“I could not stomach the way the Arabs, who should really own this country, are being treated by not only the UN but by the government in Palestine,” a man who went by the name of Frank told a Chicago Tribune journalist in May 1948. Frank had been stationed in British Mandate Palestine as part of the British Army and, having made the decision to desert his post, contacted the Arab underground forces stationed in the country. A little over 12 hours later, Frank had joined Jaysh Al-Inqadh (the Arab Liberation Army or ALA) – a group of volunteers from Iraq, Syria and Egypt led by legendary Great Revolt commander Fawzi Al-Qawuqji.
Frank was not alone in his decision to leave his position in the British Army and join pro-Palestinian forces in the War of 1948. Frank led a motley group of volunteers known as “Frank’s Band”, comprised of a handful of British deserters who were mainly young, unmarried men. The group are known to have participated in the capture of Neve Yaakov – an early Jewish settlement near Beit Hanina, north of Jerusalem – by Arab forces between 14 and 16 May. Once Jewish fighters had withdrawn, “Frank’s Band” took charge of the advance party, neutralising the mines which had been left for the Arab irregulars.
That so much is known about Frank’s Band is unusual. Of the approximately 100 pro-Palestinian volunteers who deserted the British Army and Palestine Police – the British colonial police service which had been stationed in Palestine since the creation of the Mandate in 1920 – not one chose to write his own account of the experience.
“Everything I was finding about pro-Arab deserters during my research was from scraps of information here and there,” British researcher Chris Caden tells MEMO. “The research difficulties in this case were that history was written by the victor,” he explains, adding: “The pro-Jewish deserters [of which there were approximately 17] went on to join the Israeli police and army after the creation of the state and have been celebrated in Israeli and British press.”
“However, the pro-Palestinian deserters were perceived to be on the ‘losing side’; they didn’t achieve what they wanted or receive the rewards they had expected, and so haven’t been as keen to discuss their experiences,” he adds.
This lack of sources was a challenge for Caden, who instead laboured over snippets of information in the British War Office files, old newspaper clippings and modern-day media coverage to piece together the story of British deserters. Yet though Frank appeared in several sources and provided an interesting case study, to say that he was indicative of all British deserters would be inaccurate. “Frank was more respectable than most pro-Palestinian deserters and was motivated a great deal by politics and his belief in the Arab cause – he felt he couldn’t stand by while Palestinians were being dispossessed of their land,” Caden explains. “However, I can’t speak as highly of many of the other deserters’ motivations.”
“Generally the deserters were motivated by their experiences of being stationed in a conflict zone in the wake of the Second World War,” Caden tells MEMO: “I think they went to Palestine believing they were peacekeepers and they were a neutral party, but the situation they found themselves in on the ground couldn’t have been further from this expectation.”
For this was a period of unrest in Mandate Palestine, with tensions between Palestinian Arab and Jewish communities often spilling over into violence. Furthermore, the Jewish insurgency against British forces – led by Jewish paramilitaries in a bid to end British rule in Palestine – reached heights not seen since 1939, when the Second World War broke out.
“During the insurgency, British soldiers were restrained by the British authorities, who were desperately trying to keep a lid on the situation,” Caden says. “These tensions in the barracks were sometimes violently released. Soldiers saw their best friends shot and killed and this caused them to lash out, taking action against local communities, going in to town centres and opening fire randomly.”
When British forces formally withdrew in early 1948, some of these servicemen opted to stay behind, deserting their posts and “taking matters into their own hands” – “desertion gave these men a chance to retaliate in a way that was not possible within the structure of the British army or police,” Caden suggests.
Yet in this highly-charged political atmosphere – and with modern day politics and competing national narratives continuing to cloud analyses of the past – it is easy to forget that these deserters were often normal people, far from home and in a strange but exciting land. “Personal motivations were a huge factor that we can’t underestimate,” Caden explains:
[quote] “Some deserters were being offered significant financial sums, largely because the Arab irregular units were undertrained and looking for British expertise. Some servicemen stayed because they had met local girlfriends, some had been promised passports and a rich life in a victorious Arab land.”
This mixture of “push and pull” factors – an absence of employment opportunities, marital prospects or adventure at home, combined with the lure of money, romance and “the unknown” if one stayed – was what ultimately united all hundred or so British deserters to the War of 1948. In opting to desert and join the pro-Palestinian irregular forces – or indeed Jewish paramilitaries and the early manifestations of the Israeli army – these British servicemen joined Libyan, Algerian, Iraqi and diaspora Jewish volunteers who felt compelled, for ideological or personal reasons, to act.
“What this shows us is that this is a conflict which galvanised people, even at this early stage,” Caden concludes. “This is clearly true of the conflict today. The Israeli Army still attracts recruits from the Jewish diaspora and it is mainly Israel’s strong security mechanisms which deter international fighters from fighting in Palestine in greater numbers. The conflict has a real pull, and the passions it evokes internationally are as evident today as they were for the 1948 deserters.”
Chris Caden is an independent British researcher who has worked with the “Parallel Histories” project. His full article “British Army and Palestine Police Deserters and the Arab–Israeli War of 1948” – co-authored by Nir Arielli – is available here.