Alan Rigby

Alan was born in Manchester in 1929 and grew up in Edgeley, Stockport.He worked from the age of 14 as an apprentice plumber. In September 1947 he joined the armed forces through National Service and completed six weeks basic training in Chester, after which he was posted to No 1 Training Regiment Royal Engineers (TRRE) just outside Great Malvern where he worked on bridges, roads, booby traps, mine lifting and laying and explosives. On completion of his training Alan was posted to Egypt. About being posted to Palestine:

‘It was my first time abroad.  It was January 1948, I’d only been in army for 6 months.  We sailed from Liverpool to Port Said, Egypt, in those days it took 10 days.  From Port Said by rail to Sewers transit camp, from there I got posted to Palestine.’

What was it like in Palestine?
‘I never know how to describe Palestine, it wasn’t really a war, but was known as the “Palestine Conflict” – there were problems.  We weren’t a fighting unit but were there to provide  engineering services, we would get called out to booby traps and land mines after an action.  Only once did  I get involved in actual fighting – that was in March or April 1948.  Insurgents had been caught on the job, they’d  derailed an ammunition train.  British troops arrived while they were still there – it was a 12 hour fight. It was thought they had laid booby traps or mines, that is why we were sent there.  The insurgents  were still there when we got there so we actually got involved in the fighting which we didn’t normally, it was the only time I came across the enemy, they were always gone by the time we got there.’

How did you spend your recreation time?
‘When we were in Palestine we couldn’t go anywhere because of the action.  I spent most of my time reading or listening to The Forces radio.  I wasn’t allowed out on my own on my motorbike.  Whenever I was assigned convoy work I always had to have a vehicle in front of me – I was never allowed to be the front man because they used to put trip wires and ropes across the road’. ‘Palestine is a lovely country but you couldn’t go out anywhere, you were confined to camp unless on an assignment.’  

Do you think it was worth it?
‘To me personally yes, but whether we did any good is a different matter.  We knew the British were leaving Palestine in May 1948 – everybody knew, we had a date for moving.  Why the insurgents created so much trouble against us, I don’t know – they carried on fighting us even though they knew we were going.’

‘One occasion we went through a village, I remember it because the name stuck with me, Telawinski, an Eastern European Jewish village.  The inhabitants were lined the road either side, cheering or jeering. As we came through the village out of the corner of my eye I saw somebody throw something; I was on my motorbike, I saw it coming and I actually thought it was a hand grenade. When it landed just in front of me it was a tortoise!  They used to roam wild out there like rabbits in our country.  If it had been a hand grenade I wouldn’t be here today.’

Did you agree with the conflict?
The British were there as a result of a mandate by the League of Nations to administer Palestine from 1919 to 1948. I still find it hard to understand; I think part of the problems were brought on by the British Government’s attitude after the First World War, promising both the Arabs and the Jews self-determination. They had been at each others’ throats for generations but I don’t think the British helped. In our particular area at the tiume I will say we had no problems at all with the Arabs but we did with the Jews. It depended upon the locality.”

“At one poiunt our unit was sent to help prevent illegal Jewish immigrants from coming ashore in Palestine by sea from Cyprus. It was a terrible thing, those poor devils, some of themon board had been in concentration camps.  The ship pulled up on the beach and soon realised our task was to prevent them from landing. They  were throwing stuff at us, calling us Nazis and Idon’t blame them at all. They got sent back to Cyprus.  It must have been a terrible thing for them; they thought they coming to a new life and the British wouldn’t let them land.  The Arabs didn’t want a Jewish majority.

“Anyway, let’s face it, the tensions are still there now sixty years later.’

Do you look back with fondness?
‘I don’t know about fondness but I never regretted it, it was a great experience.  It’s the good times you remember, I quite enjoyed it.’

‘I wasn’t very impressed with Egypt but Palestine I liked.’

Why didn’t you like Egypt?

‘The conditions we were in for a start.  They day we arrived at the transit camp we were issued with three 7- inch wide pieces of wood 6 ft long and two little tiny metal trestles; you put the wood on the trestles and that was your bed.  You were given a sack and some straw.’

‘I don’t know how the Egyptians managed after the British army left as it appeared that about ninety percent of the population either worked for the British army or stole from them.

‘We were only in Egypt for about 2 or 3 weeks while in transit to Palestine. I was glad to have experienced it. -it was over sixty years ago people didn’t go abroad then.

When we finished in Palestine, we went to Libya where we spent seven months building the biggest Bailey bridge in North Africa. The original bridge had been blown up during World War II in a place called Wadi-ell-Kuf (Valley of Caves).  Then we went back to Bengazi and we did various odds and ends, for example teaching civilian contractors how to lift landmines without getting killed. We lost three lads on the minefields when we were in Libya.  After that didn’t do much, other than covoy work on my motorcycle.

“I saw my first dead British soldier when he had been killed by a Jewish attack on him. I’d only been in Palestine for three days. There were three of us posted from Egypt up to this 23rd Field squadron Royal Engineers in Palestine. While there it was like taking a school register as they used to sort us out in alphabetical order with jobs for the day. When they got through to me – R for Rigby – I was to be on cookhouse fatigues. “Smithy”, my mate and Williams (I never knew him long enough to know his Christian name) were on escort duties when they were ambushed. Williams was killed, Smithy was wounded.  I always think that f it hadn’t been for the “accident” of my surnamel I would have been on that truck as well. There were no body bags then but collapsible cardboard coffins’

What about your highest point?
‘You’d have to be there to appreciate this but in Palestine, we were in the NAAFI (Navy, Army abd Air Forces Institute) when someone started singing Jerusalem and everyone joined in, you didn’t have to be religious to appreciate it.’

Did it affect you personally?
‘Yes it did affect me but it’s hard to describe. When you asked me what I thought about the situation that existed in Palestine at that time, I’d never have thought about it if I hadn’t have been there.  It must  affect you.  Whether you like it or not discipline was instilled in you and  I had pride in my unit.

Alan received the General Service Medal, which was only issued for three years from 1945-48  for service in Palestine.

He has been a volunteer at the Imperial War Museum North in Manchester since 1948 and to the present day.

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