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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 Wingate’s achievement came from both sides. Haining, Wavell’s 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 Fawzi’s 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 forester’s 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 Brenner’s 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 village’s 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 Wingate.

At midnight Wingate’s 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 water.”

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, Grove’s batman who in action switched from officer’s 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 of the new brens which were much lighter and easier to control from this position. It seems that at first Wingate’s 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 couldn’t believe his luck.

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 Wingate’s 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: “Wingate’s 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-Clark’s 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 I’m 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-Clark’s 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 Wingate’s 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.”


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Buy this book from
  Fire in the Night : Wingate of Burma, Ethiopia and Zion
by John Bierman and Colin Smith

Random House
New York, 1999.

MacMillan, London,2000,
Pan Books, 2001 ISBN 0333 72576 x
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