The Arab Legion, established by the British Army in 1920, was an inseparable part of that army. In 1922, when Transjordan was separated from Palestine and became an emirate, the Arab Legion became its security force. During World War Two, it was strengthened and together with other British army units, was active in suppressing the uprising headed by Rashid Ali el Kiliani in Iraq. After the War, the Legion helped to guard British army camps and installations. The British trained the Legion, supplied all its logistical needs and equipment, and provided most of its senior officers. The budget of the Legion came from the British Government, even after Jordan became an independent state with the Legion as its official armed force. Formally speaking, King Abdullah was the Supreme Commander of the Jordanian army, but the British Commanding Officer of the Legion, John B. Glubb, took British regional policy into account and tried to manoeuvre between the wishes of the King and of the British.
The mission assigned to the Arab Legion when the British left was to seize those areas of Judea and Samaria earmarked for the Arab state. In order to carry out this mission, the Legion had to cross the Jordan to Jericho, the transition point between the two parts of Palestine, east and west. The only road linking Jericho with Ramallah and Nablus, on the one hand, and Bethlehem and Hebron on the other, passed through Jerusalem. Jerusalem, however, was due to become an international zone under UN protection, and for the Legion to pass through the city would have been interpreted as a threat to occupy it. Moreover, there had been fighting in Jerusalem between Jews and Arabs in April, and Glubb, Commander of the Legion, wanted to avoid taking unnecessary risks while transferring his army to Judea and Samaria. In order to bypass Jerusalem en route from Jericho to Samaria, Glubb prepared an alternative route.
It transpired that during the First World War, the Turks had laid a dirt track linking the Jiftlik (Ottoman building used as a police fort during the Mandate period) in the Jordan Valley with Nablus and Ramallah. The track was narrow and could be traversed by only one vehicle at a time. Consequently, Glubb decided to widen it and use it for transporting his army. But he found himself confronted with a political problem. In 1946 Transjordan had become the independent state of Jordan, and its army was not authorized to pave roads in Palestine, which was a separate political entity. It soon became evident, however, that Glubb did not perceive this as an obstacle and, while the Mandatory Government turned a blind eye, he widened the road using Palestinian Arab workers.
In the early morning of May 15, 1948, the Arab Legion crossed the Jordan by the Allenby Bridge and reached Jericho. From there the main force made its way up the Jordan Valley to the Jiftlik, and from there turned west along the dirt road traversing Wadi Badran leading to Nablus and Ramallah. One battalion, under the command of Abdullah el Tel, remained in reserve in Jericho to guard the contact area with Transjordan.
After the Arab Legion crossed the Jordan on May 15 and invaded Palestine, its forces were deployed along the Nablus-Jenin-Tulkarem triangle and in Ramallah. The Legion's general staff had no offensive plans at this stage. They were assigned a relatively small force to defend the occupied territory, to await the outcome of the fighting in Palestine and to keep an eye on Israel's military moves.
At the same time, there were dramatic developments in Jerusalem. On May 13, the British Army evacuated the Old City and the small Jewish force launched Operation Viper. As previously noted, the abandoned British positions were occupied without a fight, as was the Crucifix Post, the Greek Church in the Armenian Quarter which overlooked the entire Jewish Quarter.
On May 14, the British withdrew from the New City of Jerusalem as well, and Operation Pitchfork commenced. Haganah and Irgun forces seized the 'security zones' (most of them in Jewish-owned buildings) without a fight and succeeded in establishing territorial contiguity with previously isolated Jewish neighborhoods. The battle plan for Operation Pitchfork did not include occupation of the Jewish Quarter and Shaltiel had no intention of taking the Old City. In order to make clear their policy, representatives of the Jewish Agency (with the approval of Shaltiel) informed the Chairman of the Truce Commission that they would consent to an immediate ceasefire.
The Arab Legion was a small army without manpower reserves. In May 1948 there were only 5,000 Legion troops in Palestine, of whom 3,500 were in the Jerusalem district. Glubb feared that if the Legion became involved in street fighting in Jerusalem, this would affect its ability to control Judea and Samaria and endanger the prospect of annexing this area to Jordan. In addition, Glubb was not confident that he could defeat the Jews in Jerusalem. On the other hand, he understood the need to create territorial contiguity to safeguard the road from Jericho to Jerusalem and from there to Ramallah and Samaria, thereby ensuring the safe passage of military supplies from Jordan. Glubb still hoped that capture of the Jewish Quarter and control of the entire Old City could be affected by the irregular forces, without the intervention of the Legion.
On May 17, King Abdullah approached Abdullah el-Tel, commander of the battalion remaining in the Jericho area, and ordered him to send a company to the Old City and prepare for an offensive against the Jewish Quarter.
It would appear that Abdullah initially refrained from intervening in the fighting in Jerusalem because he hoped that the irregular Arab forces in the Old City would have no trouble occupying the Jewish Quarter - there were more than 700 well-equipped Arab fighters there as against about 100 ill-equipped Jewish ones. When it became clear, due to a lack of leadership and discipline, that this was not going to happen, King Abdullah decided to dispatch his army to the Old City.
The Legion entered the Old City not to save the Arabs from the Jews, but to help them capture the Jewish Quarter and thus complete the partition of Jerusalem. After Abdullah el-Tel's entry into the Old City, Glubb decided on May 18 to attack Jerusalem from the north, with the aim of occupying Sheikh Jarrah and linking up with el-Tel's forces.
THE BATTLE FOR THE POLICE ACADEMY
Shaltiel requested that the Irgun continue to occupy the Police Academy and Upper Sheikh Jarrah captured in Operation Pitchfork. He guaranteed to supply all the equipment needed, including a unit equipped with a Piat, an anti-tank weapon. Roadblocks were placed on the Jerusalem-Ramallah road, and sappers scattered anti-vehicle mines.
It was no easy transition for Irgun fighters to find themselves in a British army camp, where not long previously they had been brought handcuffed and captive. Their freedom within these camps, more than anything else, symbolized the victory of the Jewish underground over the British. The situation created an atmosphere of euphoria, and the fighters became temporarily lax about security and protocol. Contact with Shaltiel's headquarters was not always maintained, and Raanan, the District Commander, remained unaware that Atarot and Neve Yaakov had been evacuated. Thus the Legion's advance from Ramallah went unchecked.
On the morning of May 19, the Legion launched a heavy bombardment against the Police Academy and Irgun positions at Sheikh Jarrah. After initial shelling, an armored column directed heavy fire at the ill-equipped Irgun positions. (The only anti-tank weapon at the Police Academy had been removed on orders of Shaltiel the previous day). Legion shells hit the furthermost positions in the Police Academy, and successfully prevented the Irgun from detonating the electrical mines. The road blocks did not halt the armored cars, which proceeded along the field instead.
At the beginning of the battle, camp commander Eliyahu Meridor gave orders to evacuate the area of all unarmed personnel, and all the armed fighters were summoned to their posts. Irgun Operations Officer, Gal, was killed by a shell whilst organising the defence of the site. As the armored cars approached the positions at Sheikh Jarrah, the defenders, unable to respond to the heavy gunfire directed against them, were forced to retreat first to the Police Academy, and from there to the secondary defensive line at the Pagi buildings, near the Sanhedria quarter in northern Jerusalem.
In the battle for the Police Academy, six fighters were killed and fifteen wounded (including Eliyahu Meridor and Raanan).
While the battle for the Police Academy was raging, I was at the Etz Hayim base in reserve with my unit. At noon we were summoned to the aid of the defenders, but by the time we arrived, the Police Academy was in the hands of the Arab Legion. We helped in the construction of the secondary defence line near the Pagi buildings, and I was appointed District Commander. When the Legion started its advance towards the Pagi buildings, it was halted not far from our positions.
Meanwhile, the Arab Legion armored column continued its way towards Damascus Gate and linked up with the Arab forces fighting inside the Old City.
The Legion armored cars were parked near the British Consulate in East Jerusalem, prompting the British Consul to telephone Haganah headquarters to ask them not to shell the area. When darkness fell, Glubb returned his armored cars to Shuafat and the attack on Jewish Jerusalem was resumed only on the following day.
I spent the night in one of the apartments in the Pagi buildings, which had been turned into the unit headquarters. Most of the residents had fled their homes, but the few who remained helped by cooking for us and bringing mattresses for us to sleep on. To our great delight, one of the residents had a cowshed, and since he could no longer sell his dairy in Jerusalem, he happily distributed it amongst the fighters, who had not drunk fresh milk in months. Thus, while water was strictly rationed, milk flowed freely...
The night passed quietly, enabling us to recover from the defeat of the previous day and to rally our forces. Morning began with a heavy bombardment, accompanied by automatic weapon fire. While we were trying to guess the enemy's next move, one of the fighters, Yosef Zelniker, came running into headquarters, and related that a Legion tank had begun to advance towards our positions. I immediately sent word of this by wireless and asked for anti-tank weapons. Against my advice and despite the fact that shells were flying, Zelniker set off for his post. Suddenly we heard a heavy explosion and saw Zelniker lying wounded on the ground. We were stunned. Zuria (Esther Horn), a medic and the only girl at headquarters, ordered the boys to lay him on a bed, but there was nothing we could do to save him.
Meanwhile I had received word of the arrival of one of our armored cars, on which a gun was mounted, and was told that the officer wanted to talk to the person in charge. I went out to meet him and at the sight of the armored car (which had been delivered to the Haganah by a British soldier who had deserted with his vehicle), I thought to myself: at last we have an armored car and can tackle the Legion on equal terms. My joy was short-lived. Moments later the officer told me that he had only three shells left, and wanted to avoid a clash with the enemy. When I asked him why he had come, he replied that he thought his mere presence would raise the morale of the fighters. We breathed a sigh of relief when the Legion tank retreated of its own accord.
In the noon hours of that day, May 20, an armored column advanced from Sheikh Jarrah towards the Mandelbaum Gate. It then tried to enter Shmuel Hanavi Street, but a unit with a Piat fired a shell, which hit the leading armored car. The following shells scored hits on two armored cars and the entire column and the infantry retreated. Thus the Legion's first attempt to penetrate Jewish Jerusalem had ended in defeat.
Glubb describes this battle in his book, and writes that he had no intention of attacking Jewish Jerusalem that day. He claims that the column had lost its way, and instead of moving towards Damascus Gate, it had mistakenly turned into Shmuel Hanavi Street.1 Even if this was true, there can be no doubt that had the column succeeded in breaching the lines, it would have continued its advance into the city.
The Legion's main target that day was Notre Dame monastery, located on a hill overlooking Damascus Gate. The Jewish forces occupying the monastery posed a threat to Legion units in the Damascus Gate area, who were guarding the route from the Old City to Sheikh Jarrah and from there to Ramallah. During the Legion's first attempt to capture Notre Dame, a column of armored cars proceeded towards the monastery under cover of heavy shelling. Behind the armored cars the infantry began its onslaught, but a Molotov cocktail hurled from the second floor of the monastery hit their front car and set it alight, thus halting the entire column. The defenders of the monastery opened fire and the Legion was forced to retreat. Losses included the Legion commander and four armored cars, which were impossible to replace since access to the British army depots was blocked.
The repulsion of the Legion attack in Shmuel Hanavi Street and Notre Dame did much to raise the spirits of the Jewish defenders.
The next day the Legion was active along the northern front. After artillery shelling, the infantry advanced from the Police Academy towards the Pagi buildings. The Legionnaires succeeded in reaching the fence of the Sanhedria cemetery, but were repelled by heavy gunfire. Ben-Zion Rothenstein, an American, was assigned to one of the posts. As a veteran of the US forces in World War Two, he had received a study grant, which he was using to attend the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. When the fighting broke out, all American nationals were advised to leave the country, but Ben-Zion, together with several of his friends (including Moshe Brodetzky and Gershon Kremer) chose to join the Irgun instead and to take part in the defence of Jerusalem.
That day, Ben-Zion was sent from his post to bring information on the enemy's advance to headquarters. While he was making his way back to his post in the cemetery, heavy gunfire was directed at him. Fortunately he was able to take refuge in one of the open graves prepared in advance and was saved, though he later sustained an injury to his arm.
On the day the Legion attacked our positions at Sanhedria, the second onslaught was launched against Notre Dame. This time an infantry company, under cover of artillery and armor, succeeded in penetrating the courtyard of the monastery. There they encountered heavy fire from the defenders and, after suffering heavy losses, once again retreated.
The Legion made several more attempts to capture Notre Dame but, after recurrent failure, finally gave up. On May 24, the front stretching from the Pagi buildings in the north through Shmuel Hanavi Street to Notre Dame, was stabilized. The halting of the Legion at this point prevented it from entering western Jerusalem.
At this juncture the Legion abandoned the idea of frontal attacks on our positions and adopted attrition tactics. They intensified their bombardments of the city, by day and night, and tightened the siege of the city. The Legion troops defended Latrun ferociously, thereby barring the road from the coastal plain to Jerusalem. Our attempts to capture Latrun proved fruitless, and the siege of the city grew increasingly fierce. Instead of taking Jerusalem by storm, the Legion tried to starve the citizens out. They hung on heroically, withstanding not only the heavy bombardments and protracted siege, but hunger and thirst too.
1. Sir John Bagot Glubb, A Soldier With the Arabs, p. 83-110