Saturday, January 22, 2011

Chapter 7 - The truce brings a gun-duel

While searching for a suitable gun-position we found the Syrian aeroplane that had been shot down. The wreckage lay next to the children’s house in Ayalet Hashachar but had done no damage to that or any other buildings in its downward career. The aviators lay in a nearby field. Gruesome sights.

Two bodies. Deformed and squashed by the impact. One only a queer shaped, cylindrical chest with his entrails lying besides him. The pulpy limbs of the other. It was a difficult to realise that that very morning they had been live, pulsating human-beings. They said that the one who had a very white skin was a Yugoslav. The ‘plane was a “Harvard”.

Our bodies almost suffered a similar fate. The light was darkening and Mike did not see the aerial-bomb, unexploded, that had penetrated the road. The menacing fins rose several inches above the ground. He passed over it.

Those who saw shouted out in alarm and Mike hurriedly reversed the jeep-right over the bomb. Luckily nothing happened. We surveyed the missile from a distance. The aviators had almost wreaked vengeance, even in death.

Returning to the settlement we warned them of the bomb’s presence and told them to have a demolition’s expert remove or neutralise this potential death.

Suitable gun-positions were as rare as Englishmen in the Galilee. A better site than most lay behind the settlement, Ayelet Hasachar, but there was a danger of drawing fire onto it, a risk which we were not prepared to take. So the search continued. Another site seemed good but in the rear there was an Arab or two on a hill-top and since that was the border of the Lebanon we did not know whether they were “our” Arabs or not. Nor could we take the chance of having our gun-positions given away by Arab spies.

The chosen gun-position was near Rosh Pinah. It was getting very dark and we had no time to search further. Len was in hospital, so Les and I took over his task in a joint capacity.

The boys had excellent and almost incredible news when we returned to the guns. Flying fortresses were due to bomb that evening and they were ours. Jubilantly we clamoured for details. Where had they heard? They pointed up the hill where a row of flares was being readied to guide the ‘planes on a run over the Arab positions. This was a far cry from our little Piper Cubs. The Fortresses did not come that night. Another change of plan or a hitch, but they came the following morning.

Len had spoken to me of a plan of his. He had a friend who was an important officer in the Air Force, also a South African. Len had written a note to him asking if it were possible for them to bomb the bridge over the Jordan near Mishmar Hayarden.

That was the way the army worked in those days. Someone who knew someone else who could do something got something done. All official efforts to have the bridge bombed had been unsuccessful.

The guns were moved to the new position early the following morning. Tired and weary men laboured at preparing the site, digging themselves and the ammunition in and bringing the gun into action. A few of the troop were disappointing, not pulling their weight and only concerning themselves with their own little dug-outs. The more industrious and co-operative first brought the guns into action, a tiring and lengthy task.

When down broke it was noticed that an inhabited Arab village lay about half-a-mile away. They inhabitants were friendly and had been given this village in lieu of their own, from which they had been driven by the Syrians. They were loyal allies and many of their young men were in a special unit in the Israeli army. Soon they became frequent visitors. Mike managed to obtain a colourful, Arab head-dress from one of their leaders. It was red in colour with white spots and he wound it round his head in Arab fashion. A favourite pastime of the members of the troop was to have a photograph taken of themselves, attired in Arab dress, and standing between two genuine Arabs.

That morning the Flying Fortresses actually came. Only these ‘planes enabled the Israeli air force to bomb in the broad daylight with comparative safety. In the early days unarmed ‘planes or “kites” had done their bombing at night in order to avoid the enemy ack-ack. Hand-grenades and nuts and bolts in abundance were the first “bombs.” Later metal pipes filled with T.N.T. were manhandled out of the ‘planes and there were jokes in circulation about how the “chucker” had almost fallen out of the craft together with his bombs.

Our Flying Fortresses were a most wonderful sight. A dream. Three of them and their motion was like an aerial glide. Nothing could perturb their graceful course. They appeared totally unconcerned with the Syrian ack-ack down below. Harmless bursts, lacking elevation, much too low. Those were the first Israeli ‘planes I had ever seen in the Galilee, except for a “primus” or two (as the Piper Cubs were nicknamed) and now there was a treat of three four-engined  ‘planes. They were really wasted on their task - being more suited to concentrated bombing. In the dry and unpopulated battle zone many of their bombs fell waste. Yet the enemy must have been impressed. Even more so than we were.

They dropped their bombs. We cheered as they burst. We wished the bombadiers good aim. Were they truly ours? Honestly and truly. And the old question. Where had they come from? Usual speculations in reply. Someone had pulled a “fast one” on the American government? Where were they based? They turned and sailed back for another run on the target. The enemy’s ack-ack shells were bursting no higher. The “forts” flew on and vanished in the distance, a parting sight of silver shining.

Back to reality. It is blisteringly hot. The drivers have arrived and have brought no water. They say that the pump in the village is out of order. There are murmurs and whispers and accusations from the others. Hints of disbelief. Accusations that the drivers were simply too lazy. Frayed tempers of weary men who have not had sufficient sleep.

We open fire that night. Our targets are again the customs-house and enemy gun-positions. Their guns reply. They shoot at our old position. We laugh but a little too soon. They move nearer, searching, but not near enough. The darkness confuses them.

Len came back from hospital the next day, against doctor’s orders. He had not been gone forty-eight hours and was still limping and sore although the shrapnel had been removed. It was too quiet at the hospital and he wanted to be back with the “boys.” He arrived in time. Mockie and Mike want to an observation-point in an old Arab village held by Israeli Arabs and orders were given to fire. The gunners were wary of their guns. In the last shoot there had been a “miss-fire,” a shell had exploded ten yards after it had left the barrel. Luck had been with us again. No one was hurt.

Now the Arab guns did not even bother to range. Before you could say “Jack Robinson” the shells were landing all around us. It was almost uncanny and there were shouts that the Arabs on the hill must have given the position away. Len asked Mike, by telephone, for permission to cease fire. For some time no answer came. Every few second there were resounding crashes and smoke and blast and noise. The shells seemed to graze the roof of the command-post and yet never fall inside. Perhaps we had a guardian angel. An affirmative reply came from Mike and on Len’s order there was a dash behind a rocky outcrop to an old, disused well. It was comical to watch Len hobble along to shelter with a smile on his face. And when Mockie and Mike came back and saw that we were all safe and sound they laughed and laughed and laughed. Funny how one joked with life - after the danger had passed.

An instant discussion developed. Elliot and one or two others upbraided Len for giving a cease-fire order as soon as things became to warm for us. They called it cowardly to desist fire when the enemy were shelling you heavily. We discussed the pro’s and cons. The issue was more complicated than it seemed at first sight.

My own opinion in that when one is supporting one’s infantry in an attack or defending them while they are being attacked by the enemy, under no condition must one cease firing no matter how heavily one is being shelled. When, however, one is simply engaged in a shoot for no immediate purpose there is ample justification to hold one’s fire.

U.N.O. had been active again and the second truce was due to start at seven o’clock that evening. Out of sheer perversity we had a valedictory shoot in case the news was definite. Then Mike dashed to H.Q. in Rosh Pinah and returned to confirm the cease-fire.

It augured a welcome rest and break but we all realised that this cease-fire was by no means as advantageous to the Jews as the first one had been. We had been stymied in the Galilee, but elsewhere there had been notable victories. At Lydda and Ramleh we had taken over one thousand Arab prisoners, including several British officers. (Our commands had been given in four languages in that battle). In Jerusalem the Jews had broken into the Old City but the truce had forced them to withdraw. Cairo had been bombed, quite a feat for it was reported to have heavy anti-aircraft defences. Nazareth had been captured.

So we had a good and quiet night’s sleep. But there was to be no respite.

I was preparing to take a shower on the morning of July 19th, the day following the truce, at Rosh Pinah, when Mike’s jeep ground to a hurried stop outside the shower-room. I was half-undressed. He dashed inside.

“Jump on board you and Uri. Any other of our chaps around? We must be off. There’s work to do.”

We grabbed out clothes and hurried out. He turned the jeep around and flew off to the gun-positions.

“What’s the matter?”

“The Arabs have broken the truce.”

“Where?”

“On the Lebanese border.”

“The Lebanese border is long. Where about?”

“In the North.”

I spoke to Uri. “That means that we may have a chance to see the people at Mayan Baruch again. “It was a pleasant prospect.

Mike spoke before Uri could answer. “What name did you say?”

“Mayan Baruch,” I repeated.

He looked at us sympathetically. “That’s the place we are off to. The Arabs took it during last night and this morning.”

A mist rose before my eyes. I was dumbstruck and stupefied. A terrible blow. Mayan Baruch in enemy hands! Impossible! What had happened to the people there? Had many been killed? I could see the Arabs moving round the settlement. I could see them looting and searching. I hated the Arabs with a deadly hatred.

My fired questions evoked no answers from Mike. He knew nothing else and could supply no details.

We must hurry. No time was to be lost. Perhaps we could recapture it. Mike said our troop would be dividing in two. One gun would go to Mayan Baruch and one would remain at Rosh Pinah. He asked me to go along as gun-position officer. I naturally agreed and made a special request that those South Africans who had special associations with the settlement should be included in the party.

We were on the way with the gun and equipment in record time. Hurriedly everything had been divided. We only had sufficient of certain instruments for one troop and we left these behind for the others to use. Our crew could improvise. We would have no time to erect an elaborate command-post.

Few spoke on the journey. None knew what we would see. I thought of each of my friends in turn and hoped that they and everyone else were safe.

With binoculars I sighted the settlement in the distance. It appeared undamaged. All the buildings were standing, untouched. Had they been taken by surprise and without a fight?

Ahead lay the Police station of Hulsa and we would enquire there. They laughed at our anxieties. Mayan Baruch was untouched. Nothing had happened in its vicinity. But some miles away, on the Syrian border, the Syrian army had launched an attack after the truce and with superior forces had captured an important strategic hill, Tel el Azziat, known as Hill 289.

Someone had been confused with names. Either Mike or the headquarters at Rosh Pinah had made a mistake. We were too relieved to search for culprits. Hill 289 had to be taken back.

News from other areas showed that the Arabs had not observed the fresh truce and reports spoke of the enemy continuing fighting on many fronts. The Jews had been ordered by the Jewish government to fight back.

 Mike and I went to the forward lines to reconnoitre the position.

I’ve never seen Mike travel so fast. The road was under close enemy observation and his jeep simply flew. The infantry commander “Efroikie”, seemed to be unable to speak any English so I had to translate for Mike, which made things rather awkward. “Efroikie” was a “kibbutznik” (a member of a co-operative settlement) and was a good infantry commander but he appeared to know very little about artillery. Not that he was to be held amiss. There had been very little Jewish artillery in those parts and he had had no experience in that line.

He asked Mike to bring the gun right up to the forward infantry position. From where we were talking to “Efroikie” we could see the Arabs moving around on a hill towering almost above us. Mike asked why they “didn’t shoot” at the Jews and was told that they did.

It would have been suicide to have brought the gun up. The crew could never have fired right under the Arab noses and it would have been a trap if we had had to move in a hurry, since the gun took at least an hour to prepare for moving. Besides, the mere journey to this place along the exposed road would have given the gun away and coming up and down through the dips its silhouette would have been most revealing.

So Mike said to “Efroikie”,”Tell us what you wish us to shoot at and we’ll be within range. What does it matter to you where we are?”

“Efroikie” agreed. He did not seem impressed with our courage. We had been given a wireless-operator and he also had an attitude tinged with slight contempt.

We returned to Hulsa. The best possible gun-position appeared to be the slight dip behind Mayan Baruch but once again there was a danger of drawing fire onto the Kibbutz. So we chose a deserted Arab village and drew up the gun behind some of the houses. Our main targets were Hill 289 and an Arab village in Syria, Ain Fit.

Guns are usually laid along a line of fire by means of an instrument called a “director”, which is really a super-compass. We had no director. Midway between our two targets was a lone tree on a hill and Mike and I decided to sight our gun on that tree. We elevated the barrel, looked up it from the back, moved it until we had focussed the tree - and we had our line of fire! Somewhat primitive but it turned out very accurate.

Our first target was the village and troop concentrations. For Uri and me this was a great moment. Something we had dreamed about in the balmy times of May when we had had no artillery. The enemy’s halcyon days were due to end. Someone commented that the situation was similar to that of MacArthur on Bataan. Uri and I had also “returned.”

The whirr of our shells was an unfamiliar sound in the valley. Masses of smoke billowed up into the air, right above the gun, like a supernatural genie aiding the foe. The ground around the village had been burnt and was covered with a fine layer of soot and dust. This rose like a whirlwind and served as an aiming-point to the Arab guns. There was the muffled crack of their artillery and the shells were soaring overhead. Spotting the enemy guns we transferred our attentions to the source of our trouble. Meanwhile our position was most insecure. The crew, asked if they were prepared to continue, answered with an unanimous chorus of approvals.

It was a duel in a hundred. Our one gun against two. Again the technique of fire - take cover - count the enemy shots - wait till they had fallen - fire again fast - take cover. The crew were wonderful. Peter from Lancashire particularly distinguished himself carrying shells, unperturbed by flying and exploding missiles. Before the firing I had advised the crew to dig personal slit-trenches next to the gun so that they could take cover immediately after firing. Which they did. Watching our shells land Mike called out corrections and I calculated them. All this was done while their shells were in the air. The buildings were shaking.

The signaller was pale and quiet creeping as closely as possible against a pile of rocks for shelter. Most of our time - almost all - between firing our rounds was spent in loving proximity to mother earth. The wireless-operator, trembling, shouted out a message to Mike: “Orders have come to you to stop firing and to move in a hurry.”

“Tell them to go to hell. Do you think we are going to give up just when we’ve found their gun positions?” The operator looked at Mike as if he doubted his sanity.

Several of the enemy shells were duds and never exploded which was fortunate but made our calculations more difficult.

The enemy guns stopped firing. A column of smoke rose from their gun-positions and red flames could be seen. The black fumes rose higher and higher tapering out into thin fingers. We had hit something.

Many months later, when I inquired, I heard that those guns had not fired again. The Galilee had obtained a little peace. Mike was exuberant and the signaller laughed wildly. “You’ve got them, you’ve got them.” He gazed around with admiration.

We remained in those parts for a week and lived on the fat of the land. We were acclaimed throughout the valley and treated like lords. The wireless-operator did a great deal to spread our name and fame. And we rarely fired again. Our main task was to keep the enemy guns quiet and by not opening up they considerately saved us a great deal of work.

Yet it was an interesting week. Plans were made to retake the hill. Lorry-loads and busses of troops arrived. Technically there was a truce, but the Syrians could not be allowed to succeed with their violation by retaining Hill289.

We were short of ammunition and frantic cables to Haifa and Tel Aviv brought no reply or response. We had shells but not sufficient fuses. By then we were already using 65 millimetre fuses to which an adjusting band of metal and a metal cap were added to adapt them for 75 millimetre use. Now we lacked the metal bands and the caps. We were in a quandary when I thought of the workshop at Kfar Giladi and remembered that they possessed a well-equipped and efficient workshop. Perhaps they could assist us. An urgent appeal was made and they promised to do their best. They had to make the tools to cast the dies to make the parts. They would work right through the night but could only finish them the following day.

The attack was planned for that night at ten and we had sufficient shells to suffice for that evening if we were sparing in their use.

It was to be a big attack. That afternoon we visited Mayan Baruch and returned early for the event. At Mayan Baruch they laughed at our story of rescue and told of their thrill at watching us shelling the enemy. It appeared as if most of the settlers in the valley had been spectators at the duel. They all thought that we had had several guns - a well-deserved tribute to the speed of the gunners and to the gun which was theoretically capable of firing twenty rounds a minute.

Everyone had been perturbed when they had seen the Arab shells fall amongst us and they had feared for our safety.

That evening a Dakota of the Israeli Air Force came to bomb Ain Fit and spent a good twenty minutes over the target. We counted many hits. Josef, from Mayan Baruch, the military leader, had come to visit us to see the gun and to mark the unexploded shells, for it was the intention of the settlement to plough those lands in the near future.

Mike wanted to give a demonstration of the gun. There was a strong wind blowing and we wished to find out how much it deflected the shell, so that we could make the necessary corrections. He decided to kill two birds with one stone and perhaps a few of the foe. So we fired a solitary round while the plane was overhead. Discussions ensued on the possibility of the shell hitting the ‘plane or else of confusing the pilot when it exploded. The Israeli army was a very democratic army. There were long discussions after certain commands - but mostly after their execution.

There was no attack that night. From what we heard U.N.O. had persuaded Israel to call the attack off by promising to see that Syria was forced to return the hill to the Jews peacefully.

They are still there to this day and that little hill, as a bone of contention, has hindered an Israeli-Syrian armistice agreement.

The metal adjustors and caps arrived from Kfar Giladi the following day and caused a minor uproar and some amusement and astonishment.

The caps were made of wood, beautifully turned and planed. Unorthodox without a doubt. Nothing extraordinary for anything to be unorthodox in Israel, but was it safe? We could only see.

As at Herzlia a long cord was tied to the firing-lever and we lay in a ditch fifty yards away. We did not even know if we were authorised to fire at all then. Headquarters left us so much on our own bat that we were often unaware of the latest developments. We were not in a mood to care. Someone pulled the string and the shell flew from the muzzle. A piercing wail like that of a banshee rent the air and came from the path of the shell. It sounded like a rocket and must have scared the wits out of the Arab by its piercing whistle. The shell flew straight and true but landed approximately one hundred yards short. In future all that we had to do was to add one hundred yards to the range.

The days of the truce passed leisurely and monotonously. We fed like gluttons. At Hulsa they showered rations on us and our rations also arrived from Rosh Pinah every few days. We were not very honest in accepting double rations, it must be admitted. An army is an army everywhere, however, and one had an inordinate delight in getting the better of authority. Besides the extra cigarettes, chocolates and canned fruit juices made life much more comfortable.

Since the fellows were such good gunners we could manage to shoot with half the normal complement so every second day each person was given the afternoon and evening off. The time was used to visit the neighbouring kibbutzim where we were royally received. Kfar Blum, Dafne and Kfar Giladi suffered by our attentions but they did not seem to care.

Mystery arose at the village of El Zug Et Tachtani, where we had planted the gun. Firstly I lost my wallet with the few pounds that I had but I lost that in the forward positions when we went to see “Efroikie.” More important, some arms disappeared. Uri’s Bren-gun and Mockie’s rifle were missing and a search revealed nothing.

It was simple to report the loss of these weapons as lost in action. Uri and Mockie and Mike had been near that looming hill and had been shot at at point-blank range and in their dash to cover, were perhaps entitled to lose their weapons. But we knew that such a story would not be true. They had simply vanished from the village. Had it been Arabs? One evening one of the sentries heard foreign voices and we investigated but saw nothing.

I think Mike had his suspicions on Mayan Baruch. Kibbutzim were short in arms and might have been tempted. I knew for a fact (but Mike did not) that one of the South Africans who had some sentimental attachment to Mayan Baruch and contemplated settling there after the war, had discovered that they were short of Bren-gun ammunition and told me he had plans to sneak them some. But a Bren-gun, never. Mike saw how feelings ran towards Mayan Baruch and he perhaps regarded Josef’s visits in a sinister light. I had a sincere talk with Joseph and was convinced that Mayan Baruch or its members had nothing to do with the disappearance of the Bren-gun or rifle. Uri thought that some of us had hidden them and treated it as a joke - but not for long .

To this day I don’t know what happened to those weapons. Mike handed a Bren-gun and rifle back. Perhaps they were original ones, perhaps they were not.

The truce made Mike restless and his moods were disappointing to those of us who had followed him so willingly in the line. He could not sit still. For some days dashing around in his jeep helped to occupy him but when it went to workshops he was at a loose end. He began a systematic search of surrounding Arab villages for any useful items. Then he began to burn them. It was the policy in some areas to burn Arab villages in order to remove sources of infection and plague. A few villages in that area had been burnt either for this reason or as a punishment to the inhabitants for former attacks on their Jewish neighbours. To some of us Mike’s action seemed pure vandalism. We objected and said that he had no right to continue his plan unless he had the approval of the Galilean commander. Our protests were ignored, however, and several of the fellows assisted him with gusto. Soon there were no more Arab villages to burn and then Mike’s new pastime was to shoot cats, of whom there were many stray ones in the vicinity. When they were exhausted he spent all his free hours playing cards. His fame had spread far and wide in the Galilee and countless invitations had been extended to him to visit the settlements but he was not in the least bit interested. The peace-time Mike was rather disappointing to some of us and made the orderly conduct of things difficult. We had rations planned but if he felt like something he helped himself and passed other fellows some thus disorganising the whole scale of rations. He was always borrowing plates and utensils and never returned them, leaving them lying around dirty.

Mie was a queer mixture of the irregular and the regular British army officer type. He was democratic and believed in equality between all soldiers as far as privilege went. Yet, perhaps without knowing it, he still hankered after a batman and expected people to offer to help him.

This generally did not happen for he was spoilt and took advantage of favours. Two or three of the other fellows were also very inconsiderate and lazy, never having their own things and always borrowing. They deposited refuse anywhere and the little room that we had tried to keep as a larder and command-post became very untidy and dirty despite our continual attempts to clean it. Mike and the other regular card players persisted in eating their food in the room. All manner of insects were thus attracted.

Dry rot was setting in. The fellows were complaining about Mike, they had had no mail for a long time and were hankering for civilisation now that there was a truce. Mosquitoes and insects and flies made it difficult to get much sleep and every one was dog-tired. Fortunately orders came for us to return to Rosh Pinah to rejoin the remainder of the troop.

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