Tag Archives: Haganah

The Road to Jerusalem: Latrun

memorial to the members of Gdud 32 of the Alexandroni Brigade, killed in first battle of Latrun, May 26, 1948.
At the memorial to the members of Gdud 32 of the Alexandroni Brigade, killed in first battle of Latrun, May 26, 1948.

Near Latrun, just southwest of where Road 3 crosses Road 1, a small memorial overlooks a wide valley. The valley looks beautiful and peaceful under the warm late winter sun. The farmland in a dozen shades of green stretches to the Judean mountains where the Latrun Trappist Monastery and the old British Tegart fort can be plainly seen. This is the Ayalon Valley, whose long bloody history belies its pastoral sleepiness.

The Ayalon Valley is one of a very few east-west valleys in the region. Because it is wide and flat, in ancient times it linked two major trade routes between Egypt and Mesopotamia. Its flat terrain also made it perfect for war. The Ayalon was where Egyptians fought Canaanites, the sun stood still for Joshua, the Maccabees fought their sixth battle against the Seleucids, the Byzantines fought the Arabs, the Arabs fought the Crusaders, and the British under General Allenby fought the Turks in World War I.

Here is where the nascent State of Israel fought the Jordanian Legion. Whoever held Latrun controlled the Ayalon Valley and the road to Jerusalem. Both sides recognized its crucial geography. The Haganah tried to capture Latrun from the Jordanian Legion, the best trained and equipped army in the Middle East, three times.

The first battle is probably the best known. The myth is that Israel sent untrained immigrants, just off the boat from European DP camps, to Latrun to die. The truth is much more complex.

New immigrants were given rifles, quickly trained, and sent to join the Haganah. But in the plans for battle, they were placed in the rear. In front of them were better trained fighters, men who had been in battle already. In front of those fighters, was G’dud (battalion) 32 of the Alexandroni Brigade, the best trained most experienced fighters of the Haganah. Leading them was the best, most experienced officer, twenty year old Arik Scheinerman. A large force was assembled to capture the poorly manned fort in the middle of the night, May 26.

In war, as in other parts of life, things do not always go according to plan. The intelligence was not current. The Israelis did not know that in the previous few days the Jordanians had reinforced the garrison at Latrun. Instead of a few dozen soldiers, the attackers would face the fire of 2000 better trained better armed soldiers.

The other problem was timing. The Israelis wanted to attack at night because they needed to cross the large flat valley directly in front of the fort. To win, they needed the cover of darkness to surprise the defenders. However, instead of starting at 12 AM, they did not move until 4 AM, just before dawn started to light the valley. They had lost the element of surprise. Not unexpectedly, they lost the battle as well.

Arik Scheinerman, a young soldier in the Haganah's Alexandroni Brigade
Arik Scheinerman as a young soldier in the Haganah’s Alexandroni Brigade (Getty Images)

Arik, the twenty year old commander leading the attack, was severely wounded in the abdomen early in the battle. As he lay there in the sun, he was sure he would die, with soldiers dying all around him, gave the order to retreat. For the only time in his career, he ordered that the wounded be left on the field. But one of his men decided to try to pull him to safety. They had to move slowly and carefully; they were under Jordanian fire, and Arab villagers were on the field killing the wounded and stripping them of anything of value. Numerous times during the next few hours, as the soldier slowly pulled the officer towards safety, Arik told him to go, to save himself. The soldier was as stubborn and brave as Arik was. It took hours, but both men made it to safety behind the Israeli lines.

Arik’s experience under the guns of Latrun reinforced his conviction never to leave wounded or dead soldiers behind. This has been one of the operating principles of the IDF up to today; they do not leave the wounded to die or be captured.

Even dead soldiers are used as bargaining chips by our enemies. Their bodies are held and returned for proper burial only in return for some advantage. In 1986, after Israel released over 1000 convicted terrorists in exchange for the body of a kidnapped soldier, a new protocol was developed. It stipulated that all efforts be made to rescue a kidnapped soldier, even at the risk of endangering his life. Kept secret until 2003, it has come to be known as the “Hannibal Protocol.” Because of events in recent wars against Hamas, the IDF is reconsidering the Hannibal Protocol. Soldiers lives have been lost and many enemy civilians have been killed in IDF efforts to bring home our kidnapped soldiers.

Hamas knows Israel will do all it can to get even dead bodies back.

During a cease fire in the summer of 2014 war, Lt. Hadar Goldin and two other officers were shot by Hamas gunmen in Rafah, Gaza. Hadar was pulled into a tunnel. One of Hadar’s men continued to follow the trail of blood into the tunnel to try to rescue him. When he realized his efforts were futile, he returned to his unit, bringing with him evidence of Hadar’s death. The IDF never announced what that evidence was, but it was enough to satisfy the stringent requirements of the Rabbinate to declare him dead.

Although the Goldin family sat shiva, said Kaddish, and observed the other rituals of mourning, they were not satisfied. Today, over a year and a half after his death, they are still pressuring the government to bring Hadar home for a proper burial. Hamas understands the lengths Israel will go to in order to bring her people home, alive or dead. Israel released over a thousand convicted terrorists to get Gilad Shalit released five years after his capture. Hamas wants a similar payment for Hadar Goldin’s lifeless body.

A few weeks later the Haganah became the Israel Defense Force. Arik Scheinerman became Arik Sharon. Known as a daring, clever, and at times insubordinate officer, he rose through the ranks. He eventually served as Chief of Staff and Prime Minister of Israel.

And Latrun?

Israel attacked it two more times. Both attempts were equally unsuccessful. It remained in Jordanian hands, overlooking the road to Jerusalem.

Nonetheless, the siege of Jerusalem needed to be broken. Where Israeli might did not work, Jewish ingenuity did. In the midst of the war, with little heavy equipment, the Hganah built a new road through the impassable mountains. It was completed two days before the first ceasefire on June 9, 1948. Without this road, Jewish Jerusalem would have been choked off by the Jordanian and Egyptian armies, and forced to surrender.

The new road, ironically called the “Burma Road” after a British road similarly built during a war, under extreme conditions, supplied Jerusalem for the next five months. Then a good road, properly engineered and built opened. But the Burma Road remains. It is a monument to the hard work and sacrifice that went into the founding of the State.

Gdud 32 memorial at Latrun. Column of right lists the names of those killed in the first Battle,May 261948
Gdud 32 memorial at Latrun. Column of right lists the names of those killed in the first Battle,May 261948

As is the memorial across the Ayalon Valley from Latrun. Next to a pale stone arch that frames the valley battlefield is a stone pillar that lists the names of the members of G’dud 32 who died during the first battle of Latrun. Fifty eight names are listed here. Fifty-eight men from one unit—a shockingly high percentage. Over a thousand men were on the battlefield, and only seventy five were killed. G’dud 32 had been the best soldiers of the Haganah, the most experienced in battle, the bravest. The untrained fighters, the new immigrants, fought behind the Alexandroni and the other trained units and suffered relatively few casualties. G’dud 32 had borne the brunt of the battle, and they suffered accordingly.

Latrun would remain in Jordanian hands, overlooking the road to Jerusalem, for the next nineteen years. Yet the siege had been broken. New roads would be built, and Jerusalem would survive.

The Road to Jerusalem: Mishmar David

Mishmar David, national memorial to members of Haganah and IDF Engineering Dorps who gave their lives in service to Israel
Mishmar David, national memorial to members of Haganah and IDF Engineering Corps who gave their lives in service to Israel

Mishmar David is one of those places in Israel that I never knew about until a tour guide took me there. It was once of the key points in the battle for Jerusalem in 1948. Once Eitan Morell told its story, I wondered why I had never heard about it before.

Mishmar means guard, so Mishmar David is David’s Guardian. In this context, it refers to those who guard Jerusalem,the City of David. Atop the hill is the memorial to the Haganah Engineers and their successors, the IDF Engineering

IDF Engineering corps memorial inscription: If I forget you, Jerusalem, let my right hand forget (from Psalm 137)
IDF Engineering corps memorial inscription: If I forget you, Jerusalem, let my right hand forget (from Psalm 137)

Corps, who gave their lives protecting Jerusalem. It’s not too far from Road 1, at the top of one the hills that border the road, and marked by a few small brown directional signs. Basically, if you don’t know it’s there, you probably won’t find it. Yet this spot was critical during the time the British were preparing to leave mandatory Palestine and to the new nation of Israel.

The Arab siege of Jerusalem started months before the proclamation of the State. At the time Jerusalem was just a small city. It could have been classified as a Jewish outpost since it was surrounded by Arab towns. Those Arab towns not only surrounded the city, they also surrounded the road to it. Strategically, Jerusalem was worth little. It was distant from the population centers, surrounded by the Mountains of Judea, far from a good source of water. It had no decent airport nearby and didn’t even overlook any major road.

But psychologically, emotionally, it was worth everything. As the direction of Jewish prayers for millennia, as the focus of longing for a land of our own, Jerusalem was the heart of the nation. Without Jerusalem, there could be no Jewish nation.

Even the nonreligious David Ben Gurion, leader of the Jewish community, the Yishuv, and first prime minister of Israel, recognized this. Although he was determined to keep the Negev part of the new country, he pulled army units from the south to save Jerusalem.

Saving Jerusalem meant breaking the Arab blockade.

The first attempt to break the blockade was sending convoys carrying food, water, and weapons from Tel Aviv. Armored trucks and jeeps carried the supplies. The word “armored” is used loosely here. The vehicles were covered with thick boards, over which thin sheets of metal were attached. They offered a little protection against bullets. Worse, the “armor” made the vehicles much heavier, which slowed them down on the way up the steep roads through the Mountains of Judea on the way to Jerusalem.

The road wound up to Jerusalem along the valleys, through the mountains. Arab villages were located on almost all the hilltops, which made the slow-moving trucks easy targets. The truck drivers knew that their chance of getting through were not good. In every convoy, at least three, and maybe five or eight, drivers died. Nonetheless, as long as the Haganah was able to send supplies, men and women were willing to drive the vehicles.

On March 30, a large convoy gathered at Hulda to make its way to Jerusalem. Although winter was almost over, it was still the rainy season, and it rained. As the slow trucks passed Mishmar David, one after the other become bogged down in mud. The Arabs on the nearby hilltops saw, and attacked. They then looted what remained. Little of the valuable food or weapons arrived in the city, but the Arabs in the nearby villages were well armed and well fed for weeks.

Convoys continued to travel, Arabs continued to attack, and truck drivers continued to die, but a trickle of food reached the city.

Zipporah Porath, a young American who had come to Jerusalem to study for a year in the fall of 1947, described the convoys in one of her letters home that spring:

           “A convoy…generally sets out from Hulda or the outskirts of Tel Aviv                   with thirty, forty, or fifty trucks laden with hundreds of sacks of flour,             canned food, other staples and fruit—the city’s needs for less than a                   day—accompanied by a couple of armed escorts to “protect” it. Burdened             as they are, the trucks, which can’t travel faster than about ten miles an             hour, are perfect targets for a bloody massacre by the Arab bands that             lay in wait.

          “If the convoy is in luck, maybe fifteen or so of the trucks will make it to            Jerusalem. If they have ben waylaid by roadblocks, most of the trucks                will be knocked out of commission and block the way for the others, so                the whole shebang becomes sitting ducks for the Arab attackers and the            precious cargo is dislodged, scattered and looted. We’ve lost so many of              these armored trucks—along with their drivers and Haganah protectors—            that stocks are now almost nil. “ (Letters from Jerusalem 1947-1948, p.              135-136)

Jerusalem was kept going by the convoys for several weeks. The memorial at Mishmar David includes a map of the area as it was in March and April 1948(see below). The British camps are yellow, Arab villages are red, and the Jewish settlements, including Jerusalem, are blue.

Map of road to Jerusalem in Spring 1948 at Mishmar David, showing Arab (red) & Jewish towns (blue)
Map of the road to Jerusalem in Spring 1948

Looking at the map, I wondered how the city managed to remain in Israeli hands. Jerusalem’s rescue seems like the hand of G-d, working through the hands of the Engineering Corps and soldiers of the IDF. I’ll describe what they did later—it’s too long a story for one installment.

When I came to Israel in 1962, the destroyed trucks and jeeps still sat at the side of the road to Jerusalem. They were the rusted skeletons, left where they had been stopped as memorials to the brave men and women who had saved Jerusalem. Our guide told us that they would not be moved from the roadside where they sat because they were people’s graves. The visible deterioration and the rust that had accumulated in fourteen years contributed to their emotional impact.

The trucks still sit there today. You can see them as you travel Road 1 near Sha’ar Hagai. In the smallest national park in Israel, six old truck skeletons sit in the grassy median between the east bound and west bound lanes.

None of the trucks are exactly where they had been stopped by Arab bullets; they have been moved several times as the road was widened or straightened. Periodically, they are taken to the shop and given a coat of preservative paint, to keep them from rusting away to nothing. The pale green paint is not quite the color of old rust. The solidity and new look of the painted relics lacks the emotional impact of the old rust. Their smoothness covers up the destruction and deterioration beneath. Visitors who don’t know the history of the road probably think they are statues placed artistically along the road towards Sha’ar Hagai, not even identifying the location as the fearsome Bab al Wad. The urge to preserve them is understandable—they are the only physical evidence of the lives sacrificed to save Jerusalem, to keep it part of yet to be born Jewish state.

Nevertheless, I miss the rust.

To get there: