BC 1069 Howard Mansfield recalls his service in Nablus, Jerusalem and Haifa


BC 1069

My first posting in the Palestine Police was to Nablus in an area steeped in Biblical history. Nearby were the ruins of the capital of Israel that King Omri had built on a hill ten kilometres north-west of Nablus. He had bought the hill for two talents of silver from a man named Shemer, which gave rise to the name Samaria. The people of Samaria burned one of the Persian governors alive, and Alexander the Great visited the city, executed the murderers, settled a colony of 6,000 Macedonians there, and expelled most of the inhabitants. But some of the Samaritans survived and erected a temple on nearby Mount Gerizim, where they were still holding an annual religious ceremony, including the slaughtering of a goat, when I was there. When I visited the patriarch of the Samaritan sect at a tiny shrine in Nablus town, he was wearing a green turban wrapped around his red tarbush, a long straggling beard and a flowing brown cloak. He showed me the religious scrolls of the sect, kept in an ornately jewelled case, which were to be taken up to the top of Mount Gerizim for the period of their annual ceremonies. The ancient track up the mountain was barely passable but we were able to send up a police guard to see that the ceremonies were not disrupted and to ensure that these priceless artifacts were well secured.

the urban police station at Nablus Nablus was the administrative capital of the District of Samaria, boasting a District Officer, a District Police Headquarters, a rural police station, which was entirely mounted, a district jail, and an urban police station housing British and Arab members of the Palestine Police. I was posted to Nablus Urban, which was located in a poor tactical position at the foot of the steep slopes of the cursed Mount Ebal (Deuteronomy xi.29). The station was surrounded by a fenced perimeter with a sandbagged post known as a sangar at the entrance to the compound. Nablus itself is in a valley with the blessed Mount Gerizim (Deuteronomy again) rising behind it, and was fervently Moslem.

Many of the Arab members of the police were holdovers from the Turkish regime. Ottoman law had been replaced by the Criminal Code Ordinance in 1936, but Turkish ranks were still being used: sergeants were shaweesh, corporals were umbashi and inspectors were imfatish. Educated Arabs, Brits and foreigners were generally addressed as effendi. We patrolled the town paired with an Arab policeman, by night and day, carrying out normal peace-time police duties, and although there was no terrorism or political unrest of the kind that the Jewish areas were experiencing we carried Lee Enfield (SMLE) rifles and a cloth bandolier of 50 rounds of .303 ammunition for our own protection.

We dealt mainly with minor contraventions of municipal ordinances but stabbings were frequent and family feuds known as fasad would quite often erupt. These were long-standing vendettas whereby a member of one family would kill a member of another family, because that family had previously killed a member of his family. Apparently, this family obligation extended to the fifth degree of consanguinity. These murders were easy to solve as the blood-stained, curved-bladed daggers invariably used were generally recovered, and the identity of the assailant was not concealed by either family. To avoid a prison sentence, the murderer would often flee to another village, and his name would then be added to our list of "absconded offenders".

Nablus was on the route through which hashish was brought by camel down from Syria and we would quite often seize slabs of it wrapped in sacks slung over the backs of camels. There was also the possibility of firearms being brought along this route, so road blocks would be set up at random, and we developed this into a fine art. A location would be chosen beyond a bend in the road; two or three "knife-rests" interwoven with coils of barbed wire were placed across the road to form an "S" through which vehicles had to manoeuvre. The police vehicle would be concealed facing outwards to deal with any vehicle that crashed through; and the site was overlooked from a concealed armed position above. The roadblock could be set up in minutes and rapidly moved to another location.

After a few months of patrol duties I was moved to the Investigation Section which brought me into much closer contact with the Arab policemen and the townspeople and villagers. Even more important, I was now one of the few fortunates who did not have to do regular night shifts, as I was on call at all times. Not only that but I no longer carried a rifle and now wore the ultimate status symbol - a .45 Colt revolver in a webbing holster strapped to my thigh, rather like a cowboy out of the Wild West.

The station was commanded by a station officer, who at that time was First British Sergeant Taffy Cole. A British station sergeant ran the administration and the patrols, and an investigation section was run by Arab policemen under a sergeant, but with one British Constable Investigation (B.C.I.) on strength. Entrance to the station was controlled by a British Constable at a raised desk equipped with a telephone and a button controlling the emergency doors and the general alarm. All activities, visitors, reports and complaints from the public were recorded by him in the station diary or daftar, and if criminal offences were involved they would be referred to the Investigation Section who took statements, visited the scene, secured exhibits and arrested suspects. All of this was conducted in Arabic but summaries of the investigation files as well as all the normal police records were kept in English.

Essentially the B.C.I.'s job was to see that correct procedures were followed, that the records and registers were correctly maintained, and that modern investigative techniques were employed. The details of wanted persons from the area were maintained in the Absconded Offenders register and periodic visits would be made to where they were suspected to be hiding out. Sometimes more elaborate operations would be organized: foot police would cordon off a village at night and the mounted police would swoop down at first light and flush out the wanted men. Even though the village dogs would always bark as we got into position, these raids were often successful, particularly when we had received reliable information - sometimes for money and sometimes from a member of a feuding family. In serious crimes, we would often make use of tracking dogs. A dog section of Doberman Pinschers was based at the Police Depot at Mount Scopus just outside Jerusalem and we would bring a dog and handler to the scene and they would take off at a great speed with the dog on the end of a great length of rope. The handler was always British, as the Muslim Arabs considered dogs to be unclean, and we would provide an armed escort, as the fleeing suspect would sometimes resort to shooting the dog or handler or both.

The Investigation Section was headed by an old-time sergeant, Hassan Fakhri, who spoke no English and had served under the Turks, when promotion was mainly by weight. He was very portly even for a sergeant but in spite of his girth he was an excellent horseman. His main investigative technique was to put the fear of Allah into suspects and witnesses alike, with loud harangues and the occasional slap. He had known these people all their lives and was most effective. The corporal, Suleiman Akheilah, was intelligent and good-natured and as he spoke good English he handled most of the sergeant's duties. The constable, Hamdi Zeid, also a hold-over from the Turkish regime, had no English and his only activity seemed to be to record statements in beautiful Arabic script, like pages from the Koran.

Nablus was a fervent Moslem stronghold and, in accordance with strict Moslem tradition, the women dressed in black robes and veils when in the town. These robes were not floor-length chadors, and some of the younger ladies wore stylish shoes and transparent silk veils revealing well made-up faces. The Bedouin women were completely covered but many had elaborate facial tattoos and strings of gold coins dangling across their faces as a sign of wealth.

Two of the most prominent Nablus families were the Nabulsis and the Arafats. Suleiman Nabulsi later became Prime Minister of Jordan, and one of the Arafats, named Anwar, owned a soap factory which was robbed while I was there. As he spoke English I interviewed him in the course of the investigation, and later I learned that he was a relative of Yasser, who was to become the head of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Social life was limited by virtue of the emergency and by the strict Moslem way of life in the town. I would sometimes go for a coffee and a puff of an argeileh in a nearby coffee shop and chat with the locals; and for a real treat we would sit on the veranda of the Palestine Hotel and have a glass of arrack and a bowl of humus. Otherwise it was drinking beer in the evening in the police canteen on the ground floor of the station.

Both the Urban and the Rural stations at Nablus were part of the network of modern police stations which had been built following a report in 1938 by Sir Charles Tegart, a former Commissioner of Police in Calcutta, who was advising the Inspector General on security matters. They were red sand-stone buildings of the Foreign Legion style of architecture. The smaller Urban stations were a single block, with messing and sleeping accommodation on the upper floor, while the Mounted stations were built in a square with the stables on one side, the station offices on another, and the Arab and British living accommodation on the other two sides. Rifle ports in place of windows on the exterior walls added to the Beau Geste flavour. Some fifty of them had been built and were known by all as Tegart buildings. The Nablus Rural police station held an annual sports day, to which we Urbanites were invited. The horsemanship was of a very high calibre and there was fierce rivalry between the Arab and the British riders, racing, jumping and peg-sticking. The climax of the day was the peg-sticking competition between the British Inspector in charge of the station and the Arab mounted Inspector. This was a deadly serious event and a fine spectacle which entailed charging at full gallop to pick up wooden pegs in the ground with the point of the fully extended lance. Both riders were experts at the game and neither missed a single peg.

Numerous bodies had looked into the Palestine situation over the years, and in August 1947 the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) submitted its report and recommended that the country be partitioned. The Arabs rejected the recommendation and vowed to resist but never believed that the British would leave. The Jews accepted it with the intention of getting as much territory as they could when the British left. On 29th November 1947 the U.N. General Assembly adopted a Resolution requiring the establishment of a Jewish State in Palestine, and Great Britain announced that the mandate would be terminated on May 15th 1948.

Once the U.N. resolution was adopted the situation in Nablus began to deteriorate. At the beginning of 1948, a group of well-known bandits cum-soldiers of fortune from Lebanon, headed by Fawzi Kawakji, was reported in the area, and the locals began to carry rifles openly in public. The crackle of rifle fire could be heard frequently at night, but at this stage no one was being shot at and the firing was purely the customary morale-boosting exercise. There were no British troops at all in Samaria and the only soldiers we had ever seen were a few members of the Trans-Jordan Frontier Force in their red and white checked kafiyas (known locally as hatta wa egal) who would occasionally come across the Allenby Bridge from Trans-Jordan some 30 kilometres away.

Driver A/c Ahmad Melmel with the pigThere was still little animosity being shown to us at this stage and when we abruptly left in 3-ton trucks for Jerusalem in late January 1948 the townspeople stood in disbelief. There was only one armoured vehicle at the station, an old pre-war clunker, known as the pig, which had a hand-cranked revolving turret for firing a rifle or Bren gun out of. It would not have made the trip to Jerusalem and was left behind at the station in the hands of our Arab police colleagues.

When we arrived in Jerusalem, my group from Nablus became part of a force of British police which had been organized to help in the withdrawal and to stabilize the situation in the capital. Jerusalem was like a city under siege. All public buildings were heavily sandbagged and guarded, and the only policing that was being done was responding to the numerous terrorist incidents. The police were now equipped with 2-man armoured cars, with radio communications and a Bren gun. These were positioned at crucial points around the city and would race to the scene of an incident, often while it was in progress. As an additional protection the exterior of the armoured cars was electrified to prevent people from climbing up onto them while stationary.

We lived in villas in the German Colony and drove out every morning to key British and Jewish sites to protect them from the terrorists. My most memorable post was manning a Bren gun inside Barclays Bank (Dominion, Colonial and Overseas) across from the so-called New Gate in the walls of the walled Old City, to prevent the bank from being robbed. I sat in a sandbagged cupola on the mezzanine looking down at the main counter, waiting for terrorists to strike. Our soft-skinned vehicles would be fired on as we drove through Jewish areas along the walls of the Old City, but there were no casualties and when we were off duty we were able to live a fairly normal existence.

The chaplain of the Palestine Police was an Irish Franciscan monk called Father Eugene, who was a highly respected personage in Jerusalem and a great guide to the Holy Places. Together, we were able to walk the Stations of the Cross along the Via Dolorosa, and visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane which were all virtually in our backyard. In spite of the present upheaval, Pax Britannica still made it possible for us to mingle with orthodox Jews at the Wailing Wall, with Arabs at the Mosque of Omar on the Dome of the Rock, and with Christians at the birthplace of Christ at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem a few miles away.

At this stage we were also able to spend some time in the Jewish Quarters, which had some of the European features which I had missed in almost a year in strict Moslem surroundings. Some of the Jewish bars were reasonably hospitable, and I was having a quiet drink in one of them one evening when the building across the road was blown up. We raced outside and found that the premises of the Palestine Post newspaper were on fire. We did what we could to stop the fire from spreading until the Fire Brigade arrived, but it burned all night and the building was completely destroyed. It was rumoured later that this might have been the work of British army deserters.

It was not possible for the British army and all its equipment to leave the country in the short time before the end of the mandate, and so to retrieve as much as possible an enclave was set up at the port of Haifa through which the troops and equipment would be withdrawn. Volunteers were called for from the Palestine Police to stay on after the end of the mandate to provide traffic control and security, and I volunteered to stay. Even at that, a large quantity of warlike stores was simply disposed of by driving it over a cliff into the sea. A month before the mandate ended, we received word that we were to withdraw from Jerusalem to Haifa. The briefing was given by the normally taciturn Superintendent, Ian Proud, who was not given to exaggeration. This time his briefing was nothing short of dramatic: the Jews were already taking action to secure the main road from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, even before the partition date, and roadblocks had been set up by both Jews and Arabs on the route we would be taking. We would be travelling in the usual soft-skinned 3-ton trucks but there would be an armoured car escort and we must be prepared to fight our way through.

All distances in Palestine are small and the journey to Haifa was less than a hundred and fifty kilometres, but the roads through the hills were not good at the best of times and now there were road blocks where we were stopped by poorly trained, very twitchy local militias who considered everyone to be the enemy. It was a slow and tense drive but there were no serious incidents and we were all intact when we arrived at our new quarters, a former monastery south west of Haifa. The Central Police Station had been badly damaged the previous September by a barrel of explosives catapulted over the perimeter fence from the back of a Jewish truck, but the Palestine Police were still nominally in control of the city. As evidence of this, the Station Officer, a man of striking military bearing would stride around his domain every morning, immaculate in his summer uniform with highly polished Sam Browne belt, all topped by the black astrakhan hat (or kalpak) which senior police officers and Arab policemen wore. A Haifa Operational Patrol had been formed, whose armoured cars were on immediate alert in the station compound with their engines running and their Bren guns cocked. I could not get into this much sought-after job but instead was once again appointed to be a B.C.I., this time at the Haifa West police station, where we still continued to respond to crimes until the day we left.

As the end of the mandate approached, the British police finally handed over the Haifa police stations to the Jewish members of the Palestine Police. The sounds of intense battle had been heard for a few days and we learned that the Jews had already driven many Arabs out of the city. The British no longer had even de facto jurisdiction but in spite of this, my group was given the task of controlling traffic on the main routes of the city through which the army was withdrawing. My favourite post was at the traffic circle half-way up Mount Carmel, which had so many converging roads that it needed two constables to control it. Most of the civilian drivers obeyed our directions and the military traffic flowed smoothly.

The Port of Haifa itself remained entirely under British control even after the mandate had ended and apart from the usual dock thefts there were few security problems. We continued to live in the monastery outside the town, where our own security became a serious concern. Our small arms, including Bren guns, were very much sought after by the now legal, terrorist groups and we were obviously a high-risk target. A sand-bagged Bren gun position at the entrance to our compound was manned day and night and patrols roamed inside until we, the last members of the British section of the Palestine Police finally left at the end of June 1948

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