In the Eyes of a British Mandate Soldier

BADIL interview with former British Mandate Soldier  Peter Davies. Davies is on a two-year contract with the General Board of Global Ministries (GBGM) of the United Methodist Church as a member of the GBGM's five-person Palestine and Israel mission team. The team has been established to assist United Methodist visitors to Palestine and Israel acquire some understanding of the struggle of the Palestinian people for sovereignty and the return of their land
from Israel, and have opportunities to meet with the Christian community of Palestine and Israel.

What were the circumstances that brought you to Palestine?
I came to Palestine as a 19-year old soldier in the early part of 1947. Confusion reigned. The British were still attempting to maintain some control over their mandate but were clearly failing in the thankless task. The Zionists looked to be well on their way to conquering all the territory to which they laid claim, that is to say the whole of Palestine and parts of Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. And the Palestinians were fighting for their lives against formidable odds (contrary to the myth put forward by the Zionists that it was the Jews who were threatened by the tremendous military might of the Arab world).

How did you come to Palestine and how did you see the country upon your arrival?
I came in a troopship that took three weeks to sail from Glasgow in Scotland to Port Said in Egypt. After some days in a military camp at Port Said those soldiers (of which I was one) who were to join units in Palestine went by train to Ramle, near Tel Aviv; those who were going to Jerusalemcontinued their journey by road, in my case to  Allenby Barracks on the Hebron Road. What I saw on my arrival was, first of all, sand all the way from the Suez Canal (where the train crossed over a swing bridge) to Gaza which looked to me as the set of a wild-west Hollywood movie. As the train drew close to Tel Aviv I saw land being extensively farmed and small, developing communities.

These communities, I soon learned, were usually referred to as settlements - even before the end of the mandate. In fact, they had their own Jewish police force, known as the Jewish Settlement Police which, in the mid-thirties had been trained by British Army offices led by (later) General Orde Wingate, a dedicated Zionist. (Along Highway 1 in Tel Aviv there is a sign pointing to the Wingate Institute. ) The final episode of my arrival was to pass through the Bab El Wad and up the twisting Seven Sisters section of the road to Jerusalem. In those days the drive from Ramle to Jerusalem must have taken close to two hours in an army truck.

What did you know about Palestine by the time you came here?
On reflection, I can say "precious little"! In 1942, during the Second World War, when I was 14, I enlisted as a boy apprentice tradesman in the British Army's Royal Corps of Signals. Some of the instructors we boys had were reservists who had served in Palestine during the intifada of the 1930s. From time to time my mates and I would listen to the no doubt highly embellished stories these "old soldiers" would tell. And in July 1947, some months before I came to Palestine, there was the attack on the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. At that time the King David, or one wing of it, contained the headquarters of the British Army and its main communications center.

The attack, by a unit of the Jewish terrorist group Irgun Zvei Leumi led by Menachim Begin virtually demolished the wing which housed the army headquarters and some 88 people were killed, including soldiers whom I had known earlier back in Britain. In answering this question I want to make clear to people who were not around in the late forties that there were only three years between the end of the Second World War in Europe and the departure of the British from Palestine. During those three years Britain had a new, socialist government, had left India, was in the process of bringing on an end its rule over many of its other colonies in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean and, above all, was confronted with the monumental task of rebuilding a society badly injured by the six wearisome years of war. Palestine was important but chiefly as yet another burden to get rid of.

What were your duties and your daily experience in Palestine?
My chief duty was to work as a telecommunications technician maintaining and repairing the army's extensive communications network.
I've referred earlier to the difficulties ofmoving along the highway between Jerusalem and Jaffa. For much of my time here I used that road  frequently and each passage was a potential death trap. Along the road, which had barely room for two large trucks to pass, there were more and more signs of the growing intensity of the battles between Arabs and Jews. Once I came across the shell of a bus that had just been hit either bygunfire of by a mine.

It was a mass of twisted, burning metal with the occupants trapped inside.To this day the remains of this vehicles can be seen along  the road - look for the red-lead painted shells of the Egged Bus Company's buses that are now Israeli war memorials. The road through the Bab El  Wad was also the scene of one of the rather more foolish actions in which I engaged. But then, like most 19-year old males I thought of myself as invincible. One cold and foggy dawn my crew and I were on our way to repair telephone cables damaged by gunfire along the road. I thought it would be a sensible precaution to tell the mukhtar of the Palestinian village on the side of the road and the head of the Jewish settlement some hundreds of meters down the road on the other side what we would be up to for the next hour or so and to request them to be good enough, should they be inclined to open up upon each other, to hold their fire for a while. Well, they clearly had a better plan - after an hour one group opened fire on my little gang and than the other did likewise. We left.

That incident will find no place in any history book but, in a way, is rather a good description of how we soldiers regarded our presence in Palestine: Jews attack us, Arabs attack us and all we want to do is to clear out and go home. At other times my duties took me to remote military posts in the hills where I would set up radio stations to link the posts with their headquarters miles away. What I remember particularly from those days in Palestine is how exhausting manual labour was - every piece of equipment seemed to weigh a ton and erecting a 50-ft antenna was a challenge to one's physical capability; how I envy people engaged in telecommunications today -everything seems to be so light and easy to connect  up.

Perhaps I can tell you of one incident which, although it certainly wasn't part of my daily experience in Palestine, thank God, does describe the unforeseen experiences that at times confronted us. For a little while, perhaps only a few days, I shared a tent in a camp outside Netanya with Sergeant Paice and Sergeant Martin of the Army Intelligence  Force Corps who were kidnapped by  enachim Begin's IZL, taken to an olive grove where their bodies were booby-trapped with explosives and hanged. The irony of that incident was that on the one or two occasions we discussed the situation in the country, all three of us expressed varying degrees of sympathy with the Zionist cause.

Where did you spend your time off-duty? Did you have contact with local Arab and Jewish people?
Most of our free time was spent in camp but I have fond memories of the YMCA in West Jerusalem where we would go (armed and in
parties of four) for mugs of hot, sweet tea (we were British, after all!) and heavy, sticky buns for a few pence. But I do remember being sent on a job to Nahariyya just south of the border with Lebanon. Nahariyya, in those days, was a small Jewish settlement way off the highway. For some reason I've quite forgotten there were just a few soldiers there and we would go to a coffee shop on the beach and mingle with the local Jewish community. It was an enjoyable time for me.

Really, there was very little interaction with either Arabs or Jews. I knew and enjoyed the company of several Christian Arabs who worked at the Jerusalem headquarters of the Palestinian Posts, Telephones and Telegraph Department. They were all well-educated, English-speaking government employees. The other Palestinians I worked with were my labour gang who came with me when we had to dig up cables or lay new cables. They were Muslims who spoke no English. (After being with them over a period of months I rather fancied myself as competent in Arabic.) I also worked with five Jews. Three were Nazi-camp survivors (and Ph.Ds…I don't think I had ever known a Ph.D. before) and two were Palestine born. They were (or claimed to be) socialists so I regarded them as political comrades but, on  eflection, I realize that their socialism did not include comradeship with the Palestinian Arabs.

So how would you describe the attitude of the British soldiers toward the Arab and Jewish population in Palestine at that time?
The British, as you may know, were (and those of my generation probably still are) class conscious, cared little for foreigners and tended to  be contemptuous of Jews (what a great country I come from!). So I doubt that I am altogether wrong in saying that if we had any strong views at all about the people of Palestine they would have shown a tolerant sympathy for what could be described as urban, middle-class Arabs (we had little if any contact with the Arabs in the villages) and an intolerance towards the Jews; after all, we would think, “They're the people who are giving us all this trouble and preventing us from going home.”

You were in Palestine at a time when open military conflict between local Arab and Zionist forces started, especially after the UN partition resolution, and massive displacement of the Arab population, especially in Jerusalem, began to take place…
It's true that we could see the displacement of great numbers of Palestinians from their villages and land but you have to  nderstand that, like most soldiers in most wars throughout history, our chief concern was to get home safely. Just as the Palestinians and the Jews did, in their differentways, so we British soldiers felt that, in the army, we could do nothing to change events. Sure, we were citizens of a democracy and sure, the British working class won a great electoral victory in 1945 (to this day I still believe that we were at our best when we dumped Winston Churchill, our heroic war-time leader, and voted Labour). But we were still a disciplined body that obeyed orders even though we grumbled that we'd had enough of "running the world" and we wanted nothing more that to go home; let the Jews and the Arabs sort out their own affairs.

Did you hear about the Deir Yassin massacre?
Yes, we did. We in Signals probably heard of the massacre first; others, those who were stationed in Jerusalem, no doubt read of it in the Palestine Post. I seem to remember reading a onepage daily news report given out by the army headquarters. But most of the time, news about the events in which the soldiers were directly engaged might not be known until some days after the events. (I think I can safely say that, until now, this has been the way in which soldiers have usually heard news about events in other parts of the battle zone; there were no transistor radios, no television broadcasts, and mail (including newspapers) took a couple of weeks to arrive by sea.

How did you experience the British preparations for the withdrawal of its forces?
Well, in personal terms, as I've already triedto explain with relief and frustration that it wasn't  done quickly enough; in pragmatic terms, by withdrawing from parts of the country in as orderly a fashion as we could manage. But I did experience the withrawal in perhaps a slightly different way from that experienced by most of the soldiers. When I worked with the Jewish technicians I've mentioned, I would pick then up at a location in Tel Aviv which we had previously agreed upon; Dizengoff Street being one such pick up point. But to enter Tel Aviv I had to pass trough a checkpoint at a place called  Citrus House, head offices of the Palestine citrus fruit growers  ssociation, on the border of Jaffa (at that time an Arab town) and Tel Aviv.

I followed this procedure for some weeks and soon noticed changes happening. What I can only describe as Jewish soldiers (actually members of the Jewish "underground army" the Haganah) dressed in the same uniform as I was wearing except their unit identification signs were in Hebrew, and bearing British Army rifles and revolvers) were the ones calling my driver to halt and examine our identification papers. I also noticed that their webbing equipment (the belts and bags with which soldiers are draped) was a new model that we Brits had heard would soon be issued to us. But the Haganah beat us to it! Here were the Zionists whom we were fighting in other parts of the country, giving us permission to enter Tel Aviv. Clearly, we were on our way out.

I also remember sending men to Beer Sheba to dismantle the overhead telephone system and bring back the copper wire. Even two years after the end of the war, the world-wide demand for the staff could not be fully met so we had orders to recover as much as we could. But the Bedouin beat us to it. Once they discovered that we were doing they promptly headed south ahead of us and did their own dismantling. I think my lads were tickled pink to have some entrepreneurs assisting then in their task. (Years later I did hear that my team of signallers had also gone into the copper recycling business by leaping over the Bedouin, recovering the copper wire and taking it over the border into Egypt where they sold it). I spent the last few weeks packing up expensive technical equipment to ship from Haifa port and trucking other stuff up to Wadi Rushmeir near Haifa where it was destroyed by army flame throwers.

When it was my turn to bag up my old kit bag and go up to Haifa docks, Haganah units were entering Sarafand camp (the largest British military camp in Palestine) by one gate, the famed Arab legion of Jordan by a second and Brits were exiting by a third gate. It was all over. I headed north to Haifa.

What did you think would happen to Palestine after you left?
I would like to give you a clear answer. I cannot. I was, by this time, twenty years old. I had had an interesting, even an intense political education. But it was the wrong one. I had become a Zionist supporter. Here, I thought, was a new generation of Jews embarking on a world-shaking socialist venture that would be a model for all of us in the decadent west. I felt guilty about what we in the army were doing here yet all I had done was to write letters to my Member of Parliament (an ex regular soldier, a member of the British Labour Party and later a member of the government).

So what did you bring back to Palestine? What caused you to study the situation here as intensively as you do now?
Another sense of guilt, I suppose. I feel that supporting the cause is an act of atonement for the terrible injustice of which I was part and which continues today. To atone (perhaps a pompous word to use) means, to me, to stand in solidarity with and to work  longside everyone who is committed to justice in this land and for its people