Part 1 of Brigadier Sisson’s story ended with the “trial” and execution of two British sergeants by the IZL close to 87 Regiment’s lines - a grim milestone in this campaign described by Winston Churchill as “the squalid war against the Jews”. This concluding article contains first-hand accounts of what happened on Exodus 1947 and on the streets of Haifa in the last days of the Mandate - plus a more light-hearted glimpse of life in an IJI Detention Camp in Cyprus.
JULY TO NOVEMBER 1947
So far as IJI transhipments were concerned, June and early July had been quiet periods. We felt certain, however, that the Jews would not fail to deliver an IJI ship during the time of the UNSCOP visit and we were right.
On 18th July, the largest ship yet arrived, carrying 4,500 immigrants. The ship was a former American river steamer called the President Warfield. It was later renamed Exodus 1947 by the Jews and this is the name by which the ship and the whole affair has always been known to the outside world.
For this ship, the British Government had decided to try a new tactic – instead of transferring the IJIs to detention camps in Cyprus to await their turn for lawful immigration, they were to be returned to the place where they embarked for the journey to Palestine. We knew there would be a violent demonstrations in Haifa and elsewhere during transhipment if our intentions were known beforehand, not to mention fanatical resistance by the IJIs themselves, so the strictest security was imposed on planning.
The plan was for the immigrants to be transferred to three British transports – the Runnymede Park, Ocean Vigour and Empire Rival. 87 Regiment was to be responsible for the operation, with two of the transports manned by 87 Regiment and one by 1 Parachute Battalion. CO 87 Regiment was in overall command of all troops engaged on the operation. Within the regiment nobody except the CO and myself (the Adjutant) knew what was going to happen. Only one Battery Commander was involved (Major Sam Ellis, OC 553 Battery) but there was also a strong contingent from 554 Battery under the Battery Captain, Ted Barclay. Ostensibly, the force was bigger than usual because of the large numbers of immigrants on the ship and the fact that there was likely to be trouble for the benefit of UNSCOP. I do not remember whether they thought they were just on dockside duties or whether they thought they would be doing the round trip to Cyprus and back. Either way, everyone expected to be back in camp in a day or so.
The President Warfield was strongly prepared to resist boarding, with upper decks wired and barricaded. These defences were further protected by steel pipes fitted with steam jets at one foot intervals connected to the ship’s boilers. The 50-strong Naval boarding party was opposed with all means except firearms, and there was heavy fighting with numerous casualties on both sides including 3 Jews killed.
After an attempted beaching, the ship surrendered and steamed into Haifa under escort. The ship arrived in Haifa at 1630 hours on 18th July and transhipment to the transports took place as normal and went smoothly, watched by Judge Sandstrom, the Chairman of UNSCOP. The three transports sailed out of Haifa with their Naval escort at 0630 the following morning.
Once they were at sea the news was released that they were not going to Cyprus as usual but to the south of France where they had embarked. This had repercussions around the world – not just upon Britain and the Jews – and from then on the whole affair became highly political. There were about 1,500 IJIs and upwards of 100 all ranks on board each transport. IJI women and children had freedom of movement but the men were confined to their cages and holds. The soldiers were totally unprepared for the voyage and such arrangements as had been made for them in advance had been limited by the need to conceal any measures which might indicate that something unusual was afoot. The additional fact that the voyage was destined to last two months instead of ten days was a matter which was quite unforeseen.
Guard duties for the soldiers were boring and irksome. Considering the bitterness and disappointment felt by the Jews at being returned to Europe, relations between them and the troops were remarkably good. The soldiers behaved typically, playing with the children and giving them sweets. Having been fed propaganda about our evilness, the Jews could not initially believe this and suspected we had sinister motives.
The political manipulation and harrassment of the IJIs by their political leaders was an unpleasant feature of daily life. Basically the IJIs were just refugees who had survived the holocaust but had nowhere to live. Interestingly, they did not want to go on living in Europe, because they thought there would be another war there quite soon. Most of them were not fanatical Jews demanding their right to go to the Promised Land, just refugees with nothing to lose who needed a home somewhere – anywhere. But they had come to accept – indeed to respect – brute force as the only law that mattered. Their leaders were unwholesome. All immigrants were forced to attend political speechmaking, delivered by fanatics in a frenzy reminiscent of Hitler himself. These leaders were backed by musclemen who dispensed summary justice – anyone who did not conform was punished, often killed.
Nevertheless, when the ships approached Port de Bouc, near Marseilles, on 28th July, it was not expected that the immigrants would seriously oppose disembarkation and that the French would be fully prepared to accept them. In the event, the Hagana had organized a massive propaganda reception at the port – launches with loudspeakers hailed the ship from all directions and visitors came aboard in various guises. The many who would willingly have walked off the ships faltered in the face of the threats they were receiving from all directions and stayed on board. The French then announced that they would not accept any immigrants who did not come ashore voluntarily. Stalemate !
The cause of the French volte-face was bizarre. Marseilles had at this moment of time been taken over by Communists who reneged on the carefully arranged agreement between the British and French governments concerning the return of IJIs to their port of origin. A few genuinely sick people were disembarked. This route was also used to disembark any others brave enough to defy the Jewish leaders – they reported sick and went ashore as “patients”. Otherwise they would have been torn to pieces in the holds. One couple who did go back to their hold to collect belongings, not realizing their secret had been leaked, were instantly set upon. An officer and ten men, in steel helmets and armed with truncheons, faced missiles and broken bottles to rescue them, unconscious but still alive.
After more than 3 weeks of negotiations between British, French and the Jews, the British Government announced that the Jews had 48 hours to decide whether to disembark in France, otherwise they would be taken to the British Zone of Germany. There was no response and the convoy duly sailed off again. During the time spent at anchor off Port de Bouc the soldiers had short spells of shore leave and were able to bathe, which did much to relieve the boredom.
The next port of call was Gibraltar, where one of the ships needed repairs which involved a stay of several days. Troops were issued with temperate climate clothing for the remainder of their journey. More shore leave was granted and garrison troops came on board to help with guard duties. The convoy then set off on the last lap of the journey, finally reaching Hamburg on 8th September.
It became clear during this final stage of the journey that a high proportion of Jews would resist all attempts to disembark them. Some apologized to the soldiers in advance, explaining that they would fight at Hamburg because they must – if they disobeyed orders they would be punished. One officer later wrote in the Daily Telegraph:
"For the last few days of the voyage sentries were perpetually being asked if they would fight. Their reply was to outline a dozen atrocities they would inflict, but with such broad grins on their faces that it was interpreted as an evasion of an awkward question. I don’t think we were ever successful in making them believe we would disembark them at Hamburg by force if necessary. They just did not understand us. They never did."
When the time for disembarkation came, events turned out much as expected. Resistance was organized and stubborn and many bitter battles were fought. The Jews used all sorts of weapons and every type of missile they could lay their hands on. Using “minimum force” in reply was not easy. The Runnymede Park offered the sternest resistance, demolishing companionways and placing themselves in a state of siege. Eventually it was necessary to reinforce 87 Regiment’s contingent with troops from the Hamburg garrison. Gradually, one by one, the immigrants were ejected.
The officer in charge of the party which stormed the holds on the Runnymede Park (John de Grey) wrote:
"In Hamburg Martin Gregson arrived and occupied the bridge while I and my merry men prepared to storm the holds unarmed. I was rising 22 and windy as hell ! So I reckoned I’d carry my father’s WW1 •45 revolver on my belt against emergencies, as well as the pick helve I legitimately carried as first man down the ladder into the hold. This was of course quite contrary to orders, since we were to be “unarmed”.
The seconds ticked away as we stood at the entry to the hold ladder, but Martin Gregson quickly spotted the extra armament and ordered me to the bridge, where I was deprived of my ultimate weapon.
We believed that the ladder was sabotaged – welded top and bottom – and would be jerked out as we descended. That made me go for a fast descent. On the platform at which the ladder ended (6ft x 6ft and 3ft above the hold deck) twenty DPs armed with wooden batons with barbed wire wrapped round them awaited me, grimacing – holocaust survivors with tattooed foreheads, now fattened and fed and restored to vigour. I remember my reactions exactly – what a bloody army ! Still I had a pick helve – the men behind me only had entrenching tools. I had one of those in my bayonet scabbard as well. It was almost 15 ft down the ladder to the platform.
On the order “go” I raised my pick helve above my head, whooped, and flew down the ladder steps as if possessed. The effect proved to be magical – I could hardly believe it ! The veterans with their barbed wire batons quit in every direction before I could bring down my pick helve on their heads. On arrival I was the sole occupant of the platform – the merry men were descending in more orderly fashion behind me !
At this stage fortune took a hand. While I was making a speech to the crowd, assuring them they would not be roughly treated if they would kindly allow themselves to be escorted up the steps and out over the side, one of the CO’s provisions to reinforce my pick helve came into play. He had the Army Fire Brigade standing by with hoses ready to play down on us if we got into difficulties. Someone decided that the moment had come – turned the hoses on the platform and kept it up, sousing me and all the men so that we could not speak. This naturally enough appealed to the opposition who started to laugh at us, soaked and spluttering. It nicely de-intensified the situation ! Girls volunteered to go out, and eventually everyone followed.
There were some nasty bits. A sergeant (can’t remember his name, they were generally 22 year olds like me) got caught by two barbed wire baton bearers who planned his execution. I was able to lean over from my platform and break their skulls with two quick strokes (with my entrenching tool by then).
Then, down the ladder came Military Police from the Hamburg garrison – more planned reinforcements. Welcome enough, but the sergeant in charge became over-enthusiastic, thumping slow movers with his baton, and I had to order him out.
My two broken skulls survived – hopefully sobered. You would be surprised how a relatively light tap on the head from an entrenching tool knocks out and may kill a person. When they were all out, bomb disposers searched through the foot deep mess left behind. I can’t remember what they found ! I think nothing."
When the operation was over, all troops returned to England for leave. There were many expressions of praise for the troops involved, on both Government and military channels. Suffice it to quote one of them: From CIGS to C-in-C Middle East Land Forces:
"The disembarkation of the Jews at Hamburg went very well and the fanatical resistance of those on the Runnymede Park was especially well handled. Lieutenant Colonel Gregson and the escort from 87th Airborne Field Regiment have been particularly mentioned by GOC Hamburg for their good work. Please convey my congratulations to all concerned when they return to you."
A sober postscript to the operation was the fact that one soldier, Gunner Korup, a member of 87 Regiment’s Danish contingent, was lost at sea from the Runnymede Park while the ships were anchored off Marseilles. He fell accidentally from a ship-to-shore ferry at night. This was a sad incident as we had taken the Danes to our hearts, true volunteers as they were. The casualty was to become doubly significant when 3 months later another Dane, Gunner Christoffersen, was killed in action in Palestine.
Many of those who took part in the operation formed lasting views on the rights and wrongs of the political situation which caused it to happen. It would not to be appropriate to air such opinions in this narrative but equally wrong to ignore the fact that, as events in Palestine intensified, we all became politically aware. For a political, but impersonal view on the affair, I quote from The Times of 10th September: "The responsibility lies upon those who planned the expedition in the President Warfield as a political manoeuvre, upon those who permitted it to leave the shores of France, and upon those who used their influence to ensure that the hospitality offered by the French Government was contemptuously rejected."
Events in Palestine
I have to confess that, having seen the regiment off to sea, my first inclination was to enjoy a couple of days peace and quiet, the like of which we had not seen for some time. Unfortunately the “peace and quiet” soon turned into a long period of frustration and hard work. I do not remember our strength at that time, but we had a fair numbers of bodies – enough to administer the place and protect the camp, but nothing to spare. The soldiers were mainly fitters, clerks, storemen and the like – not accustomed to doing guard duties three nights a week nor particularly suitable for such work.
In the Officers Mess there seemed to be a lot of majors, mostly standing around with no soldiers to command and rather grumpy about being left out of the action. I remember one, who shall be nameless, taking the inlying piquet out at night to chase imaginary terrorists following an explosion on the railway line half a mile away. It was not our business, and by definition the inlying piquet does not go out of camp especially at at time when there are no more soldiers available to take its place and the IZL are ambushing and kidnapping on your doorstep. I recall a difficult exchange of views when the adventurers returned to camp.
One of the first jobs was to secure the personal belongings of the two or three hundred officers and men who had left overnight. We had had a recent case of a soldier stealing from others in his tent, so the problem was already in the forefront of my mind. The last thing we wanted was for the regiment to return and find half their kit missing. It was a laborious task, involving long lists, people checking on other people, etc. Plus the fundamental problem of locking anything up safely when all you have is tents. Fifty years on I do not remember exactly how we did it – just that it took a lot of time and patience. At first, of course, we thought we just had to hold the fort for ten days, while the escorts sailed to the south of France and back. When it transpired that they were to remain at Marseilles for nearly six weeks and then sail on round Europe to Hamburg, it became a completely different matter. Ex-India officers and men were still going back to England in a steady trickle for demobilization and repatriation. Replacements were coming out, but they needed to be made into teams and trained, and the experienced men to do this were nearly all at sea or off to UK at the end of their tour. So we got down to it.
Gunnery training was given a priority it had not received for some time. Those who could do it all from memory had nearly all gone, and though it seemed unlikely that we would be firing our 25 pounders in anger in the near future we could not allow ourselves to get so untrained that we were unable to operate as gunners if called upon to do so.
Slowly but surely, the regiment got back on its feet. The record in Cordon and Search says that after two weeks leave in England the troops returned to Palestine, but my recollection is that many did not come back at all, especially the officers. After some time, in November I think, a new Commanding Officer arrived, Lieutenant Colonel D G Cannel DSO.
At some stage during this period we moved from Binyamina to another camp, near Hadera. I do not remember what IS operations the regiment took part in during this period – nothing much to start with, but we were certainly up and running again by September/October. Several IJI ships arrived during this period but I do not recall any details of the transhipments. I do not know why my memory of this period is so bad.The record shows that we lost another Danish soldier, Gunner Christoffersen, killed in action during a train ambush on 10 November, but I have no clear recollection of this.
During this period, tension was rising steadily throughout the country. The Exodus affair in July resulted in a sharp burst of violence, with IZL and the Stern Gang at their nastiest, and the progress of the United Nations investigation continued to aggravate the situation until, at the end of September, it was announced that Britain would be giving up the Mandate and leaving Palestine. This was received with incredulity by both Jews and Arabs. Neither side was ready for it and the Jews accused Britain of “scuttling”.
After this there was an uneasy calm for several weeks until, at the end of November, UNO announced that Palestine was to be partitioned into separate Jewish and Arab states. Suddenly the whole picture changed – Jews and Arabs were at each others throats striving to gain ground and influence in preparation for partition, and the role of the British army was to keep them apart. Hagana and the IZL ceased to attack British targets (except to steal arms) though the Stern Gang never stopped treating us as the main enemy.
Thus at the end of November 1947, 87 Regiment found itself with a new CO, new faces throughout the regiment, and a new operational role. At this point I handed over as Adjutant to Peter Knott and went off to UK to attend a two week course on Airportability at the School of Land/Air Warfare !
DECEMBER 1947 TO MARCH 1948
Last Days of The Mandate
I returned from my course at the end of December – I remember embarking on Christmas Eve ! I recall that the voyage took an extra day or two because we went via Greece – Major General Eric Down, formerly GOC of 44th (later 2nd) Indian Airborne Division when we were serving in that division as 159 Parachute Light Regiment, was commanding a British force there to deal with the Communist partisans left over from the war. I mention this partly to underline the fact that in those days Britain was still a world power, with sizeable armed forces and major commitments outside the Empire as well as within it.
When I rejoined 87 Regiment for the last 2 months in Palestine it was more like joining a new regiment than returning to an old one. I did not feel like the “oldest member” any more – more like the “newest joined”. Peter Knott was well settled in the Adjutant’s chair and I went straight off as Troop Commander of an independent troop in Haifa. I was pleased about this – it was my old Troop (C Troop) and I had been away in RHQ for a long time.
I wish I had a detailed account of those next two months to offer. Unfortunately, all my memory has retained is a series of snapshots and a lot of blank pages in between. I offer the snapshots in the hope that they will give some sort of a picture of what life was like in those days.
Haifa was now a battleground. Before the announcement of partition it had not been so – Jews and Arabs had lived alongside each other reasonably peacefully. Now there was an ever-increasing struggle for mastery of the town. There were two main areas – Hadar hak Carmel, the upper and modern part of the town inhabited by the Jews and the Old Town which was the main Arab quarter. Elsewhere the two communities were intermixed in smaller groupings.
The scale of fighting escalated steadily – first there was a period of sniping, stone-throwing and arson, then small-arms battles backed by automatic weapons, then came the introduction of mortars and heavy machine guns, and the use of explosives in Northern Ireland fashion. In Haifa in 1948, however, there were absolutely no inhibitions about killing civilians and no question of giving advance warning of an explosion, and the casualties from bombing incidents in closely built-up areas were often horrific. The main roads in and out of Haifa ran alternately through Jewish and Arab held sectors, so neither side could command any of them completely.
The port of Haifa was vital to the running of the country – and to the eventual evacuation of British forces. The railways into Haifa were essential to the operation of the port. The dockside oil installations and the pipelines running into them also had to be protected. The main tasks of the army in Haifa were thus:
• Keeping the peace between Jews and Arabs;
• Keeping communications open, both road and rail;
• Protecting the port and oil installations.
Until now, patrolling the railways and oil pipelines and guarding the oil installations in Haifa had been done mainly by TJFF and the Arab Legion. The TJFF started to withdraw in mid-January and the Arab Legion soon after, leaving a gigantic hole in our capability at a time when these tasks were getting more difficult as each day went by. My Troop reported direct to an Operations Room run by the Haifa Brigade. We, in turn, ran an Operations Room of our own which I had inherited from my predecessor as a going concern. It consisted of a mass of talc and chinagraph, showing what everybody was doing and where they ought to be at every hour of the day.
Usually the troop was deployed on a variety of small tasks – two-vehicle escorts with a junior NCO in charge, or two-man foot patrols on the railway or pipeline, dropped at the start and picked up at the finish again by a junior NCO. We did not usually have radio communication with these small parties – once deployed they were very much on their own. We were, however, operating in an urban environment with military units of one sort or another fairly thick on the ground, so that it was often possible to phone in for advice or assistance by making for the nearest military phone. But the system depended heavily on the reliability and common sense of the junior NCOs, and as I recall, they did very well. We had a weekly visit from the Battery Captain but otherwise I do not remember having much contact with the regiment at all.
One day we were issued with a fleet of Dingoes – small, wheeled armoured vehicles which gave good protection against small arms fire and we were glad to have them. I recall, though, a moment of alarm when the drivers discovered that reverse gear on this vehicle applied to the entire gearbox range – you could drive the vehicle just as fast backwards as forwards. In fact, my first sight of the new vehicles was two drivers racing each other the length of the vehicle park – backwards !
One of our routine jobs was escorting the buses of civilians who worked in Army installations such as the Ordnance Depot to and from work. Separate buses for Jews and Arabs, of course, picking up and setting down in their respective areas. The routes for these journeys were carefully planned so that, as far as possible, Jewish buses travelled only through friendly Jewish areas and vice versa, and the journeys were usually uneventful.
One day, one of these convoys (not one of mine) ran into trouble from the outset and was running the gauntlet of missiles and small arms fire for the whole of the journey. At first we thought the cause was a new escort commander who had lost his way. Further investigation showed it to be a bored young man who thought he would liven up his day by taking a busload of Arabs along the safe route for Jews ! I don’t think anybody was seriously hurt – it was not a scenario the opposition had anticipated.
I recall getting myself into trouble through being at a loose end one Sunday afternoon. I had looked into the Operations Room and seen that a two-man foot patrol on the railway was overdue, though not really late enough to worry about as yet. I decided to go out and look for it. The Alert State was not high and it was within the rules for me to take a single vehicle so long as there were two of us in it and we did not split up. My first port of call was a smallish railway station where the patrol should have reported at the end of the leg they were on. I went into the station to make enquiries, leaving the vehicle and driver parked outside about 15 yards away from a uniformed Arab guard (either Arab Legion or a Palestine policeman) standing on guard armed with a service rifle. I knew there would be army staff inside the station for me to pair up with and did not consider that I was breaking the rule about staying in twos. I was not inside the station long – there was no news of the missing patrol.
Returning to the vehicle I was met by the sight of my driver crouching on the pavement, head in hands, minus his personal weapon. He had been correctly standing on guard a few paces from his vehicle, but not alert enough to stop a passer-by hitting him on the head and stealing his gun. After a few minutes fruitless questioning of bystanders, there was no more to be done. The Arab guard in whom I had put my faith had seen and done nothing. Loss of arms was a serious matter and I thought I would be in trouble. There was a Court of Inquiry but I heard nothing more. I was unfortunate in that both the Arab guard and my driver had performed less than well, but I had probably bent the rules a bit and should really have taken two vehicles in that situation. The driver recovered quite quickly from his bang on the head and the railway patrol turned up in due course – they had simply not been hurrying home. I remember thinking that I would have done better to have stayed quietly in my tent reading a book that warm Sunday afternoon.
We were occasionally sniped at, especially at places like the Wadi Rushmiya bridge where big modern blocks of flats overlooked the road from the Jewish quarter of the town. Although both Jews and Arabs were at this stage principally concerned in shooting each other, some Jews never stopped having a go at a British target if one presented itself, and the Arabs had no compunction in turning on us if we got in their way too much. That said, both Jews and Arabs recognized that at this time (January to March 1948) the British army was within its rights to try and keep the peace in Haifa. Later on, in April, when the final all-out battle for Haifa took place between Jews and Arabs, the British forces had no choice but to withdraw to the port area and defend it and the routes into it, and generally concentrate on protecting the British evacuation from Palestine.
History records that the Jews won the final battle for Haifa with surprising ease. My last memory of Haifa was standing on the dockside watching vehicles being driven up to the end of the jetty, one by one, and rolled into the sea. A sensible way of getting rid of old vehicles which must not be allowed to fall into either Jewish or Arab hands. But a sad sight nonetheless. After all the trouble we’d taken . . . .
This then was the somewhat uneventful story of an independent troop in Haifa in 1948. Elsewhere in Palestine the rest of the regiment was similarly employed. The withdrawal of the TJFF and the Arab Legion had left the tasks of protecting the railways, oil installations and pipelines – not to mention guarding the frontiers with Syria, Transjordan and the Lebanon – to be carried out by the British army. Throughout the country, Jews and Arabs were at each others throats and the task of keeping the peace became more and more difficult as each day went by.
At the end of February, the regiment was involved in a sizeable peacekeeping operation. An attack had been made by Arabs on the Jewish settlement at Ma’anit Narbata and British troops and police were called out. The British force consisted of 87 Airborne Field Regiment and 12 Anti-Tank Regiment RA. The record of this event in Cordon and Search states: "British troops and police were called out after an Arab attack had been launched on the Jewish settlement. On arrival of the troops the Arabs withdrew but opened fire soon after on the troops. The Arabs were soon dispersed by small-arms and gun-fire."
I should like to think that the mention of gun-fire in this report indicated that 87 Regiment had at last used its 25 pounders in Palestine, but it is more likely that it was 12 Regiment’s self-propelled 17 pounder anti-tank guns that were in action in a situation like this. A tragic footnote to this incident is that a few weeks later, shortly before they were due to leave Palestine, 12 Anti-Tank Regiment were attacked in their camp by the IZL and suffered many casualties. The camp described in the report on the incident was very similar to 87 Regiment’s camp at Hadera, enclosed by orange groves and overlooked by a water tower from which the IZL operation was almost certainly planned in detail beforehand.
The purpose of the attack was to acquire arms and ammunition. The IZL, dressed as British soldiers, drove up to the barrier in British army 3-tonners, shot the gate sentries and opened the barrier. A following armoured car drove into the centre of the camp and dominated the main roads inside the camp with streams of automatic fire. The off-duty reliefs in the guardroom were shot dead and the storemen in each of the three Battery armouries were overpowered. Arms and ammunition from the armouries were loaded into the 3-tonners.
The CO was killed while trying to shoot the occupants of the armoured car with his pistol. The regiment’s guns were dismantled ready for shipment and could not be fired, but eventually one of the armoured self-propelled guns ground its way from the gun park towards the IZL armoured car with the intention of ramming it. This brought the raid to a premature end. A burst of sten-gun fire was directed at the escaping vehicles but no IZL were captured.
This, luckily, did not happen to 87 Regiment. But it is a scenario they had to be prepared for, day and night, throughout the regiment’s tour in Palestine. Out of camp they had to be prepared for snipers, road mines, ambushes and kidnapping. Their response to all these threats had to be “minimum force” under the watchful eyes of the world press. Palestine was not an easy tour of duty for a British soldier in 1947-48.
On 9th March 1948 the regiment embarked at Haifa, without their guns, and sailed for UK on HMT Samaria. On arrival in UK they were quartered in Perham Down and about a month later the regiment was disbanded. Sixty all ranks opted to join 33 Airborne Light Regiment RA and moved to Flensburg in Germany where that regiment was stationed.
I left 87 Regiment shortly before they returned to UK for disbandment to do a 3-month tour of duty in one of the IJI Camps in Cyprus. Although, strictly speaking, this experience is not part of the history of 87 Airborne Field Regiment, I offer a few stories from those days because they describe “what happened next” to the thousands of Illegal Jewish Immigrants who passed through the regiment’s hands in 1947-48.
My appointment was Assistant Commandant of one of a group of several camps at a place called Xylotymbou, near Dekhelia, close to the coast in the south east part of the island. The camps were laid out like traditional POW camps, enclosed by inner and outer wire fences, with armed guards overlooking them from raised platforms 20 or 30 feet above ground level. We seldom went into the camp, which the Jews administered for themselves. We operated essentially on a basis of mutual trust. Accommodation was hutted, the climate was pleasant, they were well fed and looked after.
In my camp, at any rate, they seemed to have accepted their lot and led a contented life. Most of them, indeed, were a lot better off than they had been for many years. Better off than in a Nazi concentration camp, better than being a refugee in an alien country in post-war Europe, and certainly better than being in their most recent home – the hell-hole of an IJI ship. The relationship between us was strange – the same sort of situation as has been described aboard the Exodus ships. There was no great animosity but they could not allow themselves to like us.
I recall that when I first arrived I had a German prisoner of war, left over from North Africa, as my batman. A reminder of how long ago it was that all this happened. Earlier there had been quite a lot of them in the Mess staff, but he was the last and left soon afterwards. At the time I never wondered what the IJIs might have thought about the presence of Germans in the camp staff. Presumably it wasn’t a problem.
Part of my job was responsibility for stores in the small administrative setup we had outside the camp wire, and a few days after my arrival I did a check on them. The colour sergeant responsible for the stores was a tough, likeable infantryman on temporary duty from Palestine, but I recall that storekeeping was not his strong point. Amongst other things, I discovered that all the picks and shovels on charge, about 20 in number, were missing. It transpired that they were on temporary loan to the Camp Leader, ostensibly for digging latrines, and had been out for several weeks. We asked for them to be returned and they were promptly produced. Some weeks later a long tunnel was discovered, starting inside the camp and emerging at a cliff face on the coast, well concealed and affording direct access to and from the camp from small sea-going craft. I do not recall any great ructions after the discovery. There seemed to be no intention of a mass breakout – it was more of a convenience for occasional use by important visitors. We told them sadly that they had betrayed our trust and must not do such a thing again. I never thought it necessary to mention to anyone that the tunnel might have been constructed with the help of my picks and shovels.
The watchful eyes of various international organizations was ever upon us in Cyprus. A beautiful island, at peace with itself in those days, it was a pleasanter place in which to observe events than the battlefield of mainland Palestine ! I do not know who they all represented, but a lot of them seemed to be American. One episode I remember took place in the early days before I had realized the importance of these watchful eyes. The Camp Leader, a pleasant, moderate man, complained to me that some part of the rations – tinned sardines I think – had not been provided, though something else had been provided in lieu. I checked and discovered that no sardines were available that day and that it was missing from the British soldiers’ rations as well. Having satisfied myself that they were getting the same rations as British troops on the island, I completely forgot the matter.
Two days later I was summoned to the Colonel in charge of all the IJI Camps and he gave me a roasting I do not forget to this day. I suspect he had just had one himself. The jist of it was that if the International Agreement says the IJIs are entitled to 2 ounces of fish per day, they must have it and any failure to provide entitled rations must be referred to the highest level. One lives and learns. Clearly, IJI affairs were a high level matter in Cyprus in those days.
I got on well with the Camp Leader – I remember he brought me a present of wine and unleavened bread at the Feast of Passover. But we were always at arms length. I suspect he was a carefully selected front man and that the real leaders were hidden away inside the camp, fully ready to whip up trouble if circumstances required it. IJI shipments continued to arrive at regular intervals during my time there, though I did not meet old friends from 6th Airborne Division as the Navy had taken over responsibility for all aspects of IJI transhipment since the beginning of February. As I remember it, these reception operations were just a matter of administration – there was no fighting or any sort of trouble. The barbed wire and soldiers were always there, of course, just in case.
One day towards the end of my tour I noticed a prominent figure among the incoming IJIs. A big, bony, athletic young man with fiery red hair, wearing a blue and white hooped rugby shirt. He was not exactly trying to slip through unnoticed ! I realized immediately that I had seen him before, quite recently, in Cyprus. He had come in with IJIs from another ship only a few weeks previously. When I put this to him he agreed immediately. Yes, he had come into Cyprus the previous month but had left at once, through the “emergency exit” (my tunnel !) to bring in another shipment. He was a sailor currently doing IJI runs for a living. He was probably a Jew but did not seem like a politically motivated Zionist to me – more like an adventurer busy making himself a lot of money ! Who knows ?
I left Cyprus with two main thoughts in my mind. First, the power and financial strength of the international organization which arranged the IJI ships, cruelly manipulating the refugees for political purposes, had again been clearly demonstrated. And because of this, I had come to feel much compassion for these refugees who had already suffered so much during the holocaust – without in any way lessening my condemnation of the political and military Jewish factions which tried so hard to discredit and kill us during the Mandate. It was good to get away.
By Brigadier Arthur SissonRead More