Secret documents show how Jewish militants tormented UK in 1940s, plotting assassination and other attacks
The call to British military security forces came early in the morning, shortly after 1am, and could not be ignored. The informant’s message was alarming: assassins planned to kill the commander of British forces in Palestine the following morning; evasive action was needed.
The source didn’t know the details of the plan, but warned that General Evelyn Barker would be attacked on the brief journey between his home in Jerusalem and his office at British headquarters. The assailants were militant Jews from the Stern Gang, determined to drive the British from the land in their bid for Jewish sovereignty.
Before dawn broke on November 14, 1946, according to secret documents declassified Wednesday by the National Archives, Barker’s security team was notified of the imminent threat. He changed his route, other special precautions were put in place, and he arrived without incident.
Barker was particularly controversial because of his incendiary comments after Zionist militants bombed Jerusalem’s King David Hotel, used by the British as a political and military base, in July 1946, when Britain was still the administrative power in Palestine under an arrangement worked out in 1920, but was increasingly unable to control events as Jews and Arabs sought control.
The King David Hotel blast killed more than 90 people and infuriated Barker, whose offices were in the hotel.
He reacted by banning British troops from having any social or business dealings with Jews, saying that they would be punished “in a way the race dislikes as much as any, by striking at their pockets and showing our contempt for them.”
The plot against Barker is only one of hundreds of plans described in the newly public files that detail how British officials were tormented by the militants. The official British attitude toward the Jewish underground is summed up on the file’s title page: “Jewish Terrorist Activities in the Middle East.”
British influence was waning and the militants sensed a lack of resolve that could be exploited, said Saul Zadka, author of Blood in Zion: How the Jewish Guerrillas drove the British Out of Palestine.
“They realised getting rid of the British was the key to establishing Jewish sovereignty in Palestine,” he said.
It is clear from the files that the British were rattled by the constant threat of attack and by fears the violence would spread from the Middle East to Europe and, particularly, to Britain itself.
A July 20, 1946, letter from Lieutenant Colonel Maurice Oldfield to military headquarters warns that two people on the “Jewish Terrorist List” seemed to have infiltrated Paris via an Air France flight.
“This indicates a weakness in our controls,” he said, raising concerns that many more people supposedly being watched “may already, unbeknown to us, be scattered throughout Europe.”
There is a specific warning from British intelligence to Belgian authorities about five individuals planning a “mission.” There are also exchanges between British intelligence and the FBI about the activities of “Jewish commandos” in New York City.
The operational challenge facing British security officials in 1946 was in some ways similar to the ones faced today as Europe’s intelligence agencies try to keep Islamic extremists from entering Europe to launch attacks against civilians.
The files contain an official “top secret” request for “special attention security check of all Jews travelling to the UK” because of the security threat posed by the Stern Gang.
The plots described were many and varied, including a failed plan by militants to blow up the British destroyer Chevron off the coast of Haifa. The files indicate that plotters left a bag of primed explosives and detonators on board and were later arrested on land with concealed explosives.
The files also detail successful kidnappings carried out by the gangs.
The state of Israel was proclaimed in 1948; some of the militants went on to become influential figures, including future Israeli prime ministers Menachem Begin, who would sign the landmark Camp David peace accords in 1978, and Yitzhak Shamir.