top of page

40 Cdo in Haifa - Palestine Mandate and the withdrawal of British troops - January to June, 1948

Unit/ Formation: 40 Cdo RM


Location: Haifa


Period/ Conflict: Palestine Mandate


Year: 1948


Date/s: 30th January - 30th June 1948


Royal Marines of 40 Royal Marine Commando, part of the British Garrison at Malta, deployed between January and March 1948 to Haifa in Palestine to take over the internal security duties of the Port at an extremely tense period in Jewish-Arab relationship.


40 Commando was to be made responsible for the internal security of the evacuation port, through which all British forces in Palestine, evacuated by sea, would pass and therefore become the rear-guard in the final withdrawal.

40 Cdo, 45 Cdo and the SBS were involved in the withdrawal from Palestine see them pinned here www.royalmarineshistory.com

As it happened, the evacuation was completed without incident but when it was decided that 40 Commando would be the last British unit to leave Palestine, the situation was tense and a peaceful withdrawal seemed very uncertain. 40 Commando had the distinction and responsibility of providing the Guard of Honour for the High Commissioner (Gen. Sir Alan Cunningham) and ensuring his personal security when he entered the Port of Haifa on completion of the Mandate.


The Commando took over duties in the port on 3rd of February 1948 having established Tac H.Q. in the port & Marine Police Station at 0800 hrs. The Marines living under canvas in the newly pitched east and west camps in the dockyard and taking their place alongside the Palestine Police on the six gates of the port, Jews and Arabs alike stared with interest at the Green Beret, new in the Holy Land. The advance party of the unit had arrived just nine days previously disembarking from HMS Cheviot on Sunday, 29th January, the other two drafts coming a couple of days later on HMS Phoebe and the LST Striker.



A main H.Q. had been established about a mile from the port and two others in the port itself. The first day was rather hectic. At 1415hrs a heavy explosion shook the town; it was the first of a series of bomb attacks that continued for many weeks. Investigated by a patrol from 40, it introduced the unit to Wadi Rushmiya, a district that was to prove a major trouble centre due to its position- a 'no mans land' on the border of Arab and Jewish areas. Arab refuges encamped outside No. 3 gate


The bomb had destroyed the frontage of a large Arab house, a strong point, and was the signal for a general exchange of fire. Order was restored by a patrol of 8/9th Parachute Bn., at the cost of one wounded Para and several Arabs died in this attack.


An hour later two Palestinian policemen were shot down by dissident Arabs outside No. 3 Gate. Their bodies were recovered and the gate closed by 40 Commando guards in the face of a great crowd of irate Arabs. The situation soon cleared, but the policemen, both ex-Marines, lost their lives. [1]


Palestine - Peter Thomas


In the last article we left Palestine in carnage over Christmas 1947 when the UN plan for the partition of Palestine after the end of British Mandate was published. I was serving as the Heavy Weapons officer in 40 Commando Royal Marines which was based in Malta. Our Commanding Officer was Lt Col “Titch” Houghton MC (now Maj Gen) who had been captured during the Dieppe raid. He had trained us hard and moulded us into a happy and efficient unit.

The Commandos on the Quay of Malta preparing to embark in the escort carrier HMS STRIKER. © IWM A 31393

We were ordered to Palestine to help cover the British withdrawal. I left on the 25 January 1948 with the advance party in HMS Cheviot, the main body embarked in the cruiser HMS Phoebe and transport and stores followed later in the LST HMS Striker.

Commandos are seen on the deck of the cruiser HMS PHOEBE shortly after embarking at Malta.© IWM A 31396

On 30 January we arrived in Haifa to the sound of heavy explosions of tit for tat bombings between the Arab and Jewish communities. At first we went into a transit camp outside Haifa. To illustrate the hostility between the two, when I was also appointed messing officer I was faced with the usual complaint about insufficient food. With the CO’s permission I took four three ton trucks into the Arab countryside where they were filled with potatoes, the growers being too scared to bring them into Haifa. I sent three on to Jewish merchants and was able to retain one load to augment the Commando’s rations.


LST 3 HMS Striker at sea © IWM FL 19406

On 3 February 40 Commando took over responsibility for the security of Haifa port which was the only British withdrawal route, apart from the single track rail line into Egypt, for the 10,000 British troops and hundreds of thousand of tons of military stores which had accumulated from two world wars and the troubled years between. The port measures 2,000 yds East to West and 750 yds from the perimeter fence to the breakwater where ships berthed stern to and were loaded by lighter. Others berthed alongside. The port area, including the Arab suq, is dominated by the 2,775ft of Mount Carmel. Five gates were open and needed guarding: No 1 in the East served the oil refinery, No 2 the railway gate whilst Nos 3, 5 and 10 were busy vehicle and personnel gates. Security was a problem as the port was jointly owned by Jews and Arabs and engaged in commercial traffic and the export of citrus fruit and at the same time was busy with WD chartered ships.

Haifa Port and downtown between 1948 - 1951

The whole unit moved into the port. Our duties were constantly to search for weapons and stop stolen goods being taken out. In general the Arabs engaged in small scale pilfering, usually at night while the Jews went in for the large scale theft of military equipment brazenly using rail wagons and stolen Army vehicles. Day One gave a taste of things to come. A bomb destroyed an Arab house nearby resulting in an exchange of fire. An hour later two British Palestine Police were killed outside No 3 gate. Their bodies were recovered by us in the face of a large crowd of angry Arabs. Sadly both were ex-Marines. The Palestine Police Force was a fine, brave body of men who bore the brunt of terrorism. Their Inspector General was Col Nicol Gray DSO* who had commanded 45 Commando during the War. He had recruited many ex-marines.


On the same day a patrol arrested two armed Jews and later escorted the body of a Jew, killed by a police patrol, to the mortuary. Examples of thieving and rackets bowled out at that time are: an American timber ship lying on the breakwater for loading had some of her cargo taken over the breakwater into a felucca on the seaward side, the US ship Flying Arrow, whose manifest showed she was carrying agricultural tractors was found unloading armoured half tracks, the WD ammunition ship City of Glasgow asked for help and a patrol found an Arab labourer with 1,018 rounds of rifle ammunition, a team of Jewish workmen was seen unloading steel sheets from a lighter intended for a WD ship, eight Jews were found running a dump for goods stolen by Arabs; a rare example of intercommunity cooperation!


All these attempted thefts and many more were thwarted by alert patrols and the introduction of a universal pass system. Not all incidents were inter-communal. A Company of Mauritian Pioneers was employed as stevedores. A Corporal’s patrol checking on the NAAFI warehouse was greeted by a shower of empty bottles. He ordered “Fix Bayonets” and they rapidly sobered up. In town bombing continued at an average of four per week. Most bombs were in stolen WD vehicles. Two 14 ton Staghound armoured cars were acquired for me to man from my Heavy Weapons personnel. With their 37mm guns and coaxial machine guns they were an effective mobile reserve and much used for escorts. An insidious aspect for British servicemen was the constantly corrupting Jewish attempt to buy weapons and ammunition. I was offered £8,500 to leave a Staghound unattended for a few minutes at a nominated street corner. When I told the Corporal in charge he said “Only eight and a half. I was offered far more!” My CO told me that if I lost one of those Staghounds he would never want to see me again.



Palestine In April the situation took a turn for the worse when the C in C of the Arab Forces was killed outside Haifa and at the same time the Jews committed an atrocity which influenced Arab reaction to future Jewish attacks. The Irgun and Stern gang were given the task of capturing the village of Deir Yassin on the road to Jerusalem. Enraged by the tenacity of Arab resistance when it was eventually captured on 8 April 1948, every inhabitant was massacred; a total of 245 men women and children. By 20 April the situation in Haifa became critical and it was decided to remove all British troops from Haifa and let the two sides fight it out. 40 Commando was left to hold the port. At 1000 hrs the Jews opened fire on the Arabs. I was patrolling Kingsway in a Staghound at the time when two British police were caught in the crossfire. We gave covering fire while two gallant Jews in a bus recovered the casualties.


Early on 22 April fighting increased in intensity and the Jews started mortaring the suq. Confusion broke our amongst the Arabs and many panic stricken men women and children, carrying pathetic bundles of belongings, massed outside No 3 gate begging to be let in. I will never forget or forgive the Jews, who had already won the battle, from opening a hail of fire on the unprotected mass and wounding our doctor and a lieutenant who were giving first aid. The CO opened the gates to let the refugees in and I brought a Staghound up and fired a number of rounds at the row of binoculars watching from the GPO building on Mount Carmel. The firing stopped and the CO said the telephone line to his HQ was hot with requests for us to desist.


A truce was arranged by the GOC to discuss the evacuation of 37,000 Arabs from Haifa of whom12, 000 were in the port giving problems of housing and feeding. We ferried these unfortunates across the bay to Acre in lighters over several days. Only 2,500 Arabs remained in Haifa. The Mandate ended on 14 May and the British withdrew onto Haifa through a series of enclaves. The evacuation of military stores gathered pace and the daily tonnage became an all pervading interest. Attempted thefts of military equipment increased.


On 3 June a party of Jews was found loading 25 pounder gun barrels and 96 breech blocks into a lorry. An RM landing craft intercepted a lighter leaving the port from a Danish ship carrying war stores. The coxswain was offered a £500 bribe. The GOC’s reserve of 50,000 gallons of petrol in six rail wagons was stolen. The Port Commandant led an armed party in a WD shunting engine and followed the points to recover the train five miles beyond the British enclave. The most serious loss occurred when a Polish driver serving with the British Army defected with a Comet tank. The Intelligence Officer was in charge of immigration. The liner Ile de France anchored off and he went out to clear the mostly Jewish passengers. The Captain then explained that he had a problem and introduced a distinguished looking Oxford educated Arab who had been expelled from the USA with a deportation order signed by John Foster Dulles no less. The Arab said that if he went ashore he would have his throat cut to which the IO could only agree. He therefore wrote in the man’s passport “Not accepted by the British Military authorities.” Signed H Orpen Lt RM.


The liner sailed back to the States and our IO never heard from him or John Foster Dulles again!


A party of US Marines arrived on 17 June in white painted Jeeps to support the UN Mediator, Count Bernadotte.



There followed a four day countdown to the British withdrawal on 30 June. 40 Commando was the last British unit to leave and we embarked in HMS Striker. The Royal Marines from HMS Phoebe provided the GOCs final guard as the Union Flag was lowered to three cheers from the Striker.




We arrived back in Malta with great satisfaction at the many and varied jobs we had done with efficiency and integrity. We had lost no vehicles or personal weapons and no Royal Marine was among the 220 British troops killed by terrorists since the Second World War


Postscript.


Within weeks Count Bernadotte had been murdered almost certainly by Irgun. The wretched Palestinians are still refugees and a running sore to relations with the Islamic nations. Our CO, “Titch” Houghton, told me recently that when he was a POW in OFLAG 17, where prisoners from Dieppe were put in chains on orders from Hitler, he was able to do a good turn for a Jewish British Army officer. When we arrived in Haifa he found this former officer in an influential position in the Jewish community and he had promised that 40 Commando would not be targeted and, apart from a few ’overs’, we were not.


Postscript.


In 1973, when I was serving on the Naval Staff in Whitehall, Palestine had still not done with me. One morning we found Cunard advertising a cruise there in the QE2 to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the foundation of the State of Israel. As there was £8 million of Government money in the vessel there was some surprise and a series of meetings was held in the Cabinet Office to make security arrangements. I represented the Royal Navy and Michael Mates, now MP for Petersfield, represented the Army. As a result of our meetings a number of SBS personnel in plain clothes mingled with the passengers and I sent the Superintendent of RN Diving to inspect the security arrangements at ports of call including Haifa and Ashdod, a new port built by the Israelis. It was fortunate I did so for the Harbourmaster at Ashdod had no idea of the length of the QE 2. Fortunately the cruise was completed. [2]


Captain Peter Roome Thomas


Royal Marines officer served with 44 Commando, Royal Marines in Hong Kong, 1946-1947; served with 40 Commando, Royal Marines in Palestine, 3/1948-5/1948; served with 41 (Independent) Commando, Royal Marines in North Korea, 11/1950-12/1951; served with 40 Commando, Royal Marines in Cyprus, 1956-1958 and Aden, Federation of South Arabia, 1963

  • 1948 (Lieutenant) (40 Commando RM) Mentioned in Despatches for gallant and distinguished service in Palestine [2].

  • Korean War - (Captain) (41 Independent Commando RM) Mentioned in Despatches for gallant and distinguished service [3].

  • Korean War - Awarded the Bronze Star with Combat 'V' decoration bestowed by the President of the United States of America, for gallant and distinguished service [4].

Captain Peter Roome Thomas - IWM Oral History




[1] Britain's Small Wars - 40 Commando in Haifa

[2] Peter Thomas - Palestine



Related 'Dits'


RM People; Major General Titch Houghton (1912 - 2011)

499 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Comments


bottom of page