SOME REMINISCENCES BY DAN J. SAMUEL OF 82ND ARMORED BATTALION DURING ISRAEL’S WAR OF INDEPENDENCE
In June 1948, a few weeks after Israel’s Declaration of Independence, with the permission of my college at Oxford, I flew out from England to Haifa, at my own expense, and by a circuitous route. Two days later I was taken to see Yitzhak Sadeh, the famous bearded commander of the 82nd Armored Brigade.
Because I was born in Jerusalem on 25 March 1921 when my grandfather, Herbert Samuel, was the first High Commissioner of Palestine, I was a sabra, as indeed was my mother as well as my elder brother, David. (As a sabra, and having made my own way out to Israel, it is unclear whether it is entirely correct to count me as a member of Machal.)
But to go back in time: after two years at the Reali School in Haifa, and then at the Gymnasia Ivrit in Jerusalem, I was educated in England from the age of eleven. My father, Edwin Samuel, who had come out to Palestine in World War I to join General Allenby’s army, stayed on all his life in the country. When Allenby’s army captured Jaffa, he was billeted in a house in Tel Aviv at 8 Greenberg Street. The house belonged to my other grandfather, Yehudah Grazenovsky (later Goort, a well-known Hebrew lexicographer, and the father of my mother, Hadassah, whom my father married in 1920). At the time, Tel Aviv consisted of a relatively few houses on the outskirts of Jaffa. My brother, David, was born in Jerusalem in 1922.
In 1936, I was sent to boarding school in England, which I hated, although I enjoyed being both in the Cadet Corps and the Home Guard. So, on my 18th birthday in 1943, I volunteered for the British army. First I was sent to Balliol College at Oxford University for six months on a combined military/academic course. After further training in tanks, I was commissioned in mid-1945 from the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst as a 2nd lieutenant. World War II was just ending, and I joined the Yorkshire Hussars – a Territorial Army regiment – which at the time was being refitted in England with Churchill tanks to go out to Burma.
Since there was no longer any prospect of seeing action in Burma following the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I transferred to GHQ in Cairo. In 1947, I was demobilized as a major, official, in the 49th Royal Dragoon Guards – although I never served with them – and returned to Oxford for a second time.
With my experience with tanks, Yitzhak Sadeh appointed me to be chief instructor of the of the 82nd Battalion's Tank School. The school was commanded by Rav Seren Ferdinand Robatyn (who later changed his name to Dan Rotem). Although I had been a major in the British army, Sadeh asked me to start off again as a 2nd lieutenant. He did this, I believe, because he was fed up with volunteers from overseas making inflated claims to high ranks in their previous military service abroad.
However, this did not bother me, and I immediately started to organize the school, finding instructors in gunnery, radio and motor mechanics. I taught tank tactics – British-style – myself. We also scrounged training material from everywhere, including parts of tanks from a wadi near Haifa, where the British army, before leaving Palestine, had blown up Sherman tanks to avoid them falling into the hands of the Haganah.
The school had one working Sherman tank for training. While we would have preferred to have men with military experience to train, we were given about 100 young volunteers, none older than 18. They were keen and disciplined. There were no words in Hebrew for many of the tank-parts, so I had to invent a whole new vocabulary. (This was a coincidence, as my father, Edwin, then a 2nd lieutenant in the Royal Artillery in 1917/1918, together with 2nd Lieutenant Vladimir Jabotinsky, did the same for artillery.)
The 82nd was under the command of Felix Beatus, a rather rough and tough former tank officer in the Red Army. His second-in-command was Grisha, also a former tank officer in the Red Army. The Russian Army had a completely different theory of tank warfare from the British and the Americans. Supplied during World War II by the U.S. with large numbers mainly of Shermans, they promptly removed the radar for use by their under-equipped signal units. This step provided additional room for ammunition, but meant that communication from tank to tank was carried out by flags waved from the turret. However, not much communication was needed, as Russian tank tactics generally took the form of lining up a huge number of tanks and then charging forward.
British armored battle tactics were based on advancing stealthily with one or two tanks of a three-tank troop, stopping to cover the one or two which were advancing. But, in 1948, this difference in basic approach was hardly relevant, since Israel possessed only a handful of heavy tanks.
Under Felix Beatus, and apart from the Tank School under Freddy Robatyn (with me as chief instructor), there were three squadrons. The one with which I was most closely associated with was the heavy tank squadron made up of two British 35-ton Cromwells and a few Shermans, each with a crew of five, and armed with 75-mm guns plus two machine guns. The squadron was formerly commanded by Lionel Druker. He was moved, at his request by the Israel Army's Chief of Training Haim Laskov, to Sarafand. By the time I arrived, the squadron had been taken over by Clive Selby, a former tank officer from South Africa.
The two Cromwell tanks were “liberated,” ironically, from the 47th Royal Dragoon Guards. The regiment was about to embark at the port in Haifa, the last armored unit of the British Army to leave Palestine. The two tanks were driven away at high speed towards Tel Aviv by two British soldiers, who had been paid to do the job with a promise of, I believe, £5,000 each – cheap at the price, since the cost of a Cromwell at that time was some £40,000. (Two Haganah men failed to secure two other Cromwells which had to be abandoned.) The two British drivers were a Scot, “Sgt.” McDonald, and the other an Irishman, “Cpl.” Flanagan, although there was a question if these were their real names and ranks. Both were somewhat discomfited to find themselves, soon after, closely involved with me, a former major of their old regiment. The logbook of one of the Cromwells, still in the tank, was presented by me to the Armored Corps Museum at Latrun.
The story is that the then Commander in Chief of the British Army in Palestine, about to leave the country with the final withdrawal of his troops, was incensed by the theft of two of his tanks. Faced with the alternative of either disembarking with a large number of men and vehicles to search for the Cromwells, or alternatively, to refuse an invitation to have a formal tea with the Mayor of Haifa, he wisely chose – with typical British aplomb – the latter course.
The other two squadrons of the 82nd were, first, a squadron of very small two-man French Renault tanks which were antiquated, under-armed, and pretty useless. The third squadron was largely made up of armored troop-carriers mainly manned by former members of Lehi.
The 82nd Battalion was based at what was then Lydda (now Ben-Gurion Airport). This was not long after the airport had been captured. The terminal was pock-marked with shell and bullet holes, and the runways damaged by tank tracks. It was some months before it could re-open as a civilian airport.
At first, I shared a room in the small building near the main gate. Later, I moved to a room opposite the terminal. Freddy Robatyn was a charming man, and an excellent officer. He had been a tank officer in a Polish cavalry regiment attached to the British Army during the war. Polish cavalry officers had a flamboyant reputation with their unique hats, and the unusual habit of going into battle leaning out of the turret of the tank, sabers in hand. He was an excellent boss, and pretty much left me alone.
Clive Selby went back to South Africa, and the heavy tank squadron again came under the command of my good friend, Lionel Druker, formerly a Canadian tank officer. He was a good leader, and also a charming man. With him, he had a varied bunch of men from South Africa, including Eddy Magid (later, I believe, Mayor of Johannesburg), some Czechs, as well as McDonald and Flanagan; a very nice Frenchman, Arthur Feldman, whom I met after the war in Paris; and a rather small Englishman called Abe, who was, I believe, formerly a tailor. He had served in World War II in the Royal Tank Regiment, and before that as a volunteer fighting against Franco in the Spanish Civil War. Very sadly, returning from the Negev, he was sitting on top of the turret of a Sherman, which itself was on a tank transporter, unwisely facing backwards. He was knocked off the tank by a telephone wire stretched across the road, fell to the ground, and broke his neck. He was paralyzed and I went to see him in hospital a couple of times. Another member of Druker’s squadron was a very tall, mustached, former lawyer from Chile. A very nice man, he was emotional, and once burst into tears when he couldn’t get any clean underwear.
McDonald was a rather undisciplined soldier who commanded one of the Cromwells in action at Latrun. Back at the airport, without authority, he “borrowed” Felix Beatus's jeep to drive to Tel Aviv on a drinking binge. Felix, furious, sent a posse of MPs to find him, which they did in a bar, and dragged him back to the airport to face the CO. Apparently using Red Army methods of discipline, Felix first swore at McDonald, and then knocked him down. McDonald, more used to British ideas of discipline, was aware that striking back at a superior officer was a very serious offense, so he just lay on the floor. The incident was brought to the attention of Yitzhak Sadeh, who was not anxious to discipline two important men in his brigade. So, with Solomonic wisdom, he considered that stealing a jeep and punching an NCO canceled each other out, and the matter was forgotten.
However, McDonald remained something of a trouble-maker, and later was paid off to leave the country. He couldn’t go back to the UK, where he would have been tried as a deserter, and I believe he ended up in Canada.
Meanwhile, Flanagan – an Irish Catholic, a small and somewhat quiet man, but a good soldier – fell in love with the daughter of an Orthodox Jew living in Tel Aviv. Flanagan converted to Judaism (fortunately he’d been circumcised at birth), and I attended the wedding in a Tel Aviv café. McDonald was “best man.” The religious authorities were late, and finally a serious and exasperated Flanagan, turning to McDonald, came out with the memorable phrase, “Jesus Chris, Mac, where’s the rabbi?” He, too, I believe, also ended up in Canada.
After the war, Felix became a bus driver. Grisha organized the taxis at the airport. Several of the South Africans went back home, while the Czechs all stayed on in Israel. Freddy (Dan Rotem) remained in the army, retiring as an aluf mishne.
While being chief instructor was very interesting, I was anxious to see some action. With Freddy’s permission, I joined the brigade after one of the truces, moving south to the Negev.
I attached myself to the heavy tank squadron. We stopped at a deserted Arab village in the Negev. It was almost unbearably hot, but rather than sleep in a deserted fly-infested mud home, I balanced an old sheet of corrugated iron on the ground with four rocks under each corner which made, surprisingly, a comfortable bed on which I slept under the stars.
During the day I worked with the members of the tank crews, rehearsing with them how to strip, clean and aim the guns. We were given the usual basic army food, but plenty of delicious canned orange juice. On one occasion, a young Yemenite cook went out with an army rifle and came back with several dead pigeons which he had shot. These, together with some tomatoes, onions and herbs which he had scrounged, made a delicious and memorable pigeon stew.
Although there was an official truce at the time, from a crazy and misplaced sense of vanity Felix decided on a show of force by parading the tanks, both large and small, one after the other, right in front of the Egyptian lines. Not surprisingly, this was highly provocative, and an Egyptian anti-tank gun fired one shot which knocked out one of the Renaults. It was getting dark. I was on one of the Shermans when Felix climbed up and ordered Grisha to take another Sherman to drag the Renault back to our lines. Felix, increasingly irritated by the delay, suddenly grabbed my microphone and shouted into it: “Grisha, ya Felix,” and then simply spat into the microphone. Eventually the rescue was successful.
The Egyptians also had Renault tanks and two were knocked out and burnt in the Negev, and then transported back to Lydda with their dead two-man crews still inside. Some miserable soldiers were paid to remove the charred drivers, and I remember the teeth of one of them lying on his lap.
Weeks later, again impatient to see action, I drove down in a jeep to join the brigade just south of the Israel/Egyptian border, a few miles inland from Rafah. As the gunner was sick, I volunteered to take his place in the Cromwell commanded by Lionel Druker.
We were being fired on from an Egyptian machine gun post situated at the foot of three tall trees in an otherwise empty stretch of desert. At Lionel’s command, I fired one shot, and the middle tree fell down, presumably killing the machine gun crew. After that I was referred to sometimes as the “killer of trees.”
Very early one morning, we were attacked by a group of Egyptian Spitfires, for which we were not prepared. There were no casualties, but about an hour later another group of Spitfires appeared, of which five were shot down; one by a soldier called “John,” ex-British army, firing a heavy machine gun from the top of the tank. I watched as the tracer bullets went straight into the plane. It all happened so quickly that we didn’t realize that they were in fact British RAF planes which, of course, had no business flying from their base in Egypt over a battlefield where they had no right to be.
The plane that was shot down by “John” climbed up, and the pilot ejected by parachute. There was of course a big row in the House of Commons, not so much at the shooting down of the planes, but at the fact that they shouldn’t have been there anyway. Some months later, back at Oxford, a friend brought a guest to dinner who happened to be the very pilot of the RAF Spitfire. He confirmed that he had been shot down from the ground, and when he landed was roughed up a bit by some soldiers, who were very embarrassed to find out that he was an RAF officer. He was then taken to see Yitzhak Sadeh. He told me that he remembered being questioned by a genial bearded Israeli commander, to whom he gave his revolver as a present. Sadeh showed me the revolver some time later when I went to say goodbye.
In the same action, just as another truce was beginning, we were advancing south of the Israel/Egyptian border towards the Mediterranean just south of Rafah in one of the Cromwells with me as the gunner. I was about to fire the 75-mm gun when the shell, which was dented, jammed in the breech. (A number of shells had been salvaged from the sea, where the British army had dumped them before leaving Israel.) To my horror, I turned around to see our Chilean banging away at the base of the shell with a hammer, trying to get it into the breech. This would, of course, have blown us all up, so he stopped. Meanwhile, an armored half-truck moving forward next to us was hit and caught fire, and the advance halted. What would have happened had we succeeded in reaching the sea is a question that has always intrigued me, and conceivably might have had huge political and historical significance.
I returned to the Tank School, having already been promoted early on to seren (captain), and soon after, before the official Armistice was signed, I returned to Balliol College, Oxford, for the third time.