22 March '11
The ambush and merciless destruction by Arabs in the Sheikh Jarrah district of Jerusalem of a convoy of vehicles – clearly marked with the symbol of the Magen David Adom – taking Jewish medical personnel and patients to the Hadassah Hospital in 1948, just four weeks before the Declaration of the State of Israel, was a terrible blow to the emergent state.
Most of the victims of that outrage were badly burned and unrecognisable. The dead included top specialists in their fields who, had they lived, might have achieved breakthroughs in medical science to the benefit of humanity. Among those killed were Hadassah's Director, the ophthalmologist Dr Haim Yassky, who had done much to treat trachoma; Dr Moshe Ben-David, Secretary to the Medical Faculty, Hebrew University of Jerusalem; Dr. L. Doliansky, Director of Cancer Research, and the Assistant Director, Dr Musbursky; Professor Joseph Bonaventura, Head of the Psychology Department at the Hebrew University; Dr Klar, Lecturer in Philology, and Dr Freiman, Lecturer in Jewish Law.
The incident embittered the Yishuv against Britain, whose Mandate rule was coming to an end, since British troops failed to come to the convoy’s aid.
However, the Jewish Chronicle (27 May 1988) carried an article by its Foreign Editor, Joseph Finklestone, based on the reminiscences of Lieutenant-Colonel Robert King-Clark (1913-2007), one of the officers who helped Orde Wingate to crush the 1938 Arab Revolt by leading one of the renowned Night Squads. According to King-Clark, some of the victims might have been saved had they accepted an offer of help from his friend Major John (“Fighting Jack”) Churchill (1906-96), of the Highland Light Infantry.
I reproduce Joseph Finklestone's account below, without further comment:
Hundreds of Arabs poured withering fire on the helpless convoy, ignoring completely the fact that the passengers included dedicated doctors and nurses, as well as patients. The Arab gunmen showed no mercy as they set fire to the vehicles and saw their victims burn to death.
Major Churchill [pictured] was the first senior British officer at the scene of the ambush. He had been on a battalion inspection parade when he saw a soldier waving a piece of paper.
This was a message from a British post at Sheikh Jarrah that a Hadassah convoy had been ambushed. The Arabs had mined the road, and the firing was intense. The time of the message was 9.30 – a significant time.
Major Churchill told the regimental Sergeant-Major to inform the commanding officer that there was trouble at Sheikh Jarrah and that he was going to see what was happening.
Having collected his “Dingo” vehicle and driver, he quickly drove to the Sheikh Jarrah area and “Tony’s Post,” as the British post was known.
Major Churchill saw Arabs firing at the convoy from houses while an ineffective response was coming from the outnumbered Jewish guards.
He also spotted large numbers of Arabs, many armed, swarming up the Wadi el Joz (Valley of the Walnut) to join those in the houses.
However, Brigade HQ turned down his request. Lieutenant-Colonel King-Clarke charitably attributes this decision to the Brigade HQ being startled by such an unorthodox demand and desiring to steer a middle course between Jew and Arab, as the Mandate was coming to an end.
Major Churchill, having explained that a very dangerous situation was developing and that some action would be needed if the Jews in the convoy were to be saved, then asked for two Staghounds – large armoured cars armed with a cannon and a machine-gun. This request was granted.
However, he was told that it would take some time to get these vehicles back from convoy protection duties elsewhere. “But for Christ’s sake try and avoid using their guns, “ said the staff officer. “It’s for their cannon that I want them,” replied Major Churchill.
There was nothing he could do in the meantime at Tony’s Post, which consisted only of a subaltern and about 15 Scottish soldiers with no heavy weapons.
However, feeling a sense of responsibility, Major Churchill decided to try to rescue some of the trapped Jews by using one of his battalion’s big armoured personnel carriers and a Bren carrier.
Having warned Battalion HQ by radio to have the vehicles ready, he went back himself in his “Dingo” to the transport lines.
With these two vehicles and a small police armoured car, he returned to the ambush.
Getting out of his “Dingo,” Major Churchill walked about 30 yards, alone and in full view of the Arab gunmen.
Later he told his friend, Lieutenant-Colonel King-Clark:
“As I walked along, swinging my blackthorn stick, I grinned like mad from side to side, as people are less likely to shoot you if you smile at them.
Of course, having just come off a battalion parade, I was very dressed up – in Glengarry tunic, Sam Browne belt (but no claymore, worse luck!), kilt, hair sporran, red and white diced hose – and white spats!
This outfit in the middle of battle, together with my grinning at them, may have made the Arabs laugh, because most of them have a sense of humour. Anyway, they didn’t shoot me!”
The woman replied, according to Major Churchill: “Yes, but are you going to drive the Arabs off first?”
“No,” he said. “I cannot do that. I have only 12 men and there are hundreds of Arabs.”
“Well, I will have to talk to Dr Yassky (director of the Hadassah Hospital) or somebody else,” she replied.
The major heard her speaking in Hebrew to people on the bus. After a few moments he called out: “Hurry up and decide. It’s very dangerous for me outside here.”
Shortly afterwards, the reply came from inside the bus: “Thank you very much, but we don’t want your help. The Jewish Army – the Hagana – will save us.”
Major Churchill told Lieutenant-Colonel King-Clark that he had walked to the other buses, repeating the offer and stressing that it was their last chance of getting help from the British, and that if they did not accept the offer, it was most likely that they would all be killed. In each case, the reply was the same, according to the major: “No thank you, the Hagana will save us.”
As Major Churchill was leaving the buses, the driver of the Bren carrier shouted out that his Bren machine-gunner had been hit and was dying. Major Churchill said that he again shouted at the trapped Jews: “Look, one of my men has been killed, so I am leaving at once! You are on your own!”
They called out “Yes, yes.”
Major Churchill went to Tony’s Post which, he said, had continued to support the trapped Jewish vehicles with small arms fire against the Arabs.
This personal intervention by a brave officer was the last – and sole – action by the British forces. The Arabs, now very numerous, became emboldened and noisy and set the Jewish buses on fire with Molotov cocktails. They shot the occupants of the buses. By mid-afternoon, 77 Jews lay dead and a further 25 wounded.
Only eight of the 110 men and women who had set out in the Hadassah convoy that morning escaped unhurt.
When the British armoured cars eventually arrived at 3.30 pm – six hours after the ambush had been spring – they could do little else than survey the carnage.
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