PALESTINIAN CURFEW

It was the first spring after the war and wherever they flew it was to find people living their lives as though the past great global upheaval would not be followed by a new world order. Whether the changes to come would come swiftly or as mere seeds planted to reach maturity in decades or even centuries, influencing the destinies of whole regions, was yet uncertain, although in places like Egypt, Burma or Iraq it seemed that these somnambulist cultures would continue slumbering for many more years to come, whereas in India change was in the air anticipated and expected to take place within a year or so. Another such place was Palestine

Since the RAF had started using Transport Command to establish new and rapid links with Britain’s post war empire they had been flying scheduled routes moving personnel, freight and postal mail from country to country to staging posts, bases or airports that until recently had mainly handled military aircraft.

There were no civilian airlines to do this and so Transport Command was keeping the communication lines open until such time that newly formed airlines could take over the task. This was done to begin with by using basically converted four-engine bombers such as the Stirling or Lancaster until later more suitable conversions such as the Avro York aircraft became available.

At that time  there was a bitter struggle taking place in Palestine, and powerful forces were at work to secure and shape the future of this British mandate., so the airport at Lydda was not a favourite of Transport Command but was used occasionally. The crew was directed there on a return flight from Singapore to avoid some incident in another area. They found the airfield to be tightly and visibly guarded, which was a situation they had not come across at any other stopover. No easy going, live-and-let-live Burmese dacoits were at work here but skilled, dedicated, ruthless men and women, directed and organised by international interests, playing a game for high stakes.

The York was directed to a dispersal area and a guard placed on it. As their crew wagon carried them away, they could see sentries everywhere on the flat roof-tops of the low buildings around the runway. The whole place was armed to the teeth. ‘Some ‘big bug’ is due to arrive,’ said B’s freight controller. ‘That’s his plane waiting over there.’ He gestured towards a spruced up Dakota, broadside on, with boarding steps ready in place, and a detachment of the RAF Regiment  waiting nearby at the stand-easy position.

It was later, after they had eaten and were waiting for transport to take them to Tel Aviv, that a cavalcade of large, well polished cars swept by them heading for the waiting Dakota. There was a word of command and the nearby detachment was brought to attention. The convoy came to a stop alongside the aircraft steps, and two figures appeared by the larger car, one in uniform, the other in civilian dress. The door of the car opened and a slight figure, wearing Arab clothes, stepped out on to the tarmac. ‘Present arms,’ bawled the sergeant in charge. There was a brief shaking of hands before the man in the Arab clothes mounted the steps, followed by the European civilian and an assortment of Arabs from the other cars. The steps were removed, the cars drove off as the engines of the plane sprang into life. Within a few minutes it was airborne.

‘As smooth an operation as one could ever hope to see,’ said Tash Goodwin, ‘someone they reckon it’s worth protecting.’ The driver of their transport was able to throw some light on the identity of the VIP. ‘A bloke called Abdullah, a sheikh or king, even; a really big shot around these parts. That flight’s taking him to England, where he’s going to sign some sort of treaty.’ Who’s after him, then?’ Asked Johnny Callaghan. ‘Well, everyone’s at it round here. There’s the Stern gang and the Hagganagh, working for the Jews. Then  there are the Palestinian lot working for the Arabs. Our blokes in the army are in the middle, trying to keep the peace. Some of them get carved up too.’

As the driver talked about the events of the present, B stared out of the window of the moving vehicle at the dry, arid countryside, with the occasional cluster of simple dwellings standing on remote high points. Young Arab boys tending herds of goats amongst un-organised olive plantations and trees of lemons and oranges, with their dusty leaves shading dull, lifeless types of grass. There was cultivation in parts and the odd lush bit of ground, but altogether it seemed to be a sparse, unflourishing sort of land, where crops would need to be hard wrested. Somewhere along these trails leading from the road they travelled, Jesus had trod with his disciples, resting under such dusty trees, and drinking from the selfsame small streams they crossed. A world shaker from this soil had shaped his life and every life he knew. It seemed so unlikely. But why? Or why not?

Tel Aviv was a lively, open town on the Mediterrean coast. It was barely forty years since being founded by the Jews from nearby Jaffa, and the present population of 150,000 was comprised almost entirely of Jews. Mingled pedestrians, cyclists and vehicles filled the wide tree lined streets; there were busy shops and side-walk cafe tables where people sat and chatted, watched or read, as they ate and drank. It was an easy town to walk about and enjoy. From King George Street they crossed an intersection to Allenby Street, the main thoroughfare that led on to the Esplanade where there were more people strolling by the golden sands and the spread of the sparkling expanse of sea beyond. This was a town of the right dimensions, filled with the activities of its inhabitants; a new, unique town, almost an ideal town.

But an incident brought home to them an awareness of the underlying tensions in this land. It was late afternoon and their strolling brought them to the vicinity of a cinema where a longish queue of people was waiting to get in. It seemed all very lively and animated in the warm, pleasant sunshine. Someone suggested they see the film which was Hollywood, with well known performers, and so the group of five joined the end of the queue. Before many minutes a British army patrol vehicle, with two redcap military policemen inside, drew alongside, and one of the policemen slipped down, and coming towards them, saluted Ross. ‘Better get up to the front of the queue, sir!’ It seemed almost like an instruction. ‘How so, Corporal?’ asked Ross. ‘British servicemen are not required to join any queue here, sir. They could be likely targets for any of the terrorist organisations.’  ‘What are we supposed to do, just walk in ahead of all these people?’ asked an incredulous Ross. ‘Are you new in Palestine?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Then it may seem unusual, but that is the position. Would you like to follow me, sir?’ The policeman led the way along the waiting line of people to the box-office, where he pushed in front of someone about to buy a ticket. ‘Five tickets here.’ Then he stepped aside, as the five made up the money. ‘Have you been warned of the conditions here, sir?’ The redcap enquired as they stood in a cluster at the foyer door, watched by the people in the queue. ‘Nothing official, except that there’s a curfew,’ said Ross. ‘We’ve picked up the idea that things aren’t exactly normal here. We are a Transport Command crew, passing through, and will be on our way in a couple of days.’ ‘It’s important to be alert,’ said the corporal, there are  incidents here, with British servicemen sometimes ending up in the firing line. It’s good practice to be careful. Good luck and enjoy the film.’ he stepped back and saluted. The patrol vehicle with its vigilant-looking driver had followed them, and with the two redcaps in it, drew away. Clutching their tickets and feeling almost guilty, they entered the darkened auditorium, as Johnny’s northern humour rose to the occasion. ‘A bloody good system; I reckon we could do with it at home,’ he whispered as a girl with a torch led them to seats.

The next day was free and the crew were lounging in a rest room after the midday meal when a voice called ‘anyone for Tely? There’s a wagon going in ten minutes.’ No one else in the crew was interested so B joined the driver as the only passenger and was put down at the same spot as yesterday. ‘I’ll be leaving for the return trip from here at 1800 hours,’ stated the driver. There was so much to see in the town and its surrounds that B returned to the departure point sometime after the appointed hour and, after waiting some time, assumed that the driver had returned to Lydda. The walking had loosened him up so he decided to walk back to the station, setting off in an easterly direction. ‘How far to Lydda?’ he asked a passer-by who responded by holding up an open hand, then closing it and opening it twice. ‘Fifteen miles?’ ‘Kilometres.’ Ah well, he would pick up a lift, perhaps.

The evening closed in as he reached the open country; darkness quickly settled. There was no traffic on this road, at all. Nothing. Just the sound of evening birds and the faint, almost inaudible movement of hidden tree and bushes. It would take him about three hours. That was all right. One foot crossing the other. It’s quite warm; pleasant; and the air smells nice too. So many stars in the sky. He identified the ones they had learned in those far off cadet days. Left right, left right. I’m a bit hungry; wonder if there’ll be anything to eat when I get back. What was that? The sound of footsteps behind him. ‘Like one that on a lonely road, doth walk in fear and dread, and having once looked back, walks on and turns no more his head, because he knows a frightful fiend, doth close behind him tread. Come on.’ Come on.

The steps came closer. ‘Who’s that?’ called a voice out of the darkness. English, thought B, but better be careful. ‘Bill Mason.’ he called back. ‘Are you British?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘OK, so am I.’ A shadowy figure appeared at his side. ‘Are you from Lydda?’ ‘Yeah, I missed my transport.’ ‘I’ll walk with you; it’s curfew time you know.’ It was a Scottish accent. ‘What’s your excuse?’ ‘I live here.’ ‘Does that allow you to ignore the curfew?’ ‘It does not; and yet in a way it does. I’m from Scotland and was stationed at Lydda with the RAF Regiment. I married a local Jewish girl and when I got demobbed, we decided to live here. The British MPs around here all know me. How amazing, thought B. The road was wide and empty in spite of it being the main Tel Aviv, Jerusalem highway, and as they made their way together in the darkness through the unseen countryside, in the stillness of the night scents, only the strange sound of their voices to be heard.

It became obvious as he talked that his companion had remained closely attached with the British services in Palestine, and knew his way about as well as any local. He told B about the struggle going on between Jew and Arab, with the British in between, bearing the brunt of the unrest. He thought it was only a matter of time before the British would leave, and there was sure to be a confrontation when this happened, as the Jews would be given much of this land for their national home, and the Arabs would resist this. B was not certain if, in addition to being Scottish, his companion was also Jewish, but didn’t like to ask. He lived between Tel Aviv and Lydda, which he said was really Lod, the supposed birth place of England’s patron saint, St George, the dragon slayer. He liked Tel Aviv, saying that it had only been made a town 17 years ago but, with the influx of Jewish refugees, it was now growing too fast.

‘What are you doing here?’ He asked B who was just getting launched into his RAF service statistics when the lights of an oncoming vehicle appeared in the distance. ‘They’re probably coming to look for you.’ B did not think that likely, but it turned out to be the case. ‘That you Bill?’ Called out Freddie’s voice as the wagon drew up by them. ‘Where’ve you been you dozy clot?’ ‘I could have been killed in an ambush.’ ‘We heard you had been and were coming to pick up the body.’ How can I ever thank you?’ ‘By getting in and shutting up. Who’s your friend?’ ‘Your driver’ll probably know me. It’s Jock.’ ‘Hey Jock,’ said the driver, are you coming with us?’ No thanks, Nobby, I’m nearly home now.’ OK. Goodbye.’ ‘Goodbye.’ said B. ‘Goodbye,’ said Jock,’

The wagon turned round and B was glad to cover the rest of the journey on four wheels. They left Lydda the next morning and heard from another crew, a few days later, that the Jews had blown up a number of planes at Lydda, and it was thought that this had been a mistimed assassination attempt on the life of King Abdullah el Hussein of Trans-Jordan.

APRIL 1946