Evelyn Barker

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Sir Evelyn Barker
Kiel Harbour, Germany, 19 May 1945 TR2883.jpg
Barker (centre) then as commander of VIII Corps, with the Flag Officer Rear Admiral H T Baillie-Grohman and two aides on the Admiral's barge during a tour of Kiel harbour, Germany, May 1945
Nickname(s) Bubbles[1]
Born 1894
Died 1983 (aged 88 or 89)
Allegiance  United Kingdom
Service/branch Flag of the British Army.svg British Army
Years of service 1913 - 1950
Rank General
Commands held 2nd Battalion the King's Royal Rifle Corps
10th Infantry Brigade
54th (East Anglian) Division
49th (West Riding) Infantry Division
VIII Corps
British Forces in Palestine and Trans-Jordan
Eastern Command
Battles/wars World War I
World War II
Palestine Emergency
Awards Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath
Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire
Distinguished Service Order
Military Cross

General Sir Evelyn Hugh Barker KCB, KBE, DSO, MC, (1894–1983) was a British Army general in World War II, and commander of British forces in the Palestine from 1946 to 1947. Barker is remembered for his order, following the King David Hotel bombing, that (We) will be punishing the Jews in a way the race dislikes as much as any, by striking at their pockets and showing our contempt of them.[2]

Military service in 1913–1946[edit]

The son of a high-ranking officer, Major-General Sir George Barker, Evelyn Barker was commissioned into the King's Royal Rifle Corps (KRRC), in 1913, and sent the next year to the French theatre of World War I.[3] He fought in France, took part in the Thessaloniki (in Greece) operation, and was wounded and decorated. In 1919, still with the KRRC, Barker took part in the British military expedition against the Bolsheviks in the south of the former Russian Empire.

As commander of the 2nd battalion KRRC, Barker served in Palestine during the Palestinian Arab Revolt of 1936 – 39, returning to the UK in 1938 to take command of 10th Infantry Brigade.[4]

Shortly after the start of World War II in October 1939, he took his brigade, one of three forming the 4th Infantry Division, to France as part of the British Expeditionary Force.[4] After the Allies defeat on the continent, he was evacuated from Dunkirk with other troops to Britain where he assumed command of the 54th (East Anglian) Division.[3] In April 1943 Barker took over the 49th (West Riding) Infantry Division, which he led in the Battle of Normandy and the ensuing fighting in Northern France.[5]

Barker distinguished himself during the liberation of Le Havre. During early December, 1944 Sir Richard O'Connor was transferred to India to take command of the Eastern Army and Barker, by now a Lieutenant-General, was appointed the new commander of VIII Corps in his place.[6] VIII Corps saw extensive action during the final push into Germany between March and May 1945.[7] On 15 April 1945, elements of Barkers Corps liberated the remaining survivors of the Belsen concentration camp. After the German capitulation, Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery appointed Barker to head the Schleswig-Holstein Corps District of the British occupation zone. He was also knighted (KBE) immediately after the campaign.[7]

Taking command in Palestine[edit]

In the spring of 1946, Barker was appointed the General Officer Commanding (GOC) British Forces in Palestine and Trans-Jordan,[3] where he had served in the days of the Arab Revolt. Palestine was now the scene of another guerrilla war, this time waged by the Zionist militants of the Haganah, Irgun and LEHI. Barker had the challenging task of ending the increasingly numerous and lethal attacks by the armed Zionist groups. He found the country at a new peak of tension between the Jewish community and the British troops, after the LEHI’s 25 April raid on the 6th Airborne Division car park near Tel Aviv in which several unarmed soldiers were killed execution-style. Officers reported that some units were close to mutinying and going on a revengeful rampage in the villages. Controlling the vindictive passions of his troops, as well as his own, would for the General be sometimes as difficult as controlling the security situation.

Barker soon came to the conclusion that pacification of the country required harsher measures; first of all, enforcement of the death penalty, and certain collective actions against the entire Jewish community for its perceived complicity. Like most of the military personnel stationed in Palestine, he blamed the Yishuv at large for the attacks of the militants, and the softness of the British approach to the Jews for the failure to stop them. Whereas hangings and collective punishment were broadly employed against the Palestinian Arabs during the 1936-39 Arab Revolt, not a single Zionist militant had ever been executed for attacking British forces (with the exception of the two LEHI assassins of Lord Moyne who were tried and hanged in Cairo). Together with other high-ranking British officers, Barker repeatedly asked civil authorities to let the army “take off the gloves” and employ harsher methods in the pursuit of the "terrorists". The perception of the government’s timidity with regard to the Jews, predominant in military circles, was expressed in the memoirs of Bernard Montgomery, Chief of the Imperial General Staff in 1946-48:

"Indecision and hesitation were in evidence all down the line, beginning in Whitehall… All this had led to a state of affairs in which British rule existed only in name; the true rulers seemed to me to be the Jews, whose unspoken slogan was – 'You dare not touch us.' " [8]

Relationship with Katie Antonius[edit]

Soon after arriving in Palestine, Evelyn Barker became a frequenter of the Jerusalem haute societe gatherings in the mansion of Katie Antonius. The hostess was the widow of the famous Lebanese-Palestinian intellectual George Antonius, and was known for her intelligence and taste. The evening dances in the Karm al Mufti mansion, where Antonius had written his Arab Awakening, were attended by diplomats, artists and British officers. Evelyn Barker, by now married with a son, dallied there with his Arab hostess.[9]

Advocating the death penalty[edit]

Barker saw capital punishment as an effective discouragement against resorting to arms, and argued for a wide application of the death penalty against Zionist guerillas. That it was never applied in the preceding years, he considered among the major causes of the failure to suppress the insurgency. Barker would later express his position in this way:

"I am in favour of the death penalty for murder, political or otherwise. The one strict law we had was against carrying arms. And it’s no good having a law like that if you don’t enforce it. So if anyone was caught carrying arms, he was up before a court martial, he could state his case, but if he was found guilty that was it. And, subject to Alan Cunningham’s [the High Commissioner of Palestine] final say, I would confirm the death sentence."[10]

In his position on the death penalty, Barker was not only strongly supported by his subordinates, but directly instructed by his superiors. Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Bernard Montgomery, conveyed to Barker that capital punishment of the Jewish militants must be carried out even when British soldiers were held hostage for the sentenced terrorists. When, on 18 June 1946, the Irgun abducted five British officers, to be held as hostages for the recently condemned to death members of the Irgun, Montgomery reacted with an urgent unplanned visit to Palestine for talks with Barker, of which he later recalled:

"I said that General Barker, as the confirming authority for death sentences on Jews convicted by military tribunals, must not be deterred from his duty by threats of the murder of five British officers who had been kidnapped since my visit a few days earlier. This did a good deal to strengthen his resolve. Barker was suffering from a lack of support by the Government authorities; I promised him my full support in his difficult task."[11]

Barker confirmed the sentences even before Montgomery's involvement. But the opposite decision was taken by superior authorities: on 3 July, the High Commissioner for Palestine, Alan Cunningham, commuted the death sentences to imprisonment, in order, as is generally held, to save the British hostages. The Irgun then released the captured British officers.

Operation Agatha[edit]

Main article: Operation Agatha

Spurred to deliver, in the middle of June 1946, Barker started planning a large-scale police operation throughout the Yishuv. Having the long-awaited order to arrest the leaders of the Jewish Agency, which was now strongly believed to be complicit in terrorism, Barker organised Operation Agatha in great secrecy and with high hopes of delivering a strong blow to the guerillas. The operation began in early morning of Saturday, 29 June (it became known as “Black Sabbath” among the Yishuv), with tens of thousands of soldiers and policemen employed in a cordon-and-search action in almost every Jewish settlement. By the end of the day, over 2,700 Jews were detained, including some leaders of the Jewish Agency. Dozens of weapon caches were found, including one in the Great Synagogue of Tel Aviv.[12]

The order prohibiting social interaction with the Jews[edit]

Barker was in his office at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem when at 12.37 pm, Monday, 22 July 1946, the southern wing of the building collapsed following a large explosion, which killed more than 100 Britons, Arabs and Jews.[13] It looked immediately apparent (and was very soon confirmed) that the hotel, which housed the headquarters of the Mandate administration, had been targeted by Zionist militants. Shortly after the explosion, Barker was in his office writing the order to his troops:

"The Jewish community of Palestine cannot be absolved from responsibility for the long series of outrages culminating in the blowing up of a large part of the Government offices in the King David Hotel causing grievous loss of life. Without the support, active or passive, of the general Jewish public the terrorist gangs who actually carried out these criminal acts would soon be unearthed, and in this measure the Jews in this country are accomplices and bear a share of the guilt.

I am determined that they shall suffer punishment and be made aware of the contempt and loathing with which we regard their conduct. We must not allow ourselves to be deceived by the hypocritical sympathy shown by their leaders and representative bodies, or by their protests that they are in no way responsible for these acts… I have decided that with effect on receipt of this letter you will put out of bounds to all ranks all Jewish establishments, restaurants, shop, and private dwellings. No British soldier is to have social intercourse with any Jew… I appreciate that these measures will inflict some hardship on the troops, yet I am certain that if my reasons are fully explained to them they will understand their propriety and will be punishing the Jews in a way the race dislikes as much as any, by striking at their pockets and showing our contempt of them." [14]

Barker’s aide, Brigadier Walter Sale, gave the order the lowest secrecy status, “Restricted”, and the leaders of the Yishuv quickly learnt of the GOC’s outburst of anger. Upon making its way to the hands of Palestinian Zionists, the text was immediately multiplied and sent to Western capitals, before it could be silently revoked. The order was rescinded in two weeks, but the avalanche of criticism it produced delivered a blow to the government’s handling of Palestine. The public resonance of Barker’s reaction to the bombing soon rivalled the resonance of the bombing itself; the order became the 'spoiler' of the politico-diplomatic offensive which had been allowed to the British government by the King David Hotel bombing. Already with a trail of rumours about his alleged antisemitism, Barker became possibly the individual most hated by the Jews, along with Britain’s Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin. The publicity campaign against Barker became a part of the propaganda thrust against the British policy in Palestine. A British newspaper carried a caricature of the GOC holding Hitler’s Mein Kampf.

Barker later regretted issuing this order:

"My office was in the middle of the building, overlooking the Old City. When I heard the explosion, I walked across the landing and I couldn’t see anything, only dust. I was so angry when I found out what had happened that I went straight to my office and wrote an order to the troops, putting all Jewish establishments out of bounds. It was a rotten letter, written on the spur of the moment. I ought to have restrained myself for an hour or two before putting pen to paper." [15]

Speaking specifically of the Palestinian situation, the Commander-in-Chief, Miles Dempsey, later reported to the War Minister Frederick Bellenger:

"We know that terrorism is tacitly accepted by all and sundry. Were this not so these murderers would soon be apprehended. The people must therefore take the consequences." [16]

Operation Shark[edit]

With information that the Irgun ring responsible for the King David Hotel bombing was hiding in Tel Aviv, Barker organised a massive police operation in the city. His instructions to his subordinate Major-General James Cassels were short: "Jim, I want you to search Tel Aviv, every single room and attic and cellar in Tel Aviv. Is that quite clear ?"[17]

The police action in Tel Aviv, codenamed Operation Shark, began on 30 July and achieved several successes, including the discovery of a large weapons cache in the city’s main synagogue, and the arrest of the LEHI’s leader Yitzhak Shamir. But the most important figure of the Zionist underground, Menachem Begin of the Irgun, slipped through British hands. He hid in a secret compartment in his house while British soldiers stayed in his home for two days. General Barker later recalled: "We should have caught him, but the men did not search his house properly. This is one of the problems of search operations. You have to rely on very junior people, and, if they make a mistake, the whole operation can be damaged."[18]

In August, Barker had his authority overruled once more, when High Commissioner Cunningham commuted the death sentences of 18 LEHI combatants and sent them to jail instead of the gallows.

Meanwhile, the British government, under economic pressure of the post-war period and pro-Zionist political pressure from the USA, intensified efforts to find a political solution. Palestine became too sensitive an issue, and Barker too scandalous a figure; the two had to be divorced. On 22 October, it was announced that the General would be promoted to a position in Britain. He continued in his duties of General Officer Commanding for several more months.

On 24 January 1947, Barker confirmed the death sentence of the Irgun fighter, Dov Gruner. Barker later said in an interview to a researcher:

"This was a cut-and-dried case. Gruner had been caught redhanded, armed and shooting up British troops. His political views were nothing to do with the matter. It’s nonsense to say that he was a prisoner of war. There was no war. Even if there had been, the Irgun were not obeying the rules of war. He was a criminal, a murderer. So I took it up to Alan Cunningham and I said, “This is an absolutely definite case of carrying arms and I propose to sign the death warrant. Do you agree? He said he did. It wasn’t political. It wasn’t referred to London. It was a decision taken by me on the spot." [19]

Understanding that the militants would seek hostages to prevent Gruner’s execution, as they did in the past to save other prisoners, Barker issued orders to heighten the alert amongst the British troops.

On the final day of his Palestinian command, 13 February, Barker confirmed the death sentences of three Irgun members, - Mordechai Alkachi, Yahiel Dresner (Dov Rosenbaum) and Eliezer Kashani. With that, he left Palestine forever. Alkachi, Dresner, Kashani and Gruner were hanged in Acre prison at dawn on 16 April.

Assassination plots[edit]

Evelyn Barker was a target of the Irgun and the LEHI. In Palestine, explosive devices were placed around his home and at its very door, the GOC sometimes survived due to the vigilance of his officers, other times by luck. Assassination plots followed him to Britain after his return from the Mandate in February 1947. Among the would-be assassins was the future President of Israel, and the nephew of Chaim Weizmann, Ezer Weizman. A former Royal Air Force pilot, and now a student of aviation in London, the 23-year old Ezer Weizman worked with an Irgun colleague tracking Barker to his house and producing a plan to use a bomb against him. Before the duo was able to plant the device into the road, however, Weizman was visited by the police. Having attracted suspicion, the future President quickly left Britain. The story of this plot remained unknown until Weizman himself revealed it in his memoir “On Eagle’s Wings” 30 years later. The retired Barker commented on this news in 1977:

"I expect he’s glad that he failed in his mission. What good would it have done to kill me? It wouldn’t have helped the Jewish cause or the Irgun or anyone else. At least General Weizman has been able to go through the last thirty years without a murder on his conscience."[20]

The LEHI, for its part, carried out several more attempts on Barker’s life. In one of them, a mail envelope charged with explosive powder (a method of killing that had been known for a while) arrived at Barker’s home on 11 May 1948, but was detected by his alert wife.

Last years of military service, and retirement[edit]

After leaving Palestine in February 1947, Evelyn Barker assumed his position of GOC Eastern Command.[3] He maintained correspondence with his former lover Katie Antonius for some years.

In 1950, Sir Evelyn Hugh Barker retired from service, aged 56.[3] He had a long and seemingly comfortable retirement. For several years he was in correspondence with Basil Liddell Hart, the well known British military specialist and historian. Barker was among many individuals who gave accounts of their personal roles in Palestinian events to the researcher Nicholas Bethell, for his book “The Palestine Triangle: the Struggle for the Holy Land, 1935-48” (among other interviewees were Menachem Begin, Abba Eban, Alan Cunningham, Israel Galili, Katie Antonius, Ezer Weizman, as well as many publicly unknown individuals).

Evelyn Barker died on 23 November 1983, at the age of 89; he was buried in Somerset.

Barker’s antisemitism[edit]

Barker’s letters to his former lover Katie Antonius contain overtly antisemitic passages. He wrote about the Jews in April 1947: "Yes I loathe the lot - whether they be Zionists or not. Why should we be afraid of saying we hate them. Its time this damned race knew what we think of them - loathsome people".[21] He had a strong sentiment against the Jews by that time; the question is only whether he developed it during his Palestinian months, or at an earlier stage of his life. If considered within the context of the widespread anti-Jewish attitudes among the British troops in Palestine of the post-war period, Barker’s antisemitism was probably a product of the military conflict with armed Zionists. Animosity towards the Jews had indeed pervaded the British army in Palestine, and Barker was in this respect in no way outstanding.

Arguably, the foundation of this feeling was not the traditional antisemitism with its incrimination of greed and destructiveness, and not merely the fact of the armed conflict with Jewish guerillas, but the idea of treachery committed by the Jews against Britain to whom they allegedly owed everything they had in Palestine. The policy of the Balfour Declaration of 1917, the protection from the Arabs and from the Germans in 1941-43, were seen by many Britons as great favours bestowed by the Empire on the Jewish people. In the antisemitic passages of his letters to Katie Antonius, Barker makes a reference to such British sacrifices, unappreciated by the Jews: "…everything that we did for these Jews, in terms of money and human lives."

Honours and awards[edit]

Footnotes[edit]

  1. ^ Mead, p. 58.
  2. ^ Defries, p. 194.
  3. ^ a b c d e Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives
  4. ^ a b Mead (2007), p. 58
  5. ^ Mead (2007), pp. 59–60
  6. ^ Jackson, pp. 164-165
  7. ^ a b Mead (2007), p. 60
  8. ^ Montgomery (1982), p. 379
  9. ^ East Jerusalem - The Shepherd's lost sheep The Economist, 13 January 2011
  10. ^ Bethell (1979), p. 245
  11. ^ Montgomery (1982), p. 381
  12. ^ Etzel.org
  13. ^ Gen. Sir Evelyn Barker; Led Troops in Palestine New York Times, 25 November 1983
  14. ^ Menachem Begin, The Revolt (1951), p.296
  15. ^ Bethell (1979), p. 267
  16. ^ Bethell (1979), p. 290
  17. ^ Bethell (1979)., p. 270
  18. ^ Bethell (1979), p.271.
  19. ^ Bethell (1979), p. 298
  20. ^ Bethell (1979), p.307
  21. ^ ISA, Section 123, P 867/2. 27 April 1947

References[edit]

External links[edit]

Military offices
Preceded by
Sir Richard O'Connor
GOC, VIII Corps
1944–1946
Succeeded by
Post Disbanded
Preceded by
John D'Arcy
General Officer Commanding
British Forces in Palestine and Trans-Jordan

1946–1947
Succeeded by
Gordon MacMillan
Preceded by
Sir Oliver Leese
GOC-in-C Eastern Command
1947–1950
Succeeded by
Sir Gerald Templer