British officer orders reprisal executions in Arab village
20 October 1938
Captain Orde windgate is still lauded as a hero who led daring raiding operations behind the Japanese lines in Burma during the Second World War. As tourists gaze up at his memorial, which stands just a two minute walk from Big Ben, few will be aware of the ugly reputation he earned earlier in Palestine. On 20 October 1938, Windgate is said to have ordered the extra-judicial execution of ten men in the village of Hittin, following a terror attack on the town of Tiberias in which 19 Jewish civilians had been killed. According to Tzion Cohen, an army interpreter, Windgate’s elite platoon of the Special Night Squads (SNS) entered the village, rounded up the men and selected ten, who were deemed responsible for the earlier attack and promptly shot dead.1
Windgate, a British army intelligence officer, had been instrumental in setting up the SNS four months earlier. His idea was to combine highly motivated Jewish auxiliaries alongside British troops to quell an ongoing anti-British insurgency by taking the war to Arab villages. As Robert King-Clark, one of Windgate’s platoon commanders explained, the SNS’s strategy involved ‘striking terror’ into the hearts of the Arab rebel villages by ‘showing them that we can go one better.’2 Villages suspected of providing food, shelter or other support to insurgents were raided repeatedly and brutal methods deployed to force villagers to surrender wanted men, rifles or information.
There were also a number of random punitive retributions, as when Second Lieutenant Humphrey Bredin, Windgate’s second in command, in the wake of the Tiberias terror attack, allegedly shot dead an Arab cyclist with a rifle near the village of Lubya. The soldier who witnessed the murder, recalled that ‘this helped a bit in reviving the general atmosphere.’3 Bredin soon earned a terrifying reputation for decimating the population of ‘unfriendly’ villages. He is said to have killed every fifteenth man in one village, where the inhabitants failed to hand over rifles, three in total, and on another occasion threatened to kill every eighth man. Windgate was equally feared, with Arab villagers reporting that he had killed every eighth man in one village, after which they were warned that the soldiers would return to kill everyone if no rifles were forthcoming.4 Zvi Brenner, a Jewish SNS soldier, recalled how when a petroleum pipeline was cut near the village of Danna, Windgate ordered his British troops to force feed the villagers with the oil soaked earth.5 However, military rule, secrecy and tight restrictions on reporting meant that there was not even a hint of such incidents in the press, although there were several newspaper reports of Bredin’s and Windgate’s decorations for ‘gallantry’ and ‘distinguished service’.6
- Tom Segev, One Palestine Complete: Jews and Arabs Under the British Mandate, Abacus, London, 2014, p. 430. The date of 20 October 1938 is given in Anita Shapira, ‘Yigal Allon, Native Son: A Biography,’ University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 2008, p333. Allon who was one of Windgate’s fighters and who in 1969 briefly became Israel’s acting prime minister, gave a different account of the incident, claiming that eight men were killed in the village either in combat or while attempting to escape.
- king-Clark cited in Matthew Hughes, Britain’s Pacification of Palestine, The British Army, the Colonial State and the Arab Revolt, 1936-39, Cambridge University Press, 2019, p. 283
- Levacov cited in Matthew Hughes, op. cit., p. 286
- Ibid., p. 285-286.
- Ibid., p. 287.
- ‘Gallantry in Palestine: DSO For Night Force Leader,’ The Scotsman, 14 September 1938, p. 15. ‘Palestine Gallantry,’ The Belfast News-Letter, 14 September 1938, p. 3 and ‘Awards for Bravery in Palestine and India,’ The Western Mail, 14 September 1938, p. 7.
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