Reflections and memories of a Soldier’s Service in Palestine 1945 – 1948
Joining-up, initial training and wedding bells
One draft was for the Middle East and one for the Far East
I was called up on the 31st August 1944, two weeks after my 18th Birthday. My initial training was at Maryhill Barracks in Glasgow, I then served with the Sherwood Forresters and did infantry training at Lincoln. In November 1944 I went on embarkation leave and used the time to marry my girlfriend.
On my return, I and two others transferred to Royal Signals, we were sent to Catterick to train as OWL’s – Operators Wireless and Line. After training we went to Morpeth Transit Camp where approximately two hundred of us were on parade; there were two officers, each with a clip board calling out alternate names. One draft was for the Middle East and one for the Far East (the Japanese War was still on then). My draft was to the Middle East.
The journey to Jerusalem
The toilet facilities consisted of opening the cabin door and hoping for the best
We went to Newhaven where we caught the ferry to Dieppe then a train to Toulon. The train was a captured German train; with no windows, no corridors, no lights and no toilets – and just two stops on the 48 hour journey, conditions were far from ideal. Indeed the toilet facilities consisted of opening the cabin door and hoping for the best.
A Polish liner – the MV Battery – which used to ply between Danzig and New York completed our journey from Marseille to Port Said. We were then sent to Cairo and split once more. My friend, who had been with me from the first day, was sent to the British Embassy in Ankara and I went to Jerusalem.
More than just a ‘wireless troop’…We were probably the communication centre for the Middle East
Stationed at Allenby Barracks we were more than just a ‘wireless troop’, we had teleprinters, dispatch riders and MT, telephone switchboards and line communications all over Palestine and through to Cairo. The switchboards were manned mostly by the ATS who were also stationed in Allenby. I don’t recall the Palestine Police using our barracks, they were mostly living in their own places and had their own barracks.
As 1946 dawned, something strange happened:
In January 1946 they had snow in Jerusalem for the first time in memory.
Allenby Barracks was approximately half way between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. We were probably the communication centre for the Middle East having connection by radio and teleprinters to the War Office, Cairo Haifa and several other hubs. Our barracks was purely Signals and we were known as the Palestine Command Signal Regiment, but just across the road were the 6th Airborne and the Blackwatch. Our Signal Office was about two miles away, at the rear of the King David Hotel in the centre of Jerusalem.
The start of terrorism as we know it today
The terrorist threat was very real…
The terrorist threat was very real and we were on guard all the time. When we went on duty we travelled in armoured vehicles because of the threat from the very active Jewish Irgun and the Stern Gang.
There were constant acts of terrorism as the Jews sought to get rid of the British ASAP – it was the start of terrorism as we know it today. One of their favourite tricks was to hang piano wire across the road to catch dispatch riders. I recall one occasion when they took two sergeants prisoner, we found them later, hung in an orange grove.
King David Hotel bombing
I passed three milk churns which unbeknownst to me were full of TNT
On the 22nd July 1946 the militant Zionist underground organisation, Irgun and the Stern Gang let a petrol bomb off in front of the King David Hotel. A British Officer and I went to investigate. There were three terrorists at the rear of the hotel; we managed to dive into a doorway – which led to the hotel kitchens. In doing so I passed three milk churns which unbeknownst to me were full of TNT. I headed up some stairs and along a corridor. Unfortunately the Officer was still in the kitchen, there he was shot by the terrorists and sadly died the following day from his injuries. The next thing, the whole end of the hotel went up as the TNT exploded, killing a total of 91 people of various nationalities, including women and children, and injuring 46 others. It was the deadliest attack directed at the British during the Mandate era (1920–1948).
The attack was a response to Operation Agatha (a series of widespread raids, conducted by the British authorities and known in Israel as Black Saturday). Operation Agatha took place on 29th June and involved British troops searching Irgun’s offices and confiscating large quantities of incriminating documents and information about the Agency’s involvement in violence. The intelligence information was taken to the King David Hotel, where it was initially kept in the offices of the Secretariat in the southern wing, Irgun subsequently bombed that wing of the hotel to ensure the documentation was destroyed.
Towards the end of May I had a letter from my wife to say I was now the proud father of a baby girl, Laraine born on the 8th May 1946. Of course there was no such thing as mobile phones, just letters which took forever to arrive. I had to wait until I had my month’s leave in November 1946 to see my little girl for the the first time.
I returned from leave only to be greeted in Jerusalem by the CO who told me not to unpack.
I had to go straight back home as my daughter was seriously ill and in hospital.
I went to Cairo, was put on a Lancaster, only for the Captain to come on board and inform us we couldn’t fly as all the airfields in the UK were iced over. We were put up at the Ho Eliopolis Hotel where we remained for four nights before eventually taking off. We refuelled at at Castel Benito in Tripoli only to be grounded for another four days. Eventually we arrived at Lynham, but that too was fraught with difficulty. The runway was covered in so much ice that when the pilot tried to land the plane slid sideways across the airfield, went up again and had to circle round before attempting another landing. This time, despite zigzagging down the runway, we stayed on the ground and came to a welcome stop.
The snow was as deep as a double-decker bus but I eventually managed to get home to Nottingham. My daughter was still in hospital and remained there for some time. I was at home for another month before returning to Jerusalem. Fortunately my daughter, though still very ill, was well enough to come out of hospital.
Promotion, people, talent and travel
I was never without a Smith & Western attached to my side – just in case
Once more I travelled across France but in a better train. It was now 1947, the terrorists were as active as ever.
I had moved up the ranks and was now a Sergeant with my own troop; I also had a batman, a really nice guy named Kilawi, an Arab with a family of four. He could speak four languages which proved extremely handy when it came to shopping. We also had some members of the Transjordan Frontier Force seconded to us to train as wireless operators. On completion of the training I went to their barracks in Amman for a few days.
I went all over Palestine visiting different signals units, we had detachments at various places, Haifa, Sarafand, the Mount Zion Military Hospital and so on. Travelling around made my life interesting but I was never without a Smith & Western attached to my side – just in case.
Christmas 1947 one of my wireless ops, a brilliant pianist, suggested we go to the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem for the Midnight Service. It was a great experience, made even greater by the fact that he had been invited to play the organ for the service. I don’t recall his name but what an honour.
We were issued with what was known as a ‘Demob Number’, mine was 62. Each month was an indication of when you might be going home, I say, might, as you didn’t quite know how things were going. However mine came in December 1947 and by January 1948 I was on my way home for one last time; this time I travelled from Port Said to Liverpool by sea on what was known as a Liberty boat, supplied to us by the USA.
Friends for life…
I am in touch with two of the ATS who worked on the switchboard in the King David. One lives in Bakewell and the other just outside Newcastle, I usually meet up with them at the Eden Camp reunion.
Palestine – Can you help?
Do you have memories to share? Did you or someone you know serve with the Royal Signals in Palestine between 1944 and 1948 ? We would like to know. We would really love to hear of your experiences and if you wish to remain anonymous we will respect that.