20 Arabs killed when British troops force a bus to drive over a mine
7 September 1938
Shortly before the dawn on the morning of 7 September 1938, a company of the Royal Ulster Rifles (RUR), backed by several Rolls Royce armoured cars belonging to the 11th Hussars, surrounded the Palestinian village of al-Bassa, a large settlement of about two thousand Christian and Muslim Arabs located near the Lebanese border.1 The harrowing events which followed took place during a counter insurgency campaign against Arab rebels fighting for self-determination and an end to the injustices of British rule.
The previous evening a mine had been placed on a nearby road, which had killed two British soldiers and mortally wounded two others. Years later, RUR officer Bretton Woods recalled that Lieutenant Colonel Gerald Whitfield, on hearing the news, decided to inflict a harsh lesson on the settlement based on his earlier warning to local village chiefs ‘that if any of this sort of thing happened he would take punitive measures against the nearest village to the scene of the mine.’2 The armoured cars began the day’s action by ‘peppering Bassa with machine gun fire… for about twenty minutes’ killing four people before the soldiers went in and ‘burnt the village to the ground.’3 Shortly afterwards, according to accounts from local people and Harry Arigonie, a British Palestinian policeman deployed to the scene, RUR soldiers rounded up fifty Arabs, beating them with sticks and rifle buts and shooting dead some who tried to escape.4
The troops then made twenty Arabs board a bus at gunpoint, and the driver was instructed to proceed over a second hidden mine, blowing apart the vehicle and killing all on board. The remaining villagers were ordered to dig a trench into which they were made to throw the mutilated bodies of their neighbours and loved ones. As soon as they had finished the gruesome task, one hundred terrified survivors were forced into lorries and driven to an army camp, where four were made to undress and kneel on cacti and thorns in front of the others. They were beaten and whipped so badly that a doctor had to come to check their pulses.5
Woods recalled that at about this time the divisional commander, was gazing out towards the hills from his balcony headquarters in the port city of Haifa, when he noticed columns of smoke billowing from the distant hills. When informed that it ‘must be the Royal Ulster Rifles taking punitive measures against Bassa,’ he summoned Whitfield and warned him to ‘go a wee bit easier in the future.’6
- The 1931 census lists the village as having a population of 1,948, of whom 1076 were Christian and 868 were Muslim, living in 479 houses. E. Mills, Census of Palestine 1931: Population of villages, towns and administrative areas, Jerusalem, 1932 p. 99.
- Bretton Woods cited in Matthew Hughes, Britain’s Pacification of Palestine: The British Army, the Colonial State and the Arab Revolt, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2019 p. 331.
- Ibid., pp. 332-3.
- Matthew Hughes, The Banality of Brutality: British Armed Forces and the
Repression of the Arab Revolt in Palestine, 1936–39, accessed online at url https://bura.brunel.ac.uk/bitstream/2438/3202/3/Fulltext.pdf
- Ibid. Woods implied that the commander was Brigadier Bernard Montgomery although at the time Montgomery was still based at Portsmouth, only arriving the following month.
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