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Chapter no 14 – ‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌Palestine and Syria‌

Going Solo

After they had taken Greece in May 1941, the Germans mounted a massive airborne invasion of Crete. They captured Crete and they also took the island of Rhodes, and after that, flushed with success, they turned their eyes towards the softest spots in all of the Middle East – Syria and the Lebanon. These spots were soft because they were controlled totally by a large and very efficient pro-German Vichy French army.

Most people know about the very great trouble the Vichy French fleet gave to Britain in 1941 after France had fallen. Our navy actually had to put the French warships out of action by bombarding them at Oran to make sure they didn’t fall into German hands. Most people know about that. But not many know about the chaos the Vichy French caused at the same time in Syria and the Lebanon. They were fanatically anti-British and pro-German, and if the Germans with their help had managed to get a foothold in Syria at that particular moment, they could have marched down into Egypt by the back door. The Vichy French had therefore to be dislodged from Syria as soon as possible.

The Syrian Campaign, as it was called, started up almost immediately after Greece, and a very considerable army composed of British and Australian troops was sent up through Palestine to fight the disgusting pro-Nazi Frenchmen. This small war was a bloody affair in which thousands of lives were lost, and I for one have never forgiven the Vichy French for the unnecessary slaughter they caused.

Air cover for our army and navy in this campaign was to be provided by the remnants of good old 80 Squadron, and about a dozen new Hurricanes were speedily brought out from England to replace the ones lost in Greece. I began to see now why it had been important to get us pilots out of the Grecian mess alive, even without our planes. It takes longer to train a pilot than it does to build an aeroplane. Mind you, it would have made even more sense to have saved some of those Grecian Hurricanes as well as the pilots, but that didn’t happen.

Eighty Squadron were to assemble at Haifa in northern Palestine in the last week of May 1941. Each pilot was told to collect his new Hurricane at Abu Suweir on the Suez Canal and fly it to Haifa aerodrome. I asked Middle East Fighter Command if someone else could fly my plane to Haifa for me because I wanted to drive myself up there in my own motor-car. I had become the very proud possessor of a nine-year-old 1932 Morris Oxford saloon, a machine whose body had been sprayed with a noxious brown paint the colour of canine faeces, and whose maximum speed on a straight and level track was thirty-five miles per hour. With some reluctance Fighter Command granted my request.

There was a ferry across the Suez Canal at Ismailia. It was simply a wooden float that was pulled from one bank to the other by wires, and I drove the car on to it and was taken to the Sinai bank. But before I was allowed to start the long and lonely journey across the Sinai Desert, I had to show the officials that I had with me five gallons of spare petrol and a five-gallon can of drinking water. Then off I went.

I loved that journey. I loved it, I think, because I had never before in my life been totally without sight of another human being for a full day and a night. Few people have. There was a single narrow strip of hard road running through the soft sands of the desert all the way from the Canal up to Beersheba on the Palestine border. The total distance across the desert was about 200 miles and there was not a village or a hut or a shack or any sign of human life over the entire distance. As I went chugging along through this sterile and treeless wasteland, I began to wonder how many hours or days I would have to wait for another traveller to turn up if my old car should break down.

I was soon to find out. I had been going for some five hours when my radiator began to boil over in the fierce afternoon heat. I stopped and opened the bonnet and waited for everything to cool down. After an hour or so I was able to remove the radiator cap and pour in some more water, but I realized that it would be pointless to drive on again in the full heat of the sun because the engine would simply boil over once more. I must wait, I told myself, until the sun had gone down. But there again I knew I must not drive at night because my headlights did not work and I was certainly not going to run the risk of sliding off the narrow hard strip in the dark and getting bogged down in soft sand. It was a bit of a dilemma and the only way out of it that I could see would be to wait until dawn and make a dash for Beersheba before the sun began to roast my engine again.

I had brought a large water-melon with me as emergency rations, and now I cut a chunk out of it and flipped away the black seeds with the point of my

knife and ate the lovely cool pink flesh standing beside the car in the sun. There was no shade anywhere except inside the car, but in there it was like an oven. I longed for a parasol or anything else that would give me a little shade, but I had nothing. I was wearing khaki shorts and a khaki shirt and I had a blue RAF cap on my head. I found a rag and soaked it in the tepid drinking water and draped it over my head and put the cap over it. That helped. I walked slowly up and down the boiling hot strip of road and kept gazing in absolute wonder at the amazing landscape that surrounded me. There was the blazing sun, the vast hot sky, and beneath it all on every side a great pale sea of yellow sand that was not quite of this world. There were mountains now in the distance on the right-hand side of the road, pale Tanagra-coloured mountains faintly glazed with blue that rose up suddenly out of the desert and faded away in a haze of heat against the sky. The stillness was overpowering. There was no sound at all, no voice of bird or insect anywhere, and it gave me a queer godlike feeling to be standing there alone in such a splendid hot inhuman landscape – as though I were on another planet, on Jupiter or Mars, or in some place more desolate still, where never would the grass grow green nor a rose bloom red.

I kept pacing slowly up and down the road, waiting for the sun to go down

and for the cool night to come along. Then suddenly, in the sand just a foot or so off the road, I saw a giant scorpion. Jet black she was and fully six inches long, and clinging to her back, like passengers on the top of an open bus, were her babies. I bent a little closer to count them. One, two, three, four,

five … there were fourteen of them altogether! At that point she saw me. I am quite sure I was the first human she had ever seen in her life, and she curled her tail up high over her body with the pincers wide open, ready to strike in defence of her family. I stepped back a pace but continued to watch her, fascinated. She scuttled over the sand and disappeared into a hole that was her burrow.

When the sun went down, it became dark almost at once, and with the night came a blessed and dramatic drop in temperature. I ate another hunk of water- melon, drank some water and then curled up as best I could in the back seat of the car and went to sleep.

I started off again the next morning at first light, and in another couple of hours I had crossed the desert and come to Beersheba. I drove on northwards across Palestine, through Jerusalem and Nazareth, and in the late afternoon I skirted Mount Carmel and dropped down into the town of Haifa. The aerodrome was outside the town on the edge of the sea, and I drove my old car in triumph past the guard at the gates and parked it alongside the officers’ mess, which was a small hut made of wood and corrugated iron.

 

 

We had nine Hurricanes at Haifa and the same number of pilots, and in the days that followed we were kept very busy. Our main job was to protect the navy. Our navy had two large cruisers and several destroyers stationed in Haifa harbour and every day they would sail up the coast past Tyre and Sidon to bombard the Vichy French forces in the mountains around the Damour river. And whenever our ships came out, the Germans came over to bomb them. They came from Rhodes, where they had built up a strong force of Junkers Ju 88s, and just about every day we met those Ju 88s over the fleet.

They came over at 8,000 feet and we were usually waiting for them. We would dive in amongst them, shooting at their engines and getting shot at by their front- and rear-gunners, and the sky was filled with bursting shells from the ships below and when one of them exploded close to you it made your plane jump like a stung horse. Sometimes the Vichy French air force joined up with the Germans. They had American Glenn Martins and French Dewoitines and Potez 63s, and we shot some of them down and they killed four of our nine pilots. And then the Germans hit the destroyer Isis and we spent the whole day circling above her in relays and fighting off the Ju 88s while a naval tug towed her back to Haifa.

 

 

Once we went out to ground-strafe some Vichy French planes on an airfield near Rayak and as we swept in surprise low over the field at midday we saw to our astonishment a bunch of girls in brightly coloured cotton dresses standing out by the planes with glasses in their hands having drinks with the French pilots, and I remember seeing bottles of wine standing on the wing of one of the planes as we went swooshing over. It was a Sunday morning and the Frenchmen were evidently entertaining their girlfriends and showing off their aircraft to them, which was a very French thing to do in the middle of a war at a front-line aerodrome. Every one of us held our fire on that first pass over the flying field and it was wonderfully comical to see the girls all dropping their wine glasses and galloping in their high heels for the door of the nearest building. We went round again, but this time we were no longer a surprise and they were ready for us with their ground defences, and I am afraid that our chivalry resulted in damage to several of our Hurricanes, including my own. But we destroyed five of their planes on the ground.

One morning at Haifa the Squadron-Leader called me aside and told me

that a small satellite landing field had been prepared about thirty miles inland behind Mount Carmel from which the Squadron could operate should our aerodrome at Haifa be bombed out. ‘I want you to fly over there and have a look at it,’ the Squadron-Leader said. ‘Don’t land unless it seems safe and if you do land I want to know what it’s like. It’s meant to serve as a small secret hideaway where those Ju 88s could never find us.’

 

 

I flew off alone and in ten minutes I spotted a ribbon of dry earth that had been rolled out in the middle of a large field of sweet-corn. To one side was a plantation of fig trees and I could see several wooden huts among the trees. I made a landing, pulled up and switched off the engine.

Suddenly from out of the fig trees and out of the huts burst a stream of children. They surrounded my Hurricane, jumping about with excitement and shouting and laughing and pointing. There must have been forty or fifty of them altogether. Then out came a tall bearded man who strode among the children and ordered them to stand away from the plane. I climbed out of the cockpit and the man came forward and shook my hand. ‘Welcome to our little settlement,’ he said, speaking with a strong German accent.

I had seen enough English-speaking Germans in Dar es Salaam to know the accent well, and now, quite naturally, anyone who had anything even remotely Germanic about him set alarm-bells ringing in my head. What is more, this place, according to the Squadron-Leader, was meant to be secret and here I was being met by a welcoming committee of fifty screaming children and a huge man with a black beard who looked like the Prophet Isaiah and spoke like a parody of Hitler. I began to wonder whether I had come to the right spot.

‘I didn’t think anyone knew about this,’ I said to the bearded man.

The man smiled. ‘We cut down the corn ourselves and helped to roll out the strip,’ he said. ‘This is our cornfield.’

‘But who are you and who are all these children?’ I asked him.

‘We are Jewish refugees,’ he said. ‘The children are all orphans. This is our home.’ The man’s eyes were startlingly bright. The black pupil in the centre of each of them seemed larger and blacker and brighter than any I had ever

seen and the iris surrounding each pupil was brilliant blue.

In their excitement at seeing a real live fighter plane, the children were beginning to press right up against the aircraft, reaching out and making the elevators in the tailplane move up and down. ‘No, no!’ I cried out. ‘Please don’t do that! Please keep away! You could damage it!’

The man spoke sharply to the children in German and they all fell back. ‘Refugees from where?’ I asked him. ‘And how did you get here?’

‘Would you like a cup of coffee?’ he said. ‘Let’s go into my hut.’ He picked out three of the older boys and set them to guard the Hurricane. ‘Your plane will be quite safe now,’ he said.

I followed him into a small wooden hut standing among fig trees. There was a dark-haired young woman inside and the man spoke to her in German but he did not introduce me. The woman poured some water from a bucket into a saucepan and lit a paraffin burner and proceeded to heat water for coffee. The man and I sat down on stools at a plain table. There was a loaf of what looked like home-baked bread on the table, and a knife.

‘You seem surprised to find us here,’ the man said. ‘I am,’ I said. ‘I wasn’t expecting to find anyone.’

‘We are everywhere,’ the man said. ‘We are all over the country.’ ‘Forgive me,’ I said, ‘but I don’t understand. Who do you mean by we?’ ‘Jewish refugees.’

I really didn’t know what he was talking about. I had been living in East Africa for the past two years and in those times the British colonies were parochial and isolated. The local newspaper, which was all we got to read, had not mentioned anything about Hitler’s persecution of the Jews in 1938 and 1939. Nor did I have the faintest idea that the greatest mass murder in the history of the world was actually taking place in Germany at that moment.

‘Is this your land?’ I asked him. ‘Not yet,’ he said.

‘You mean you are hoping to buy it?’

He looked at me in silence for a while. Then he said, ‘The land is at present owned by a Palestinian farmer but he has given us permission to live here. He has also allowed us some fields so that we can grow our own food.’

‘So where do you go from here?’ I asked him. ‘You and all your orphans?’ ‘We don’t go anywhere,’ he said, smiling through his black beard. ‘We stay

here.’

‘Then you will all become Palestinians,’ I said. ‘Or perhaps you are that already.’

He smiled again, presumably at the naïvety of my questions. ‘No,’ the man said, ‘I do not think we will become Palestinians.’

‘Then what will you do?’

‘You are a young man who is flying aeroplanes,’ he said, ‘and I do not expect you to understand our problems.’

‘What problems?’ I asked him. The young woman put two mugs of coffee on the table as well as a tin of condensed milk that had two holes punctured in the top. The man dripped some milk from the tin into my mug and stirred it for me with the only spoon. He did the same for his own coffee and then took a sip.

‘You have a country to live in and it is called England,’ he said. ‘Therefore you have no problems.’

‘No problems!’ I cried. ‘England is fighting for her life all by herself against virtually the whole of Europe! We’re even fighting the Vichy French and that’s why we’re in Palestine right now! Oh, we’ve got problems all right!’ I was getting rather worked up. I resented the fact that this man sitting in his fig grove said that I had no problems when I was getting shot at every day. ‘I’ve got problems myself’, I said, ‘in just trying to stay alive.’

‘That is a very small problem,’ the man said. ‘Ours is much bigger.’

I was flabbergasted by what he was saying. He didn’t seem to care one bit about the war we were fighting. He appeared to be totally absorbed in something he called ‘his problem’ and I couldn’t for the life of me make it out. ‘Don’t you care whether we beat Hitler or not?’ I asked him.

‘Of course I care. It is essential that Hitler be defeated. But that is only a matter of months and years. Historically, it will be a very short battle. Also it happens to be England’s battle. It is not mine. My battle is one that has been going on since the time of Christ.’

‘I am not with you at all,’ I said. I was beginning to wonder whether he was some sort of a nut. He seemed to have a war of his own going on which was quite different to ours.

I still have a very clear picture of the inside of that hut and of the bearded man with the bright fiery eyes who kept talking to me in riddles. ‘We need a homeland,’ the man was saying. ‘We need a country of our own. Even the Zulus have Zululand. But we have nothing.’

‘You mean the Jews have no country?’

‘That’s exactly what I mean,’ he said. ‘It’s time we had one.’

‘But how in the world are you going to get yourselves a country?’ I asked him. ‘They are all occupied. Norway belongs to the Norwegians and Nicaragua belongs to the Nicaraguans. It’s the same all over.’

‘We shall see,’ the man said, sipping his coffee. The dark-haired woman was washing up some plates in a basin of water on another small table and she had her back to us.

‘You could have Germany,’ I said brightly. ‘When we have beaten Hitler then perhaps England would give you Germany.’

‘We don’t want Germany,’ the man said.

‘Then which country did you have in mind?’ I asked him, displaying more ignorance than ever.

‘If you want something badly enough,’ he said, ‘and if you need something badly enough, you can always get it.’ He stood up and slapped me on the back. ‘You have a lot to learn,’ he said. ‘But you are a good boy. You are fighting for freedom. So am I.’

He led me out of the hut and through the grove of fig trees that were covered with small unripe fruit, and all the children were still clustered around my Hurricane, gazing at it in absolute wonder. I had bought another Zeiss camera in Cairo to replace the one lost in Greece, and I stopped and took a quick photograph of some of the children around the plane. The bearded man gently made a path through the throng of youngsters, tousling the hair of several of them in an affectionate way as he went by and smiling at them all. Then he shook my hand once again and said, ‘Do not think we are not grateful. You are doing a fine job. I wish you luck.’

 

 

‘You too,’ I said and I climbed into the cockpit and started the engine. I flew back to Haifa and reported that the landing strip seemed quite serviceable and that there were lots of children for the pilots to play with should we ever have to go there. Three days later, the Ju 88s began bombing Haifa in earnest so we flew our Hurricanes out to the cornfield and a large tent was put up in the fig grove for us to live in. We were only there for a few days and we got on fine with the children, but the tall bearded man, when confronted with so many of us, seemed to close up completely and became

very distant. He never spoke intimately to me again as he had done on our first meeting, nor did he have much to say to anyone else.

The name of that tiny settlement of Jewish orphans was Ramat David. It is written in my Log Book. Whether or not anything exists on the site today I do not know. The only name close to it I can find in my atlas is Ramat Dawid, but that is not the same place. It is too far south.

 

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