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Purity of Arms

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John Altman  E-mail
John AltmanIt has long been my intention to write down some of my history for the benefit of my grandchildren so that they should know something of their origins, and how I became a Machal volunteer in the Israel Defense Forces; we were also known as  the “£3 Mercenaries.”

My earliest memories go back to about 1935, when I started school in the large north German seaport of Stettin.  We had a magnificent apartment in one of the better streets of the town, but by 1937 it was totally obvious that there was no future of any kind for Jews in the Third Reich.

By then we were already officially dispossessed of our business enterprises and all kinds of assets, including bank accounts and jewelry.  Eventually our apartment had to be evacuated by the decree that Jews had to live with three families in each apartment.  Desperate attempts to apply for entry visas to numerous countries were unsuccessful.  Later on, the Germans agreed to let 10,000 children from the ages of one to sixteen leave Germany and Austria.  The original plan was to bring these children to Mandatory Palestine and had been negotiated by the brilliant American organizer, Henrietta Szold, who was also one of the founders of Youth Aliyah. Arab objections lead to bloody rioting, and persuaded the British colonial authorities to cancel our admission to Palestine.  

At first my father had not entered us on the Kindertransport lists.  He said, “We all go together,” until March 1939, when things changed, and there was no income and we lived from hand-to-mouth. Finally, on 12th March 1939, two days before my ninth birthday, Father met us, my brother Wilf (two years my senior) and me with the emotional news that we were to leave for England two days later.

On my birthday on 14th March, the whole family traveled to Berlin to the assembly point.  The following morning, 200 of us, including my brother and I, were bussed to the central station to board a train to the Hook of Holland.  Our parents stood on the platform to see us off; it was a tearful farewell: the smallest child on the train was just two-years-old.

We never ever saw them again, our father, mother and baby brother.  The sea was stormy that day and the mail steamer was late.  Eventually we arrived at Harwich before dawn on 16th March 1939. Luckily, my brother and I were not separated, and we lived the same life as all Kindertransport children experienced: adoption, education, and all the rest.

On 1st September 1939 war broke out, and we were all evacuated from London, and were adopted once more.  Not all foster parents were sympathetic, but we ended up with a Welsh family who did their best for us.

The war ended, and we all realized that we had nobody and nothing to go back to.  The only two survivors of our family were my father’s brother Erich, who was one of 16 of his group of 200 who had been sent to Auschwitz and had survived, and his son Guy who had been left with nuns in a convent near Lyons.

After the UN Partition Resolution of November 1947, various Jewish parties in the Yishuv had emissaries in Europe recruiting young people of military age, as well as World War II veterans, to ready themselves to go to Palestine. Preparations had begun for the struggle which would start at the end of the British Mandate on 15th May 1948.

The recruiting agent my friends and I ended up with was a Major Sam Weiser.  He had planned to recruit a large army out of the 4,000 Jewish ex-servicemen of World War II in the UK.  They did not come forward in whole regiments, and in the end, we were a group of about 200, with not many experienced soldiers, and I was one of the inexperienced ones.

Arrangements were made for us to go secretly in small groups to Paris, and there we were met by agents of the Jewish underground who dispatched us to West Germany after a few days. My group was sent to a Displaced Persons camp at Heidenheim, near Stuttgart, where there was a battle-training school in what had previously been an SS establishment. We received intensive round-the-clock military training for three months. Small arms, demolition, unarmed combat and night fighting were on the daily timetable. British intelligence agents knew what was going on, and complained to the US military government in whose zone we were. The Yanks warned us in advance that they would have to raid the camp. That night, we were moved out in US Army trucks to the village of Weilheim near the Czech border, where we made ourselves useful. The new base was a farm near which the Volksturm (the last survivors of the Nazis) had buried large quantities of machine guns, ammunition, and lots of other useful military items; an informer had sold the location to our people. Our task was to go out every night with the horses and a hay wagon, excavate four or five crates of weapons, load them onto the wagon, cover them with hay and get back to the farm. During the day we unpacked and degreased the weapons in barrels of paraffin. Then they were carefully packed into new crates and covered in old clothes, all ready to go with us to the new Israel. After a few weeks we had to do another midnight flit: somebody had seen us in the forest at night, and had mistaken us for the German Werewolf underground. The decision makers, whoever they were, decided to get us to Marseilles and onto the next available ship. We were taken to Munich and assembled in a Jewish Centre in the Maria Theresa Strasse, where we dossed down overnight. The city was 90% flattened, and it still stank of war and death. I ought to have felt pity for the Germans, they had nothing left and nowhere to live, but all I had was Schadenfreude, which probably meant that I took pleasure in their misery. A day later we all assembled at the Munich railway station.  We had now grown into a small army of about 900, mainly young men, most of whom were camp survivors keen to get to Israel.

A special train drew up which was to take us straight through to the docks at Marseilles. In those days this meant about a week, if all went well.  Today if it takes more than 12 hours, you would ask for a refund. We were all very young and undemanding, with a very low level of expectation. The train was an ancient one with slatted wooden seats, too old and too decrepit to have gone to war. It had probably once been housed in a transport museum. It had a restaurant car, minus chef and food. In our open-plan carriage, the heating was stuck in the "off" position. Food in its most basic form was issued daily. I remember dark mud-colored bread, quite tasty, pale off-white margarine, orange marmalade, and foul-smelling Turkish cigarettes, courtesy of UNWRA. This was a UN organization for the relief of refugees. I believe we were their guests on the train.

We arrived at Marseilles without further adventure and left the train at a little place called Port de Bouc, a few miles outside the town. Here the Jewish Agency had a tent camp where prospective immigrants were "housed" until shipping space was available for them. We heard that HM Consul in Marseilles had protested vigorously to the French Prefect of the district, but those of you who understand how things are done in France will gather that the correct 'sweetener fee' had been paid and this rendered the Prefect totally deaf to protests.  

We were told that a ship was now in dock loading provisions and munitions, and within a day or two we could be off.  It turned out that this was an Etzel ship. At that moment we realized into whose particular army in Israel we were going.

The ship was an ex US Navy LST, a tank landing ship, 2,000/3,000 tons. The crew comprised 20 ex-US navy volunteers. I remember the captain was Monroe Fine. The Etzel representative was Eliyahu Lankin (much later to be Israel's Ambassador to South Africa). The ship was called the “Altalena” (read Vladimir Jabotinsky to understand the choice of name). It took another week to load, with the munitions arriving every evening on large French army trucks. There are explanations for this: either the price was right, or the French wanted to stir up the British. It might have been a bit of both. Finally we all had to pitch in with the loading, as the French dockworkers went on strike, not unreasonably, as they were mostly North African Arabs.

When we were finally allowed on board, we found that below deck every square foot was occupied by munitions. We had to sleep on deck for the journey. Two hundred could sleep below at any one time. I got in two nights below deck sleeping on a six-foot high stack of PIAT (projectile infantry anti-tank) bombs. It took us two weeks to reach the coast of Israel. I should think they could smell us from 20 miles off, as we had toilet facilities for about 100 of us, and we were nearer 1,000 in number. Food was adequate on board, usually some kind of tasty stew, which must have posed a severe logistic problem. We had a plentiful supply of fresh bread baked by one of our own volunteers, the son of an East End baker; I think I remember his name as Alex Goldring.

One of my tasks was to bring up a dozen of our machine guns from the forest weapons dump, and mount them on pivots on the deck rail.  We fired them daily to get used to them. When we reached the eastern Mediterranean we were shadowed by a British frigate, which until two months previously had intercepted ships like ours and towed them to Cyprus.  At this time the Mandate had just ended, and the British army still occupied the Haifa area.  When we arrived in Israeli coastal waters, our captain was told to head for Kfar Vitkin, about 30 kilometers north of Tel Aviv, where a reception party would unload the ship.  We got there and anchored 100 yards offshore.  The place had a shaky wooden jetty, possibly 30 yards long, but only deep enough for our launches and life boats at its far end.  The non-military immigrants were sent off first, and then we started to send small arms and ammunition ashore. About ten boatloads made it, and then shooting started on the beach. On board we had about 6,000 rifles, 500 machine guns, many large-caliber mortars, PIATs, 5 halftrack light armored cars, and probably millions of rounds of all kinds of ammunition and tons of shells and mortar bombs. Etzel soldiers had been assembling on the beach for some hours with trucks, vans, farm tractors pulling carts, and even some mules pulling primitive wagons. Fierce fighting was going on ashore, and we heard that several hundred Haganah soldiers were attacking the beach party. I was about 18 at that time and politically dim (or thick, in today’s language). I now understand that we were innocent pawns in a power struggle between two political leaders, each determined to come out on top, and they were not too bothered about anybody getting hurt. Read the official history books, and they will tell you what they want you to believe, i.e., it was for the good of the new nation.  The only side it helped was the Arab side. I now realize that we had more guns on board than the whole Jewish side of all shades of opinion possessed on land at that time.

Monroe Fein, our captain, was instructed to weigh anchor and head for Tel Aviv, where he was to beach the ship, and the civil population would be called to unload us. We sailed to Tel Aviv with Menachem Begin on board.  We arrived in the evening, but could not beach the ship as it was impaled on the wreck of a previous illegal immigrant ship. We were about 100 yards offshore, and a little way out at sea; we had company, two corvette-class Israeli warships. One was captained by Alan Burke, ex-Royal Navy, with whom I later became very friendly. There were crowds of people on the beach waiting for us, or perhaps waiting for exciting things to happen. In the meantime, there were heated discussions between Begin on board and David Ben-Gurion in the "Red House" a few hundred yards away. Ben-Gurion wanted the absolute surrender of the ship and cargo and this was broadcast by loudspeakers. Menachem Begin wanted enough weapons to arm his few battalions on the Jerusalem front. That was the state of play, and nobody was giving way one inch.  Like a couple of old “Yidden” fighting over a chicken in a ghetto street market; unfortunately we were the poor chicken.  The loudspeakers asked for immediate surrender, or the ship would be bombarded.  At dawn we were shot at with small arms from the balconies of a little beachfront hotel (we could read its name, “Kaete Dan,” on the building), and today the well-known Dan Hotel. The corvettes opened fire as well, or somebody did from that direction, it sounded a bit like a heavy 50-caliber Browning machine gun. My good comrade Captain Alan Burke assures me no such thing happened.  One way or another, five of our comrades were dead on the deck, a few more were wounded. Avraham Stavsky, who had purchased the ship, was hit while sitting in the deckhouse. He died later of his wounds.

The group killed on deck were Jewish boys from Cuba; only one of them survived.  Artillery shells started hitting the ship. Soon there were internal explosions and a lot of smoke. At the bottom of the main companionway the captain had the dozens of crates of detonators separated from the shells. He sent us below to bring them up and dump them overboard.  We did not understand his logic, but with the benefit of hindsight I now realize that the citizens of Tel Aviv had much to thank him for. A statue in his honor would not be overdoing it.  Menachem Begin kept insisting that he wished to go down with the ship, but it was explained to him that the ship could not go down, only up, and the captain, who kept his cool, literally had Mr. Begin dumped overboard. After that we all abandoned ship; the metal deck was burning the soles of our feet, and we all jumped overboard and swam to the shore. I could not swim and was helped by an American, Al Rosoff.  The small arms fire from the hotel balcony continued, and a few people in the water were hit. The ship's propeller was threshing furiously as the captain was trying to free the keel and get out to sea. A young French volunteer of North African origin, with whom I had been friendly on board, was hit in the water and was sucked into the path of the propeller; he did not survive. The rest of us made it to the beach, I think about 40 of us. We were walked along the beach to Jaffa, which was exclusive Etzel territory. Their stronghold was the Alliance school. We were taken there to recover, and were given dry clothing. I had lost everything, even my documents: all I possessed were a torn, blackened vest and a pair of khaki shorts.

A day later, cleaned-up and kitted, we were taken by bus and dispersed amongst families in Bnei Brak who were sympathetic to our cause. I was sent to a delightful family, whose name escapes me, together with Tuvia Myers who later changed his name to Shachar. We are still friends today. We were both violently ill for a few days, as the sea water off Tel Aviv was not exactly spa-quality water, and I had swallowed lots of it.  My diet for a few days was weak tea laced with brandy.  We soon felt better, and having had enough of local political rivalries, with old Jewish gentlemen from Poland behaving like Balkan warlords, we decided to find any army camp and simply join up. The camp was just five minutes away across the fields. We thanked our wonderful hosts and walked into the camp and were sworn in within half an hour. This must have been on about the 24th June 1948. We were interviewed so that our military skills could be investigated. They were looking for cooks, armorers, drivers and other cannon fodder. I conveniently forgot to mention that I had been trained to be a chef in wartime England. I had come to fight, not to cook goulash. I mentioned that I was okay on all machine guns, mortars and small arms. I was asked a few pertinent questions and was delegated to a heavy support company that was leaving imminently to relieve others at Latrun. We were to become the elite 7th Brigade, and my brand-new virgin battalion was to be the 71st.  

Egged buses took us that day to Latrun to bolster up a sagging front. A previous battalion of mainly new immigrants had taken very heavy casualties, and the remainder had either been withdrawn or had simply disappeared. There was abandoned equipment lying in the dugouts. We had just begun to settle down in the midst of an unbelievably heavy artillery bombardment by Glubb Pasha's Arab Legion.  After that, buses took us to the north.  There was strong pressure in the central Galilee from several thousand Arab irregulars commanded by the Fawzi el Kaukji backed up by Syrian artillery and some Iraqi armor.   Akko was ours, as well as  Safed, Nahariya, and Tiberias. The enemy had most of the rest. We had a piece of front from Akko inland towards what is today Karmiel, and we were responsible for the area behind Kfar Masaryk.

There was a village south of Haifa called Tira whose population used to while away the boring hours by taking potshots at traffic between Haifa and Tel Aviv. Our military police had been given the task of disarming the villagers, and of taking the more belligerent ones into custody. Our military police at that time were dressy boys from the pavement cafe society of Tel Aviv. Their mummies and daddies had got them into the MPs because it was an easy place to serve. The army command had used them for this cleanup because we had an armistice in force and it would have annoyed the UN observers if soldiers were to go in.  Our MPs did not succeed and the task came our way.  In the end it took about an hour.  Our ex-Czech partisan, Lt. Gero, was a bit impatient that day, so he picked out two houses in which there were active snipers, and said, “Knock them down.”  This took four mortar bombs at 200-yards range and just five minutes.  Then one of our Arabic speakers, using a megaphone, told them that we would demolish two houses every five minutes.  That was the end.  It was then my duty to take some of these cutthroats down the road to Atlit, which was originally a Crusader fortress.  The British army had built a detention camp around it.  At that time it was full of Egyptian officers and NCOs; the common soldiers had been told to leave their boots and rifles and to “imshi” to Egypt (local parlance for “bugger off”).  Until the previous year the camp had housed illegal Jewish immigrants prior to their journey to Cyprus or even back to Germany.  

Back to the story: I was given the job of ferrying the Arabs to Atlit. We had been given an asthmatic Fordson Truck. This had been in North Africa with Field Marshal Montgomery's army.  It never did more than 50 miles without a breakdown or a puncture. Anyway, it was loaded to maximum capacity with POWs.  In the front sat the officer and the driver. I stood in the back with 20-odd Arabs, holding my pathetic ancient Mauser rifle. They looked a right bunch of ruffians. The rifle would have been about as useful as a broom handle had they decided to eat me for breakfast. Luckily, by this stage of the war they were docile and respectful, and were probably as fed up with war as we all were.

Later we occupied a little village called Birwa, from where we had a clear view to the north. Our company commander was Avraham Eugene Gero, a real gentleman who kept us green lads alive. He was ex Czech/Russian army and an “old man” to us, as he was about 30 at that time.  We remained firm friends until he died in about 1988.  He even came to England several times for holidays with us at our house.

It was the middle of the UN ceasefire.  Gero sent us out at night in small patrol parties to discover enemy positions.  We did bring back a few Arabs we found wandering in the hills, but they didn't look very belligerent. They were sent to brigade HQ where the intelligence boffin was Vivian Herzog, later to become President of Israel Chaim Herzog.  We did lose one raiding party of four, which we found a few days later, guided by the noise of jackals. The four bodies were in a cave and had been butchered and sexually mutilated. Our army had by now acquired artillery, four Mexican army mountain guns, circa 1910 manufacture. These were rushed from one front to another to answer Arab artillery. By today's standards they were peashooters. They resembled the guns that the Royal Horse Artillery fire in Hyde Park on the Queen's Birthday. We were thrilled to have them on our piece of front
line for a whole day each week. The guns duly arrived at dawn in a huge open kibbutz truck; another truck brought the team of unruly mules that would bring the guns to our little mountain. One mule brought the barrel of the gun, another carried the gun carriage, and a third carried the iron-shod wooden wheels. We were rationed to 24 shells for our day of glory. The shells were propelled by small cordite satchels. We had a committee meeting as to where to direct each shell. I was the one in the company who had a basic knowledge of trigonometry, so my task was to make use of a British army survey map, a pencil and a slide rule to work out the precise distance to the back of the next valley where the enemy guns were thought to be located. From my calculations, the gunner, who was World War I vintage, calculated his elevation, or I think it was called trajectory. He must have been successful because we had peace from them thereafter. We got through to the end of the ceasefire, and our army commanders decided that they had enough strength to clear the whole Galilee of Arab forces up to the Lebanese border.  It was known as “Operation Hiram.”  We were taken at night to Safed and the whole brigade of about 2,500 men was assembled in an ancient olive grove. We were briefed by Ben Dunkelman, the Brigade CO, ex-Canadian army. His theme was, "We are going to attack the enemy at dawn and push him over the border into Lebanon. We are going to beat the shit out of them." Then, believe it or not, he said, "Some of us will get hurt and some will even fall for the moledet (homeland). He added, "Be tough but be careful."

The sector we were to attack comprised the three villages of Sasa, Saf Saf and Jish (the ancient Israelite stronghold of Gush Halav). We went at them fiercely with three-inch mortars and heavy machine guns, with some support from our brand-new armored battalion, the 79th. They had just received 10 ex-US army halftracks. They also had some kibbutz-produced armored cars which were built on the sandwich principle: half-inch thick armor plate on three-inches of timber and another half-inch amour plate inside the body. They seemed to be okay against small arms and shrapnel, but hopeless against serious anti-tank weapons. However, they looked great and they boosted our shaky morale.  It was too much for them, and several thousand armed men and villagers headed for the border. We were detailed to spend two hours to bury the dead. We chased the last few stragglers over the border somewhere near Manara. We unintentionally crossed into Lebanon after them in hot pursuit. Our radio expert was a young red-haired girl who carried a field radio as big as a small fridge. Today a mobile telephone would do just as well. We radioed for orders and were told to stay put and dig in. We settled in and stayed there for a few weeks until others relieved us. The only sight we had of the Lebanese were persistent salesmen of fake Parker pens, fake Omega watches, perfumes, and similar useless luxury goods. I negotiated with one to get me some sacks of rice and sugar which were in very short supply in besieged Israel. He appeared a few days later with my grocery list, for which we paid him in Palestine Mandatory pounds which were useless in Israel and could be bought by weight in the street market in Tiberias. They were still legal tender in Jordan, and that's where the Lebanese merchant went to do his buying. The centre of our area of responsibility was now Metullah. This was the northernmost Jewish town of the Galilee panhandle, and had been in existence for over a 100 years. We were based in a vast British Taggart police fortress overlooking south Lebanon. Our HQ was at Tel Hai, the shrine of the old Yishuv, where Josef Trumpeldor lost his life to Arab raiders. We all admired the story of this one-armed veteran of the Russo-Japanese war of 1908 who defended the land long before our time. For my grandchildren's benefit I want to say here and now that I was never very involved in Israeli internal politics. I found the power struggles between two old men from Poland very self-destructive.  It increased our casualties on all fronts. How I wished that they could have agreed over the shipment on the “Altalena.” We could have used those guns.

We had pathetic arms, elderly French Hotchkiss machine guns which stalled every few shots and I had to smack them with a hammer at the vital spot (the breech block) to get them to work. We had a number of World War I Turkish Mauser rifles, about four-feet long, which sported bayonets as big as pirate's cutlasses. These were used as a last resort when ammunition ran out. A little later on we received more modern arms from Czechoslovakia.  My company received four BEZA heavy machine guns and four massive ear-shattering five-inch mortars. Our infantry received some Czech Mauser rifles, tastefully engraved with swastikas on the barrel. We also received some little wooden boxes containing some very accurate, infra-red night sights which fitted our machine guns. They were a brilliant success once a group of three of us had worked out how they functioned. Our enemies from then on had no peace at night. They were not very active night fighters at the best.

Our sector of responsibility went as far as the source of the Jordan. Here we went across, sometimes at night, to annoy the Syrian army which had dug in on the Hermon slopes. They became very respectful and were on their toes day and night. They had mined the upper Jordan banks with anti-personnel mines and we had some casualties from them; four of our boys were in the hospital at Kibbutz Kfar Giladi next to Tel Hai, after having leg amputations. I remember sitting in line at the hospital waiting to donate blood for them.  Blood transfusions were not the highly developed art that they are today. In those days, the donor and the patient had to be next to each other in order to carry out the transfusion effectively.

I got a bit panicky about the little anti-personnel mines, and overcame this by borrowing two abandoned donkeys for the night patrols. I reasoned that if the donkey was unlucky enough to tread on a mine, it would be his legs and not mine. This worked well and no donkey had to sacrifice his limbs for us. We may well have been the only Israeli cavalry unit on active service.

Meanwhile, things were heating up for the Egyptian army at Faluja (today Kiryat Gat, one of the new industrial towns of Israel).  They had been slammed into defeat at Iraq el Suweidan, a strongly defended police fortress from where they could have advanced to Rehovot and then Tel Aviv. POWs later told us that they had expected to be in Tel Aviv within ten days. We were sent there from the Galilee to relieve the Givati and 8th Brigades who had penned the Egyptians into a desert depression at Faluja.  Our job was to stop their supplies reaching them from Madjal (Ashkelon) and Gaza. We were now a motorized unit, having received a number of ex-British army jeeps which had been assembled from the hundreds of cannibalized vehicles on the scrap heaps outside British camps. We thoroughly enjoyed rushing around the upper Negev shooting up camel convoys trying to get through to the hungry Egyptians. We considered ourselves a very tough and aggressive bunch, maybe we were, but there were still some weak bladders in our unit.
As soon as we were settled down in a very pleasant base camp called Julis in delightful autumn weather, half the company was knocked out by a malaria bug which we had probably picked up in the Galilee. So we were all taken to various military hospitals, and the war came to a conclusion without me. The Egyptians negotiated their withdrawal from the Negev via the UN truce supervisors. They left their heavy weapons behind, as well as a lot of their motor transport. The IDF was now well-equipped; all it cost was a coat of paint in the right color and some good motor mechanics to start up vehicles that had stood idle for months.
In the Galilee we missed the final act, the battle for Tarshisha, (now known as Ma’alot), which I believe was taken by our brothers of the 79th Battalion. This town is near Nahariya, and we had all made a few attempts to get into this very strongly defended hill town. The end came very suddenly when the "Machal" Air Force was called in. The air force had some first-class crews and highly skilled ground staff; they needed to be that way. The planes were airborne scrap heaps.  Our heavy support bomber was a De Havilland Rapide, about 1930 vintage with double-decker wings and kitted out as a bomber.  This flew over the town, picked out the sheikh’s house, and the crew kicked an oil drum loaded with high explosives out of the passenger door and onto the flat roof of the house.  The house was shattered with an almighty bang and within a few minutes the white flags came out.  I missed out on this but it is in the records of the 7th Brigade.

We had an RSM who in civil life was some kind of cabaret entertainer: a good organizer but he didn't really know a land mine from a dinner plate. We had a few dozen anti-tank mines, quite harmless because we had taken their detonators out. These we stacked by the door. I explained to our Tel Aviv cabaret artist. that a loud noise could set off a mine, so please not to yell. He went hoarse immediately, as well as respectful. We only had to attend medical parades from thereon. While we were stationed here the population of Akko, most of whom had not run away, was stirred up by some remnants of the Kaukji irregular army still hiding in the town. Our intelligence officer, known as Vivian to his mates and Mad Paddy to the ranks, was Chaim Herzog, and the brigadier decided that a show of force would quieten them down. The whole battalion was turned out - cooks, clerks. storekeepers. malingerers - the lot. Every man was armed to the teeth, hand grenades on belts, rifles with fixed bayonets. Our clapped-out jeeps, each one sporting a pair of machine guns, and a big mortar pointed skywards, looked totally impressive. The population was also impressed, and then a squad of sappers was sent in to demolish a certain house. Our intelligence had been reliably informed that this was where the leftovers of Kaukji's army had hidden their guns and other equipment. The area was cleared, and of course the house went up with a much bigger bang than had been calculated, as there really was explosive material hidden there.  When the dust had cleared there was a vast square hole. The house had collapsed into an 11th century Crusader hall under the building.

We all had to report back to Brigade HQ in Akko, where we had become the garrison. Our quarters were the ex-6th Airborne Regiments (UK) camp on the beach north of the Old City. His Majesty's soldiers' camp was a pathetic smelly dump consisting mainly of rickety corrugated iron bilious green Nissen huts. Toilets were just smelly pits with concrete cubicles covering them. The washing facilities were concrete troughs with cold water taps. Here I saw the colonial system displayed. Toilets were labeled “OFFICERS ONLY, NCOs, OTHER RANKS. NATIVES ONLY.” But they were all equally ghastly. There was a reasonably effective cookhouse, as well as a strongly built quartermaster's store and an armory. I was assigned to the latter. As we were now a proper army, there were all manner of inspections and parades daily. To be excused you had to make yourself look important, and I developed this ability very quickly. As we were in hostile territory we encircled our armory with coiled barbed wire and put up a few signs. On them were skulls and crossbones with the message "DANGER: MINES."

I then had another attack of malaria, and another.  In the spring of 1949 all those with repetitive malaria were given six-months-leave without pay and put on the reserves list. To my astonishment, on leaving the demob camp we were all approached and spoken to politely by a recruiting sergeant for the newly formed border police. He wore a very sharp uniform, pretty little green beret, large silver badge, chrome-plated revolver and Sam Browne-style belt. The border police wanted to recruit some trained, experienced men to mix with their new recruits. I did not display a lot of interest, but that did not spare me the recruiting talk. The offer was up two ranks at once, a proper salary instead of the lean soldier's pay of £3 per month, although we Machal volunteers did get £5 per month, with the extra coming from the UK. We had to appear at our Machal club at 51 Hayarkon Street in Tel Aviv, where it was doled out.  To understand today what that £5 represented, you need to multiply by at least twenty to understand its purchasing power. When I had a few days leave from the front in the previous year, and not a coin in my pocket, I had worked for a day or two in the little harbor in Tel Aviv unloading sacks of sugar from a Cuban ship into barges, and then into trucks. Another few days were spent on a building site on Bograshov Street. There was an acute shortage of civilian labor and such work was worth £4 per day, like £80 today.
I made polite excuses to the border police recruiting sergeant and said I would give it very serious thought, and thumbed a lift to Haifa, to my cousin Gisela who lived in a one-and-a-half room flat on the French Carmel with her wounded husband and two babies. I slept there on the corridor floor for three months.
My memory is very clear about what happened, but I find that I am getting muddled about the chronology of these events. After leaving the Italian Hospital - actually an ex-Brit army hospital, and I don't know the reason for the exotic name - in Bat Galim, we were dispatched for convalescence to Nahariya. We were allowed two weeks there, and we had a fabulous time. The local language was German and I had no problem with that. The riverside cafes were a dream after the rigors of front line service. The beer was cheap, the food delightful and the population hospitable. The army paid for me to have three meals a day at a cafe called Feibelmand, where my host was a village Jew from Bavaria.  He was a brilliant cook, and he brewed his own ale which was always on the house for us, the heroes. He owned various plots of land all over the township, bought from people who had made a run for it when Nahariya was encircled by the enemy the previous year. He doubled as the local estate agent.  I clearly remember that he had a few one-dunam sites on the main street for about £60.  This was cheap even in those far-off days.  Unfortunately, I would have had a problem to assemble £6, never mind the £60.

A friend of a friend found me a little job in a bonded warehouse in the customs zone of the port. It required knowledge of the English language and clerical work, and it was a delightful, clean job. The main problem was that the salary lasted only for the first ten days of each month. I was getting impatient because my girl friend from England, also a Kindertransportee, was awaiting passage to Israel at Marseilles, and I couldn't visualize feeding two out of my nominal salary. Anyway, she arrived quite soon with a new boyfriend in tow, having no further use for me. She told me quite bluntly that I was not economically viable from her point of view, whereas the new candidate had two parents in Israel, both of whom were illustrious doctors (this was so), and he wished to marry her forthwith. So my economic problems did not increase. To a certain extent I was sponging off my poor cousin, who also had insoluble money problems.

In a matter of weeks Israel had 60.000 demobbed soldiers, many without work, and more penniless immigrants were pouring in daily. The only jobs going were in construction or hotel/catering. This was something I understood and had been trained for, and the hotel trade occupied me until 1953. I had by then saved a bit of money, but the malaria was plaguing me at least twice a year, so I decided to go back to London for a few months. That was mainly because my brother Wilf, who had remained in London, advised me that we might be able to get our hands on some assets from Germany.  In 1953 this could not be done from Israel, I anticipated that this would take a month or two. In fact it took a year or two.  I doubt if overall we ever got back more than 10%. But that is another story. I needed to work.  My brother on his £1 a week was about to start freelancing as a journalist and could not feed me. I quickly found work as a chef, and I earned very serious money by working two full shifts every day. In the meantime I met the girl I wanted to share my life with (I'm still doing that). She had recently arrived in the UK from Germany, where she had stayed in a displaced persons camp whilst searching for her father, who was known to be in England. She had ended the war in Theresienstadt, where she had lost her mother and brother. Having found her father, she was now living with him, as he was old and in poor health. We talked about marriage and she was quite clear about it: she would marry me gladly, but she would continue to look after her father and this would be in England. Somewhere I still have an unused return ticket from the ZIM shipping company. I had intended to return to Israel, but in those days reserve NCOs and others were not allowed out of Israel unless they possessed a return ticket. I had a rest from malaria for many years until the day before my daughter’s wedding in Israel in 1980.  We had been rushing about all day making final arrangements, and in the afternoon in heat of 100ºF+ I had that old familiar feeling of icy shivering cold and giddiness, and I knew I had to find a pharmacy fast, buy some Atabrin (that was the wonder drug that year) and get to bed if I was to stand on my feet at the wedding.  All went well.

Author:  John Altman

Link to Altalena story