87 Airborne Field Regiment RA in Palestine 1947 to 1948 Part I
By Brigadier Arthur Sisson CBE
87 Airborne Field Regiment’s tour of duty in Palestine began in March 1947 when 159 Parachute Light Regiment arrived from India, without its pack howitzers, and was re-equipped with short-axle Airborne-pattern 25 pounder guns. A few weeks later the regiment was briefly re-titled 87 Parachute Light Regiment RA, before further redesignation as 87 Airborne Field Regiment RA in August. This completed the artillery ORBAT of 6 Airborne Division - light and anti-tank airborne regiments were already in post.
Throughout its one year tour in Palestine 87 Regiment was employed entirely on general internal security duties. For the first four months its primary role was the transhipment of illegal immigrants. Normally the Royal Navy boarded the immigrant ships at sea and brought them alongside in the Haifa docks. Thereafter it was the task of Divisional Artillery to remove the immigrants from their ships, process and contain them in the dock area, then put them on board British vessels and guard them during the journey to internment camps in Cyprus. On the few occasions when the Navy failed to intercept, the task of rounding-up illegal immigrants streaming ashore from a beached vessel was more difficult and hazardous. Standard internal security tasks such as patrolling railways and the oil pipeline were also a matter of daily routine during this period.
In mid-July the regiment spear-headed the operation which became internationally known as Exodus 47. This was an attempt to return some 4,500 illegal immigrants to the port at which they embarked - Marseille. They were carried in three British transport vessels. The CO of 87 Regiment, Lt Col M I Gregson MBE, commanded the entire operation. Over half the fighting strength of the regiment was deployed on this task. In the event disembarkation at Marseille could not be achieved and it became necessary to make the long voyage to Hamburg, where a forced disembarkation took place. Many difficult situations arose during this operation, at all levels of command. All ranks responded creditably, sometimes bravely, with the eyes of the world critically upon them.
The Exodus contingent did not return to Palestine for several months, and many did not return at all. The skeleton regiment which remained in Palestine continued to carry out Internal Security tasks within its capability. Its strength was gradually rebuilt by means of individual reinforcements from UK. Gunnery training continued -- throughout its tour the regiment maintained sufficient standards of gunnery to ensure that it could provide conventional artillery support to 6 Airborne Division if need be.
By November 1947 the regiment was back to fighting strength. Lt Col Gregson did not return from Exodus and was replaced by Lt Col D G Cannal DSO. From this time onwards the scale and tempo of operations escalated dramatically. With the end of the Mandate and partition in sight, the Jewish and Arab communities began their fight for survival. The British Army strove to keep the peace. Both sides mounted attacks on unit armouries and other installations to steal weapons and ammunition. At the same time the Army had to keep roads, railways and the oil pipeline secure and, importantly, provide protection for the orderly withdrawal of the entire force from Palestine. Small patrols, on foot or in pairs of vehicles, were the order of the day, often subject to sniper fire in built-up areas. 87 Regt was engaged in the full range of operational tasks during this period.
The regiment left Palestine in March 1948 and was disbanded in July 1948. 60 all ranks opted to remain in Airborne Forces and were posted to 33 Airborne Light Regiment in Germany.
|1947||Lt Col M I Gregson MBE|
|1947-48||Lt Col D G Cannel DSO|
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