Ch7 Pt4 Farewell Palestine and the Army.

I only recall one event that was at all remarkable. A few of the officers got the idea that somebody was tunnelling underneath their quarters, so they invaded the billets of us underlings and took up residence with us for a while. Nothing came of it. A few bepipped gentlemen had been taking too little water with their Scotch, and must have been hallucinating. There were definitely no terrorist sappers trying to blow up our beloved officers.

Here are a few lines written at the time to my old friend George Mills, quoted verbatim, because there is no better way to recall the thoughts that were going through my mind at the end of my army service.

Dear George – Just a few egotistical lines because my head is full of words. Today is, truly speaking, my last day in the army. Tomorrow I am going to Haifa to follow a course. I am going to brush up my French – can you imagine that? Of course, it is an excuse to spend a few days in Haifa. I am told that I shall in all probability be recalled before the course finishes, and sent to Sidi Bishr, near Alexandria. There I shall catch the boat for Toulon. At our camp today the lads are going on a route march, but I shall not take part in it. I shall watch them struggle into their kit, and I shall smile to myself and feel very satisfied, for this kind of thing is finished for me. In England I shall exchange my uniform for a civvy suit, and then I shall be my own person again amidst several million others. My apologies for ‘le moi haissable’. But adult peacetime civilian life is something I have never known. I was only nineteen when I joined the army, and very inexperienced. I hope I shall be able to cope. The army is a prison. But as in all prisons, you never starve, and you always have a roof over your head. In civvy street you have to struggle for those things.

The weather is extremely fine today. The sun is shining, and at only nine in the morning I am sweating like a little bull. For the next six weeks the future is all mapped out. I know exactly where I’m going, and the prospect pleases me. After that …….Question mark ! What shall I do when I return to London, when I become once again a small insect striving to maintain himself on the human ant heap? Does it matter that much? All our worries, our battles, our achievements will be insignificant a hundred years from now ..….”

On the 24th August, I left the camp on my way to Haifa. There were nine of us in two jeeps, each of which was pulling a small trailer on which our kit was stacked. After being shut up for so many weeks it was good to drive through the countryside, sandy and arid, but dotted with odd desert plants and with the occasional incipient greenery of young citrus plantations.          

Haifa is a beautiful, sun-drenched city, beginning at the edge of the Mediterranean Sea, then climbing up the slope of magnificent Mount Carmel. One has the impression of tiers of seats about an arena. The arena is the Mediterranean, dotted with boats, and the tiers are rows upon rows of square white houses. From the upper slopes of Mount Carmel one does not distinguish the white-capped waves below – one merely sees a vast blue expanse, and one has the impression of being able to step out immediately from wherever one is, and walk upon the sea.

The motor buses climb with difficulty the steep slopes found everywhere. They are single-decker vehicles, and the entrance is next to the driver, who collects the fares and distributes tickets before the passengers take their places. The engines of these buses strain agonisingly as they climb the hilly gradients, but the inhabitants of Haifa do not bother – they are used to the sensation that their conveyance is at any moment likely to run backwards down Mount Carmel.

The Arab quarter, which was supposed to be out of bounds to military personnel, was at the docks end of the town, and was chiefly composed of shops facing each other across narrow alleys. Here one found the inevitable bistros where a radio moaned Arab love songs and the atmosphere inevitably stank. In the streets accessible to motor traffic, one frequently saw armoured cars with machine guns poking from their turrets. Sometimes one would come across convicts in brown uniforms working under the surveillance of an Arab member of the Palestine Police, looking like a Cossack in his tall, black woollen hat. Modern Haifa, we found, was very clean and attractive. In the boulevards, on the terraces of the cafés, people sat drinking coffee or orange juice, this latter seeming to be the national beverage, and talking nineteen to the dozen in many languages although, of course, Hebrew predominated. Incidentally, we noticed that the residents of Haifa suffered from the same delusion as those of Cairo, namely that the English soldier existed solely on a diet of beer, fried eggs and chips. Clothes were plentiful – I noticed this particularly, after the rationing situation in England. But they were very expensive. I paid two pounds for a cotton shirt of very poor finish, whilst one could not get even a mediocre pair of trousers for under four pounds. Jackets followed the same price trends, and one came to realise that when one saw a well-dressed man, one was looking at a walking fortune.

Towards the end of my course at Haifa, I met a young ATS private who was studying music. She was an Algerian Jewess. She had good intelligence, but although at first I did not consider her pretty, she was “très sympathique”. Of course, we spoke French together. Iris was trim and smart, and as I took more notice I began to get a very favourable impression. She took good care of her jet coloured hair, and she had long eyelashes that reminded me of black silk. Her eyes were large and dark brown, and I made myself believe that I could read her thoughts in them. I began to like her a great deal.

We dined together one night in a restaurant in a suburb of Haifa, half way up Mount Carmel, and while we were waiting for the bus to take us back to camp, I somehow started to tell her about my recollections of our poverty in London. She listened with sympathy, and suddenly put her hand on mine.

“…….Mon Cher ami ……….”

The tutoiement mounted to my lips. How is it possible to explain that delicious familiar form of speech, which, in French, enables one to express so exquisitely kindness and gentleness to those who are near and dear? This form does not exist in English, and to me, when one wishes to express tenderness, its absence makes our language seem so harsh.

At that moment the bus came. I helped her in, and we returned to camp. When we arrived there, we sat down outside the canteen in darkness, and talked until long past midnight. I was conscious that I was to leave the following day.

On the morrow, a jeep called for me at midday. Iris and I were talking in the library. Hurriedly I left her to bundle my kit into the jeep’s trailer. Then I came back to her. We touched hands for a moment.

“Don’t forget to look up that friend of mine when you reach London, Jimmy.”

“Which friend?”

“Irena. You will like her.”

“Oh, yes. Irena S.”

Iris had asked me to call on a friend who had served in the ATS with her, and was now living in London, after having travelled there to see her mother.

Iris’s brown eyes surveyed me thoughtfully.

“It’s always the best friends who go away, isn’t it?”

“It is. Goodbye, Iris. Take care of yourself.”

“Goodbye, Jimmy.”

I boarded the jeep. We bumped forward. I waved. Then we were out of the dusty camp and running down the winding road leading to Haifa and the blue sea stretched out invitingly below us.

We made our way back to Sarafand, stopping on the road for a meal at a café run by a Palestinian Sabra and his wife. She was a Jewish girl who had been brought up in the same part of London as I, and when she stopped speaking Hebrew and turned to address us in English, she had a refreshingly Cockney accent which lifted my heart. On the floor of the café, her three young children sprawled happily like fat little puppies. These were the future Israelis. What a lovely country this was. I would willingly have stayed in it. But not as a British Army conscript.

After reaching Sarafand, I caught a troop train to Sidi Bishr – a military camp just outside Alexandria, and after a couple of days here, I found myself one morning on board the ship which was to return me, very much against my will, to England.

I think that quotations from my diary will best tell the rest of the story.          

Friday, September 27th, 1946. (On board the S.S.”Orduña”).

I got up early this morning at four o’clock, being among the first group to leave. At six o’clock, outsize lorries came to pick us up, and half an hour later, set us down at the Alexandria docks. Two flat motor barges approached. We boarded them, and in next to no time, we had been transferred to the “Orduña”, our kit had been stacked away, and we were ready to start.

At the moment of writing, another group of soldiers is struggling aboard. One more group after this, and we will set sail for Toulon. I’m feeling rather sleepy, and I’m not at all happy.         

The waters of the bay are twinkling in the morning sun, naked Arab divers are waiting for people to throw money in the water for them, and in the distance the buildings of Alexandria rear themselves silently against the blue sky. Shall I see them again in my lifetime? With all my heart I hope that I shall.

It is now eleven o’clock in the morning. Well, at least I’ll soon be demobilised. I’ll be free. Then, to hell with the army and to hell with the system where some jumped-up twit with a stripe on his arm or a pip on his shoulder has the right to tell me what to do, even though he is stupid enough to eat hay.

Seven o’clock in the evening.

We left Alexandria at five o’clock. There was lifeboat drill, then we had some food. Afterwards I climbed on deck and made my way towards the stern, just above the propellers. It was very dark, but behind us I could discern our foaming white wake. Beneath the deck the powerful, hidden motors pounded. From time to time a cigarette end, which some soldier had thrown away, described a red arc until it was abruptly extinguished and swallowed by the hissing sea.

On the horizon I could see the brilliant white light of the Alexandria lighthouse, surrounded by a far-off glare. The streets of Alexandria are at this moment blazing with illuminations, and it’s the same in Cairo. The Europeans are going to the cinema – to the “Odéon, to the “Kursaal”, to the ‘Miami”, and to the ‘Metro’. Galabieh-clad men are sitting outside the bistros, smoking their narghilehs, whilst in Maadi lights have been switched on in the clean little villas. You can no longer see the red blossoms on the trees that embellish the settlement, but you can smell them. And you can hear the rustling of leaves and the croaking of frogs in the canal. Ah, yes. I am sorry to leave these shores, and I would give much to remain.

10th October, 1946.

I can’t write any more. I’m a civilian in England. We crossed France and the Channel in a hurry, and I was demobilised on the sixth of October, nineteen forty-six, after five years of military service. Am I sorry to have left the army? No, indeed. I’m glad to be the captain of my soul again. But when I think of my stay in the Middle East, there is a dagger in my heart. To get away, to get away! How I long to get away!”

Ch7 Pt2 Sarafand, Palestine and Watermelon

It was borne upon me as time went on that throughout the Christian era, the Jews had had an incredibly hard time, most particularly in Europe. The Second World War was possibly the hardest time of all, and barely a family existed in all Europe that had not been decimated as a result of Hitler’s orders to resolve the so-called “Jewish Question” by sending six million innocent men, women and children to the gas chambers and incinerators for the mortal sin of professing the wrong religion.

It was to save the remnants of these tortured communities and to make sure that such a holocaust never occurred again that the leaders of Jewish Palestine wanted the British to allow increased immigration. Bevin, the Labour Foreign Minister of the time, to his eternal discredit, actually turned immigrant ships around and sent their occupants back to those dreadful concentration camps in Europe of which they were the sole survivors.

This was why, that night when my train stopped in the middle of Sinai, near Gaza, British troops were searching soldiers of the Jewish Brigade who had fought beside us in the war – because they might have been members of the Haganah, the secret Jewish army dedicated to the removal of the British mandate which was strangling the already tortured Jewish community. This was why, in later years, when I returned to Israel, people spoke to me of the British Mandate in terms of disgust as “The British Shame”.

These things I was to understand more fully at a later date as realisation dawned on me.

The Christian religion is basically an intolerant religion, for it postulates that only those who accept its tenets may be saved. Yet it is based upon the same Bible on which Judaism erects its principles, excepting, of course, the New Testament. I often wonder if it would help matters were that Christian clergy to make a point of emphasising that Christ was a Jew and a rabbi, and that he was killed by the Romans, not the Jews. Furthermore, that the Ten Commandments were brought down from Mount Sinai by Moses, the Jewish Patriarch, and are of equal importance to both Jews and Gentiles.

My own view is that all our religions have failed in one way or another — and I regretfully have to include Judaism – because in the final analysis they elevate belief in some dogma or another over the most important fact of all, the fact of mankind’s common humanity.

After the search of the Jewish soldiers had finished, our train began to move, and within an hour we reached Gaza, a lost little outpost, where I was the only one to alight. A tumbledown cabin, threatening to collapse at any moment, seemed to serve as some sort of an office. I inquired through an opening if anybody knew anything about me, and of course, nobody did. After a few minutes, the person in charge of the office, a young soldier whose khaki shirt tails flapped carelessly outside his shorts, decided to telephone the unit which I was supposed to join. Not less than a quarter of an hour afterwards I heard him asking someone to send transport to pick me up. He then informed me that I would have to wait four hours before my truck arrived, so I sat resignedly down on my kit, feeling the sun get hotter and hotter, and the sweat begin to seep into my shirt.

I dozed off, dreaming about a farm in the Argentine, which I had once had hopes of buying after the war, after winning the Irish Sweepstakes, of course. Suddenly a distant noise brought me to wakefulness. At the bend of the black ribbon of bitumen stretching across the yellow, sandy countryside, a jeep turned suddenly into view. When it drew up, I asked the driver and his armed escort what time it was.

“Half past ten.”

Not bad. I had only waited three hours.

“Pile your kit into the back, chum,” said the escort, who sat next to the driver.

“Sure. Do you always go around armed to the teeth like that?”

The soldier fingered his Sten gun. “Orders. Terrorists knocking about. Every driver has to have an armed escort.”

I climbed on the jeep. I say “on” because by the time I had stowed my kit behind the two front seats, the only place left for me was on top of it. There was a grinding of gears and a sudden rocket-like start which nearly threw us all into the road. Typical! Even if the soldiers hadn’t been wearing red berets, I would have known I was back in the Airborne Div. Then we began to hurtle through the countryside.

This part of Palestine was very attractive. The earth gave one the impression of dryness, yet everywhere there was green. Great green cacti often bordered the route, enclosing orange groves whose oranges were at this time still quite small, and of the same dark green as the foliage surrounding them. Sometimes we passed an open yellow space next to a collection of clay dwellings, where Arab boys crushed corn by means of a small platform harnessed to heavy, patient oxen. Elsewhere men separated the wheat from the chaff by the age-old method of tossing everything into the air and letting the wind carry away what was not wanted. Arab women passed by, hips swaying, with a tall pitcher, a watermelon, or some bundle or other balanced on their heads. The women here were better clothed than their counterparts in Egypt. Long robes, often many-coloured reached almost to the ground, greatly contrasting with the drab tatters of the Egyptian peasant woman, and the veil was rarely worn. The galabieh of the Egyptian peasants was rarely in evidence here. Most of the men wore overcoat-like garments, somewhat shabby slacks, or trousers which were tightly fitting in the calf and baggy in the seat.

The relative wellbeing of these Arabs and the green of the countryside were all the more striking after the dirt and sterility of Egypt. In Egypt, every village had been dirty and dusty. Here, there was verdure. The roads were excellent, although inclined to be a little narrow. Even the houses of the Arabs, made of clay like those in Egypt, but thatched like old English cottages, seemed cleaner and far more attractive as they nestled snugly just off the road. Much of this superiority in living conditions stemmed from the efforts of the Jewish pioneers to improve what had been a most inhospitable land.                                                

We eventually reached the headquarters of the Sixth Airborne Division, where I spent the night, met several comrades from the old First Airborne Division, and made additions to my kit. The next day I went to join the Second Parachute Brigade at Sarafand Cantonnement, an immense camp of tents and barracks – almost a town of its own – between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.  On the second day of my stay here, the garrison was called out to Tel Aviv to trace two British officers who had been kidnapped by terrorists. I tried to do a deal with the sergeant major, known to us as “Slapsy”, but was unsuccessful, and found myself left behind in the camp on duty in the Signal Office. A day and a half later the men returned, having succeeded in winkling out neither the kidnappers nor the kidnapped. They had, however, discovered several arms caches. One of them was under a barn, one of the pillars of which served as a ventilator. Another was beneath a children’s playground in which kiddies danced around a maypole, each one taking a cord dangling therefrom. As these children danced in a circle, each with his cord, a small fan was set in motion, and this assured a circulation of air in the underground cache.

The Jews in Palestine were aware that the British Mandate was drawing to its close, and that when it did the might of the surrounding Arab nations would be turned against them and they would need every weapon they could get to defend themselves. The imagination of the British never extended that far. We saw the matter only in terms of “Terrorists” arms caches whose weapons might be used against us. Due to our restrictive immigration policy, of course, they sometimes were.

The modern all-Jewish city of Tel Aviv was out of bounds to us. At this time, however, I was more concerned with visiting Jerusalem, which was only thirty miles away. Jerusalem was not out of bounds, but it was extremely difficult for a soldier to get there, either by ‘bus or by hitch hiking, because we were so far from the main road. Furthermore, it was a strongly enforced rule that we should go out in threes at least, and never without arms. Thus it became a question of finding two other people as anxious to go to Jerusalem as I was, who had enough money to make the trip, and who were off duty on the same day and at the same time as I. There were so few people in our Signals Section that it was hard to fulfil these conditions. Then, to clinch matters, two days after the raid on Tel Aviv, we began to prepare to move camp. No more passes, came the order, until the removal of the entire camp, lock, stock and barrel, was complete.

So we transported ourselves three miles away to Bir Selim, just outside Bir Yakov. This small Jewish colony, even further away from civilisation, consisted chiefly of half a dozen bistros with signs outside in square Hebrew characters. It seemed that after travelling a quarter of the way round the world to Palestine, I was not yet to be able to visit Jerusalem. A week later, I was sent to the Sixth Battalion, who were stationed at a large mixed army and air force camp in the desert. While I was at Bir Selim, however, I did finally manage to take a very quick look at Jerusalem.

After plaguing the life out of “Slapsy”, I managed to get myself chosen for the unpleasant job of escort for a comrade who was going to spend two weeks in the military prison at Jerusalem for having left the camp by himself and without arms. Thus, maybe for an hour, I was able to feast my eyes on the white buildings of this modern, hilly city, where it is so warm during the day, and on occasion remarkably chilly at night. I also went to the top of the tower next to the YMCA for a quick panoramic view of the surrounding country.    

Unfortunately we had to return to camp almost at once. The Old City with its Wailing Wall, its narrow alleys dating back to biblical times, and its religious shrines remained a mystery to me. In fact, I had to wait thirty two years, until 1978 before I finally returned to Jerusalem, saw all these things, and many more, and touched the wall of the Temple – “The Wailing Wall” – which had been the focus of so many Jewish dreams-in-exile over two thousand years.

The main memory of our trip to Jerusalem was the bullying manner in which my prisoner was received into the military prison – being pushed through the entrance at the double. As he disappeared, I had a glimpse of other soldiers doubling around the interior square in heavy packs in the hot sunshine and to hoarsely barked commands by the military police who seemed to be in charge.

On the road back to the camp, a lorry piled high with watermelons was rattling along in front of us, and we in our truck decided to pass it. As we drew level, we stood up in our own open vehicle, and each one of us grabbed a huge, juicy watermelon from the lorry. That day the road from Jerusalem to Sarafand was strewn with pips and watermelon rind.