War diary: An eyewitness account of the 1948 battle for Jerusalem (Part I)
Caught between Jewish and Arab forces fighting in Jerusalem’s Old City was a British clergyman, Hugh Jones. Refusing to flee to safety, Jones instead recorded a journal, never published, that offers a unique personal glimpse of the drama and tragedy of Israel’s birth.
by Matti Friedman, The Times of Israel
April 24, 2012
Nurses treat Haganah wounded during the fighting in Jerusalem, May 28, 1948
(Courtesy of the Government Press Office. Photographer: Shershel Frank)
Sixty-four years ago, in the days and weeks around the declaration of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948, Jews and Arabs were battling for control of Jerusalem. The Jewish areas of the city were cut off by Arab ambushes along the road up from the coast. The bitterest fighting raged in the Old City, where Arab and Jewish soldiers battled house to house inside the walls as Jewish forces tried repeatedly — and failed — to break in from outside.
Also in the Old City in the midst of the fighting was a British missionary, Rev. Hugh Jones of Christ Church. Warned by British authorities to “urgently consider the desirability of leaving Jerusalem,” Jones stayed nonetheless and, holed up in the church’s compound near Jaffa Gate with 50 others, observed the violence raging outside, and sometimes inside, the compound’s walls. He wrote a remarkable journal that has, like Jones himself, been forgotten. It was rediscovered two years ago in the archive at Christ Church, and appears here as a unique take on the dramatic and horrific days around Israel’s birth.
Jones’s journal includes descriptions of violence, asides about regular life — notably the reverend’s seemingly unshakable commitment to tennis, which not even a war could dampen — and expressions of the faith that sustained him through the harrowing events that saw the loss of the Old City by Jewish forces and the creation of the state of Israel.
During the 18 years he spent in Jerusalem, Jones navigated a delicate path among Jews and Arabs. During the war, Arabs seemed to suspect Jones and his church of harboring Jewish fighters. Most Jews viewed his church’s century-old mission — converting them to Christianity – with outright hostility. But his staff’s care for the sick, and especially Jones’ move during the fighting to allow Hadassah Hospital to use one of the church’s school buildings free of charge, won him friends among the citizens and officials of the new Jewish state.
Jones died back in England in 1964.
The following is Part I of an edited and abridged version of the clergyman’s journal. (The full text can be read here.) It begins on May 13, 1948, the day before the end of the British Mandate and the creation of the State of Israel, and ends May 25, when postal service to Transjordan was restored and Jones quickly mailed the papers to London.
Read Part II here.
May 13, 1948
British troops were withdrawn from their positions protecting the Jewish Quarter in the Old City in the evening. Haganah forces in the Old City occupied the positions vacated by the army. Intermittent firing and sniping began in the Old City at 7 p.m.
The High Commissioner left Jerusalem in the early morning for Kalandia aerodrome, ten kilometers north of Jerusalem, en route for Haifa. Heavy firing developed in Jerusalem later in the day.
The High Commissioner mentioned here was Sir Alan Cunningham, the most senior British official in Palestine. His departure for the port at Haifa marked the end of the three decades of British rule that had begun with General Edmund Allenby’s entrance into the city in 1917. After he left, Jones wrote that day, “heavy firing developed in Jerusalem.” The war had begun in earnest.
Preoccupied, perhaps, by the bloodshed outside his window, Jones’ diary does not mention that May 14 was also the day David Ben-Gurion declared the state of Israel.
For the first few days the Arabs were very disorganized with no leader and were rushing about in small parties hither and thither, quite uncoordinated. We kept the Compound gate locked with the object of trying to keep the Compound free of armed men of either party, as we knew that once armed men took up their positions in the Compound they would draw fire on us from the opposite side.
However, a party of armed Arabs, finding the gate locked, swarmed over the top and broke into the Hostel, climbing up the outside steps leading to the bedrooms overlooking the Jewish Quarter of the Old City. We protested against this invasion in vain and one of them fired a burst from a tommy-gun from one of the windows. They were extremely nervous of Jews trying to break into Christ Church from the Old City and make for the Citadel, but we eventually persuaded them to leave.
A short time later another armed party headed by an Englishman came in, but these were persuaded to leave without firing.
Fire was also directed at the Jewish Quarter in the Old City from the Moslem Compound adjoining the Hostel. This fire attracted mortars from the Jewish Quarter and one exploded in their Compound, killing a lad of 16 who was later buried in the Compound the same day.
That day, Jones also reported hearing that the German Colony, outside the walls, had fallen to Jewish forces and that “Jewish colonies near Hebron” — the settlements of the Etzion Bloc — had been taken by Jordan’s Arab Legion, a major blow to the Jewish war effort.
During the morning a mortar fell in the Compound at the feet of two people but mercifully failed to explode. In the evening at 10 p.m., some very heavy explosions occurred nearby and Mr. and Mrs. Hadawi and their two children, who were sleeping upstairs in the Parsonage, came down and spent the night with me on the floor in my sitting room.
A very noisy night was brought to an end by the explosion of a mortar in the Compound at 5:30 a.m.
At midnight the Jews launched their most determined attack on the Jaffa Gate. The attack lasted for about three hours, but they were unable to make any headway against withering fire which hundreds of Arab irregulars kept up without a break from the Citadel and Jaffa Gate. The acrid smoke from all this intensive firing was wafted across into the Compound and into my house where the smell was so thick that it was quite unpleasant to have to breathe.
A mortar burst in the playground at 10 a.m. Flying fragments struck the doors leading from the Compound into the playground, snapped one of the broadcasting wires leading to the Church, chipped bits out of the Church wall and blew in a few more windows in the south transept. On discovering jagged pieces of shell in the Compound we decided to sandbag the windows of the Hostel lounge where most of the members of the Compound had taken to passing the night.
Quite a number of people who have been killed in Jerusalem have had to be buried at the nearest convenient spot, since, with incessant and widespread shooting all over the town, it has been impossible to bring the bodies to the appropriate burial places.
Considerable Arab reinforcements of regular troops, including Arab Legion, came into the Old City during the day.
During the day the Jews extended their hold over the whole of Mt. Zion outside the City Wall by occupying Bishop Gobat School and also the buildings outside the Zion Gate, from where they launched their second determined attack upon the Old City. They were reported to have reached the Zion Gate but to have then been thrown back.
A very heavy “missile” exploded in the air and remains of the “drum” (home-made) fell on the Kindergarten roof in the early morning. Bits of the drum were also picked up in the Parsonage garden. A two-pounder was picked up in the morning in the Church garden.
A somewhat quieter day with the Arab Legion gradually edging into the Jewish Quarter in the Old City.
A letter from the British consul warned Jones to leave Jerusalem; he stayed.
(Courtesy of Christ Church)
Went down to the Austrian Hospice near the Damascus Gate, now the main Arab Hospital in Jerusalem, with Messrs. S. and E. Hadawi. Found the Hospital over-crowded with wounded and short of doctors and equipment.
A small party of Syrian troops came into Christ Church in the early morning and wanted to search the premises. They said that they believed that somebody was firing signals from this area. They seemed very suspicious and wanted to station some men on the premises to watch.
We were most anxious not to allow any armed men on the premises and suggested that they should station a couple of unarmed men. They said that they could not do this and as they were very insistent we reluctantly gave way and urged that if they did come they would not fire from the premises. This seemed to allay their suspicions somewhat and they went away saying that they would let us know later what they decided to do, but they never returned.
Later in the morning a Swedish correspondent from St. George’s turned up. He said they were getting a very noisy time in that area and a good deal of firing between Jewish and Arab armoured cars in the vicinity. I gave them a little description of our experiences up to date and showed him an array of various missiles picked up on the premises residing on my mantle-piece. He seemed quite impressed and said, “That is a better collection than the Cathedral has!”
In the afternoon we had another visit from armed men, this time including an Arab Legionary who said that a couple of Jews had been reported to be seen escaping towards Christ Church and he wanted to have a look inside the premises. He seemed very suspicious and entered several rooms but we satisfied his curiosity by showing him round everywhere and finally he departed, apparently satisfied that we were not harboring armed Jews.
Another very noisy night with the Arab Legion continuing mopping-up operations in the Old City. Considerable damage was done to the large Synagogue, the dome of which was practically demolished.
The “large Synagogue” was the Hurva, the most prominent landmark in the Jewish Quarter. Badly damaged in this attack, it would be finished off six days later. The Hurva would be rebuilt and reopened only 62 years later.
According to the Arab broadcast, the Jews sent out a relief column of armored cars etc. from Tel Aviv for Jerusalem, which was attacked and destroyed by the Arab Legion at Bab-el-Wad.
The Jewish settlements of Talpioth, Mikor Haim and Ramat Rachel, lying to the south of Jerusalem, reported to be besieged. A severe shortage of water, fuel, and food reported to be developing in the Jewish area of new Jerusalem.
Arab Legion reported to be trying to smoke out the Haganah who had entered underground channels in the Old City.
A barber came to Christ Church in the afternoon and did a number of haircuts.
The American Consul, a member of the Truce Commission, was severely wounded after leaving the French Consulate where he had held a meeting with other members of the Truce Commission. He was taken, together with another member of the Consulate who was also severely wounded, to our Hospital, which is now being staffed and run by the Hadassah.
The American consul was Thomas C. Wasson. It remains unclear whether he was hit by Jewish or Arab fire.
Israeli troops at Mt. Zion, just outside the Old City walls, 1948.
(Courtesy of the Government Press Office)
The American Consul and his companion both died of their wounds and were buried in a convent next door to the Consulate on Monday by Ronald Adeney. It was not possible for the American Chaplain, Dr. Klein, to get from the Cathedral into the Jewish area to perform the ceremony.
Quite a number of people who have been killed in Jerusalem have had to be buried at the nearest convenient spot, since, with incessant and widespread shooting all over the town, it has been impossible to bring the bodies to the appropriate burial places. Some Christian Arabs, for instance, killed by a mortar near Herod’s gate, were buried in a Moslem cemetery nearby.
Another unsuccessful attempt was made by the Haganah to storm the Jaffa Gate and relieve the Jews in the Old City. A terrific battle was fought between the Haganah and the Arab Legion for the possession of the Notre Dame building which is outside the City wall near the New Gate.
On May 25, Jones visited the Armenian compound, next to Christ Church, which had been badly hit by shelling. Thousands were sheltering inside, around the Armenians’ ancient Cathedral of St. James.
Visited the Armenian Patriarch. Explosions of previous night were shells falling on the Armenian Compound. Two struck the Cathedral, one demolished a small house, wounding the dozen occupants, bringing total casualties to date to 130 including seven dead. Considerable damage has been caused by shells, which have driven the 3,000-4,000 people into underground caves. The condition under which these people are living beggars description. Crowded into stuffy, airless, underground passages; filling the churches to overflowing, short of water, fearing epidemics, their future is black indeed unless a big change in the situation takes place, or unless at least 1,000 or more can be removed to some safer place to relieve the congestion.
That day, Jones heard that postal service from Jerusalem to Amman had been restored, and decided to send his journal out to his mission’s headquarters in London, as “many will be wanting to know what has been happening in Jerusalem during the past 12 days.”
He attached a few comments on the events he had witnessed, noting the “many blessings” experienced by the people at the church. “Although about a dozen mortars burst on the premises, besides several shells and hand-grenades,” he wrote, “no one received a scratch.”