I still miss my ‘end of Empire’ titfer. One of the proper Donegal tweedy numbers. So named because I bought it in Belleek. Anyone who knows where Belleek is, straddling the River Erne at the appendix of Fermanagh, would appreciate why it truly is the ‘end of Empire’. The outfitter, running one of those all-purpose shops which are out-of-time (and certainly out-of the-21st-century) priced it in euros — but graciously accepted payment in sterling. The hat went missing, in just ten minutes, in Scarborough. I am forever bereft.
Still, to business …
Retirement, which is where I am, involves many regrets. Mainly for À la recherche du temps perdu (no: I’m not that Proustian desperate), but circumstances afford opportunity to make good.
My starter was inheriting quantities of stuff from a great-uncle, who distinguished himself in the Salonika Campaign. The candle-holders on my grandmother’s bedroom table suggested he may have been in Jerusalem sometime after Allenby. Allenby gets one of the Boy’s Own Paper patriotic whoops, but I remained ignorant of how the whole Ottoman empire collapsed.
Which explains why, bottom right corner of the bookshelves behind me, is a small selection:
and the like.
It was another source that provoked my current flutter: Calder Walton’s Empire of Secrets, the Cold War and the Twilight of Empire. This had lurked, somewhat neglected in the ever-present, ever-threatening guilt-pile, until its impact:
its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born…
In particular it was chapter 3 that got me — ‘The Red Light is Definitely Showing’: MI5, the British Mandate of Palestine and Zionist Terrorism. Here, from pages 76-77, is the scenario:
If the British intelligence community faced an uneasy situation in the post-war period, with reduced funding, greater responsibilities, awkward relations with the Labour government and scanty intelligence on their new Soviet enemy, MI5 was confronted with an even more urgent threat. Recently declassified intelligence records reveal that at the end of the war the main priority for MI5 was the threat of terrorism emanating from the Middle East, specifically from the two main Jewish (or Zionist) terrorist groups operating in the Mandate of Palestine, which had been placed under British control in 1921. They were called the Irgun Zevai Leumi (‘National Military Organisation’, or the Irgun for short) and the Lehi (an acronym in Hebrew for ‘Freedom Fighters of Israel’), which the British also termed the ‘Stern Gang’, after its founding leader, Avraham Stern. The Irgun and the Stern Gang believed that British policies in Palestine in the post-war years, blocking the creation of an independent Jewish state, legitimised the use of violence against British targets.
As the Second World War came to a close, MI5 received a stream of intelligence reports warning that the Irgun and the Stern Gang were not just planning violence in the Mandate of Palestine, but were also plotting to launch attacks inside Britain. In April 1945 an urgent cable from S[ecurity] I[ntelligence] M[iddle] E[east] warned that Victory in Europe (VE-Day) would be a D-Day for Jewish terrorists in the Middle East. Then, in the spring and summer of 1946, coinciding with a sharp escalation of anti-British violence in Palestine, MI5 received apparently reliable reports from SIME that the Irgun and the Stern Gang were planning to send five terrorist ‘cells’ to London, ‘to work on IRA lines’. To use their own words, the terrorists intended to ‘beat the dog in his own kennel’. The SIME reports were derived from the interrogation of captured Irgun and Stern Gang fighters, from local police agents in Palestine, and from liaisons with official Zionist political groups like the Jewish Agency. They stated that among the targets for assassination were Britain’s Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, who was regarded as the main obstacle to the establishment of a Jewish state in the Middle East, and the Prime Minister himself. Before his retirement as MI5’s Director-General, Sir David Petrie warned that the spike of violence against the British in Palestine, and the planned extension of lrgun and Stern Gang operations to Britain, meant that the ‘red light is definitely showing’. MI5’s new Director-General, Sir Percy Sillitoe, was so alarmed that in August 1946 he personally briefed the Prime Minister on the situation, warning him that an assassination campaign in Britain had to be considered a real possibility, and that his own name was known to be on a Stern Gang hit-list.
The Irgun and the Stern Gang’s wartime track record ensured that MI5 took these warnings seriously. In November 1944 the Stern Gang assassinated the British Minister for the Middle East, Lord Moyne, while he was returning to his rented villa after a luncheon engagement in Cairo. Moyne, an heir to the Guinness dynasty, was a wealthy and well-connected figure …
There begins a sequence of one-on-ones and mayhem that transcend any extreme thriller. Lord Moyne, the first to sidle in to the plot, was Walter Guinness, who managed the feat — rare enough among the peripatetic Guinnesses — of being born in Dublin, third snd youngest son of Edward Guinness, Earl of Iveagh. Despite what it says above, I’ve reckoned it was two Lehi agents (Eliyahu Bet-Zuri and Eliyahu Hakim) who did for our Walter — and in Cairo, not Palestine. By all accounts our Walter was no great afficiando of things Jewish.
After that came Menachem Begin’s bombing of the King David Hotel (22 July 1946), killing 91 and causing 45 further casualties. Both MI5 and SIS had their stations in the hotel. Much of British counter-terrorist expertise was refined in Palestine. The parallels with the Northern Ireland campaign are obvious: the brutalities on both sides, the techniques of Major Roy Farran and his ‘Q-patrols’: Farran was instrumental in devising the use of paramilitary ‘snatch-squads’ — first employed in Palestine, then in Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus and nearer home. Roy Farran ‘confessed’ (or didn’t: the Court Martial never quite decided) to the murder (May 1947) of 16-year-old Alexander Rubowitz; and Lehi (the Stern Gang) sent a book-bomb that killed Farran’s brother, Rex. Farran emigrated to Canada to get out of the way, but Lehi sent him a Christmas card for the rest of his life.
Terrorism and counter-terrorism feed on each other: Irgun’s revenge for Rubowitz was the brutal killing of Sergeants Martin and Paige at Nathanya (July 1947), hanging their booby-trapped bodies from a tree (and causing serious injury to another serviceman). The British squaddies counter-attacked with a grenade in a Tel Aviv café, driving an armoured car through a Jewish funeral procession, and firing at a bus stop.
And then there’s the shlock-horror stuff: Betty Knout begging entrance to the Colonial Office, in need of a loo, planting two dozen sticks of gelignite in the basement (wrapped appropriately in the Evening Standard and Daily Telegraph), making her thanks and leaving. The timer failed. The package was found by a cleaner. By that stage Betty was away in Belgium, still in the well-tailored suit, and carrying the same handbag. Arrested she got a year in unrepentant chokey, but the arrest revealed a continuing letter-bomb campaign.
More to come — possibly.