1st Battalion of The Worcestershire Regiment in Palestine. 1938 – 1939.

In September, 1938, the 1st Bn., which was then stationed in Aldershot, received orders to move to Palestine. The Arab revolt, which had been simmering for some time, reached serious proportions and it was necessary to reinforce the existing garrison. An advance party left on 2nd September and the main body sailed in H.T. Neuralia from Southampton on 14th September. The old Neuralia was familiar to many of the battalion, as the 1st had sailed in her from Bombay to Shanghai in 1929, and the 2nd from Malta to Shanghai in 1933.

We reached Haifa, after a remarkably calm voyage, on 26th September, and the same day moved in M.T. down the coast road through Tel Aviv and Jaffa to Sarafand, where we bivouaced for the night. The following day we moved on up the hill road to Jerusalem, where we took over a tented camp alongside the lines of 2nd Bn. The Black Watch, which had been prepared by the advance party. The drive from Haifa to Jerusalem was something of an achievement, for the battalion provided all the drivers for the 60 odd vehicles of all types which formed our convoy. Many of the drivers were inexperienced and a further complication was the rule of the road – “keep to the right.” Despite this, Jerusalem was reached without a casualty.

Immediately on arrival, the battalion commenced operations against the rebels. No attempt is made here to chronicle all the activities during the ensuing year; suffice to say it was a period of intense activity for all ranks with minor operations taking place, both by day and night, at frequent intervals. In the first four months the battalion was involved in thirty-two village searches in addition to providing flying columns and taking part in ** combing” operations of many areas. On the day after our arrival, 28th September, “B,” “C” and “D” Companies took part in their first action at Beit Sahur; 5770527 Pte. W. Hare was severely wounded and later died in hospital.

At this time the civil authorities and the police had little or no control in the country; the rebels were doing more or less as they wished; the civil police stations at Bethlehem and Hebron had been burnt out by the rebels; government officials had, with a few exceptions, withdrawn to Jerusalem. The battalion was given the task of “maintaining public order and security in the Bethlehem and Hebron sub-districts ’ – a task of some magnitude, involving, as it did, an area of some eight hundred square miles.

In order to carry out this task “D” Company moved to Bethlehem on 29th September, where it was later joined by Battalion H.Q., H.Q. and “C” Companies. “B” Company went to Hebron and “A” Company established a detached post at Inab, j on the Jerusalem-Jaffa road, whence patrols operated to prevent sabotage of the pipeline carrying Jerusalem’s water supply. At Bethlehem the battalion was billeted in the monasteries adjoining the historic church of the Nativity. After the initial language difficulties, we established very friendly relations with the monks, especially the Franciscans, and there is a story told connecting a certain “Father” with the Serjeants’ Mess at Christmas. Also one concerning mysterious bellringing in the early hours of Boxing Day.   Our arrival in Bethlehem was the occasion for some heavy sniping directed at the Franciscan monastery. Gutch got into action with one of his 3inch mortars on the roof and, though the strike area was searched the next morning with no result, we were never sniped there again.

On 11th October, 2nd-Lieutenant R. E. Miller, with a platoon of ” D” Company, was road- blocked and heavily sniped at close quarters while carrying out a reconnaissance of the A1 Walaja track, near Jerusalem. The platoon extricated itself successfully with air assistance, and not without having inflicted severe casualties on the enemy. 3230987 Pte. A. Dwyer was killed and 5251355 Pte. F. Finn was wounded. On the same day, at Hebron, “B” Company was heavily

engaged by a band of rebels estimated at two hundred. Air assistance was called for, and unfortunately two aeroplanes crashed as the result of enemy fire, though one pilot was rescued. Two men of “B” Company, 2654224 L.-Cpl. P. Hinchin and 3127219 Pte. Hughes, were injured and slightly wounded. The gang was dispersed with casualties estimated at eighteen.

Here a word is due about the topography of the area in which the battalion was operating and the difficulties in bringing the enemy to battle. The Bethlehem-Hebron road, some thirty kilos in distance, runs along the Judean hills. It is a good metalled road, but crosses numerous wadis on culverts and bridges, which lend themselves to sabotage. For much of the route there is khud on one side and sheer rock on the other – ideal places for road blocks and sniping. On one occasion the ration convoy met twenty-seven road blocks in as many miles. The drill for dealing with these was the provision for all convoys of an escort consisting of point, support and rear trucks, each one a 15-cwt. containing a section with a Bren. The point truck, on meeting a road block, signalled on its klaxon and immediately opened fire on the block to explode any bomb that might be in it. The support section dismounted and engaged any snipers up the cliff side, covering the dismantling of the block by the point section. Road mines were more difficult to deal with, and eventually the driver’s seat in all trucks was fitted with a steel, missile- proof sheet. The surrounding country consists of small fields divided by stone walls, which provide excellent cover for snipers. Rock-strewn hills and valleys, with an occasional mud and stone-built village, complete the picture.

The search of a village would entail an early start at about 3.0 or 4.0 o’clock in the morning, and an M.T. drive of perhaps 15 to 20 kilos, in the bitter cold. Then came an advance across country from the de-bussing point of 3 to 4 miles, throwing a cordon round the village and the weary job of a house-to-house search (amidst the fleas), interrogation of suspects, and then back to billets in the late afternoon. Normally our arrival was given away by scouts, informers and dogs, and the wanted birds had flown. Later an ‘ air pin” was laid on at first light until the infantry arrived, giving a certain element of surprise and, to some extent, preventing an exodus from the village. To help us with these operations we were issued with a number of donkeys, who soon accustomed themselves to loading into lorries for the M.T. move, and helped considerably in the carriages of mortar, wireless and other signal equipment, across country in the later stages of the advance. These donkeys became great favourites and all had names appropriate to the time and the conditions.

Towards the end of October we were relieved of our post on the Jerusalem-Jaffa pipeline, and “A” Company, relieved later by “D” Company, established a new post at Deir Shaar, about halfway between Bethlehem and Hebron, which considerably assisted in the control of and prevention of sabotage and blocking of the road. Other activities in October were a search of the old city of Jerusalem, the enforcement of a curfew in Hebron, following the burning of the Jewish Synagogue there, and a round-up and search of the historic village of Bethany with 3rd Bn. the Coldstream Guards.

In November a number of minor operations -took place. The most important was that in which “C” Company, under Captain P. O. C. Ray,* acted as escort to Major-General R. N. O’Connor, G.O.C. 7th Division, when he carried out a reconnaissance of the area with a view to re-opening the Jerusalem-Jaffa railway. The enemy was encountered three times during the day and several casualties were inflicted. Pte. Ryan was killed while he was walking in close proximity to the G.O.C. General O’Connor referred to this incident when, as G.O.C.-in-C. Eastern Command, India, he inspected the 7th Battalion in Burma on 1st June, 1945. After inspecting the ranks, he called the men round him and told them that years ago, in Palestine, a Worcestershire platoon saved his life, “for which I am very grateful to you, gentlemen.” Later the battalion took part in the operation to open up the railway and one platoon of “D” Company established a post at Husan as part of its protection.

On 1st and 2nd December, rebels were engaged at Hebron under the leadership of Abu Julani (Mansour). Bn. H.Q., “A,” “B” and H.Q. Companies were involved. During the afternoon of 1st December five Arabs were killed and one revolver and 293 rounds of S.A.A. were captured. Mansour’s coat was found, with papers, an office stamp and an undeveloped film. This film was of considerable intelligence value as it included a photo of Mansour and his staff. 

The next day “B” Company searched the area of the previous afternoon’s encounter and found a typewriter, cyclostyle, a pair of field-glasses and a spotlight.

On 11th December, “A” and H.Q. Companies went on a “coat trailing” expedition in the Taanaura Arab country between Bethlehem and the Dead Sea. All the nomad encampments, with tents made of black camel-hair and fenced with thorn hedges, looking just as they must have done in the days of Moses, were notably deficient of young men, and a rebel band was encountered near Herod’s Tomb (Tel Hordos), a conspicuous flat-topped hill. This party was engaged and casualties, estimated at seven, were inflicted. L.-Cpl. Riley, of “A” Company was slightly wounded.

In all these expeditions we took with us an R.A.F. vehicle, known as Rodex. A special code enabled us to call up air support from Ramleh within a few minutes. H.Q.’s carried a red umbrella and platoons a white one. These enabled the aircraft, on arrival, to see the position of our own troops at a glance and to take action against a retreating enemy who always had the advantage of speed and a knowledge of the locality over our own troops when it came to a getaway.

On 18th December, the G.O.C. 7th Division and the District Commissioner held a political Durbar at Yatta, near Hebron. A guard of honour was provided by “B” Company and due ceremonial took place to impress the local inhabitants. Incidentally, the high ground in the vicinity was well picquetted in case of accidents. During the Durbar, a villager, on a lather- covered pony, galloped into the circle and announced that the rebels were attacking his village at Bani Naim. The guard of honour and picquetting troops immediately embussed and encountered a gang of about 100 rebels. On the arrival of air assistance the gang dispersed and fled into the nullahs east of the village, where they were pinned and took refuge in the caves. A successful action ensued in which the enemy s losses were estimated at over 60 killed, including one important leader. Twelve rifles, three revolvers, much ammunition and fifteen prisoners were taken. Pte. Davidson was severely wounded and later died in hospital. The following were brought to notice for gallantry during the action : Captain D. H. Nott (Brigade I.O.), 2nd- Lieutenant R. B. Frith,* Sjt. Rhodes and L.-Cpl. FitzSimmons. Captain Nott and 2nd-Lieutenant Frith were awarded the M.C. and Sjt. Rhodes the M.M. for their part in the action. About this time, one platoon of “B” Company pushed farther down the Beersheba road and established a post known as Pumpet, a very isolated spot that came in for sniping from time to time.

The majority of the battalion had the unique experience of spending Christmas at Bethlehem, within a few yards of the cave in which Our Lord was born nineteen hundred years before. Normally the road from Jerusalem to Bethlehem was closed, but it was opened on Christmas Eve to allow the customary large number of pilgrims to come to Bethlehem for the Midnight Mass in the Franciscan Church. The Battalion had the task of picquetting the road and controlling the traffic and were unable to celebrate their Christmas until Boxing Day, when the Guards took over our duties. Thanks to the courtesy of the Franciscans, a number of us were able to be present at the Midnight Mass and to make the pilgrimage to the Cave of the Nativity, under the church built by the Emperor Constantine, afterwards. It was an unforgettable experience.

Early in January the Battalion moved to Hebron, leaving only “C” Company and rear H.Q. at Bethlehem. Before leaving Bethlehem, it would be appropriate to mention the mother-of- pearl trade which, in normal times, flourishes there. Every other small shop deals in it – photograph frames, crucifixes, book-covers, brooches – all very delicate work of which most of us still

* Later killed in action a t the Battle of Keren.

have our souvenirs. The women’s headdress here is unique, consisting as it does of a high-pointed “dunce’s” cap, from which flows a long veil, a relic of the days of the Crusades when this was the normal headdress of the women of England. Then, too, mention must be made of the flagstaff on the Franciscan Monastery carrying both the Union Jack and the Crusader’s flag (the Franciscan flag of to-day) – probably the first time these two flags have ever flown together.

One of the illustrations with this account shows the blowing up of an Arab house near the courtyard of the church which was our M.T. park. This was carried out as a punishment for the sniping of our sentry on the M.T. park and had a salutary effect.

On the Bethlehem-Hebron road is the site of the original springs from which Solomon obtained the water supply for the Temple in Jerusalem. Pieces of the old aqueduct can still be seen by the roadside. We used this as an emergency supply when the pipeline was cut, and it was a curious sight to see a mechanised water-truck and a horrocks water testing apparatus in operation, drawing water from Solomon’s Pools.

At Hebron the Battalion was billeted just outside the city in a number of Arab houses, supplemented with a few huts. The perimeter was surrounded with barbed wire, which was well patrolled at night. “B” Company was on the other side of the town in the old Quarantine Hospital and in touch with H.Q. by wireless. Both these localities constituted firm bases from which columns could move out to deal with any trouble. The weather had now become cold and we had had a fall of snow. Locations were now as follows : –

Bethlehem. “C” Company and rear Bn. H.Q.

Hebron. H.Q., “A” Company and H.Q. Company.

“B” Company (Quarantine Hospital).

Deir Shaah. “D” Company.

Lieutenant C. J. Myburgh joined the Battalion early in January and shortly afterwards took over training of Palestine Police. Later in the month Lieutenant L. P. C. Sheen joined from U.K. with a welcome draft of 97 O.R.’s. There was even less occupation for spare time in our perimeter at Hebron than at Bethlehem, and our periodical expeditions into the district came as welcome diversions. On 27th and 28th January the Battalion took part in a Brigade “Drive” in the Tannaura Arab country towards the Dead Sea. On 11th February the Hebron billets were heavily sniped with both Lewis gun and rifle fire. That Mansour had a Lewis gun in his armoury we confirmed later from a captured nominal roll in which the “commander-in-chief’s Lewis gunner” occupied a prominent position. How he kept the gun in action without spares remains a mystery. A 48-hour curfew was imposed on Hebron town with good results.

At this time a new policy was introduced with a view to restoring confidence among the villagers. Troops were sent to billet for a few days in Arab villages accompanied by a political officer. Among these friendly visits, “B” Company H.Q. and one platoon occupied Dura village and met with a very cordial reception. One could not help being reminded of the Philistines and the Israelites when villagers came in and asked for assistance in recovering their camels and goats which had been removed by a village in the plains.

On 4th March, “A” and “B” Companies cordoned and searched Taffun. During their approach march, “A” Company were sniped by a gang of about fifteen Arabs. No. 8 Platoon returned the fire and pushed forward one section which succeeded in killing one Arab and capturing his rifle and 60 rounds. A second Arab, who was wounded, threw himself down a well. A section of No. 7 Platoon worked round a flank whereon the rebels fled and, in the ensuing chase, two were captured.

The rocky hills round Hebron were found to contain a number of partridge (chukhor) and a few woodcock. Occasional deer were also seen. Good sport was enjoyed from time to time by those with guns. Shooting parties were always escorted by rifles and the leader used to carry a Verey pistol with which to signal to the wireless truck on the road should the party bump into a rebel gang instead of a covey of partridge.

In April the Battalion was ordered to extend its area to include Beersheba. This town was completely Arab and the surrounding district quite different from the rest of the Battalion area, being on the edge of the desert in rolling sandy country, in marked contrast to the rock- strewn Judean hills. The inhabitants were Bedouin and wilder and more primitive than those of the Hebron area. The inclusion of Beersheba increased the Battalion area to approximately 2,000 square miles. The first garrison of Beersheba was a platoon of “A” Company under 2nd-Lieutenant P. W. Kerens.* Later in the month “B” Company took over the garrison after handing over their commitments at Bethlehem. Captain Deacon and 2nd-Lieutenants Orchard, James and Dray joined the Battalion in April.

Early in May, Pumpet came in for some severe sniping. Police dogs were employed and a shotgun, revolver and some ammunition were found in a cave near Ar Rikiya.

* Later killed in action in the Battle of Keren.

In order to encourage the surrender of arms, a new village occupation policy was introduced. Platoons of “D” Company occupied Beit Fajjar and Beit Immar for several days with good results. Beit Fajjar produced eight rifles, five shotguns, one automatic and four revolvers. Beit Immar produced ten rifles. An intensive week’s drive took place in May with the object of catching Mansour (Abu julani). This leader’s intelligence was remarkably good, and he was never run to earth. On 30th May, Lieutenant-Colonel S. A. Gabb, to the regret of all ranks, left the Battalion on the completion of four years in command. He handed over the Battalion to Major E. L. G. Lawrence

On 1st June, the 145th anniversary of “The Glorious First of June” was celebrated with a ceremonial parade, a pagal gymkhana, a travelling cinema and matches between officers and serjeants at medicine ball and deck tennis. Unfortunately these celebrations were interrupted by a call for troops and they did not return till 6.0 p.m. During June a further drive for Mansour resulted in the capture of thirty wanted men, and “B” Company instituted a daily patrol from Beersheba to the Egyptian frontier to protect P.W.D. workers on the road.

On 5th July, a party from H.Q. Company, led by Captain Graves Morris, encountered a small gang leaving Ad Daweina village. Fire was opened and one Arab wounded and captured. The village was occupied for 24 hours and, under pressure, eleven rifles, three revolvers and two shotguns were produced. Further visits yielded a total of thirty-four rifles, five revolvers and some S.A.A. – the largest haul of arms from any village in the Battalion area to date. Towards the end of July “A” Company moved to Sarafand and “B” Company handed over Beersheba to the civil police. On the evening of 22nd July, “D” Company, returning from As Samu, engaged an armed band at Kilo 39 on the Hebron-Beersheba road. This gang had earlier ambushed an R.A.F. armoured car. During the engagement Pte. H. Potter was killed and Ptes. Darby, Warwick, Pearson and Simmonds were wounded. Pte. Darby died of his wounds in hospital in Jerusalem on 7th September. Enemy casualties could not be assessed owing to darkness. It is well to remark here that the Arab is expert at recovering his dead and wounded. “B” Company occupied Beit Jibrin village from 22nd to 28th July, resulting in the surrender of forty rifles.

On 1st August, one platoon of H.Q. Company, under 2nd-Lieutenant J. W. B. Stuart, returning from Adh Dhahariya, encountered and engaged an armed gang, as a result of which nine enemy were killed, one wounded and six rifles captured. There were no casualties to our own troops. During August, the last month the Battalion spent in Palestine, the policy of continued pressure on villages, combined with a scheme of payments and rewards for surrender of arms, bore good fruit. No less than two hundred and fifty-four rifles and seven revolvers were brought in, or found, during this month alone. On 13th August, the Commanding Officer, Lieutenant-Colonel E. L. G. Lawrence, and his escort, was heavily sniped at Kilo 33 while returning from Jerusalem to Hebron. A tyre of his car was punctured by a bullet, making steering difficult. Fire was returned and the escort and car extricated themselves successfully. L.-Cpl. Hayes, of H.Q. Company, was seriously wounded in the head and died later that night at Hebron. A platoon of H.Q. Company left camp immediately and searched the scene, but did not contact the enemy.

On 23rd August the Battalion received preliminary orders to move to the Sudan and was concentrated at Sarafand on 25th August. All the companies were together that night for the first time since the Battalion’s arrival in Palestine, nearly a year before. Next day the Battalion entrained at Lydda. Major-General R. N. O’Connor presented the G.O.C.’s certificate for distinguished conduct in the operation of 1st August, to 2nd-Lieutenant J. W. B. Stuart, Sjt. Bruton, Cpl. J. E. P. Taylor and Cpl. H. G. Packer. He also informed Lieutenant Stuart that he had been awarded the M.C. and Sjt. Bruton the M.M. These awards appeared subsequently in the London Gazette. On the occasion of the departure of the Battalion the following Order of the Day was issued by General O’Connor:

Special Order of the Day by Major-General R. N. O’Connor, D.S.O., M.C., Commander, 7th Division.

Jerusalem, 24th August, 1939.

On leaving my Division for service in the Sudan, I must place on record my appreciation of the sterling work, you have done in quelling the rebellion in the Hebron area.

When you arrived last September and established your headquarters at Bethlehem, the rebel elements to the south had the upper hand, but at the end of the year, by gradual infiltration and steady pressure, you had established law and order in your area.

You have also impressed your efficiency in action on the armed gangs at Bani Naim last December and again recently at Kilo 49, and in numerous smaller encounters.

I must make special mention of the remarkable surrender of rifles which has recently taken place in your area and which bears marked testimony to the success of the policy pursued by your Commanding Officer and carried out by all ranks of the Regiment.

I wish you all good luck in the future wherever you may be.

(Signed) R. N. O’CONNOR, Major-General, Commander 7th Division.

Thus ended an eventful year in the Battalion’s history. There is little to add to the G.O.C.’s appreciation, save to pay tribute to the rank and file of the Battalion who, during this year, carried out their task of restoring law and order with firmness and restraint; lived under conditions of considerable discomfort, lacking any amenities; and who accepted all this with unsurpassed cheerfulness, thus maintaining the 250 years of tradition of the 29th Foot and setting an example for the future.

All ranks were awarded the General Service Medal, with clasp “Palestine,” for this campaign