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Purity of Arms

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John Burrows (AKA Johnny Dawson)  E-mail
written by his son John Burrows Jr. (Australia)

Stationed in Palestine under the British Mandate, Johnny Dawson, a non-Jew, became one of a small band of British soldiers, who disgusted by Britain’s policy in Palestine, deserted the British Army, and volunteered to fight for Israel.  He fell in love with a Jewish girl and converted to Judaism. My mother heard stories from her father and from some Haganah agents about how this shy fellow and several British Army comrades deserted to join the Palmach, the fighting unit of the Haganah, which later became part of the Israel Defense Forces.

My maternal grandfather had told her about the fierce fighting in Israel, about how this young man had operated a tank “borrowed” from the British Army and how he and his comrades had helped Israel to bring about the defeat of the Arab Armies against tremendous odds.  And how, assuming various guises, he would arrange covert transportation from various places in Europe of much-needed equipment for the fledgling IDF.

At first, while serving in the British Army stationed in Palestine, John Burrows was assigned to dispatch work, riding his BSA motorcycle between checkpoints on dangerous missions, as the British were being shot at by both sides.  He quickly learned where the Palmach guys were active!  A few months later,  as units were changed around and blockade enforcement was increasing, he was sent to assist cordon and search duties, including boarding newly-arrived ships and searching for refugees from Europe.  This was the worst time; he saw unimaginably pitiful sights and was incensed at the policy in force, and disillusioned at the role he was ordered to carry out.  He had joined up when he was 16 by lying about his age, and had wanted to help in the fight against Nazi Germany, not play policeman to their victims.

Once, gunner Johnny Dawson took part in the fighting from the ground, shooting at a “foreign Spitfire” later identified as a British one.  A dogfight ensued between the Israel Air Force and the “foreign” plane maneuvering one of the planes towards our tanks, when Dawson shot at it with his Browning heavy machine gun, the pilot parachuted and the plane crashed; we learned later that the plane was British.

In 1947 my dad befriended a captured Haganah soldier he was guarding, a sabra named Eliahu Shapiro, and told him that he was determined to help the Jewish cause, and asked him to arrange things.  One day he rode out of the camp to a pre-arranged meeting place, and did not return.

Stewart Cooper, then a lance corporal with the 6th Airborne Division, had the unfortunate duty of boarding boats filled with refugees attempting to disembark in Palestine during the blockade.  “The most disgusting, degrading thing ever asked of the British Army,” he told me.  “That bloke Bevan¹ should have been shot.  We were in a no-win situation.  We had so many Jewish comrades during the war, and here we were, preventing their relatives going home after going through hell at the camps.  A lot of us thought about chucking it in and joining the poor buggers.  Your dad had the guts to do what a lot of us wanted to do.  They should have given him a bloody medal, not sent him to prison.”

Maurice Tugwell, then a captain with the 6th Airborne Division, had this to say:  “We had just freed (Bergen-)Belsen, there were many Jews in our ranks, and we did not share the anti-Zionist sentiments of the Foreign Office.  I think they² should have been friends rather than enemies.  I certainly think that John Burrows acted in accordance with his conscience.  And because no army could survive if this sort of thing (desertion) were allowed, he also seemed to recognize the necessity to surrender to the authorities and take his punishment.  He deserved a biography”

Michael (Paddy) Flanagan of the 47th Dragoon Guards (Armored) stationed near Haifa in 1948 was one of the Brits who “liberated” a couple of Cromwell tanks.  Paddy served alongside my dad in what was to become the 82nd Tank Battalion, part of the IDFs 8th Brigade.  I managed to find Paddy alive and well.  He had this to say: “When your Dad and I joined up with the Haganah, we had three tanks – two Cromwells and a Sherman we scrounged together from scrap taken from the desert, courtesy of the campaign during World War II.  That was it.  We were the only tanks Israel had.  When I think back to the odds stacked against us, those Arabs were armed to the teeth, it was amazing we survived, let alone won!” I asked Paddy why he had deserted.  “Because I was a bloody nut,” he chortled in his Irish way, before confessing up to a romantic situation which had arisen with an Israeli girl destined to become his wife.  In fact, the two Cromwells were to carry the names “Ruth” and “Miriam” painted on their sides, in honor of the two special ladies, one of whom, Ruth, was Paddy’s girl, and the other was already the wife of one Sergeant Desmond Rutledge, also from the 6th Airborne, later to change his name to Zvi Rimer.

Norman Levy, another Brit who had served in the Jewish Brigade of the British Army during World War II, and had volunteered for service with the IDF in 1948, had joined the 82nd Tank Battalion, and was perhaps as close as anyone to my dad.  He knew my father’s real identity and many years later attempted to find him by going to England and searching for him, not realizing that my dad was in a military prison.  Norman later went to Canada, serving for a long time as a Member of Parliament there.  Norman related to me an event which took place on 7th January 1949 over Sinai in the area of Rafah, when our 82nd Tank Battalion came under attack from Spitfires.  

“I recall the incident as though it was yesterday.  We were at Rafah at the southern end of the Gaza Strip, towing one of the tanks which had broken down, when the lead towing tank left the road and started fishtailing through the sand.  A couple of the guys got out to inspect the ground ahead, when suddenly they came running back and dived for cover under the tanks.  Five Spitfires were circling above us and then attacked, setting three trucks on fire and then taking off towards the south.  A few hours later, four Spitfires re-appeared, but this time we were prepared.  As they approached, your dad swung into action with a 50 Browning, sending off a hail of bullets.  As we watched, the lead plane started streaming smoke, the pilot bailed-out and we saw his parachute open.  The three other Spitfires flew off and we were sure they were coming back to have another go, when to our relief two Israel Air Force Spitfires arrived on the scene and a dogfight took place  away from our position.  The IAF Spitfires shot down the three remaining Spitfires.

“We went out to pick up the pilot whose plane your dad had shot down.  He was an RAF pilot, a young chap who kept repeating over and over, ‘My name is Flying Officer Close, my number is…’ I told him not to be so bloody stupid and asked him what the hell the RAF was doing here.  His resolve to keep quiet withered and he stammered out, ‘We are patrolling the border, you crossed the border, and our wingco (wing commander) told me to ‘have a bit of fun with you’.  Why did you cross the border?’

“I pointed out to him that  was total bullshit, that the border was several miles off and that they were operating without official sanction.  He clammed up again at that point and we took him back with us and handed him over for questioning.  That night everyone was talking about the incident.  Stanley Behr, Eddy Magid, Lou Kotzen, Yakob (Schmeckie) Shiebner, I can’t remember all their names now, after all this time, but everyone in our small group was very excited and very proud of Johnny, although he wouldn’t say anything about it, he just smiled.  He was a quiet sort of chap, was Johnny.

“It was only afterwards that we learned the full story.  In the House back in England at that time, Winston Churchill demanded to know why Britain’s Air Force had got itself embroiled in the Arab-Israel conflict.  The five Spitfires which attacked our battalion were Royal Egyptian Air Force aircraft.  The second formation which appeared on the scene were Royal Air Force Spitfires which had been sent to do a low-level reconnaissance of the battle-zone, and all four aircraft were shot down, one by Johnny from his tank, and three from the air by the Israel Air Force.”

Another veteran to recall this incident clearly is South African Leslie Marcus, who was then a young volunteer with the 89th Commando Unit, also part of the 8th Brigade.  I had the enormous pleasure of meeting up with Leslie Marcus in person during his recent trip to Australia with his wife to visit their son and his family.  “I remember we had to physically restrain some of our guys from killing those captured pilots,” said Leslie with a wry grin.  Leslie himself was no stranger to the fighting, and on one occasion earned a commendation from his company commander for heroism under fire, having rescued a wounded comrade from certain death by carrying him in a fireman’s hold some 700 meters, running uphill all the way, while being shot at the whole time.

The 8th Brigade was in the heat of the conflict, from the very early days of Ramle and Lydda (Lod) and the hell of Latrun to the liberation of Beersheva and Rafah and many more places besides.  There is no doubt (and I am certainly not the first to say this) that it played a major role in Israel’s survival as a nation.

¹ Bevan – then Britain’s Foreign Minister
²The British and the Israelis
³British Parliament – House of Commons

Author:    John Burrows Jr, son of Machalnik John Burrows (Johnny


Link: A Very Moving Sequel