Saturday, January 22, 2011

Chapter 5 - Forming an Anglo-Saxon troop

Our introduction to Pardess Katz, the artillery training camp, was a hasty one. We took a dive for a slit-trench. Egyptian ‘planes were overhead. The camp was a beautiful target, a big sandy field with row on row of tents interspersed with administrative bungalows. Nothing to withstand blast. It was tiresome walking in the sand so much so that we were to get into the habit of hitching rides from one part of the camp to another.

We met “Foxy” and some other Canadians in the slit-trench. “Aw ghosh, when will this end? I’m getting browned off. “He loved to talk and did not particularly care what he said. By profession he was a chicken dealer, but in the army he was to prove an outstanding driver despite his continual moans, groans and criticisms.

The raid over, we were interviewed and posted to an English-speaking regiment, with promises that we would be in the field soon.

The first Mortar (Heavy) Regiment, which died before it was really allowed to live, was a queer unit with great ambitions and vague plans. Top-heavy in personnel it embraced at that time, one brigadier, one major, one captain, one adjutant also a captain, four lieutenants and approximately twenty men. Characters indeed, as time was to show.

Ben was the Brigadier. He had distinguished himself as a young major in the Canadian army, particularly in the field of mortars. Joe, with carroty hair and a disarming smile, was the major. None could doubt his administrative abilities. He was the born organiser. When I first met him he told me that he had been in charge of several hundred men. When I last saw him the number had jumped to several thousands. No-one could prove anything of foreign military service in Israel and each man could claim as much as he dared. One soon discovered a man’s true worth. Joe was a good soldier and a leader of men although later tiffs with higher officers made him inclined to spend great deal of his time in Tel Aviv. More often than not he was in the right. The captain was Mike who was said to have come from Australia, as he publicly proclaimed, although close friends averred that he was an Englishman.

He had served as a captain in the British Army with Wingate, had been in Palestine for some time and had done sterling work for the Jewish cause. He was a gentile and, deservedly, was to gain a good name and a degree of fame throughout the army. He knew more about artillery work than most people in Israel, was dashing and popular with the girls and loved action, suffering from fits of moodiness with the continual eruption of truces which stymied and interrupted the local fighting. The lieutenants may be referred to in brief except for the American Mike, a sorry character. Two of the lieutenants were from Palestine. One was efficient and the other spent most of this time preening himself like a peacock. Once he went into action he proved himself unfit to be an officer and was sooner demoted. Mike, the American, became notorious and the laughing stock of Pardess Katz, although he was too dense to realise that himself.

He was jovial and fat and took early morning P.T. singing out the instructions in a booming voice. He was a chronic liar and Joe regrettably believed him when he said that he had been a Lieutenant-Commander in The United States Navy, a gunnery expert and had directed and commanded the Jewish naval forces in the conquest of Haifa. Mike’s girl-friend in Tel Aviv was as gullible when he proudly informed her that he was Officer Commanding Pardess Katz. On the strength of this she willingly lent him her private car which he was wont to drive around the camp to exhibit the extent of her love for him. My first lecture at Pardess Katz was on Mortar Range Tables.After two minutes of attention Uri and I began to play noughts and crosses. The lecturer was Mike, He knew little of the subject and was imparting false and inaccurate information. We placed bets on how long he would last. It took Joe a same time to see through him, but finally he did. One day Mike was demoted to private. The next day he was under arrest and then he disappeared. We heard of him from time to time. He claimed to be Commander-in-Chief of the Israeli Glider Corps a non-existent unit. Subsequently he spread the tale that he was testing highly secret and dangerous weapons. No one else in Israel was willing to do the job, he boasted. He, Mike, had volunteered.

The men in the unit were interesting and friendly. Mostly Canadians who had already participated in the fighting as infantry on the road to Jerusalem and in the South. Due to language problems they had never really known what was going on and wished to join an English-speaking unit. Then there was an English Jew, two Dutch Jews, one of whom had fought in Spain and continually spoke about “fighting Fascism, anywhere”, an Iraqi Jew speaking a perfect English and one or two Palestinians who spoke English. Uri and I became the first South Africans in this unit.

Joe made us very welcome and took us into his confidence. “We are going to create a hard-hitting force of Anglo-Saxon. First mortars, later other units if possible. We must be fully trained, unlike the Palestinians. We won’t go into action until we are trained. I am expecting many men and soon we’ll be up to strength. We want men with experience and I hope to make the two of you officers soon. I want our unit to be one happy family. If you wish to say Good morning, Sir to me you may. If you do not wish to do so you are equally free not to do so.”

Ranks, clearly differentiated and defined had still not come to the Israel army. There were no distinctive badges for the different ranks. The only distinction was that N.C.O’s wore yellow arm-bands while officers wore black arm bands.

Joe showed us photographs of our future weapons, the French I20 millimetre mortar. We argued that it was a “Beauty”. Uri and I were perturbed at the infancy of our new unit, still in its embryonic stage. It did not appear as if it would be ready to take the field for some time.

We had no alternative. It was policy then to put all English-speaking volunteers together and we were politely, but firmly, informed that we had no option. Some experienced men had to form the nucleus- that did not exclude us.

That afternoon the Major was in the kit-store when I spoke a little Hebrew. Immediately he summoned the Sergeant-Major, a genial and helpful Canadian, and spoke a few words to him. As a result he came towards Uri and me, patted us on the back and imparted the fact that the major had granted us instant promotion to the rank of corporal. With equal promptitude and much to his consternation we refused the two stripes and, thus rejecting four in all. We told the major that our mere knowledge of Hebrew and past military experiences should not qualify us for promotion. This was a mortar regiment and a knowledge of mortars should be a prior consideration. When we knew more about mortars it would be a different matter. Others, however, accepted the rejected stripes. Usually the most useless individuals accepted. Joe had a theory of psychology that a certain proportion of the ranks should go to careless and troublesome individuals. Given a sense of responsibility they would reform. His theory was not proved, correct.

Pardess Katz was a dreary camp fenced in by wire and by cactus hedges. Sometimes we received passes for Tel Aviv but for such a short time that it was impossible to go and return in time. To solve the problem we took the law into our own hands and slunk through the hedges.

While waiting for the complement to augment our unit to strength we busied ourselves with drill in Hebrew and with learning the language. Most of us knew no Hebrew at all and even had to struggle with the alphabet. The Hebrew teacher was very persevering and enlivened the lessons by teaching us songs. Our bass voices, singing popular songs, must have sounded bizarre in a military camp where strident, barked orders generally rent the air.

New recruits arrived in dribs and drabs and soon the majority were South Africans, some of whom had had no military experience whatsoever and did not even know how to handle a rifle. Basic training was given them.

U.N.O.’s efforts were crowned with success. After several false starts a truce began to operate in Palestine from June 11th.

The previous evening Israeli ‘planes had bombed Damascus. It was a fitful truce. A convoy under U.N.O. supervision reached Jerusalem. Meanwhile the Jews had been busy building their Burma road to the besieged city.

The truce hit the first Mortar Regiment hard. It was like a depression to a growing concern. While the truce was in force no able-bodied immigrants were allowed to join the army but were detained in camps. Our wells of replenishment had run dry. We could not snatch English-speaking recruits out of thin air.

Now, however, we could gain some indication of the nature of our artillery since most of the units came back to Pardess Katz, the base. A motley collection of cannon arrived. A museum of pieces lay under the shade of the Orange trees. Little 65 millimetre guns whose size evoked jokes about Napoleonic times. So small that a blanket slung over served as camouflage. And the show-pieces of 25-pounders. Conglomerates of parts. They had been painstakingly assembled from stolen parts. A part had been removed in the night, a copy made and the part replaced. Fitting the parts together was an art. The guns resembled a rainbow in some respects. Marks of different colours and the one colour had to fit over a similar colour before the gun could be brought into action. Each part had its little fads and no new crew could suddenly have mastered this concocted gun. And shells were lacking. Only Great Britain and the dominions made 25-pounders and they were giving no ammunition to Israel. Report said that old shells had been fished out of the sea (where the British had dumped them) cleaned and refilled with explosives.

The gun-yard was a heart-breaking sight. Too few guns. Yet these had held the Arabs back.

Two more gentiles joined us shortly before the truce. Both had been sailors and had jumped their ship at Haifa to join the Israeli forces. We all became firm friends. Peter was from Yorkshire and his accent left no doubt of that fact. Kiwi was from New Zealand and soon I become his “cobber”. They had jumped ship without their kit but we soon fitted them out and made them feel at home. The Jews appreciated the non-Jews on their side. It was heartening and showed that not only Jews believed in the justice of their cause and that some non-Jews were prepared to back their beliefs with their lives. Peter was a good Englishman. Woe to the one who criticised anything about England except Mr Bevin’s Palestine policy. Many Englishmen, Scotsmen and Welshmen fought for the Arabs, but many fought for the Jews for the principles at stake. They were paid no more than their Jewish comrades and all received two pounds per month. Peter and Kiwi had a knack of spending theirs the first day of the month, generally on beer. Their conduct in battle was exemplary and in many matters they had a better appreciation of the issues at stake than some of their Jewish friends had.

The first truce in Israel was marked and marred by a very unfortunate and unpleasant incident-the affair of the “Altalena”. For the Anglo-Saxons it was particularly upsetting.

On one occasion we were suddenly called out on an emergency stand-by and told to be ready to move immediately. The air was buzzing with rumours of trouble with the Irgun Zvai Leumi which, in the time of the British, had been an illegal underground organisation. Our fears were confirmed. It was Jew against Jew with the possibility of civil war hanging like a sword of Damocles at a time when all our united strength was needed to resist and defeat the Arabs. Mike explained the situation simply and succinctly. A ship, the Altalena, manned by Irgun members and loaded with arms, had approached the shores of Israel. The provisional Government, led by Ben Gurion, had ordered them not to unload the arms, or failing that, to hand them over to the government. Since the truce was operating U.N.O. would allow no arms to be landed. The Irgun persisted in landing the arms and were only prepared to give the government a certain percentage of them. Meanwhile Irgun members had left their positions in the front-lines, without permission, to make their way to the coast to assist in unloading the arms. By doing so they had endangered the security of the country and the positions of their comrades. Attacks were now anticipated by the government form the Irgun and we were being called out to forestall and to deal with any such attacks. Mike said we were members of the army and were in duty bound to support the government. No private armies could be allowed and no private group had the right to withhold arms from the government. By landing the arms the Irgun would prejudice the Jewish cause in the eyes of the world.

The Sergeant- Major, Julie, spoke next. I was reminded of Sergeant York as portrayed by Garry Cooper. Rarely have I heard such a simple or moving speech. “I here am only a soldier. I’m no politician. I don’t think you there are either. You guys came here across these ‘ere oceans to fight for something you believe in. You came to fight the Arabs and now while you’re busy fighting the Arabs someone tries to pull a fast one on the government and wants to make our name mud in the eyes of the world. I don’t like to stand for things like this and I’m sure you there don’t either. Those guys have done a scram from their positions. That’s almost desertion. I’m behind the government.

A fast discussion ensued. Several of the men were not too happy at the possibility of having to shoot fellow of Jews. Finally those who wished were allowed to remain in the camp to guard it. The remainder were issued with rifles and sten-guns and rushed to various strategic points. I was on a mobile patrol with six or seven others. I believe that we were all praying that nothing would happen, but we were equally determined to do our duty and to allow no nonsense.

Mockie was on the truck with me. He had arrived from South Africa recently and we had become good friends. He was inclined to be serious and thoughtful at times and pondered over many weighty problems. That night conflict was waging in his heart and soul. I could read the pain and doubt in his blue eyes. I sympathised with him but not in a maudlin way. “I hope we don’t have to shoot any Jews. This old struggle between the Haganah and the Irgun is not our concern. Let the Palestinians settle their own problems. I came to fight Arabs and not Jews.”

We discussed the matter “ad nauseam” as we raced up and down through the night. Our task was to tour various war factories and ammunition dumps to see that they were safe. An additional task was to patrol areas near Irgun strongholds lest they be up to mischief. Every vehicle we encountered we stopped and searched while a battery of arms was trained at the occupants. Fingers on the trigger, we had a prayer on our lips. It was a tiring task and mentally agonising. Day-break brought no relief. Fighting had broken out at Kfar Witkin where the Irgun had tried to unload the arms and a few men had been killed on each side. The ship sailed to Tel Aviv where government artillery set it on fire.

It blazed in sight of the whole populace and nearby houses were evacuated lest shells should explode. The country was in a state of excitement and there was a cabinet crisis.

We patrolled the road from Tel Aviv to Petach Tikvah stopping and checking all transport including buses. A tedious and odious task. We Anglo-Saxons could hardly talk Hebrew and could scarcely read Hebrew documents and identity cards. Fortunately we had a Palestinian officer with us.

The populace did not take to our activities kindly. One man was heard to remark: “First it was the British. Then we got our own state and now it’s the Canadians.” A most unkind remark, we thought.

As with all crises this one passed over too. And a fair proportion of the arms was saved.

Perhaps it was coincidental but a week later, at elaborate ceremonies, all officers and men were required to take the oath of allegiance to the State of Israel. Thus too was completed the process of transforming the irregular Haganah into the new Defence Army of Israel.

Complications arose for the Anglo-Saxons. Prior to the oath-taking ceremony every soldier was required to sign a statement pledging allegiance to the State of Israel. This most Anglo-Saxons were unwilling to do for we were citizens of other states and wished to remain such. We could not pledge allegiance to two states at the same time. Our position was finally met by a special oath in which we only agreed to obey “all reasonable orders” of the army. “Oath-taking day” was attended by great celebrations all over Israel. Parades were held everywhere and despite the motley collection of uniforms some semblance of order was attained. Dignity had to struggle with incongruity.

A large and well-attended parade was held at Pardess Katz. Uniformity of uniform was an impossibility but in one item uniformity, to a degree, was obtained. There were sufficient steel-helmets for all. Different shapes and makes, it’s true, from England, Germany, Russia and America. It was funny yet moving. An army in the making. Rows of steel-topped heads marching, masses of helmets on parade. Fat men, thin men, short men, long men, all with steel-helmets, some too big and some too small, perching on heads or drowning heads. All one army.

The flag was broken. A roll of honour from the short, bitter conflict was read. The oath was stated and unit by unit they shouted out; “I swear,” in reply. And the steel-helmets snaked off in long columns and it was all over and there was an army. The towns and settlements were gay that night and people danced in the streets and drinks were “on the house”.

Israel was happy to celebrate the first of anything important for it was always the first in two thousand years.

At camp the soldiers in the other units were more trigger-happy than usual. It was a queer symptom in Israel, this tendency to shoot fire-arms at the slightest pretext or at no pretext at all. Before the possession of arms had been illegal and this enthusiasm of shots was perhaps the reaction and the desire to compensate for the lost opportunities. The easiest way found by trigger-happy individuals to clean a rifle was simply to fire a shot. The Anglo-Saxons, accustomed to the rigid fire discipline of the armies of their countries, found this tendency perturbing. Bullets appeared to be whizzing everywhere and accidents were not infrequent.

Organisationally the first Mortar Regiment was in the process of dissolution. Certain governmental changes had brought about army changes and the starts of some people were in the ascendancy. It is too complicated to describe what went on behind the scenes, even if I knew the whole truth, which I’m not sure I did. Suffice to say we bade farewell to Ben and Joe, the former to become the Commanding Officer of a brigade consisting largely of Foreign and Anglo-Saxon volunteers. Apparently a mean trick had been played on Joe. He was offered and artillery regiment but, as often happens in Israel, other people were offered regiments too. In the end there were simply not enough regiments to be allocated so Joe was given an armoured car regiment instead. There were talks of our joining the new brigade but Joe had a little tiff with Ben, and Mike was apparently annoyed with them both. So Mike was asked to form his own unit and we all offered to accompany him.

Meanwhile a few of us had appeared before Ben and had been recommended for an officer’s course. The course was a queer affair. All kinds of people participated, some who had been artillery officers before and some who had not. And those who knew something taught the others. Mike was the chief instructor and he really knew his work. He was conscientious and thorough and I personally learnt a great deal from him. Len, a South African, also had a good knowledge of artillery work and acted as an instructor. The course was only of several days duration since we received what we had long been awaiting - guns, and more or less new ones. In the past there had been countless rumours that guns would be arriving from the queerest of places. None eventuated. But this time the news seemed genuine. We heard that they were heavy ones too. They turned out to be heavy in weight but not heavy in calibre.

We were pledged to secrecy for the guns were classified as secret weapons, which in Israel meant nothing sensationally new but simply implied that the Jews had not yet used such weapons. And that did not mean much.

We moved to a “secret” training camp near Herzlia, right on the coast, in the yard of a disused distillery. It was quiet and lonely. And overcrowded. The guns arrived during the night. Four the first night and later three. How they got into the country I don’t know. Whether they arrived during the truce I couldn’t say either. I heard that they cost 16,000 dollars. Anyway, they were most welcome. We were happy. Long-barrelled, they were French 75 millimetre, anti-aircraft, anti-tank and general purpose guns, although they later proved unsuitable for field use. They had been manufactured in 1942 and we were informed that there was ample ammunition available.

Few people know how to fire the guns. Such handbooks as we had were in French and after these had been translated the gun was laboriously brought into action, according to the directions, like a boy makes a Meccano model, only much slower. It was trial and error with everyone standing around and offering advice. The idea in the training was teach one to teach another.

No range-tables were available for the gun. We did not know what degree of elevation of the barrel was necessary to obtain required ranges with our shells. We had to find out. A shoot was had to sea to compile tables and simultaneously men from the ordinance unit experimented with different charges and fuses.

No chances were taken.

The barrel was pointed out to sea. The gun was loaded and a long cord attached to the firing-mechanism. All spectators were bullied to remove to a safe distance and from a hole in the ground, thirty of forty yards from the gun, the firing-lever was released by means of the cord. There were no casualties. The gun was safe, for those who fired it.

Mike needed about fifty men for his unit and only had about thirty by then. Plans were devised to find them. It was virtually a private matter. People arriving from overseas to join the army found no central recruiting committee to direct them to the units where they would be best suited. They were arbitrarily allocated to different units. The system lacked efficiency and commanding officers, impatient at the delay, engaged in private and often dishonest recruiting. Each man only thought in terms of his own unit. Thus a tank corps officer (there were no tanks then), meeting a man who had had experience in the artillery and who whished to join the artillery in Israel would inform him, untruthfully, that there were no guns in Israel and that it would be advisable for him to join the tanks. Swayed by persistent argument and not knowing the military situation the recruit would agree. Consequently many people were not in units where they could render their best services. The recruiting officers for the armoured cars and the tanks were so assiduous that our unit suffered from a dearth of recruits. So Mike and I become recruiting agents. We went to the reception camps where all those who had escaped U.N.O. were housed and presented our case, truthfully and often successfully. Many of those whom we interviewed overestimated their own importance and laid down all sorts of conditions prior to their agreeing to join us. They wanted commissions and various privileges. And they had just arrived after the worst was over. Luckily these types were few and far between.
Mike and I found recruits everywhere. In Tel Aviv various clubs had been opened for the soldiers and the Anglo Saxons were accustomed to frequent certain ones which used to cater specially for them. We also knew in which hotels and in which cafes they could be found.

Some Canadians in our unit, in their desire to augment its numbers, somewhat overdid themselves in their enthusiasm. They come into conflict with U.N.O. Meeting fellow Canadians and Americans from the U.N.O. camps in Tel Aviv on “leave”, they persuaded them to “escape” from the camps and to come to Herzlia for training. Another plan was to train the fellows while they were on “leave” and allow them to go back to the U.N.O. camps at night. The Israeli frowned on these arrangements and immediately put a stop to them. We had to wait until the end of the truce and take the field with untrained men if necessary. It was obvious by then that the Arabs had no intention of extending the truce. Even during its duration they continually and consistently violated it.

Herzlia camp was none too comfortable. We were crowded. Besides the Anglo- Saxons there were many recent Jewish immigrants from Europe and now and again there were grouses about their habits and ways. Some were justified but many were not. We had some real “squealers” amongst the Anglo-Saxons who were capable of finding fault with anything and anyone. The morale was not too high and there was little spirit. The soldiers were tired of idleness and we only managed to train on the guns about once every five days. Something always seemed to go wrong. Either the guns were being overhauled or repaired other crews were busy on them.

Among the officers a great deal of antagonism existed and matters came to a head when Mike and Len, our officers, were more or less ignored by the others. We were always being criticised. Most of the other officers knew next to nothing about artillery and were perhaps jealous of Mike and Len. Some of us who had been on the course were offered commissions in the other troops but we preferred to stay together even if it meant a lower rank.

Uri and I were not too happy in our unit. There was a fine crowd of fellows but a spirit was lacking. We might as well have been fighting in China or some other land. Above all we wished to learn Hebrew and had no opportunity to do so amongst the Anglo-Saxons. We were reluctant to leave Mike and the others and delayed as long as possible. Mike was sorry when we told him of our decision and, I fear, a little hurt, but he understood. The O.C. of the camp promised us that if we went to the fourth troop for a few days young Palestinians would soon be arriving and it would be formed into a Hebrew speaking unit. We took his word. He raised no objection to our leaving Mike.

At that moment the fourth troop, which we joined, was Yiddish-speaking, and being unable to speak Yiddish, Uri and I felt a bit out of place.

The days of the truce were numbered and we hoped to be leaving the camp soon. Its existence was hardly a secret by then and we could expect it to be bombed as soon as the truce ended. If my information was correct it was bombed shortly after we left. One day Spitfires, with R.A.F. markings, came sweeping over the camp. My blood boiled. What right had the British over Israel? They paid our camp and guns particular attention and the Anglophobes forecast that the Egyptians would have the news in a few hours. Later we read that the ‘planes were searching for “Cromwell” tanks which had vanished in Haifa. Subsequently they found their way to Jewish lines brought by British drivers.

On June 30th, the British withdrawal from Haifa was completed. Rumours were rife again. One of the guns left for Jerusalem along the Burma road. Its arrival in the Holy City boosted the morale of its defenders considerably. Where were the other guns going? It transpired that the fourth troop would probably be used as anti-aircraft guns in Tel Aviv. Uri and I awoke with a start. No waiting in Tel Aviv for us to shoot down ‘planes. We wanted to be in the field. Besides, we had been double-crossed. No young Palestinians came to our unit or were expected to come. Nor were we learning Hebrew. Then we heard that Mike’s troop was going to the Galilee.

Uri and I had to go along, we decided. We had a personal interest in the Galilee. The O.C. refused to allow us to return to Mike. Mike was willing to take us back although he could not guarantee our old jobs back which had been interesting ones, Uri having been an N.C.O. on the guns and I an “ack”, or officers’ assistant. Officially we would be deserters by going with Mike and officially he would have nothing to do with out actions.
            Uri and I disobeyed orders, left our unit and jumped on Mike’s truck, kit and all, when he left for the Galilee. We never regretted it. The truce had ended. It was the night of July 9th and there was a job to be done.

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