Regiment. We had to sort out the sick and aged, of whom there were many, and get those who needed it to hospital in Haifa. Everyone, sick or not, had to be disinfected with DDT and all baggage thoroughly searched for arms, explosives and escape equipment. These processes had to be cordoned off and protected, both to prevent IJIs slipping out individually and also to deal with external attacks by terrorist organizations to facilitate such escapes. It was at this stage of transhipment that the press were allowed in, and the false allegations and exhibitions staged for their benefit by the IJIs added to the unpleasantness of the task.
When all this was done the IJIs were embarked onto transports and escorted to detention camps in Cyprus to await their turn for admission to the Promised Land within the legal quota. The escort troops for this final stage were normally provided by the third gunner regiment – 2 Airlanding Anti-Tank Regiment (later 66 Airborne Anti-Tank Regiment). In the course of time, the three regiments became fully interchangeable as to their role in the transhipment process, but 87 Regiment certainly did the dockside sort-out many times !
A first hand account of the first two transhipments undertaken by 87 Regiment, told by Sergeant Bill Renwick, reads as follows:
"The first ship arrived just after we had taken over our new camp. It was a Panamanian registered vessel in the condition colloquially known as “rust bucket”, because it seemed miraculous that it floated at all. It had sailed from Marseilles. It was listing so heavily that passengers could not be disembarked from the port side and the ship had to turn sluggishly about in order to present the starboard side to the quay. Standing on the quayside as the ship approached we were subjected to shouted abuse in appalling language and, when we forced our way on board, were spat upon and hassled. The stench was unbearable – excrement everywhere. Most of the women were pregnant, allegedly in order to gain entry for the greatest possible number of immigrants – it was beyond understanding how they had managed to survive the voyage under such conditions. The incomers were alive with lice. Immediately on disembarking, they were separated by sex and guided through delousing tents, women to tents manned by female RAMC personnel and men to tents manned by RAMC male orderlies, where DDT powder was blown inside their clothing to ensure complete coverage. Whilst this was happening, the cameras of American film crews on the quayside were rolling, though they’d been totally inactive during the spitting and abuse incidents. On emerging from the delousing tents, the refugees were escorted to the gangway of a Naval frigate, one of several running a shuttle service to Cyprus. Some refugees tried to rush away into the crowd of onlooking local sympathizers, so a cordon of soldiers had to be formed to apprehend any escapees. In the docks there were fences which impeded but did not prevent such attempted escapes. The next ship we had to deal with was beached by the skipper who drove it hard on to the beach and dropped climbing nets over the side. Refugees scrambled down in their hundreds and though the Battery endeavoured to form a leakproof cordon, such was the charge that many got through and were lost in the crowd of hostile onlookers. Those that were apprehended were in due course processed and despatched to Cyprus in the normal way."
Other Internal Security Operations
I do not recall with certainty the number and type of other IS operations the regiment carried out during this initial stage of its tour in Palestine. I have a clear impression of being “thrown in at the deep end” alongside the seasoned units of 6th Airborne Division who had already been in Palestine for two years. In those early days each new type of operation was something of an experiment, but I believe we learned quickly. We had a good relationship with 53 Airlanding Light Regiment who gave us help and advice whenever we asked for it. I believe we took part in one or two Cordon and Search operations at this time. These operations were a recurring feature of life in Palestine throughout the Mandate.
Their purpose was to search Jewish settlements for wanted terrorists or arms caches when intelligence sources indicated a likely target. They were always carried out in close cooperation with the Palestine Police. Security during planning was of major importance. Any leakage about when and where a search was to take place meant inevitable failure – the cupboard would be bare. Every unit had civilian employees, both Jews and Arabs, and none could be trusted entirely. Every camp was watched, day and night. Preparations for Cordon and Search operations had to be as late and as uninformative as possible.
The task itself was rough and manpower-intensive. Search parties were invariably opposed and the cordon had to be strong enough to intercept anyone making a run for it. Operations were complicated by the fact that the opposition consisted of hostile women and children as well as hard-line terrorists. “Minimum force” had to be the order of the day.
Other typical IS tasks were patrolling the railways and the oil pipeline, escorting civilian convoys, setting up road blocks and responding to incidents – any terrorist attack would result in the call-out of forces from units in the vicinity to try and round up those responsible. I remember being involved in follow-up activities when, during an IJI transhipment operation on 31st March, the IZL blew up a large oil storage tank in Haifa docks. The fire was still blazing a week later. Oil installation sabotage at Haifa Docks In the last months of the Mandate, especially after the withdrawal of the TJFF, we were at full stretch on such duties almost every day, but we learned the ropes on most of these duties at a more reasonable pace during these first months of our tour.
Any movement out of camp was hazardous. There was always a risk of road mining and ambushes, and the associated possibility of being taken hostage. A proportion of our vehicles were hardened beneath the front seats against mines, but the hardware was crude and heavy and not entirely effective. In most cases, mines were laid in the verge of the road and detonated manually by a nearby operator. However, I have the impression that our intelligence about such matters was quite good. Provided you took special care at the times and places you were warned about, life was not too risky – or perhaps we were just lucky.
Motor cyclists were always at risk and as time went on we used them less and less. Even moving in pairs they were an easy target to knock over on the open road – wire stretched across the road at chest height just after a bend was a favourite method of bringing them down. Driving along busy streets in places like Haifa they were sitting ducks.
Security of Regimental Lines
The protection of our own regimental lines was a major task in itself. Any soldier’s memories of Palestine are certain to include the long hours spent on guard duty, sometimes as often as one night in three. Both of the camps we occupied had their problems. The Binyamina site had been wonderful as a Rest and Recuperation camp for the 8th Army. It lay at the centre of a wide saucer surrounded by rolling wooded countryside. As a defensive position it was abominable. The dannert wire perimeter was long and even so was overlooked by the rim of the saucer on nearly every side. There could be no economizing on the strength of the guard required to protect it.
I do not remember our second camp very well as I did not spend a lot of time in it. I think it was enclosed by orange groves and, like Binyamina, not at all easy to defend. At a time when the laying of “suitcase bombs” and similar booby traps was prevalent, I recall setting out one morning with the RSM to have a walk-round outside the perimeter at Binyamina to see if anything suspicious had arrived on our doorstep. We had more time to spare than usual and went right up to the rim of our saucer, perhaps half a mile from the camp, in order to view the ground from above. We found more than we bargained for – freshly dug and occupied weapon slits ringed the camp on three sides. The local village could be seen not far away. We were being watched all the time and could be fired upon with great effect. As I recall, it was not possible to do anything positive about the matter. We inspected the positions regularly and openly, so that they could see we knew about them, and so far as we could tell they stopped using them thereafter. It was nonetheless creepy to realize how exposed we were, especially when a few weeks later two British sergeants were kidnapped and hanged by the IZL in an olive grove just down the road.
One of the problems, both inside and outside the camp, was the effective use of disguise by the Jewish terrorists. They were expert at dressing up as Arabs, policemen or soldiers and frequently put on airborne red berets and rode in military vehicles bearing impeccable military markings. Because of this we used to maintain an Inlying Piquet, about 30 strong, who were the only troops permitted to take on intruders into our lines. Everyone else was required to stay put in tents and offices until the situation stabilized. Anyone rushing about with a gun in his hand would be assumed to be an enemy, no matter what coloured beret he was wearing ! Manning the Inlying Piquet was yet another hefty manpower requirement.
The Jews were not the only opposition we had to cater for. The Arab is an accomplished sneak-thief, and the Arabs were as keen to acquire British arms and equipment as anyone else. Nothing could be left unwatched and unsecured, especially at night. The soldiers who had come with the regiment from India were fortunately used to the “loose-wallah” problem – they knew well enough that a pistol hidden under your pillow is likely to be gone when you wake up in the morning.
There was not a lot of time for training. Fortunately, the regiment did not require a lot of initial training in basic Operations in Aid of the Civil Power. All British troops in India were accustomed to this role and we had had practical experience of handling civil disturbances in Karachi and had also been involved in operations on the North West Frontier when stationed at Quetta.
Things were different in Palestine however. First, we were facing organized, well-equipped urban killers – not the same as a Karachi mob or even a Frontier tribesman. Secondly, in India we had been on home ground – we were in charge and we made the rules. We could be as firm as we needed to be without having to fear criticism too much. In Palestine the eyes of the world were upon us, some of them unfriendly. We needed to remind ourselves of this from time to time.
We did as much gunner training as we could. We had to retrain on the 25-pounders but this did not take long. Most officers and senior NCOs had cut their teeth on this gun and the knowledge came back readily. We mourned the loss of our pack howitzers of which we had become proud and fond, but the return to 25-pounders was not painful – it was such a simple, straightforward gun.
We encountered some problems towing the 25 pounders behind our lightweight jeeps. One solution was to close-couple two jeeps together in tandem – a clumsy-looking arrangement, requiring considerable skill by the two drivers, but it worked. We had to be ready to provide gunner support to the division in a major operation if that should ever be required and I believe we reached that standard quite quickly.The regiment was still sharp from its winter practice camp at Kalat and performed well on the few occasions that HQRA was able to muster the resources to run a divisional artillery exercise. These were invariably on the basis of a single-gun battery.
There was very little training in the airborne role in Palestine at this time. From time to time we were able to send small batches of soldiers off for a day or so to do refresher parachute jumps but that was all. Serious training for major IS roles such as transhipment and cordon and search was largely carried out “on the job”.
We liaised with experienced neighbours such as 53rd Airborne Light Regiment prior to our first commitments and thereafter built on our own experience. Reinforcements Demobilization of national servicemen and repatriation of regular officers and soldiers at the end of their overseas tours was an ongoing process. We had become used to this trickling turnover of manpower since early 1946 when the oldest of the old soldiers began to go home after the end of the war. We were well served with reinforcements from UK. Experienced officers and senior NCOs were usually replaced by equally experienced regulars returning overseas after long leave or a UK tour. Young soldiers were also generally of high quality, some of them already trained parachutists having volunteered and been accepted for airborne service during initial training.We were not short of good men.
One notable category of reinforcements was the Danish contingent. In the summer of 1945, in gratitude for the liberation of their country, the Danish government allowed Britain to recruit Danes into the British Army and over two thousand volunteers were enlisted, mostly into the Royal Artillery. Many volunteered for airborne service and after parachute training in UK went on to serve in airborne units worldwide. 159 Regiment had received about 50 Danes in Quetta shortly before leaving for Palestine and all of them joined 87 Regiment. They were all good soldiers – fit, keen and well-disciplined. It was a sad coincidence that both of the regiment’s two fatal casualties in Palestine came from this small, elite band.
Another elite group of reinforcements, mostly officers and NCOs, were ex-members of the SAS who were no longer required in that organization now that the war was over. It seemed that, having been trained as parachutists as part of their SAS job, all those who had been Gunners before joining SAS were posted to Airborne Gunner regiments when their time in SAS was over. I don’t know if this was official policy, but we did seem to get a lot of them. My strongest impression of these people was how different they were from each other. One or two lived up to expectations as eccentric individualists while, at the other end of the scale, many slipped quietly back into the routine of regimental soldiering as if they had never been away. They were all remarkable people.
The Commanding Officer of the regiment for most of its tour in Palestine was Lieutenant Colonel Martin Gregson MBE, having assumed command of 159 Parachute Light Regiment at Bilaspur in late 1945. He had a first class brain, a splendid sense of humour, was totally unflappable and was well liked and respected.
I remember the three Battery Commanders who came with us from India, but cannot recall the Second in Command. The BC who came from 159 Regiment was Major Tom Carew DSO, an ex-SAS officer who had joined us straight out of the Malayan jungle soon after the end of the war. The other two BCs came from 158 Regiment – Sam Ellis, a highly professional officer who excelled as one of the escort vessel commanders on the Exodus operation, and Donald Moorhouse, a lanky Australian who for some reason I never discovered had chosen to join the British Army rather than his own.
Among the captains I remember Ted Barclay, a lynch-pin CPO when I first joined 159 Regiment at Bilaspur, later – like Sam Ellis – to do well as an escort vessel commander on Exodus.
John de Grey (now Lord Walsingham) is another captain I remember well; he wrote me a long letter, on lined foolscap paper, full of serious thoughts, while at sea on one of the Exodus ships. I kept it for years, but eventually it got lost – I wish I had it now. He later won a Military Cross in Korea.
Peter Knott, Adjutant of the regiment before and after me, later became a Jesuit priest and the first Roman Catholic chaplain at Eton College since the Reformation. He and John de Grey have both contributed to this narrative.
A senior captain I remember well was John Codner, a Horse Gunner with a Military Cross, later to become a Military Knight at Windsor Castle. He was a tower of strength when the regiment in Palestine was re-forming during the latter stages of the Exodus operation.
The Regimental Sergeant Major was a tough ex-Chindit named Bill Steel. He was a good story-teller as well as a fine RSM. I recall his description of line-laying in the thirties – on horseback, at the gallop, with spinning cable drums mounted behind the saddle on either side. Even 50 years ago, this was a glimpse of another world
The tireless regimental Chief Clerk was Sergeant Trimberg. He was a Jew but had no problem about serving in Palestine. I don’t believe he had time to think about it !
I do not recall discipline being a problem. We were hard on offences which broke security rules, e.g. going out of camp without the required escorts or going into out-of-bounds areas, and loss of a personal weapon was a very serious matter.
There were occasional canteen fights and I remember a tiresome case of stealing from another soldier’s kitbag. I recall being the junior member of a Court Martial on a 6th Airborne Division captain for being out of bounds in a Haifa restaurant. The occasion was his demobilization party, but the offence had been declared prevalent and the president of the court told us that he must be severely punished. He had been with the Division throughout the war and had won a Military Cross. I forget the exact outcome. I don’t think he was cashiered but he did not get off lightly. I remember not enjoying the affair at all. I tell this story because it illustrates the situation regarding discipline in Palestine well.
Generally, the soldiers were well-disciplined despite the boredom and frustrations they had to put up with both on and off duty. But offences against security regulations had to be punished severely – there could be no excuses.
Recreation was a problem. The first few months were the best – up to mid-April the risk to off-duty soldiers enjoying themselves was acceptable provided reasonable precautions were taken. But even at the best of times, off-duty soldiers had to be armed, never less than four in number and daytime was safer than night.
By day, there were organized trips to places such as Bethlehem, Jericho and the Sea of Galilee – all interesting days out. Taking a rowing boat out on the Sea of Galilee was, I remember, a very peaceful break from the hurly-burly of a normal working day.
Bathing parties were always popular and, protected by armed guards, this form of recreation continued right up to the end of our time in Palestine.
The usual range of sporting activities took place within the regiment, but were not taken so seriously as they were in India. For one thing, contests often had to be cancelled at the drop of a hat and no battery could ever hope to get its best team together all at the same time.
One new sport which flourished at this time was motor cycle trials. There were a lot of motor cycles on unit establishment and quite a number of people whose jobs officially required them to ride a motorcycle, so the was no shortage of equipment or participants.
I recollect that NAAFI and other welfare organizations arranged dances and suchlike for the soldiers, in safe places, from time to time. I do not think they were huge successes but at least they gave people a chance to get out of camp. Anything was better for morale than soldiers spending their off-duty time gazing at the perimeter wire though the entrance of their tent. But such events became few and far between as the tension rose in Palestine.
Indeed, in his account of those days, Sergeant Bill Renwick wrote:
"We had no social life during these months and were virtual prisoners in our remote and very basic camp. We could not visit Haifa off-duty because of the activities of the Stern and other gangs . . . "
Officers fared better than the rest in the early days of 1947. Martin Gregson made contacts easily and to start with we had an enjoyable social life within the local Jewish circle.
I particularly remember Sunday afternoon tennis parties in the garden of a wealthy lady who looked and spoke American. We might have been in middle-class England – grass tennis courts, pretty girls, hot sunshine, Roses lime juice and pleasant conversation. I never knew how much the Colonel was bending the rules when he set up these occasions for us – a little I suspect.This state of affairs did not last long, however – as the political and military situations worsened this way of life was soon to become impossible both for us and our hosts.
Another regular social occasion for officers was Sunday lunchtime drinks at the Astoria restaurant in Haifa. We made our way there after church parade in unit lines. The Roman Catholics, who attended their own service in Haifa itself were always there first ! The Astoria was a rather glitzy place with huge plate glass windows fronting onto a busy street. With hindsight it was an obvious target. And so it turned out – at the end of June, Stern Gang terrorists raked it with fire from the street, shattering the plate glass, killing one officer and wounding two others (not 87 Regiment).
Despite the tiring routine of endless guards and patrols, the lack of off-duty recreation and the rising tensions of daily life as the threat increased, morale was generally good.
Two points about morale are of interest. Firstly, the young men – regulars and national servicemen, officers and soldiers alike – who had just missed taking an active part in the war against Germany and Japan, were intensely keen to do well in an operational environment – the next best thing to the “real” war which had been denied them. We were Airborne Forces and proud of it, and had been so close to spearheading the final assault against Japan. And the fact that we were now part of 6th Airborne Division, serving alongside the veterans who had made Airborne history in the Normandy landings, the Rhine crossing and the race to Berlin, heightened this desire to excel. For many months, morale rode high on the crest of this wave of enthusiasm. The other side of the coin is also interesting. A number of the older non-regular soldiers, including senior NCOs, who were approaching the end of their engagements, were far from enchanted with service in Palestine. They had joined the army to fight Germans or Japs and now the job was done they wanted to go home and saw this as their right. They did not consider that preventing Jews and Arabs from killing each other in Palestine was in any way their business. They felt genuinely aggrieved. These were mostly good, thinking men, not “barrack room lawyers”. The fact that I do not remember being aware of this situation at the time says nothing for my own perceptiveness. It says much for the innate loyalty and discipline of these NCOs and senior soldiers, who despite their misgivings did everything that was required of them in Palestine and did it well.
The Threat Increases
The IS situation in Palestine worsened steadily from April 1947. The focus of the situation was an IZL terrorist named Dov Gruner who was under sentence of death following an armed attack on a police station. IZL had stated early on that if he was executed they would execute a British officer in reply.
On 16 April, Dov Gruner was hanged at Acre prison. Security was immediately tightened and the IZL failed to kidnap any British soldiers. However, towards the end of the month they issued the following warning: We will no longer be bound by the normal rules of warfare. In future every combatant unit of IZL will be accompanied by a war court of the Jewish Underground Army. Every enemy subject who is taken prisoner will be brought before the war court, irrespective of whether he is a member of the Army or civil administration. Both are criminal organizations. He will be tried for entering illegally into Palestine, for illegal possession of arms and their use against civilians, for murder, oppression and exploitation; there will be no appeal against the decision of the people’s court. Those condemned will be hanged or shot. The IZL never bluffed and we knew it.
From now on, all movement outside camp had to be controlled even more carefully, and recreational outings in small numbers became less and less viable. There was a further upturn in the threat in mid-June when the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) started its visit to Palestine. This was a fact-finding visit, to enable UNSCOP to present the United Nations Organization with recommendations on what to do about Palestine.
The Jews supported the visit but the Arabs decided to boycott it. Both sides were divided amongst themselves. On the Jewish side, Hagana wished to present themselves as moderate and reasonable while IZL and the Stern Gang were determined to show off their muscle. The outcome, from the British soldier’s point of view, was yet another step up in terrorist activity. The attack on the Astoria restaurant was one of the first incidents in this new wave of violence.
This was quickly followed by an appalling incident – the kidnapping and subsequent murder of two British Army sergeants by the IZL. They were captured in Nathanya, close to 87 Regiment’s lines, on 12th July. An intensive search operation was mounted, lasting two weeks.
Martial Law was imposed but the sergeants were not found. Then, following the execution of three Jewish terrorists in Acre prison on 29th July the sergeants were hanged in a wood near by. The bodies were found two days later – the area had been mined and as the bodies were cut down one of them exploded, having been booby-trapped, and a British officer was badly wounded.
Soon afterwards notices announcing the trial and execution of the two sergeants by the Underground Court for “criminal anti-Hebrew activities” were posted on walls throughout Haifa – the IZL had done what they said they would do. These dreadful events took place right on our doorstep. Life in Palestine had taken another turn for the worse and was not going to get any better.
By Brigadier Arthur SissonRead More