The problems of Palestine, long before it became the modern State of Israel, had begun decades before 1920 when Britain was granted a mandate over the country after World War I. Ratified by the League of Nations in 1922 which terminated in 1948. In those twenty-five years British authority was trapped between the local Arabs the majority, and a growing Jewish minority. Although perfidious Albion was guilty at times of favouring both sides, the Balfour Declaration of 1917, was a letter sent from the then British Foreign Secretary, Arthur James Balfour, to a prominent British Jew and Zionist., stating British Government support for a home in Palestine “for the Jewish people”. At almost the same time T.E Lawrence was promising the Hashemite Arabs, who had been instrumental in driving the Turks out of Palestine, their homeland since Roman times, control of the country.
Jewish immigration increased and unrest flared in the 1930s although calm returned during World War II. But in the later months of 1945 came a flood of refugees from central Europe, many survivors of the Nazi Death Camps, their aim to create a Jewish State in Palestine.
In May 1946 US President Harry Truman called for one hundred thousand visas to be issued to Jewish immigrants. The British refused fearing civil war.
However this galvanised attempts to enter Palestine illegally and mainly by sea, thus the Royal Navy set about one of its most irksome duties. To intercept these illegal immigrants and refugees and turn them back or bring them initially into Haifa.
Captain of Marines Michael Reynolds served on board the cruiser HMS Phoebe at the time, the ship, was based on Malta but spent much of her time at Haifa and in the eastern Mediterranean. Phoebe for a time became the receiving ship for these immigrant ships when they were escorted into Haifa.
Captain Reynolds “…..the immigrants were processed on board before being allowed ashore, either for shipment back to Cyprus or into camps in Palestine”. The later they did not mind so much having reached Palestine. Many of these people were in a shocking condition. On coming ashore those who could walk were deloused behind screens with DDT, before going on. Captain Reynolds felt sorry for these people. “The boats and ships they travelled in were often in a terrible state “…..some far from seaworthy, it must have been almost unbearable to be caught and turned back within sight of the Palestine shore-line.
Tom Simmons an Able Seaman at the time serving on the destroyer HMS Chivalrous felt some sympathy at the futility of their efforts.
“We would receive intelligence that an immigrant ship was coming in, and then pick them up quite quickly on radar and follow them out-of-sight until near territorial waters, then steam over the horizon at full speed and stop them”.
However in August 1947 six big vessels were detained within a few days the result of which the internment camps in Palestine were overflowing. So these people were transported back to camps on Cyprus. This had the affect that the illegal vessels would no longer stop when challenged. Patrol ships now had to get alongside to transfer boarding parties.
Tom Simmons recalls training for boarding operations on Malta with the Royal Marines. “They got us swinging across a gap on a rope like Tarzan. Or walking a narrow plank between two points, none of which was very helpful given many of the immigrant ships was generally higher than the destroyers”. The rig for this operation was working dress/battle dress, steel helmets, side arms and cudgels.
Boarding more often than not was opposed by the immigrants armed with clubs and iron bars, even steam hoses in some cases, and anything else they could lay their hands on.
Captain Reynolds while on Phoebe intercepted the Pan Crescent a large immigrant ship, in company with HMS Liverpool. In this case boarding was solved by negotiation but. “The only thing over looked was that some of the passengers decided to demonstrate their hostility by emptying a bucket of piss and shit over me as I climbed up the ladder”. Reynolds stayed on board as the ship was taken back to Cyprus the trip went without a hitch. Although one of the passengers told him “…if I declined to take the ship to Cyprus I could enjoy the services of his daughter. I don’t think the daughter was over-keen, probably because of the smell”.
Rest and recreation for RN Ships at Haifa was soon curtailed. Tom Simmons “When we were anchored off Haifa and on watch we had to throw a charge over the side periodically, to stop the Stern Gang trying to attach limpet mines to the ships. You used to break the fuse with a pair of pliers then over the side with it”. It was not long before this the Stern Gang had attacked unarmed soldiers bathing and shot down seven of them. And in July 1946 the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, used by the British had been blown up, resulting in ninety-one people killed, and forty five seriously injured. Many of the dead were Jews working at the British Secretariat. Not long after this RN Ships took their R & R at Beirut in the Lebanon or on Cyprus.
The Best known immigrant ship was the former SS President Garfield (better known as the Exodus). It left Baltimore in February 1946 captained by an American. Near 5,000 immigrants were picked up in the small French port of Sete, near Marseilles. She was intercepted by the cruiser HMS Ajax and destroyers. The destroyers had a difficult time manoeuvring to put their boarding parties on and a running fight developed the immigrants using tear-gas, smoke bombs, steam hoses, iron bars and tins of food in an attempt to fight off the naval boarding parties. However after a two hour fight the boarders finally gained control. Twenty-five immigrants were treated in hospital where three died. Two naval ratings were seriously injured.
The Exodus returned to France where the authorities refused the refugees permission to land eventually the Exodus found her way back to of all places Germany.
Many ships trying to run the blockade were in a poor state. One sank off a Greek Island and 800 survivors were picked up by HM Ships Providence and Chevron.
This was an irksome task given to the Royal Navy but it was performed with determination, skill, and at times restraint in the face of great provocation. Forty-nine illegal immigrant vessels were arrested by the Navy and some 60,000 people detained in interment camps in Palestine and Cyprus.
Service on the Palestine Patrol was recognised by the award of the Naval General Service medal, with its red and white stripped ribbon awarded 1915-1962. The Medal was issued for all conflicts short of a declaration of war, and issued to all men of the Royal Navy and Royal Marines and also to members of the Commonwealth Navies. Since 1945 there have been 11 Campaign bars the medal was not issued without a campaign bar.
The other services General Service Medal 1918-1962 had broad purple and green stripes. In 1962 both medals were replaced by the General Service Medal for all services the ribbon has a broad purple stripe bordered by two narrow green stripes.
Many thanks to my Father Tom Simmons for his memories and photographs.