Midnight. Much to be loaded. Frenzied work. The Galilee is far away and the guns are heavy and the trucks can only pull them slowly.
There is a Bren-gun and Mike is looking for a Bren-gunner. I push the gun into Uri’s hands and say to Mike: “You have a Bren-gunner”. Uri is happy. He has a definite job now. He fondles the gun affectionately. His new charge.
The guns are hitched. The trucks are loaded, piled high with men and equipment. The guns jog along the sandy path and onto the road. We are off on our way to the Galilee. It is four o’clock in the morning and there is a freshness in the air. We sing songs. Our hermitage is ended. Our secret weapons are revealed. The Arabs will soon know about them. They won’t like them.
Day breaks in the Sharon. We pass through the fertile plain, fields and orchards and gardens on either side. The little garden towns are awaking. Passers by stare in surprise. Some kiss the barrels of the guns and offer a blessing. The guns bump along the road. Going downhill the brakes must be manipulated and smoke rises from the friction.
Nothing serious. Six tons of metal and power and punch. We feel good. So too do the people in the villages and along the roads. Wide-eyed they stare. Is it a dream? They blink and reality comes and they cheer and broad grins wreathe their faces Greetings of good-luck are shouted.
A stop is made at Zichron Yaacov so that hungry and thirsty men may have tea. It is Saturday and the people are resting. A boy is singing his Barmitzvah songs in the synagogue. His voice is sweet and peaceful. Avidly the populace fire questions. Youngsters exhibit a surprising interest in weapons. “What is the calibre of your gun?” “What is it’s range?” “Where does it come from?” “Can it shoot tanks?”
We are friendly and answer, “Military secret. “They laugh boyishly and speculate amongst themselves on the answers to their own questions.
Our Hebrew is not too good and we have pronounced American and English accents and they ask our origins. The word spreads around that there are Anglo-Saxons in the town and more people gather. Those who have relatives in the dominions ask if we know them, perhaps.
A little café is open and the proprietor is generous and provides free tea. But cakes must be paid for. Some soldiers discover this too late and have no money. We scrape around and raise sufficient. We are a poor army and the men are poorly paid. Inflation is rampant in Israel and two pounds per month does not go very far.
Onwards through less populated areas and uncertain ones. Phillip’s truck is overheated and we have to wait for it - annoying delay to impatient men. Rifle fire. “Take cover!” The vehicles jerk to a standstill and we scatter for the ditch. And wait. The trouble is a little distance away and we continue.
At the settlement, Ramat David, we await further orders. On the move we have had no contact with H.Q. Instructions are to go to Rosh Pinah.
Affula was on the way. I had always found it a rather quiet, deserted, agricultural town which sometimes has the audacity to claim that it should be the capital of Israel on account if its central position.
Our arrival evoked extraordinary interest. All the town-people turned out en masse and we were feted. Usual questions and usual answers. Friendly rural folk, hospitable and appreciative. Larders emptied and the contents distributed. Generous helpings of cake, preserves, fresh bread and butter and jam and iced containers of milk. Swarms of people. Cheerful and confident. Affula had been twice bombed that day. Guns brought security and confidence. The boys felt good. Something like I had felt in Italy when we had entered “liberated” towns. Our hosts hoped that we would stay in the vicinity. Regret marked their faces, when, having refuelled with petrol, we moved on.
Twenty minutes later enemy ‘planes bombed Affula again, right near the petrol point, where we had been.
By then we were in a nearby military camp and had had our first “casualty” when the trailer of one of the guns fell on a signaller’s leg and injured him.
Although tired and exhausted we decided to travel through the night. We would save time. And there would be no ‘planes at night to reveal our secret or to thwart our designs.
The sea of Galilee was calm, white tongues of froth lapping its shores. Snatching what sleep we could we missed beauty. Squat bodies, unlighted, crawling through the night, engines purring and ticking and huddled masses of men, oblivious and fitfully dozing. Countless stops for Phil’s engine to cool. The despatch-rider wandered up and down along the road like a hen watching its chickens.
Breakfast was ready when we reached Rosh Pinah that Sunday morning. Our reception surpassed that at Affula. Our gun could have blushed with all the kisses. Soldiers are generous in apportioning kisses and they appreciated the value of those guns on that front. Without having done anything to warrant it we suddenly became very popular. With speed we camouflaged the cause of our popularity making full use of a nearby orange-grove.
Rosh-Pinah was more a military camp than ever. Once again there was a dire shortage of troops and artillery for the Israeli army was on the defensive in that area, having moved the bulk of its troops to other fronts where results were soon evidenced by the capture of Lydda, Ramleh, Nazareth and other Arab towns and by the opening of the road to the Negev. Here at Rosh Pinah we just had to “hang on”. The enemy were attacking.
In the future we would have to justify our popularity. That same morning we took up our first gun-positions near Mishmar Hayarden, then in Arab hands. The terrain was not suitable for gun-positions particularly for our type of gun. We were in the neck leading to Upper Galilee and had few choices, being confined to a strip along the road. The enemy held all the heights on each side of the neck and overlooked the valley. Since our guns had a low trajectory we could not shelter behind any hills for then our shells would fail to clear these hills.
So we made the best of a bad job, and being in view of the enemy, sought refuge in camouflage. The guns were carefully covered and hidden but it was almost impossible to conceal the tracks that we had made in the tough grass.
To dig in was the only real precaution and we proceeded to do so - a tiring task in the hot sun and aggravated by the stony and rocky nature of the ground. Shade was at a minimum and often non-existent. The heat hung over the valley like a blanket and many of us had no caps or headgear since the army had issued us with none and we had no money to buy any. The shops of Tel Aviv were crammed with military head-dress, however.
Annoying little insects persisted in playing games in ones ears, nostrils and eyes, moving in a succession of irritating black dots.
Water was severely rationed these being none in the vicinity. Loeb, our first-aid man, found it his duty to distribute salt tablets and the consumption of these made the heat more bearable.
Many of our future targets could be seen from the gun-position. Arab transport and men were moving around with impunity. None of our guns had been able to reach them in their rear areas but they were in for a surprise. Our 75’s had ample range but we had to exercise patience for we could not avail ourselves of adequate supplies of shells. Our whole stock consisted of 170 shells and we only possessed time-fuses.
These fuses were best suited to anti-personnel work. For other targets, percussion fuses (which caused the shell to explode on impact, and not after a certain time like time-fuses), were more useful.
One never knew what the morrow would bring so we resisted temptation and did not fire that Sunday. The soldiers were given time to dig holes and the whole “set-up” and the dispositions on the front were explained to them. Montgomery, in Italy, had started the practice of explaining the lay-out of the front, the strategy and the tactics to all the men so that each soldier, knowing how his part fitted into the general pattern, would give of his best. Mike followed the same policy.
All precautions were taken to reduce movement to a minimum and a wide ditch, serving as a communications-system, aided this plan.
Some aeroplanes were overhead that day - theirs, but they left us in peace. The front was quiet. A nearby battery of 65’s, the only other guns on the front, were shelled, and some stray shots landed near us.
The night was moderately still but we had to rise early in the morning, before it was light, to hide away our blankets and ourselves.
That day, Monday, we opened up. It had been intended to surprise the enemy that night by shooting at some of their gun positions which we had observed during the day. But the advance of enemy tanks towards one of our positions brought sudden fire-orders. There were some hitches in the shoot. One was amusing. An ack gave the wrong calculations and the barrel of the gun, instead of pointing at the enemy, swung right round and pointed directly at the command-post, from whence the orders came. Len put up his hands and said; “O.K. I surrender.”
This only caused a delay of a few seconds and to avoid any further errors I took compass-bearings from behind the guns and along the barrels to see that they were pointing in the right direction. We fired up. The crack and the blast re-echoed through the valley. We were returning his own medicine to the enemy.
Suddenly Harvey, one of the “layers” on the gun, staggered, rolled and fell. We rushed to him. He was dazed and unsteady but appeared unhurt. One of the protective side-plates had blown off the gun and he had caught the full blast which had shocked him. Fortunately the flying metal of the plate missed him. The mechanical rammers of the guns then began to give trouble, first on the one gun and then on the other. They jammed and could only be worked with difficulty. All this made the rate of fire rather slow and Mike was none too pleased but his annoyance was tempered by the fact that the object of the shoot had been archived. The tanks had been surprised and turned back. No damage had been done to them since the shells we had were incapable of doing any.
That night in a shoot the troop compensated for its tardiness in the afternoon. Mike was more than satisfied. The men were getting into the swing of things with practice. One gun was incapacitated but the other excelled itself delivering rapid fire. Just across the border, in Syria, there was a customs-house which appeared to be some headquarters building or other. Behind was a vehicle park. That was our first target. One had that horrible yet comforting feeling of satisfaction in destruction. Our aim was accurate. One could see smoke from burning vehicles and a movement out of the park along the road to Damascus. A gun position nearly also received our attention. We were using percussion fuses which had arrived in time and were able to do some damage.
Retaliation followed fast. Enemy guns replied. Four of them. They seemed to think that the little 65’s had been shooting at them for they dropped a few shells in that area. Then they moved over and crept nearer with their fire spasmodically dropping a shell here and there with no apparent plan. A few fell close. The follows took it very well. And thenceforth they were more careful.
In charge of each our guns was a Sergeant. Both were Canadians. Completely different characters. Mo was wild, excitable and reckless. His eyes flashed with fire and his unruly hair shook with delight when his crew were firing. He hurried them on like some overseer urging and badgering galley-slaves. “Give ‘em, hell!” “Let the bastards have it! “ “Faster, faster.” And his eyes fixed on the distance where his shells landed in dabs of red and the sight of smoke and destruction evoked cat-calls of delight.
Dan was quieter and more practical and the best soldier I have ever met. Cool, calm and collected. He was observant to an unusual degree continually noticing phenomena of his surroundings and environment. Men had the fullest faith in him and he could lead them anywhere. Previously Dan had been in the infantry, fighting along the Jerusalem road. During the World War he was a member of the specially selected American Rangers and had been wounded at Cassino. At first I thought that people took advantage of his kindness and practical generosity but when I got to know him better I realised that he allowed no one to fool him and was hard on shirkers. He could rightly be.
The gun-crews lived together and yet separately. Each had its own little bivouac and received its rations as a unit. Their quarters were in the ditch behind the guns and primitive Indian-fashion “bivvies” had been erected to give some protection from the sun. Some of the fellows had little individual “bivvies” scattered in the nearby field.
One afternoon, just after a bout of shelling from the enemy Boxer, an American, crawled across the field to the “bivvy” of Jimmy, a South African. Their conversation was clearly audible in the lull of the hot afternoon.
“Are you at home, Jimmy?”
“Are you receiving, visitors?” Boxer, our wit, had scored again.
Uri also led the life of a hermit as befitted his occupation as a Bren-gunner and which often suited his moods. He lived in a little bivouac on a nearby height from which he could view the valley and have unobstructed range for shooting at ‘planes. Strict instructions were given him not to shoot any aeroplanes unless they were about to attack us, for we did not want to reveal our positions.
The drivers of our unit remained at Rosh Pinah and made trips to bring food and water. The gunners took turns to go back with them in order to have a good wash where water was more plentiful. The drivers were always grousing and complaining and criticising one another. The gunners had no sympathy for them and told them that they should be grateful to spend most of their time at Rosh Pinah, away from the immediate line.
Once a truck due from the village did not arrive. The soldiers who had been its passengers came running and stumbling by a round-about route through the fields. The enemy had been shelling the roads and it was too dangerous to travel along them. So the truck had been abandoned and its occupants continued on foot.
Daily the front quickened in the activity and we had less and less rest and sleep and more and more excitement and danger.
We took the offensive in the area. It was a limited offensive and hindered by our lack of anti-tank weapons. It was an unusual situation. The Jews were in a position to recapture Mishmar Hayarden but were in no position to hold it without anti-tank guns, unless we could blow up the bridge.
Mishmar Hayarden was an old settlement on the border of Palestine and on the Palestinian side of the Jordan river. A bridge connected it to Syria. Over that bridge the enemy could and did bring tanks and they had many of them. If we took Mishmar Hayarden the tanks simply had to come over the bridge and take it back since we had nothing with which to stop them. So we had to blow up the bridge.
An attack was thus launched to capture Mishmar Hayarden and to blow up the bridge. If we failed to blow up the bridge we would inflict casualties on the enemy and retire. The attack was planned for the evening and we managed to obtain a 2-pounder gun that very day. Those of the Anglo-Saxons who had had anti-tank training went to show the crew of the 2-pounder how to handle it. Although an anti-tank weapon, the 2-pounder is not very effective except at close range and few shells were available. Again a hitch occurred. It was quite usual for hitches to occur in the Israeli army in the beginning, and even afterwards.
The 2-puunder was not used that night and our guns opened up at 11p.m. instead of 2a.m. as had been planned.
Our flashes gave us away. Our task was to “soften up” the enemy and keep his guns quiet by drawing their fire onto us and away from the infantry.
We succeeded. Watching their flashes we forced their gunners to stop firing except for one gun that used our flashes to find us, and find us it did. Its shells were falling too close for comfort.
An eerie few hours. Our flashes lighting up the faces of our gunners. Mo shouting in the dark and Dan quietly giving orders. The enemy flashes like cuts of yellow in the distance and the muffled echo of their guns. And the infantry, doing the real job, signified by colours and rattles and lights. Then the whizz of the enemy shells and their explosion. Nearer and nearer and right on us. Now silence punctuated by a single shot or by a burst.
We have failed to take the bridge but have the caused, damage.
Next day their ‘planes are over early and continually, circling and circling and searching and searching. I am surprised that they cannot see us. Perhaps they do and are not interested. From afar our soldiers fire at the ‘planes. With no effect. They are not high but they are too high for our arms.
We read in the “Palestine Post” that last night our forces killed fifty and wounded two hundred and fifty of the enemy in the fighting near Mishmar Hayarden. Our casualties were eight wounded.
The following night another little attack, a smaller one, is launched on an enemy position nearby. Again we fire and are fired at. The next morning we dug up the remnants of enemy shells. Little had we realised how close they had been. The blessing of darkness has its advantages.
The enemy had left us in peace during the day. They do not fire unless we commence first. We are very short of shells and can afford no luxury shooting.
On Thursday the enemy guns, four of them this time, pin-pointed us with remarkable accuracy. They have good officers. We hear them over the air talking English and German. They have so many guns that they can afford to allocate four for the express purpose of silencing our two.
We open up on the customs-house. They reply immediately. Their shells fall short, to the left, to the right. I’m checking our guns with a compass. I realise that the enemy is ranging, that soon the shells will be amongst us. So too does Len.
“Take cover!” he shouts from the command-post. None too soon. They have found our range. My ears ring and there’s’ a powerful smell of cordite. Stones brush my face, shrapnel whistles and I join the others in the rush through dust and smoke. We fall into the ditch. Breathing heavily and panting and somewhat shaky. We comment on the close shave. Some one fells a joke. The tension evaporates with the laughter. We relax. “Life” magazines are lying in the ditch. I take one and read it. It describes, with photographs, the shooting of the scene from the film “Razor’s Edge” in which Isabelle tries to seduce Larry in Paris. And multi-coloured advertisements of tasty dishes, of strawberries and cream and juicy steaks. And photographs of pretty girls. Outside the shells are whizzing overhead but one feels safe with Larry and Isabelle and the strawberries and cream and the pretty girls. A shell lands near. More fumes of cordite percolating into the dug-out.
“Take post”, Len bellows from the command-post on the hill. Fire orders follow. We dash out, shoot and dash back into cover, to the “Life” magazines and jokes that soothe. Once the four enemy shells have landed one can estimate the arrival of the next ones since one can hear the bark of their guns and knows the time of flight of their shells. So while they are in the air, we fire ours. Things get too hot for us. We stop firing.
That afternoon I saw my first 17-pounder gun in Israel. It had been captured from the Egyptians a day or two before and had been rushed up North. Most new weapons in Israel had been captured From the Arabs. After every offensive of the Jews new weapons become available as the result of conquest. Raffie, a “sabra”, who had been in charge of my party on the night of the “Altalena” episode, was in command of the gun. One or two friends and I volunteered to man the 17-pounder. Raffie replied that he had already been given a crew, but they did not know much about the gun so he would like us to assist in training them. He did not need any men. All in all Raffie had 19 shells.
Back at the gun-position we had considered moving out guns. The enemy had us “taped” and could neutralise us with ease. The accepted practice in such situations is to move to an alternative gun-position. Our gun was so heavy, however, that it required considerable time to bring it in and out of action. So no decision was taken that day.
The following day events moved so rapidly that the issue became a technical one.
Friday the sixteenth of July is a day I shall never forget as long as I live.
I awoke to a clear and bright morning. A ‘plane was droning in the skies and a clatter of small-arms, furious and fast, spoke of trouble. An odd missile buzzed overhead. I woke Mike and the others and we hid our bedding away. It was clear that a battle was ragging and since we knew nothing about it we presumed that it was an enemy attack. Wireless contact was established with headquarters at Rosh Pinah. They had nothing to report. Their communications system was by no means perfect, as we knew from the past experience.
One of our drivers, Foxy, had arrived from the town. The ‘plane followed him and all of a sudden Mike, who was watching, shouted. “He’s got him”. I thought that the ‘plane had bombed Foxy’s truck. Mike was dancing with delight. Then I saw. The enemy plane had been hit. One wing crumpled, the ‘plane fell spiralling downwards like a dropping stone and crashed into the ground near the collective settlement of Ayelet Hashachar (Morning Star).
We were delirious with delight and jumped and danced and shouted. That was war. People had probably died in the crash but we were exhilarated.
“I’m going to find the wreck”, Mike said to me. “Come along.”
He appeared to have forgotten about the battle but I knew that it was in his mind. He had been pondering over it. We went to the jeep. The engine would not start. A truck, not one of ours, came towards us in a hurry. It stopped with a jerk and man jumped out.
“Could you give us a push? Mike asked. I can’t get the damn thing to start.”
The question was ignored. “Do you hear that noise?” the man asked in Hebrew. I translated for Mike. “Yes.”
“Do you realise that there is a battle on?” Translation and answer. “Yes.”
“Do you know that the Syrians have close on 20 tanks?”
Mike’s face showed surprise. “No!”
“We want your help. You must shoot at the tanks. “The man’s attitude was a mixture of pleading and defiance at Mike’s apparent indifference.
“We’ll try our best,” I promised.
Mike was thinking furiously. “I don’t see how we can help them,” he said to me. “We only have shrapnel and very few of them. They wouldn’t even tickle a tank. Besides I don’t think we can reach the place from here and we can’t bring the guns up closer.”
It was a difficult decision to make. Those guns were very precious and we had instructions not to risk them unnecessarily. Our shells would not even graze a tank.
“We’ve got to help them, Mike. We can’t stand by.”
“Let’s go and see. “The truck gave us a push and the engine started. Mike tore down that road. At the best of times he was a fast driver but now he travelled as if the devil were chasing him. The sound of battle became louder and more distinct. We entered the settlement. It was not too healthy being around and bending low and running close to shelter we made our way to the graveyard on the edge of the settlement.
It crested a hill and a trench had been cut between the tombstones. Settlers were manning sandbagged positions and running to and fro along the communication-trenches. A girl was sitting in one of them. She was the first-aid “man.” Her smile was friendly and made the situation seem less serious. Mike and I stopped next to a Spandau gunner. He and his loader were too busy to notice us. Here and there, squatting in the trench, settlers were working among the bright, sometimes warm, rejected cartridge-cases, filling the empty belts with live rounds. The situation was clear. Yarda, down below, a collection of two or three mud houses, was in the process of being taken. The settlement would come next. Enemy infantry were attempting an outflanking movement and for a moment it seemed as if it might succeed.
Momentarily I thought in terms of being killed or more tangibly of being an Arab prisoner-of-war. Near our positions there were about fifteen or so Arab tanks. Complacent, squat bodies belching fire with the greatest of ease and meeting no opposition since we had no anti-tank guns.
I spoke to the defenders. Mike and I moved around a lot and often lost each other in one trench or another. Everyone wanted to know where we came from and when I answered. “Artillery,” they stared at us as if we were bereft of our senses and asked: “Why don’t you bring your guns up here and help us?” The technicalities of fuse and percussion and trajectory they failed to appreciate. Their eyes seemed to reprimand. I felt a cad. Mike knew little Hebrew but even he must have read the searching in their eyes. I pleaded with him. “Mike, we must help them. Even if we have to bring the guns up and fire over open sights. The chaps will be willing.” Things were moving fast. At that moment Raffie arrived with the 17-pounder. He and his gun and crew were godsends.
We went to assist him. A youngster showed us the minefields. Youngsters of thirteen and over seemed to have remained on the settlement and their bravely knew no bounds. They ran messages and brought water and refreshments to the trenches. It was difficult finding a position for Raffie’s gun since a great deal of the Mashek had been mined.
“Let’s get our guns into action,” Mike suddenly said. I had been waiting for this. Heaven knew what we were going to do but we would try. Action, although unsuccessful, is not as enervating as mere waiting and watching. We dashed back, stopping to take cover for a few minutes when an aeroplane paid us too close attention. We had not found the wreck of the other ‘plane.
At the gun-position ammunition had just arrived but we still only had time-fuses and could only fire shrapnel. The boys jumped to the guns. Messages were coming over the air. Yarda had fallen to the enemy. The 65’s had run out of ammunition. Rosh Pinah was threatened. If the tanks cut the road they would cut off the whole of Upper Galilee. That seemed to be their plan. Mike, Mockie, a few others and I climbed the hill atop the command-post and watched the tanks. They were moving in the direction of Rosh Pinah. Orders were relayed down the hill to the command-post and to the guns. Mike was determined but cool.
“We have to pray that we miss the tanks. If we hit them they will know that we can do them no damage and they will continue.”
To wish not to hit something was an extraordinary wish for and artillery office. But then it was an extraordinary war.
The tanks moved slowly along the road. “Fire!” “Crack! Crack!” From the two guns. Little puffs of smoke over the tanks. Shrapnel bursting, a little bit too high. Fresh orders. New puffs. Shrapnel bursting, just right now. Shot after shot. Will it help? No one talks. Cheers. The tanks have turned tail and are going back towards the border. “Fools! Arab Fools!”
I don’t know why they retired. Probably they thought that they were in danger. We knew that we could not rest on our laurels. You cannot fool everybody all the time. A respite had been gained, however.
We breathed a sigh of relief. Before it had seemed as if we would be cut off and perhaps surrounded. Mike had spoken about spiking our guns rather than letting them fall into enemy hands undamaged.
Meanwhile Mike went back to Ayelet Hashachar with Mockie and Uri and told me to remain with the guns. Things were noisier than ever at the settlement. Raffie had hit three or four tanks with his nineteen shells and had no shells left.
That afternoon at about three o’clock the tanks came back down the road. They were travelling slower and more cautiously. Some officer, who knew something about artillery, must have told them that we could do no harm. This time they had artillery support for the guns opened up on us. They were accurate and moved their fire to the hill. After each shot those of us on the hill would get up in the dust and peer around to see that the others were unhurt. We shouted for one another until we had obtained sufficient affirmative answers.
The enemy shelling was deadly and to make matters worse one of our guns had mechanical trouble with its ejector-pin.
The tanks did not stop because of our shrapnel but continued on their way, slowly. Fires were burning all around and the air was ominous. Down below, in the command-post, Len had been wounded in the buttocks by a piece of shrapnel from one of the enemy shells. He tried to ignore it as unimportant but he was bleeding badly and, against his protests, it was decided to take him to hospital to have the shrapnel extracted. Meanwhile an order had come through from Rosh Pinah that we were to return there with our guns.
For a moment it seemed as if we might not manage to get through. The tanks were behaving queerly, moving around in circles and making no attempt to cut the main road.
It is not a nice feeling “retreating”, even if it is by command to prepared positions and in order to fight another day.
We were glum and despondent but realised that Rosh Pinah had to be held at all costs and that we would help to hold it.
So we returned to the outskirts of Rosh Pinah and immediately after Mike and I and a few others went to reconnoitre a new gun-position. We investigated areas which had been dangerous a few hours previously since the Arabs had pulled back, to the surprise of everyone. The officer in command of the Galilee said that the enemy had suffered so many casualties that he was unable to press an attack or take advantage of his gains. Credit was given us for causing many of the casualties and for helping to drive off the tanks in the morning.
So although we had “retreated” we found ourselves treated as heroes and with respect. We even began to see ourselves in a different light.