Tuesday, August 6, 2013

King David Hotel bombing - 67 years later, still a controversial issue

67 years ago, on July 22, 1946, the Irgun blew up the luxurious King David Hotel in Jerusalem. Housed at the Hotel was the Chief Secretariat of the British Mandate government (essentially, its prime minister).
The King David Hotel after the bombing (Wikipedia)
The bombing was part of the operations of the "Jewish Resistance Movement" – the alliance of the paramilitary organizations Haganah, Irgun (National Military Organization) and Lehi (Fighters for the Freedom of Israel) in the British Mandate of Palestine. The movement was established in October 1945 by the Jewish Agency, and existed between the years 1945 and 1946, coordinating attacks against the British authority. The King David bombing cost the lives of 91 people (British, Jews, Arabs and other nationalities) and was the cause of the breakup of the Jewish Resistance movement.

There is a long-simmering controversy over whether warning was given to the British before the bombing. The British always denied that such warning was provided--especially Sir John Shaw, the Chief Secretary, who was blamed for ignoring the warning--while the Irgun, and especially Irgun member Adina Hai-Nisan, insisted that it was. Hai-Nisan claimed she called the hotel switchboard 30 minutes before the explosion. During the early 80's, Israeli television produced the much acclaimed documentary "The Pillar of Fire" cataloging the history of Zionism and the establishment of the state of Israel. In chapter 16, Adina Nissan told her story opposite Sir John Shaw (12:30-17:30, Hebrew, no subtitles).

Here are some relatively unknown facts about the King David Hotel Bombing:

1) In 2011, Dr. Eldad Harouvi published his doctorate thesis in a book called Palestine Investigated: The Story of the Palestine CID, 1920-1948 (Hebrew only).

Haruvi, the director of the Palmach House Archive, studied the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) documents in the Hagana Archive in Tel Aviv as part of his doctoral thesis. This collection is actually a copy of the original CID archive, which was transferred to Egypt in May 1948. The Hagana's intelligence service, known as the SHAI (Information Service in Hebrew acronym) managed to photocopy it several days before it was shipped out of Israel. The copy was kept by the ISA (Israel's Security Agency, known by the Hebrew acronym SHABAK) until 1991, when it was transferred to the Hagana archive.

In his book, Harouvi reveals some interesting facts: First, the CID had intelligence showing the Hotel as a possible target for attack by the Irgun in December 1945 – 6 months prior to the attack. The CID asked to raise security in the hotel, including putting armed soldiers at the 'Regence' restaurant at the entrance of the hotel. The Chief Secretary refused to consider these suggestions, with the justification that there were not many places for recreation and fun in Palestine, and he did not want to foreclose another. He continued to refuse to take action (or even to pass on the information to the High Commissioner of Palestine) when the CID approached him again with newer information on the attack plan (the CID had the plan of attack, but did not know exactly when it would be carried out).

Second, another fact that is not common knowledge is that the Irgun carried out a diversion bombing minutes after the bombs were planted in the King David Hotel, in which a wagon with explosives was blown outside shops next to the hotel. The CID's assessment was that this second bombing (which broke windows, but did not hurt anyone) was intended to cause panic and encourage evacuation of the building. One of the CID officers Harouvi interviewed for his book flatly blames Shaw for the death of so many, since he could have evacuated the building on time (pages 293-297).

2) One of the people killed in the bombing was Jeffrey Walsh, the Economic Adviser of the British government in Palestine. Walsh, one of the most senior officials killed, left a large number of files and documents that were scanned and may be viewed on the Israel State Archives web site. The record contains material on different aspects of the economy in British Mandate Palestine during the Second World War. Walsh was also Controller of Food, a wartime assignment. In 1940, the British Palestine government formed the War Supply Board--a civilian command and control body for handling economic and supply problems during the War. The British believed that they would be unable to regularly supply the Middle East (that is – their colonies and lands under their rule) during wartime, and formed different control bodies for non-military supply. The headquarters for these bodies were based in Cairo. East Africa, Palestine and Trans-Jordan, and the Indian Subcontinent all had boards dealing with food, medical supply, industry (light & heavy), etc. Walsh, who headed these efforts in Mandatory Palestine, was buried in the Mt. Zion graveyard together with the other British individuals killed in the blast.
Jeffrey Walsh, Economic Adviser and Food Controller
One of the files of the Food Controller contains a study on Palestine's food problems. It is entitled Tantalus, probably after the mythological figure denied food and drink by the gods. Inside this dry, bureaucratic document, someone decided to lighten up and integrate cartoons with quotations from the study. One of them shows a lion and an African warrior, and is perhaps meant to be a little joke on Walsh – a former official in the Tanganyika colonial government. Here are two other cartoons – one connected to the War and another one showing the American Wild West.

3. Another British casualty of the bombing was Brigadier Peter Lockwood Smith-Dorrien, head of the Commerce and Industry Department. While his name does not ring a bell these days, it was very familiar in Britain, as he was the son of Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien, one of the more controversial British generals during the First World War. General Smith-Dorrien had a long and colorful career in the British Army, including being one of the 50 British survivors of the Battle of Isandlwana--where the Zulus repelled a British invasion into their lands (Monty Python used it as the basis for one of their skits in the Meaning of Life)--and the war in Sudan at the end of the 19th century and in the Boer War (1899-1902). Peter Smith-Dorrien commanded a regiment during the failed British mission in Greece in 1941, and managed to evade capture by escaping to Crete on a boat with British and New Zealand soldiers, as described here. His elder brother was killed in Italy in 1944. All of the Smith-Dorriens served in the "Sherwood Foresters" regiment, named after Robin Hood and his merry men.

4. The bombing caused great damage to the Mandate government's archive, especially the Chief Secretariat's archive (the British didn't have a central archive, only departmental archives). Here is a cover of a file with a comment on it: "Original lost on 22.7.46." The British tried to reconstruct the files lost or recovered from the debris (some, I believe, still contain dust from the destruction of the building!).The bombing of the King David Hotel is one of the reasons for the absence of many British files from the Israel State Archives collections. The other reasons include planned destruction by the British before leaving Palestine in May 1948; partial destruction during the bombing campaign by Jewish underground movements (especially immigration files); partial destruction during Israel's War of Independence; and some ruin due to neglect. (We believe that the Egyptians may hold part of the Gaza district files, while the Jordanians hold files from the Samaria & Jerusalem districts, as well as other files from different departments.) In one file that did survive, we can find the Jerusalem sub-district coroner's summary on the cause of death of those killed in the King David Hotel bombing.

1 comment:

  1. A couple of tears ago, the British "discovered" thousands of files from their former colonies. Their newly discovered files confirm the British received telephone warnings, three actually. One to the Palestine Post, one to the French consulate and one to the hotel.

    Unfortunately, the Sunday Times archives are behind a paywall but the article was from May 8, 2011 I believe.