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Poisons in Palestine, 1942icon for Recommended story

by L Jackson

Contributed by 
L Jackson
People in story: 
Jeffrey Jackson
Location of story: 
mainly Palestine, also Transjordan, Lebanon and Syria
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
15 July 2003

[1942 section of Jeffrey Jackson's war memoirs, edited by L Jackson
Unit: no. 2 Mobile Anti-Gas Laboratory, Royal Engineers,
Locations: mainly Palestine, also Transjordan, Lebanon and Syria
Title: "Poisons in Palestine 1942"]

"The situation in the Western Desert was changing, and in 1942 Rommel and the Afrika Corps had taken Tobruk and were advancing towards Alexandria. To my surprise, in spite of this, a group of us were allowed to go to Palestine on leave (for us, Palestine was like paradise compared with Egypt, both because of the scenery and the large European population; Jerusalem, of course,, was an experience in itself, especially the Old City). While we were there, we heard rumours that the unit was moving, but no instructions to stay put came, so we set off on the train back to Cairo. Somewhere in the Sinai Desert at one of the stations where trains could pass each other, it being a single track line, we met a train going the other way and saw people from our unit on it. So all of us with one exception, switched over, which seemed the logical thing to do. However, for some reason, we were not greeted with enthusiasm. The train went on to Haifa, where we changed onto the Hejaz railway (the one that Lawrence kept on blowing up - the carriages were still marked CFH), and finally ended up at Jisr al-Majami, a camp of the Transjordan Frontier Force south of Tiberias in the Jordan Valley and therefore extremely hot. It wasn't a nice place - there were biting flies in the daytime and mosquitoes at night, and large spider-like (but harmless) creatures scuttled across the floor. It was here that I was taken ill with bacillary dysentery and removed by ambulance to a hospital at Nazareth. We were still in the pre-sulphonamide, pre-antibiotic era, so there was no effective treatment, and I therefore had a pretty unpleasant time. However, I eventually recovered, and returned to Jisr al-Majami.

[My father later recalled that in Palestine the carrots were purple, like the wild ancestors of the carrot.]

The unit then moved to Bnei Brak near Tel Aviv, a strange choice since it was inhabited by orthodox Jews who, I'm sure, didn't welcome the presence of the riotous and drunken soldiery. In fact, payday had to be changed from Friday to Thursday to avoid drunken soldiers disturbing the beginning of the Sabbath. The lab was set up in a disused factory next door to a wood distillery. We were put in tents in an adjacent field, which worried me because I knew from reading "Wildlife in Palestine" by Bodenheimer (which I still have) that winters in Palestine can be very wet. I told Major Kent about this, but he was sure that the water would run off. In fact there were two severe storms (I was in Tel Aviv both times) and the camp was flooded twice. After this, we moved into the factory building.

Although Captain (Dr) Wright was still with us, I was just doing ordinary lab work - measuring the viscosity and ash content of samples of mustard gas and BBC (tear gas) taken from shells stored in the Middle East - and on one occasion was surprised to find that the BBC sample I was ashing, was actually mustard gas. There was a mysterious drum that had been in store for so long that the markings on it had worn off, so Phil Cole took a sample and declared it to be dirty water. I was then asked to take another sample, some of which ran over my fingers, which started to sting. Alarmed, I shoved my hand under the cold-water tap. Another friend, Jack Slade, then analysed the sample while I watched him with increasing horror as I realised that it was going to turn out to be DA (diphenylchlorarsine), which not only causes blisters but also poisons you at the same time. Fortunately, washing removed all of it, except under one fingernail, which became extremely painful. There was more excitement one day when a cylinder of liquid hydrogen cyanide stored in the office (!) polymerised explosively and went up through the roof near where Harry Kersh, the unit photographer, was sleeping after having been on guard duty. We then opened up all the other cylinders by rifle fire, but they contained only a brown powder.

It was here that I became a kind of education officer, going to the large camp at Sarafand for books and records. At my suggestion, Major Kent allowed anyone not on duty to hitch a ride on unit transport if it was going anywhere interesting. In this way, I got to Amman on a truck carrying a large dustbin. The aim was to collect soil from Amman airfield, since it had unusual properties, being able to destroy lewisite.

Some of the natives were friendly, and I knew people both in the village and in Tel Aviv. It was probably thanks to the latter that I got to hear a Schoenberg quartet on the roof of a house in Tel Aviv. They also conscripted me as a guide for the half-blind German writer Arnold Zweig, now completely forgotten, when he came to Tel Aviv from his home in Haifa to give a lecture on the German novel (he started it, of course, though he did give some credit to Theodore Fontane). Two of my friends in the unit and I also went on leave to the Lebanon, but the weather was bad, so we took a taxi to Damascus, which was protected by the mountains and therefore dry and sunny. I found it a fascinating place - I hadn't realised that it is an oasis."

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Posted on: 01 December 2003 by L Jackson


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