They came back in their American M3 armoured half-tracks, waving captured enemy flags. Centurion and upgraded Sherman tanks on civilian heavy equipment carriers that wore the scratches and dents of hard use clogged the roads that were festooned with signs proclaiming in Hebrew, “Thank God for our army.” It was a feeling that resonated throughout Israel and the worldwide Jewish community. A second Holocaust had been averted by the courage and audacity of Israeli arms. Now peace would come. It was a time of euphoria.
Three days after the war, I rode in a captured Egyptian truck that was Russian-made and not long off the assembly line. Riding in the open back, I was soon covered with the brown dust of the Sinai Desert. When I took off my goggles, the dust outlining their shape on my face made me look like a raccoon. Our destination was Nakhle, a nondescript village of little consequence, except that it possessed an airfield and was at the end of a paved road that ran to the Mitla Pass. Here, Israeli armoured brigades and air power had mauled the Egyptians. The carnage from air, tank and artillery fire led the Israelis to call it “Death Valley.”
I was one of the thousands of volunteers who had poured into Israel at its moment of crisis. As a very secular, liberal Jew who grew up during the Second World War, I was overcome with emotion by the events taking place in the Middle East. Israel suddenly became desperately important, a place I had to go to and a country I had to stand beside.
As I considered the array of enemies on its borders and the disproportionate amount of men and firepower in their arsenals, I felt compelled to act, so that this would not turn out to be the final Holocaust. So as the tensions mounted, I took leave of my job in London, England, where I, a Canadian, had been living. As a one-time heavy equipment operator, construction grade foreman and a soldier, I had some skills to bring to the table. So it was that I informed my army emergency reserve unit in the U.K. that I was going to Israel. The commanding brigadier informed me that if I took up arms for Israel, I would naturally have to resign my British commission. “Of course,” he added, “we would never get the letter in time, so, good luck. God speed.”
It’s now 50 years later. Time and the encroachment of age have dimmed my memory. My recollections of those events now exist in snapshots, many of which are unconnected.
There were 30 of us, the majority South African, with the others of various nationalities, including five women. The names of my crew, with a few exceptions, are lost to me. Those few who I do remember are Malka, a Dutch journalist, Andrew, an Englishman, Gideon, an Israel Defence Forces (IDF) conscript, and Yitzhak, our Israeli commanding officer, with whom I maintained a friendship until he died of cancer a few years ago. Malka and I had a brief and intense affair, and then we parted – I returned home to Canada and she went back to Holland. We exchanged a few letters. Then silence. But she still lives in the recesses of my memory.
Our job was to scour the battlefields and salvage what we could of the vast amount of equipment that had been abandoned by the Egyptian army. Strewn across the dried out wadis that crisscrossed the landscape were the rotting bodies of fallen Egyptian soldiers in shot-up trucks and tanks. They were the residue of a broken army caught by the gunfire of Israeli tanks in the battles across central Sinai, or hit by Israeli fighter-bombers as they tried to escape through the Mitla and Gidi passes to Egypt proper.
Our base was a former Egyptian barracks at Bir Gifgafa. I recall that it had an outdoor shower, a series of bunkers and an airfield with cratered runways. Nearby was a series of underground concrete water cisterns. I remember an Israeli soldier attached to our motley band running into camp yelling joyfully that he had found “underground swimming pools” and that we should have a swim. Curious and a bit dubious, we followed him and there were indeed two large sunken water-holding tanks, not quite swimming pools, but still big enough to splash around in. What I do remember from this was the extensive infrastructure that the Egyptians had constructed in the Sinai (even though the population was sparse and largely nomadic) – blacktopped roads, water pipelines, barracks, repair garages, airfields. It was enough to support and sustain an extensive military presence. It did not take long for the Israeli military to use the captured facilities to help sustain its troops in the Sinai.
Never mentioned in the regimental histories or battle reports was the propensity (and necessity) for troops to use the desert as a massive outdoor latrine. We quickly took notice that the area behind our barracks was strewn with the drying excrement from the thousands of troops who had fought over this piece of ground. War, if nothing else, exposes one to basic realities and needs.
We roamed over hundreds of square miles of the Sinai, coming upon abandoned equipment in wadis, tucked away behind hills and concealed by the dry ridges and mountains. Our haul of equipment grew with each passing day. I quickly learned to carry a ball-peen hammer to whack and release the steering levers on the Russian tanks. None of the Russian tanks were a match for the Israeli-upgraded British Centurions, or even the American-built Super Shermans with new British guns, but I did appreciate the simplicity of the equipment and how easy it was to maintain.
The Russians had an interesting attachment fixed on their large transport trucks: a self-inflating mechanism for the tires. I appreciated this when driving one of these vehicles at racing speed across the desert. My front right wheel was punctured and the fact that I am alive today is a testament to the effectiveness of this self-inflating system. The tire remained operational for the next 150 kilometres.
What was surprising was the pristine condition of some of the Russian equipment. Some vehicles had only a few hundred kilometres on the odometer. Many did not even have desert air filters. We found weapons still in packing grease. One surprise was a small convoy of trucks that contained equipment for what seemed to be chemical warfare.
More mundane were the peanut brittle candy bars that we kept finding in Egyptian army vehicles. They became a welcome addition to our diets. And I still have some of the British army maps of the Sinai dated from the 1940s and printed on what seemed to be cheesecloth that I found lying around. Once, while trying to start up a Russian T-54, the engine compartment burst into flames. I managed to get out, but not before thinking it would be a somewhat messy way to die.
* * *
We carried out our mission within the raw beauty of the Sinai, with its hues of pastel colours that demand a painter’s attention, colours that changed as the sun rose and then moved across the peninsula. The mountains rose out of the flat desert, sharp and raw, etched by sun, rain and wind, and indifferent to the recent carnage. The desert itself was punctuated by the green splash of an occasional oasis. It was a land of contrasts that I came to love – an emotion that has not been lessened by the passage of time.
We visited what may be the world’s oldest monastery – St. Catherine at Mount Sinai – a repository not only of faith, but also the skeletal remains of monks past. The present-day monks apparently had gone about their prayers as the military campaign in the Sinai raged on. At the end, soldiers planted the Israeli flag atop Mount Sinai, laying claim to the new Jewish empire with a magnificent view of the vast, and nearly empty, desert below.
While some of us could appreciate the beauty of this land back in 1967, none of us envisioned it as a tourist area where thousands of Egyptians would come, not to wage war, but to work and vacation. Little did we imagine that our former enemies, or their offspring, would be exchanging money for food, drinks and scuba classes, rather than exchanging gunfire with Israelis.
Looking back, I am surprised that none of us got dehydrated. Perhaps it was the litres of tea we drank from huge “hay boxes,” to use a British army term. We lived on an assortment of Israeli rations known as Marot Krav (battle food), which came in American-made cartons and was designed to feed the five-man crew of a Sherman tank. The major item was something called Loof, a mixture of chicken and/or beef in some glutinous sauce that looked like cat food for non-discriminating felines, but could be fried, boiled or grilled (like Spam).
There was also a turkey and noodles combination, along with the usual array of juice powder, sweet corn, halvah, fruit and hard candy. We seemed to have an abundance of eggs and packaged chicken, all of which came on an irregular schedule from the nearby army base at El Arish. That the five women who manned the kitchen managed to produce eatable meals out of these rations was itself a miracle.
* * *
From the distance of time, I realize that the army took a dangerously casual approach to our task. We were dispatched into the desert without maps, without reserves of water and fuel (we should have known better), and without a way of communicating with our base. I am amazed that none of us were killed in action, or that none of us perished along some unmarked camel route when a truck broke down – which actually happened to us. Our options at the time were limited: we could attempt to walk back in the desert heat with limited canteens of water; or we could wait and hope that an Egyptian raiding unit did not materialize, while offering up a prayer that someone at the base would notice our absence and send out a search party that would find us while we were still alive.
The question was whether they knew where we were. I told the two South Africans to sit back-to-back under the shade of the truck, try not to expend any energy and wait. And that’s exactly what we did. As the hours passed, my concern grew. Soon night would descend and the heat of day would turn into a chilling cold. We did not have the proper clothing to cope with such an eventuality. But at that moment, I saw a cloud of dust that signalled a truck driving up the track. Ours, I assumed, rightly. Fortunately, it was one of the vehicles that I had insisted should carry a tow cable, so it was simple to hook up and get back to base. I discovered that it was by pure luck that one of the Israelis decided to follow the track we had taken. He had no answer when I asked why he had done so.
* * *
The presence of the women seemed to have a civilizing effect on the rest of us. As was typical in the IDF at that time, the women were confined to making food and never went out with the salvage crews. Nevertheless, their very presence made a difference. This was good, considering that my crew was armed to the proverbial teeth – discarded Egyptian manufactured Carl Gustav submachine-guns and Kalashnikov AK-47 rifles being the weapons of choice.
I recall that IDF soldiers quickly heaved their Belgium-designed FN rifles into trucks and took up the captured AK-47s, a testimony to the efficacy of the weapon. The only Israeli personal weapon that made the cut was the Uzi submachine-gun. The Israel military establishment was so impressed with the AK-47 that they developed their own version, the Galil.
On one occasion, we happened upon a junkyard of Egyptian weapons and ammunition. “Junkyard” really does not
describe it. There were perfectly functioning 7.62- and 12.5-millimetre Russian light and heavy machine-guns, and mortars galore to gladden the heart of any infantry soldier. There were British 36M grenades and wheeled APCs (armoured personnel carriers) that were apparently built by East Germany and were the only vehicles that had instruction books written in Arabic (as opposed to English or Russian). There was even an antique Maxim water-cooled machine-gun, circa 1910.
* * *
It was my constant worry that my sometimes armed and primed crew would, by accident rather than by design, kill each other. In fact, they came damn close one misty morning when in one of those, “Wow ain’t it great to be here” moments, some of them began firing rounds into what they thought was empty desert. In fact, some of our group were out there and fired into the air from behind a pile of sand, which alerted us to their presence. We yelled and heard South African accents speaking back at us. This exposed the fact that the real number of people in the group who had previous military training was a lot less than originally claimed.
Perhaps I am being a bit harsh. Some of them had done national service in their native South Africa, and at least two had served with the IDF, as many South Africans of that generation did. For them, it was a rite of passage to volunteer for the Israeli army before entering university or the workforce. But why did they come in 1967? The usual answer was “to prevent another Holocaust,” but there were other reasons that were not easily articulated – the sense of adventure, proving one’s manhood – but more subtle was the desire to demonstrate to the Israelis that Diaspora Jews were as good, as tough and as courageous as they were. Now 50 years later, I ask myself if I would go to war with these men today, and my answer is a resounding “yes.”
* * *
We had been in the Sinai for a month and it was time for a break, so a tour of the region was arranged.
Although we were to be on the road for several days, little time was spent planning or preparing for the trip. In typical fashion, trusting more to luck and improvisation than good sense, we loaded the trucks with water and food, and little else. For me, this was the epitome of negligence. Perhaps it was my British and Canadian army training, but I recall often spending much time and energy making sure we had tow cables, extra rations, stretchers to sleep on, first aid kits and extra fuel. For some reason, this usual action orientation on my part became a minor legend, one that I heard about on the several occasions when I went back to Israel years later. “You’re the mad Canadian who organized the tour,” they would laugh, “the guy who needed the tow cables.” Yes, indeed. And we bloody well used them.
The tour of the Sinai started as a dash to Sharm El Sheikh (which had fallen to an Israeli task force led by Colonel Aharon Davidi without a shot being fired), northward to El Tur on the southwest coast and then up the road that skirts the Gulf of Suez, and continued to the Suez Canal and the battered city of Ismalia. As I looked with some wonderment upon the long canal that was dug out of sand, I realized the irony that it existed as a monument to a British-Jewish prime minister (Benjamin Disraeli), a Jewish banker (Nathan Rothschild) and a French engineer (Ferdinand de Lesseps). But in 1967, it was a shambles of sunken ships and seeping sand. And Egypt was in no hurry after its defeat to clear the waterway and reopen it for shipping.
At some distant place on our travels, we happened upon a group of Bedouin traveling along a desert road – more a proverbial camel track than a road. We had been told to offer any Bedouin we met fuel, food, clothing – anything except weapons. One of the few pictures I have of my time in the Sinai is of that meeting. To my left is an Israeli soldier, replete with a French army hat (circa the Algerian war and then sold to Israel along with paratrooper combat uniforms), and in the background are a few Bedouin. A camel stands patiently waiting to move on. What it did not capture was the leader of the clan, a short, rotund man in full Bedouin regalia. I noticed him talking to our Israeli officer, Yitzhak, in Hebrew, which I found unusual. But the surprise came when he came up to me and, in perfect English, asked where I was from. “Canada,” I replied. “Ah,” he said, as if conjuring up a lost image. We began to talk and I found out that he was a Jew who was born during the last stages of the Ottoman Empire. He came to Palestine after living some years in both Syria and Egypt.
Fluent in Arabic, Turkish, Hebrew, French, German and English, he was recruited by the Mossad to penetrate the Bedouin community, which by unwritten agreement roamed freely across armed borders. For the Israelis to have an agent embedded in one of the tribes was potentially an intelligence bonanza. Whether he was speaking the truth, I will never know. Shortly after our conversation, he and his clan moved off into the trackless desert and disappeared from view. I have often thought about our chance meeting and wonder what might have happened to him. Is he alive? Did he survive the 1973 war? What was his fate?
* * *
Jerusalem of Gold, like other songs of other wars, started out as something else. Composed by Naomi Shemer, it began as a poem before the ’67 war to commemorate the significance of Jerusalem. Later it was put to music and came second in a contest to select a song for Israel’s Independence Day. During the military mobilization, the troops, then gathered at assembly points, took it up as their song. Its haunting melody and intense words seemed to symbolize the ancient longing summarized in the Passover Seder’s send-off: “Next year in Jerusalem.” No other song made such an impact during the days before and after the conflict. It should go down as a song by which men died and bled and take its place with Dixie, The Battle Hymn of the Republic and The Marseillaise.
I was in a crowded nightclub in Haifa one evening. The smoky place was an advertisement for pollution control, with everyone talking loudly, as they do in Israel. Most men were in uniform. Then the chanteuse came on stage and sang a few songs. At the end, this beautiful raven-haired woman asked the audience what they would like her to sing. As one, they shouted “Jerusalem of Gold.” So she sang it and the audience started to cry, sing and laugh. It was very emotional – Jerusalem was finally ours.
* * *
How does one summarize the experience, the sense of Jews as warriors, the overwhelming victory and salvation? I, for one, cannot really convey what it was like at that moment in history – the
relief of survival, the astonishment of the victory, then the days of euphoria, when Israeli Jew and local Arabs met with cautious curiosity, each with his own agenda.
My own sense of relief was tempered by time and a picture. It was near El Themed, and the ground was strewn with decaying Egyptian corpses. For whatever reason, I decided I had to walk around this now silent killing field.
It was there that I noticed a battle pack beside a body. The insignia on it indicated that he had been an officer. I opened up his battle pouch and inside was a picture and a letter. The picture was of a child, a female toddler. The letter, written in Arabic and later translated for me by an Israeli friend, was her father’s farewell, expressing his love for his daughter and his fear that he would not live to see her grow up. Now with his body disintegrating under the relentless heat of the desert, his family would never know how or where he died. I still feel sadness over the death of this unknown Egyptian army officer, a sadness I cannot really explain or discard.
* * *
Looking back through the lens of time provides a sharper image of my tenure in the Sinai. By necessity, we were operating in areas strewn with the bodies of Egyptian dead, rapidly rotting and disappearing under the shifting sand. Yet we soon became immune to the reality of a battlefield where thousands had died. Once we came upon a huge Egyptian tanker truck that was well worth adding to our growing inventory of seized Egyptian material. But to drive the vehicle, we needed to get the driver out. That was difficult, as the doors on the cab were jammed shut. The solution: I shot out the window hinges and we dragged the body over the hood, leaving his remains at the side of the road. It is only now, a half-century later, that with some remorse, I recall that moment.
On occasion, we would meet up with Israeli military personnel and civilians. It seemed they were bearing witness to the Sinai Campaign and that it had indeed been a great victory. This meant taking countless photographs of the aftermath of the war and the geography of the battles that were fought, with a particular emphasis on the dead Egyptians.
At the time, there was a glimmer of hope on the Israeli side that the victory would lead to some form of rapprochement, a deal or even a lasting peace. But instead, there was more conflict and violence. The “days of euphoria” gave way to the 1967-1970 War of Attrition, with shellings, air strikes and commando raids across the Suez Canal.
On a more immediate and personal level, while for almost three months I lived cheek by jowl with the members of my group, I have no connection with, and little recollection of, most of them. Still, our group did well in terms of finding and collecting a vast array of enemy equipment, most of which was well-utilized by the Israel military.
Looking back, ’67 was a war that possessed an emotional content that was unique. With all the Arab states lined up against them in early June of that year, Israelis envisioned a new Holocaust that would be played out, this time in the Middle East. Even the name of the campaign, the Six Day War, had a biblical connotation. It was Israeli Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin who was given the honour of picking the name. He chose Six Day War in reference to the Bible, as God created the world in six days and on the seventh day, He rested. Some of the other proposed names apparently included “War of Daring” and “War of Salvation.”
Regardless of the name, the war provided material and myth for an endless number of books and articles. But for me, and many others at the time, the cause had a purity of purpose – the survival of Israel. That emotional context remains with me to this day.