my dad's small war.

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

the experiences of my dad doing his national service in an almost forgotten war - in palestine.

This is a true factual account of my father’s time in the army, and his part in what is termed one of Britain’s ‘Small wars’ For the purpose of this story, my Dad will be referred to by his Christian name, Gordon. Very few people have heard of or know any details of the war he was in. Why? Because the conflict he was involved in took place in Palestine, now Israel. Before the story proceeds, it is to be made clear that this is not some prejudicial diatribe. It is simply a historical record of what occurred. But because we now live in a world in which freedom of speech only exists within legal parameters, and the fear of causing offence invokes personal terror, then the previous sentence is required. This is necessary because the enemy in Palestine at that time were Jewish terrorists. What were the British doing in that part of the world? The Turkish Ottoman Empire had included Palestine among its territories and at the end of World War One its land possessions were carved up. Therefore Palestine had become a British Mandate, better understood as somewhere under British governmental control until ownership of the land was resolved. This had been decided by the League of Nations, and was for an indeterminate duration. Today the British army there would be known as a Peacekeeping force, but then, the language of the time described them as providing ‘duties in aid of the civil powers’ As far back as 1917 Britain had made a declaration of granting the Jewish people a homeland, Many determined Jewish refugees were on their way to Palestine from the horrors of Europe during World War two, to ensure that promise was fulfilled. But the British had begun restricting Jewish immigration because of the increasingly violent Arab resistance to them, and the numbers of refugees outpacing Britain’s expectations. These restrictions generated the formation of Jewish groups resolved to use force to secure the birth of their nation. It is February 1946, and Gordon has just turned 18. In England, national service at that age was compulsory. The letter duly arrived from the Ministry of Defence, and he went along to the recruiting office. He could not remember being offered the choice of enlisting in the Navy or Air

Force, in the army for you lad! After the usual procedures, medicals etc he went off for basic training to a camp in southern England. Many years later I went to the site with him, to find it still remained an army camp, but completely different from his time there. The only thing he recognised was a very big hill, which he cursed as he remembered being required to run up it carrying his complete pack. He had found that pretty difficult, as this was post war Britain and after 6 years of war and rationing the nutritional state and growth rates of many people were well below what would be expected. This can be seen in the photos of him and his fellow recruits – all very lean and wiry. At the end of basic training he was offered the chance to be a driver. For someone who seldom saw a privately owned car, and at that time had no prospect of owning one, it was almost a dream. Coming from the industrial midlands, grimy and downbeat after years of war, it was akin to winning a lottery. This meant he would be joining the Royal Army Service Corp (RASC). This was unsurprising, as the RASC had 1 in 8 of army personnel in its ranks. The RASC was, among many things, the Corps designated to supply the army with its material items, hence their large manpower demands. So off to the midlands city of Warwick he went, where driver training was conducted. But there was no dual control car or any such luxury, instead he was put in the driving seat of a large truck and shouted at by a Sergeant until he got it right. Such were the training procedures of 1946. Upon finishing he was given the title of Driver (DVR) He was never referred to as private in any of his documents, just listed as DVR Harrison. At the completion of training on several vehicles he was posted to 111 Company RASC and remained in Warwick as an officer’s driver. What their rank was is not known, but Gordon enjoyed driving around in a car for a couple of months. When joining the army he never thought that he would actually be at the wheel of a vehicle, let alone a car.

All too soon the easy job as an officer’s driver ended as he was informed his unit was being posted. So back to barracks, pack all their kit, and they were told to prepare for a posting to Palestine and Egypt, which seemed very exciting indeed. This sounded like a real far flung destination of which Gordon knew nothing about, having only heard of Egypt from the battles in North Africa that he had read about during the war. The outward journey took his unit via Europe. He remembered the journey through Germany by train, looking at all the still bombed out cities. Apart from the railways, large scale reconstruction had yet to begin. The city of Karlsruhe always remained in his mind as the place appeared flattened. He travelled to Trieste, in Italy, where they remained for several weeks. This was because there was a dispute over ownership of the city of Trieste between Italy and Yugoslavia. Both nations wished to own a port at the top of the Adriatic Sea. Therefore Trieste had been declared a free territory, and British forces, along with American, were acting as

peacekeepers. However from Gordon’s recollections, many of the men were more concerned with keeping the peace in the local taverna, aided not by the Red Cross, but by red wine. His stay at Trieste was notable for a visit by Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, who by then had been given the title Viscount. In his memoirs, that was some parade! 111 Company RASC had been attached to the 4th Armoured Brigade, so it was with them he embarked by sea to Egypt. They travelled on a ship called the Highland Princess, which throughout the war had been used solely as a troopship. Therefore it was far from a cruise ship crossing of the Mediterranean. Each soldier spent the night in their allocated hammock, with fatigues to be completed during the day. They disembarked at Port Said, in Egypt. There, they were greeted by many men going home, who yelled out ‘get yer knees brown’, a jibe at them wearing long trousers while they were all wearing desert issue shorts. From Port Said they travelled past the outskirts of Cairo, to the transit camp located at Maadi. The camp had a small British army contingent, but was mainly staffed by German prisoners of war, former members of the Afrika Korps. They were awaiting repatriation. Gordon said they were pretty bored too, and he remembered one prisoner who was ‘polishing’ all the metal mess pots and pans by scrubbing them with a sand poultice he had created– not because he was required to, it was simply something to do. Then he was moved to a camp called Gebel Maryam. Again Gordon had great fortune, as once more he was given the task of being an officer’s driver. He said it was a bit of an easy jaunt as sometimes he ate with the officer and his wife at their house. Otherwise he was just driving the officer around the local area to the numerous army and RAF bases in the Suez Canal zone, and visiting Ismailia (Gordon always referred to it as Ish, the troops abbreviated name)

There, in Ismalia, he saw the large Commonwealth cemetery with graves from both world wars. It was also his first time haggling with the locals, who he was only too pleased to pay to polish his boots. Then he was called back up to Port Said, assigned to the 14th Field Ambulance, and told he was going to Palestine. 14th Field Ambulance had a deceptive name, as he was never driving an ambulance picking up casualties as people may have imagined hearing that title. He was driving a large truck full of (mostly medical) supplies. The name, he learnt, can be explained in the fact that a Field Ambulance was a mobile front line medical unit (it was not a vehicle) Such is the manner of armies designating names to their units. Britain had 100,000 troops in Palestine, most of which were national serviceman. There were few regular soldiers, but essentially the Mandate force comprised 18 and 19 year olds with little life experience. There were also approximately half a million tons of moveable equipment in Palestine too, and the RASC’s job to transport it. It was a time of great tension. The Arabs were beginning to realise that the promises and assurances they had been given regarding Palestine counted for nothing. The Jewish refugees were also thinking that the promise of a homeland was also not being honoured. The refugees had been reinforced by armaments from the Soviet Union and a surprising amount of financial support from the USA. In May 1947 the British government had protested to the United States against American fund-raising drives for Jewish terrorist groups. It sounds incredulous but one advert had said, “We are out to raise millions for you.” and included the infamous phrase that ‘every time British soldiers were shot or blown up the Jews of America make a little holiday in their hearts’ When Gordon first saw the Sinai desert, he was amazed by all the miles and miles of empty space. Coming from where he did, everything was built up and in close proximity. The restrictions of wartime travel had meant no outings into the countryside, and he could hardly remember going the 70 miles by train to the seaside when he was a small boy. Therefore, like many others of his age, travel experiences were nonexistent. So he recalled that in his mind it resembled being on

another planet, amid all this sand, empty space, and no human life whatsoever. British soldiers were frequently targets for attack and kidnap, often in retaliation for sentences passed on members of the various terrorist groups when they were captured. When Gordon was in convoy to Haifa, they had an overnight stop at some tented camp in the Sinai. All soldiers had to do guard duty, and whilst he was out at night patrolling the camp perimeter, they spotted a moving light. The Sergeant went through the ‘Halt who goes there, Friend or Foe’ routine, and when no response was received, they subsequently opened fire. The light went out. However, when a search was conducted the following morning, nothing was found. So the incident remained a mystery. Gordon admitted that firing his rifle had made him feel a real soldier. The convoy’s destination, this and following times, was Haifa, where the RASC had its Palestine Headquarters and stored many supplies. It was also the site of a British military hospital. Once reaching Haifa troops were warned to beware of sniper attacks, as several shootings of unarmed soldiers had occurred. Army personnel there faced a question still relevant today – how do you identify a terrorist? Therefore preventative action was near impossible to take. This meant Gordon did not venture out much beyond the safety of his camp, and at times the soldiers were confined to barracks after some nasty incident or other. The troops were not informed of the exact details, and the information that people have access to today did not exist then. Apart from official communiqués much news was by word of mouth, often with embellished accounts. It was in Haifa that Gordon encountered food items the like of which he had never seen or could not remember. He saw his fellow troops dash off into some trees by the side of the road once, and return carrying these yellow oranges – or so he thought. They were in fact grapefruit. Then for the first time he saw bananas. It seems strange today to think that Gordon was 19 before he came across them. Fruit had not been prioritised in wartime Britain. Food was another benefit of being away from Britain. There was no rationing of items such as those. However

one of the things he learnt to hate, which would last the rest of his life, was condensed milk. Due to there being little refrigeration the army supplied tinned condensed milk. So having this in his tea he concluded was the best way to ruin a good cuppa.

Then it was a return to Port Said in Egypt, once again crossing the Sinai desert. All drivers had to be alert for roadside bombs, which sometimes took the guise of a concrete road marking. The improvised explosive device was being used then, Gordon was very fortunate as while he was in Palestine, Britain endured the fourth worst winter since records had begun. He spent it in the heat of the desert, and as an impressionable teenager, a lifelong love of hot weather began. 14th Field

Ambulance made several uneventful trips back and forth between Egypt and Palestine. Although there had been attacks on vehicles all over the mandated territories, Gordon said he never felt threatened. Who at the age of 19 considers they are going to be killed? – casualty lists are comprised of other members of the forces.

The only unease they felt was when they learnt that 3rd Field Hospital had been targeted and one of their comrades killed. This brought the dangers of Palestine home to them. During the final 18 months of the Mandate, British troops were attacked on a daily basis.

But no further untoward incidents were faced during Gordon’s posting there and in April 1948 it was Gordon’s time up, and the journey back to Britain for demob began. This time Gordon did not travel through Europe, but went simply to Port Said where he boarded a vessel for the voyage home. He remembered it as an uneventful sailing, with nothing to see unlike the outbound journey. Upon reaching England usual army discharge procedures took effect. He travelled to York where he was issued with his demob suit, and then on the 12th July 1948 he ceased to be a soldier. Once back in civvy street Gordon got a job with the fire department of a large chemical works. Being in uniform now suited him he thought. But there was a surprise one day when he got home from work. A small parcel had been delivered, and when he opened it, there was his Palestine service medal. His army pay and service book shows he had been awarded the medal on the 1st May 1948, however it was not presented then but he had had to wait several months to actually see it. Usually when someone receives a medal it is formally presented to the recipient, for example by the CO on a parade, or by a dignitary in another setting. But the British government was intent on denying its role in Palestine, therefore veterans would get no acknowledgement. There was no welcome home or any recognition of their service out there. Some Veterans would actually wait fifty years before they received their medal. They were not even allowed to take their place among all the other units of the British armed forces to lay their wreaths at the Cenotaph in London on Remembrance Sunday. No explanation for this ban has ever been given. The 1945-48 conflict in Palestine has “disappeared”, sidelined as a time in history that no one wants to remember. Until two years ago, the campaign was never mentioned at the Armistice parade in London. And it took over 50 years for British veterans to get a memorial for the dead: in the end, the veterans had to pay for it from their own pockets. It had taken until 1999 for action on the issue, when the newly formed Palestinian Veterans Association (PVA) began campaigning for a memorial to honour their fallen comrades. After much negotiation and fund raising, a site was found and in 2001 a memorial

stone erected. It listed all the 784 British servicemen, police officers, Crown servants and civilian staff killed by Jewish terrorists in the Palestine Mandate crisis in the years 1944–48. This number of dead in the Palestine conflict makes nonsense of the claim it was a small war, it would be better described as a vicious little war.

In his 40’s and 50’s Gordon was busy with his family and the usual things Dads do, and paid little attention to his army service time. When he reached his 50’s and 60’s he did what many ex-servicemen do, and became interested in the subject again. He joined the ex RASC association, then when he was informed of the PVA he promptly joined. In 2006 Gordon attended the reunion to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the withdrawal of British forces from Palestine. Finally after 60 years the veterans could wear their campaign medals, don their caps and berets and march in step to the memorial.

There, they stood to attention while the colours were lowered and the last post played. It marked the end of my Dad’s small war.

Submitted: October 30, 2016

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