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Recalled by Grafton Maggs
AMNON AND YAFFA
And their part in: “An Unholy Mess!”
Throughout his life my father, Glyn Maggs a creature of his time, tried valiantly to conduct a diligent and well ordered daily routine. As a Victorian/Edwardian, his behaviour was considered to be de rigueur and, if disrupted severely, would distress him greatly. He would fume and, then, through clenched teeth, hiss:
“This has become an unholy mess!”
At an early age, I cottoned on to this expression, loving its pomposity and its impact, and - like father, like son- I used the expression frequently. More often than not, its use was unjustified but there were situations in my life which warranted such an expletive and of these, there was one which, like racehorse Frankel, led the field- in a class of its own.
In 1945, the illustrious 6th Airborne Division, almost straight from the battlefields of Europe, found itself thrust into a Middle East situation that rapidly deteriorated into an ongoing, and seemingly endless, nightmare.
A situation that became “an unholy mess”.
All this was centred on a tiny strip of Mediterranean land known, then, as- Palestine.
Controversy and argument rage as to how it all came about and this is not the place for a lengthy appraisal. Briefly, on one fundamental point, there appears to be universal agreement- that the tindery situation of hatred, that exists to this very day between Arab and Jew, was fuelled by the blatant betrayal inflicted by Britain upon her Arab allies, during the post World War 1 machinations.
It’s all there, in the history books:
…The promises to the Arabs….The Allenby and Lawrence Crusade into the Holy Lands… The broken pledges to the Arab allies….. The Balfour Declaration….. The Palestine Mandate…..
In response, and not surprisingly, Arab militancy was soon to manifest itself and between the two world wars, was barely contained by Palestine Police and British Armed Forces. However, following the outbreak of World War 2, a truce was called which was honoured until the cessation of hostilities in 1945.
Then the pigeons came home to roost.
And this kit of pigeons brought king size problems! The Palestine Arab no longer stood alone, his more united brethren throughout the Middle East were rattling sabres in support but, more worrying was the sinister presence of a newcomer- the well connected, militant and restive Jew.
During the war years, Jewish military/terrorist organisations had developed enormously on a worldwide scale and, with cessation of hostilities, were impatient to strike for their cause. Europe was awash with weapons and had become a paradise for the illicit arms dealer, all too ready to smuggle arms into dollar-rich Jewish hands. Militant, ruthless, well equipped and fired by long endured persecution, the Irgun and the Stern gangs were ready to hit. Their aim? To force the gates open wide, for unrestricted Jewish immigration into a National Home in Palestine.
Both sides possessed seemingly unarguable points of view.
An irresistible force against an immoveable object.
And, between the two? The British soldier.
August 1945. 6th Airborne Division, ready for battle with the Japanese, was on the verge of embarkation to the Far East. This campaign was aborted, that conflict having come to a dramatic nuclear finale, but, there was little respite and within weeks, the Division sailed from the UK to the Holy Land. The Middle East, Arab/Jewish situation had suddenly become a potential flash point which, if not contained, would spark off another massive conflict.
In September, the 2nd Parachute Brigade disembarked from SS Cameronia in Haifa. During the twelve day transit period, attempts had been made to brief all men on the current situation in Palestine. Clued up on jungle warfare they may well have been, but the great majority disembarked, gloriously ignorant of most matters Semitic.
Except for one thing.
Having played a hands-on part in liberating Europe from Hitler’s Nazis, they were fully aware of the relentless persecution that had been endured by the Jew and understood, with sympathy, the plight of the many homeless thousands scattered across Europe.
So, with that customary vague affability that the British soldier always seems to possess, 6th Para Battalion (Royal Welch) of 2nd Para Brigade, arrived in Gaza and set up camp on Nuseirat Ridge. This was an unbelievably barren site on a stony sun- baked desert (it made the three Swansea Valley boys in the Battalion feel quite homesick).
And what was this all about? Why such a concentration of military strength?
They came as peacekeepers, to protect both Arab and Jew, to preserve law and order and to spell out a clear message to any surrounding Arab States – don’t interfere!
Law and order meant, amongst other things, that the agreed legal annual quota of Jewish immigrants was to be strictly adhered to and any illegal immigration suppressed.
Attempting to enforce this law was at the heart of all the troubles to come.
The early welcome from Arab or Jew could hardly be described as effusive, yet, was not entirely lacking in warmth. However this honeymoon, such as it was, was soon over and change came about with bewildering speed. The Arab kept his distance with a lofty dignity but the early lukewarm welcome demonstrated by the Jewish settlers changed dramatically. First of all, to an attitude of studied indifference and then, within months, to one of barely veiled hostility.
With slick propaganda, outrageous lies and dire threats to those who ‘fraternized’, the militant Jewish organisations won over the support of the rank-and-file Jewish settler. The British Forces were portrayed as being an illegal army of occupation, employing brutal Nazi methods of subjugation. The word “Gestapo” frequently appeared in their written propaganda.
Jewish terrorist activity quickly built up, from hits against strategic targets (railway system, oil installation, civil administration office, etc), to killing. The prime target was, of course, the British soldier and if civilians of any ethnic group happened to be in the way, it did not matter- that is the philosophy of the terrorist, - anywhere.
6th Airborne Division, by tradition, was always at the spearhead of any operation, with the result that the distinctive red beret was soon to become a focus of hatred. This was displayed in no uncertain manner. Whenever a red beret was spotted, Jewish settlers were encouraged to shout, or sing, the opening lines of the old Hebrew song:
“Kolarnyort” (the song of the Poppy).
The significance of the poppy being the red petals surrounding the black centre:
“Red Beret--- BLACK HEART!”
This constant derision, which was unfair in the extreme, coupled with the endless patrols, skirmishes and ambushes was soon to have an effect. The death toll was mounting. Far from home with appalling food and living under canvas, morale was wilting. Worrying was the antipathy that was now beginning to fester in the British soldier’s heart, antipathy not only directed at the terrorist but, sadly (and unfairly) beginning to embrace the Jewish population as a whole.
Allowances have to be made for these emotions, after all, British soldiers, in a peace keeping role, were being wounded and killed. Yet to their immense credit, discipline of the highest order was maintained. The conduct of the British soldier, certainly in the 6th Airborne, was of the highest order.
In April 1946, after months of active duty, 2nd Para Brigade was withdrawn into reserve in the Lydda area. A break was necessary in order to train, sharpen up and carry out a few parachute drops. The unit was moved to an area near the Jewish settlement of Gedera, yet again under canvas.
Up to date intelligence stated that the Gedera settlement was of peaceful intent with no history of terrorist co-operation and, with this in mind, CO Lt. Col. John Tilley despatched me to the township, which was about two miles from the camp, to try and establish a friendly relationship.
With little optimism, off I went. I sought and found the Mayor, who was a stocky individual of middle age, tanned and muscular from hard work in the groves. At first, he was a little taciturn but gradually relaxed when he knew the purpose of my visit. He had little English, but fluent German and, thanks to my primitive army German, we managed to communicate. I was soon to discover that he was a cultured man with a remarkable personal history and, quickly, I appraised his devotion to the settlement and the way of life that it was bringing to his people. I was impressed.
He was well informed and understanding of the need for the British Army’s presence, at that particular time.
On the way in to the settlement I couldn’t help but notice the community swimming pool, which, on the blistering hot day that it was, matched the appeal of an Eynon’s Pie to a starving man. I muted the possibility of its use by my unit, in return for which we would gladly pay in some shape or form. To my delight, he was amenable and a simple deal was struck.
Later, Colonel Tilley, in response to this kindness, was to send down items of medical equipment, drugs and the like. It worked well! Even more appreciated was the readiness of the Battalion MO, Captain WAM Smith (a huge, genial Scot) and his team to offer hands-on medical expertise whenever needed.
Bridges were made.
The pool turned out to be a life saver and, a week or two later, accompanied by Rick Rothkugel, a guttural South African subaltern (built like the proverbial brick shipyard), I went down for my first swim. The pool was fairly full, mainly with children who, like kids anywhere, just got on with what they were doing, our white skins and brown knees were ignored.
After a swim, Rick and I relaxed at the poolside, legs in the water, enjoying a sun which was now losing the ferocity of the mid day. A rare moment of relaxation with the sun softening the aches and pains in our bodies (and minds). Eyes closed.
A pleasant dreaminess. Thoughts drifting home.
Suddenly!..............Out of the blue!
I felt two cold wet hands on my shoulder blades and, being barely in balance, it didn’t take much of a push to send me flying into the pool.
When I surfaced I looked around and there was a little boy in swimsuit, grinning at me like a Cheshire cat. I made a face at him and shook my fist. He made a face back and, as I climbed out of the pool, he took no chances and fled.
Momentarily, I wondered if this were a gesture of ill intent, but shrugged it off and thought nothing of it. Kids are the same, the world over.
However, it didn’t end just there!
It was time to return to camp and we left the pool area. Outside, there he was!
That same little boy, same grin, but no longer alone, with him was a little girl. Both children were clad in blue shorts, white sleeveless vest tops and canvas shoes.
He came up to me, hesitantly, and looked up into my face. He was about eight years old. He possessed thick, near-black hair, deep brown eyes and a flawless olive skin - a fine looking little lad. The little girl, obviously his sister, was even lovelier and around the little, up tilted nose was a dusting of freckles on her cheeks.
However what struck me most was, not the boy’s pleasant looks, but the warmth of the expression upon his face. An inquisitive look of good humoured trust.
This was, indeed, a first in Palestine!
He pointed to his chest and said, “Amnon!”.
He pointed to the little girl at his side and said, “Yaffa!”
She was about six. Her hair, similarly black, was plaited around her head. She smiled nervously and holding Amnon’s hand, moved a little behind him.
Again, he pointed to himself, “Amnon!”
He then pointed to me and looked up quizzically.
I replied, pointing to myself, “Graf!” and to my companion, “Rick!”
Amnon repeated, “Graf -- Rick!” He laughed delightedly.
In that simple way, two little Jewish children had introduced themselves.
They were to stay in my mind for the rest of my life.
They spoke to each other in Hebrew, smiled at us, turned and made their way, slowly up the gravel road to their home in the settlement, stopping halfway to turn and wave.
Gone for ever - so I thought!
A week later, this time on my own, I was back at the pool and when leaving, saw Amnon, with Yaffa, outside the pool entrance. He approached and said simply, “Graf!”
I smiled and said, “Amnon and Yaffa!”.
They both laughed and did a dance of delight. Then, to my surprise, Amnon took my hand and pulled me in the direction of the main road leading up the hill into the settlement. I had misgivings, after all, I was a “Kolarnyort!” Was I walking into something which would result in me disappearing from the face of the earth? Stranger things than that were happening in Palestine at this time!
One glance into Amnon’s face dispelled these doubts. With such a trusting, guileless look in his eyes, I could not resist and, on that very hot afternoon, I made my way up the white dusty road, with my two small escorts. To this day I remember the moment- it was so hot, the white-painted kerbstones danced in the heat and the road surface shimmered in the heat. At the top of the rise, we entered the well laid out settlement and branching off, at right angles, were lanes lined with spaced out, small, flat topped homes. All were washed white and each had its small garden, bursting with produce. All so orderly and immaculate.
We turned left into one of these lanes, which was little more than a wide, crushed-stone track, and three dwellings or so along, Amnon stopped and pointed. Obviously, this was his home. He and Yaffa ran up the short path to the open door and disappeared into the dark interior, shouting loudly. A few moments later, he reappeared, and beckoned. I went up the path and he drew me through the door into the pleasantly cool interior. On a tiled floor were scattered two or three brightly coloured rugs and to one side were chairs about a small table.. Amongst a few water colours on the wall, were old sepia-tinted family photographs, obviously from a time long ago. There were flowers in a vase by the window and a few precious ornaments, no doubt with a family history, adorned the shelves. There was little else.
I was due for a shock.
Amnon returned from the kitchen with his mother. As she came through the door, she saw the red beret in my hand, she paled and stopped dead in her tracks. Her hands flew to her mouth and she gasped,
Amnon gabbled something to her, as did the excited Yaffa. She just shook her head and backed off.
She was really afraid of me. The Irgun had done their work well.
I tried to reassure her and spoke in German. She responded and calmed down a little, but in view of her reaction, I thought that my best move would be to leave quietly and immediately.
I apologised for my presence. She must have seen the look on my face and as I made for the door, raised a hand to check me. Haltingly, she explained, my visit was totally unexpected, her husband was at work, that it was all such a dreadful shock. However, she did relax a little when I spoke to her of having met the settlement’s mayor and we had his blessing to use the pool. All through this, Amnon and Yaffa looked anxiously on. Amnon suspected that he was in deep trouble.
She was a handsome woman of average height, in her early thirties and just
beginning to put on a little weight. A very pleasant olive skinned face had lines etched around the soft grey eyes. She was a pleasing picture of motherhood- seen anywhere in the world- I thought to myself- there are hundreds like you back home in Mumbles. Surprisingly, she asked me to call back that evening when her husband was home.
I took my leave.
Foolishly, or otherwise, I chose to accept the invitation and about eight o’clock that evening, I walked back up the hill. The sun was low in a flaming red sky, it was much cooler.
With an excited Amnon and Yaffa in attendance, the husband was waiting and he greeted me, not coldly, but a little warily. He was older than his wife, probably in his early forties, a thick set man, very tanned and possessed of a rugged handsomeness. His coarse wavy hair was shot, prematurely with grey and I observed, yet again, deep lines on a young face.
For a few seconds we looked hard at each other, a mutual appraisal.
I saw an intelligent face, I saw kindness and I saw what I can only describe as an age old wisdom. We conversed, after a fashion, in German and as the evening passed, my admiration grew for him as an incredible story unfolded. Both he and his wife were mid- Europeans and the road to this settlement had been a long, long arduous one of suffering. He considered himself blessed in that he and his wife now had a home in God’s Promised Land. He had work, he had his wife and two lovely children. He wanted nothing more than to be able to live this life in peace.
I warmed to this lovely man who in spite of his suffering did not preach a gospel of hate. I could sense that he trusted me and he made it clear that I was very welcome to come back the following week.
The following week, I returned and I was informed that there was a treat in store for me! I was escorted to the open air cinema which was little more than a clearing with rows of benches before a rickety screen! This, I was told, was a weekly diversion, (provided a film turned up). It was my pleasure to sit out on a wooden bench in the warm Palestine night, with Amnon and Yaffa, at my side. That glorious clear Palestine night! No light pollution and we sat below a canopy of stars set in deep blue velvet!
I remember the film, it was one that I had seen, a few years previously, in the Tivoli Cinema, Mumbles:
”Dr Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet”,
starring Edward G. Robinson as the great Dr. Ehrlich working hard, laying the foundations of a new medical science - chemotherapy. The sound track was in the original English with sub titles in Hebrew (this meant that I had a ten minute edge, dialogue- wise, on the rest of the audience).
Looking back, I realise now that this escapade had been rather foolhardy. Yet, at the time, I felt no apprehension, not one of the inhabitants showed the slightest animosity or, even interest in me. They worked hard in the fields and the groves, they toiled at their trades, they worshipped their God, they were thankful for what they had and just wanted to get on with their lives.
As the weeks passed, it was good to see that other members of my unit were socialising with the good people of Gedera. So, through the medium of the swimming pool, genuine bridges had been made between this Jewish community and the British soldier. Nothing is impossible!
Amnon and Yaffa’s parents came to know a little about me, my background and my home in Mumbles and that I was just a very ordinary young lad, called to serve his country. They appreciated what the British soldier was trying to do, viz, keep the peace and stabilise a country in which Arab and Jew could co-exist.
For a month, or so, I enjoyed this totally unexpected relationship and I learned a lot. I was told of the hardship endured, of lost homes and families and of their different routes to Palestine. I came to admire the dedication and hard physical work that they put in on the land and I learned of their dreams. They prayed that Amnon and Jaffa would grow up with a secure future in a country where peace reigned. Something, we take so very much for granted in this island of ours!
Our getting to know each other was good.
Inevitably, and all too soon, orders came to move on. Back to active duty with its endless patrols, road blocks, ambushes, road mines and, of course, the ubiquitous hostility.
For obvious reasons, all moves were top secret and we left camp with the rising sun, a long procession of 15-cwt and three tonner trucks, jeeps and armoured cars. The convoy wound out of the camp, en route for Tel Litwinsky, a camp near Tel Aviv and in the heart of a hotbed of terrorist activity. The holiday was over!
The sun was barely over the horizon as the convoy snaked its way down the dusty white hill road on to the main highway. Ahead, there was a surprise for all of us!
At the turn off to the Gedera settlement, the grinding lurching noises that convoys make, had attracted a few of the early risers and workers. Further up the hill, more appeared and came running down to the junction, to bid us farewell!
I was in a jeep and as I passed, I saw Amnon and Yaffa, dressed for school, with mother and father. They saw me. Both parents waved and smiled sadly. Amnon ran up to me and touched my outstretched hand. There were tears in his eyes. Yaffa was weeping openly.
We all knew we would never see each other again.
Through 1946, the Palestine situation went from bad to worse, necessitating the deployment of over 100,000 British troops to cope with the broadening field of terrorist activity.. The Irgun and the IZL had long moved on from sabotage to outright mass murder. To come was the blowing up of the King David Hotel, the massacre of 5th Para Battalion soldiers whilst sleeping, the garrottings, the kidnappings and executions, the booby trapping of bodies. All this with constant road mining incidents, ambushes and snap raids. It was a war, but a war with a difference - there was the constant dread of hurting innocent Jewish settlers whilst hunting terrorists in their midst.
Feelings ran high which, of course, was what the Irgun wanted. They always hoped for an undisciplined reaction to their intense provocation, spilling out on to the innocent civilian population. This would have had world wide coverage to create support for their cause.
They failed to get this, discipline held.
So it went on to the end of the tour in Palestine.
Big things were happening on the European/World scene and the Division was needed in Germany, called to play a part in yet another type of confrontation, that battle of nerves, remembered now as – “the Cold War.”
Brigade by brigade, the move was made back to the United Kingdom, 2nd Para Brigade embarking on the Alcantara early in 1947. Few tears were shed as troops looked down on the backwash of the ship, stretching to a Haifa receding in the heat haze.
And, what had been achieved? Very little- so it seemed, at first! Such a military presence had certainly deterred neighbouring Arab States from interfering and creating the much threatened bloodbath and, though “hobbled” by transatlantic political interference, British troops had restrained, and neutralised to some extent, the Jewish terrorist activity thus preserving a degree of social order and stability.
At a price! …
In the beautifully maintained military cemeteries at Gaza, new white crosses now stood alongside those of Allenby’s fallen.
For the serving soldiers, there had been the good times, of course. As would be expected, young warriors overseas on active service share unique experiences from which a bonding of rare intensity develops. There are the shared good moments, and there are the laughs, remembered for the rest of their lives. As for the bad times, they pulled the bonds tighter. That’s a part of soldiering that never changes.
For all that, Palestine was beset with problems of such a magnitude, that the UN Organisation eventually shouldered the responsibility. The Palestine Mandate ceased to exist and the State of Israel came into being. Regrettably, an ill-planned partition of Palestine was implemented, sowing the seeds for yet further escalation of the existing problems between Jew and Arab.
The Arab, yet again, had a scurvy deal.
Israel, understandably, fought hard to keep its footing in the Promised Land and was to become a powerful and dynamic State. Sadly, the Palestine Arab never had a chance and struggles to this very day for survival. As a result, conflict between Jew and Arab, has become an accepted way of life, the tiniest spark able to set off a conflagration.
And what did I, personally, come away with?
To be honest, much that remains in my mind, to this day, is nebulous and confused. Confusion persists over the whole political situation as it was, wondering what on earth the British Government was trying to achieve. And there are the nightmare memories of day to day duties, never knowing who was friend or foe, who was going to shake your hand or, blow your head off.
Few things stand out stark and clear. There were, of course, the wonderful visits to the holy shrines and although failing, through immaturity, to fully appreciate their glory, I was aware of being enriched.
And then, of course, there was Amnon and Yaffa! As if it were yesterday, I can still see those young faces smiling up at me and feel the warmth of their good will - doubly cherished in such a hostile land! There is the poignancy in the fact that it was a child who reached out to make that initial act of friendship, a gesture leading to enlightenment and mutual understanding.
Initially (and dismissively), I had viewed the Palestine problem as a conflict between two anonymous, amorphous masses of humanity. Following the advent of Amnon and Yaffa, the scales fell from my eyes and I began to see, instead, the plight of individuals (both Arab and Jew), the terrifying fragility of their existence and what little control they held over their lives. As a result, I found purpose, thus making it easier to accept the yoke of the Palestine role.
Almost seventy years have passed since the day I was unceremoniously pushed into the pool by Amnon and I often wonder, if brother and sister survived those tremendous days of tumult when this young country fought for its very existence. Did they return to their home township of Gedera to enjoy their golden years? One thing I do know, wherever they went, it’s not the Shangri-la that their parents had prayed for.
The political leaders rave, threaten and rant- to no avail. Maybe it will take a simple gesture from a child for them to see the stark truth of the situation and stop tearing the heart out of each other. .
“It is indeed an unholy mess”.
This article, such as it is, is dedicated to those servicemen who served during the Palestine Campaign of 1945/ 1948.
Singled out, must be the men who were “on the ground”, especially the soldiers of 1st and 3rd Infantry Divisions and 6th Airborne Division. If nothing else, this campaign
brought credence to the sterling reputation of the British soldier. His dogged good humour, stoicism, courage and kindness were constantly tested to the full.
Those qualities were never found wanting.
There is, indeed, something very, very special about the British soldier!
Nearer home, and a warm tribute must be made to Ernest Evans who served, and fought, with “the Kolarnyort” during that troublesome period and whose favourite boast was, that although he took off, over twenty times, in a Dakota aircraft
- he never landed once!
Ernest is the late, much loved father, of our Canon Father Keith Evans.
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