East of the road which links Bethlehem to Jerusalem, a hill of obvious strategic importance commands a panoramic view southwards over the city and beyond. Kibbutz Ramat Rachel, located atop this hill, has a bird's eye view of the Bethlehem - Jerusalem road and had the potential to prevent the free movement of military forces and supplies along this route. To attack Jerusalem from the south, the Arabs would first have to occupy Ramat Rachel.
The kibbutz was founded in 1926. Destroyed by Arabs in the riots of 1929, it was rehabilitated shortly afterwards. At the beginning of the War of Independence in 1948, the kibbutz was cut off from the city, and only after the British had left Jerusalem were links with Ramat Rachel re-established during Operation Pitchfork.
The kibbutz was located on a remote, windswept hilltop, surrounded on three sides by enemy forces and linked by a narrow strip to the Jewish Arnona and Talpiot quarters. To its south was the town of Bethlehem, to its east the Arab village of Zur Baher and to the west the Mar Elias monastery, the forward position of the Egyptian army.
After the British departure, an Egptian column moved up from the Suez Canal northward to the Arab town of Ashdod. A branch of the column, under the command of Abd el Aziz, turned towards Beer-Sheva, and continued from there to Hebron, halting at Bethlehem. At that time, a unit of the Arab Legion, which had guarded the British withdrawal from Jerusalem, was stationed in the area, awaiting orders to return to its base in Jordan. In addition to the Egyptian and Legion units, there were irregular Palestinian forces in the area, which had been trained and armed by Arab Legion officers. The Arab forces in the Hebron-Bethlehem region were equipped not only with individual weapons, but also with heavy weapons including 3" mortars, guns, armored cars and even a few tanks.
The Jordanian unit, of company strength, was attached to brigade headquarters, which had been transferred to Ramallah. According to the testimony of Abdullah el-Tel, the brigade HQ ordered the company, then in the Hebron area, not to take part in any military operation with the Egyptian forces. Despite this ban, the Legion forces collaborated with the Egyptians and placed themselves under the command of Abd el Aziz, who had been appointed commander of the entire Arab force in the area south of Jerusalem. Aziz, without co-ordinating with headquarters in Ramallah, decided to attack Jerusalem from the south, with the two-fold purpose of taking the city from the Jews and preventing Abdullah from proclaiming himself king of Jerusalem. The Egyptians, it should be understood, were opposed to Abdullah's occupying the area earmarked for an Arab state, and hastened to occupy Hebron and Bethlehem before the Legion could do so.
On May 21, Ramat Rachel came under heavy bombardment. Many of the kibbutz buildings were hit and a number of cattle killed. It was the first shelling and the many direct hits greatly shook the 80 defenders.
The attackers doubled their effort the following day, forcing the defenders to flee to Talpiot. The Arabs, mostly villagers from nearby Zur Baher and unarmed, immediately started looting the kibbutz. They removed everything they could carry, concentrating particularly on livestock (cows and poultry) and foodstuffs.
Towards evening, two Haganah platoons arrived at Talpiot and immediately set out to liberate Ramat Rachel. They stormed the kibbutz, put the Arabs to flight, and conquered the site without a battle. The kibbutz members returned to guard their home and the Haganah force went back to its base.
The next day, May 23, the story was repeated. After heavy bombardment and automatic weapon fire, the kibbutzniks again retreated. The Arabs entered the kibbutz and continued their looting. In the evening, reinforcements arrived, stormed the area and recaptured it. Ramat Rachel was liberated again.
While the kibbutz was passing from hand to hand, my unit at the Etz Hayim base was recuperating from prolonged fighting. When reinforcements reached Talpiot and prepared for a renewed onslaught on Ramat Rachel, I was informed that a wide-scale military operation was planned for that night in the south, with the participation of six platoons (two ofthe Irgun). I was ordered to bring my unit to the departure base in the Talbieh quarter and to await further instructions.
When we arrived at the base, we discovered that the assembly-point was a building, which under the Mandate had housed a military tribunal, where some of our members had been given long prison sentences. The poignant irony of the situation symbolized for me the triumph of the underground over the British rulers of Palestine and the liberation of Jerusalem from the foreign yoke.
We waited in the military court room until I was finally informed that the operation had been cancelled, and that we were to defend Ramat Rachel instead. This decision greatly disappointed the fighters, who had been eager to take part in a military offensive and to breach the Egyptian enemy lines. We clambered aboard the two large Leyland trucks and drove to Talpiot. At southern HQ I was briefed on the situation, and at midnight we moved off on foot towards Ramat Rachel. It was a clear, starry night of such pastoral tranquility that it was difficult for me to imagine that a fierce and bloody war was raging. On reaching the kibbutz, I was briefed by the commander of the liberating unit and the reinforcements made their way back to base.
As we entered Ramat Rachel, a scene of unmitigated horror greeted us. Dozens of Arab corpses, some still grasping dead chickens, were sprawled on the ground. The stench of the rotting flesh of dead cows and chickens was overpowering. I could understand why the Haganah fighters had been impatient for our arrival.
The fighters were assigned to various posts, while the officers and the reserve force were assigned to the kibbutz-dining hall. It was a relatively quiet night. From time to time a stray shell exploded in the distance or a burst of automatic gunfire was heard.
The next day, May 24, witnessed the large-scale military offensive against Ramat Rachel. Abd el Aziz, commander of the Egyptian column, had been planning the onslaught since he was stationed at Bethlehem, when he had at his disposal, in addition to the Egyptian force, a unit of the Arab Legion and irregular Arab forces. This was the only battle in the War of Independence in which a unit of the Arab Legion operated in full co-ordination with the Egyptians. Abdullah el-Tel relates in his memoirs that it was he who initiated this joint operation, without the approval of the brigade headquarters at Ramallah. As soon as Glubb learned of the co-operation, he ordered that it cease immediately. The order was obeyed only after the battle for Ramat Rachel.
At about 9:00 am, the scout on the roof of the dining hall reported that an armored car was approaching from the Mar Elias monastery. Orders were given to open fire, and the Lewis (a machine-gun used by the British in the First World War) succeeded in hitting the tyres of the armored car, stranding it in the open field. It was neither safe for the attackers to remain inside the vehicle, nor to leave it, since this would expose them to gunfire from the roof of the dining hall.
Several minutes later, two Egyptian soldiers clambered out of the vehicle holding a white flag. We thought naively that they wanted to surrender, and the order was given to hold fire. But it soon transpired that instead of surrendering to our forces, the Egyptians were merely changing tack, and under cover of the white flag, the two of them started running towards their positions. We opened fire and hit them both. To our dismay, we then discovered that the spring of the Lewis was broken and that we could no longer use it. From one moment to the next, we had lost half the machine guns at our disposal - having started out with 2, we now had just the Bren left.
After the armored car incident, the kibbutz received heavy mortar and cannon shelling. One of the shells scored a hit on the guard post on top of the dining hall and injured the fighters who were on look-out. Contact with the other posts scattered throughout the kibbutz was gradually disrupted.
The attack had been well planned and was being carried out in a pincer movement. While the Egyptian army, with its armor, was attacking from the west (from the direction of the Mar Elias monastery), the Legion surged forward from the east (Zur Baher). More than 500 hundred enemy troops took part in the assault: three regular companies of the Egyptian army, one company of the Arab Legion and an unspecified number of irregular troops. 65 Irgun members and a unit of 20 members of the Haganah were defending the kibbutz. We had two machine-guns (one of them put out of action before the battle began) rifles and submachine-guns. Our only anti-tank weapon was a crate of Molotov cocktails.
In the early afternoon, an armored column, consisting of nine armored cars and a tank, advanced from Mar Elias, followed by Egyptian infantry. At the same time, the Arab Legion together with the irregular forces commenced their offensive from the opposite direction (Zur Baher). The Legion succeeded in capturing the extreme eastern post after most of the fighters there had been wounded. As soon as word was received in the dining-hall, a unit was sent to recapture it under the command of Yifrah (Yosef Ronen-Frankenthal). Several minutes later, one of the members of the unit returned and asked for reinforcements to rescue Yifrah. I assembled several of the fighters and set out across the open terrain between the dining-hall and the occupied post. Suddenly there was a loud explosion, and I found myself alone in front of one of the kibbutz buildings. A shell had exploded in the rear, hitting some of the fighters and separating me from them. As I stood there stunned, an armed Legionnaire came towards me from behind the building. For an instant we gazed at one another, frozen. Then I leapt behind a wall and fired an entire magazine from my Sten gun. I peeped round the corner to see what had happened and saw the armed Legionnaire peeping back at me from behind another wall. I was alone with him, and the path back to the dining-hall passed through Legion fire. I was cut off inside Ramat Rachel, which was itself isolated. I tried my luck for the last time, and under cover of two grenades, which I lobbed over the wall, ran as fast as possible back to the dining-hall, shells bursting around me and bullets whistling over my head.
I reached the dining-hall safely and discovered that no one knew what had happened to Yifrah and his comrades. Meanwhile, the tank which had advanced from Mar Elias was moving forward and had blocked the road to Arnona. This completed the siege of Ramat Rachel.
I sized up the situation, and discovered that the Arab Legion had captured half the kibbutz territory. We started setting up a new defense line with the aim of preventing the Legion from occupying the dining-hall, which was our last post. As I stood in the door of the dining-hall handing out orders to the fighters, I suddenly saw a group of dozen armed Arabs approaching. They were moving forward in unorganized fashion, shouting and screaming. Some even had their hands up. My first thought was that they had captured Yifrah and his comrades, and were bringing them to prevent us from opening fire. I immediately gave the ceasefire order, at which they appeared even happier. (It later transpired that the Legionnaires had assumed that the Egyptians had captured the dining hall, and the fact that we did not fire at them merely confirmed this). The cheerful group came closer and we still could not discern whether Yifrah and his group were amongst them. I faced a difficult choice: if we fired at them, we could hit our own comrades. But if we did not, they could conquer our last stronghold. When we could wait no longer, I shouted out as loudly as I could: "Yifrah, hit the ground. We're going to shoot" and then gave the order to fire. The fighters fired all their weapons, a hail of bullets, which took the enemy by surprise. Most of them were hit and the remainder fled in panic, leaving the wounded where they were. After the battle, we discovered that the commander of the Arab unit had been killed in our attack, and that this was the cause of general demoralization among his forces.
While we were busy checking the Legion advance, word reached us of the advance of the Egyptian armored force, which was firing directly at our positions. The post, which suffered most, was the observation post on the roof of the dining-hall. The wounded came down one by one, but we could not do without a lookout point. The number of wounded lying on the floor of the dining-hall grew steadily, and the only medic had also been wounded. To make matters worse, our ammunition was also running out. When it seemed to me that the Egyptians were about to break into the kibbutz, I sent one of the fighters to the gate, equipped with Molotov cocktails. As I awaited a report from him, I was informed that a shell had burst beside him as he made his way to the gate, igniting the Molotov cocktails and inflicting burns to his entire body.
The Egyptians halted their advance, and the Legion also paused to take stock of their situation. I exploited the relative quiet to visit the wounded, which were lying on the floor of the dining-hall. The room was quiet, and only a stifled groan was heard here and there. I went over to one of the injured and asked how he was. In reply, he asked for a little water. I hastened to the jug in the corner, but was disappointed to find that it was empty and that there was no water even for the wounded.
The many casualties sustained vastly reduced our numbers. One of the injured officers appealed to his wounded comrades, explaining that if the Arabs reached the dining hall, he would give them weapons and they had to fight to the last bullet. It was Daniel (Moshe Brodetzky), who had been an officer in the US army in World War Two. Daniel had come to study in Jerusalem at the Hebrew University, and when fighting broke out, had joined the Irgun. He was wounded while on look out on the roof of the dining-hall, and after being bandaged, had immediately gone up to the roof again. Only when he was hit for the second time did I order him to remain in the dining-hall with the other wounded men.
After visiting the wounded, I went out to the small clump of trees near the entrance gate. It was late afternoon, and the Egyptians suddenly launched a heavy bombardment. We fell to the ground, and each time a shell exploded, there was a deafening noise and a hail of stones and dust rained down on us. After each explosion, we would anxiously look around to make sure that none of the others had been injured. Suddenly one of the fighters came over to me, too excited to talk. After he had calmed down a little, he told me that the tank, followed by the armored cars, had begun to advance towards the kibbutz. I went to the edge of the wood and was surprised by the sight of an approaching steel monster spitting fire. In light of this new situation, we decided to save our much-needed ammunition, and not shoot until the infantry started its offensive. The order was to aim accurately, so that each bullet would meet its target. When the infantry launched its attack, we fired all the weapons at our disposal, forcing the enemy to halt its attack.
We waged psychological warfare against the Egyptians. We made them believe that we had a Piat (an anti tank weapon) and were waiting till they came close enough before launching our attack. They fell for the bluff and stopped some way away from us. I urged the fighters to hold fast, knowing that reinforcements would arrive after nightfall. As the sun went down, there was still no sign of help on the horizon; only at about 10:00pm did we hear sounds from the direction of Arnona. Convinced that the reinforcements had finally arrived, I was unpleasantly surprised when we were attacked by heavy fire. I gave orders not to return fire, since I believed that our comrades had made a mistake - I later learned that it was generally believed that Ramat Rachel had fallen, and that the unit thought we were Arabs.
I stood by the gate of the kibbutz, and shouted to the advancing force to hold their fire. It was not clear if they could hear my shouts, but the firing ceased. The force, composed of Palmach fighters and a Haganah unit, approached the kibbutz cautiously. Only when they were within hailing distance did they realize that we were Jews. There were celebrations all round as we were united with our fellow fighters.
After sending the wounded for treatment, I received instructions from southern HQ to move my force to Talpiot. As we passed the last house in neighboring Arnona, we were greatly surprised to meet Yifrah and his comrades. We learned that when they had reached the outlying post captured by the Arab Legion, fierce fire was opened at them, preventing them from returning to the dining-hall. They had to crawl through open fields to reach Arnona. They joined us and together we marched towards Talpiot, where we were warmly greeted.
When I counted heads, I discovered that about fifty percent of the force had been injured. We had 35 casualties, 3 of them severe. Hillel (Meir Silver), who was missing from the parade, was found dead the following day. Hillel was born in South Africa, an only child, who had left home and volunteered for service in the Irgun in Jerusalem. He had trained as a pilot in South Africa, but in Jerusalem was assigned to the infantry. He was generally loved and had a unique sense of humor. The terrible shock of his death destroyed his parents - his mother died shortly after hearing the news.
In Talpiot, two Leyland trucks were waiting to take us to the Etz Hayim base. I felt a great need to unburden myself of the tension, which had been my constant companion for so long. The next day I went to the district HQ in town to report to Raanan on what had happened at Ramat Rachel. The streets were empty after the constant noise of shelling I had grown used to at the kibbutz.
The meeting with Raanan was highly emotional; he told me that there had been an announcement on the radio from the Haganah command to the effect that Ramat Rachel had fallen into the hands of the enemy. Raanan said he had not believed the report, and had pressed Shaltiel to send help. Shaltiel had responded that it was impossible to reach Ramat Rachel in daylight and that reinforcements would arrive when night fell.
After the meeting with Raanan, I made my way to Cafe Allenby on King George Street, the only cafe open throughout the siege and a meeting place for fighters in town during their furlough. (The cafe was able to stay open on account of its shared electricity with the Haganah arms factory in the cellar). I chose the furthest table and sat alone with my thoughts. As I was sipping my tea, a young man in civilian clothing came over to me and asked if I wanted cigarettes - I could have as many as I wanted so long as I had the money. The exchange upset me: this young man was profiting from the war situation while others were sacrificing their lives. I took out my revolver and brought him to the Etz Hayim base, whence I told him that the condition for his release was the confiscation of all his cigarettes. At first he refused, but agreed when he realized that the alternative was considerably less pleasant. We escorted him to his storehouse and returned with a large quantity of cigarettes.
The battle for Ramat Rachel and the emotions felt when the reinforcements arrived, were described by Yosef Uziel in Be-Terem, July 15, 1948:
We reached Ramat Rachel. Who said that the Irgun had retreated? Few units had fought as courageous a battle as the Irgun at Ramat Rachel. For a whole day they were isolated and cut off and faced a mass onslaught by Legionaires and the regular Egyptian army even after being forced to abandon the outlying positions of Ramat Rachel and to hole up in the dining hall building. After the Irgun's rapid withdrawal from Sheikh Jarrah, we had doubted the fighting skills of its troops - but their stand at Ramat Rachel healed the rift: heart spoke out to heart and the handshakes of the besieged Irgun showed us how strong was their sympathy for us. The many wounded men stretched out on the floor took courage: Who are you? Reinforcements? You really came? Long live the Field Units of the Haganah. Many eyes were damp at the sight of the many wounded men who had continued to fight though on the verge of despair! 'It's all right, guys. You are coming back!
After all the details of the fighting became known, I was commended for our stand and for our victory against a superior enemy force. Daniel (Moshe Brodetsky) was commended for his courage and exemplary conduct after being wounded.
After the battle of Ramat Rachel, the Jerusalem front was stabilized. The Legion abandoned the idea of attacking the city from the north, and ordered its units in the south not to co-operate with the Egyptian army. Apart from local initiatives, the battle for Jerusalem became a battle between fortified positions. Irgun units fought at most strongholds around the city. In addition, Irgun units took part in several Haganah attempts to recapture Sheikh Jarrah, which were unsuccessful. The participation of Irgun fighters in the battle for Jerusalem was out of proportion to their numerical size. Unfortunately, the same may be said for the number of casualties the Irgun sustained.