Once the Anglo-American Commission of Inquiry, appointed in November 1945 by the British and Americans to recommend a solution to the Palestine problem, had completed its work, the Irgun High Command gave the go-ahead for wide-scale action.
Several months previously, my commanding officers had decided that I should attend a Commanders' Course. First, I was asked to report to Shuni (near Benyamina), where the central courses were held. Fortunately, as it turned out, I was unable to leave home, since the British discovered the course I was scheduled to attend and all the trainees were sent to goal. After that, the central courses were discontinued, and training was carried out at the regional level. The course I attended was held in Ramat Gan, with trainees from Petah Tikva also taking part. We met in the evenings in a large packing-shed in an orange grove in Ramat Yitzhak, known by the code name 'Arlozorov' . Saturday meetings were held outdoors in the orange groves. We learned weapon handling and drill, did field training and studied leadership theory. The training was intensive and the course lasted for several months. At the end we sat examinations, and, in line with Irgun tradition, took part in a military operation against the British. At our graduation party, held at the home of Amnon (Yoel Friedler), I was proclaimed the top cadet in my class. Several days later, we set out for the south.
On April 2, 1946, I reported for duty at Rehovot to take part in an operation about which I knew nothing as yet. Following orders, I met with a young couple at a designated bus stop. We exchanged passwords, and they took me to a large packing-shed in a nearby orange grove. I was happy to see some old friends: lanky Baruch Toprover, Yoel Kalfus and Yoel Friedler from Ramat Gan, Ozer Simcha and Hayim Golovsky from Petah Tikva, and of course my commanding officer and friend Ilan (Shmulik Kroshnevsky). More and more people arrived, and by midday 60 of us were assembled. It was clear that a large-scale operation was being planned. After being given sandwiches and drinks, we were summoned into the packing-shed for a briefing. Eitan (the Irgun's Operations Officer) was the first to address us, and we soon grasped that the objective was to bring railway lines in the north and south to a standstill. However, to avoid disrupting the export of Shamouti oranges by Jewish growers, it had been decided to sabotage the railway track south of Rehovot and north of Haifa. Three independent Irgun groups would operate in the south; in the north, a Lehi unit would blow up the railway bridge over the Naaman river estuary. One of the Irgun groups, led by Zeev (Menahem Shiff), was to blow up the two railway bridges near the Arab village of Yibne, a repetition of an operation carried out a year previously. Menahem Schiff's group, numbering 30 fighters, was assembled at another packing-shed, also in Rehovot. The second group, commanded by Gad (Eliezer Podhazour), was assigned the mission of sabotaging bridges and tracks south of Yibne. The third group, under Shimshon (Dov Cohen) was to attack the Ashdod railway station and blow up the nearby bridge. The two latter groups received a joint briefing and they covered part of the route together.
After Eitan's general remarks, each officer assembled his men for a detailed briefing. Maps were spread out on improvised tables, the force was divided into sections, each memorizing its orders. This was the largest field operation the Irgun had conducted so far, and the weapons had been selected accordingly. The main weapons were rifles, machine-guns and submachine-guns, with only a few pistols. This was a great change to previous operations, which had largely taken place in urban settings. Our withdrawal was also planned differently; since the British were expected to impose a curfew on all southern settlements, it was decided to withdraw on foot to Bat Yam and to slip into Tel Aviv from there. This meant that we were obliged to trek through sand dunes for some 25 kilometers (or 35 kilometers for the southernmost force).
After the briefing I understood the reason for the bustling activity in the orange groves between Petah Tikva and Ramat Gan in the weeks before the operation. Dozens of Irgun members had undergone intensive training and target practice. Shimson had introduced the rifle for operational use, and was in charge of all the training. He added field training to rifle handling. The fighters practiced marching and crawling in order to get into shape, but the two to three weeks' training period was insufficient for the task ahead. And the boots we wore were not suitable for long treks in the sand.
Once the questions and answers were behind us, we were free until the trucks arrived. Spirits were high and the veterans amongst us related anecdotes about previous battle experiences. Suddenly Baruch Toprover turned to me with a smile and said: "I have a strange feeling. Who knows when we'll meet again?" He must have had a premonition. Baruch was arrested after the operation, and when he was released, at the height of the War of Independence, I was in the besieged city of Jerusalem. Thus, we were not to meet again for several years. We sat there in silence, deep in thought.
The roar of engines approaching the packing-shed broke the quiet. The two trucks had been 'confiscated' during the day in order to transport us to our starting point. We clambered onto the truck unarmed, since we were supposed to be laborers returning from work. The second truck was loaded with oranges: the weapons were concealed beneath them, and the 'Arab workers' sat on top. We traveled in convoy southward towards the communal (Jewish) settlement of Yavne. The settlers barred the gates to prevent us from crossing their land. One of our commanders, who were sitting beside the driver, explained that we were on a mission on behalf of the Irgun. This persuaded the settler and he allowed the first truck to enter. Whilst driving through the settlement, we heard shouts from behind us. It transpired that he had refused to allow the second truck in, claiming that he could not allow Arabs to move around the settlement during curfew hours. At that time, the British had imposed a travel curfew from 6:00pm, and as we approached the settlement we had seen several truckloads of British soldiers setting out to enforce the curfew. Again we negotiated with the settler, and after we had convinced him that the passengers in the second truck were also Jewish fighters, disguised as Arabs, they were allowed to join us. While the discussion was underway, a group of inquisitive youngsters had gathered around our vehicle, and I thought I glimpsed my sister Rivka, who was spending a year of national service at the settlement. I crouched on the floor of the vehicle so that she would not identify me and waited impatiently for the truck to move off. How naive I was. A few days later my whole family learnt of my membership in the Irgun and role in the operation.
We left the settlement safely and the convoy halted at a pre-agreed spot. We climbed down, swiftly unloaded the oranges and extricated the weapons. We were a mixed group and the darkness added to the general confusion. Surprisingly enough, some sort of order established itself and, after distribution of the weapons, we took our leave of the unit, which was to operate in Ashdod and set out.
While we were moving through the fields, we spied a slowly moving dot of light. Our first thought was that it was a British armored vehicle coming to find us. Gad ordered the group to lie down, and I was ordered to advance with another fighter to clarify the source of the light. We crept forward cautiously, thinking as we moved: ' What if it really is a tank? Would we have time to inform the rest of the group before being trapped by its projector beam?' I glanced at my comrade, and without a word we continued towards the unknown object. When we were very close, we breathed a sigh of relief - It was the kibbutz tractor ploughing the fields by night. We reported this to Gad who, after advising the tractor driver to return home, gave the order to advance.
Gad urged us on since we were behind schedule. The plan was for the three groups to go into action simultaneously, and since we had no walky-talkies, our watches were the only means of coordinating action. The operation was set for 8:00pm. At precisely that time, as we approached our destination, we heard explosions as the railway bridge beside the Arab village of Yibne was blown up. We had forfeited the surprise element and it was clear that the force guarding our target would be ready for us.
This was indeed the case: as we continued on foot, a rocket suddenly illuminated the entire area. We immediately flung ourselves to the ground, continuing only after the light had died away. Thus we played cat and mouse with the guards until we finally reached our destination and the units dispersed. My unit had been assigned two tasks: first, to sabotage the railway tracks and telephone poles. Then we were to join up with the lookout unit, whose task was to delay any British force, which might arrive from the adjacent army base. For these tasks, we were equipped with a Bren machine-gun, submachine-guns and grenades.
We went out to the railway track, while Shmulik and his men remained on guard. We dispersed over a wide area of track and laid the charges by the telephone poles and beside the track. When everything was ready, I blew a blast on my whistle, and the charges were detonated. I sped away to take shelter, and on the way heard the whistle of bullets being fired nearby. I threw myself to the ground and heard Shmulik says: 'Come here, we're over here.' I stood up to join the group, when there was a sudden explosion. I felt a sharp blow to my right arm, saw blood pouring out and called to Shmulik. He staunched the blood flow with a tourniquet, bandaged my arm and helped me to the meeting spot.
We had to wait until all the units had completed their assignments before withdrawing together. The units returned one by one, Gad among them. He asked me how I felt and said that when all the fighters had arrived, they would decide what to do about me. He had two alternatives. The first one - to take me all the way to Bat Yam, the second one - to evacuate me to the nearest settlement, Rehovot or Rishon le-Zion, where I would receive medical treatment. Meanwhile another unit had arrived with a severely wounded fighter on a stretcher. It was Ezra Rabia, who had been hit in the chest when throwing a grenade at the firing guards. All attention was, of course, focused on Ezra. I finally asked Shmulik to give me a pain-killing injection. He searched the first-aid kit and found an ampoule of morphine and a needle, but did not know how to use them. In fact, nobody knew how to use the needle and no one was wiling to take responsibility for trying. Shmulik finally found some 'pills' and gave them to me, claiming they were analgesics. When I put them in my mouth, I discovered that they were mint candies...
While we were waiting for the last unit to arrive, we heard rounds of shots at increasingly short intervals. The boys lay down in a circle, ready for any possible threat. I was the only one without a weapon and asked Shmulik to give me a pistol so that I could defend myself if necessary. To my great disappointment, he firmly refused. There was a quick consultation, and Gad decided to set out at once, without waiting for the final unit. The convoy moved slowly, Ezra lying on the stretcher and I leaning on Amnon (Yoel Friedler). Ezra lost consciousness and died shortly afterwards. We buried him in the sand, on the assumption that the British would find him the following day and bury him in a Jewish settlement. We assembled around the fresh grave in total silence. Shmulik recited Kaddish (the prayer for the dead) and we stood motionless. It was the most moving Kaddish I have ever heard.
Ezra Rabia had come to Palestine from Iraq without his family and had joined the Irgun shortly after his arrival. Fluent in Arabic and well acquainted with Arab life and customs, he was given assignments in Arab districts. He took part in the confiscation of weapons from the Rosh ha-Ayin camp as a 'bearer' disguised in Arab dress. In the operation in which he lost his life, he had been one of the 'Arabs' in the second truck, sitting atop the heap of oranges. The following day the British did indeed find Ezra's body and he was buried at Kfar Warburg.
Gad, who announced that we were far behind schedule and had to move faster, broke the silence at Ezra's grave. He offered me the chance of being carried on the stretcher, but after he had explained that this would hold up our progress, I felt obliged to walk. I could no longer move the fingers of my injured hand and asked Shmulik to loosen the tourniquet. He did as I asked and, to my relief, the blood flowed back into my fingers. But the wound began to bleed freely, and Shmulik, fearing that I might collapse from loss of blood, tightened the tourniquet again and refused to open it until we reached base. We moved off and my arm soon became numb. Walking was hard; our feet sank into the sand and my pain was agonizing. I lost consciousness several times, but did not want to be carried for fear that we would all be caught by the British. Suddenly I became very thirsty, and asked for water. The water flask was empty and all that remained was a little cognac.
Thus we marched all night, my friends taking turn to support me. After several hours we reached Nahal Rubin. How good it felt to bathe my feet. We were warned not to drink the stagnant water, but I was so thirsty that I drank my fill despite the hovering mosquitoes. Our pace became slower and the convoy became a straggle. As dawn broke, Yoel Friedler waxed lyrical on the beauty of the scene. Gad halted the convoy and we thought that he would announce a break. But he merely urged us to increase the pace in order to reach Bat Yam before the British army arrived. Some of the boys were so tired that they became apathetic. As we moved on, a plane circled around us several times. Our Brennist took aim, but Gad decided that it was preferable not to fire and to conceal the weapons in the sand dunes. This was futile, since the plane had clearly spotted us and reported our progress to headquarters. The aircraft continued southward and we in a northerly direction.
At 8:00am we finally reached the sand dunes of Bat Yam. There we met up with several people who were awaiting us, including Dvora Kalfus, who worriedly asked me what had happened. I replied simply: "This is Jewish blood", before sinking to the ground in total exhaustion. One of the boys went off to summon a car whilst Yoel Friedler helped me up. Dvora stopped us, saying that I could not risk going into town in blood stained clothes. She lined up the other boys, and when she found one of about the same build as me, asked him to exchange clothes with me. I got into the back seat of the car driven by Eliyahu Spektor, with one of the women fighters beside me. En route from Bat Yam to Tel Aviv we encountered a police roadblock in Arab Jaffa. The car came to a halt, and before the policeman could poke his head through the window, the young woman threw her arms around me to hide my wounded arm. The pain was acute and I begged her to stop, but she persisted and we passed through the roadblock safely.
We finally reached Lilienblum Street and went into the Pochovsky Maternity Home where I had been born. I dragged myself up to the second floor, where I was given into the safekeeping of Sister Mina Oshinker, who immediately treated my wound. First, she gave me a morphine injection to ease the pain and then cut away my clothing, washed me and with great care cleaned the wound. She loosened the tourniquet. The flow of blood had ceased but I could not move my fingers at all. The arm was totally paralyzed. The injection soon took effect; I became drowsy and could do nothing but give myself up to the care of the medical team.
The Irgun's physician, Dr. Eliezer Matan, approached Professor Marcus, the most distinguished surgeon in Tel Aviv at the time, and asked him to operate on my arm. Professor Marcus examined the case carefully and decided that there was serious risk of gangrene and that the arm had to be amputated. Dr. Matan was unwilling to go ahead with so drastic an operation and consulted Dr. Friedlander, also a surgeon, who was associated with the Irgun and worked for right-wing health insurance fund (Kupat Holim Leumit). Friedlander believed that they could risk operating to fuse the bone without amputating. He claimed that because of my youth (I was not yet eighteen), there was a reasonable chance that my body would overcome the complications. The debate between the doctors was lengthy, and Dr. Friedlander, to whom I owe my right arm, finally performed the operation.
Dr. Friedlander operated me on that same afternoon. It transpired that the bone had broken in two, leaving my arm dangling. The two sections of the bone were fused with the aid of a platinum bar, the wound was cleansed and the arm placed in plaster. Because of the infection, I had a high fever and urgently needed antibiotics. During the Second World War, penicillin was available only to the military, and after the war it was allocated for civilian use only under strict official supervision. A request to the health authorities for penicillin might have given me away to the British. The Irgun preferred to use another method of obtaining the drug. At night, Irgun fighters broke into the warehouse of the Hirshberg Brothers and confiscated a shipment of penicillin. Thus Avraham and Yaakov Hirshberg, my maternal uncles, had unwittingly helped in my recovery.
The day after my operation I found myself in a room with a neighbor in the last stages of convalescence. I was pleased to see Noah Grizak, who had been wounded in the thigh in the attack on the army camp in the Exhibition Grounds. We had first met three months previously, at an assembly point in Ramat Gan returning from a field operation. Noah had then been evacuated to the Paulen hospital in Ramat Gan and only later was he transferred to the Pohovsky Hospital.
From Noah I learned of the fate of the group, led by Shimshon, which had set out to attack Ashdod railway station. The force had encountered resistance on the part of Arab guards, but had overcome them and blown up the station and the nearby bridge. After the operation, the force had withdrawn in the direction of Bat Yam. It was a long and difficult journey, and it soon became evident that some of the boys were not sufficiently trained in long-distance treks. When dawn broke, they were discovered by the same plane, which had spotted us. The army had encircled all the Jewish settlements in the south and after the report was received, a battalion of soldiers set out for Bat Yam. When Shimshon and his men reached the Bat Yam sand dunes, the British army was waiting for them. (We had succeeded in reaching Bat Yam shortly before the army arrived). The paratroopers fanned out all over the area and our people had no chance of escape. Eitan ordered the fighters to bury their weapons in the sand and try to slip away one by one. Most chose to make for the sea, and Eitan himself waded into the water, but to no avail; wherever they turned, they ancountered armed troops. Avner Ben-Shem, who had followed Eitan into the water, was shot dead, and the firing ceased only after all our fighters had surrendered. Only two got away - Shimshon and Chaim Golovsky. Chaim later told me that when the boys began running towards the sea, Shimshon had said to him: "Let's run in the opposite direction, and if we make it safely over the hill, we'll be able to reach Rishon le-Zion." They ran in zigzags and succeeded in evading the bullets fired at them. Afterwards, the British forces were concentrated by the seashore and the two Irgun fighters reached Rishon le-Zion unscathed.
The British arrested in Bat Yam dunes thirty-one fighters, including some of the Irgun best commanders. In addition to the 27 who had taken part in the operation, another four, who had been waiting for them, were detained: Menahem Maletzky (Commanding Officer Haifa district), Eliyahu Temler (C.O. Tel Aviv Fighting Force) and Dvora Kalfus- nehushtan, who had accompanied them in order to meet her brother. Also present was Menahem Schiff, commander of the operated at Yibne, who was waiting for his comrades. A large number of weapons were lost among the dunes. In addition to Avner Ben-Shem, who was killed by gunfire, four men were wounded and evacuated to the Government Hospital in Jaffa. The papers reported that the British had found blood-stained garments and thought that they belonged to one of the injured men they had arrested. Fortunately they did not guess that they were my clothes and did not bother to look for another wounded man in hospital. The arrest of the 31 fighters was a bitter blow for the Irgun but it did at least ensure coverage for the cause in the national and international press.
Noah Grizak did his best to make my hospital stay a pleasant one. He told me about his first few days in hospital and how his injured leg was attached to a weight for a long time. "You're lucky," he said. "You'll soon be able to walk about, and only your arm will be in a cast. I was immobilized in bed for three months. But even that passed, and in a few days time I will be out of here and back on active duty." I was very sorry when Noah left hospital, since we had become good friends. We decided to meet after I recovered from my injury, but our paths diverged; a year later, I moved to Jerusalem and after the War of Independence I learned that Noah had been killed in the battle for Jaffa.
The transition from intense activity to lying idle in bed was shockingly extreme. I suddenly found myself in an entirely different world and had to confront my helplessness and dependency. At first I was not sufficiently aware of the gravity of my condition - severe infection throughout my body, total paralysis of my arm, the threat of gangrene and subsequent need for amputation. I imagined that I would be able to leave hospital in a few days time. In fact, I lay there for two weeks, and only when the fever dropped did the doctors agree to send me home.
The hospital Director agreed to treat Irgun members on condition that visits by comrades were strictly prohibited, since he feared that they might alert the British police. Only two people were allowed to visit me: Dr. Matan and Amatzia' (David Grossbard), CO Tel Aviv District, who was in charge of medical services. They came daily, sometimes twice a day, and did their best to make my stay easier. On one occasion they asked me:"What would you like us to bring you? We'll bring anything you want" "Strawberries and cream," I replied cheekily, knowing that they were unobtainable. Several hours later, Sister Mina walked in and told me that a present had arrived from my friends and placed a large bowl of strawberries and cream beside my bed.
The day after I was injured, Shmulik visited my father in his chemicals' store in Tel Aviv and informed him that I had been lightly wounded and could be visited in hospital in several days' time. My father did not say anything, but thought to himself: 'If he's so lightly wounded, what is he doing in hospital, and why can we only visit him in a few day's time?' Years later he told me that after Shmulik had left; his friend Cohen from Kfar Saba came into the store. Alone together, Cohen told my father his troubles. The police had arrested one of his sons, Yehoshua, and the other son, Menahem, had escaped and nobody knew his whereabouts. Before his arrest, the British had offered a reward for information leading to the apprehension of Yehoshua and his picture had appeared in the press and on billboards. The two brothers were active in the Lehi and Yehoshua was renowned for his courage (Yehoshua later became David Ben-Gurion's bodyguard at Sede Boker). My father listened and thought: 'What can I say to him? I've just been told that my son is lying wounded in hospital and I can't discuss it with anybody'.
My mother's visit to hospital was not easy for her. When the nurse asked her to feed me, she said with tears in her eyes:" When I nursed you as a newborn baby, I never imagined that eighteen years later I would come to the same place and feed you again." The visit was brief and towards its end she plucked up courage and said: "They told me that the bullet only scratched you. So why is your arm in a cast? And why do you have to spend so long in hospital?" I tried to reassure her, but without success. Before leaving, she asked me to promise that when I was released from hospital, I would come home, so that she could look after me.
Life in hospital took on a routine, determined by the prosaic needs of the bedridden patient: measuring fever, bowel monitoring movements, etc. I slept a great deal, and the main thing that disturbed me were the penicillin injections I received every four hours for two weeks. I received so many of these shots that there was no room on my behind for further jabs. I spent most of my waking hours reading and received few visitors. I had no radio, but was fortunate enough to be able to hear the rehearsals and performances of pianist Pnina Salzman, who played in the Tel Aviv Museum, located just behind the hospital.
On my last day in hospital I was again taken to the operating theater, this time for an 'aeroplane' to be built to support my arm. Dr. Friedlander encased the upper half of my body in plaster, and inserted a metal rod to support my arm in its cast at shoulder height. I was forced to resort to acrobatics to manipulate the structure. Getting into a car, for example, was almost impossible. My appearance was apparently so frightening that when I arrived home, my two-year-old brother Zvi fled in panic.
I imposed voluntary ' house arrest' on myself, and did not go out in daylight. My alibi was that I had been injured in a road accident, but I knew the alibi would not stand up to thorough investigation. I developed a new routine of reading and listening to the radio. In the evening my friends came to visit and told me what was happening in the Irgun, and I strolled with them in the orange-groves near our house. My most devoted friend Yosef, visited daily and brought a parcel of home-made chocolate-nut candies each time .
After leaving hospital, I was informed that I had been commended for my exemplary conduct after being wounded.
A week after my return home, on April 23rd, at noon, a loud explosion was heard, followed by shots. It was the Irgun attack on the Ramat Gan police station, one of the great Taggart fortresses built during the 1930s riots. In this attack, three fighters were killed and five injured, including Dov Gruner, who was captured. The dead were buried anonymously in the Nahlat Yitzhak cemetery, in the presence of the Hevra Kadisha burial society and police guards, but without relatives.
The retreat route from the attack was not far from my home, and British policemen conducted searches throughout the neighborhood. When my mother saw what was going on, she panicked and told me to hide in the cellar. I refused flatly, since it was clear to me that the British would find me there and that my attempt to hide would incriminate me. The army soon imposed a curfew on Ramat Gan. As in previous cases, the soldiers came as far as Salameh Road, which was the municipal border of Ramat Gan. But, in contrast to previous occasions, I could not escape through the back door, and stayed at home till the curfew was lifted. Fortunately our house was not searched and the British returned to base.