Saturday, January 22, 2011

Chapter 11 - Securing the Burma Road

As Sara I realised why Samson had been renowned for his strength. One must have been tough to have survived in a place so rugged, desolate, stony and dry.

We pitched camp amongst some fig-trees (with atrophied fruit) at the foot of the hill of the ruined village. Water was a problem for there was none in the immediate vicinity and supplies had to be carted daily, a fatiguing and time-absorbing task. Keeping clean occupied much of one’s time. Dan and I found a well about half-an-hour’s walk from our guns and we tried to pay it as frequent visits as possible. With a bucket that bordered on a sieve we gathered the icy-cold water in stone receptacles and bathed.

Sara village was a pile of ruins with the gaunt arches of some broken buildings still standing. The remaining rafters were rotting and a musty smell hung in the air where dirt and dust scattered with the wind.

A derelict ghost-town. Remains of shops and a little low drug-store with mortar and pestle and bottles and tins. An abundance of caves and empty, cold ovens. Books littered the floors of the dilapidated school house. Dan, in his exploring, found some good books including a 1948 edition of Sinclair Lewis’ “Kingsblood Royal,” and Bennet Cerf’s “Joke Book!”

Sara was off the regular routes and as dead as a dodo. At night we had no lights or diversions and the only alternative, when not on duty, was to sleep.

Ravlevai, now nicknamed “Tom Mix,” by virtue of a broad Stetson that he wore, substantially increased the number of guards and arranged for us to go on patrol with the infantry. He was very apprehensive lest the Arabs managed to sneak in through the large gaps in our lines. Indeed, if the Arabs had been adept at commando warfare, they could have caused considerable havoc for our forces were few in number and covered a large area.

While at Sara I spent most of my time with the Palmach, doing observation duty. Our “nest” was a stone house overlooking the valley around Hartuv (through which the railway-line ran from Lydda to Jerusalem) and presenting a commanding view of the enemy lines and positions. Its only drawback was the fact that it was conspicuous and the Arabs probably knew the purpose for which we were using it. Below lay the Arab villages of Deiraban and further away Beit Jimal containing a large school of agriculture, run by Italian mission arises, and housed in a fortress-like stone building. Nearer were the historic ruins of Beth Shemes where the holy ark had once been housed in biblical times.

My main task was to find the Arab guns so that we could neutralise them. A certain six-pounder, anti-tank gun was in the habit of making things uncomfortable for our troops. We found what we judged was the location and let them have a few shells.

It was interesting watching the Arabs and their movements and feeling that they were oblivious of the fact that they were being watched. But it was tiring and a strain on the eyes. Being cooped up in the observation-post for most of the daylight hours made it difficult to find an opportunity for a thorough wash. My comrades, young Palmachnik members, were a friendly, cheerful and unselfish bunch, who gave me every assistance.

One day a Piper Cub of the Israeli Air Force spent most of the day overhead. Its purr was comforting. Then on another day a Spitfire came over zooming and diving and behaving most suspiciously. Flying low, peering and searching. We did not know whether it was ours or theirs - the markings were not Egyptian as far as we could see nor did they appear Israeli. I never solved the problem. But it woke us up and a frantic digging of slit-trenches followed with Ravlevai hurrying on the work.

On the afternoon of Saturday, October 9th, I obtained some leave to Tel Aviv from 3.30 p.m. that afternoon to 11a.m. the next morning. I was exited and gay like a little child who has received a new toy. It was a welcome break. Getting to Tel Aviv took close on four hours of hitching and involved several lifts and long delays, because there was little traffic on a Saturday. I arrived in Tel Aviv coated with dust. Sara and Tel Aviv were poles apart. I was unattuned to lights and noise and crowded cafes and streets. The atmosphere rasped and annoyed. Why did we have to live in discomfort and isolation while thousands danced and sang and made money and spent it?

I appreciated the good food, the warm corn on the cob and the “falafel”(an Arab dish) sold by street vendors.

The following day I went shopping. First I bought “Palesting Posts” for the past fortnight. The latest one informed me that Jerusalem had been bombed and the Egyptians had launched a big attack in the Negev with guns and ‘planes.

At the post-office I tried to buy some stamps. The queues were disorganised, inchoate and noisy. I did not buy the stamps but left the post-office in a hurry. If this was civilisation give me Sara!

I hitched back, first stage to Rehovot, in time to witness an incident. A soldier, impatient, shouted at a truck to stop and take him. The driver ignored his request and drove on. Enraged, the soldier fired a burst of bullets with his sten-gun at the wheels of the truck. Military police arrested him immediately.

An army bus stopped and the driver said that he would only take passengers who were going direct to Jerusalem. I clambered aboard. I knew Israel sufficiently well to know that he would stop where I wanted him to. He did. On my way to Sara I delayed at the well, which Dan and I had found, and had bath. I returned several hours late.

That night there was a practice alarm. And shortly after the real thing followed. The Egyptians were reported to have taken Rafat, a village on our flank, and there was supposed to be no one between the guns and the Egyptians. Once again frantic digging and hasty erection of sand-bagged emplacements. Dan dashed up the hill with the Spandau to look out for enemy aeroplanes.

Nothing happened, Rafat was still in our hands. It had been a false report. I spent most of that night and most of the next day at the observation-post and was dog-tired.

The following night was the eve of the Day of Atonement, generally observed as a fast day and inaugurated by a good meal. For us it was introduced by a bite of sardines and cheese and the majority did not fast  the next day. Units in the field were given food to eat if they wished. Units at base were not provided with food.

From October 12th the Intelligence Officer of the brigade asked me to do more comprehensive observation which could be of great assistance to him. I requested that Dan be allowed to assist me and Ravlevai agreed. We noted and recorded, in my faulty Hebrew, every movement of the enemy. We watched them parading in the village, building fortifications, eating, coming and going. We also spent hours at night observing flashes of their artillery and mortars and taking compass-bearings to them.

Soon we moved to an alternate observation-post in a cave, nearer the enemy. From the darkness of the cave we could see without being seen. We crept in at dawn and crawled out at night. Our main fear was the prospect of being cut off by Arab patrols. It was awkward staying cooped up the whole day and a strain on the nerves and the eyes, but the Intelligence Officer was highly satisfied with out information so we persisted.

On Wednesday,13 October, leave was cancelled in the brigade and a stand-by proclaimed. Troops moved in as reinforcements. The following day the commander-in-chief of the Israeli artillery paid a visit and the stand-by was intensified to an “extraordinary stand-by.” Something was going to happen. Tension and anticipation. Anything to end the deadlock.

To the rear of Sara the Burma road was being widened and asphalted. Workers had been conscripted from Rehovot, Jerusalem and other areas. The very old and the very young - all above or below military age. Bearded elders and youngsters who did not need to shave. Labouring in the sun carrying the stones, pouring molten asphalt. They came in lorries at day break and left as the sun went down. An inspiring sight. The macadamised strip grew and grew and grew. Progress. Hurry before the winter rains. And now an attack might come so that we could widen the corridor. And Deir el Hawa, Ravlevai’s bugbear? Time would show. Friday, October15th, revealed which way the wind would blow.

I went to bathe in the well and when I returned Guya informed that we were to open fire at 4p.m. that afternoon. We were twenty minutes late and the four guns fired 49 rounds in all at Deiraban, Beit Jimal and the cross-roads near Beth Shemes. The Arabs were shaken up and took cover in a hurry. Apparently ours was a feint attack to draw the Egyptian forces into our area and away from the Negev, where the main Israeli attack was to be launched. An Israeli ultimatum had been given to the Egyptians to comply with U.N.O.’s demands that the road to the Negev be opened to Jewish transport.

Perhaps we were defying U.N.O but if they were unable to provide justice the Jews might be justified in taking the law into their own hands and enforcing compliance of the truce agreement.

We fired until seven o’clock at a slow speed. It was tame, like a harmless game, watching the shells falling amongst them and getting little in return. That night reports arrived saying that the Egyptians had attacked an Israeli convoy in the Negev and that heavy fighting was expected.

Had the Israeli convoy been a decoy? Did Israel wish to force a showdown? The evidence seemed to indicate that the Negev campaign had been anticipated and planned. And we saw nothing wrong in it all. For weeks the Egyptians had been launching attacks on Jewish settlements, with impunity. Such a situation could not continue. Now the Egyptians would receive a taste of their own medicine. And they did. They were hard hit.

On our front things were not too exiting compared to what happened in the Negev, but our part fitted into the general strategy and was to have vital and important consequences.

Contrary to expectation Saturday was quiet. The silence worried. It was unreal and suspicious.

The following morning early we opened up again and had some shell burst in return. From the Negev gun-flashes were visible and the under tones of battle audible. Great happenings, but we had no news. Sunday was quiet around Sara but further south the road to the Negev was opened by the Israeli army. We mounted our Spandau on the hill as a precaution against infiltrators. Wild shots and frantic voices rent the night. It turned out to be a case of mistaken identities and trigger-happy fingers - but no casualties.

Monday afternoon we took two guns to Rafat, fired at Bureij, an Arab village, and dashed back to Sara. We hoped that the Arabs, receiving fire from many quarters, would overestimate the number of our guns.

Great things happened that night. Monday 18th. “Harel”, our brigade, attacked on a wide front in a carefully planned and brilliantly executed manoeuvre. The organisation was perfect and the scattered signal network functioned without a flaw flashing orders and relaying progress reports.

Len came from Jerusalem to direct the artillery and brought some French 120 millimetre, heavy mortars. They concentrated their attention on Deir el Hawa. Our guns added their bit, small shells more demoralising than damaging. We had our targets perfectly ranged. Enemy positions were known and plotted to a tee. The work in the observation-posts reaped dividends. And “King David” was in action, the pride of Israel’s backroom boys. A massive, home-made, improvised mortar with a small range but a powerful punch. It terrorised the Arabs flinging heavy explosives with vehemence, noise and colour. A magnificent spectacle lighting the surrounding area with white, red, blue, orange and violet colours, roaring and coughing.  Reverberating through the hills.

Everywhere a constant clatter of the other weapons, dots and dashes of tracers, the whumph of light mortars and the steady pounding of the 120’s. At the cross-roads near Beth Shemes the armoured cars joined in. One hit a mine but was only punctured. The others raced on into the night and up the road to Beit Jimal.

Compared to war in Europe that evening was in miniature, but as well planned. Places Dan and I had only observed from a distance now came to life. Ours. Newly captured. All over in a few hours. Deir el Hawa and Deiraban and Beth Shemes and Beit Jimal all ours. A great victory. Strategic points, well-situated and wide spaces, ours.

We had one man killed, an officer, and a few wounded.

News from the Negev said that good progress had been made and that our guns were shelling Gaza. Our air-force held the mastery in the Negev and heavily raided the Egyptians.

Beit Jimal was a massive fortress-like building. Good soldiers could have held out there indefinitely. The brigade members were exited and happy. The whole of Southern Palestine and even Egypt lay before us. It was a new army, better equipped, stronger. There was talk of capturing Bethlehem; the air was alive with reports.

Beit Jimal had been evacuated by the Arabs in a hurry and food and other articles were scattered everywhere. The tired Jewish troops were not too tidy and their empty tins and uneaten food lay about. But Beit Jimal had water and showers and flush-toilets and electricity. Lovely! I found a bed. The rooms had the musty smell of past occupants. It was more comfortable to sleep outside. Flies and insects were abundant and as a precaution I sprinkled myself with D.D.T. powder.

The days were hot and we were tired. For the moment the impetus of the attack slowed and stopped. Ahead, three kilometres away, lay Beit Nattif of evil name. Its inhabitants had been very hostile to the Jews and several months before has assisted in way-laying and massacring a relief party of Jews on its way to Kfar Etzion.

Beit Nattif rankled in the memory. The soldiers cursed it and were impatient to conquer and punish. Beit Nattif was captured on Wednesday, October 29th, under the interested survey of newspaper correspondents and several high-ranking officers. The 120’s were excellent laying shells accurately. They raised a lot of smoke and dust in the day-time and A1, their Canadian commander, was in good form. Our guns let them have it too. I’ve never seen people run as fast as those Arabs did once we started closing in. There was almost no opportunity to take prisoners. We had no casualties and that night we feasted on captured Arab chicken. In Beit Nattif we found articles from Kfar Etzion.

By taking Beit Nattif we cut off the Egyptians in the Hebron and Bethlehem areas from their bases and from Beersheba. We cut the road to Bethlehem from the West and increased Arab supply problems.

We were itching to advance. The previous evening there had been a plan to attack in conjunction with a simultaneous move southwards from Jerusalem. The latter move had misfired.

The correspondents gave us news. Mount Zion, in Jerusalem, had been captured by Israeli forces, the Egyptians had been cut off in three places and the Security Council had ordered an immediate cease-fire. In our enthusiasm we were impatient of U.N.O.. Invading armies of neighbouring countries had no right in the Jewish state. I wrote in my diary; “If only U.N.O. will lay off.”

That night we did not leave the Arabs in peace. Turning our attention westward the mortars dropped a few salvoes on Zaccaria, another Arab village. Indications pointed to the enemy having evacuated the village but we wished to make sure. There was no point in our capturing Zaccaria until we held the surrounding hills. An hour or so later I saw our ‘planes bombing nearby Beit Jibrin.

At Beit Jimal the water situation became deplorable. There was no longer unlimited supplies of water so instead of rationing what there was some unwise individuals sealed up the washrooms and toilets. Soon the only water available was a muddy mixture from the well. Such inefficiency was aggravating. The out-door toilets were in a terrible condition. Rather than take a chance I drank no water. Our representations brought no results for some time. On the establishment of units in the Israeli army no provision was made for hygiene orderlies.

The priests and some of their flock had remained behind at Beit Jimal and lived in a separate part of the building. Whenever we revealed any piece of artillery we hurriedly ushered them indoors. One young Christian Arab working in the monastery spoke a good English and seemed intelligent. He did not like the Moslem Arabs and derided the primitive ways of the fellaheen.

On October 21st, Jewish forces captured Beersheba and on the 22nd we heard that a cease fire was supposed to operate from 3p.m. that afternoon.

This news was confirmed the following day, but the Egyptians continued bluffing their people that Beersheba was still in their hands.

Late that night Guya asked me to accompany a driver to Deir el Hawa to contact two of our guns which had gone there. The driver could not read maps so I had to guide him. The road was bumpy and corrugated and three-quarters of the way up the steep climb to Dier el Hawa it was found that the battery was flat. We pushed and the truck nearly toppled off the winding road, when some rocks on the edge gave way. The truck stuck. No vehicles passed. While one soldier walked on to Deir el Hawa an attempt was made to build an extension to the road. We tried to start the truck by pushing it backwards but the turns in the road made this impossible and it stack several times. We pushed from 11p.m. that night till 3a.m. the next morning. Our shoulders were bruised and our legs sore. At last a jeep arrived and solved our problem. Our friend had returned from Deir el Hawa to report that the guns had left. Their crews re-joined us that morning. They had been about four kilometres from Bethlehem which we might perhaps have captured. Again a technical hitch interfered. The Jerusalem artillery, who were to assist, could not be contacted in time.

I unexpectedly received twenty-four hours leave to Tel Aviv, one of the advantageous results of the cease-fire.

A blackout reigned in Tel Aviv. At the cinema there was a “short” of scenes of Lake Como set to a background of Italian music. And the previous evening I’d been on Deir el Hawa.

On my return to the unit, ensconced at Beit Jimal, I found peace and routine regulations; shaving each morning, a haircut every ten days (where?) and the like.

We shared the guard duties with the Palmach. One night I went on in the early hours of the morning. My fellow guard could talk no Hebrew, nor English. He knew a little Yiddish so we carried on an abrupt monosyllabic conversation for several minutes. Then I asked him where he came from. He said that he was from Belgium and since he knew Flemish, which is very similar to Afrikaans, we had a common medium of expression. There was a section from Belgium and I met the others the following morning. Mahal volunteers. Amongst themselves they spoke French. There were also three girls one of whom had been educated in England and spoke a good English. These Belgian Jews were enthusiastic and cultured. One of them had had a lengthy conversation with a priest from Beit Jimal in which the latter had said that the Arab troops had been much better than the Jews. Only the four Egyptian officers had entered the school grounds and the soldiers had been made to sleep outside.
“They had been perfect gentlemen.” Now the Jewish soldiers were given free run of the school. He failed to realise that the Israeli army was run on more democratic lines.

The priests were by no means confined and were always searching and snooping to find us amiss. Ample rations were given them, guards were set over their well-stocked stores and they did a roaring trade by selling wine to the soldiers.

The military situation was very fluid in our area. Officially there was a cease-fire but the Arabs were voluntarily shortening their lines and evacuating villages and we took advantage of the situation and moved in.

Once I went on a reconnaissance with Ravlevai. He had a wooden sword which he used to test the road for mines. Not that it was effective but such mines as we found were so poorly laid that it was easy to spot them. Zaccaria was deserted, but suddenly a little Arab child ran out of a house and dashed away in fright like a hunted animal.
Railway sleepers littered the ground. The Arabs had pulled up the railway-line and stolen sleepers in case they might be of use. Further on we were somewhat confused. Miles and miles of space and we did not know which was theirs and which was ours. An Arab on a camel rode up the saddle of a nearby hill and was silhouetted on the skyline. The village of Ajjur was also in our hands. A book in Yiddish from Kfar Etzion was found there. Our soldiers held the height overlooking Ajjur. Kfar Etzion was visible in the distance. Bureij was also in Israel hands. The foe had lost no time.

Chickens; emaciated, Arab chickens were abundant but they were thickly covered with Fleas. It was difficult to even enter an Arab village without collecting fleas on one’s person. I preferred to deny myself tasty (if tough) poultry if I could avoid the fleas. But it was a collective matter. The fleas jumped with remarkable agility and if anyone near you had them the chances were they would jump on to you too. Coming in on leave to Tel Aviv from the field there was always a dread that one would, unwittingly, carry fleas into a nice civilian house. I made a habit of dusting myself with D.D.T and sprinkling layers of the powder over my blankets and clothes. It was a grim struggle.

In the Galilee the “Arab Liberation Army” of Fawzi Kaukji was busy looking for trouble, attacking the Israeli lines, snipping at Jewish traffic and generally making a nuisance of themselves.

It was rumoured that forces of the Arab Legion had taken over the triangle formed by Beit Jibrin, Bethlehem and Jerusalem and that they were thus facing us.

Guya was more loquacious than usual one morning. He gave an account of his life in Israel where he had been since 1935. At one time or another everyone unburdened themselves. Guya said he hadn’t led a normal life since 1936. There had been riots and more riots, slumps and depressions, war and now more war. One must try to make life normal he said - marry and have children and snatch what normality one could from the busy tide of events.

At this time many marriages were solemnised in Israel, a soldier about to marry obtained seven days’ leave and a gratuity of ten pounds.

During the morning of Thursday, October 28th we sent a party to Beit Nattif to scavenger for what they could find. Some soldiers loaded half a truck-load with grain and collared several chickens. Meanwhile our new officer, Alex a sabra, and I went further forward to the advanced infantry position overlooking the road running from Beit Jibrin to Behtlehem. The enemy positions were a short distance away and we had a Czech Bizet, a heavy machine-gun, trained on them.

We saw some Arabs moving around and the machine-gunner opened up. One fell. The others ran for cover. Our three inch mortars fired and a mortar shell fell smack on a position where two had taken cover. Three of our armoured cars were due on patrol and the Bizet had to protect their advance. They rode along the highway, slowly and elegantly. Arab machine-guns opened up. Bullets pitted harmlessly against the armour. For short bursts the guns were turned on us. The armoured cars arrived safely.

We returned to Beit Jimal. I was informed that I had some leave. The same evening I was in Tel Aviv. That morning the situation had been so different - a Bizet and mortars and enemy casualties. Israel is a small country.

On the way to Tel Aviv the soldiers tried to sell the grain. Our “agents” were terrified of giving anyone a lift in case the nature of the load should be revealed. After I left them at Rehovot they sold the grain for more than one hundred pounds. Technically it was an illegal black-market deal. All field units engaged in similar activities and most divided the money from the spoils amongst their members. Several days later we had a meeting to determine the disposal of our assets. Some wanted the money shared amongst the soldiers of the troop. They were in the minority and we formed a unit fund to assist members and their families in needy and deserving circumstances. This I felt in some-way mitigated the gravity of our offence.

In Tel Aviv everyone was enthusiastic about the victories in the Negev and particularly the role played by the air-force.

Possible sanctions from U.N.O. tempered the celebrations. I met many friends in Tel Aviv. I also discovered that there were several whom I would never see again. There is rarely warfare without any casualties.

In Tel Aviv there was a family, mother, father and son, named Wurman, who treated me very well and were what might be called my “Foster-parents in Israel”. I had met their son at Pardess Katz where he had been attached to assist us because he knew English. Through him I met his parents and visited them regularly enjoying many a delicious meal at their home in a pleasant family atmosphere.

Originally from Germany, the Wurmans had come to Israel shortly before the advent of the Nazis and were a cultured and charming family. Many other English-speaking soldiers enjoyed the hospitality of their home. Eli, their son, was an only child and according to army regulations, being an only child and minor, was not supposed to participate in any actions. But being a spirited youth, imbued with the Israeli spirit, he tried his best to land up wherever fighting was the toughest. He generally succeeded and in doing so gave his mother and father anxious hours and days. He was in the Negev fighting and his parents had been very concerned and worried.

In Tel Aviv I learnt that little ships were “illegally” carrying refugees to Israel from the Cyprus detention camps.

On my return to Beit Jimal I visited some friends at Rehovot. One of them, a married man with three children, had been suddenly conscripted for the Negev campaign, given hurried training and sent into action with mortars. He had been in heavy fighting. I had thought that now that the army was organised married men were no longer conscripted for short, limited periods.

Back at Beit Jimal there was that tension and expectancy in the air which one was easily able to scent. Intangible and based on fancies and rumours but generally proving the adage that there is never smoke without a fire.

In the Galilee our troops had replied to Fawzi Kaukji’s taunts by routing his forces in a short, forceful campaign of two days duration, with very few casualties sustained on our side.

Len arrived and told me that there was to be some more fighting in our area. First we would probe the enemy defences and then strike. Two guns were left in reserve and we went forward with the other two. That evening comparatively large forces converged, including bren gun carriers and armoured half-tracks. Vehicles and men were concentrated ready to leap forward. And nothing happened. We fired a few shots and withdrew to rear positions. Apparently the plan for the attack had been conceived too late.

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