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Purity of Arms

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George Baler  E-mail

Coffee Table volumes describing the events of a war are dryly written by Generals augmenting their pensions.   They record the vast panorama of battlefields without noting the soldiers, who run, stand and fall, entirely unaware of the battles design.    The desk bound saviors are overly long sighted and, due to their long forgotten encounters with death, are devoid of reality. Historians, working from carefully garnered reports, many eyewitnesses and official documents, can publish impressive books, which, to those who provided the food, are more Novel than History.  War correspondents and photographers flit dangerously from battle to battle, laying unrelated jigsaw pieces together. The truth of the matter is that each and every soldier has his own war, a very narrow view with limited peripheral vision or understanding.   He sees only that which is directly in his line of sight and his experiences are enhanced and embroidered by time and distance. It would be most impressive if I could credit ideology or a struggle for justice leading me to the gangplank of the S.S.Marine Falcon in the summer of 1948, but it was neither.  The Hagana underground provided me free of charge, a ticket to adventure.

The United States had curtailed the movements of it's citizens to the Middle East, it was illegal for Americans to enlist in a foreign army and the United Nations had put into force an embargo on men of military age entering Israel.  We were instructed to board the converted Liberty Ship, bound for Le Havre, at half-hour intervals so as not to draw attention to ourselves as an organized group.  The plan was so carefully worked out, the security on our movements so tight, that the purser knew exactly who we were and assigned all of us to the same dormitory, separated from the other passengers.

Young soldiers never fade away; they evaporate, leaving behind a dry residue of futility.  Of our group of twenty-three only four remained in Israel.   We were not asked or encouraged to stay.  The authorities did not even bother to ask us what our intentions were; they simply did not concern themselves with this foreign body in their midst.  This is the fate of "Bargain Day" mercenaries who do their job or die trying, at the rate of three Israel Pounds a month.   The policy seemed to be "Use and Discard."   The hospitals were unable to cope with the dead and dying and of the few hundred volunteers from the United States and Canada who came to fight a war whose outcome was very much in doubt, less than ten percent settled in Israel and the remainder either forgot their youthful folly or formed American Veterans of Israel Lodges and held yearly conventions which were soon discontinued by the actuary tables.

Being the oldest of the twenty three I was appointed by the Hagana office in New York as the Group Leader and was entrusted with the top secret code, to be swallowed if caught, enabling me to identify the French agent waiting on the Le Havre dock, smoking a cigarette in a long ivory holder and carrying, of all things, a Hebrew newspaper under his left arm.  I picked him out from the ship's railing and he shouted "Shalom."  We were packed, quite openly, into a few ambulances and arrived the same day in Paris, at the entrance to Hagana Headquarters located unobtrusively on the Champs Elysees.  We were given envelopes containing a few hundred French Francs and told to enjoy the night in Paris.   Disinterested in the fabled Whorehouses of Paris I purchased a dozen chocolate Eclairs and went to bed with them.   The next morning we were put on a slow, standing room only, train to Marseilles, a thirteen-hour ride, and told that upon arrival we should avoid being conspicuous. A large open truck was waiting for us at the station and as we drove through the city the shouts from the Arab Street Cafes heralded our passage, "Jews, Jews". Taking into consideration the careful security precautions we arrived safely at the St. Jerome Displaced Person's camp, which was a dirty, overcrowded refugee gathering center and housed so many Jews from so many countries and diverse cultures that it was chaotic and very low on food, water and sanitary facilities.

The volunteers, henceforth to be referred to as "Anglo-Saxons," were issued with long staffs and sent out to guard the camp perimeter.  Those of us who had money left from our Paris festivities, cut an opening in the chicken wire fence protecting St. Jerome from the Moslem hordes, and walked to the village for a decent meal.  We languished in the camp for a few days with no inkling of what lay in store for us.

One midnight, without prior notice, we were placed on trucks, issued with a bar of bitter chocolate and brought, in total darkness, to a small port on the Italian border where our numbers were checked by the French immigration officials who received, cash on delivery, $20.00 a head.  We were quickly loaded onto a small boat that, we assumed, would take us to the ship for Israel.  The boat sailed unsteadily out of the harbor and kept on going into the open sea.  At daybreak we realized that the San Michelle, a very old Italian fishing boat, was our passage to Israel.  Four hundred and thirty five frightened, hungry, desperate survivors of the horrors of Europe packed into a 400-ton wreck which was built forty years ago to accommodate a crew of four and a catch of fish.  The construction of the passenger quarters must have entailed a great deal of planning as four hundred and fifty seasick men, women and children were not fish.   In the hold shelves were placed one on the other and each person allotted a space three feet wide, three feet high and six feet in length.  By the count they were filed on the shelves, one blanket apiece, and permission to go on deck in small groups to receive their rations of dry bread. There were never less than thirty people at one time waiting in line for the single toilet on deck and many, lacking the will or strength to climb the ladder, were forced to do what had to be done where they lay and the vomit and waste would drip from shelf to shelf into a stinking puddle on the lower deck.  

The San Michelle, renamed by the Hagana  "Mishmar HaEmek," limped along on a faulty engine, which was constantly in repair. For thirteen days we hugged the coast, the water undrinkable and the passengers, crazed by hunger, thirst and fatigue were uncontrollable and many tried to jump overboard and knife fights broke out over a crumb of food or an imagined insult.  The Israeli Captain, fearing the consequences, decided to form a Police force using the "Anglo- Saxons" who, in any case, were looked upon as creatures from another world, to restore order. We were given clubs and quartered on the deck despite the heavy weather but made the best of it by finding a never ending source of food, eating from the garbage pails of the Italian crew who subsisted on enormous quantities of Pasta.   

As we were told to take with us as little luggage as possible we had only the clothes on our backs but the others, well schooled in survival, carried with them large straw shipping trunks filled with clothing, kitchen utensils, salamis and sewing machines. On our way to Israel we were stopped only once, by a British Corvette, but with all below they took us for what we seemed to be and asked us if we needed help.

Staggering into the port of Haifa a small boat came along side and a representative of the Jewish Agency for Palestine collected our American Passports, which we did not get back for six months.  They were used, I was told, in Europe for getting agents from one country to another.   In place of our passports we were given Displaced Persons certificates and I was renamed, and not for the first time, Zeev Lupovic, sixty years old from Grajewo, Poland.  We had to stand off the harbor for two agonizing days, only the very ill or pregnant being allowed ashore.  It took that long to convince the U.N.  Officers to look the other way while the younger men disembarked.  A few women from WIZO doled out meat sandwiches and orange juice and after relieving our hunger and thirst we were sent to a new immigrants camp in Agrobank, near Hadera where we had our first wash after many weeks and the very same day, without a moments rest, we were taken to the Tel Litvinsky Army Base, assigned to tents, filled cloth bags with straw as use for mattresses and an hour later sworn into the Israel Army.  

Semi-military uniforms were distributed with the exception of shoes, which could not be found to fit our large feet.  The Commander of the base was trying his best to run it by British Army standards complete with an Officer's Club but used by anyone seeking a cold beer. The war was going badly and there was no time, nor any instructor to train us.  The casualties were high and every able-bodied man was mobilized.   New immigrants, directly off the ships, were sent into battle with no guidance and usually one home made Sten gun for every two soldiers, for one of them was sure to be cut down within hours.  The condition of the troops all over the country was so desperate that the officers of various units, as far away as the Upper Galilee, cut through the barbed wire fence around the base and at gun point kidnapped as many warm bodies as possible.

The Commander of the base, seeing his charges vanishing, decided to assign those who were left to the Brigades whose manpower was dangerously low.  Almost all of the "Anglo - Saxons" had been distributed and only Mike Rubin, Scotty Kaye (William Kaye from the U.K.) and myself were left.   Called into the Commanders office we were issued with orders to report immediately to a newly formed Infantry Brigade officered by a former Canadian Army veteran who had, by this time, acquired the reputation as being a bullshit discipline madman.  The three of us flatly refused the assignment and the Commander who was holding a Jeep outside for us was livid and screaming "Mutiny". He called in the M.P.s and officially informed us that a direct command, disobeyed by three soldiers or more, was considered an uprising and the penalty was death by firing squad.  Seeing that we were not impressed with his threats he turned on his fatherly approach.   His wife was pregnant, he had an ulcer, he had to get home to tend the baby and he would even go so far as to promote us in rank, only if we would get into the waiting Jeep.    Wanting desperately to get rid of us he compromised.  If we declared under oath that we were religious Jews we would be send to guard an Orthodox kibbutz not far from Tel Aviv, if, however, we were to declare that we were Communists he would send us to a Palmach Commando unit fighting in the Negev where, he was pleased to advise us, our chances of survival were slim.   We did not realize that the Palmach was not a part of the Haganah and were confused when armed guards arrived to escort us to the Palmach Headquarters in Tel Aviv and there we were sworn in all over again.

No purpose would be served by attempting to document the history of the Palmach.  It was tediously dissected in two thick volumes many years ago, from its mythical inception to its forced demise. I shall compress my account of the Negev Campaigns as much as possible for all battles are basically repetitious.  You win, you lose, kill or killed, and death is impersonal when the scenes are speeded up.   The Army Burial Brigade cleans up the mess and you look for something to eat a place to shit or a short nap.

The situation in early autumn, when I unwittingly stumbled into the Desert Brigade of the Palmach, was a panorama of absurdities. The Negev was in the hands of the Egyptians and Arab Irregulars; the few Kibbutzim were cut off from help and supplies and were sustained by small Pipers flying in limited quantities of food and ammunition.  The Palmach Armored Brigade consisted of 1,500 men and women and the strange appearance of a dozen volunteers. We were divorced from the Hagana by distance both physically and politically.  The political divide was the outstanding issue and the Palmach, branded as a "Red" private army was outside of the fold.  On Ben Gurion's orders we were not supplied with weapons, food, clothing or encouragement by the Hagana High Command.  Our orders came, not from above or from some distant War-Room, but from those soldiers who were judged by the men to have more experience and knowledge of the terrain and the common sense to take into account our capabilities.  There were no officers; no difference in accommodations or pay and no one was accorded the trappings of respect outside of his or her likeability.  There was constant pressure from the Government to disband us and, as a result, the Negev Brigade was frustrated and hopelessly under supplied.

Despite the blatant disregard of the middle of the road Labor Government, engaged in endless quarrels with the left as well as the right, the citizens of the new State regarded us folkloric daredevils.   Stories were told, songs were written and became immediate hits and on our infrequent leaves we were the focus of good natured and generous curiosity.  What was anathema to Ben Gurion was a morale booster for a beleaguered population so recently torn apart by the ideological conflict between the Hagana, the Stern Gang and the Irgun.  We radiated not a mythos but a badly needed buffer against despair.  If we were a legend, then it was a legend that strengthened Israel. The Desert Brigade was an extremely cohesive fighting force, and with the exception of a few confused volunteers, who knew not war, they were members of the left wing Kibbutzim.  The truth of the matter was that we were more a band of partisans than a military complement.

The so-called "Brigade" was never close to Brigade strength and we were really two separate groups. One a holding unit and the smaller an attack force.  Seconded to the attack force was a picked group of ten fast moving armored cars spearheading every action, carrying out hit and run raids and reconnaissance behind enemy lines.   The Palmach classification   "Armored Car" was misleading as well as ridiculous, it's ingenious assembly comprising two double sheets of roofing tin the hollow filled with enough gravel to stop a ricochet, a small turret was welded above the drivers seat and a narrow slit cut out for vision and a hole for the machine gun.   The end result was a ferocious juggernaut striking fear into the hearts of its crew.  I was assigned to the smaller of the cars under the supervision of Rami Azuri, a kibbutznik from Mishmar Ha’Eemek whose past driving experience was confined to a garden tractor.  He hadn't the slightest idea of what we were about and really did not care.  For Rami the war was a great escapade and a welcome relief from the drudgery of the fields.

We were light, fast and heavily armed for offensive actions and much in demand for hit and run attacks inside enemy lines. Our weaponry was awesome in its variety and uselessness.  A light Spandau Machine Gun poking out of the turret in a position from which it was almost impossible to sight a target.  A very peculiar rocket launcher called a  "Piat" which was operated by pressing down on the handles of a steel spring set in a stove pipe contraption which, in theory, would propel an armor piercing explosive charge at an enemy tank, in reality the Piat was the enemy.  There were few who had the superhuman strength to ready the spring to a firing mode and the few times this exhausting task was accomplished the projectile flew lazily out of the pipe and, if you were lucky, it exploded far enough away from you so as not to cause serious injury.  I have yet to hear of a single enemy tank, car or motorcycle being destroyed or disabled by a Piat.

We were also issued with a very long, cumbersome anti tank rifle called a  "Point Five" which took up so much space in the limited confines of the car that I was forced to sit with its barrel between my legs.   This was undoubtedly an effective weapon had we been given shells for it.   In my pack were two old British Mills grenades, which I carried with me to the very end of the war without the slightest idea of how to use them.  Of the three boxes of Molotov Cocktails I threw two of them away and used the third to rest my head on and in any case their wicks had dried up and fell out of the bottles.   My only reliable defense was a Lee Enfield 30-06 carbine that I had lifted from a passing convoy.  I was actually taught how to use the Spandau and unjam it, which was often, and had used rifles and hand guns before becoming a "Commando" and thus prepared I went to war.

For the first few months we were rationed ten cigarettes a day or a small bar of chocolate and all the food we could steal from other units and kibbutz kitchens.  The only clothes I ever received were a pair of heavy woolen pants, and a French Foreign Legion hat with a folding flap in back.  It was much too small and I traded it for a pack of cigarettes.

After the capture of Beer Sheva the situation improved when we looted the Egyptian storerooms and loaded the car with fifty cigarette tins of Players, Bully Beef and a fifty pound sack of old Turkish coins.  I eventually appropriated an Australian Army hat, which was a valued ornament for the "Animals of the Desert" as the Palestine Post so graciously termed us.  Later, when an enterprising captive soldier from our truck stealing forays opened a barbershop, I found a really impressive English pith helmet hanging from a hook in his shop awaiting its owner.

The remaining armored cars, being heavier, were always lagging behind and, as a result, Rami and I were a one car Armored Column and no one ever knew our location as the radio did not work properly  (or I did not know exactly which dials to turn) and only received messages.  My only meaningful contribution to the legend of the Palmach was teaching them to sing "She'll be coming round the mountain when she comes" and this stirring rendition was adopted as the anthem of Negev Brigade armored attack force in the Negev.   I am sure that this will be considered today as just another "Old Soldier's Story" but the fact remains that we went into actions singing Country music.

To abbreviate the account of the desert war in which we drove a large, well equipped, and often well trained Egyptian Army from its fortresses, camps and outposts, thereby doubling the size of Israel in less than six months. I shall limit the heroics and accelerate the course of events.  Beer Yaakov was the Palmach Base Camp where we were not trained, and supplied only with the hastily converted Command Cars.  The capacity of the cars was insufficient to hold our scarce ammunition and fuel reserves into the desert.  The only efficient solutions, although unorthodox, was to dispatch a number of armed men to the main Tel Aviv highway where they commandeered five automobiles whose distraught owners were given hand written receipts promising the safe return of their treasured vehicles at the end of the war.   As we were in dire need of a number of large trucks, but had no spare drivers, they took the trucks with their drivers who were held captive until we reached Beer Sheva.

In view of our limited numbers it was decided, at the last moment, that every one of us should be familiar with the field use of every piece of equipment as casualties were high and we had to be prepared to take over any post.  The training course consisted of an hour's instruction in driving a Half-track, the exciting opportunity of firing five bullets with a Sten gun into a sand pile, the dry firing of the Spandau and the final test, an ingenious assessment of our ability to survive under friendly fire.  All the newcomers were told to sit on a nearby rise and were shot at by a selection of different caliber guns.  To graduate from this bewildering course we had to determine the direction from which the bullets were coming.

Our first target was to participate in the capture of the Egyptian fortress of Iraqi el Suweidan that commanded the road to the South.   The battle had been going on for days and the Egyptians were well entrenched and their fire accurate.  Coming under a heavy and costly barrage we bypassed their position leaving the ground force to deal with it.  A few more days, more losses, and it was taken.  Our attack on Iraqi el Manshia was also repulsed as it covered the only road to Beer Sheva. The "Old Man', Yitzhak Sade, to whom we owed our allegiance, was a 'War Lord" personified and oblivious to orders from outside of his province.  His decision was that we could not possibly be effective on marked roads or by moving at all during the day and therefore we would have to travel, in the night, over open desert and sand dunes in order to reach our objective.

Avoiding a confrontation with the superior Egyptian forces we camped in Wadi Tzeelim and in the shadows we could not be spotted by the Egyptian Spitfires.  Duties were assigned every morning, cleaning the area, standing guard and digging foxholes. The boredom was soon replaced by frenzied activity when the remainder of the brigade finally caught up with us and with this additional strength we decided to move on Beersheva, the capital of the Negev and a rich prize.  The bulk of the enemy force was concentrated at the entrance to the city protected by a large British Taggart fort built of solid stone blocks and easily defended but the South, to which there was no obvious access, was unguarded.  Rami and I, accompanied by three other light cars, managed to cross the deep wadis and undetected, crashed through the mud wall and opened fire, drawing a sizable force of Egyptian troops and artillery from the main entrance and the odds were evened out.   Despite heavy resistance our troops entered the city and were faced by a unit of Sudanese soldiers holding out in the Australian War cemetery who doggedly fought to the last.  The hand-to-hand fighting moved from gravestone to gravestone.  Long black bodies laid out on already occupied burial grounds.  We did not have the time or inclination to deal with those Arab residents and soldiers who survived and we let them flee in the direction of Gaza. We had captured the most important city in the Negev but reinforced the Egyptian positions on the coast, an oversight that would later cost us dearly.

With our three cars being the first in the city, we took over the most luxurious villa we could find and set up housekeeping. It was well furnished and the kitchen was amply stocked with canned goods, eggs and large tins of Halva.  Everything of value, which we did not need, was loaded onto trucks and disappeared in the direction of Tel Aviv and the markets.  We settled down for a few days of rest and when the food finally ran out we started to hunt chickens and goats.  When the last eatable live stock had been consumed we returned to our normal, boring diet of nothing and to relieve the inaction shooting broke out all over the city.   After disposing of the few residents who had hidden themselves in storerooms and on roofs the madness spread to the cats and dogs who were the victims of our battle shock.

We were pleased when our rest was interrupted by a grudging request by the Hagana to blow up the Beersheva Hebron Bridge.  Yitzhak Sadeh agreed and we had advanced with our demolition team to within two hundred meters of the bridge when we fell into an ambush that almost destroyed us.  Carrying our dead and wounded we started to retreat and ran into a mortar barrage from both sides of the road.  We got back to Beersheva badly shaken by our first major defeat.

A few days later a light plane arrived from Tel Aviv with a high ranking Hagana officer who pleaded with us to try the bridge again as they had received information that a large Egyptian Division was heading from Hebron to Beer Sheva.  Again we approached the bridge and again we were beaten back but a constant stream of messages kept arriving from Tel Aviv calling on us to make another attempt.  Our unit, having suffered the heaviest losses, held a general meeting and decided to take a democratic vote in which the Hagana lost and the bridge was still intact when we pulled out of the city in the middle of the night.  Ben Gurion, furious, gave an explicit order that the Palmach be disbanded and placed under the command of the Israel Defense Forces but Yitzhak Sade, unwilling to conciliate and highly suspicious that no Egyptian force ever arrived from Hebron, brought us to the remains of Kibbutz Bet Eshel and placed armed guards at the entrances to repel any attempt by the Hagana to infiltrate our refuge. The Kibbutz was in ruins and we had no time to make it livable except for repairing the kitchen.

It was customary, with groups such as ours, that one of the mothers whose son fell while on duty with the Brigade, would come down from the North to cook for us, bringing with her a large supply of foodstuffs contributed by the mothers of our men. For weeks Rami and I were on the move, sleepless and on edge. We spearheaded all the attacks destroying the Egyptian outposts blocking the way to Gaza, Rafiah and Khan Yunis.  The towns of Auja-el-Hafir, Bir Asluj and Abu Ageila were overrun by the combined Israel forces.  On one moonless night we penetrated the Egyptian Border and carried out, quite successfully, the destruction of the railroad tracks from Gaza to Rafiah, returning to our base at first light, the first Israeli soldiers to carry the war into Egypt.  There was little resistance on the ground but the Egyptian Air Force was always overhead, strafing us ten or more times a day and our only sight of the Israel Air Force was the erratic flight of three lumbering Flying Fortresses on a bombing run of Gaza.

The smaller Arab villages and Bedouin encampments were attended to by the "French Commandos" company, all French-speaking volunteers from a  number of European and North African countries, but also included an American and British French-speakers, who were both killed in action. They came blazing out of the dunes, in ten Jeeps, each with two machine guns, and after overrunning everything in their path they faded into the desert.

Eventually we joined the battle again.  By this time we were groggy from lack of sleep, battle weary from the continuous strafing and deafened by the heavy mortar fire but we continued slowly to advance on Rafiah.

On January 7, l949, on the very outskirts of the city of Rafiah, I faded from the scene as our Half-track went over a powerful land mine.  The tremendous force of the explosion lifted me up and over the side, landing on my back.  Dazed and floating I looked up in horror as the Half-track started to fall tipping over slowly to crush out my fears. Three months later, with no memory of the time passed by, I came back to life standing on the deck of a converted American troop carrier, the Marine Carp.   I had $10.00 in my pocket, fuzzy eye sight, a back ache and a temporary discharge booklet from the Defense Forces of the State of Israel stating that I had enlisted in the highest health category and discharged according to category "Z" which is one grade above nothingness.  There was, as well, an official letter from the Israel Government noting that if, at anytime, I wished to return to Israel, free transportation would be provided. I counted my arms and legs, fingers and toes and the only appendage I found missing was three months of my life which I never recovered.

Author:    George Baler     - from his book “Life’s Lost and Found Department”, 1988.