With a solution to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians as far away as ever, James Barker looks back to Britain’s occupation of the region and the efforts made by the future Viscount Montgomery to impose peace on its warring peoples.
Israel’s recent attempt to bludgeon Hamas into submission recalls events 70 years ago when the British, who ruled Palestine under the terms of a League of Nations Mandate, committed over 20,000 professional soldiers to destroy another Palestinian Arab guerrilla army. Ever since the Balfour Declaration in November 1917 committed Britain to support the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, the majority of its population regarded the creation of an alien state as an outrage to be resisted. After spasmodic outbursts of violence directed against established Jewish communities in Palestine, in April 1936 the Arabs rose up against the British, who until then had escaped their wrath.
In late October 1938, with the rebellion at its height, a small, pointy-featured British army officer recently promoted to the rank of major-general arrived in Palestine. For the 51-year-old Bernard Law Montgomery, still mourning the death of his wife, the responsibility of commanding a division of 10,000 men for the first time was both a welcome distraction and a big step up. His presence in Palestine was proof that Whitehall, preoccupied by the crisis over Czechoslovakia in the summer of 1938, was at last serious about crushing the Arab Revolt.
Montgomery was a dedicated professional soldier with few interests outside of his calling. His only previous experience of dealing with an armed rebellion had been in Ireland in 1920-21 where the army was, technically speaking, assisting the civil power in re-imposing the authority of the Crown. Posted to 17th Infantry Brigade to serve as its senior staff officer in Cork, Major Montgomery was effectively in charge of running the army’s pacification campaign against Sinn Fein in a part of Ireland where British rule had virtually collapsed. The war became a byword for viciousness on both sides, especially for atrocities committed by the ‘Black and Tans’, a force of ex-British soldiers recruited by the War Office to reinforce the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC). In his 1957 memoirs, Montgomery had few good words to say about his Irish experience:
In many ways this war was far worse than the Great War which had ended in 1918. It developed into a murder campaign in which, in the end, the [British] soldiers became very skilful and more than held their own. But such a war is thoroughly bad for officers and men; it tends to lower their standards of decency and chivalry, and I was glad when it was over.
Perhaps the most distressing aspect of the Irish war for Montgomery was the way that it ended. Discouraged by Sinn Fein’s continued resistance, and uneasy over the repressive measures employed by the army and the RIC to defeat it, David Lloyd George’s coalition government negotiated a treaty with Sinn Fein in 1922 that saw Ireland partitioned, leaving the British Crown in possession of just six of its 32 counties. In a letter he wrote in 1923 to a fellow officer, Montgomery summed up his view of the army’s failure to crush ‘the Shinners’:
My own view is that to win a war of that sort you must be ruthless; Oliver Cromwell, or the Germans, would have settled it in a very short time. Now-a-days [sic] public opinion precludes such methods; the nation would never allow it, and the politicians would lose their jobs if they sanctioned it.
It was a highly pertinent observation. In the unrest that swept through other parts of the British Empire after the First World War, the question of how much force the Crown could justifiably use in order to quell unrest by its colonial subjects would frequently arise. The most notorious example of the excessive use of force during civil disturbances took place in the Indian city of Amritsar in April 1919 when troops opened fire without warning on protestors, killing at least 379 people. The officer who gave the order to fire, Brigadier-General Dyer, paid for his actions that day with his career.
Nevertheless, the army remained convinced that unrest whenever it occurred – be it urban riots or rural uprisings – had to be nipped in the bud. The only issue worth discussing, therefore, was the level of force required to achieve this end. This was an opinion expressed with persuasive clarity by retired Major-General Sir Charles Gwynn in his book Imperial Policing. Published in 1934 with case studies of a dozen minor wars and colonial police actions that the British had fought since 1918, the book blamed indecision by colonial administrators at times of unrest for preventing an early restoration of law and order.
This view was shared by the army throughout the 1936-39 Arab Revolt. It had wanted martial law as soon as it took charge of military operations in Palestine from the Royal Air Force in September 1936 but High Commissioner Sir Arthur Wauchope, a retired general himself, disagreed. For more than two years, the army’s frustration with the civil administration festered like an open wound. ‘The defeatist spirit needs overcoming,’ fumed Lieutenant-General Robert Haining, General Officer Commanding (GOC) in Palestine and Transjordan, in a June 1938 letter to Sir Charles Tegart, the Colonial Office’s police adviser:
The spirit ‘Oh, it’s all very well for you to want active measures, we have to live with them afterwards’ [is indicative of] the failure of members of the Administration to realize how weakness is regarded by the Arab and Mohammedan world. I do feel that the fact so many of the Administration here have been in this one colony or Mandated area for so many years has blinded their eyes to what is done elsewhere and what should be done here.
Three months later, Haining succeeded in wresting control for public security from Wauchope’s successor Sir Harold MacMichael. To mollify ‘Mic-Mac’ the Colonial Office and the War Office agreed to call the new arrangement in Palestine ‘military control’, a formula devoid as far as the civil administration was concerned of the unwelcome connotations of martial law. But, with the police now under army command and with two divisions and three RAF squadrons in Palestine by the end of October 1938, there was little doubt who was in charge. In his first order to his troops, Montgomery declared:
I consider that the campaign against law and order is being waged by gangs of professional bandits and terrorists … Our first and primary task, therefore, is to hunt down and destroy these armed gangs. They must be hunted down relentlessly; when engaged in battle … we must shoot to kill.
William Battershill, the government Chief Secretary in Jerusalem, noticed the change of mood among the military. ‘A new star has burst in our firmament in the shape of Major General Montgomery who goes to command the new 8th Division in the North,’ he wrote in his diary on November 13th, 1938.
He called on me last week and put me through a cross-examination which would have come rather amiss from the GOC himself ... He is sharp featured and evidently has a brain. I fear this man will try to be a new broom and will successfully put the backs up of most people.
The Chief Secretary had judged his man well. Within two months of setting up his headquarters in Haifa, Montgomery and Morris Bailey, the local District Commissioner, were no longer on speaking terms and responsibility for day-to-day liaison between the civil authorities and the military had fallen to Bailey’s 30-year-old deputy, Thomas Scrivenor. Scrivenor’s primary responsibility was to ensure that the measures Montgomery introduced to maintain public security in Haifa did not disrupt daily life in the city or harm the local economy.
Hardly a day passed by without a shooting or bombing by Arab or Jewish extremists
For the civil administration, keeping the wheels of commerce turning was no idle matter. With a new harbour and a terminal for the oil pipeline from Iraq to the Mediterranean, by the late 1930s Haifa had become Palestine’s fastest-growing city, with an estimated population of 160,000, evenly split between Arabs and Jews. However, since the beginning of the Revolt in April 1936 hardly a day passed in the city without a stabbing, shooting or bombing by Arab and Jewish extremists. After a series of tit-for-tat street killings and bombings, Montgomery imposed a strict night-time curfew on whole city districts. An unintended consequence of this measure was a halt to the round-the-clock construction work on the new oil refinery near Haifa’s oil pipeline terminal. Scrivenor appealed to Montgomery to exempt the workforce engaged on this vital work from the curfew regulations only to have his request turned down flat. On March 23rd, 1939 he noted in his diary:
I pointed out to [the army liaison officer in Haifa] that this refusal would mean the delaying of the ultimate production of oil by several months and that if oil was presumably a military necessity, the General’s attitude in the matter was incomprehensible.
Only after Whitehall got to hear about the impasse did Montgomery reverse his decision. In the hills of Galilee and Samaria his methods were much more successful. By the summer of 1939 the Arab Revolt had almost fizzled out but a lung infection, brought on by the climate and intense strain, almost killed him. For a while Montgomery’s army career was in jeopardy but by the time he was back in London he had completely recovered. Fit for duty once more, he took command of another division just one week before Great Britain declared war on Nazi Germany and so began his steady rise through the upper ranks of the British Army and the winning of a place in the permanent pantheon of Allied military heroes.
Montgomery returned to Palestine in June 1946, this time as Field Marshal, fresh from his wartime victories and just days away from taking over the British Army’s top job, the position of Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS). Much to his surprise and dismay he found the country in turmoil. The enemy this time was the Haganah, the armed wing of the Jewish Agency, as well as the Irgun and the much smaller Stern Group.
The cause of the violence was the deep anger among Palestine’s 450,000 Jews over the British government’s abandonment of the Balfour Declaration in a May 1939 White Paper which they viewed as a wholly unwarranted concession to the Arabs. The victory of the Labour Party in the July 1945 general election had raised Zionist hopes that the White Paper would be scrapped but, persuaded by military chiefs and diplomats that both the United Kingdom’s status as a world power and its prospects for postwar economic revival depended on hanging on to the oil-rich Middle East, the new Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin got his Cabinet colleagues to agree that the policy should remain in force.
For Montgomery the situation in Palestine was depressingly similar to the one he had witnessed in Ireland a quarter of a century earlier – the bombing of police and government offices, attacks on isolated military units, widespread sabotage, raids on arms depots and the assassination of selected police detectives. The Haganah was also busy flouting immigration restrictions by organising shipments of Jewish Displaced Persons, mainly concentration camp survivors, across the Mediterranean to the shores of Palestine. The Arabs, cowed by the hammering they had received during their revolt, remained passive but the British authorities, with memories of 1936-39 still fresh in their minds, feared a recurrence.
Partly to guard against this possibility and more crucially to provide the nucleus for a strategic reserve for the whole Middle East, the Chiefs of Staff had stationed approximately 100,000 British soldiers and airmen in Palestine, a huge force for a country no bigger than Wales. Montgomery could not understand why High Commissioner General Sir Alan Cunningham had not let them loose on the Jewish insurgents. On becoming CIGS at the end of June 1946 he warned army commanders in the Middle East to prepare for war:
You will ensure that every officer and man in any way connected with this struggle realises to the full the fanatical and cunning nature of his enemy, the un-English methods that this enemy will use and his personal responsibilities against kidnap and the loss of arms and weapons.
Convinced that Cunningham was the wrong man for the job, Montgomery spent much of the second half of 1946 trying to persuade the Colonial Office to sack him. Late in November, following a series of lethal attacks by Jewish insurgents on British troops and government offices, he flew back to Palestine to berate the High Commissioner in person for his preferred plan to enlist the Haganah’s co-operation in eliminating the Irgun and the Stern Group instead of cracking down on the whole Jewish community. Cunningham stood his ground, prompting the apoplectic Field Marshal to send a long, rambling telegram to his deputy, General Sir Frank Simpson, accusing the High Commissioner of handling the ‘whole business of dealing with the illegal armed organisations’ in ‘a gutless and spineless manner’. In his memoirs he repeated the charge to which Cunningham replied in a letter to the Daily Telegraph:
Lord Montgomery ... deals only with the military side of the problem. I had to deal with it from all angles ... From this wider point of view it seemed to me ... that the main effect of Lord Montgomery’s intervention was to bedevil it still further. What he forgets is that... the military means had to be dovetailed into political requirements.
Montgomery kept up the pressure. In a meeting chaired by Prime Minister Clement Attlee on January 15th, 1947 he exploited both his wartime reputation and his authority as Chief of the Imperial General Staff to obtain Cabinet authority to mount ‘more vigorous action against the terrorists’. The results were uniformly disastrous. The imposition of martial law in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in March 1947 following two major insurgent attacks led to a temporary collapse of the local economy, forcing the authorities to lift it. The Farran Affair (see David Cesarani’s article on page 35), which caused the British authorities much embarrassment, was the direct consequence of the carte blanche the CIGS gave to the army and the Palestine Police to take offensive action against the Irgun and the Stern Group.
Cunningham, under pressure from Montgomery, confirmed the death sentences on seven Jews found guilty of terrorist offences by special military courts in 1947, but their execution did nothing to end the violence and merely fuelled international criticism of British conduct in Palestine. The most damaging blow to British prestige came in late July 1947 with the murder of two army sergeants who had been abducted by the Irgun in a failed bid to prevent the execution of three Jews. The grim photograph on the front page of the Daily Express of the bloodied and hooded figures left hanging from eucalyptus trees by their killers led to the first widespread demands in Britain to quit Palestine. One year later the British had gone.
Montgomery’s attempts to restore the ‘King’s Peace’ in Palestine, as he put it, had ended in humiliating failure. His faults were many but the key one was his inability to recognise that the Jewish insurgency, spearheaded by small, tightly-knit cells based in urban centres, presented challenges fundamentally different to the ones that he had successfully overcome during the Arab Revolt. Montgomery also failed to appreciate that this time the British could no longer act with a free hand.
Ernest Bevin’s chosen path out of the impasse had lain in securing the support of the United States for British plans for self-rule in Palestine without having to accede to demands for a Jewish state. Unfortunately for Bevin, the Truman administration, under strong political pressure from Congress and the pro-Zionist lobby in America, would not oblige. When in January 1947 Montgomery succeeded in persuading the Cabinet to adopt tougher measures in Palestine, Bevin already knew that his policy was in tatters.
Within weeks of the Cabinet meeting Attlee, sceptical of his Foreign Secretary’s penchant for costly overseas military commitments at a time of profound economic uncertainty at home, signalled a major change in British imperial policy – early independence for India and a consequent reduction of the need for large military forces in the Middle East. In February Bevin announced that the government, unable to get Arabs and Jews to agree on a political settlement, would hand the whole question of Palestine over to the United Nations. Yet neither Attlee nor Bevin appeared willing to order their Chief of Imperial General Staff to desist from his Palestine policy and for this strange reluctance British soldiers and police would continue to be killed and wounded by Jewish insurgents.
Montgomery was not the only senior British figure incapable of making the connection between timely and effective military action on the ground and an intelligent, coordinated political strategy. His inability to grasp this truth formed part of a wider and deeply ingrained military-political failure by the British in Palestine – one which the Israelis seem hellbent on imitating today.