Saturday, January 22, 2011

Chapter 8 - We hope no aircraft come

Rosh Pinah witnessed the decline of our unit. It had already begun before the troop had split into two temporarily so that the one gun could go further North.

The day after the truce Mike had surprised everyone by a long and serious speech and a whole new list of regulations and commands. He had accused certain people from certain countries of being too “loud” and others of not pulling their weight and although much that he said was perhaps justified he certainly overstepped the mark and exaggerated considerably. Our unit was by no means homogenous and there were indeed some “spivs” - particularly those in the stores and a few of the drivers in Rosh Pinah. Thanks to them we were known by some of the local inhabitants as “schwitzers” or braggarts. These fellows talked big most of the time about what the guns were doing. When the people came to know the rest of the troop better they changed their tune.

We became very popular particularly after the wireless-operator had gone around everywhere telling everyone that we were fearless and had ignored enemy shells. When we had been at our last gun-position in view of the village - the populace had had a grand-stand seat of our firing. The inhabitants gathered at the local hotel, a high building, and watched the duels.

Mike did not understand his men and allowed his moods to dominate him. Coming out abruptly with a list of restrictive regulations after a whole period of complete freedom was not calculated to instil goodwill amongst volunteers. Suddenly he wanted regular parades, including a breakfast parade with utensils. We were supposed to stand to attention when we spoke to him and to approach him only through a Sergeant-major. It was a minor revolution and many of us immediately objected. Mike was too inconsistent and jumped from one extreme to another. He could not expect us to be controlled by his moods. The following day he had forgotten about his own regulations. We had not, however.

There was a restlessness and an unexpressed feeling of dissatisfaction in the unit. Although we came from different countries we had co-operated well together and when we had criticised people from other dominions or America it had only been in jocular vein and the remarks were taken in good part. Division was not on national lines but rather on the question of personalities.

Contentious issues arose after we had returned to Rosh Pinah. Living together in a big hut we had ample opportunity to air our views. After a few days Mike commenced with his “discipline” again. He wanted to improve the unit and hoped to encourage the more unpopular elements to leave by making things difficult and strict. But he was inconsistent. His plan misfired. He annoyed many people - but mainly those whom he wished to retain with him. After a time several of us decided to apply for a transfer to a Hebrew-speaking unit. For days we had discussed the matter. Lengthy debates on whether it was detrimental to the war effort to break up an English-speaking unit so that its members could join a Hebrew-speaking unit. Len said that the war had to be won first and that we could worry about the language afterwards. Others maintained that winning the war, assimilating the spirit of the country and learning the language were not incompatible.

Meanwhile Mike had written to Artillery H.Q. emphasising that our guns, which he called “suicide guns”, were dangerous and difficult to use as field artillery. He suggested that they be employed as anti-aircraft guns, their real purpose, and that he be provided with other guns.

H.Q. took some decisions. It decided that our unit was to be disbanded. Mike said that he was to receive another unit comprised of fifty per cent Anglo-Saxons and fifty percent Palestinians and that there would be ample opportunity therein to learn Hebrew. We had heard so many stories that we were suspicious and unable to place any hope in his promise. I knew too that in a unit where fifty per cent was English-speaking it would be impossible to learn much Hebrew for one would mainly talk English.

Len now approached us to join “his unit”. Mike was unaware of Len’s plans. This offer we declined for if Len was to receive a unit we saw no prospect of learning Hebrew there. All the arguments of Mike and Len were of no avail and seven or eight of us applied for a transfer to a Hebrew-speaking unit. Offers of raised rank in the new units had been made to us but we were not influenced.

Ten or fifteen others also applied for transfers but to an English-speaking brigade (largely), commanded by Ben of Pardess Katz days. They were annoyed at Mike and Len. Mike had a knack of misjudging most people and sometimes appointed the most incapable individuals as his N.C.O.’s. Later he realised his mistake and demoted them all including the sergeant major (who was replaced by Uri). The demoted individuals had a sore grievance.

Soldiers who had put in for a transfer suddenly found themselves discriminated against as far as leave and a few other matters were concerned and bitterness arose. Mike was rarely in camp, and we found all measure of interesting things to occupy our time, which tended to alleviate the mistrust and intrigue.

We enlivened Rosh Pinah and even set the tongues wagging. Inebriation is a rare condition in Palestine, where the people don’t drink much liquor. We caused the statistics to soar. There was little else to do in the evening but to drink Rishon wine. It tastes sweet and meek and mild, but it goes to the head. So the fellows discovered. They were gay in the local café-pub and made a lot of noise and one or two were unable to come home on their own motive power being carried, dragged and manhandled, gurgling their drunken songs.

The citizens of the little village were shocked and complaints were lodged with the Town Major that his troops were disturbing the peace and robbing the inhabitants of their sleep. Mike took the matter in good spirits. At a little meeting we concocted a fairy tale which we told the inhabitants. It was the custom in the dominions and in the United States of America we said, to go really gay, and even get intoxicated sometimes on the occasion of the twenty-first birthday-party of a friend. And one of the troop had celebrated his twenty-first birthday.

The incident was rarely repeated. Firstly we were short of cash. Extremely so. Secondly we had a heated debate in the course of which antagonists nearly came to blows. No-one voiced on opinion against drink but many felt that we must respect the feelings of the townspeople and abstain. Those who had imbibed freely said that as Jews in their own country, Israel, they were free to do as they liked and that included the right to get intoxicated. So we left the matter there and no objections were raised when Mike went shooting pigeons and decided to roast the spoils in wine.

Charlie, our Hebrew teacher, arrived. In truth he was a teacher of English at a senior school and had originally come from Germany. Since the government had mobilised all the teachers on vacation and directed them to one month’s service with army units in an educational capacity, Charlie had been sent to teach us Hebrew. He was a capable teacher and also a jolly, good sort. He proved most useful in gaining an entrée to various facilities for us and was a useful guide.

At the best of times I was accustomed to avoid military-police like the plague but at Rosh Pinah they became our friends. The finest parties in town were held at their quarters and we were welcome guests. Our Americans crooned, Sid sang “I wonder who’s kissing her now” and then we gave a South African Zulu war dance.
We nearly broke the floor and the cheers of the Palestinians almost raised the roof.

So one night we decided to have our own party to repay all our hosts. Organising it was a complicated task for most of us were broke and credit was hard to raise. Some bright individuals thought that surrounding kibbutzim would be only too willing to supply us with fruit gratis. At Ayelet Hashachar they were completely disillusioned and brought down to earth. Settlers don’t live in the past and the hectic days at the settlement had been relegated to the limbo of forgotten memories.
“We are from the guns, “we told the secretary.

“Um, “he was not impressed.

“The people at Rosh Pinah have been very kind to us.”

“That’s nice.”

“We’re going to give them a party in return. “

“Um.” The secretary seemed in a hurry. Our spokesman was glum.

“Perhaps you could sell us some fruit. We were here during the fighting and saw that you have some fine orchards. “Then we waited for him to offer us the fruit, free of charge.

“Go down to the orchard. You can buy some there.”

The same resulted at the orchard. There was no sentiment in agricultural economics and commerce. So we bought a pounds worth of grapes, a few kilos, and ate almost as much surreptitiously, while we were conducting the negotiations.

Nor were we invited for lunch despite the fact that it was lunch time. In such a big kibbutz no one notices you. I laughed at the others who had forecast an abundance of gifts. I had warned and had been proved right. After all, a settlement is no charitable institution.

Elaborate preparations were made for the party which became the talk of the town. So much so that everyone, including the village idiot, came although invitations had only been extended to a manageable number of guests. Outside the hut our two guns had been drawn up, barrels crossed, with lanterns attached. To the interested talks were given on the gun. Inside the party was a dismal failure. There were so many uninvited guests that there was no place for dancing and so much noise from the multitude that our carefully rehearsed items could not be heard above the tumult. There was enough to eat, however, and everyone politely said that they had enjoyed themselves.

Practically everyday we obtained a lorry and visited surrounding settlements or went bathing in the Sea of Galilee. The water was most insipid and there were attendant dangers. Once, while bathing, a shower of rocks, bigger than one’s fist, fell all around. It seemed like another miracle but was soon explained. Nearby there were demolitions in progress.

We visited the kibbutzim of Dagania, Afikim, Ashdot Yaacov and Ginossar and the towns of Tiberius and Safed and accepted free meals if there were only a few of us or else went back to camp for meals, if we were many.

At Afikim we were impressed by girls of fourteen and fifteen engaged in rifle-exercises.

New army orders had been issued which angered the Anglo-Saxons. From August the first all rank-insignia were to be worn and saluting was to come into force during duty hours. Not only were officers to be saluted but also Sergeants and Sergeant-majors. The majority of us decided to be conscientious objectors and throughout my army career I was, with impunity. I found the practice of saluting false to the spirit of the country, its traditions and its people. Apparently some officers higher up where rationalising in order to feather their own nests and increase their importance.

The mere fact that we knew that such regulations existed was annoying. Most Anglo-Saxons ignored them and generally escaped punishment. There was, however, a danger that some self-important individual would make one suffer for failing to pay him the respect he felt he deserved. Personally I believed that such measures could not artificially induce respect. One respects one’s officer if one appreciates him or her as a person and as a soldier and no amount of saluting will induce respect.

It was decided that there would be separate messes for officers and men in case the officers should want to plan their battles during meals and would not wish the ordinary soldier to overhear. But all food was to be the same and to be prepared in the same kitchen - a regulation not always observed. Officers and men were to have differently cut uniforms but the same quality of material was to be used in each.

Finally the soldiers were to be paid at different rates according to rank - again a conflict with the spirit of the kibbutzim where each man or women receives according to his or her needs. One good thing was introduced - the basic pay was to be raised to three pounds per month.

Peter, from Lancashire, who had been known as “Avraham” at his own wish joined the navy. Kiwi remained behind a little longer. He had become the corporal in charge of our transport.

On Wednesday August, 4th, the troop left for Haifa en route to leave and transfers. We were to deposit our guns at Haifa and then proceed to a camp near Tel Aviv, Sarafand.

One of our trucks had broken down so only one gun left for Haifa and the other had to await the return of the truck. For many of us is was our first view of Haifa, considered the most beautiful city of Israel. We agreed. Climbing the hill, leading up to Mount Carmel, with the gun was almost a feat. The engine of the truck groaned and grunted and the brakes of the gun were red-hot with the friction. Climbing and climbing along the winding road. Every few hundred yards a stop was made to allow the engine and the brakes to cool. These halts afforded an opportunity to take in the exquisite view of the bay and the pearl on its shores, Haifa. Each halt at a higher level gave a progressively better view, wider in extent and broader in scope. Modern, white and cream houses dotting the hill. Like light moss clinging to the slopes. Mainly blocks of flats with rough-edged exterior designs.

And the blue waters rolling silently in the bay, stretching to the romantic outline of mysterious and historied Acre. A view ending in the white cliffs of the border. Acre, redolent with tales of the crusaders. Its walls rampant with their castles and fortifications backed by Moslem mosques and minarets. Nearer, below, the leafy parks of Haifa and the smoky port. Devastation in the Arab area. Rubble and bull-dozers at work clearing the slums for a city building plan. Crowded streets and busses and cars chugging up to the mount, passing us, their occupants staring at the long-barrelled gun. Looks of surprise and questions. Smiles and waves of the hand. The city glistening below in all its pride and beauty. Down in the port a little area set apart with small, old, unseaworthy craft. Historic craft that ventured the wrath and might of Britain to land long-suffering refugees. The Saga of illegal immigrants and their little ships, rotting in the bay, at rest in their last days. Yet not all for some have been repaired and used.

The young state cannot pick and choose. There are more immigrants clamouring. There is a spirit in the air in Haifa, one of work and endeavour and labour. Along the foreshore factory-chimneys smoking and in the distance where the valley meets the hills the settlements of Zevulun. Life and Labour.

Army headquarter in Haifa have a massive notice outside the door informing passersby of their presence. A total lack of military security. Yet it is difficult to enter. You must sign when you enter and leave. They show us temporary billets nearby in the former H.Q. of the Arab Legion. A few months ago Britain let them terrorise the Jews, or endeavour to, and then let them loose to openly attack the Jews.

There is a blackout in Haifa but some of us go to town.

Our guns are to serve as anti-aircraft guns and we have to move our gun to a camp in the bay. The truck has returned to Rosh Pinah and we look for another truck. It must be massive and have a hook for drawing a gun. Not easy to find. There is a strange transport arrangement in Haifa. Truck-drivers have been mobilised together with their truck. They own it and get paid for its use. So we obtain a driver with a truck and every day we have to make fresh arrangements. We still eat in Haifa central, at a restaurant, and have to travel in and out for meals – a tedious task.

Len and I have a long talk with David, who is in charge of the anti-aircraft defences of Haifa. On the map he shows us the location of the few guns he has and explains the plans for our participation in the event of an attack. We are to receive signals when the ‘plane is on its way, when it is near, and when it is overhead and we must fire up.
There are no instruments to aid us in our shooting. We will take pot luck. Trying to hit a ‘plane or ‘planes in the sky without a detector or range instruments. One chance in a million. Main thing is to frighten them off. Len is over-confident. He tells David to leave it to him, but confides to me that he had never been in anti-aircraft work before. Nor have I. This is Israel and one must make do with what one has. It will be like shooting at a bird with a pea-shooter.

I tell David that two flaws exist in the arrangements. He asks what? I tell him that we have no telephone or wireless at our camp so how are we to receive the signals about the approach of ‘planes?

Secondly, if we come to town to eat who will work the guns when enemy craft arrive while most of us are away? He says that he will attend to these matters. We are there a week and when we leave Haifa nothing has been done about them. There was supposed to be a truce but then you never know these Arabs - they’ve broken it elsewhere.

The black-out is lifted, which is a good omen. I hope there are no ‘planes. Mike and the other gun arrive. Len and I had been driving around a new Morris car, but now that we have our own transport we have to give it up. I wonder what will happen if enemy ‘planes come over. I remember in Rosh Pinah how down-hearted we were when we heard that one of our guns had shot down one of our own Flying Fortresses.

It was the troop Uri and I were supposed to go to and we wondered whether, if we had gone, our presence would have made any difference. Later we hear that our guns did shoot at our own Flying Fortress but missed.

We are relieved. Stories say that when we are bringing a new ‘plane into the country and do not want U.N.O. to know we shoot at it so that they will think it is an enemy ‘plane and will not be suspicious. Also that when we wish to unload arms from a ship we sound an alarm and rush all the U.N.O. observers to shelter so that we can unload the ship unobserved and even take arms ashore. I see nothing to prove these stories. There are so many stories in Israel that one must take them with a grain of salt.

No enemy ‘planes were observed over Haifa during our spell of duty. Their absence was fortunate. The troop spent a great deal of its time in Haifa. One night an English-speaking family held a party up on Mount Carmel for English-speaking soldiers and obtained a large gathering, for Ben’s brigade was stationed in the vicinity of Haifa Bay. Only sergeants and sergeant-majors of this brigade were present and it transpired that the party was for sergeants and sergeant-majors and above only.

The men of our unit were amused and yet somewhat disappointed that fellow Anglo-Saxons had suddenly become snobbish. Matters went to such an extreme in the brigade there was a special bus for senior N.C.O.’s on which the other ranks were not allowed to ride. Nowhere in Israel did similar restrictions apply to any army transport. The spirit of the English-speaking companies was by no means good and their own members were continually grousing and complaining about conditions in their own units. I have to confess that the artillerymen at the party were unable to resist the temptation to tease the senior N.C.O.’s on their conspicuous badges of rank and their assumed self-importance.

Shortly after that we left for Sarafand - and leave. The noise and excitement at the news of the impending departure was warranted. On the road everyone was in good spirits as if a long wished for ambition were about to come true. Dreams of the life and laughter and noisy excitement of Tel Aviv, dreamt in the line, stood chance of being realised. We gave lifts freely on the way and scrawled slogans on the sides of our vehicles. One in English read, “Tel Aviv or bust,” another, in Hebrew, read “Pretty Girls Only.”

Sarafand is a little military town rather than a camp and is a relic of the British Mandate and of the last world war, when many Jewish Palestinians, then in the British army, trained there.

A network of roads linked the various ancillary camps and traffic hummed along them leaving the camp at three main and closely guarded gates. Sarafand is capable of housing forty thousand soldiers and a story is told of its capture by the Jews .

When England decided to surrender the mandate she offered to sell the camp. The Jews were prospective buyers but considered the English price of two million pounds exorbitant. Instead they offered six hundred thousand pounds which sum the British were not prepared to accept. Both sides remaining adamant the deal fell through and the British allowed the Arabs to enter.

The only alternative to the Jews was to drive the Arab forces out, which they did with the utmost speed and despatch. So what they had offered to pay a large sum for they finally obtained for virtually nothing.

Vandals had been busy, however. The British and the Arabs destroyed the large camp cinema and the buildings of the shopping-centre. Only a skeleton of burnt walls remained.

The swimming bath had escaped unscathed and we found many soldiers disporting themselves in its waters. I think it is one of the finest swimming pools in Israel.

Our bungalows also bore evidence of British occupation, prejudiced and bitter. Slogans were painted in English. Some read as follows.

“Death to the Jews. “ “You will always fear to-morrow.”

“The Zion is doomed. “ “You will never get Palestine. “

“You will die. There is no place in the world for Jews.”

And above these badly prophesied remarks grinned a skull and cross bones.

That evening, a Friday night, I wondered round the camp, paying a brief visit to all the diverse units. I discovered a wealth of culture.

At a Palmach reading-room young boys and girls, fresh from the fighting, were discussing contentious political problems of the day with all seriousness and understanding. They were not only willing to die for Israel but were vitally concerned about its future trends for they also wished to live for Israel. At a nearby camp there was a talk on Jerusalem. Across the road there was lighter fare. A civilian party from Rishon le Zion were staging a variety programme and young performers revealed a wealth of talent.

All the reading-rooms in Sarafand were crowded to capacity. I thought of the writing on the walls, puerile utterings of misguided soldiers, who probably lacked even an iota of the culture that these young Israeli soldiers, men and women, had.

It had been determined that all soldiers were entitled to four days of leave after three months of service. I obtained four days leave and went to Tel Aviv, where all leave roads generally led.

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