Monday, September 15, 2014

The British Mandate prepares for war

September 1 marked the 75-year anniversary of the German invasion of Poland, the start of the Second World War and the beginning of the Holocaust. The anniversary of this momentous event offers an opportunity to explore the part British-mandated Palestine played in the war.

The Munich agreement (September 29-30, 1938) is regarded today as the apex of appeasement towards Nazi Germany. At the summit in Munich, Adolf Hitler, Italy's Benito Mussolini, Britain's Neville Chamberlain and France's Édouard Daladier decided to hand over the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia to Germany in order to prevent war in Europe. The Munich agreement went down in history as a symbol of cowardice and incompetence against cruel tyranny and of the peaceful delusions of the 30's.
The Munich summit, September 29th 1938 (Wikicommons/Bundesarchiv Bild 183-R69173)
Nevertheless, it seems that the British government (or at least the government of Palestine) saw the Munich crisis as a wake-up call and a sign to prepare for the eventuality of war. Immediately after the Munich crisis, the Jerusalem district commissioner, Edward Keith-Roach, wrote to the Chief Secretary of the Palestine government (the head of the British administration in Palestine) and reported that he had conducted a survey in the stores of his district, and found that they were not adequate and ready for an eventuality of war, in terms of foodstuffs and other essential supplies.
Eduard Keith-Roach (Wikipedia)
The Palestine government responded quickly. The High Commissioner, Harold MacMichael (March 1938 – August 1944) wrote to the Secretary of State for the Colonies regarding the limited stocks of wheat and maize under the supervision of the Palestine government. Due to Palestine's economic stagnation and estimates that a rise in taxes and tariffs would worsen the economic situation, MacMichael asked for financial help from Britain in order to prepare Palestine for an emergency situation. The reason for the declining economic situation was the Arab revolt of 1936-39, which damaged the economy of Palestine, one of the few regions in the world that was least hurt by the economic depression of the 30s.
(Harold MacMichael (Wikipedia

The next stage was forming supervision on supplies in Palestine. John Shaw, senior assistant to the chief secretary (later he became chief secretary and was known for his involvement in the controversy concerning the warning given before the bombing of the King David hotel in July 1946. We wrote about it here) wrote to Jeffrey Walsh, the economic adviser to the Palestine government (later killed in the King David hotel bombing) and asked him to conduct a survey of the situation of the supply of essential foodstuffs. A committee was formed to control supplies to Palestine and the director of Medical Services, Colonel George Heron was appointed as the Controller of Supplies, Walsh was appointed as his deputy. Other members of the committee were Keith-Roach; Frank Mason – Deputy Director of department of Agriculture and Fish; Donald Finlayson – Deputy Director of department of Customs, Excise & Trade; Donald Gumbly - Director of Civil aviation; Michel Abcarius – Senior Assistant Treasurer, the Arab representative in the committee; Bernard Dov Joseph – Head of the Political department of the Jewish agency, was the Jewish representative in the committee and Arthur Rawdon Spinney – as the representative of the merchants and distributers. An army officer was appointed by the General officer commanding in Palestine to liaison with the army.
Geffrey Walsh (Zoltan Kluger/Israel State Archives)
The committee researched the supply problems of different foodstuffs to Palestine and contacted different governments (such as Australia, Burma, Siam and other) in regard of supplying food and other essential supplies, studied the possibilities of supplying fuel of different types (following Joseph's warning to Walsh that supplying fuel must be of the highest priority – transportwise and regarding the operating of agricultural machinery), considered options of rationing of food and other supplies and started to form a special administration for the controlling the supplies. From the different reports it can be seen that the Palestine government was not the only British colonial government (although Palestine was not a colony but a League of Nations mandate) – the Ceylon (Sri Lanka today) and the Malaya (Malaysia and Singapore today) are also mentioned as beginning to store food in preparation for war. 
The Middle East map during WWII (Wikipedia)
The basic premises for the work of the committee are also interesting: the committee agreed that the Mediterranean Sea would be closed to shipping, and so would be the entrance to the Suez Canal from the north. The southern approaches to the Canal would be open as well as sea lanes to India, China and Australia. Overland highways and train lines to Syria, Iraq and Egypt would remain open and not hampered. These were very logical ideas – Italy was seen as a potential enemy (although it is strange that the ability of Italy to block the horn of Africa from her bases in Somalia and Ethiopia and Eritrea was not mentioned). Japan's entry to the war was not envisioned – but Japan itself did not plan to enter the war in 1939, and only her defeat in the Khalkhin Gol in August 1939 caused her to change its strategy and turn to south-east Asia and against the USA. The planners also could not envision the fall of France on June 1940 or the Iraqi revolt in May 1941.

In April 1939, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Malcolm MacDonald, explained in his letter to high commissioner MacMichael (regarding MacMichael's letter from October 1938) that he must expect problems of supply also in the Red sea (not only in the Mediterranean) – probably an indication that there was a threat that Italy would try to block the sea lanes in the horn of Africa. MacDonald also wrote that there was no guarantee that Britain would be able to assist the Palestine government financially and it would have to organize its own purchase of food; Colonial office would try to assist. While preparedness for war was regarded a theoretical but possible in October-November 1938, the annexation of Czechoslovakia (or what remained of it) in March 1939, made war look inevitable.

Another sign of the gathering storm was the forming of a new organization – Air Raid Precautions(ARP). The ARP started initiating preparedness for air raids – installing sirens, preparing bomb shelters and other measures. Here are orders for preparing the Haifa harbor against air raids – a possibility that became a reality a year later when the harbor was attacked by Italian, German and also Vichy-French bombers.
On September 1st 1939, the day Germany invaded Poland, the Posts and Telegraphs department in the Palestine government issued a series of instructions on exporting records, films and restrictions on sending and receiving telegrams and letters to and from places abroad. Although Britain declared war on September 3rd, these instructions were for war time in the knowledge that war had just broken out.

The supply committee later evolved into the War Supply Board. Its director was Sir Douglas Harris, a member of the Palestine government's executive council and a veteran and well respected colonial office officer. The board was responsible on a series of different control offices, responsible for Industry, Food, Medical supplies etc. The Citrus control board was formed to help market one of Palestine's most important exports – the citrus fruit, which was hurt from war. Another interesting office was the controller of Salvage – an office responsible for recycling and repairing broken or derelict equipment of different kind. The War supply board cooperated with similar groups in the British Empire – one in east Africa, India and the "Spears mission" a supply group attached to the Free French government in Syria and Lebanon after they were conquered form Vichy France in May 1941 (named after General Edward Spears, the British laision officer with the Free French government in Syria and Lebanon). The War supply Board also cooperated with Middle East Supply Center (MESC) – the main Allied supply center outside Europe, situated in Cairo.

The Israel State archives hold a large collection of documents concerning the War Supply Board and its different bodies in Record Group 18 – The Emergency Economic Control. RG 18 gives us a fascinating look inside the economic activity in British mandated Palestine and its neighboring countries during WWII.   

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