Copyright Heroes Past and Present
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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 mewhat 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.
Interviews with heroes
Fred Morris served with Number 2 Armoured Car Company in the Royal Air Force in Palestine.
We moved from camp to camp escorting, in the main, a bit of guarding but driving round airfields at night. Out looking for terrorists. It was the Jewish terrorists who were trying to kill us and we lost one or two people. It was the bombs at the side of the road like those in Afghanistan. The first cars out in the morning, coming out of the camp, went as fast as they possibly could.
Underneath the armoured cars we had was a huge steel plate and you also put a sandbag under your feet in the cab but even so we lost one or two. We did all sorts of varying jobs.
The cars were great to drive, very good. Not so good off road as they had no windscreen. You had a very small hole to look out of and you always wore goggles, they were extremely hot in hot weather but certainly off road but as I remember they were fun to drive.
We were working with the Palestine police in Tel Aviv who had similar cars to us and we used to mix the crews up because the if you had a Palestine policeman on the crew you had more powers as we couldn’t really arrest people but they could. We did patrols around the city. There were shootings and disturbances in 1946 and 1947.
If you were driving off road you didn’t wear a beret or forage cap but an Arab headdress. With your goggles it was ideal. Once we changed over to being RAF regiment they didn’t like that but we thought if it was good enough for the locals it was good for us! They wanted us to wear boots and puttees and a beret.
“We got dropped on in Haifa in Palestine. At that time trouble was brewing because a lot of the immigrants from the death camps that had been relieved or saved by British troops were trying to make their way there. People also from Warsaw from the ghetto.”
John was an experienced soldier by the time he got to Palestine but his troop were joined there by new recruits. “This particular night we were on guard and about 2am the Bren guns were going like the clappers and this young, very green soldier who had only been in the Army a couple of months. He was terrified even with his Bren gun. All around you could see eyes glowing in the dark”. What he didn’t know was that the eyes belonged to desert wolves and weren’t people trying to break into the camp! “The officers just said, “Let’s forget it. Nobody knows about it.” About 9 am a dispatch rider comes up with a message for the officer that went something like this. They wanted to know if we had done any shooting during the night and what happened was that when the firing was happening it went down into the valley and the Brigadier was on his belly because the bullets were firing through his billet. We kept it very quiet, like”.
John was then moved to Jerusalem and promoted to Sgt. He still remembers how beautiful the old city was. However, they were targets for local terrorists. “There was one place the lads were allowed to go called the Queens pub. Some of our lads went there for about a week until one of the Jewish terrorists tossed a grenade and killed a couple in there so then that was out of bounds.”
The hunt for terrorists and their weapons intensified. “We were liaising with the Palestine Police, which was a civilian body that took control since Palestine was a protectorate and the Brits were responsible for security. When we got there all we saw was a half naked middle-aged woman chained to a pole with a corrugated sheet above her. I don’t know if that was their way of getting rid of them without killing them but she was left there basically to die. So we got back to the Sgts mess and I said, “Well that’s it then, somebody’s tipped them off. I bet it’s the Palestine Police. I bet if we went back we’d find the arms. A voice said “That’s a bloody good idea” and it was the Brigadier so we went back and sure enough we found them putting the arms back that time.”
“Then of course things took a turn for the worst. There was a big hotel called the King David Hotel in the city. Everywhere we went we had to have 4 people with us. One of the officers said he needed an escort so I said I would go to the King David Hotel because the GHQ of the British Army was there on the left wing. We drove into the King David Hotel and while I’m at the end of the hotel this woman comes up to me and says “I’m Mary Campbell of the News Chronicle. Could you tell me about yourself and what you are doing?” I just said,
“I’m just a soldier”. With that there is a bang, bang and I went to get my rifle followed by a terrific explosion and they blew the end off the King David Hotel. 90 odd got killed and there were bodies all over the road. The Jewish terrorists had taken milk churns full of explosives into the hotel and blown it up.”
“I was coming to the end of my service when we got stuck outside the Battah shoe shop in Jerusalem. What had happened was that the terrorists had filled the shoes full of explosives and the detonator was wired to the clock so at 7 o’clock about 100 or so pairs of shoes full of explosives went up. A couple of our lads were killed and I got blown in the air and ended up coming home in a hospital ship.”
This is a long video, but John had such a great story seems a shame to cut any out. This also covers Palestine
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