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Purity of Arms

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On Patrol Duty in Palestine  E-mail
Article from the London Jewish News, 24th April, 1998

Katrin Levy meets a sailor who had a unique perspective
of the tragedy of the ship Exodus


In October of last year, three retired British Naval Officers made history by attending a symposium together with many of the Jewish immigrants who had tried to enter British Mandatory Palestine illegally in the days before Israel was declared an independent state.

The symposium was organized to draw a line under the events of those times and to promote a greater understanding between the two parties about what had actually occurred.

For one man, Alan Tyler, the occasion marked an end to a 50-year personal battle.  As a naval officer, Alan had spent two years on Palestinian patrol duty.  In his time aboard the Chevron, he had seen the immigration ship the Exodus turned away from Israel’s shores and was anchored in the port of Haifa when Israel was given her independence in 1948.

What makes his story all the more remarkable though, is that Alan Tyler is Jewish.

“I was born in Willesden in 1924, the older of two boys.  My father had a small business and my mother was a housewife so I didn’t come from any sort of naval background.

“I probably only decided to join the Navy because of my nurse, Miss Hawkins.  She was always telling me stories about the children she’d raised who had gone on to have naval careers.

“The indoctrination was subtle, but I absorbed it, probably without noticing.  So, in 1937 at the age of 13, I sat the entrance exam for the Naval College at Dartmouth.  We were also interviewed by the Admiralty, who decided which 50 applicants they would be taking on as naval cadets.

“Nobody asked me if I was Jewish when I joined the Navy.  I don’t think religion was even discussed.  At home, my family belonged to the West London Synagogue.  We attended services most Saturdays, but I had no Zionist education.

“In the Reform movement at that time, most people had only vaguely heard about Herzl.  I considered myself to be a Brit of the Jewish persuasion and wasn’t really thinking about a Zionist identity.

“I started my training in 1938 and I saw active duty at sea for the first time in 1941 as a midshipman, first on a cruiser, then on a destroyer."

By the time Alan first put to sea, illegal Jewish immigration had already been taking place for eight years.  By the time World War II started in 1939, more than 20,000 refugees, most of them from Germany and Poland, had made their way to Palestine’s shores.

In 1942, Alan paid his first visit to Palestine.  “We were given a three-day leave in Haifa and it was my first contact with Israelis and quite an eye-opener.  I was taken to an agricultural college called Mikveh Israel and it was here that I made friends with one chap, Eli Dror, who I have remained in touch with for the best part of 50 years.  He was one of the witnesses at my son’s wedding to an Israeli girl in Haifa.

“Until I had the chance to meet Jews of Palestine and talk to them, though, I hadn’t really felt a connection.  The connection was reinforced when I went to Famagusta later in the year for a Passover seder.  There were Palestinian Jews around the table who told me what they were trying to do and I sympathized very much with them.”

But following the Allied victory in 1945, the situation in Palestine started to deteriorate, and against its wishes, the Navy became involved in actively stopping illegal Jewish immigration to Palestine, placing Alan in a difficult position.

“In 1946, I joined the destroyer Chevron, which at that time was carrying out duties in the Mediterranean.  We were in Malta in August when the captain said that our next job would be the Palestinian patrol.

“Jewish extremist groups in Palestine were attacking and killing my fellow servicemen on shore and to me there was no question of not intercepting “illegal” ships whose passengers almost certainly included some terrorist recruits.

“The King David Hotel had just been blown up with heavy loss of life – I didn’t know until years later than an evacuation warning was criminally ignored and I was concerned about the safety of my fellow servicemen.

“There was obviously still conflict, but it was felt by almost everyone on board and not just by me.  One felt sorry for the immigrants but one had a duty. What made it worse was that 18 months earlier, the same soldiers who were being blown up on shore had been liberating camps like Bergen-Belsen.  It was difficult for everyone concerned.”

Alan says that remarkably, he never heard one anti-Semitic comment during his time on Palestinian Patrol, though most people aboard knew that he was Jewish.

“There was never any hostility or distrust from my crew mates.  If anything, there was sympathy for the immigrants who were crowded on ships.  I have letters from my naval colleagues on the matter and everyone felt bad about what they were expected to do.

“We had finished fighting a war when we got stuck with a police job that involved keeping impoverished people away from Palestine.  It didn’t appeal to anyone, but the Navy always does what it’s told.  We weren’t the opponents of the Israelis.  If anyone was the enemy, it was the Foreign Office and the Colonial Office.”

Alan’s duties included broadcasting to the immigrants in English and German, asking that they should give themselves up peacefully.  The immigrants resented the broadcasts in German, as it reminded them of the Nazis, but Alan says that it was done for their own good.  “We just wanted them to understand that what we were saying was for their own safety.”

The Chevron was involved in at least half a dozen skirmishes with immigrant ships.

“The Navy was following a policy of restraint when dealing with these ships.  In the face of fierce resistance to the boarding parties, which often resulted in serious casualties, the use of firearms was almost completely avoided.”

Nevertheless, the fight board the Exodus left three Jews dead and many more wounded before the British were able to force the ship to dock in Haifa.  The 4,500 passengers on board were transferred to three ferry ships and sent to France, where Alan came into contact with them again.

“We were dispatched to Marseilles to watch over the three ships, which were anchored at the Port de Bouc.  We transferred stores to the ships, so we had a close view of conditions aboard.  They looked like prison ships; the decks were boxed in with wire netting to prevent the Jews jumping overboard or breaking out to take over the ship, almost like caged animals.

“It was Saturday, and we could see a group wrapped in prayer shawls, reciting morning service.  I felt ashamed to be taking part in such a heartless operation.”

It was not the first time that Alan and the Chevron’s crew had seen the suffering of Jewish passengers. “Earlier in 1946, a ship carrying 800 refugees was ship-wrecked off the tiny island of Sirina and we were asked to rescue them.  We saw first-hand the ragged clothing and emaciated women and children and it had a profound effect.

“But the Exodus was really the turning point.  Bevin made a huge error by insisting that the refugees be sent back to displaced persons camps in Germany.  It really turned world opinion in favor of adopting the UN resolution to create the new State of Israel.”  However, Alan doesn’t believe that Bevin’s animosity towards Israel was a result of anti-Semitism.  “Bevin had a blind spot where Jews were concerned.  He was not anti-Semitic, but he was anti-Israel. After the war, the priority for Bevin was trying to contain Russia.  The Jews were just a sideshow who became a major irritation.”

On May 15, Alan saw clouds of dust coming across the Egyptian border as the Egyptian forces attacked the fledgling state.  “By early June, the Egyptians were on the outskirts of Jerusalem.  But our last view of Israel was far more encouraging – the Star of David flying over Haifa and Acre.”

Alan Tyler interviewed by Journalist Katrin Levy for the London Jewish News,
issue of 24th April 1998 for Israel’s 50th anniversary.