Sunday, February 6, 2011

A Historical Perspective: Riding the Holy Rails

Back in 1936, seventy-five years ago, my grandfather Les Parkinson was a soldier of the 22nd (Cheshire) Regiment in the British Army, serving in what was then the British Mandate for Palestine - mainly to serve as a warning to Benito Mussolini not to try any funny stuff near Britain's African possessions, as at the time the Second Italo-Abyssinian War was raging. The British military presence was likewise used for security purposes in Palestine, which was then experiencing a general strike and an Arab nationalist uprising that would continue until 1939.

I previously posted a brief extract of his memoirs dealing with this time back in 2009, accompanying a period photo. This is another, larger fragment that I'm glad to be able to share with whoever wants to read it. As for myself, when I read it it was a bit surprising to learn that the tactic of house demolition as a punitive measure against insurgents wasn't a policy that the Israeli Defence Forces came up with - rather one that they seem to have picked up from the British.


After I got rid of my boils, I returned to duty and got my first train escort. It was a goods train group to Haifa. This proved to be an event from which I learned a lot. As I was senior soldier, I was in charge of the escort, so I chose to ride on the footplate. I picked the train up at Lydda and learned that we were going through to Haifa. The trip would last two days, so I drew rations for all four of us for the two days. The food was all tinned except the bread. We had tins of "machonicies" stew. This was two tins in one. The top tin contained the stew, and the bottom contained the rice. Then there was dry tea, tinned milk, margarine and the usual bully beef and tins of beans.

The engine crew consisted of a Jewish driver and an Arab fireman. To me that spelt trouble, but the driver told me that they had been together for years so all was good between them. The engine driver I found to be a great fellow. He told me that the Arabs had sold their land to the Jews for they cold not make it productive, and after seeing what the Jews had managed to do with the land, the Arabs wanted it back. But in general, both parties got on well together. It was the militants that caused the trouble. This I thought was true, for in towns and villages one could see Arabs and Jews living next door to each other in perfect harmony.

The engine driver told us that the strikers got a lot of money from other Arab countries, but part of it came from wrecking the trains and stealing and selling the goods. He told us that when they were going to wreck a train they would take a section of the track out where it was on a bridge or an embankment. They would then go to meet the train on level ground, open fire with their guns and shoot at the train. This was to get the driver scared and make the train go faster to get away from the shooting. When the train arrived at the point where the rail had been removed, it would topple over and roll down the embankment, then it would get looted by the rest of the gang, which was waiting at the site. A lot of this could be stopped now that there were soldiers on each train, for by learning to drive the train in times of need, the soldier could stop the train and with his guns could drive off the raiders. So I learnt to drive the engine.

The driver told us that at each goods station down the line, they would stop and do all the shunting that was needed. The fireman did the driving whilst the driver reported in and rested in the station building by having a nap.

The first place we stopped at was called Tulkarem. It appeared to be in the middle of nowhere, but there were villages around in the hills and nearby was a town called Nablus, which was a stronghold of the strikers. We managed to get over the trip without any bother. I was happy with it for I learned a lot, so much so that I was able to pass the information on to others, much to their delight. Little did I realize that my tuition would pay dividends shortly, on the return trip.

Tulkarem, Palestine - 1936

The Golden Arrow was the crack passenger train that ran to Jerusalem every Monday from Haifa. It was always well-guarded, for there were always at least three escorts going back to Lydda from the end of the week's escorts. I was to return to my base by the Golden Arrow. My escort was fully seasoned, as were the other two who were returning to Lydda. However, the escorts from the Haifa group were on their first job and had an NCO in charge. I knew this chap, so I told him of my learning from the engine driver and he had me ride on the engine and gave me one of his men to teach. He had a Lewis gun. He and the other men patrolled the train, having two at a time in the guards' van.

It had been made very plain to us that martial law had not been declared, and so the military were there to assist the Palestine Police in maintaining law and order, and that all incidents had to be reported to them for their action. It was common knowledge that the Arab gangs came from the Nablus area, and this was hilly country and near to Tulkarem, so one had to be very alert when in the area.

Before leaving Tulkarem, we stopped for about an hour, this enabled the passengers who wished to leave the train and stretch their legs to do so, as well as get a drink of "cold" water, for there was none on the train. It was here that I took pity on a young couple with a baby for I gave them my water bottle to have a drink, and in return the man took my photo and mailed it to me. During the stop the escorts patrolled around the train. I told the NCO that for the next few miles, we had to be ready for anything and not to relax one bit.

Sure enough, it happened. After we left the area, someone started shooting at the train. I made the fireman lay down on the coal bunker and made the engineer stop the train. He didn't want to - he wanted to go faster to clear the area - but my rifle pushed in his back, and the click of the bolt putting a bullet in the spout, convinced him to stop the train. Then a bit of a gun fight started, but as soon as the raiders heard the machine guns going they gave up and fled. We found a wounded man when we searched the area. Further down the line we found that the usual length of rail had been taken out to make the train crash, but this time it didn't work, thanks to my teacher, the first engine driver I met.

Not long afterwards the police arrived, for one of their patrols had heard the shooting and they took over. One of them recognized the wounded man. He lived in Nablus. The police were a cruel lot. They picked the Arab rebel up and dropped him on the ground, him with a bullet wound in his thigh and a burst of machine gun in his shoulder, but he wouldn't talk at all. By this time the sun was up and it was very hot. The Arab kept crying out "moya moya." He was asking for water, so the police gave him some. They poured it out so that it splashed on his face, but none for drinking. While this was going on, we were waiting for the repair crew to arrive and repair the track.

Eventually the police came with the Arab's wife and they restarted their efforts to make him talk, but he didn't. In fact he died without recognizing his wife. Usually in cases like this, any information the police got they acted upon. Any building, whether it be a house or a shop, that belonged to a known striker or in which ammunition or explosives were found was blown up by the Royal Engineers on the instructions of the Palestine Police. So off the police went and had the Arab's house blown up. We were able to continue our journey when the track had been repaired, and arrived back at camp safe and sound and very much wiser.

Most of the preparation for wrecking trains was done at night time, when they knew they wouldn't be spotted. To combat this, it was decided to provide mobile patrols of the main routes from Lydda, Haifa, Jerusalem and Jaffa. This action was brought in because a train on the Jaffa run was wrecked and one of the escorts on the engine was killed. This chap, named John Quirk, was blown up when the engine's boiler blew up, and poor Johnny Quirk was scalded to death. This train was the first to be blown up by the new system that was now in use. The Arabs used to plant a bomb below the rail joints with the detonator pin sticking up above the rails. The length of track was loosened, but left in position to avoid visual detection. As the train wheels went over the bomb, the pin was depressed and the bomb detonated.

To combat this, a flat bed was placed in front of the engine, and this detonated the bomb and did little or no damage to the engine. In addition to this, the Royal Engineers came up with the ideal patrol vehicle. They got hold of a few trucks, joined them together back to back and fixed railway bogey wheels to them. The gasoline engines provided the driving power and the truck wheels propelled the vehicle. There was an engine facing each way so that it was able to go either way without using a reverse gear. Mounted on each vehicle was an ack-ack mounted Lewis gun. Eight men manned the queer-looking vehicle, but it was effective. The one we had was used every night, all night, mostly on the run to Jerusalem. When on patrol, we often saw an Arab camp so we would stop and search them, and always we found nothing but were always invited to eat with them.

Next morning, on the return trip, the camp would be gone and so would a length of railway line, or we would find a planted bomb. They were very crude, for by removing the detonating pin the bomb was rendered harmless. We used this type of patrol vehicle until a new type was built and put into service. The Engineers built a thing that looked like a house on a flat bed. It was made of concrete and was pulled by an engine that was manned by men of the Engineers. We also had a couple of plate layers with us so that effective repairs could be carried out immediately. This train was christened "the Hillman's Pride."

By now there was a good routine in the camp, and one rotated around so that we all got a chance at all the various jobs, good or bad. One day, I found myself on the stand-by. This was a number of men who stood by in case of emergencies. When a train was wrecked, a squad of men were sent out to guard the train and its contents. One afternoon, a train on the Jaffa run was wrecked. Now this route to Jaffa was not a very popular route, for it was dangerous as it mostly ran through heavily wooded areas and orange groves. One could hide an army in them. The trouble was that you didn't know who was shooting at you. The only way to tell was by the sounds of the shots. The Jewish people had modern guns, better than those of the Arabs. Their guns and ammunition dated back to the First World War. They had found huge caches of guns and ammo that the Turks had buried during the war. This, plus the fact that the Jews did not fire on goods trains, helped to determine who was shooting at you.

Our group was ordered to get ready to go out to the train wreck. As it was a goods train, extra men were needed, and to my surprise my brother Ron was put on the patrol. The NCO in charge was an old Indian soldier, Corporal Adams. He had spent many years in India and was not a greenhorn, that was a comfort.

When we first arrived at our camp at Sarafand, the site of the PP's polo pitch, we found a vehicle park full of new trucks painted in desert camouflage. This accounted for the rush in the UK to get drivers trained. These trucks could carry eight men and their equipment, so now we were putting the trucks to good use.

The train wreck to which we had been assigned to guard was on the Jaffa line and past the first set of orange groves. It was about ten miles away from Lydda. When we got there we found the wrecked train being looted by Arabs from the local village, but they soon went away. The train itself was a goods train and carried general cargo, such as gramophones, records, radios, millions of Camel cigarettes, booze, and anything else that could be bought from a store.

We set up our "shop" and started to guard the wreck. Naturally, those on patrol made the rounds of the wrecked box cars and we all had a good time. Corporal Adams let us have what we wanted - except the booze, that was a no no - and I really enjoyed my first smoke of American cigarettes, and the food that was there supplemented our rations.

When darkness came our relief didn't arrive, so we had to settle down for a night's guard in the open. We had a bit of a fire going to keep us warm, for it got very cold at night. Corporal Adams gave us a lecture on what he expected of us. Being an old "Ponkey Wallah" who had served many years in India, and out there they had many skirmishes with the natives, especially on the northwest frontier, so we listened intently to the voice of experience.

He told us that the Arab strikes would come during the dark hours and that they would fire random shots from all sides to try to see just how we were deployed. He said that it was reasonable to assume that they would come from the side of the wreck that faced open fields and not through the orange groves behind us, for they would probably be patrolled by the Jews who owned it.

We had two Lewis guns, which he placed at the front and rear of the train so that each had a 180-degree field of fire. The rest of the men patrolled in pairs on each side of the trains. All this talk took place while we ate our supper. As we were in pairs, one could sleep while the other kept watch and they then changed over, but one had to be awake and on watch at all times and nobody could fire his weapon until told to. He warned us that the most dangerous times were at dusk and dawn.

We had nearly finished our meal when one of the sentries reported seeing what he thought was a person crossing a field and going into a hedge ditch. With that, the fire was doused with water and we all scurried off to our new set positions. What time it was we had no idea, but it had to be around ten or eleven. Anyway, our Ron and I had the Lewis gun at the front of the train and we lay there listening, not daring to speak for fear of giving away our positions.

Then the shooting started, sporadic rifle fire just as was predicted earlier, first from one place and then another. Finally, on instruction, guns fired to where the muzzle flashes could be seen. Then all was quiet for a while. The lance corporal came and told us that when they next fired a very light would be shot by Corporal Adams. This was to light the area so we could see who was where and when we could see the target, we were to open up with our Lewis gun.

Well, up went the very light just like a firework, and lit the corner of the field where we thought the Arabs were, and we opened up with our gun. We put a good burst into the target. Then the gun stopped firing on its own, so we went through the routine to get the gun firing, but it wouldn't go so we had to work by touch to get it going.

The drum was a round thing like a deep plate that held the bullets, and as it rotated around it placed a bullet in the firing position. Two pawls stopped the panier from rotating either way, and we found that one of the springs had broken. It was the one that stopped the reverse movement, so we swapped the springs around so that the gun could be used in an emergency.

Ron and I just lay there with our rifles at the ready for the rest of the night whilst the others did the same, but they managed to keep whoever was out there at bay, for we were sure that they would not try to get by us, for we had the machine gun that they didn't like to face. They had no way of knowing that our gun was not working properly. They tried again and the other gun came into use, and that seemed to settle the attackers down. So after a couple of hours, all went quiet. Perhaps they were tired and wanted to go home to bed. Just one person seemed to have been left behind, for he fired the occasional shot just to let us know they were out there somewhere.

Eventually, dawn broke. This is when one's imagination runs riot. Somebody spotted what they thought was a person climbing a tree near to where we had made camp, so the order was given to open fire with the Lewis gun, which we did, and put a good burst into the object. At that range we couldn't miss, but the thing still stayed there, so the lance corporal walked over. When he got to it he burst out laughing, for the man climbing the tree was his overcoat swinging from a branch. It had been there all night, and it looked as though a crowd of moths had eaten it for it was full of holes.

A good search of the area provided us with good evidence of our attackers, for we found blood spots and marks of someone being dragged and a few empty shell cases. These, the police determined, were of Turkish origin from the First World War. During the search we managed to acquire a few cartons of cigarettes and a few other objects of worth. When our relief came, they told us that they had had a rough night and day too, and that the company sergeant major was searching every patrol that returned to camp, so we had to ditch our loot along the roadside. No doubt the Arabs who found it were grateful for our small gifts.

Past Perspectives:


  1. Excellent historical perspective. Thank You!

  2. My grandfather was in the 22nd Cheshire Regiment at the same time as yours, by the sounds of it. I've enjoyed reading a couple of your extracts; this one in particular was interesting to me. I have a photo album that belonged to my grandad, and in it there is a photo of the grave of someone called Quirk, who was one of two drummers who lost their lives in a train crash. I believe this is probably the same Quirk that your grandfather refers to here. It's strange, but kind of comforting, to read the account of someone else who was serving at the same time as my grandad.