Saturday, January 22, 2011

Chapter 4 - A war commences

May 14th, 1948 was a significant day for Palestine - the end of the British Mandate and the birth of a new state. There was a feeling of tension and pregnancy in the air, an expectation of a violent and fierce travail. The central “Egged” bus terminus in Tel Aviv was a hive of activity. Passengers jostled for accommodation on vehicles leaving for all corners of the little country. Roads safe that day might be unsafe and impassable in days to come. Bronzed and healthy in simple khaki and blue garments, bare armed and bare legged, the majority of the intending travellers were settlers returning to their scattered strongholds of agricultural settlements. There with their comrades they would take up scanty arms and resist the invading Arab armies. And in the excitement and rush and hurry none foresaw that in four days time Egyptian ‘planes would bomb this very terminus and kill forty-one and injure many more.

Our bus was crowded, but the occupants were pleasant and of good cheer. Most were reading newspapers, oblivious to the passing countryside which they knew so well. Not so Jack, Uri and I. We viewed the green Sharon and the settlements set like jewels in a lush soil. The serenity seemed to denounce the possibility of bloodshed to come. But there were soldiers on the road and men who looked like soldiers. It was difficult to tell who was an army man and who was not, for in summer many people in Palestine wear khaki, and the uniform of the Jewish forces was plain, unadorned khaki free from trappings of badges, epaulettes or other insignia. Most of the soldiers were British hurrying to the ports. They were still manning all the military points and would still be masters that day. Tank carriers rumbled along the road and equipment passed in steady streams. They were not ours.

At Affula, where the proposed Jewish state was to join the proposed Arab state we changed buses. Detours were the order of the day. Arabs were here, there and everywhere. Tiberias was reached by a round-about route. This city had been captured by the Jews on April 18th and bore heavy scars of the fighting. The terrain further north was more dangerous and for security reasons we all transferred to an armoured bus. The road to Rosh Pinah, key town of the Upper Galilee, lay through the hills and past the blue waters of the Sea of Galilee. Our first view was through the slits of the armour-plating but later the doors were opened and the jovial driver gave a running commentary of the history and scenes that lay before us.

Rosh Pinah was like an armed camp and all Jewish. Not Britisher in sight. Here the Jews were masters of their own fight and fate.

Trucks were coming and going and a big convoy was forming. Our armoured bus joined the line. Rumours were ten a penny in Rosh Pinah.

On the morrow, they said, fighter ‘planes were due on the nearby airstrip. All had been arranged. Those concerned had been briefed. Each man had his own idea of where the planes were coming from. Unfortunately, as too often happened, this was mere wishful thinking as the morrow and following days proved. Rosh Pinah was to see many an Arab ‘plane and suffer many an air-raid before they were to welcome Jewish ‘planes.

It is good to live in hope provided the truth and the reality do not enervate and the local people were too strong and too obstinate to be perturbed when their dreams proved pipe dreams.

The convoy was led by armoured cars. From Rosh Pinah northwards Palestine is a narrow strip of valley land sided by hills and mountains of Syria and the Lebanon until the strip widens into the boarder fertile valley of the Northern Galilee. And atop one of these hills, in Palestine but on the border, the British had evacuated a strong, fortress-like police-station and allowed the Arabs to walk in. From Nebi Yusha, as it was called, the Arabs sniped at traffic in the valley. We slammed our doors and hurriedly closed our shutters. The pitter pat of bullets on the steel seemed futile and wasted. So this was the beginning for some of us. A harmless blooding. The bus suddenly stopped at a little building. The driver hastily opened the door facing away from Nebi Yusha and three men clambered inside, quickly but calmly. They lit cigarettes and gossiped on trite matters after a cursory reference to the shooting. They were members of Kfar Giladi, one of the largest and oldest communal settlements in the Galilee. Fish ponds belonging to Kfar Giladi lay directly below the police-station and these men had been working there. Life had to continue as normal - if possible. Food had to be produced.

Fires were burning in the distance and there was the clatter of small arms and of a skirmish. An Arab village was in the process of being captured by the Haganah. It was almost over. The inhabitants had menaced traffic and attacked the Jews. Theirs was the retribution. Our bus passed on as if nothing was happening. We waved to the soldiers and left them behind.

Mayan Baruch, our destination, was a newly established settlement containing about ninety souls, men, women and even a few children. The settlers had come from South Africa, America and Palestine and a large number were ex-servicemen of the last war, a comforting thought on May 14th.

Jack, Uri and I arrived in time for a practice alarm and a dress rehearsal. The strategy in the Galilee was simple and dictated by the circumstances, of which a dire shortage of arms was the most claimant. Each settlement in the valley, and there were several, was expected to defend itself until the surrounding settlements could come to its aid. Dan, Kfar Szold and other settlements near Mayan Baruch had already been attacked by large numbers of Arabs and had beaten back the attackers. But this time there would be organised armies of states on the march and not irregular groups or single army units. Communication was maintained between the settlements by radio, heliograph, lamps and flares.

The practice alarm and briefing showed the situation in its stark reality. According to accepted military calculations and handbooks little resistance could be offered. There was a pitiful lack of arms and ammunition stocks consisting of about twenty-five weapons and comprising one, old two-inch mortar with a few shells; one “Chateau” light machine-gun with several hundred rounds and twenty or so smaller arms of diverse makes and age. The locally made sten-gun with an effective range of not more than fifty yards, vied for pride of place with a tommy-gun, an old shot-gun normally used for hunting buck, and French, German, English and Czech rifles. Each weapon had its idiosyncrasies. A ukase was issued by Josef, the military commander, that ammunition was to be most sparingly used, for one never knew where the next lot was to come from.

The settlement had been well prepared for attacks from the ground and from the air. Bunkers and shelters enabled the whole community to go underground and a little sick-bay had been prepared in a shelter. The perimeter of the “meshek” (centre of the settlement comprising the buildings) was surrounded with several layers of barbed and concertina wire and some (but not sufficient) mines had been laid.

Shooting and observation positions ringed the camp and these dug-outs were linked to one another and to the dwelling houses by wide communication-trenches and by telephone.

The vegetable gardeners had viewed the defence preparations with some misgivings for the plants had of necessity to be up-rooted to make way for trenches and dug-outs. Ingenuity played no small part in the defence arrangements due note being taken of Arab psychology and superstition. One thousand crackers, which go off when tramped upon were strewn around to frighten marauding Arabs, and plans were devised for dummy dug-outs and phosphorescent and frightening figures.

In the midst of the urgent preparations a party was held, attended by those not manning the dugouts. The Jewish State had been proclaimed by the Provisional Council of the Government in Tel Aviv. A two thousand year old dream had come true. Nothing valuable is easily obtained. We were on guard and alert. Awaiting the attack. Few slept that night. The Arabs had three ended to swarm their armies across the borders of the new state and drive the Jews into the sea.

The sound of the alarm sent everyone dashing to their action-posts. The metallic clang of the gong cut the tension cleanly and came as a relief to some. What menaced in the darkness? The word raced around: “Relax. It was a false alarm. The gong has been struck accidentally”.  Once more to wait with fleeting thoughts of the uniqueness and greatness of the occasion. A Jewish state, Jewry in the diaspora rejoicing, Jewry in the new state, happy, alert and ready. Thousands of thoughts and knowing that others were thinking like you in the darkness, on watch, peering into the night, confident of the future yet unknowing of it. And Arabs were wakeful too and at U.N.O. the world was far removed and treating the matter as one of politics and diplomacy. Would Truman lift the embargo? We had to have arms.

The night passed in peace. The morning brought a flurry. The going booming a warning and a dash to the shelters and posts. The sound of shots, theirs and ours. It was brief and transitory. Some passing Arabs fired at the settlement and made off when we replied. Brief interlude. Uneventful really.

No invasion of Arabs that day but the contrary. Streams of them through the valley, northwards to Syria and the Lebanon. Moving like ants, trotting and jumping and walking. Galilean Arab villages fall to the Jews. The inhabitants flee although they are asked to stay. We watch them going and do not fire or molest them. They have chosen. Some remain behind. They wish to be friends. They are welcome.

From Nebi Yusha they still attack Jewish traffic. Our forces try to capture this fortress. It is almost impossible. We have nothing with which to pierce its massive walls. It is difficult to approach without being seen. The first attacks are in vain. Finally courage prevails. Nebi Yusha falls but more than twenty brave youngsters from the Haganah lose their lives outside its wall. Soon the whole of Northern Galilee is in the Jewish hands. Our forces are few but a brilliant strategy is employed. A place is captured and seven or eight men left to hold it. This the enemy do not realise. Each night the same indomitable youngsters go in to the attack. The Arabs do not know that all the attacks launched at widely scattered place are undertaken by the same men, who move rapidly because they are few and must give the appearance of many. The enemy overestimate Jewish strength.

The Arabs never fight at night if they can avoid it. We take advantage of this. The hours of night enable us to prepare, to anticipate and to attack. The Jews, coming from the settlements know their Galilee, are trained in night fighting. The foe are surprised and bewildered in the darkness.

We are not strong in equipment or in numbers in the beginning. And we offer thanks that we are fighting the Arabs and not a modern European army for might, if overwhelming, can vanquish belief and bravery. We make mistakes too and have to learn by bitter experiences but we improvise and are canny in war and hold our own. And the Lebanese army is quiet and the Syrian army is occupied in the Jordan valley where the gallant settlement Dagania has beaten it back with the help of artillery. If the armies of Lebanon and Syria had attacked in the Galilee they would have outnumbered the Jews many times. But they delayed and we took the offensive, despite our paucity of arms. A few hundred men moving and mobile and appearing many.

It warms the heart to hear that there is some Jewish artillery on other fronts in Palestine because there is none here. We watch the Arab guns shelling the settlements in the valley. Their flashes are visible, one can find their location but we have nothing with which to reply.

There is a frustrating feeling of ballistic impotence as we see their shells burst and damage and we can do nothing but watch. Dan has a bad time but the settlers have dug in and casualties are surprisingly few.

It is eerie and strange being in a dugout in the evenings. In the day we are not continually in the dugouts since we can see from the high watch-tower and have ample warning of impending attacks.

At night it is different. Vision is limited. A stealthy foe will be right on one before one can see him. I like the shot-gun at night. Its range is short but its shot will spray the darkness. All the dugouts are usually manned, two people in each, changing around, one on watch and one resting. Women play their share too. They have learned how to shoot. If possible they are not given dangerous tasks but we are few and have no choice. It is quiet and still in the Galilee in summer. The nights are clear and warm and the mosquitoes are annoying. Glow-worms carve dashes of light and only the tinkle of the phone from the command-post and the friendly: “Anything to report?” disturbs the immediate silence. But in the distance there is noise and colour and one interprets its significance.

The brightly coloured lights of tracers and flares. The flashes of light from guns and the dashes of red and orange as shells explode. That’s a battle. One side is attacking. People are grappling for their lives. And one peers into the darkness more determinedly lest the same colour and meaning be due to flare up here. The howls in the night are the jackals. Hundreds of them and the howls are taken up and form a circle which surrounds one. The first night I heard the cacophony of jackal sounds I thought it might be the Arabs shouting their war cries.

There are lights in the valley. Transport from the South. What have they brought? Oh, if only arms, heavier stuff. At every light one hopes and at every daybreak one is disillusioned. Nothing new. And one knows that to-day when the ‘planes come one will still have no anti-aircraft weapon to drive them off with nor will there be such a weapon anywhere in the valley. So the ‘planes come and you don’t even look to see if they are yours for you know they are not. And your “Chateau” opens up, single shots at the time, purposeless and useless, but you cannot do otherwise for rounds are scarce. From the valley pinpricks of missiles come from the light weapons of your neighbours. Futile. The ‘planes are over often and you forget to take cover unless they fly menacingly near or dive. You have work to do. These planes have no consideration. They come when you are naked under the shower and your friend on the watch-tower bangs the “take cover” and you have to dash to a slit-trench. Fortunately the ‘planes don’t pay much attention to the settlement. To them its an insignificant blob on the landscape. But they dive-bomb the roads and you worry for the travellers. When will our planes be overhead ?

Then the excitement that morning, when ‘planes were in the sky, theirs, and an unfamiliar sound was heard from Kfar Giladi and the pilots were more cautious. The sound of the rattle. Not one little rattle but many. A great day for the Galilee. Kfar Giladi had a Hotchkiss, not very good as an anti-aircraft gun, it’s true, but at least it kept the planes high and, above all, it indicated progress and a promise of things to come.

The Jews often neglected to take the most elementary safety pre-cautions against air-raids. A hearty contempt for the Arab’s efficiency and military skill made them fail to take cover. “An Arab could never bomb accurately”, they would say. Tel Aviv learnt its lesson after the raid on the Egged station and thenceforth all the bus termini were scattered. Kfar Giladi also learnt its lesson the hard way. Once I was in hospital there and it was rather awkward for patients to continually hop in and out of slit trenches. Bitter experience in Italy during the Second World War had taught me to take cover whenever possible while ‘planes were up to dirty work. I had long arguments with a young patient in the bed next to mine on the question. He had marked contempt for Arab marksmanship. Some time after that my point was proved. Kfar Giladi was bombed. A bomb fell right next to a slit-trench and no-one there in was hurt. Two people, however, who had thrown discretion to the winds, and preferred to watch the ‘plane did not take cover and were killed outright.

Despite the war, life on the settlements continued its normal tenor as far as possible. Food had to be produced and such a labour as could be spared from war work was turned to agriculture. Lengthy discussions ensued on the allocation of labour and the priority of work. Some considered the planting of peas more important than the laying of a mine-field and Jack, who knew something about laying mines and asked for assistance, was unable to get sufficient help. Meanwhile the peas were planted. Ploughing and preparing the fields received a high priority and involved a great deal of work since all the abandoned Arab lands had to be tended. The ploughman was always given an armed escort whose duties were twofold. He was to protect the ploughman from any hostile Arabs and was to signal the presence of ‘planes. The tractor, which drew the plough, made such a noise that the driver was unable to hear approaching ‘planes.

In all the fields, any distance from the Meshek, workers had to be protected. On certain routes too an escort was provided drivers.

Most of the Arab villages were abandoned and yielded no great treasures. In the villages surrounding Mayan Baruch articles stolen from the settlement in the past were recovered Some of the friendly Arabs who had remained were armed by the Jews, despite our own meagre armaments. They required these in order to protect themselves from reprisals by hostile Arabs. The Galilee and very few Arabs left but every night there was a movement back into Palestine. Arab who had fled to the Lebanon and Syria were smuggling themselves back, regretting their acceptance of the advice of their leaders and hoping for the better conditions in Israel. They had realised that the Jews were not so bad after all and were envious of the condition of the Arabs who had remained.

The water for the settlement was pumped from some distance away and every few days an expedition had to be made to the pumping-house.

It was in the nature of a patrol. The group split into three. One lot went to the pump and the other two groups took up flanking positions to protect the pumping group and to provide covering fire if necessary.

The settlement might have been isolated geographically, but by means of wireless kept in touch with the outside world. All listened to news services regularly and newspapers provided contact when they arrived. Thus we were aware of the magnificent feats of the Haganah in other parts of Palestine. They had held the Arab Legion and had stopped the Egyptians. The Syrians had been thrown back in the Jordan valley. Jerusalem was still cut off and supplies were running low but the defenders had extended the areas in their possession although they had been forced to evacuate the Old City. In many areas of Palestine the Jews were taking the offensive and the Jewish air-force had bombed Amman, the capital of Transjordan.

In the political sphere Israel, as the new state was called, had made notable advances being recognised by the U.S.A., the U.S.S.R. and other important states. And U.N.O. was trying to stop the fighting. Sanctions, truces, embargoes were discussed. Count Bernadotte was nominated as mediator in the dispute.

Gradually too the Haganah was becoming a fully fledged army. Mobilisation was more comprehensive and efficient and the government issued a law providing for the establishment of the Israeli Defence Army.

Before our month of “probation” was completed, Jack, Uri and I, asked to join a regular army unit. Things were comparatively quiet in the Galilee and we felt that our specialised military experiences could be used more profitably elsewhere. Mayan Baruch seemed in no danger and reinforcements had arrived from Tel Aviv in the form of young Tel Avivians. The armoury was also better stocked now. Our demands met with considerable opposition, raised important issues and were heatedly discussed by opposing sides. The principle was raised whether a settlement, on the border, as it was, should encourage or even allow its members to join the army. Volunteering for the army was opposed by one group. They said that the army had already taken several of their members and would probably take more. The settlement had to think of itself first. Our view was different. We claimed that the military situation should be viewed as a whole. No settlement could judge whom the army did or did not need. If they did not need us in Tel Aviv we would come back but the central manpower body should judge. On the settlement one man who could use a rifle was as good as another man who could use a rifle.

In the army, however, specialists were needed because the local inhabitants had not had much experience in heavier weapons. The majority opinion seemed to support us but the committee did not. In the midst of the discussions the turn of events solved the conflict.

The Arabs grew wise and called our bluff. Realising, at long last, the small numbers of our forces, they launched a two pronged attack trying to cut off the Galilee from the rest of Palestine. Initially they were successful. They attacked Mishmar Hayarden in the East, captured Malkiya in the West and advanced on Rosh Pinah. Trained men were collected from every settlement to meet this new threat. Mayan Baruch had to provide three men and Jack, Uri and I volunteered to go and were now allowed to do so. We left in a hurry and rushed to Rosh Pinah to find the village in an uproar.

It was recovering from a panic. A few hours before Arabs had been seen advancing near the town and all had been thought lost. The sentry and given the alarm and there had been confusion until it was recognised that the Arabs were the band of Druses who were fighting on the side of the Jews. But the situation was still critical. A motley collection of individuals were defending the Galilee. In those days, while the army was as yet unorganised, manpower was raised by conscripting people in the cities for two weeks service and sending them to areas where they were needed. Those in Rosh Pinah came from Haifa. The older ones were kept in the camps and did the base duties, freeing the younger ones for combatant service. Everything was free and easy and friendly. There was no army yet and no code of discipline.

Yet each man did what he was told and few shirked their duties. No time existed for training. You were asked if you could handle a rifle and if you replied in the affirmative you were suitable for combat and might find yourself in action in the near or immediate future.

The most colourful of the troops were the Druses, dressed in their flowing robes and wearing keffiyehs. They were good and faithful soldiers and we were happy to have them with us.

At Rosh Pinah Jack was separated from Uri and me. He became a demolitions and “saboteur” man. Subsequently he was taken prisoner-of-war in the Negev and for a long time we did not see each other again. He was one of the finest soldiers I have ever met and a good friend. Uri and I, being Anglo-Saxons, were somewhat of a novelty in the town and the objects of many questions and remarks. We had a fine lot of comrades and experienced the warmest friendship on all sides. Our job was to wait, as reserves of infantry, until our action would be required. The hours of waiting were enlivened by enemy air-raids. That night we obtained little sleep.

The next day the situation had improved. The Syrians and Lebanese had been held.

Uri and I met our first artillery officer in Israel but look as we might we could see no guns. He was young and dashing and tired and spoke a perfect English. When he heard that we had service in the Artillery in the South African army he almost threw his arms around us. He was prepared to take us with him immediately and we were most willing to follow. His guns were French, however, and calibrated in mills whereas we were accustomed to the British system of degrees.

He could, he said, teach us the mills system in a short time but he was very busy and would be unable to spare the opportunity. So he advised us to go to the Artillery training camp, near Tel Aviv, for a few days.

An urgent authorisation was granted for our trip and we left for the camp with the men of an artillery troop who had lost their heavy mortars in action and were returning to be re-equipped, if possible. The loss of the “guns” had been  a tragic blow, but when tanks and guns and planes were thrown against the Jews at Malkiya the weight of the enemy armour had proved too much. After a gallant but losing struggle the Jews had been forced to evacuate.

These chaps had received their artillery pieces in the morning, had trained the same afternoon and had gone into action that very night. And most of the Jewish “artillery” considered of heavy mortars, some of local manufacture, not too accurate, and not too reliable.

It was a tiring trip. The driver was always losing his way. It was dark and road-blocks, demolitions and deviations obstructed progress. Once we almost went into the Arab lines. No one seemed to know our location so we nosed the truck through the night and manned our stens and rifles - in case. Thankfully we reached a Jewish kibbutz and snatched a few hours of sleep, before continuing on our way to the artillery camp where we arrived in time for an air-raid. Those ‘planes seemed to follow one everywhere.

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