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Purity of Arms

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Michael Brecker  E-mail

 

ARMY (4TH ANTI-TANK TROOP)
AND ALTALENA

MICHAEL BRECKER
ARMY NUMBER 92596
Extracts from my Memoirs as a Volunteer in Israel’s War of Independence
1948 - 1949

50 years on, fortunately I can look back on very vivid memories that seem as if they happened only yesterday, as well as some which still haunt me; I can also refer to various notes I kept, and letters sent to my family at that time.

We were referred to as Machalniks, Machal being the acronym for the Hebrew words for Volunteers from Abroad. These volunteers included many non-Jews and came from 56 countries, numbering about 4,500: the majority were World War ll veterans. All of them have a story to tell.

The War of Independence cannot be looked upon without relating to what happened before it began. Between 1945-1947 there was a bloody and traumatic build-up, a rebellion against British rule, similar to what occurred in southern Ireland in 1919. In Palestine, as it was known then, the Jewish community had three underground forces: the Haganah (defense); the Irgun Zvai Leumi (National Military Organization), now the Herut; and the Lochmei Heruth Israel (Fighters for Freedom of Israel – Lechi); and smaller offshoots such as the Stern Gang.

The major force was the Haganah, with up to 45,000 members in 1946, half of whom were active, with a smaller number in a semi-independent striking force, the Palmach. The Irgun had about 1,500 active members, which rose to 5,000 in 1947. Their exact numbers, with undisclosed supporters were very secret.

At the time of the insurgency, the Jewish population was about 650,000; the Arabs numbered 1.2 million and the British Army 100,000.  Casualty figures can never be accurate, but the military and strategic history studies reveal that there were about 616 British and 200 Jewish casualties, including wounded, and about 300 Arab casualties, including wounded. In the six months leading up to the Declaration of Independence, Jewish losses were put at 1,200 in the conflict between Jews and Arabs.

Against this background, five Arab countries invaded Palestine.  Lebanese and Syrian armies had been armed and trained by the French; the Iraqis and Egyptians had been trained and armed by the British, and some of their units were highly professional; and the Transjordanian troops had been trained, armed and led by the British General Glubb Pasha, and included British officers in their ranks.  Kaujki’s Arab Liberation Army, an irregular force, consisting of local Arabs as well as  Syrian, Lebanese and Iraqi volunteers, had already been operating inside Palestine before the Declaration of Independence.

It is no wonder that even the Chief of the Imperial Staff at the time, General Montgomery, is reputed to have advised Bevin, the British Foreign Secretary, that Israel would not survive an Arab onslaught. That the Jews survived with only a small, mostly secular Jewish population and volunteers from abroad, can to my mind only be called a miracle. That the Jews survived with only a small, mostly secular Jewish population and volunteers from abroad, to my mind can only be called a miracle. This miracle also resulted in the resurgence of orthodoxy at all levels, and consequentially  in a thriving Israel of today, with a population well in excess of six million at the time of the State’s 50th anniversary.

Against this background, I was prodded into recounting some of my Machal experiences, and I hope that I can convey the atmosphere - the electricity, the excitement, the enthusiasm and pride - in participating in that war, which resulted in Israel's rebirth after 2,000 years.

When the State of Israel was declared on May 14th, 1948, and the War on Independence began, the chances of Israel’s survival hung by a thin, slender thread. The arms embargo was rigidly controlled by the British authorities, and at the beginning of the war the Israelis had less than half the arms needed to equip their troops. According to some sources, there was only 12,000 Enfield rifles, half that number of Sten guns, 850 mortars, 750 light machine-guns and 200 medium machine-guns, and ammunition for less than one week of sustained action. Home production was quickly put into operation, and Sten guns were soon being manufactured locally.

Initially, the Jewish Agency officials in London weren't interested in enlisting anyone who had not had WW II experience, despite my enthusiasm and my claim to have led a group in basic cadet training, with efforts to make Molotov cocktails bombs that actually never went off.  However, a Major Weiser had formed a Hebrew Legion with right wing connections, and they were sending groups of volunteers to Israel. Admittedly, most of them were trained, but being swayed by my enthusiasm, they let me go along with the others.

I was only aware of differences in politics between Laborites and Conservatives, but I admired the single-mindedness of the right wing.  The small group I joined was smuggled into the American zone of Germany to Heidenheim, near Stuttgart, and we were sent to an ex-SS army training camp.   A later group was stopped by U.S. MPs, but on another occasion early in 1948 a sympathetic officer turned a blind eye.  We had indoctrination lectures, basic military training and drill, joined by survivors including some young girls and a labor detail from the camps; they were tough Betar supporters, belonging to the right wing youth organization steeped in the philosophy of Jabotinsky, an ex-British army officer who had led an aggressive force of Jews in WW I.   How these youngsters had managed to survive, I did not dare ask, but I have never met a tougher lot of girls and boys in my life.  Many of them were killed in the War of Liberation, specifically in the battle for Latrun, where an Armored Corps Museum now stands, on the road leading to Jerusalem.

These youngsters questioned me intensely: Where was I born? In England. Why have I joined them?  To go to Israel.  Did I have a family – mother, father, sisters and brothers?  Yes. They  thought  I must be meshugah.

The local population knew who we were, and when we went out on training exercises, German farmers passing by with their horses and carts would make wry comments, calling out to us that when they were in the Wehrmacht they used to crawl for three kilometers while training.   We spent long hours in the evenings cleaning up Spandau machine-guns and machine-gun belts that had been found in nearby German arms dumps.   They had been packed into hand-made wooden boxes, and covered by uniforms.

I don't remember a great deal about May 14th, the day the State was declared. As the "baby'” of the group, I was plied with raw spirit and vodka, and  I think I was virtually unconscious for three days.   I had been supplied with a false Displaced Person identity card. I still have it, and to this day I wonder what happened to the person whose identity I was given.

We were then all entrained, shunted backwards and forwards across the American zone, through to the French Zone of Germany and, eventually,  after some mishaps we arrived at Port au Duck  near Marseille, where we were immediately put on alert against possible attacks from local Arab dockers. Looking back, I think this journey is a story on its own.

With every passing day, our excitement grew to fever pitch as we approached the new State of Israel.  Little did the volunteers realize what lay ahead.


The Altalena Tragedy

I think I should give a little background to what had been brewing to cause this tragedy.   There are many garbled accounts about what went wrong.  The official line of the Ben-Gurion government was that the boat was breaking the truce, but  the fact is that it was under the control of the Irgun.  Both sides were actively taking advantage of the truce and surreptitiously re-arming as if it was a matter of life and death.   According to Begin, the ship had come with the full knowledge of Ben-Gurion, and it was agreed that whilst the arms would come under government orders, the arms would eventually go to the troops in Jerusalem.   However, Begin was well aware at the time that most of the groups in Jerusalem were with the Irgun, and from Ben-Gurion's point of view, "He who held Jerusalem would hold Israel," though at the time the high command of the Haganah was reputed to be on the point of considering that Jerusalem could not be defended. I like to think that one good aspect came out of that incident: it unified the country, and the army became the Israel Defense Forces, swallowing all the factions -- the Haganah, the Palmach and the Irgun came together all under one single command and that, come what may, Ben-Gurion would not be perceived as the one who was abandoning Jerusalem. In this context, it must be remembered that there are still some bitter memories of the breakdown in co-operation between Haganah and Irgun troops in Jerusalem - the Irgun claimed they were let down badly when attacking the Old City, and the Haganah failed to support them -– in other words, back to the days of Josephus!

The captain of the Altalena was Monroe Fein, a Jewish naval officer, and most of the crew were from the U.S.A and Canada.  We first arrived at Kfar Vitkin, north of Netanya, where we were told that orders from Ben-Gurion's government would not permit us to get close to the jetty, and unloading the ship was to be done using small barges.  All the young volunteer refugees, a group of some 800-900, known as Gachal, were disembarked and taken away to the waiting buses cheering and singing.   The “Anglo-Saxons”, the Machal group and the crew remained on board, some 40 of us, as the ship's defense.  I went ashore briefly with a friend to make a token "kissing of the soil." However, I was a little puzzled by the anxious attitude of the local women who were watching us, and gave us water.  We soon found out why:  Irgun troops had been brought there to help with unloading of ammunition, which was piled up on the beach, inside a perimeter fence with machine-gun posts.  We were ordered back on board when gunfire broke out, and to our astonishment, we saw that Begin had come on board with a small entourage, joining Eliahu Lankin, who was in overall political charge of the ship.   My comrade, an ex-German Jewish refugee who had been a sergeant in the British army, turned to me and said, "We've had it".  At that point our fate was apparently sealed.

Way out at sea, I noticed two small Israeli corvette gunboats, the Wedgwood and the Haganah. The Wedgwood was commanded by Captain Paul Shulman, a Jewish ex-U.S. Navy officer who later became commander of the Israel Navy.   To my horror, heavy machine-gun fire started to break out on shore, flying over us.  With hindsight, I suspected that the Wedgwood had opened fire to stop us unloading, and instead of firing short, had overshot us and hit the Haganah troops who were now surrounding the beachhead and us, but I believe it was because they were aware that Begin was on board. Casualties occurred.

The Haganah troops were under the command of Major Moshe Dayan at the time.   As we pulled out to sea, the Wedgwood began to pursue us.   Our captain hugged the shore, we were in shallower water, since the corvette was obviously trying to get between us and the shore, to drive us out to sea to sink us.   Dusk and night fell quickly.   I remember the brilliant starlit sky above us as we made our way to Tel Aviv.   But apart from the circumstances, for a 17-year-old it was all very exciting though I was puzzled and grief-stricken and felt a sense of rejection.  We were hailed by the Wedgwood and ordered to put out to sea; our captain wasn't very polite in his reply, whereupon we heard the order, "Stand by for ramming," and as the Wedgwood started to clip our bow, the order was given to open fire.  My companion, manning the Bren gun, and I, his loader, fired across the Wedgwood's bow, along with the rest of our Bren gunners, whereupon  the Wedgwood sheared away, after having opened fire and hitting us.   At least they hadn't opened fire with heavier guns. Their captain was obviously familiar with the armaments of a U.S. tank landing craft, and the danger of hitting the shore as well as the ammunition we had on board.   We had only unloaded a fraction of our cargo, which still included five Bren gun carriers and I was concerned that we would be blown sky-high.

In the early hours of the morning we beached opposite the Kate Dan Hotel, where the U.N. Headquarters and reporters of the world's press were, but we could not get close to shore to unload, since by a quirk of fate we were tangled up on the wreckage of an earlier immigrant ship, and our captain had not thought it necessary to throw out anchors so that if need be, we could get away, but we had the corvette waiting on our heels.  We could neither go forward nor backward.  We were sitting ducks. Apparently, both the Haganah and some Palmach units were under the command of the young Major Yitzhak Rabin.   When I had the privilege of meeting Rabin at the Machal Memorial Dedication reunion in 1993, I told him where we had last met, at the Altalena, and he threw up his hands and with a wry smile of dismay, cried out, "Oh my, we could well have done without that!"

We were all given some inkling of what was going on, and that negotiations were proceeding on the fate of the ammunition and arms; but I sincerely believe that once Begin came on board and was with Eliahu Lankin (who later became a highly-respected lawyer), Ben-Gurion had but one thought in mind: to crush the Irgun at all costs, and that he was prepared to sacrifice lives and the arms and ammunition which were enough to equip more than a regiment.  If those arms and ammunition had been rushed to Jerusalem, the Old City might have been retaken.  The version I heard about the so-called negotiations was from the then Chief of Intelligence who gave a talk here in London a few years ago. I asked him, "What went wrong? Was it a breakdown in communication?" He retorted, "Rubbish. There was no breakdown in communication.  They just did not trust each other."

It was thought at the time that as we were beached at Tel Aviv in daylight, the local population would come to help us. We were told that as Menachem Begin was on board, he was prepared to give in to all the government's demands, and we later heard that the mayors of Petah Tikva, Bnei Brak, Netanya and Tel Aviv had been to see Ben-Gurion and had asked him to cease the fratricide.  Rumor had it that he had left them waiting in a room until the event reached its end.  We were all on deck, and Begin was on the bridge with the captain, when the Altalena was subjected to very heavy machine-gun, armor-piercing fire from the Palmach units that had been stationed at various hotels on both sides of the Kate Dan, and there were also some small Irgun sandbagged gun emplacements on the beach.

Captain Fein, disregarding his own safety and despite the fire, took the mini landing craft, with some boxes of ammunition on board, and tried to reach the shore to unload, hoping the fire would cease.  I can only assume that they weren't firing to kill, but to deter him.  He was forced to abandon the unloading and return to the ship. By this time we were all lying down, and I had a rifle in my hands.

My comrade had been ordered to the bow of the ship and I was stationed near the bridge with some other men.  Then one of the sorrier incidents of this tragedy occurred: a volunteer from the Cuban contingent was an example of Jewish manhood at its best. He was their group leader,  David Mitrani (I believe he was the son of the Chief Rabbi of Cuba), a young man of exceptional physical appearance, was hit by a stream of machine-gunfire and killed instantly, whereupon his companions went berserk: two of them stood up,  gesticulating, and they in turn were wounded.   At that point, one of the crew, an ex-Marine, I believe Manning was his name, positioned in an unprotected point, opened fire at the opposing troops with a heavy Browning 50-caliber machine gun meant for anti-aircraft defense. I don't know how he survived the fire, I think the opposing troops were so impressed with his bravery that they let him live.  By then they could see the extent of our casualties.

I was sheltering behind a bollard, a truce was called and I got up to bring a bucket of water, when machine-gun fire opened up again.  I lay down with a man next to me, I heard an ear splitting explosion on the bollard in front of my head  - to this day my ear drum can be usefully deaf - and the man at my side was hit by bullets in his leg and foot and the bucket next to me seemed to melt away.  A reflex action made my companion jump up and hop into a hatchway.  To my rear I heard another scream, Ima, Ima (Mother. Mother). One of the Irgun men who had boarded with Begin was holding his stomach, screaming and being comforted by his companion.  I was terrified, couldn't and wouldn't move during a temporary lull in the firing at that stage. It was obvious we could all be picked off.   Apart from what I could see, there were more casualties on the other side of the ship and further to the bow, and I was worried about my friend Henry Power.  Begin looked down from the bridge and pointed to me, as I was lying so still, and asked, I think it was to the captain – "Is he alright?"  I turned and acknowledged that I was alright.

On board with Begin there was a young woman nicknamed "Topsy" (she later married the captain), a broadcaster for the Irgun.  Topsy had been manning the loudspeakers on the ship, calling repeatedly in Hebrew to troops on the shore to cease firing, they were firing on their brothers, what were they doing?  I thought I could give it a try, get up, dash to the bridge and get hold of that microphone and identify ourselves - in English - that we were volunteers, but in fact I was too frightened to move.  The fire was pitiless. Thank heaven another truce was called.  We thought it was to reach an agreement but really it was called to allow us to evacuate the wounded.   Most of the ship's crew had told us that they thought there were top-level negotiations to stop this unnecessary fight.  Food was being provided, the deck was like a hot oven, you could barely put your hand on it; as sick as I felt, I was also hungry, and took the opportunity to go down below to have something to eat, and saw how little had been off-loaded, boxes upon boxes of everything you can imagine were still on board: big blocks that looked like cheese, but were in fact explosives in their raw state; five open-topped Bren gun carriers in pristine mint condition;  boxes of  Piat shells; grenades; and our boxes of 150 Spandau machine-guns that had taken so long to assemble and clean, all were still there.

I thought to myself, "I am not going back on deck, I cannot fire back, and I can't look and I am not going to be a target," and I had even seen a young girl in a yellow dress approaching the troops.   Little did I know that 45-years later, I would meet that girl, who was 17-years-old at the time. She had been asked to join her father, who was in the Haganah, to act as loader on his machine-gun.  It happened that that young girl was related to my daughter-in-law.  She told me that when she realized what was happening, she couldn't fire or help her father, and that they had locked her in a room when she tried to leave.  She is a most wonderful person, and she and her husband are now very dear friends of ours.

There were quite a few of us in the hold, probably all thinking the same things.  I must have dozed off when I heard a loud shell explode at the side of the ship, then another on the other side, and I thought, My God, they are bracketing us with shell fire. I didn't think it could be the corvette because of the danger at being too close to shore.  It was in fact shellfire from a French 65-mm cannon, called a Napoleonchick, being fired by a Jewish ex-French army man, whom I later met at a reunion.  I believe that gun is actually the one on display at the Naval Museum in Haifa.  From a military point of view, it is a wonderful little cannon, with a high trajectory so that it could fire from inside Tel Aviv and over the buildings.   Much as I admired Ben-Gurion, he is to be criticized for saying, "Blessed be that cannon."  

Whilst the army and navy obeyed Ben-Gurion's orders, the air force, in which Ezer Weizman, now President, did refuse.  Most of the fighters were in fact volunteers who said they didn't come to fight fellow Jews.  The commander of the air force did ask a non-Jewish pilot, Gordon Levett, an ex-RAF Spitfire instructor, to take part; he replied that his aircraft was not suitable for low-level attack, and also asked, Was he the Shabbes Goy?  He subsequently wrote a book about his experiences, Under Two Flags, a very good read, and he signed my copy "From me to Michael whom I did not bomb."  His book was first published in Hebrew and titled, “The Shabbes Goy.”

The third cannon shot came in quick succession, and landed just a few feet away from me in the hold, but fortunately for me, on top of the ammunition.  As I was well below the line of explosion, but closer, and shielded by some of the ammunition boxes, I survived, while the ammunition started to explode at the top, and I made a dash for the ladders in the hold and I'm ashamed to say that I pushed my way to the forefront and scampered to the deck.  There I met my companion, who had survived but was deathly white.  He told me he had been next to the Cubans.  He was obviously indeed very, very shocked.  I burst out, "They've hit the ammunition which is exploding, and we are going to go up any minute." Another young comrade of mine turned to me, and said, "I can't swim."

Though we were not far from the shore, we were in deep water in more ways than one.  I turned to him and said, "Put your life jacket on, I am jumping, leave your rifle behind, you jump after me and I'll see that you're okay." I turned to Henry, and said, "I can't stay on board."  Just then, there was a call from the bridge to abandon ship.  I jumped, and to my dismay I left my rifle behind. I helped the other lad to cope as best as I could, and pulled him away from the ship – we all thought it was going to go up at any moment.  It seemed as if the ammunition was exploding through the deck.  About a week or ten days later I went on board the ship, when it lay derelict on the shore, and the deck looked like a sieve.

After I had satisfied myself that the non-swimmer was going to be able to manage, I noticed ominous splashes in the water beside me.  Were we being fired upon in the water, or was it the exploding ammunition?  There was a life raft with some men on it, but we were not made welcome, and they waved us away with their paddles, as they thought we might overload them. Strange things happen to people when they are scared.  When I realized that the splashes weren't ammunition from the boat splashing into the water, but gunfire from the beach and the shore, I thought, "Do they want to kill us all?”

There was a horrible smell of burning oil and a huge column of smoke drifting overhead, like a smoke screen.  Thank goodness the shelling had stopped.  There was a forlorn white flag flying from the mast.  I decided to dog paddle and swim out to sea.  I was uncomfortable in my life jacket, and after a short while in the sea, took a chance and decided to return to shore and make towards where the Hilton Hotel is now, and as I got closer to the shore I saw a young Israeli Sabra girl waving to me, and as I got closer she came out and helped me ashore.  There were some other lads who had landed further down the beach that was being held by Irgun troops.  We were packed into an open van and driven through the streets of Tel Aviv at high speed.  Some drivers were very cross with us, not realizing who we were, but we were all in foul tempers and shouted obscenities back at them. We were so relieved at having survived.  We could see the pall of smoke from the ship, and at one time the top of the pall developed a mushroom effect, like an atom bomb.  We were taken somewhere, I think where the Jabotinsky Museum and a school is today. We were in a sorry state.  I was wet and bedraggled, wearing my army shirt and shorts, but barefooted, and in my back pocket, wrapped in an oilskin, were my British and my forged Displaced Person identity card.  What was going to happen to us?  We were all very silent, like footballers after losing a match.   My memory is a bit jaded about the sequence of events at that stage and what exactly transpired, but we were taken into a classroom, I suppose there were about 20 of us.

I didn't know then, but the casualty figures were about 17 killed, though later I was told that 41 died in that incident, and that included some who were killed on the beach at Kfar Vitkin, and there must have been double that number who were wounded, but as I said, casualty figures are never accurate.  Begin came into the room where we were.  At that stage he himself was very subdued and in a state of shock; he had been manhandled off the boat.  He spoke to us and said that later on he was due to speak on the radio.

It was then we learned that the reason the boat didn’t actually blow up and take with it half of Tel Aviv was that due to the quick thinking of the captain. He opened the front of the tank landing craft, which has wide gates, and the hold flooded. I later met the first mate and he told me that it wasn’t the ammunition which was smoking, it was the boxes of clothing, but there was also fuel down there. He seemed to have been unaware that those boxes of clothing were German Spandau machine-guns. I can’t recall exactly what Begin said, it seemed a bit mixed up to us. He had no explanation. What he did say to us was that he understood how we must feel and he was giving the volunteers the choice of returning home, joining his forces in Jerusalem or doing whatever we liked. Later in the evening, after having spoken to the dozen or so Anglo-Saxon volunteers, he spoke on the radio and made an emotional and partly hysterical speech. The boat burned like a torch for the first few days, and smoldered for over a week.

In the meantime, while we were making up our minds about what to do, we were sent to families where we could stay for a short time, giving us time to recover and decide what we wanted to do. My friend Henry Power said, no way would he go with me to Jerusalem, where I wouldn’t last one day, so we were sent together to a family in B’nai Brak, a very Orthodox town. The family treated us sympathetically. The man of the house was apparently one of the most prominent businessmen in the area. I know that as soon as I arrived there and sat on the settee, I fell promptly asleep and had erotic dreams, which I can only think were significant because of my thankfulness that I was alive. In the evening we had a visit from two young Haganah officers in an unofficial capacity, who spoke to us in a apologetic and sympathetic tone, and tried to explain to us that it was something that should never have happened, but it did, and that we shouldn’t be amongst the Irgun troops, and that the Irgun was being disbanded, that the Irgun Officer Corps would not allow this to turn into a civil war. We were told how to join the regular army which had been formed. We had unfortunately participated in the birth pangs of the new State.

I have been advised that it is therapeutically best for me to try and talk about it, as for many years, unless I was well plied with whisky I was loathe to speak about my experiences on this tragedy. Since the 50th anniversary of the State of Israel  is coming up, and I have been told that even though there is a right wing government, it has been decided that government papers on this event will not be released for another 25 years; once having set this story down on paper I suppose I am getting it off my chest

The event was always bitter, and as young as I was, I appreciated that every new nation in its early stages of establishing itself has tragedies of this nature; I have often thought that it was an event which was both avoidable and unavoidable; another good thing that came out of it was that it showed both the Arabs and the world not only the strength of Ben-Gurion but the determination of his people.

Troops in Tel Aviv, and at Kfar Vitkin, had been taken prisoner and were under military police detention, including the captain and Eliahu Lankin. So the next morning, Henry and I trotted off to Tel Aviv, queued up and enrolled in the army, the Israeli army, no longer made up of different factions, no questions asked, nothing volunteered.  I was given a number - 92596 - and to my delight we were given immediate furlough for a few days to wind up our business affairs.  We were also given vouchers by WIZO for both accommodation and food.

While on our so-called leave, we visited some of our wounded friends in hospital, and one young American lad who had been wounded in the arm said he was going home.  We were never sure of casualty figures and I had been severely reprimanded by an ex-US Marine man that you never asked about those things.  I later learned that the number of casualties on both the beachhead at Kfar Vitkin and on the boat, which I take to be killed and wounded, was as many as 82.  According to Menachem Begin, the Altalena had 900 Gahal troops, survivors of the camps, 5,000 rifles, 4 million rounds of ammunition, 300 Bren guns, 150 Spandaus - the ones we had cleaned up - 5 Bren gun-carriers, thousands of air combat bombs, and more.  Apparently, Begin had not wanted to leave the boat and had to be manhandled off.

Footnote:    Sir Martin Gilbert, in his recent book, Israel - Fifty Years, referred to the Altalena incident and stated that we opened fire first. I wrote and corrected him and he replied to me that he was checking his sources.


The Monster on the Hill
Soon after joining the IDF, with no specific orders, my colleagues and I were invited by an ex- U.S. army major, Lester Gorn, to join his newly-formed mortar and anti-tank unit which was later to be called the 4th Troop of the anti-tank battery.

At the outset, the unit was given the role of testing a new homemade version of a 50-kg. mortar called the  Davidka.  This weapon, which played an important role in the defense of Jerusalem, is commemorated by an imposing monument in Davidka Square in Jerusalem.  We used to carry out tests on the coastline near where the Sheraton Hotel now stands.  The  Davidka had no sights, nor was it accurate, but it could throw a heavy shell a fair distance, with a earsplitting noise that was more terrifying than the explosion itself, and could be heard from the moment it left the barrel until it landed.  I had the duty of packing the explosive material – it resembled spaghetti -  around a detonator and fix it into the side of what looked like a drainpipe.  Having lined up a high trajectory, I used a lanyard on a trigger mechanism and would call out, "Fire in ten seconds," when the man at the other end of the lanyard would pull it, and I would have to run for dear life into a foxhole, as more often than not the trigger mechanism of heavy metal would blow out, and could easily blow your head off; it was also debatable whether the shell would actually leave the barrel.   

The few days that we had some leave during a truce in Tel Aviv was a most stimulating experience - a lot of youngsters were allowed to come into town on leave - the distances at that time to the so-called front line were very short. The Arab Legion was at the doors of Petah Tikva less than 10-km away. There was such a vibrancy in the air, youngsters with cowboy hats and Arab kafiyas round their necks, bandoleers of ammunition over their shoulders, pistol-carrying, rifle-carrying, all irregularly dressed and armed, strolling along with their girls, their comrades, hustle and bustle. In it’s own way it outplays the atmosphere of today -- along the cafes on the front all vying with each other with patriotic and exhilarating songs, falafel stands, loud laughter and gaiety. There was a tremendous atmosphere of exceptionally high morale, bearing in mind the precarious state of the war. Admittedly, a lot of the older folk were looking more than a little skeptical and anxious, knowing the truce would not last and these youngsters would soon return to war, with resultant heavy casualties.

Back in camp, I had a chance to get to know the mixture of characters in the unit. There was the Anglo-Saxon group. as well as a couple of survivors from the Altalena, a mixture of professional people, some questionable villains, likeable rogues, ex-British army types, an ex-fireman, some yeshiva boys from New York, some orthodox boys from London and Leeds and one or two very weird characters, such as a half-caste Jewish American Indian: he was our truck driver who continually wore a battered cowboy hat even when he slept, and attempted to teach me horseback riding; he stayed on in Israel after the war and allegedly went into cattle rustling on both sides of the border. There were some wonderful fellows from Canada, the U.S., Argentina and South Africa, some of whom had been prisoners of war in Singapore. The majority of the Anglo-Saxon volunteers served in the famed 7th Brigade. One of its officers, Stanley Medicks, devotes his life to the welfare of the Machal Association of Great Britain, and at the invitation of President Ezer Weizman accompanied a large Machal group to Israel for the State's 50th Anniversary in May. Of the Machal volunteers which numbered some 4,500, about 800 came from South Africa, about 700 from the UK, 750 from America and the rest came from Argentine, Scandinavia and France, in fact, volunteers came from nearly every country where there were Jews, and a number of them stayed on. As the South Hampstead group has many ex-South African members, they may be interested to know that a book has been published called,  “South Africa’s 800,” the story of South African volunteers in the Israel War of Independence, written by Henry Katzew.

The Davidka that we had been testing was a very cumbersome weapon which we never took into action ourselves. However, we did see a troop using them, manned by some of the boys that disembarked from the Altalena at Kfar Vitkin before we were blown up. Our troop had been re-equipped with captured Egyptian guns.

There was no actual front line as such.  Battles were waged at strategic points and on hilltops, and our section had been given the British six-pounder anti-tank gun and two 17-pounders together with a handful of ammunition.  A cannon which had been in pristine condition in the British army shade of green had rough white lettering on the barrel - Liverpool to Alexandria - with a date from the time of the truce.  It wasn't a happy thought to note that Britain was arming the Egyptians. When these guns were abandoned, the enemy hadn't time to blow the barrels up and would either take the trigger mechanisms with them or just throw them a short distance away, where they could be easily found, but if they couldn't, the Haganah had built up an arsenal of trigger mechanisms acquired at the latter end of WW II as many of their men had served in the British army. The biggest problem was the lack of ammunition.

We were taking part in operations around the hills near Ishdud and Negba.  There were strongholds there, Taggart fortresses, named after a brilliant British police officer and engineer, Sir Charles Taggart, who designed them in 1938 to control the Arab insurgency of that period, along the so-called Taggart's Wall on the northern border with Lebanon and Syria, and at strategic intersections in the interior of Palestine. Our side was to assist in consolidating various hills, the numbers which I have forgotten, like Hill 100 and Hill 113, where heavy fighting was experienced, including company-strength hand-to-hand bayonet combat by elite Givati forces of the new IDF.  We were involved as part of the Israeli infantry support.  Little did I know that the theory was that when a hill is taken, there is usually an aggressive enemy counterattack, and the hill is sometimes retaken and then taken again. In other words, we were possibly amongst the expendables.  On one such hill we were subjected to very heavy mortar and artillery fire.  I shared a foxhole with an Australian, Max Rosenfeld, and we even dropped trousers together.

Fortunately for us, the Egyptians and their Sudanese troops were wonderful constructors of trenches where we could shelter in the surrounding hills.  On one occasion, when we had to place the cannons ready for an anticipated counterattack, one of our deputy commanders, an orthodox ex-U.S. Army man from New York, who never failed to lay teffilim irrespective of the situation,  advised me to make sure we avoided placing the gun on top of the hill, but rather halfway down the side facing the enemy; he also told us that he had heard that the Egyptians were reported to have one or two German Tiger tanks with German crew, and not to attempt to fire on them from the front, but from the rear, and he was sorry he couldn't remain with us, as he had been called away elsewhere to take over another section. Unfortunately, this young officer later had his leg blown off by a mine. Needless to say, we were all dismayed at this news.  I suppose I have to be thankful that we were only subjected to one whole day's continual bombardment.  I don't know what was more frightening: that day, or the mortar bombs landing, but at least once they landed and you heard them, it was alright; however, before they landed, you heard a ferocious screaming noise which was very demoralizing.  I have since learnt from an air force volunteer that the attack on our positions was broken by a flight of the three Flying Fortresses; we had cheered them as they flew over us dropping bombs on the enemy.

One night we were called in to assist in the attack on The Monster on the Hill, the Iraq-el-Suedan Fortress near Negba which controlled the road to the south and could have threatened the north and Tel Aviv.  Out of the two 17-pounder anti-tank  guns whose shells could pierce the walls of the fortress, only one could be used since the other one which was in my charge was faulty, leaking oil badly on the recoil system.  We only had 20 shells for it.  As the battle commenced we managed to get the gun into position in a wadi, but had poor visibility -- there was a brilliant fireworks-like display, with the lines of tracer bullets going in all directions and exploding loudly.  This fortress was surrounded by barbed wire fencing and inside, at selected points, sandbagged machine-gun posts providing crossfire around the perimeters. They only had to fire on fixed lines and nothing could get through.  I was with an ex-British army sergeant whose loader on a light machine-gun was expected to act as a tracer line for the cannon, and to provide protection for the gun crew from any ground attack.  He was very tough with me when I put my head down, pulling me up to watch the sappers placing the explosives: they used telegraph poles on a figure of A.

We were expected to find an accurate line of fire by using the machine gun and tracers, but we were concerned that with the poor visibility we might hit our own men.  A request was made for flares, but I rather think that when the flares did eventually go up, they weren't ours but those of the Egyptians that exposed us. The fortress was under the command of an ex-German army officer from WW II who had served in the Herman Goering Division.

Time was running out and we had just heard that the sappers had managed to approach the fortress and blow a hole in the wall - visible to this day -- and some had gained entry but they were all killed.  This building is now the Givati Museum and houses a working model re-enacting the battles.

Unfortunately, our part of the action was unsuccessful.  It was then decided to try and get into a closer position for a better line of fire.  As we got the 17-pounder hitched to the truck, the whole fortress lit up with flares, and so were we.  It was then too late to unhitch, especially when an Egyptian aircraft dropped anti-personnel bombs close by.  We then managed to take up a new position with a good line of fire directly on the fortress, but we found ourselves vulnerable to the fixed line of machine-gun fire from the fortress, and we suffered our first casualty. Major Gorn rushed him to the field hospital.  Ivor Fertleman (Fenton), from our intelligence section, had been hit by a bullet which lodged in his heart, where it still is to this day, as removing it would have caused his death.  He claims he had an out-of-body experience.  I met him during our 50th Machal reunion, for the first time since the day he was wounded.  He seems fit and well, as much as can be expected in these circumstances.

During a lull in the fighting, after our commander had taken Ivor to the casualty station, another officer came along and ordered one of our jeep drivers to go and collect some more wounded.  When we pulled out at daybreak, two Bristol Beaufighter bombers of ours attacked the Fortress, and one of them, on its second low-level pass, was hit, and crashed.  The pilot, non-Jewish Canadian Len Fitchett, navigator British Dov Sugarman and another pilot, American Stan Andrews, were all killed,  They came in very low, too soon after the first attack, as the enemy was now prepared with heavy machine-guns and anti-aircraft cannon placed on the roof.

As we were driving away madly along, with the cannon bouncing behind us, we were mortared all the way.  I must add the story about one of our sergeants who had a feud with one of the Israeli radio operators attached to our troop.  They disliked each other and just did not get on.  As we were hitching up to leave in a hurry, an argument broke out between them.  While we were leaving he pushed the Israeli off the truck, and he was left running after us with mortars falling and machine-gun fire directed at us.  We slowed down and hauled him on board.  It seemed funny at the time and it helped to relieve the tension.

This October 20th attempt to dislodge the Egyptians from "the monster on the hill" was one of seven unsuccessful attacks.  Eventually, on November 9th, relying on massive firepower, the fortress was finally captured.

There were a number of actions taking place around Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur – the actions were (part of Operation Ten Plagues, and we were ordered not to fast).  On another occasion, we were used as part of the blocking force around the besieged Faluja pocket.  A large number of Egyptian troops were completely surrounded.  One of the troops was the Egyptian Major Abdul Nasser.  Had the road been left open, the Egyptians might have withdrawn, but when surrounded they fought tenaciously and were later allowed to leave with full military honors.

I remember one night when my close friend, Henry Powers together with my sergeant, came round to inspect my dugout and section.  I had neatly laid out on top of the dugout four hand grenades, ready for throwing.  I was called all the names under the sun, and Powers said to me, Didn't I have the sense to realize that enemy fire could hit and explode the grenades?   He had come over to tell me that he was going out on patrol with the Israelis who had been going out every night, getting as close as they dared to the enemy positions; they had strung themselves out in a line, opening fire for a short period of time and then retreating.  For the rest of the night, the Egyptians around the whole perimeter were firing off flares, mortars and machine-guns, even when none of our men were left there: the idea was to get them to expend their ammunition.   When the two men told me that they were going along on patrol, I begged them to take me with, but thankfully they refused, as casualties occurred.

Click here to read about The Altalena Affair

Author:  S. Michael Brecker
Revised by Joe Woolf (researcher)