THE DISTURBANCES – DECEMBER 2 1947 – MAY 15 1948
The witness of a young soldier, who was recruited on the 29.11.47 to Gdoud Moria
1. The Arab General Strike
We were up at the University when the first disturbances broke out. Standing in a large bunch near the Library, we could see smoke rising above the city, and even from that distance, could hear the shouts of the mob.
In town itself a hotbed of violence was working itself up to a terrifying pitch. A large crowd was gathered at the borderline of Jewish and Arab areas, near Princess Mary Avenue. The Jewish and Arab mobs were prevented from coming to grips by a human chain of Hagana men armed with cudgels and pistols; meanwhile, British armored cars stood by, their crews taking snaps of the scene, without intervening in the fight.
For three days terror reigned in the city. Mobs, their members armed with thick cudgels ruled in the streets. ‘Tenders’ with armed men on their running boards would crash their way through the Arab district to try to reach the Old Commercial Center (near Mamila), which the Arabs were pillaging and destroying. Hagana tried to keep order, but could not prevent the pillaging of the Commercial Center, nor the reprisal burning down of the Arab Rex Cinema.
As for us, we were quickly organized for defense. In the second day of the strike we made an effort to reach the Commercial Center, but, although the British made no effort to stop the looting, they nevertheless prevented us from reaching the place. Thereafter, we joined the human chains in the Princess Mary area, and tried to keep order.
2. The First Few Weeks
During those first few weeks, we, the students, were formed into two groups, which, between us, controlled the whole of northern Jerusalem. Our particular group was sent to the Hungarian Houses in the Sheikh Jarrah area, and in those first few days we had to get used to the idea of handling weapons, to the idea that we were fighters, and not students any more. Above all, we had to be on the watch against the ever-vigilant British patrols, for in those days many of our members were arrested. To counter suspicious patrol, we went on guard dressed as the inhabitants of the Quarter, in long black coat and Chassidic, wide brimmed hat. But in one pocket of the coat would be a cocked pistol, and in the other a hand grenade. These were romantic days, without thought of danger or death. We were a group of youth, of boys and girls, sleeping in a filthy small room, eating primitively without plate or cutlery, living with firearms by our side with intent to use them, and hunted by a hostile British Police. But our imaginations were fired by the thought that at last we had taken up arms in open defiance to the British, and by the fact that we were defending our rights in full partisan fashion. It was the time of Hanukkah, and, after carefully closing the shutters of our little hideout, we would perform the ceremony of lighting the candles; then, seated round the flickering candle light, we would softly sing the old songs of freedom while the Chassidim from the House would bring tea and wine. This romantic notion of fighting was somewhat shattered by the sudden news that the leader of our particular group was killed when a bus was attacked by the Arabs. This was our first taste of the other side of partisan fighting; Yitzhak, our ex-instructor in arms and our ex-leader, had been a very pleasant, twenty-one year old chap and we all missed him.
3. The First Skirmishes
But, despite these romantic notions and great preparations, there was not much fighting, except for a few minor excitements. From Beth Israel to Sheikh Jarrah, and from there to Musrara – all these places had very little shooting at that time, and our time was taken up by guard duty, patrolling, learning our weapons, and keeping on the lookout for the British.
This state of affairs changed somewhat when we were moved to South Jerusalem – the Katamon Quarter – and it was here that we had our first real skirmishes with the Arabs. Katamon, one of the largest Quarters in Jerusalem, was predominantly Arab, but in the past few years very many Jews had come to live there. But, as soon as the Disturbances began, these Jews were attacked and many of them were killed, so that they were forced into one remaining corner of Katamon, and this corner was the last outpost before the bulk of Jewish Jerusalem. It was in this corner that we were stationed.
Soon there was work to do. While supervising the evacuation of Jewish families from Katamon we encountered a group of armed Arabs. As the firing was started, a lorry-load of British Police arrived on the scene and started searching for us. It was a rather incongruous situation typical of those days in Jerusalem: behind a low stone wall some distance away lay Arabs armed with rifles; not far away, hidden behind rocks, lay our party armed with sten-guns and a Tommy gun – and, between us, searching among the houses, a group of British Police for once ‘accidentally’ carrying out their duty of keeping law and order!
Soon after that incident, the Arab gangs moved in opposite our corner in force, and their sniping became a menace as far as Rehavia even. Our small area, the Shahin Hill, became quite famous, for it was the scene of what was then one of the biggest actions of the Disturbances. The Arabs had occupied the enormous, fortress-like Beth Shahin on the crest of the hill, and from its windows made the whole district unsafe. Our job was to occupy the building and blow it up. The action, our first big one, was excellently planned and brilliantly carried out. Slowly, slowly, the main body of attackers (one platoon) crawled its way to the objective, while our smaller group worked our way round to the Arab part of Katamon. Our job was to mine the roads against possible intervention of British armored cars, and then to join in the attack from the second side. It went exactly according to plan: after several minutes of very heavy fire, the Arabs were forced to retreat; the charge – 150 kilos – was laid, and the building was blown up. Our first action had been completed successfully! It had also been our first taste of lying in the open under enemy fire, of hearing the bullets whistling above our heads and ricocheting off the rocks around us; we realized then more than ever that war was by no means a game. We had felt that empty feeling in our stomaches, that great wish to be anywhere else but the battlefield – we were to have those same feelings many times in the future.
4. Psychological Warfare
At this time, the middle of January, it was decided to use ‘nerve warfare’ against the Arabs. The Arabs had used this method very successfully in Katamon, where, by frequent but isolated attacks on the Jewish inhabitants of the Quarter, they had caused a Jewish evacuation from almost the entire district. Our job was to do the same to the Arab inhabitants of Talbieh – but Talbieh being almost completely surrounded by British Security Zones, it was impossible to use open force; instead, the suggestion of possible force had to be used against the civilian inhabitants.
So, thereafter, began the ‘intimidation patrols’. Strolling slowly in pairs through the Arab streets of Talbieh, revolvers tucked underneath our belts, we slowly but surely scared family after family into moving. It was not a pleasant job; we searched the shops time and time again and turned them upside down during each search; we accosted Arabs in the streets and searched them for weapons, we stopped the Arab paraffin merchants from coming to the Quarter…. It was, in general, rather nerve-racking, for the possibility of being shot at from one of the houses was ever in our mind. Luckily, the Arabs were more scared than we were!
The highlight of the nerve campaign came when six of us, without a single firearm among us, held up the Arab bus service, which ran from the Old City to Talbieh and Katamon. The hold-up was a classic example of what bluff could do! As the bus approached Talbieh and began to climb the steep hill along the main road, the rest of the group bunched on both sides of the road in threatening attitude, while I, in charge of the operation, ran out in front of the bus waving to the Arab driver to stop, and at the same time praying that there would be no armed Arabs on the bus. But the bus driver, who, according to the look on his face seemed almost petrified with fright, did a very unexpected thing. Instead of stopping the bus or crashing into me (the alternatives I had in mind he would do), instead of that, he put the bus in reverse gear, and almost completely out of control, careered madly down the steep hill – the same way he came, but in reverse. In the meantime, one of the Arab passengers, evidently as scared as the driver, tried to jump off the bus and escape, but, choosing the exact moment that the bus was abruptly put in reverse, he lost his balance, and, still hanging on with one hand, he fell face downwards on the ground, and, in this manner, was dragged along with the bus’ flight – also in reverse. The gaping inhabitants of Talbieh, watching behind windows and from the street corner, were treated to the amazing sight of an Arab bus speeding down Talbieh Hill in reverse, swaying from side to side, and dragging with it one of its passengers who was holding on desperately with one hand and who was very near to being killed under the wheels – and of us chasing in vain after the bus. The rest of the group had great difficulty in preventing themselves from laughing, but at the same time they bewailed the fact that there was not one pistol among us, for two or three shots would certainly have changed our situation – and would have stopped the runaway bus!
But the attempted hold-up had an effect greater than we had hoped for. No more Arab buses dared to pass our “gauntlet”, and from that day onwards no more buses ran between the Old City and Talbieh. Moreover, for many of the Arabs who had witnessed the scene (and others who had heard exaggerated accounts of it), the incident proved to be the last straw, and quite a number of families moved out. Talbieh, an Arab Quarter, which at the beginning of the Disturbances had a fairly equal number of Jews and Arabs, became now predominantly Jewish. Our task there was completed.
5. Hold-ups in Gangster fashion
Our base remained the Katamon area, and our main job was to guard against possible infiltration by Arab gangs or by explosives-filled Arab vehicles. Every night we would lie in ambush near the road, Tommy-guns at the ready against any speeding Arab car, but at the same time on the look out against snooping British patrols. During the day we were always on the ready to swoop down on any Arab that wandered too near the Jewish houses, and twice we captured Arabs and took them to headquarters for questioning. Once we were called out on a similar errand but of a more serious nature. In the no-man’s land between Jewish and Arab positions, a group of six Arabs were seen recconoitring – they had entered a house presumably to build an outpost there. We decided to take them by surprise, and with pistols and grenades at the ready, we ran at full speed from wall to house and from house to wall, and thus penetrated the no-man’s land until we stormed into the house itself, taking the Arabs there completely by surprise. It had been a very risky venture, for although we could bank on the surprise factor to get us there, nevertheless the way back would be very hazardous unless we acted very swiftly. Quickly we ordered the six Arabs to put their hands up; it was impossible to take them prisoner, for we would never reach our posts alive with them; it was equally impossible to shoot them, for the shots would attract the attention of the Arab outposts nearby. So, after relieving them of their weapons, we beat them up with the butts of our pistols, and, warning them never to approach that house again, we beat a hasty retreat and reached base as quickly as possible, the richer by the Arabs’ pistols and daggers!
On the whole, however, this period proved very boring, and we were never happier than when we were told that we had a job to do. One of these jobs proved to be a hold-up in full gangster style. It came to the knowledge of H.Q. that a printing firm was printing, on orders of a British army officer, training manuals, showing parts of guns etc, supposedly for the Arab Legion, but in actual fact for the Arab gangs. Our job was to break into the place, hold everybody up at pistol point, search the whole place and turn it all upside down, and take away everything that looked like military plans and manuals. Everything went according to plan. After ascertaining our means of escape, we burst into the place, gagged the German clerk who started having hysterics, and did the whole job thoroughly. The next day we were very pleased to read in the papers how “robbers, their faces masked with handkerchiefs, armed with pistols, stole military documents off the British Army at a printing firm”!
So that although there was very little actual fighting with the Arabs to be done, nevertheless there was plenty to do, and many of the jobs were fraught with excitement and danger. The British, for example, were becoming more and more of a menace. They had arrested a group of Hagana youth and handed them over to the Arabs where they were subsequently murdered. After this, we were given orders to resist arrest by force if necessary. Thus, holding up a printing press in broad daylight, or armed patrolling in daytime, or the nightly ambushes at the side of a road frequented to a large extent by British armored cars, all these routine jobs had a certain danger attached to them. Moreover, more and more frequently we would go out on reconnaissance patrols in the open areas between Katamon and Neve Sha'anan or Kadima House, and we were always liable to come across roving Arab bands.
Added to all this, sniping against our outposts was being intensified, and we could only reach hem at a quick run. So, slowly but surely, we were getting used to the idea of being under fire, and of doing dangerous actions. The memory of student days was receding into the background and continuous training and handling of firearms were turning us into partisan fighters.
6. Out in the Hills
It was early in February that changes in the general events in Jerusalem could first be noticed. Following the challenge to the British, which was given in the form of the ‘resist arrest order’, uniforms were for the first time issued to us, and we wore them openly in the streets. And, instead of the number of arrests increasing, the opposite happened and we were left almost in peace by the British. The explosion and fire in the ‘Palestine Post’ offices increased immensely the hostility to the British and when, later in the month, the Ben Yehuda disaster occurred. The life of any British soldier caught in the Jewish parts became very unsafe. The British were driven off the streets of Jewish Jerusalem and, for the first time, firearms were openly carried.
For us, too, there was a change in this month for, for the first time, we were sent out of Jerusalem into the hills beyond. Our new post was a solitary building, perched on the crest of a hill, from which we could guard that stretch of the vital Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway. The Judean Hills were at their best, their barrenness was covered by luxurious spring grass while thousands of yellow, blue and red flowers made a gorgeous covering to the usually bare and rocky contours. Lazing in the sun on the top of our hill and gazing at the Arab women toiling below or at the men lazing in the village square opposite, it seemed difficult at times to believe that we were at loggerheads with these seemingly peaceful people, and it was hard to remember that we were at this beautiful spot for the purposes of war. Yet we barely needed the help of our weak binoculars to discern the fact that these villagers were all well armed, and that they were training in the use of those arms. And at night when, with straining ears we silently patrolled the walls of our tiny enclosure, our long watches were always interrupted by shooting and by movements of the Arab terror gangs in the district. Reason for the unusual amount of enemy activity soon came to light – Arab bands swooped down from hillsides a kilometer away and ambushed one of the long, incoming convoys to Jerusalem. The convoy, leaving behind several burning trucks, fought its way to the cover of our hillside, and two of us immediately raced down to inform them that there were more concentrations of Arabs further up the road. Meanwhile, the Arabs opened fire up on our little fort on the hill and bullets whistled past us and pinged against the rocks as we quickly made our way back up the hill – by no means an easy task under fire. Had the Arabs attacked, we would have been hard pressed, for they had large concentrations in the hills, and we were only a squad of soldiers there, but they missed their opportunity. The convoy was brought safely through to Jerusalem with a reinforcement of homemade armored cars. We, in the meanwhile, continued to live in our hill post of Nachlat Yitzhak for several more tense days until we were finally relieved and sent back to town.
Jerusalem, at this time, and in fact until the month of May, was living from hand to mouth for the simple reason that there was absolutely no reserve pool of men in the whole area. And, with the many suburbs sandwiched between Arab Quarters, and with numerous points situated in outlying and completely Arab districts, Jerusalem’s manpower was stretched to its utmost limit. For this reason, we were never once taken from the front line even for training throughout this whole period. Thus on the very same day that we left Nachlat Yitzhak, we were rushed off as reinforcements to the completely isolated colony of Neve Yaakov, which lies on the road to Ramallah and is encircled by hostile Arab villages. The colony was hard pressed, and a large enemy attack was expected at any moment. We were issued with steel helmets, told to expect trouble on the way through the Sheikh Jarrah sector, and off we went. The following days there were very nerve racking. The colony was situated in a very bad situation for defense, the weather – drizzly and misty during the day and pitch black at night – was ideal for attack. The countryside around us was as depressing as the weather – with our spirits to match. Yet, when an attack did come, it took us completely by surprise, and had the Arabs taken advantage of the pitch black, rainy night they could have overpowered us very easily. Some of us were lying in bed already, others were reading by a lamp, when a sudden hail of bullets spattered against the side of the house. The lamp went over with a crash, and in the dark we grabbed for our rifles, pouches and grenades and dashed out into the night to our posts. Bullets were whining and whistling everywhere – our guards were already turning the fire and we soon joined them. Lying in our muddy posts, eyes and ears straining, we waited for what we thought would be the inevitable charge, but our return fire frightened the Arabs off, and they satisfied themselves with lying at a small distance away and pumping bullets into the houses. We realized then how thankful we had to be that the Arabs could not endure our return fire for any length of time.
7. Yemin Moshe Stands Firm
Throughout the Disturbances in Jerusalem, Jewish pockets of resistance stood firm in the very heart of Arab Jerusalem. Of these, the Jewish Quarter in the Old City is the most striking example, for it managed to hold out, cut off as it was, until the end of May. But hardly in a better condition were the two tiny Quarters of Yemin Moshe and Mekor Haim, the former only 100 meters from the Old City Wall on the one side and next to a hostile British army camp on the other. But Yemin Moshe had vital strategic importance, for besides overlooking the main Arab highway to Bethlehem, it was also a potential springboard for any future Jewish offensive. The Arabs, realizing this, directed attack after attack against the close-huddled houses in a desperate venture to crush the resistance there. The British, also realizing the place’s importance, brought their utmost pressure to bearing in order to bring about the evacuation of the Quarter; they warned the garrison that for every shot fired from there, the British would shell the Quarter with heavy weapons. It was to this hard-pressed but fighting place that we were sent immediately after our return from Neve Yaakov.
Our first impression of the Quarter was a correct one: it was in a pretty desperate position. To the left, not much more than 100 meters away, was the Old City Wall, an admirable position for sniping; directly in front of us on the other side of the main road lay Mount Zion, studded with sand-bagged positions; to the right of us, rose the formidable Dir Abu Tor, with a heavy Spandau machine-gun, besides several lighter ones, pointed towards us. Stretching all the way behind us were British positions, with, mainly, the King David Hotel overlooking the whole Quarter. We were, in fact, hemmed in from all four sides.
We quickly realized that the stay there would be no picnic, and this assumption proved to be no less correct than the first one. Any normal way of walking from one post to the other was impossible, due to the excessive sniping; gaps had been blasted in the walls of houses, to form thoroughfares, trenches had been dug, and every venture across open spaces had to be at the double. The peculiar structure of the Quarter helped us, for, it being the oldest Jewish Quarter in Jerusalem outside the Old City, it had been primarily built for defense; thus, it was situated on the side of a hill and its houses were all very close together.
The defense there was still very primitive, for the sniping made work very difficult and dangerous. We set to work with a swing, digging trenches, filling sand (or earth) bags, building defense posts – and while worked we were often sniped at. The work, heavy manual labor, was very tiring, but there was no time to rest. We worked for seven hours every day and every night we did a four and a half hour guard stretch. Gradually the defenses became stronger and stronger, until, by the time we left, Yemin Moshe was one of the strongest fortified places in the country.
But building defenses was not our main task. We had hardly settled down when we had our first big attack. Heavy machine guns, light machine guns, rifles – it was as if a tap had been turned on. We manned our open, sand-bagged positions and watched the arcs – the tracer bullets coming directly towards us, so it seemed, and we automatically ducked as the bullets whistled low above us and pinged into the sandbags in front of us. From Dir Abu Tor, Mt. Zion and Jaffa Gate the Arabs were attacking, and they poured thousands of bullets into our positions. We did not, at first, realize, however, that we were being attacked from the fourth side as well. From the roof top of the King David Hotel, and from other positions all along the northern edge of Yemin Moshe, the British bren guns opened up, rivaling the Arabs with their long bursts of fire. Tracer bullets were coming from all directions, weaving fascinating – but frightening – patterns in the air. In the meantime the Arabs were reported to be advancing towards us and our guns opened up all along the Quarter, stopping the Arab advance in their tracks. For three hours they continued to fire at us but did not try to advance again. The next day a British armored car drove along the main road and pumped four six-pound shells into one of our positions, which, they said, had been used aggressively by us!
Time after time the Arabs attacked in similar fashion, and time after time the British shelled our positions as ‘punishment’ for various ‘aggressive’ actions. The Arabs tried all sorts of methods to break through our positions – once they sent a lorry load of explosives crashing into the forward posts. It caused widespread damage, but miraculously no casualties. The continuous sniping and the numerous attacks, although they caused some serious injuries to some civilian inhabitants of he Quarter, did only cause a few light casualties to our group. In fact, although the Students Company had up to that time 25% fatal casualties (eighteen were killed on the way to Kfar Etzion and others were killed in various engagements) our small unit within the Company had been – up to then – fairly lucky and had not suffered many casualties (three fatal, to be exact).
The weeks slipped by very quickly in Yemin Moshe. Much work, long hours of guard duty and frequent attacks wore us out; nevertheless these were some of the most pleasant weeks of the Disturbances. For the first time, the whole Students Company was situated in one place, together with its girls. Moreover, the difficult situation threw us together and created a very friendly atmosphere. In fact, out of all the paces in which we were stationed, Yemin Moshe, with its narrow alleys and crowded houses, with its interesting Eastern inhabitants, with its long trenches and half destroyed outposts, with the sniping, shelling and attacks – Yemin Moshe brings the most and dearest memories of the Disturbances.
8. Quiet before the Storm
We were, however, very relieved when another group came to take over in Yemin Moshe. The hard work and lack of sleep had been telling on us, and we all felt entirely worn out.
It was, perhaps fitting that the last posts we were sent to man were in the same place that we spent our first days – the district of Princess Mary Avenue and opposite Mamila Road. We used this time mainly for resting, and it proved to be a good break of not having to work all day long. There were no attacks on us during the period; nevertheless we had to be wary against the constant sniping from the Arab houses opposite in St. Julian’s Way, and, once we were beyond the special protecting ‘Snipers Wall’ we had to be very careful.
However we were, by now, used to sniping. In the four eventful months of the Disturbances we had, in fact, become used to many things. The handling of revolvers, grenades, rifles and sub-machine guns were no longer a novelty, and no longer did we have to live as underground fighters: we were ready for the new and much greater ordeals which lay ahead of us.
9. From Partisans to Army
he memory of Yemin Moshe was so dear to us because it was the last place where we had lived together in the free spirit of partisan fighters and not as soldiers in an Army. Probably no fighting group in the world lived so democratically as we did then: there were no differences in living conditions, pay, or type of uniform between commanders and men. Nor was there any sort of badge or sign to differentiate between ranks, and, in fact, commanders and men lived freely together. Yet, at the time of actions, discipline was rigid. Punishment, as such, was moral; one of the direst forms of punishment for instance, was to be left behind in base at the time of an action.
Other punishments were similar in that they were all aimed against the conscience of the offender, and not against his comfort. Yet, although this form of punishment had excellent results with groups who had a majority of members in the Hagana before the Disturbances, who were used to the discipline of an underground unit, nevertheless, as the ranks of the Hagana broadened to take in the unorganized youth from all walks of life, the system was found to be insufficient.
Together with this change, the increasing development from Disturbances into actual warfare brought about a replacement of the veteran Hagana commanders by ex-Army officers, many from the Jewish Brigade. These, with them, brought battle training, the drill and the discipline of the British Army.
Thus, the free but rather ragged and unsoldierly life of partisan fighting slowly gave way to the more rigid and disciplined life of a streamlined army.
10. Training – and Convoy Duty
It was at the time of these changes that, for the first time after four months, we were taken out of outposts in the front line and sent to the Schneller Army Camp.
Frequent setbacks and disasters suffered in Jerusalem, due to the lack of swiftly arriving reinforcements, proved time and time again how necessary it was to train a special group that would remain permanently in reserve and would not be bound to any of the forward posts. The most tragic example to illustrate this necessity was the disaster when nearly a hundred people, including professors, doctors and nurses were killed in an ambushed convoy on its way to the University and Hadassa on Mount Scopus, not more than a kilometer from the center of Jewish Jerusalem. For hours the defenders of the convoy fought back, but there was no one to come to their aid, and, in the end, they all perished.
It was not till April that Jerusalem could afford such a reserve when 35 members of our group were taken out of our posts to be trained as the first Battle Platoon in Jerusalem.
But the manpower situation was not such yet to allow us the opportunity of full time training. So, together with the task of reserve force to the entire front, from Kfar Etzion in the south to Atarot in the north, we received another job – that of convoy escort – the most nerve racking job in the whole of the Disturbances.
Thus began an eventful month of hard work. Every day 12 members of the group went out in two armored cars and the rest participated in very stiff battle training, which, physically, entirely wore us out. Thus, every third day was taken up with convoy duty, eventful trips which included a six-hour engagement with the Arabs of Bet-Iksa, the relief of beleaguered Mekor Haim, countless trips through Dir Abu Tor to Talpiot and Ramat Rachel, and the battle of Bab-el-Wad.
The experience of sitting crouched by the open slit in the side of a home-made, primitive armored car and passing through the streets of a hostile Arab Quarter is a very unpleasant one. In which war did one have to travel through pure enemy territory in order to supply outlying settlements or cut-off suburbs with food and ammunition? And the price we paid could be seen by the graveyard of burnt out lorries and armored cars, which lined our routes.
No experience can be so nerve racking than traveling through a forbidden quarter like Sheikh-Jarrah on the way to Neve Yaakov, where bullets are liable to spatter at any moment from those silent houses, and worse, where a mine can blow you off the road at every bend of the road. For, should your armored car be brought to a stop in an Arab Quarter, then there is no possibility of escape or rescue, and the certain death of being burnt alive or torn to pieces by an Arab mob awaits you. What a sickening feeling it is when your armored car is forced to slow down for some reason, or if the motor suddenly fails, or if a road block is reported further up the road! For six weeks we went through this experience mainly on the way to the southern suburbs; sometimes passing through uneventfully, sometimes tearing through a hail of bullets, and firing back with machine gun, rifle or Sten gun, but always with that same nerve racking feeling that any moment might be the last.
Our first big job in Convoy Escort was when we had to silence the guns of Bet Iksa in order to enable a large convoy to pass on the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv Highway. Bet Iksa, a village several hundred meters from the road had for some time opened fire on every convoy that passed. We were sent out in our armored cars to take up position opposite the village and silence them so that the Convoy, which included many passengers, could pass in safety. We had hardly reached the place when they opened up on us, and, while some stayed inside the armored cars and returned the fire, others of us took up position some distance from the road and opened up fire on the villagers. The exchange of fire was very brisk at first, and had the convoy then passed, would certainly have had casualties, but it soon slackened off, and after several hours of desultory firing, the Arabs retreated from their positions, after our bullets had made them untenable. The convoy passed through safely.
A particular nerve racking job was the relief of Mekor Haim. Mekor Haim, wedged in between the Arab Quarters of Baka’a, Katamon and Bet Safafa, not one of them being much more than a 100 meters from it, was one of the most heavily attacked Quarters in the city. Yet, despite its almost untenable position, the Arabs never managed to break through its defenses, and finally resorted to heavily mining the one road leading to the Quarter. It became impossible to reach it, and the British refused to bring any supplies to the Quarter, insisting that she be evacuated. Finally, when the situation became desperate, it was decided to skirt the Quarter, and come in through the Arab village of Bet Safafa, the only one which was certain not to be mined. The task seemed an impossible one; for one thing the way was so rough that it was doubtful if the armored cars could manage to reach Mekor Haim without breaking down. Another point was that, although we could count on the element of surprise on the way there, we would have to return at record speed before the Arabs would have a chance of preparing some sort of road block to stop us. For this reason, only one lorry load of supplies was brought with us. As we rumbled across the open, rocky field towards the Arab village, the sweat trickled down our brows. But the surprise, or rather, amazement, of the Arabs was evident, almost comical, and they made no attempt to stop us. Never was a lorry so quickly unloaded, never did drivers drive their vehicle so skillfully; thus we cashed through the village again before the Arabs had time to put up serious resistance. We had ample reward for our efforts – the very evident gratitude of the defenders of Mekor Haim!
But the highlight of our period of convoy escort came, when by chance, our armored car participated in the battle of Bab el Wad, and returned with only three of us not wounded.
On the way to Ma’ale Hahamisha in our armored car, we were stopped at Kiriat Anavim and told that a large convoy had been ambushed at Bab el Wad, that thirty lorries were stuck there, that there were many casualties, and lastly, that an ambulance full of seriously wounded was stuck and could not move further. We were entreated to break into the area and try to save those wounded. Without further ado we shut all openings except the firing slits, crouched in our positions and set off. Soon we had left the friendly Kiriat Anavim and Abu Ghosh behind and were nearing the forbidding range of hills which towered above the road on both sides, and coupled with the excellent cover provided by the forest planted there, and by the huge boulders strewn over the hillsides, make the most perfect place imaginable for an ambush. Soon we had reached the vanguard of the ambushed convoy, and our nostrils were assailed by the ominous smell of burning rubber. Through the tiny slits we could see the lorries, heavily laden, some overturned, others lying in the ditch, one or two burning, but most of them stuck in the middle of the road, making any rapid maneuvering of our car impossible. Yet there was an almost deathly silence that pervaded the hillside and was almost more frightening than the ratting of shots that we had expected, for we knew that those hills were alive with Arabs! Slowly we entered deeper into Bab el Wad until we reached the stranded ambulance. The hills at this point were so high that we could see them above us through the open netting in the roof of the car, and we realized that, should the Arabs open fire on us here, we would be in a very difficult situation. What we had feared came about – the Arabs had only waited to us to get deeper into the ambush before opening fire, and, as we opened the armored plated doors in order to bring in the wounded, a hail of bullets, from all directions, hit the armored car, some entering through the open door. In an instant, the seemingly peaceful stillness of the beautiful surroundings was shattered; like a sudden thunder shower it started, and our ear drums were shattered by the continuous rattling of machine guns and rifles, by the pattering of bullets on the armor plated sides of our armored car and, as we started to return the fire, by the deafening reports of our own rifles within the enclosed four walls of our ‘fortress’. In what must have been a matter of seconds, the cry of “I’m wounded” came from the defender nearest the door, and we could see the dark red blood trickling down both his legs underneath his shorts. As the pandemonium grew worse, for we were the only target for those machine guns and rifles, another one of us fell forward, wounded, while the rest of us crouched closer to the steel walls, firing as fast as we could, and praying that we would get out of that Hell as quickly as possible. And Hell it indeed was – somehow we managed to back our Car onto the ambulance and, at the price of another one of us wounded, we transferred nine heavily wounded members of the Convoy to our armored car. At the mention of Hell, I will always conjure up the condition of our armored car at that moment – in the confined space of those four walls lay twelve wounded, lying almost on top of each other, some with stomachs ripped open, others with head wounds, groaning as their precious blood spilled out onto the already red floor. The peculiar, unpleasant smell of a stomach wound mingled with the strong stench of gunpowder as the remaining three of us continued to fire into the trees opposite us. For, although we had attained our objective, namely the ambulance, nevertheless we were still far from being out of the fire. This was confirmed when the driver, whose skill and cool head, I am sure, saved our lives, informed us that he couldn’t possibly turn our car unless a lorry blocking our way was moved. It was a desperate situation, and as minute followed minute we all felt convinced that our end had come; there was such a hail of lead in our direction that it seemed impossible for anyone to reach the hindering lorry. Yet the impossible was done; one of us reached the lorry, miraculously so it seemed, and, opening the brakes, crashed it into the ditch. So, in what seemed like an endless time, our armored car slowly turned, and, maneuvering as quickly as possible between the abandoned lorries, headed for home, with bullets pattering on our sides ceaselessly until we finally merged from the Bab el Wad area. Never have I felt such relief, for we were emerging from the jaws of death, which had all but closed on us.
As we passed Kiriat Anavim we saw the spearhead of an armored relief column preparing to go to the aid of the convoy – we, six of us and a driver, had preceded them by more than an hour. We sped on our way to the nearest hospital in the city; one of the wounded died soon after, but the rest were undoubtedly saved by us. As for us – the three of us not wounded – our nerves were completely shattered for some time by the grueling time we had undergone, and we were sickened by the horrible sights we had seen and by the stench of the wounded. Perhaps for the first time the full horror of war had been brought home to us.
11. The Conquest of Katamon
Not long after the incident in Bab el Wad came our first real job that was more than just a job, namely, the capture of the large and important Quarter of Katamon, and the holding of it. Katamon was the link between Jewish Jerusalem and the outlying southern suburbs, and proved to be the key to the fighting that broke out there on the 15th of May.
But Katamon was no easy fruit to pick; the Arabs had very strongly fortified posts, and the first attack, with units of the crack ‘Fourth’ at the spearhead, failed to penetrate the Arab outer defenses.
The second, and successful attack began in the last week of April. It was a dark, cold and drizzly Thursday night that our platoon was brought up to starting point at Neve Sha’anan. Units of the ‘Fourth’ were already attacking Arab bases on the Shahin Hill, where, at the beginning of the troubles our unit had been in its first big action. The Shahin Hill dominated our approach to the vital St. Simone Monastery in southern Katamon, the chief bastion of the Arab defense line, and very heavy fire prevented our joining other units of the ‘Fourth’ which had slipped by before the attack began. That night very few Jerusalemites slept, for they were treated to a concentrated flow of fire like of which they had seldom heard. But by morning the situation was far from being satisfactory – the Arabs were holding on desperately to their positions. Shahin was still in their hands, and although the vital Monastery had been captured, our units there were hard pressed and were running out of ammunition.
Throughout the night, our particular unit had been unsuccessful due to the failure to capture Shahin Hill, an unforeseen setback. But by morning the situation in the Monastery was so serious that it was decided that at all costs we should try to break through. The plan was to crawl, in Indian line, through the Wadi and make a dash across the open space to the cover of the large grove of olive trees. By this plan, our Commander sadly under-estimated the Arab strength, and through his mistake, our unit was very nearly destroyed.
At five o’clock in the morning, each one of us loaded on his back 500 bullets – the reinforcement for the Monastery – and prepared to start off. We were feeling very depressed, for we had spent the whole cold night under fire vainly trying to advance. Moreover, the prospect of crawling several hundred meters and then running the gauntlet of heavy fire with a heavy load of bullets on one’s back, was not very comforting.
In full daylight the first few made a dash for the dried up bed of the wadi, which, to a properly crawling soldier just provided enough cover, and the game started.
It was not till the first squad had got safely across and our squad had nearly reached the end of the wadi that the Arabs showed their real hand. They opened up with Bren Guns along the entire length of the wadi , and at the same time put down heavy fire at the place where the stream bed petered into the open space where we were supposed to have made our dash to the olive grove. We were, in fact, very neatly trapped. It was absolutely impossible to carry out the original plan – there was only one possibility of getting out of that death ditch alive, and that was for every one of us to take his chance with the bullets, and to run for cover to the rocks on the Hill opposite Shahin. The chance was meager, for the Arabs were in a completely dominating position, but one thing saved us, the excellent training we had received during the last six weeks.
There followed a nightmare lasting more than five hours. One by one, throwing chance to the wind, dashed for the nearby rocks, with bullets smacking on the ground between our legs and round the body. It was here that the training came in so useful – the crawling, the running, the choosing of the right cover, everything had to be 100% to escape those Bren Guns.
It took us more than five hours to get back to base, an eternity of jumping from rock to rock; of running, completely out of breath, carrying a heavy burden through a hail of bullets, of lying an endless time in a hole in the ground wondering how on earth one was going to reach the next cover thirty yards away without being hit; of crouching behind a solitary rock knowing that a rifle was already trained waiting for you to move…. Five hours of Hell.
At ten o’clock we were back at our starting point, minus six of us and twenty minutes later we were on our way out again to take up positions against Shahin Hill. Throughout the day we poured fire into their positions, and, by evening, after several ‘Davidkas’ had been brought up, the Arabs finally withdrew. The first phase of Katamon’s capture, lasting exactly 24 hours, was over, and, after being for 24 hours without a bite of food, we were able to relax slightly.
But if the first phase was over, this did not mean that the battle of Katamon was as good as won. There was still a great deal to be done, the chief thing bringing relief to the St. Simon Monastery, where the situation was still critical. There were several severely wounded soldiers there who had to be brought out at all cost, so it was decided to smash a way in by road. This was no easy matter; although the Shahin Hill was in our hands, there was a stretch of several hundred meters between the Hill and the Monsatery which was still held by the Arabs – moreover the Arabs were said to have built a large road bloc to prevent any possible break-through.
Our platoon was chosen for this difficult task, and out of our platoon twelve of us were taken to man two armored cars – the force which was going to break through. Sappers with high explosives were attached to us to deal with the road bloc, and we were told that if they wouldn’t succeed to deal with it, then every man for himself should try to reach the Monastery.
It was a very unpleasant feeling to see the last suburb of Jewish Jerusalem to slip by and to crouch ready at the firing slits. The expected hail of bullets soon came, pattering against the sides of our ‘sardine boxes’ – but by this time we were used to that. What worried us was the expected road block, but, if it existed at all, it did not prove to be effective, for we by passed the road and reached the Monastery safely – the first Jewish vehicle to have driven through that road since Katamon was first taken over by Arab gangs.
As we got off the car, we almost treaded on the body of a dead Arab soldier, lying on his face on the side of the road. There were more in the beautiful garden of the Monastery, all in all about eighty dead. Inside the church itself there was a shambles – pools of dried up blood stained the ‘holy’ floor which was littered with empty cartridge cases. Some of the church furniture had been used by the Arab defenders to strengthen their defenses and were splintered by bullets. Outside in the sunshine there were still plenty of bodies lying about, including those of two nude prostitutes who had been turned out by the Arabs at the start of the battle and who were subsequently killed.
In this very un-church like atmosphere, the twelve of us stayed all that Saturday, eating our iron rations and waiting for the rest of the platoon to join us. The situation at the Monastery quietened down after we got through, and the Arabs ceased to try to retake it.
As evening approached, the rest of the group came and we were told of the plan for the night – the conquest of the entire suburb. Three platoons were to take part in the action – one platoon was to take the northern part, one the eastern and our platoon the southern sector of Katamon.
As in so many actions, so in this one – the starting time was delayed and delayed until in the end we started off less than one and a half hours before dawn – nearly the whole night had been wasted. However, we were promised that it would be an easy job, for the Arabs were fleeing, and we set off pretty confidently.
Slowly we eased our way forward, wondering where the enemy was. By dawn, according to plan, we were supposed to have occupied the large ice factory and two other houses in line with the Iraqi Consulate, a known Arab stronghold. We advanced slowly and quietly towards our objective, but came up against no opposition. It was eery work – every sound made us jumpy, every fence or wall was possibly a hiding place for the enemy, every house we passed might hold a possible ambush there for us.
It was not until we reached the ice factory and tried to advance further that we received our first opposition – a mortar shell crashed in a field nearby and fire was opened on us from the houses opposite us. We hastily dived for cover and took up position in the two houses next to the ice factory. By this time it was dawn, and fairly heavy fire – long bursts of a heavy machine gun together with shorter staccato burst of a Bren Gun directed to our positions. It was evident that the Arabs hoped to use the Iraqi Consulate as a stronghold to stem what they thought might be a general advance on all of their southern suburbs.
We were, however, ready for battle against the Consulate, and, under a heavy covering fire, one of our squads advanced and occupied the ice factory, about a 150 meters from the Iraqi Consulate. We had expected a stiff fight, but we had not bargained for the heavy Arab counter-attack which followed almost immediately on our capture of the factory. The Arabs evidently held the point in the highest importance, for, much to our consternation, they brought up two heavy armored cars from the Arab Legion, each on mounting a 2lb. canon and a heavy machine gun – and brought them into position by the side of the Iraqi Consulate – less than 200 meters away. There followed a grueling time – we faced an array of three heavy machine guns, two cannons, two Bren Guns and a mortar somewhere in the background – this to the three light machine guns of our platoon. Within five minutes our platoon commander was wounded, within a quarter of an hour six or seven were down, two of them seriously wounded, and the squad at the ice factory was forced to withdraw. We were in a desperate position and extremely hard pressed – at any moment we expected the Arabs to advance with their armored cars and it would not be in our power to stop them. But we were told that we must hold on at all cost until reinforcements would arrive with anti-tank weapons. So we held on – our position was plastered with bullets; the walls of the rooms became pitted with holes as the heavy machine guns fired burst after burst through the windows; but we held on. And soon a new note sounded – that of an anti-tank rifle and we saw that a squad had taken over the adjoining house and had opened up on the armored cars. And then we could hardly believe our eyes, for the armored cars started to move – in reverse! They were not taking any chances and were leaving the fight to the Vickers machine gun in the Consulate!
All day and all night we stayed in those houses, returning the fire from the Consulate, but mainly keyed up for another counter-attack, which we were sure would come. But it never came so on the following morning, under the covering fire from the supporting squad, we retook the ice factory. After a short but sharp fight, the Arabs fled and one of our squads entered the Iraqi Consulate, capturing a large quantity of arms and ammunition. In the meantime the second squad pushed on southwards and cleared house after house, the whole time dodging heavy sniper fire until we reached the most southern house in Katamon, not far from the Arab positions in Baka’a. Katamon was ours, after a three day action.
It was, however, not enough to capture – we also had to hold it. The forward Arab positions in Baka’a were not more than 250 meters from us, and we hastily set to fortify the building we were holding. Very heavy sniper fire made it very difficult to keep contact with the rest of the platoon, and every meal time we had to risk our lives to venture out to find food from the neighboring houses. Moreover the Arabs had a battery of three mortars in Baka’a and we were subjected to repeated shelling. We still expected some sort of counter-attack and the first day and night passed there was very unpleasant.
But gradually we got used to the curious life we were leading there. As day after day passed and it became more than a week since we left our bases on that cold Thursday night, so it became quieter and quieter. We lived on the one hand like lords, for food and drink were bountiful in Katamon; on the other hand, like tramps, for we could not take off our clothes, nor had we washing utensils with us.
As soon as it became quiet there, we were taken back to town, and we were not sorry to return to civilization again. Our ranks were much thinner, for nearly a third of the platoon had been put out of action, including Shmuel, the Commander.
However, we were not to have much of a rest in town. The first week of the month of May was over, and Jimmy, our new Commander, prepared us for the fateful 15th May and the battles that were to come with it.
12. 15th May – Prelude
Of all the period of the Troubles, the month of May was the most crucial time. For May marked the turning point from Disturbances to War, from the unsatisfactory and unsettled situation where a Third Power, the British, still interfered in every sphere imaginable, to an unknown situation, where from one day to the next, we would be left on our own to deal with the Arabs. The world – and we – waited anxiously for the fateful 15th May to come. Would the Arabs carry out their threatened invasion from the North, East and South? And in Jerusalem, how could we continue to keep contact with the isolated suburbs and settlements to the north and south of the city? All these problems and questions were brought more and more home to us as day after day passed, and we, as members of the Hagana from the beginning, knowing to what extent our defense had depended on pure bluff, had great cause to worry.
Then, as if in answer to all questions, as a thunderbolt from the sky, came the news of the Arab Legion offensive against Kfar Etzion to the south of the city. And, for the first time during the Disturbances we heard the terms ‘tanks, artillery, planes’. And, knowing how weak our anti-tank defenses were, for the first time we realized fully what might be in store for Jerusalem if we, the few, battle platoons that were trained for fighting would fail to hold off the British-trained, British equipped and British-led army of Abdullah.
Hour after hour we heard the news coming in over the walkie-talkie until the last farewell from Kfar Etzion before the arabs finally overran the kibbutz and murdered to the last person everybody they found there. And, in the evening of that dreadful day we were assembled together, and told by a high officer that the last of the Etzion Bloc had surrendered, that the way was open for a victorious Arab Legion, with its tanks and heavy guns to march upon an isolated Ramat Rachel and Talpiot, both of which hardly had any anti-tank defenses…. And, to bring home fully the serious position, that night Arab Legion artillery began their shelling of the north-western suburbs from the dominating height of Nebi Samuel!
If the news from the outskirts of the city was black, then the position within the city itself was no less serious. The British had throughout the Troubles held the key positions in the City. Now they were preparing to move out and it was well known that they would try to let the Arabs in through the back door to these vital buildings. Thus, in the large Allenby Barracks, which dominated the road to Talpiot, Iraqi troops were seen over a week before the British pulled out. This made the road to the southern suburbs completely impossible. Every day we waited anxiously for any sign of British evacuation from the vital Generali Building, which dominated the entire center of the city. Added to this, the entire situation was aggravated immensely by the fact that Arab Legion units were still stationed within the Arab parts of the City, or part of the British Army, and showed every sign of preparing for a general attack on the 15th of May.
Thus we were faced with enemies closing in from within and without the city. A large percentage of our meager forces were tied down to places like Atarot and Neve Yaakov, isolated settlements to the north of the City, to the Hebrew University Buildings on Mount Scopus and to the completely surrounded Jewish Quarter of the Old City. In the City itself, as a striking power, were less than half a dozen platoons together with a small force of I.Z.L. troops.
The pattern for the 15th May was becoming clear and we faced the overwhelming odds with great trepidation in our hearts – but unable to envisage anything but complete victory for us!
13. 15th May – Blitzkrieg Tactics
If ever proof was needed for the well known military axiom that ‘attack is the best plan of defense’, then the lightning campaign of the second week of May could be used as proof. For within four days, the very weak forces within the City took over all the vital buildings and camps that the British had evacuated, and, except for Sheikh Jarrah, captured virtually the entire new city. Thus, for the first time, a homogeneous body was formed and an unbroken link was forged as far south as Ramat Rahel.
The morning after Kfar Etzion fell, our platoon was informed that our task would be in the southern sector of the city, and that we would have to leave immediately for Talpiot. It was in the southern sector, namely Talpiot and Ramat Rahel where the greatest fear lay; for the distance from Kfar Etzion to these places was only a few kilometers; moreover, the main Jerusalem-Bethlehem road, excellent for the armor and artillery of the Legion, passed by these two spots. It was there, then, that we were to be sent.
However, the mere reaching of Talpiot proved to be more difficult than we had imagined, for Iraqi troops were already firmly manning Allenby Barracks and Dir Abu Tor, thus blocking the only road to Talpiot. That day, the 13th of May, we made several attempts in armored cars, but the Arabs, besides using every type of small-arms weapon against us also used an anti-tank rifle, and we were finally forced to turn back with one of our squad commanders very seriously wounded, and two others less seriously wounded. It was decided on the next day that we would have to reach Talpiot at all cost, and would therefore cut a way by foot. Although, by the capture of Katamon, Mekor Haim had been linked up to the rest of the city, there was still no link to Talpiot, for the large El Alamein Barracks plus a few Arab houses on the Bethlehem Highway, lay between the two Quarters.
In the evening of the 14th we set out to capture the camp and to reach Talpiot. Going was slow, for we had to wait for a second platoon, which accompanied – a platoon of static soldiers who were carrying with them explosives and ammunition for Talpiot and also the all powerful ‘Davidkas’. Thus dawn of the fateful 15th was already breaking when, one behind the other, we left the shelter of Mekor Haim behind us, and made a dash for the Camp. We were in full view of the Arabs in Beth Safafa, but the action proceeded very quickly; running at top speed into the camp we went straight for a two storey house which dominated the Camp, set the machine gun up, and then both platoons were able to pass safely through the Camp and scramble up to Talpiot. It had taken us over a day to get there!
We found in Talpiot something very much akin to panic. Workmen were frantically, but belatedly, digging positions, trenches and anti-tank ditches; the Legion was expected at any hour. The defense line was simply appalling and it was clear that if the Legion could take the hillock of Ramat Rahel, then there would be nothing much to stop it sweeping through Talpiot and into the City.
But we had no time to take stock of the situation or to wander around; as soon as we got there we were told by our officer – Jimmy – that we had come for attack, and not for defense, and that, that morning still, we would have to capture the large Allenby Barracks from the Iraqi troops. Within a matter of minutes we were fast asleep, for we were all very tired – but it seemed as if hardly any time had elapsed before we were woken and told to get ready to go into action.
Briefly we were told the plan of operation: about eighty yards of open ground separated the most outward defense post of Talpiot to the first buildings of the Barracks. In the middle of this open space was the tall barbed wire perimeter fence of the Camp. The plan was that an armored car should go out to the fence, that a sapper should blow a gap in it and that we should then charge under the covering fire of the Car to the nearest buildings. It was a nice plan, but it went awry.
When zero-hour went into effect, we were all in the end outpost, ready for the charge. The machine gunner of no.1 squad was at his post, ready to open up covering fire. We heard the armored car go out, and then, a hail of bullets, the chatter of machine gunfire, shouts – and the Jimmy shouting for the stretcher bearers – and we knew something had gone wrong. Withering fire from the windows of the Barracks had brought the armored car to a halt; armor piercing bullets had damaged the engine, had penetrated the armor and had killed the machine gunner and his aide, besides wounding two others. No.1 Squad was given the task of getting to the Car and bringing back the wounded – they brought them back alright, but one of No1 Squad got a burst of seven bullets in his body, and was badly wounded. In the meantime, the Arabs spotted the machine gun post, the only place where the machine gun could possibly be – and her machine gunner got a bullet through his mouth and was badly wounded. I took his place with my machine gun and the bullets hummed and smacked into the wall of the room behind me, filling the air with plaster and dust, as I returned burst for burst and bullet for bullet. At such close range one could not miss and as many of their bullets that entered our window our bullets entered theirs. This continued until the last of the wounded was brought in and the whole platoon had safely retired back to Talpiot. The venture had cost us two lives and four badly wounded – no mean price to pay for an unsuccessful attack!
But Jimmy, our platoon commander, was by no means undaunted, and immediately set about planning the second attack. And we soon saw what he had in mind – here was opposition worthy of the precious shells of the ‘Davidka’, the so-called secret weapon of the Jews which was so greatly feared. Taking up a megaphone he called out to the Arabs that if they would not immediately surrender they would be bombarded to bits. A quarter of an hour later, the first massive shell came hurtling over, and the explosion which followed rocked the entire district, was heard throughout Jerusalem, and made even us jump. But there was no doubt that the ‘Davidka’ had its full effect, for, after the fourth deafening explosion, Jimmy led us at a quick run straight for that open space where only half an hour earlier two of us were killed; we, with our hearts in our mouths, followed him. There was no doubt that Jimmy was taking a great risk then, but he knew the orders that we had to capture the Barracks that morning, and his judgment of the Arab fear of the ‘Davidka’ proved to be correct. The Arabs, seeing our sudden, determined charge, and hearing our wild war cries broke up and left their positions at the windows. Thus we reached the first building safely and our machine gun unit immediately climbed up to the upper storey and opened fire from the window.
But, although the worst – namely the charge – was over, the action was by no means over. The Iraqis were still in the Camp all around us and there was a whole mix up of shooting from all directions. So great was the initial mix up that Jimmy, our platoon commander, mistook a group of five Iraqis for members of our platoon, and went up to them to give them an order. Each realized the other’s identity only when they were a few yards from each other, and Jimmy, with his runner, escaped with his life only by a miracle. After a while our concentrated fire forced the Iraqis back, and, as they retreated, so we advanced from building to building until by the end of the morning all the dominating buildings in the Barracks were in our hands, and we were able to begin fortifying ourselves. Our orders had been carried out.
14. 15th May – The State of Israel Established
That day was to be a day to be remembered by all of us, not only because of the fighting which had left us weak and weary, but also because of the extreme excitement which the continued pouring of news and rumors caused. The radio operator was kept busy all day long and every few minutes he would burst in on us with another tit-bit of news. This extreme playing on our emotions made us want to shout and cry at the same time; on the one hand we were still dazed by the knowledge that two of us had been killed in the attack and others had been badly wounded. On the other hand, relief that we were still alive together with the dramatic announcement of Ben Gurion on the setting up of the State of Israel acted as an intoxicant on us and made us completely light-headed. We felt that the climax of our fight had been reached, and stupidly we felt self-satisfied and confident of a new victory. And, as new rumors poured in, of America’s and Russia’s recognition, of gifts from South Africa and Yugoslavia of fighting planes, of ship loads of armaments and artillery arriving at Tel Aviv, of victories in other parts of the Town – we felt that our goal had been achieved and that it was all over bar the shouting. And when, towards evening, the first news came in of the combined invasions of the Arab States, we took but little notice, for by that time we were in no position to think closely. Planes, tanks and artillery were being unloaded – so we thought, at any rate – and nothing would stop us. With these silly thoughts in our heads we lay on the hard cold floor of Allenby Barracks and fell asleep.
15. No Peace for Machine Gunners
But the luxury of a good night’s sleep was not yet to be, for, hardly had our heads touched the hard floor – or so it seemed, when we were hurriedly woken. A machine-gun unit was needed as reinforcement at Ramat Rahel, where the inevitable Legion assault was expected every hour. The fanciful dreams of the day faded into the background, and the reality of the continuous clatter of automatic fire, of the fascinating patterns woven by the tracer bullets, and the crump of exploding shells took their place.
At Ramat Rahel there was feverish activity – mainly in the setting up of some sort of anti-tank defense. Giant ‘dragons’ teeth – recently used by the British to guard their ‘Bevingrad’ had been hauled up there and had to be erected on the Bethlehem road under the noses of the Arabs. Our machine gun unit was sent out there to act as covering fire for this vital work, and it was a rather nerve racking task, for we were sure the Arabs would attack; but the work was completed without incident and we were allowed to sleep away the rest of the night.
But the job of our unit of three was not yet over. At dawn we were sent out to the most forward position possible with orders to snipe at the ever increasing traffic on the Arab road opposite. All day long we sniped and were sniped at, the former sometimes with positive results (including what was possibly an officer or sheikh on horseback – he fell and did not get up again).
It was after a whole day with the finger on the trigger and on the lookout for Arabs – a very tiring job – that we were informed that our Platoon was getting ready to go into action again and that our armored car was waiting to take us back to Allenby Barracks.
We were also told that in the meantime our platoon had mopped up the entire Quarter of Baka’a, thus tightening our hold on the vital Barracks.
16. The Attack on Dir Abu Tor
No time to eat, no time to rest, the platoon was already ready, with boots muffled with sacking, and tensed up for the move. Quickly we were told the plan – our objective was the fortress like hill of Dir Abu Tor, the Arab Quarter astride the main road to Talpiot, stretching from the Old City almost, up to Allenby Barracks. It was no easy nut to crack, but in our hearts we had all known that Dir Abu Tor was the corollary to Allenby Barracks, and that we were the only ones in that sector to do it. Jimmy, in his customary cheerful and matter-of-fact manner, explained to us what to do. At his signal we were to dash across the main road and advance along the road under the cover of a high wall, which bounded the Latin Monastery there. We were to continue at a run along the wall until we got to the first house – the main defense post of the Iraqi troops; this we were to charge and enter without delay. Finally, he warned us that there might be heavy opposition.
He was right. Hardly had dusk fallen on Jerusalem when we were given the signal. We reached the High Wall without difficulty – and then it seemed as if the world was coming to an end. The thunderous chatter of many machine guns – fire coming from all directions, so it seemed, resounded in our ears, and made us wish that the earth would swallow us up. But miraculously, so it seemed, we were still alive and advancing (we later realized that much of the fire were our own guns giving covering fire), and before we realized what was happening, the house was in front of us and we were running towards it like madmen, with bullets smacking into the street all around us. Inside the house was darkness and Iraqi soldiers; outside the house was hell incarnate raining bullets – but the fear was gone. We were in the thick of the battle, and as is always in such a case, the pre-battle nervousness disappears, the senses become sharpened to an amazing degree and one notices every tiny movement or object that might help in the desperate struggle of life and death. Thus it was in Dir Abu Tor when we threw ourselves on a fortified house defended by a unit of Iraqis armed with anti-tank rifles among other weapons. The capture of the house, although it seemed to take an endless amount of time, was, in fact, very swiftly carried out. Actually, utter confusion reigned in the pitch darkness of the house and only the first of us to enter the house was wounded. The Iraqis eased matters considerably by deciding to surrender – we took six into captivity, killed one of them and the rest escaped. In the meantime, however, very heavy fire was opened up from other houses nearby and our machine gun units were kept very busy. It was only afterwards that I heard that Danny, in charge of the second machine gun and one of my best friends, was hit near the heart and died less than an hour afterwards. The unit had not chosen their post well with the result that the enemy poured bullets into them. Both the others in the unit of three were badly wounded.
Things were not going too well. Enemy fire was very heavy. After spending about ten minutes on the roof of the house, our machine gun unit was forced to retire. The fire had been so fierce that the few sandbags we had placed there were pulverized before us and our hands and legs were pocked by tiny pieces of shrapnel – ricochets off the wall. So, jumping from window to window, we drew the enemy fire while the platoon took over two more neighboring houses. We had now positions about a 100 yards from the Arab machine gun posts and a grim kind of game ensued. Our machine gun, now on the roof of the forward house, would give a long burst in the direction of the Arab post, and then we would quickly duck as the Arabs would fire an answering burst. Belt after belt of bullets were used up, and still the heavy firing continued – and then, after most of the night was already behind us, the Arabs started their retreat. This was our opportunity – bursts of twenty bullets at a time, hops from one end of the roof to the other to escape the Arabs covering fire – we could see our tracers threading into the midst of the Arabs. And then the Arab fire weakened – and stopped. Later, when the platoon captured their post and the houses behind it, nine bodies and a Hotchkiss machine gun were found there – the work of our machine gun!
By this time, dawn had already broken, and the order to advance into the heart of Dir Abu Tor was given. After the long and grueling night we felt very tired, but cheerful that we were still alive after the heavy firing. So, confident that the rest would be a walk-over, the whole platoon started advancing down the Dir Abu Tor main road. But we had under-estimated Arab cunning, for, although they had pulled back their main strength, they nevertheless kept a chain of snipers’ nests in the Quarter, at the ready to pick us off.
Their work was deadly, and they didn’t miss. Barely were we out in the open, away from the houses we had captured, when they opened up with a long burst of Bren Gun fire, right at our machine gun unit. For a moment, confusion reigned as everybody dashed for cover; dimly I felt a searing pain in my leg as if I had received a strong electric shock. Subconsciously, it seemed to me I was hopping madly for a piece of jutting out wall that sheltered me from any more bullets. After the first shock of the pain, I was able to take hold of myself and take stock of the situation: two others beside myself had been wounded by the burst of fire, and they, like myself, were lying behind cover. It was obvious, however, that it would be quite a time before there would be any possibility of pulling us out, for as long as snipers dominated the road, it would be impossible. In the meantime, blood was trickling down my trousers leg, and my thigh began throbbing terribly. The fact that I had not eaten for nearly 24 hours and that the past few days had been spent without proper sleep told heavily, and this, together with my wound, made me feel very weak and fearfully cold.
After what seemed a very long time, an armored car came to take us, and, by backing up right against us, was able to pull us out. We were taken at full speed back to Talpiot, where our wounds were bandaged and we were injected with morphium. Of the three, I was the luckiest; a year after that early morning event, one of the three still lies in hospital.
In Talpiot, before we were taken to Hospital in Town, we learnt that Danny had died, and that seven others had been wounded. So Abu Tor, although it had been much more expensive to the Arabs in killed, wounded, prisoners and equipment, nevertheless proved to be very expensive for our platoon as well. But, after the snipers nests were mopped up, most of the Quarter fell into our hands, and the much depleted platoon, now little more than a squad, could return to Town with the knowledge of a job well done – with El Alamein Camp, the Allenby Barracks, Upper Baka’a and finally Dir Abu Tor all firmly in Jewish hands at the result of our Platoon’s actions.
17. The Siege of Jerusalem
Although these highly successful blitzkrieg actions had removed the threat to the City from within, nevertheless the overall situation was no less serious; in fact, as day after day passed, so the position of the Jewish Garrison in the Old City grew worse and worse. The isolation of the City from the rest of the country was complete and Jerusalem was under full siege.
Since that memorable day in Bab el Wad in late March, no more convoys, neither of food nor of ammunition, succeeded in getting through to the City, and, although some of the largest battles of the entire war were fought out in this district, the Arabs were not to be dislodged. At the same time a Palmach force seeking to push the Arabs back from Nabi Samwil; the Arab fortress 5km north-west of Jerusalem was heavily ambushed and more than 40 Palmach soldiers were killed. To the north of the city the Arab Legion held fast to the Sheikh Jarrah Quarter and continued to launch ceaseless attacks at a distance of not more than half a kilometer from the heart of Jewish Jerusalem.
In the south of Jerusalem fierce fighting continued at Ramat Rahel, which changed hands several times (in this fighting, those left of our platoon, now united with another students group, played a prominent part, and left behind them more killed and wounded).
Finally, to the East, a great blow was dealt to the Jewish Garrison – morally more than militarily – by the fall of the Old City. That night by the end of May will be remembered always – nurses and patients were sitting by the hospital windows, unmindful of the whirring of shells overhead, of the thunderous explosions, of the pattering of shrapnel falling on nearby roofs….for, after several hours of ceaseless firing from the direction of the Old City, which we had instinctively known was in its death throes, the thunderous din had stopped and a red glow spread across the eastern sky, vividly silhouetting Jerusalem’s sky line of domes and spires. With hundreds of shells crashing over the city’s houses, we sat there by the window mourning the loss of the Old City – some of the nurses weeping openly, all of us with tears in our eyes.
Day by day, the attacks in the north, south, east and west of the city grew stronger and more numerous; tanks and armored cars, only a few minutes from the center of town were halted in their tracks by Molotov Cocktails at point-blank range. Ammunition piles were running low, and mortars were rendered nearly useless through a lack of shells. Machine gunners were told to fire single rounds, orders were given not to waste ammunition; Jerusalem was being transformed into a second Stalingrad, with old men and children working feverishly building defenses, digging trenches, erecting road blocks throughout the city.
There was no civilian population any more, no ‘behind the front’. The whole city was subjected to indiscriminate shelling which grew daily worse. People were driven off the streets, shops remained shut, and the men who continued to distribute the meager and insufficient water ration risked their lives as much as any front line soldiers. From Nabi Samwil and Sho’afat in the north, and from Shiloah and Mar Elias in the south, Arab artillery batteries fired at will into the city, killing daily between thirty and forty civilians, and wounding seventy to eighty.
Moreover, food stocks were almost used up – the daily bread ration became less and less and people who had not hoarded food were near starvation level. There was no electricity, little water, an irregularity appearing stenciled news-sheet instead of newspapers, hardly any cigarettes, and, above all, no food.
Without radios or proper newspapers in the city, rumors waxed thick and fast; yet hardly anybody had any inkling of the great engineering feat that was being carried on under the noses of the Arabs in the Judean Hills: the constructing of the ‘Burma Road’. Nobody knew of the jeeps and the mules who were infiltrating through the Arab ring, bringing just enough to keep complete starvation away. But it was only a very small help, for in one night only enough flour could be brought with which to feed half the population at the minimum starvation rate. Moreover, apart from flour, ammunition and shells also had to be brought in. So the people continued to suffer, and the city was bombarded day and night for well over a month, during which time hundreds of people were killed and wounded.
Hospitals, naturally, were not immune from the bombardment, and our third floor was hit and made unusable. After a time it became impossible for the nurses to carry those of us who could not walk up and down the stairs, so we were left permanently down in the shelter, until the whole hospital was moved to a different place. Despite the fact that wounded, both from the front and from the town, were pouring in continuously, so that all hospitals were soon filled to overflowing, nevertheless treatment was very good. Over twenty injections helped to heal the wound, so that after three and a half weeks of lying in hospital, I was able to move over to a convalescent home, also in town.
Among the many wounded who were brought daily to the Hospital, were most of those who had remained from our platoon. They had participated in the battles at Ramat Rahel, at Musrara and at Sheikh Jarrah, and by the time the truce came into operation only five remained who had not been wounded out of the original forty odd.
There is no doubt that the truce, when it did come, saved Jerusalem. There was no flour in the town, hardly any shells, and every bullet was precious. The shelling had taken a heavy toll of the population and had stopped all life in the city. Yet despite the fact that the Arabs were the larger force, despite the fact that they had armor and artillery and the Jews hadn’t any, despite the fact that the Jewish troops didn’t have enough to eat nor did they have enough ammunition for their weapons; despite all this, the Arab Legion in the North and the Egyptians in the South of the City were held at bay, and they never succeeded in breaking through the Jewish defenses.
Some people believe it was a miracle; others declare that it was the faith and the determination of the Jewish defenders that kept the Arabs out. But whatever the reason, there can be no doubt that the successful opposition to the Siege of Jerusalem against such overwhelming odds saved the whole Yishuv from being overrun by the Arab Legion, and gave her that one-month breathing space which enabled her to turn the tables so effectively at a later date.
18. The First Truce
Nobody really believed in the truce, yet, eventually, after much parleying, it came about. The guns were silent, the soldiers could sleep in peace, and the people could venture out of doors again. Slowly the people trickled out; soon the streets were thronged with large crowds, many of the men and women taking their first walk in the open for over a month.
Only one topic of conversation could be heard: the relief convoy that would soon come. The air of expectancy could be felt throughout the city, although everybody must have known that it would take many convoys in order to fill the shops.
When the convoy did at last come – the first to enter the city since March – the people went crazy with joy. No lorries were ever more wildly acclaimed than those first ones that entered Jerusalem that June morning; weeping women lined the streets blessing the drivers and their guards and giving up thanks to the Lord. The news passed round like wildfire and the most skeptical of the truce at last had to admit that it had really come about.
For us wounded, too, it was a great event. We also had been living very frugally at the convalescent home (we were rationed to three slices of bread a day) and had been promised that we would be sent to Tel Aviv as soon as the road was opened. This, indeed, proved to be true, for our convoy of wounded soldiers was the first to leave Jerusalem and to pass through the Arab lines at Latrun. After the long siege, it was a very exciting prospect to leave the city at last, and the prospect of a decent meal, of seeing things like tomatoes and fruit again, and of taking a shower or even to have the luxury to wash under a running tap made us very impatient to be off.
Passing through beautiful Bab el Wad, with the road pocked by exploded mines, and lined on both sides by burnt out lorries reminded us of the desperate struggles that had taken place there. And then suddenly we were at the front line at Latrun, with Arab Legionaires swarming over us and U.N. officials looking on. After a cursory inspection of us in our buses the Legionaires allowed us to continue, accompanied with an escort of Arab jeeps and an armored car.
At the other side of Latrun we came into a different world; a world where cigarettes didn’t cost a pound sterling per packet, where water ran merrily from taps, and where there was plenty of everything to be had. And, when, after passing once more through a Doctor’s examination, we reached Tel Aviv late at night after a seven-hour journey, we were able to hobble home, with the help of our sticks or crutches with the knowledge that the days of privation and difficulties were, for the first time, over, and that we had a whole month in which to recuperate and take things easy. Which we did!
Meanwhile, after nearly seven months of incessant fighting with its backs to the wall, the Yishuv was at last able to take a breathing space and reorganize itself. Not that anybody took much of a rest during this month; on the contrary, feverish activity took place. Despite the ban on bringing in reinforcements in equipment or men, shiploads of war material were brought in at a terrific rate, mainly Czech weapons which formed the basis of the army war equipment. Immigrants of military age poured in and were quickly trained; courses were held for the soldiers already in the fight; defenses were strengthened and new ones built; arms were smuggled into Jerusalem on a grand scale under the noses of the U.N. officials. The Burma Road, now completed, proved an ace trump card which balanced out the former Arab victory at Latrun.
The administrative side of the army was also organized. For the first time, rank signs were worn by officers, and a difference in pay was made between officers and men. The I.Z.L. was forced to join the army and everybody had to swear allegiance to the new state and the army. What had once been the underground Hagana was now being completely transformed into a modern, well equipped army with the same rules and regulation as any other Fighting Force. Only the Palmach retained its distinctive qualities and continued in the old ways, and this separate corps was soon, too, to be abolished.
Those weeks of living without fear of shells or bullets spoilt us, for the thought of returning to battle and to danger after such comfort that Tel Aviv provided seemed to us to lose all reality. Yet as the days slipped by, and our wounds slowly healed, and there was no sign that the truce would be continued………………………