1920-1939 | Hostages | Palestine

General authorises use of Arab hostages to protect army convoys

A British army lorry (regiment unknown) in Palestine c. 1936 –
Matson Collection – The Library of Congress via Wikimedia.

18 September 1936

On 18 September 1936, Lieutenant General John Dill, who had arrived in Jerusalem five days earlier to take command of British forces in Palestine, informed Sir Cyril Deverell, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, that he intended to use Arab prisoners as hostages to protect military convoys from the threat of landmines. His ‘ultimate solution’ to the problem would be ‘to carry a couple of Arab mascots on the leading car.’1

Ten days earlier, Dill had been about to take a game shooting holiday in Scotland and ‘had his luggage, guns etc packed in his car’, when he was cornered in the War Office by Deverell. ‘You’re just the man I want !’ ‘I’m going on holiday,’ Dill protested. ‘You can’t go now. I’m afraid. The Cabinet has decided you’re to take charge in Palestine at once.’2

The Colonial Office, in a press statement announcing Dill’s appointment, explained ‘that more rapid and effective action must now be taken in order to bring the present state of disorder to an end with least possible delay’ and that therefore 10,000 extra troops were being dispatched to Palestine to ensure the Dill would have two divisions under his command, with which to the crush all opposition to British rule.3  A newspaper report noted that ‘Palestine will bear the extra military expenditure incurred by sending military reinforcements.’4

Dill’s plan of placing Arab hostages on the bonnets of lorries in military convoys to deter snipers and the laying of landmines quickly became normal operational practice. The survival of the hostages depended not just on the decisions of the insurgents, but also on the whim of individual drivers, the more sadistic of whom took pleasure at the end of a journey from swerving and breaking in order to deliberately throw the hostage. Arthur lane, from the Manchester Regiment, recalled that ‘the driver would switch his wheel back and to, to make the truck waver and the poor wog on the front would roll on to the deck. Well, if he was lucky he would get away with a broken leg, but if he was unlucky the truck coming up behind would hit him. But no one bothered to pick up the bits. They were left.’  The sadistic games became so routine that ‘Bill Usher (the officer in command) said that it had to stop because before long they would run out of bloody rebels to sit on the bonnet.’5


  1. John Dill to Sir Cyril Deverell, 18 September 1936, cited in James Barr, A Line in the Sand: Britain, France and the Struggle that Shaped the Middle East, Simon and Schuster, London and New York, 2012, p. 185 and p. 399 See also ‘General Dill Arrives by Air,’ The Belfast Telegraph, 14 September 1936, p. 8
  2. ‘Story of General Dill,’ The News Chronicle cited in The Belfast Telegraph, 14 September 1936, p. 8
  3. War Office cited in ‘Steps to End Disorder in Palestine,’ The Scotsman, 8 September 1936 and ‘General Dill Loses No Time,’ The Larne Times, 12 September 1936, p. 6
  4. ‘Palestine to Foot the Bill,’ The Larne Times, 12 September 1936, p. 6
  5. Arthur Lane interview 2 August 1988, IWM Sound Archives 10295, p. 18, cited in Matthew Hughes, ‘From Law and Order to Pacification: Britain’s Suppression of the Arab Revolt in Palestine, 1936-39,’  The Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol 39, No 2 ( Winter 2010 ), p. 15 accessed online at url https://www.palestine-studies.org/sites/default/files/jps-articles/From%20Law%20and%20Order%20to%20Pacification-%20Britain%27s%20Suppression%20of%20the%20Arab%20Revolt%20in%20Palestine,.pdf

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