Extracts of Fire in the night
(From Chapter Eight)
By the middle of June 1938 the Squads had yet to fight a major action with the
gangs but the constant night patrols in the vicinity of the pipeline -Wingate
preferred to call them moving ambushes- had led to several skirmishes
and sabotage was definitely on the wane. The raid on Jurdieh had also paid an
unexpected dividend. The Mukhtar of that village had sent a delegation to the
Jewish settlement at Hanita suing for peace. Thereafter, apart from the occasional
sniper, the siege of Hanita was over.
Recognition of Wingates achievement came from both sides. Haining, Wavells
successor, sent a message to Brigadier Evetts in Haifa saying how impressed he
was with the Special Night Squads, and all concerned with them. Wingate
had also made his mark with Fauzi el Kawaukji, who put his name on a hit list
with a thousand pounds on his head, the kind of fortune that would mean an Arab
peasant might never have to work again. But still there had been no major clash,
something that would really make the rebels eyes water. Michael Grove,
the Royal West Kents subaltern, was coming to accept that SNS operations
were rather like a tedious country walk with the only consolation that they were
about as dangerous.
Then came the encounter at Dabburiya, a small town at the foot of the olive covered
slopes of Mount Tabor1 about five miles south-east of
Nazareth. It is named after Deborah, the prophet and first woman judge of Israel.
Showing uncharacteristic initiative one of Fawzis bands moved away from
the pipeline and hit the British where they least expected it. They made a night
raid on Nazareth itself, killed some Christian Arabs they deemed to be collaborators
and more or less took over the town, apart from the police post, for the hours
of darkness. Shortly afterwards Wingate went out in person to investigate a tip
passed on to him by the local District Commissioner that the rebels were using
a foresters hut on a wooded hillside but when he got there he found no
signs of recent occupation.
Then came another tip which confirmed what Wingate had always suspected. Namely,
that the rebels, confident that the British would rarely venture further than
the pipeline at night, preferred the comfort of staying in a village within easy
walking distance of Nazareth rather than live in primitive cabins in the hills.
His informant had narrowed the possible targets down to two. One was Ein Mahil,
a hill village east of Nazareth and the other its neighbour Dabburiya in lower
land about two-and-a-half miles away to the south-east. Dabburiya had a police
post nearby so both Wingate and the intelligence centre in the police compound
at Nazareth agreed that the rebels were most likely in Ein Mahil.
By now the SNS were about 140 strong. Wingate collected over half of them - thirty-two
British soldiers and fifty-five Jewish volunteers - and gathered them at Afikim,
Zvi Brenners old kibbutz just below the Sea of Galilee. From there they
set out in a fleet of seven trucks, three of them civilian vehicles from the
kibbutz. There were two Lewis gun teams, one of them from the Ulsters under a
Corporal Mac MacConville, a big man who carried the machine gun himself
and prided himself on being strong enough to fire the weapon from his hip.
Wingate s superiors had urged him not to take armed Jews into Arab villages
at night if he could avoid it and for once he did not find doing what he was
told difficult: it obviously made better tactical sense to draw the rebels out
into the open than blunder about a villages narrow lanes in the dark. Wingate
decided to surround the suspect village by establishing ambushes on all the obvious
escape routes. Then cause the rebels to panic and run into the ambushes.
There was only one problem. The rebels were not at Ein Mahil. They were at Dabburiya
where, as a nod towards the proximity of a police post, a few sentries cloaked
against the cold were staring out through that light mist. Wingate eventually
conceded that his men were approaching the wrong place when King-Clark, as planned,
fired a couple of white Verey flares in the hope that the gang would rush out
to investigate. As there was no gang to see them nothing happened, explained
At midnight Wingates 87 men moved southwards towards Dabburiya in their
separate squads, walking in column with some squads well ahead of the others
and nobody quite certain where the others were let alone the enemy
What exactly happened next has always been, at least from the British viewpoint,
a matter of controversy. As an operation everything went without a hitch, wrote
Wingate - but King-Clark always remembered it as, A cock-up of the first
Dabburiya was a dirt poor place of flat roofed houses whose mud walls would hardly
stop a stone let alone a rifle bullet. Most of the village was surrounded by
high ground except to the south which fell away in a rough dirt motor track which
meandered towards the main Afula - Ein Harod road. At the western edge of the
village, surrounded by haystacks, was the village threshing floor.
Wingate, having at last found his rebels in strength, was clearly unable to launch
a properly co-ordinated assault. Instead, all surprise was lost when the first
squad to get to the outskirts of Dabburiya went immediately into action. This
was Grove men who encountered two armed Arabs among the haystacks around
the threshing floor. One was shot dead and the other ran away.
Once the alarm was given the wakened rebels grabbed their rifles and climbed
onto the flat rooftops from where they began some brisk firing in the general
direction of Grove and his men. The amount of return fire would have probably
told the Arabs that they outnumbered the intruders and they stood their ground.
Both sides used grenades. Then Private Chapman, Groves batman who in action
switched from officers valet to grenadier, was hit in the stomach. Grove
decided to pull his squad out and helped get Chapman back to the threshing floor
where they covered him with one of the blankets abandoned there by the Arabs
they had disturbed. The lieutenant then fired a red Verey light to call for a
truck in order to evacuate his batman.
It was now about two in the morning and cold. A couple of the West Kents discovered
some more of the Arab blankets in the straw and draped them around their shoulders
poncho style. Wingate turned up and saw to it that Chapman, who was in considerable
pain, was loaded onto a truck and taken away. Corporal MacConville of the Ulsters
and the Lewis gun teams arrived. Carmi noticed that the big corporal was carrying
one of the Lewis guns himself.
By now it had become obvious to the rebels that they were dealing with much more
than a small British patrol and they began to scatter in all directions. Some
ran uphill through the cover provided by the olive groves on the lower slopes
of Mount Tabor. Wingate decided to pursue this faction. Cover me in and
cover me out, he ordered Corporal MacConville and the Lewis gun teams.
Then he told the rest to follow him:
I was advancing through some olives at the foot of the mountain
when firing broke out in the rear; this was from a few bandits who were escaping
westwards. I opened fire on them and appeared to have silenced them. I was moving
on again when a burst of fire came from the rear, again at close quarters, killing
one supernumerary and wounding two soldiers and myself. Unfortunately, this put
a stop to further advance by me. I despatched the wounded at once and silenced
the enemy fire.
At this point there was no enemy fire, something Wingate must have been only
too aware of by the time he came to write his report. He and his men had been
hit by MacConville who had been firing his Lewis gun from the hip and would
almost certainly have inflicted even more damage had he been issued with one
new brens which were much lighter and easier to control from this position.
It seems that at first Wingates party was attacked by Arabs escaping westwards
and among those who turned with Wingate to face them and return the fire were
the West Kents who had picked up the blankets against the cold and whose silhouettes,
under the star filled Palestinian sky, were no different from the rebels. MacConville
thought Wingate was driving the Arabs right onto them and couldnt believe
It was a classic night time friendly fire incident. In the early
hours of 11 July 1938 Corporal MacConville came within inches of robbing Zion
and the British Army of Orde Wingate before he had properly got into his stride.
Wingate was hit five times in the arm and legs. Luckily, all the wounds were
from the Lewis .303 rounds ricocheting off the flinty ground and the bullets
had lost much of their velocity. Even so, it was entirely a matter of luck that
no vital organs were penetrated or bones broken. The Jewish supernumerary had
been hit several time in the stomach and died quite quickly.
Shouting at MacConville and his gun teams to hold their fire, the SNS carried
their casualties back to the grain threshing area where Carmi dressed Wingates
injuries. Just as it was getting light King-Clark, having left Zvi Brenner in
charge of the Jewish part of his squad, took his Manchesters into Dabburiya.
The heavy firing had stopped though there was still the occasional shot, for
Bredin and the rest of the Ulsters were now on the scene and Wingate had urged
him to take up the pursuit of the tardier rebels up the mountain side.
King-Clark found Wingate sprawled on the threshing chaff, the centre piece of
the kind of gallant tableau 19th century painters usually composed in their studios: Wingates
face was white as a sheet and very taut, he recalled. But he was
sitting there, in the hay, covered in blood and giving orders in English and
Hebrew quite calmly.
It was a sight which banished any lingering doubts King-Clark may have had about
Wingate. A few hours later, he found himself writing in his diary, He is
the most extraordinary man.
The Jewish half of King-Clarks squad under Zvi Brenner walked through the
deserted streets of Dabbariya, fingers on the trigger, noting several bodies
as they did so. Despite his injuries Wingate refused to leave until he saw that
Brenner and his men were safe. For once, Brenner thought Wingate appeared somewhat
less than heroic:
He looked very pale and frightened and sorry for himself. He hated
pain and the first thing he said to me was: I hope Im not going
to die because of you. I refused to leave until I made sure you were all right.
Now take me to hospital quickly.
Private Chapman had already gone with the other seriously wounded to the military
hospital at Haifa. There he died, making the Night Squads total casualties
two dead and five wounded. The rebels lost at least nine dead.
Despite the elements of fiasco Wingate could rightly claim that much had been
achieved. They had gone out into the night, surprised a large rebel force in
its insolent hiding place, scattered it to the four winds before it could get
up to any more mischief, and in the process inflicted considerably more casualties
than they had suffered themselves. Wingate estimated that a total of fifteen
rebels had been killed and twenty wounded. Certainly, towards the end, and it
probably lasted no more than an hour, the killing became one sided. When the
army driver for King-Clarks squad had his Jewish escort wounded alongside
him he ran the rebel who had done it down with his truck, denting the radiator.
Brigadier Evetts evidently agreed with Wingates general assessment for
he recommended that he should be immediately awarded the Distinguished Service
Order, only below the Victoria Cross in the pecking order of British medals for
bravery in the face of the enemy. The citation not only mentioned the Dabburiya
action and the wounds Wingate sustained there but also the raid on Jurdieh on
the Lebanese border and the dramatic reduction in sabotage along the oil pipeline. Captain
Wingate has throughout displayed gifts of leadership and personal gallantry of
a very high order.