- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Neil Humphreys Jones
- Location of story:
- UK, Europe and Middle East
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 21 November 2005
In the New Year we were told that we should be moving North in the near future, to a camp at Hadera, about 30 miles south of Haifa, and in due time we packed everything up and set of in convoy order for our new home. We had to travel quite a long way to get there, since we were not allowed to go by way of Tel Aviv, which was strictly out of bounds at all times, but we did make it in the end, and settled in to the new camp, not far from the coast road.
About this time I volunteered for parachute training. I had always refused to apply for anything like this, but since I had joined the 6TH Airborne Division, not of my own volition, and met and talked to so many men who had done it, it seemed to me to be an easy way of earning an extra allowance (I think it was a shilling a day, but I could be wrong about that). Anyway, not long after we had arrived there I was sent to the airfield where the main airport now is, and two weeks later returned with parachutists wings on my sleeve, and the hope of consolidating my position in the unit.
Now we were settled in to our duties all was much the same sort of routine we had known at Gaza, except that our afternoon swimming was much rarer than it had been, and part of the camp was occupied by nurses, whom we hardly ever saw other than at a distance. One thing I remember was that one of the nurses got engaged to be married to an airborne officer (how or when they had met I have no idea) , What made it all the more exotic to us (well, to me, at any rate) was that she was a foreigner.
It was somewhere about this time that there were several refugee boats making the illegal voyage to Palestine, laden with Jewish fugitives desperate to escape from Europe and eager to join the settlers in Palestine. This time the ship had wrecked itself by running ashore in south Palestine, where both crew and passengers had been rounded up by the army, and now would be transported up to Haifa, whence they would be sent to camps in Cyprus. Our job would be to garrison a stretch of road towards Haifa, and to ensure that no rescue attempt would succeed. We mounted guard on our stretch of road as it grew dark, and then just waited until at long last a convoy of trucks appeared and swept past us , after which we were stood down and sent back to our camp. I was told that as they passed part of our line of sentries a scrap of paper was thrown from the back of one of their trucks. I did not see it, nor did I hear what it said.
I knew that my demobilization date would come at some time in the second half of the year, so I was quite surprised when I was sent for by the CO and told that I was to be sent with my platoon on detachment, to open up a small camp a few miles North of Acre, which had been closed for I do not know how many years. My first job would be to report on the state of the camp, and what would be required to make it usable again. So off I sped in my 15 cwt. truck, with my driver / batman and a couple of escorts, to find the camp, assess it, and report back. The camp was easy to find, next to an Israeli factory, and it really did not seem to be in a bad condition at all. The main problem, so far as I could see, was that the secondary road to the North cut right through the middle of it, so that the accommodation part was separated from the vehicle park.
However, needs must, as they say, when the Devil drives. It appeared to me that first we must take down some dilapidated matting which covered the perimeter fences, then make good the barbed wire and chicken wire which formed their main obstacle. Inside the vehicle park there was, we found, quantities of Bren carrier tracks which had at some time been used to divide up the area, and these we removed and disposed of so we had full freedom of movement. We also used large quantities of whitewash to clean up all the buildings we proposed to use, and made note of how many tents we should need to accommodate our troops. (This was quite easy, since there were hard standings for the tents, each surrounded by a low wall about three feet high, and strong enough to repel any small arms fire). What we could not do was to carry out a assessment for those who would be responsible for the more technical aspects of our occupation like water supplies, hygiene, cooking equipment, and so on. One of my sergeants saw to the necessary arrangements for the vehicles.
So now we settled down to the problems of keeping a brigade of the Airborne Division supplied with all its necessities, both food and ammunition, and supplying the infantry battalions with transport when trouble broke out in our area. During the time I was there were various semi-urgent call-outs, and the trucks selected for the delivery of rations to the units in our area, and kept clean for that purpose, made their regular runs in addition. My batman had made friends with the technical staff in the factory next door, and he managed to get quite a lot of jobs looked after by them, which saved us the trouble of going some twenty miles to headquarters for what were essentially minor problems.
I suppose one of the most memorable incidents for me came when I met some of the officers from our headquarters at Hadera, who had come across to Acre to meet me, and after tiffin we went on to the beach just South of the Haifa for a swim. We were drying ourselves and dressing when there was a tremendous explosion inside the city, a pillar of smoke shot hundreds of feet into the air, and volleys of small arms fire broke out, and continued for some time. We quickly finished dressing, drove up to the coast road, and stopped to decide what to do. As the senior subaltern I instructed my driver to park his truck across the road, and then sent the other two trucks to park themselves at approximately hundred yard intervals on the way to Haifa. Since there was no sign of life other than the rattle of rifle and machine gun fire, I put my batman in charge of the vehicle and ran up the hill to see if I could see what was happening. All was peace over the hill, so I went back to the truck, and a few minutes later I could hear the roaring of engines and intermittent shots. Then, round a corner about a hundred yards or more away, there came a truck painted in British Army colours and with British Army identification marks, carrying men wearing British Army uniforms and bearing British Army weapons. They were firing at another truck which was chasing them, but this truck was manned by men wearing the Airborne red berets, who were returning the fire. It seemed obvious to me that since the airborne troops were new to that area, it was rather more than probable that the pursuing truck was British, and the leading truck was what we would have called a Jewish terrorist truck. So we fired on that one.
The driver of this swerved hard to get around my truck, failed, and after zig- zagging wildly for twenty or thirty yards, overturned into the ditch. Its crew, those who were still mobile, ran across country with the Paras after them. We took charge of the Jews that had been caught, and the driver of a passing bus who had been shot in the backside, and waited for reinforcements to come and take them off our hands.
Then I found that my truck would not start. My driver examined it, and soon identified the problem: a bullet had struck the engine about two feet from where I had been standing, and perforated some vital but somewhat delicate part. We would have to wait until a replacement truck could be sent out to rescue us.
A month or so later I was called to attend a court of enquiry into the whole occurrence, after which I heard no more.
Another time I was sent for to report to the CO, and on my way over to Headquarters we came across an Arab lying in the roadway, dead, with his wife shrieking and wailing over him. There was an Arab of the Palestine Police there, who spoke English, and who told me what had happened. The Arab had been run down by a lorry driver, who had not stopped. He asked me to give him a lift to try to overtake the lorry, to which I agreed, but although we went as fast as the truck would go we were unsuccessful, so we dropped him off and turned for Hadera.
Again, there was a class set up to train each platoon in the performance of its duties. With my usual luck I was chosen to be the platoon commander who would carry out a particular manoeuvre, while all the other officers watched and criticised and found fault. Firstly I had to take my platoon to the ammunition dump and get it loaded with ammunition, sorted out for dispersal to all the units in the brigade. Then I had to get my platoon’s transport drawn up so we could be sure of getting it all away first thing in the morning. I had then to lead it on a something like twenty five mile drive to the point where we were to layout our ammunition dump, spend the rest of the day dealing with trucks coming from all the other units in the brigade, making sure they received all the various sorts of ammunition due to them, disposing of any ammunition which, for whatever reason, had not been collected by any of the units, and then returning to camp.
I did not get it all right. I got all my trucks lined up for the morning start, but they were not in quite the right order, and I was criticised for that — fairly, I must admit. We got away more or less on time, and made our way on to the main highway to the East, carrying on until we were approaching the boundary line between Palestine and Trans-Jordan, where the roadway deteriorated sadly. Indeed, the surface became so unstable, and some of the hills so steep, that we had to halt and wait while one or two more experienced drivers took it in turn to take all the trucks to the summit. As the officer in charge I had to take part in that ; not a nice experience, since some at least of the drivers were considerably more experienced than I was. Still, we all got up, and when the 2 i/c’s truck overtook us he found no fault, and the other subalterns, who were waiting to watch us pass them, also could not think we were anything but on top of the job. Soon after that we arrived at the disused air-strip where we were to establish our ammunition point, and to arrange our trucks in a pattern which we hoped would be clear to all visiting units, and would not lead to too many foul-ups. It seemed to work. The first trucks arrived just when we re about ready for them. Our friends the Jewish terrorists left us alone, and by late afternoon we were down to just one or two deliveries outstanding. There was no sign of any more trucks on their way to us, and we had no radio or any other means of communicating with them, so I left my senior sergeant in charge, and drove to the nearest Palestine Police camp to borrow their telephone to report my situation, and to arrange for them to expect me when I arrived, to drop off their needs on my way home. So off we set, making our first delivery to the nearest camp, where we were very grateful for their consideration: they had prepared a meal for us, for which we were grateful.
Another time I had been to our camp at Hadera, and was on my way home along the coast road, when I realised that there was a change ahead. Coming down from the North was a great flock of birds, wheeling and circling in the sky. When we got closer to them I realised they were not birds at all, but the remains of a great swarm of locusts, winging their way South along the fertile ground from somewhere in the Lebanon or Syria , and going I know not where. It seemed to be the end of the plague. I have seen much thicker infestations on the newsreels, and I noticed that the Arab farmers did not seem to be unduly concerned by it. I suppose it was only people like myself, unused to such a sight, who thought it appalling. The distance from the sea shore to the hills was several miles, and that was filled with crowds of the insects to a height of, I suppose, a thousand feet or more. The infestation seemed to go on as far as I could see, and although we had to drive ten or more miles to our camp we came nowhere near the end of the swarm. In it we could see birds, we presumed storks, circling and diving, and filling their stomachs with locusts.
At long last the day came when I was told that my discharge papers would arrive soon, so I handed over my camp to my successor, and moved back to Hadera. As soon as the papers arrived they were filled in, and I was sent down to the station to catch the first train for Egypt. There were no delays when they were getting rid of you! The train came in, I boarded it, it gathered speed out of the station, and we all settled down to get some sleep. The next thing I remember was that it was dawn when I awoke, and the train was trundling along through the Sinai desert, well on its way to Egypt. I realised that there was a bit of a commotion on board, so I went out into the corridor to see what was happening. I found a sergeant of the Intelligence Corps, who told me the train had been boarded by Arabs, who were on the roof and trying to steal what they could. We climbed up a ladder at the end of the coach which gave us a good view of the whole train, and saw a small group of Arabs, who were gathered on the roof of a coach ahead of us, facing a group of our men who had accosted them. There was a lot of shouting and arm waving, and then the group of Arabs all fell, or jumped, or were pushed off the train and on to the sand of the desert, ( I could not see which), where we left them. It later transpired that this was a commonplace occurrence, and that the Arabs would take turns to be lowered by their legs to where they could reach in to the coaches through the open windows and steal whatever they could reach. On this occasion they had managed to get several rifles, which were very much prized by them. We were sorry for the poor men who had lost their personal weapons, though, since this meant a court martial for .them, and probably a gaol sentence.
At last we reached Suez, and our transit camp, but we were sorry to find that there would be no sight-seeing for us, since there was a lot of unrest among the Egyptian population, and trouble was expected any time. We were all divided up into squads to deal with any outbreaks of violence, but happily none happened while I was there. Indeed, we were loaded on to the SS Alcantara, our transport back to the UK, within a day or two, and set sail for England. As we were steering North out of the canal I could see in the distance a ship (I was told it was a French troopship bound for Indo China), which had such an alarming list on her I was amazed she could steer. I suppose everybody on board had rushed to one side to see something interesting.
After that there was no further stop until we reached Southampton, although the ship did make a tight turn in a circle outside Algiers so we could see what it looked like, and passed close enough to Gibraltar to be satisfied with what we could see. But we just wanted to get home, and at last we turned up the Channel and entered harbour at Southampton, where we disembarked. There was no time lost then. We were off the ship and through the demobilization centre in double quick time, and then put on another train for London, where. we arrived in time for me to go the office where my brother Arthur was working. I had hoped that he would not have gone to lunch, and my luck was in. I dumped my kit in a corner of his office, and we went out to get something to eat (sausages and mash — lovely!).
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