The Sergeants affair

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The hanged bodies of Sergeants Clifford Martin (left) and Mervyn Paice.

The Sergeants affair (Hebrew: פרשת הסרג'נטים) was an incident that took place in Mandate Palestine in July 1947 during Jewish insurgency in Palestine, in which the Jewish underground group Irgun kidnapped two British Army Intelligence Corps NCOs, Sergeant Clifford Martin and Sergeant Mervyn Paice and threatened to hang them if the death sentences passed on three Irgun militants: Avshalom Haviv, Meir Nakar, and Yaakov Weiss, were carried out. The three had been captured by the British during the Acre Prison break, tried, and convicted on charges of illegal possession of arms, and with 'intent to kill or cause other harm to a large number of people'.[1] When the three men were executed by hanging, the Irgun killed the two sergeants and hung their booby-trapped bodies in a eucalyptus grove near Netanya. When the bodies were found, the booby trap injured a British officer as they were cut down. This act was widely condemned in both Palestine and the UK. After hearing of the deaths, some British troops and policemen attacked Jews in Tel Aviv, killing five and injuring others.[2] The killings also sparked off rioting in some British cities.[2][3][4]


In the late 1940s, as the third decade of British Mandate over Palestine was drawing to a close, many within and outside of Britain were calling to end the Mandate. They were led by opposition leader Winston Churchill, who denounced Britain's costly occupation of Palestine for no economic benefit.[5]

Trying to maintain control and civil order (a Mandate requirement if nothing else), the British enacted the Defence Emergency Regulations in September 1945. These regulations suspended Habeas Corpus and established military courts. They prescribed the death penalty for various offences, including carrying weapons or ammunition illegally and membership in an organization whose members commit these offenses.[6] As World War II ended, a Jewish insurgency began, with the Zionist groups Irgun and Lehi attacking British targets in order to compel the British to leave Palestine. The insurgency was a response to Britain's implementation of the White Paper of 1939, which greatly restricted Jewish immigration and land purchases.

The British authorities began applying the death penalty against captured Jewish militants. While the first member of a Jewish underground group, Shlomo Ben-Yosef, was executed in 1938 for his part in an unsuccessful shooting attack on Arab civilians who were traveling on a bus, no further executions of Jews for politically motivated violence were held in Palestine until the late 1940s.

During an Irgun attack on a British military base, Irgun fighters Michael Ashbel and Yosef Simchon were arrested. They were sentenced to death on 13 June 1946. There were many pleas and petitions for clemency by various institutes and Jewish leaders, which were not effective. Irgun decided to threaten to carry out its own "gallows regime", declaring a policy of reprisal killings. Five days later, Irgun kidnapped five British officers in Tel Aviv, and another one the following day in Jerusalem. The Irgun then threatened to hang its hostages if Ashbel and Simchoni were executed. Two weeks later, following intense and secret negotiations, Ashbel and Simchon's sentences were commuted to life imprisonment. The officers were released the next day.[1][7][page needed]

In January 1947 another Irgun militant, Dov Gruner, was sentenced to death for shooting and placing explosives with intent to kill[1] during an Irgun raid on a Palestine Police Force station in Ramat Gan in April 1946.[3] On 26 January, two days before Gruner's scheduled execution, Irgun kidnapped a British intelligence officer in Jerusalem. The next day, on 27 January, Irgun men also kidnapped a British judge, Ralph Windham, who was president of the Tel Aviv District Court. Sixteen hours before the scheduled execution, the British forces commander announced an "indefinite delay" of the sentence, and Irgun released its hostages.[1]

Meanwhile in Britain, Churchill, now the leader of the Opposition, demanded a special meeting on the subject, and on 31 January, a four-hour discussion in the British Parliament took place, with Churchill demanding the suppression of the "terrorists in Palestine".

On 16 April 1947, Gruner and three other Irgun militants, Yehiel Dresner, Mordechai Alkahi and Eliezer Kashani, who were caught during the Night of the Beatings, were executed. Five days later two other prisoners, Meir Feinstein of Irgun and Moshe Barazani of Lehi, were scheduled to be hanged for, respectively, the bombing of a Jerusalem railway station in which a policeman was killed and the attempted assassination of a senior British officer. However, a few hours before they were due to be executed they committed suicide using an improvised grenade smuggled to them by their colleagues. Irgun commander Menachem Begin was enraged by the executions, and ordered his men to abduct and hang British soldiers in retaliation. However, the British Army, well aware of possible retaliation, took precautions. As Begin would later recall, "our units went out on the roads, on to the streets in the towns. But the military were literally not to be found."[7][page needed]

4 May 1947 saw the Acre Prison break: the Irgun engineered a mass escape from Acre Prison, with the aim of freeing 41 Irgun and Lehi prisoners. Some 28 Jews and almost 200 Arabs managed to escape. However, nine Jewish fighters (both escapees and perpetrators of the prison break) were killed. Among the attacking party, three were killed and five were captured. While two of those arrested, Amnon Michaelov and Nachman Zitterbaum, were minors, and thus too young to be executed under British law, the other three, Avshalom Haviv, Yaakov Weiss and Meir Nakar, were not. The Irgun High Command had no doubt that they would be tried and convicted of capital offences, and the Irgun immediately set out to find British hostages. All of the arrested Irgun militants refused to accept British judicial authority. However they were tried by a military court and Haviv, Weiss, and Nakar were sentenced to death.[7][page needed][8][page needed]

In an attempt to forestall the likely death sentences, the Irgun kidnapped two British military policemen, a sergeant and a private, at a swimming pool in Ramat Gan on 9 June. However, the attempt to use them as hostages failed, as 19 hours later British troops found the hiding place and rescued them. Two days later the three Irgun militants were sentenced to death. All that was needed for the sentences to be carried out was approval from the Commander in Chief. Irgun resumed, with increased urgency, its kidnapping attempts, which proved difficult due to British precautions against abductions: British soldiers were largely confined to heavily-guarded security zones that had been established throughout Palestine, and standing orders required troops to move around in groups of at least four. Matters were further complicated by Lehi's actions in retaliation to the killing of one of their members, Alexander Rubowitz, who was allegedly murdered in captivity by Major Roy Farran. Lehi decided to carry out revenge attacks and the Irgun was concerned over the fact that it would be even more difficult to find hostages if Lehi began gun battles in the streets. Lehi agreed to hold off its attacks for a week, and Irgun carried out two unsuccessful abduction attempts. The first, on 22 June, saw Assistant Superintendent of Police C.J.C. Pound escape from his would-be captors in Jerusalem. On 25 June, an abduction squad in Jerusalem attempted to seize administrative officer Alan Major and hit him on the head with a hammer, but Major managed to struggle free. After the week passed, Lehi carried out two attacks in Tel Aviv and Haifa which killed two British soldiers and wounded five. These attacks resulted in even tighter security precautions.[8][page needed]

UNSCOP (the United Nations committee which was asked to recommend the future government of Palestine) visited the region and an appeal was made to the committee to intervene on the convicted men's behalf.[9] On 2 July, an appeal by UNSCOP on behalf of the condemned men was rejected, and on 8 July, three weeks after the sentences were passed, they were confirmed by the commander. Due to the concurrent visit of UNSCOP the executions were postponed. This delay, intended not to anger the committee, gave the Irgun extra time to accomplish the kidnapping of hostages.[10]


The site of the abduction

Several weeks earlier, Irgun had learned about a Jewish refugee from Vienna named Aaron Weinberg, who had fled to Palestine and was working as a clerk at a British military resort camp in north Netanya. This information was already known to the local SHAI (the intelligence arm of the Haganah) commander, Yehoshua Bar-Ziv. Weinberg, who was a SHAI agent, was entrusted by Bar-Ziv with striking up a relationship with two sergeants from the British Army Intelligence Corps, Clifford Martin and Mervyn Paice, who used to spend a lot of time in the camp.

The sergeants were of interest to SHAI since they belonged to the field security unit and worked with the Tulkarm police, which was in charge of the Sharon district. Their mission was to circulate within the local population and pick up information on the Irgun and Lehi and their supporters. They often operated in civilian clothes and were not subject to standing orders intended to prevent abduction attempts. Notably, they did not have to leave camp in groups of four, and sometimes went unarmed.[11][page needed] Weinberg was very successful in his task, and occasionally got the sergeants to go out to the Netanya beach.

On one of those visits, on the night of Saturday, 4 July, they were noted by an Irgun member sitting in the Gan Vered café who heard them speaking English and who followed them back to the camp. Based on his information, a week later Irgun made arrangements to kidnap them in the hope that they would return to the café.

On 11 July 1947, a group of Irgun men retrieved weapons, chloroform, cloths and ropes from a hidden cache. After the recent failures, the Irgun militants in Netanya were sceptical regarding the chances of this kidnapping attempt. Because of this they did not go to any great lengths to cover their tracks, considering the complicated operation they were planning: they did not steal or borrow a vehicle or bring in non-local members who were less likely to be recognized. Furthermore, Yosef Meller, a longtime Netanya resident and newly recruited Irgun member, volunteered to use his black taxi cab, which was well known around town, for the kidnapping. The abduction operation was led by Benjamin Kaplan, who had been freed in the Acre Prison break. At nightfall one basic precaution was taken; the taxi's license plates were changed in an attempt to prevent it being recognized in the course of the abduction.

That evening Weinberg and the intended victims showed up once more at the café. Martin and Paice were in civilian clothes, were unarmed, were outside their camp at hours typically forbidden for British soldiers to be outside camp, and were not part of a group of four.[2] After being informed that his intended victims were there, Kaplan posted his men around the coffee shop and along the road leading north to the camp and waited for an opportunity to perform the abduction. Weinberg and the two sergeants did not leave the coffee shop until after midnight. The two sergeants had decided to walk Weinberg home before returning to camp. Meller's cab, with Kaplan and three others inside, started after them. It pulled over and the four men emerged, masked and holding guns, and assaulted their targets. After resistance by one of the sergeants, they were forced into the car and Meller drove off. Weinberg was left, under guard, in an orchard in north Netanya, from where he was later taken to another orchard and released.

The hostages were taken to the inactive "Feldman" diamond polishing plant in the industrial area on the south side of Netanya, and were held in a specially-built underground chamber that had been built in the plant's cellar. It was sealed with an aluminum-ringed airtight hatch that was hidden by a thick layer of sand, and there were sandbags under the hatch to prevent any hollow sound if it were tapped. Inside was a canvas bucket, a week's supply of food and two cylinders of oxygen which the sergeants were instructed to use to refresh the air in their cell. Every few days while they were there, the bucket was emptied and the food re-stocked.[2]

The search for Paice and Martin[edit]

Weinberg remained in the orchard until daybreak, and was found by a watchman at 5:30 AM. He reported the kidnapping to the British Army. Shortly afterwards he was interviewed by the Palestine Police Force, and gave them the details of what had happened. Reports of the kidnapping also reached the Haganah in Netanya. Oved Ben-Ami, the mayor of Netanya, called an emergency council meeting. He did not invite the Revisionist party members, who were identified with the Irgun. The decision was made in accordance with the Yishuv's position, which was published the next day, calling the kidnapping a provocation that might jeopardize what hope was left for clemency for the Irgun members condemned to death. It pleaded for every decent civilian to assist in the search for the hostages.

Meanwhile, Haganah set out to find and release the kidnapped men, by force if necessary. Until that time period, the Haganah had avoided collaboration with the British authorities since the end of the Saison, and on occasion, it had mounted anti-British operations and collaborated with the Irgun and Lehi. However, in the summer of 1947, it began trying to sabotage Irgun and Lehi operations as part of the "Little Saison" due to the fact that UNSCOP was present in Palestine at the time. As a result, it assisted in the search. The SHAI commander in the region arrived in order to personally oversee the search. Unlike the British, the Haganah was familiar with the area, and knew every potential hideout within a ten-mile radius. Despite this, it found no trace of the hostages. Searches by the Jewish Settlement Police and the Palestine Police's Criminal Investigations Department were also fruitless.[8]

Yehoshua Bar-Ziv, who had resigned as SHAI commander in Netanya in the meantime, provided his successor with information about a recently built underground bunker under the house of Irgun member Haim Banai in Ramat Tiomkin. They were convinced that this was where the hostages were kept, and passed that information to Haganah.

All the while, Ben-Ami was desperately trying to pacify the British authorities and promise them that Yishuv would do anything to find the hostages. However, after his conversation with Netanya council members of the Revisionist party, he published an announcement in a newspaper saying that he had been told by Irgun that the hostages would not be returned until the condemned Irgun members' fate was made clear. Subsequently, the British Army placed a cordon around Netanya and the surrounding area of Emek Hefer, which had 20 outlying settlements, a total area of 15,000 people, and on 13 July, began an extensive search effort, codenamed Operation Tiger, to find the sergeants. The area was placed under martial law as 5,000 British troops conducted searches and questioned residents. A total of 1,427 people were interrogated during the operation. Local residents were kept under curfew, and Netanya became a virtual ghost town; its streets were empty save for patrolling British soldiers and armored vehicles.[8][page needed]

At this point Haganah believed that they had accurate information on the location of the hostages. The information made it all the way up to the Haganah chief of staff, Yisrael Galili who passed it on to the Haganah high commander and chairman of the Jewish Agency, David Ben-Gurion. Although the Haganah, acting under the Jewish Agency's direction, had at times cooperated with the Irgun and Lehi and carried out anti-British operations, it was at the time conducting the "Little Saison" against the two groups, attempting to suppress their activities by foiling some of their operations.[8][page needed] Galili, who opposed any collaboration with the British, had ordered preparations for a forced release by the Haganah. Ben-Gurion thought that a forced release, no matter by whom, would lead to the hanging of the condemned in Acre, and Irgun's finger would be pointed at the Agency, Haganah and SHAI. He therefore made two decisions: First, the hostages were to be released by force; but not by Haganah, as Galili suggested, but by the British. Second, the information regarding the location of the hostages was to be passed anonymously not only to the British, but to Ben-Ami as well. By doing this he hoped to give the impression that Ben Ami had passed the information to the British. Ben-Gurion was relying on this, plus Ben Ami's call to the Netanya residents "to leave no stone unturned"[12] to attract reprisals from Irgun if the hostages were rescued.

On 17 July, British MPs Richard Crossman and Maurice Edelman appealed for the release of the sergeants, as did other public figures and private citizens in Britain.[8] The father of Mervyn Paice wrote a letter to Menachem Begin asking him to spare his son's life. The letter was sent to Palestine addressed to the commander of the Irgun. In Palestine, a postal worker who was a member of the Irgun ensured it found its way to Begin, who in an open radio broadcast on Kol Tsion HaLokhemet (the Irgun's radio station) responded "You must appeal to your government that thirsts for oil and blood."[13]

Leak of information to Irgun[edit]

Ben-Gurion's plan did not work. In the course of a meeting with Revisionist party member Yaakov Chinsky, Ben Ami told him that Haganah knew the kidnapped soldiers were being imprisoned under Banai's house. Chinsky, who knew the information was wrong, passed it to Avraham Assaf, the Irgun's district commander in the Netanya area. Assaf knew the hostages were not in Banai's cellar, but it did contain the equipment used in the kidnapping, and he thought its discovery might assist the British in finding the kidnappers or their hostages. He therefore arranged to have the evidence removed.

The next day, during the extension given by the British to the Yishuv for the Haganah to conduct its own search, the residents of Netanya were placed under curfew. The British, acting on the information from Haganah, decided to search Banai's house. In the late afternoon the neighbourhood was surrounded by military vehicles, including tanks and armoured cars. Banai and his neighbours were arrested as searches began. However, as the equipment had already been removed, nothing was found.

All the while the hostages were kept in the polishing plant. They had been drugged with chloroform during their abduction and when they came to, Kaplan told them they had been taken hostage. On the advice of Amichai Paglin, the Irgun's Chief of Operations, who arrived from Tel Aviv on the day of the kidnapping, a decoy was arranged: a pickup truck was loaded with kidnapping equipment and sent to Herzliya, where it was left at the beach, leaving clear traces. Paglin also arranged for oxygen tanks to be brought to the bunker, before returning to Tel Aviv.[12]

Near discovery of hostages by police[edit]

The diamond polishing plant where the hostages were being held was searched twice by the British, but both searches failed to turn up the hostages.

A few hours after Paglin's departure, an incident took place that could have led to the discovery of the hostages: the two lookouts at the plant noticed a police car patrolling the area. Fearing it was heading towards the plant, they hid themselves. The police car was on routine patrol and went on its way, but the guard in the nearby plant noticed them slipping through the window, assumed they were burglars, and called the police.

On an ordinary day the police might not have taken his report seriously, but this time a strong force was sent to investigate, accompanied by a plain-clothes officer. They conducted a search of the plant. However, one of the plant's owners, who did not know about Irgun's unauthorized use of his property, naively convinced them there was nothing in there to concern them. Having found nothing, the policemen left the scene.

The plant was later searched a second time by a British patrol. As the soldiers pushed open the doors, an Irgun guard inside heard them and escaped through a back window. The soldiers heard him and conducted a painstaking search of the plant, but failed to find the hatch.[8]: 228 


Execution of Haviv, Weiss and Nakar[edit]

On 16 July, after three days, the curfew around Netanya was lifted, although the town itself remained isolated.[12] The search continued unsuccessfully, but the cordon was lifted after two weeks, on 26 July. Ben Ami assessed that the British had resolved to hang the condemned men despite the risk to the hostages.

Ben Ami's assessment was correct. On 27 July an official radio announcement said the High Commissioner, Alan Cunningham had given the order to carry out the executions, which were scheduled for 29 July. The superintendent of Acre Prison, Major G.E.G. Charlton, refused to preside over the executions due to the fact that they were to be carried out in secret, rather than in the traditional way, with the execution date announced well in advance and the families of the condemned allowed to visit them prior to the event. He was subsequently relieved of his position. The Inspector of Prisons, Mr. Hackett, was appointed superintendent in his place, and he along with Andrew Clow, the superintendent of Nablus jail, would serve as the chief hangman. On 28 July, it was announced that the three would die the following day. The announcement cast a pall over the Yishuv. The Jewish Agency and Palestine's Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Herzog made last-ditch appeals for the lives of the men to be spared, but to no avail. The Irgun immediately reiterated its warning that the hostages would also die in response. British forces carried out unsuccessful, last-ditch searches in Jerusalem, Kfar Saba, and Ness Ziona for the two sergeants.[14][15]

On 29 July, at the break of dawn, Haviv, Weiss and Nakar were executed. At 2:00 AM, they were visited by Rabbi Nissim Ohana, the Chief Rabbi of Haifa, who administered final prayers to them and carried out a message to their family and friends: "Do not grieve too much, what we have done we did out of conviction."[8] Shortly before 4:00 AM, the prison superintendent, accompanied by high military and police officials, arrived at the death cell.[16] Between 4:00 and 5:00, each man was escorted the gallows and hanged. As they approached the gallows, they sang Hatikvah and were joined by other Jewish prisoners. The bodies were left hanging from the gallows for twenty minutes before being cut down and carried away.[8] Haviv, Weiss, and Nakar thereby became the last of the group known as the Olei Hagardom. In a letter to Menachem Begin, an Irgun prisoner named Chaim Wasserman described the executions:[17]

"Toward evening a party of hangmen arrived. The officers went in and informed the condemned men they were to be executed between four and five in the morning. Their reply was to sing "Hatikvah" and other songs in powerful voices. They then shouted to us that the hangings would begin at four o'clock, in this order: Avshalom Haviv, Meir Nakar, Yaakov Weiss. They added: 'Avenge our blood! Avenge our blood!' We shouted back, 'Be strong! We are with you, and thousands of Jewish youth are with you in spirit.' They replied, 'Thanks,' and went on singing. At two a Sephardi rabbi whom we could not recognize from afar [Rabbi Nissim Ohana] was brought and stayed in the cell 15 minutes. At four in the morning Avshalom began singing "Hatikva," and we joined in loudly, pressing against the bars. At once armed police came up to the visitors' fence near our cell. At 4:03 Avshalom was hanged. At 4:25 we were shaken by the powerful singing of Meir. Hardly able to breathe, we nevertheless joined in. He was hanged at 4:28. At five o'clock the voice of Yaakov, this time alone, penetrated our cell, singing "Hatikva." Again we joined in. Two minutes later he was hanged.... At dawn we informed the prison officers through an Arab warder that we would not be responsible for the life of any Englishman who dared enter the jail yard. We declared a fast and prayed. Later in the morning we found the following inscription on the wall of the cell of the condemned: 'They will not frighten the Hebrew youth in the Homeland with their hangings. Thousands will follow in our footsteps.' Next to it was the Irgun insignia and their three names in the order they were executed."

On 30 July, the three men were buried in Safed. Their funeral cortege was led by a military vehicle. The entire Jewish population of Safed attended the funeral.[16]

Killing of Paice and Martin[edit]

When news began leaking that the three men were to be executed and a country-wide curfew would be imposed at 11:00 PM, Paglin was at a movie. After being called out and told the news, he hurried to Begin's safe house, where he was meeting with members of his high command, where doubts were being raised over the feasibility of hanging the sergeants with the British and Haganah on high alert. Paglin, who had not been allowed to venture into British-controlled areas by the high command for the previous six months, asked to take personal charge of the operation. He was convinced that the sergeants could be hanged inside the plant, and the bodies could be moved to an orange grove and hung there, since attempting to move the two alive would be too great a risk. Since the hangings were meant as a 'lesson for all to see', Irgun wanted the bodies hung up in public. That was so clear that the mayor of Tel Aviv, Yisrael Rokah, feared Irgun would hang them in the city's main square, while in Netanya it was feared that they would be hanged on local lamp posts. Begin approved Paglin's plan. Paglin then slipped out of the house and drove to Netanya in his car, where he collected four Irgun men; Benjamin Kaplan, Yoel Kimchi, Avraham Rubin, and Yosef Meller. They arrived at the diamond plant in the afternoon.[2][8]: 237–238 [18]

In Netanya, they had observed that the streets were filled with British military vehicles patrolling the town, and as a result, they were in a rush to carry out the hangings quickly, lest they get caught in the act. Starting at around 6:00 PM, Paice and Martin were individually taken out of the hatch, hustled into the next room, hooded, tied by the wrists and ankles, stood on a chair, had a noose placed around their necks and then, by the kicking away of the chair, hanged. The first man to be pulled out asked if he could write a message, but was told that there was no time. After twenty minutes, the bodies were taken down.[2][8]: 237–238 

Movement of the bodies[edit]

The grove where the sergeants' bodies were hanged

The next day, early in the morning of 30 July, a taxi brought from Tel Aviv, so as not to be recognized, arrived at the plant. Meanwhile Meller was looking for a route to move the bodies without risking arrest. After several hours such a route was found, and at 9:00 the order was given to move the bodies into the cab. The Irgun group concealed the bodies in bags and moved them out of the plant in broad daylight. They were seen doing this by workers at the neighboring plants.

Many of those were Haganah members, and several of them asked what was in the bags. The Irgun members lied, saying that the bags contained guns, at which point some of the workers suggested that they should be confiscated. One of the Irgun men, David Dahari, took out his pistol and threatened to fire if any of them touched the bags, so they backed off.

From that point time was critical for the Irgun group; it was clearly a matter of time before SHAI—and the British—were informed that Irgun were moving possible bodies. They drove east to a eucalyptus grove near the village of Even Yehuda, about four km from Netanya. They hung the bodies from two adjacent trees and pinned notes to them which read:

Two British spies held in underground captivity since July 12 have been tried after the completion of the investigations of their "criminal anti-Hebrew activities" on the following charges:

  1. Illegal entry into the Hebrew homeland.
  2. Membership of a British criminal terrorist organisation known as the Army of Occupation which was responsible for the torture, murder, deportation, and denying the Hebrew people the right to live.
  3. Illegal possession of arms.
  4. Anti-Jewish spying in civilian clothes.
  5. Premeditated hostile designs against the underground.

Found guilty of these charges they have been sentenced to hang and their appeal for clemency dismissed. This is not a reprisal for the execution of three Jews but a "routine judicial fact."[3]

An anti-personnel mine was then set.[19] Most accounts say that this was buried below the bodies, where it would have targeted anyone cutting them down.

Reactions in Palestine[edit]

At 11:00 on 30 July the Irgun publicly announced the hangings with an announcement on its clandestine radio station and on posters pasted on walls throughout Palestine. The British security forces and Haganah searched intensively for the bodies, but had not found them by the end of the day. Fearing that the mine they had planted might injure a Haganah patrol, the Irgun telephoned the Netanya town council, giving the location of the bodies and a warning about the mine.[2] At 07:00 on the morning of 31 July, the bodies were located by a Jewish Settlement Police patrol, who, because of the warning, stayed clear. Soon British soldiers, Yishuv representatives and reporters arrived at the scene. They observed that the bodies had been partly stripped, their shirts wrapped around their heads and that the bodies appeared "blackened, bloodied."[20]

Having thoroughly checked the surrounding area, the officer in command, Captain D.H. Galatti, began cutting down the body of Clifford Martin using a knife fastened to a pole. When it fell, the mine went off, blowing Martin's body to pieces and knocking sideways the tree from which Paice's body was hung. Despite jumping back, the captain received wounds to his face and a shoulder.[2]

According to a Palestine Police report:

They were hanging from two eucalyptus trees five yards apart. Their faces were heavily bandaged so it was impossible to distinguish their features... Their bodies were a dull black colour and blood had run down their chests which made it appear at first that they had been shot.... The press were allowed to take photographs of the spectacle. When this had been done, it was decided to cut down the bodies. The RE [Royal Engineers] captain and CSM [company sergeant major] lopped branches off the tree which held the right hand body, and started to cut the hang rope with a saw. As the body fell there was a large explosion... The two trees had been completely blown up and their [sic] were large craters where the roots had been. One body was found horribly mangled about twenty yards away... The other body had disintegrated, and small pieces were picked up as much as 200 yards away.[21]

As news regarding the bodies became known throughout Netanya, the residents, fearing reprisals, began stocking food and some even left the city. The council called upon the residents not to believe false rumors and Haganah men stood in the central bus station to prevent people from leaving the city. Irgun boasted about the hangings and a response written by Shmuel Katz was delivered in the Irgun press:

We recognize no one-sided laws of war. If the British are determined that their way out of the country should be lined by an avenue of gallows and of weeping fathers, mothers, wives, and sweethearts, we shall see to it that in this there is no racial discrimination. The gallows will not be all of one color.... Their price will be paid in full.[8][10][22]

The first response came from Ben-Ami, who said that "of all the crimes committed to this day in this country this is the most despicable one, defiling our war of liberation.... I testify that most of our population made desperate efforts to free the kidnapped and prevent this disgrace." The memorial grove was established and still exists.[23]

The Yishuv's official institutions gave similar responses, condemning the perpetrators as murderers of two innocent persons, who took upon themselves the authority to decide in life and death issues. Jamal al-Husayni, head of the Arab Higher Committee compared it with the 1936–1939 Arab revolt in Palestine, saying that the Arabs had not performed such actions.

Reprisals by British troops and policemen[edit]

On the evening of 31 July, groups of British policemen and soldiers went on the rampage in Tel Aviv, breaking the windows of shops and buses, overturning cars, stealing a taxi and assaulting members of the Jewish community. Groups of young Jews then took to the streets and started stoning police foot patrols, which were then withdrawn from the city. On learning of the stonings, without waiting for orders, members of mobile police units temporarily based at the Citrus House security compound drove into Tel Aviv in six armoured vehicles. These policemen opened fire on two buses, killing one Jew and injuring three others on the first bus and killing three more Jews on the second. Policemen also beat passersby, smashed shop windows, and raided two cafés, detonating a grenade in one of them.[2] In one café, they attempted to abduct a Jew, and were beaten back by the patrons.[24] Five Jews were killed and 15 injured.[2] The dead were identified as Tova Harson, Victor Yedidia Mizrahi, Ze'ev Noviakovsky, Kalman Reich, and Yosef Azpai.[25][26]

Investigators trying to find out who was responsible for the killings examined each armoured car's guns and ammunition, but the guns had been cleaned and ammunition replenished. Members of the regular mobile patrols who must have known the truth were interrogated, but refused to divulge any information. In the end, a few policemen were disciplined and the Lydda mobile police units reformed, but no criminal charges were brought.[2]

On 1 August, Paice and Martin were buried in the Ramleh Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery, while at the funeral for some of the Jews killed in the police reprisals, mourners and police clashed again; 33 Jews were injured.[20]

Government reactions[edit]

On 5 August, the British arrested 35 Jewish political leaders in Palestine, all of whom were members of the Revisionist party or the right-wing branch of the General Zionists' party. The mayors of Netanya, Tel Aviv, and Ramat Gan were among those arrested due to them being "known to be able to contact the terrorists." They were held without trial in the Latrun detention camp. The British authorities also announced that henceforth, all Palestinian Jews were forbidden to leave the country until further notice. A long-standing plan to outlaw the Revisionist youth movement Betar as a fertile recruiting ground for the Irgun and Lehi was implemented.[8][11] Betar's headquarters were occupied, and Revisionist newspapers were shut down.

Cunningham authorized the British Army to begin demolishing Jewish homes, a tactic it had previously failed to use during the Jewish insurgency. A Jewish home where an arms cache had been discovered in a routine search was demolished in Jerusalem on 5 August.[11]

Reactions in Britain[edit]

Public and media reaction[edit]

Condemnations of the Irgun's 'bestialities' came from all sections of British society and media. Under the headline 'Murder in Palestine' The Times commented that: 'it is difficult to estimate the damage that will be done to the Jewish cause not only in this country but throughout the world by the cold-blooded murder of the two British soldiers.... The Manchester Guardian, while urging the government that it was 'time to go' from Palestine, similarly noted that the hangings were 'a greater blow to the Jewish nation than to the British government.'[3]

Condemnation of the Irgun by British Jews[edit]

The Jewish Chronicle reported on the issue. In one passage, the JC expressed Anglo-Jewry's shame at the act: 'Although the general public in Britain recognise that Jewry in this country are powerless to prevent the outrages, British Jewry cannot but feel a deep sense of shame that these murders have been committed.' Harold Soref, the editor of the Jewish Monthly, complained that "the victims of Hitler are being replaced in the popular imagination and sentiment by the victims of the Irgun Zvai Leumi."[27]

JC editor John Shaftesley's words, while articulating Anglo-Jewry's abhorrence, can also be interpreted as a plea to British society not to blame Anglo-Jewry for the 'cold-blooded murder of the two British sergeants,' or to seek revenge against the community. Shaftesley's plea was ignored by some, and during the bank holiday weekend, which began on 1 August 1947, and throughout the following week, British Jews across the country felt the powerful impact of the incident, facing a sharp rise in hatred, abuse and ultimately rioting.[3][page needed]


Headstone of Sergeant Clifford Martin (INT CORPS) in Ramla British Military Cemetery, Israel
Headstone of Sergeant Mervyn Paice (INT CORPS) in Ramla British Military Cemetery, Israel

On a summer bank holiday weekend, Friday, 1 August 1947, anti-Jewish violence and rioting began. News of the "cold blooded Irgun murders" spread across Britain through extensive coverage in the British media. The tabloid press reported the "Irgun murders" in graphic detail. The Daily Express carried a large picture on the front page, showing the victims as they were found with hands tied behind their backs, shirts wrapped round their heads and hung from eucalyptus trees under the headline: "Hanged Britons: picture that will shock the world". The violence began in Liverpool and subsequently spread across Britain's urban centres from London to Glasgow.[3]

Incidents were reported in West Derby (Liverpool, England), where a wooden synagogue was burnt down; in Glasgow, Scotland where "bricks were thrown through the windows of Jewish shops"; and in Liverpool City Centre, where "over a hundred windows belonging to Jewish owners were shattered". The rioting was most intensive and longest lasting in Liverpool: For over five days the city saw violence and looting, and the Lord Mayor issued an appeal to the city "to assist the police in the prevention of attacks on property and shops supposedly owned by Jews". In total over 300 Jewish properties were affected by the rioting in Liverpool, and the police made 88 arrests.[3][28]

Synagogues and easily recognizable Jewish properties and symbols throughout Britain were targeted by attackers. In Hendon, London, windows of the Raleigh Close synagogue were smashed and a piece of paper was found with the words "Jews are sin". Blackpool and St John's Wood synagogues received telephone calls threatening that they would be blown up, and the walls of Plymouth Synagogue were attacked and marked with anti-semitic signs and slogans: "Hang all Jews" and "Destroy Judah". In other attacks on Jewish targets, gravestones in a Jewish cemetery were uprooted in Birmingham, "Hitler was right" was daubed on properties in North Wales, and Jewish property in Halifax, Pendleton, Lancashire, Bolton, Holyhead and Southend were also attacked. In a further incident, the back door of the JC representative's home in Cardiff was marked "Jews—good old Hitler". On 5 August 1947, The Times and Jewish Chronicle reported that in Eccles near Manchester, a crowd of 700 people "cheered each hit" as missiles pelted Jewish properties smashing their windows.[3]

Denunciations of anti-Semitic violence[edit]

Denunciation of the rioting was expressed from within and without Anglo-Jewry. In a clear indicator of the severity of the disturbances, Home Secretary James Chuter Ede gave a written statement to Parliament regarding the matter.

The Manchester Guardian (the former name of The Guardian before it moved its head office to London) called the violence 'a disgrace'.[29]

The Jewish Chronicle, which since Shaftesley's appointment as editor had assiduously followed a restrained and sensitive editorial line regarding Anglo-Jewry's position in society, was provoked by the rioting to explicitly express its anger and disillusionment with Anglo-Jewry's treatment by its compatriots.[30]

The Association of Jewish ex-Servicemen placed a wreath at the plinth of the Cenotaph with the inscription: 'In memory of Sergeant Martin and Sergeant Paice, who died doing their duty in Palestine. From the Jewish ex-Service comrades of the British forces.'[3]


The UNSCOP committee, which operated in Palestine at that time, could not have ignored the act. However, it was soon overshadowed by a new crisis over the Exodus, a Haganah-operated ship laden with 4,500 Jewish displaced persons, which set sail from France and was refused entry to Palestine, instead being sent back to Port-de-Bouc.[20]

The hanging of the British sergeants has been described as a major factor in the British decision to evacuate Palestine. J. Bowyer Bell referred to the affair as the "straw that broke the Mandate's back", and wrote that it was a major factor that resulted in a consensus to evacuate Palestine.[8] In 1961, Arthur Creech Jones, who had been British Colonial Secretary in 1947, wrote that the "deadly blow against British patience and pride" caused by the hangings was one of four major factors that pushed the British cabinet to the decision to evacuate Palestine in September 1947, the other three being the inflexible and irreconcilable political demands of the Arabs and Jews, the unrelenting pressure that stationing a large garrison in Palestine to deal with the Jewish insurgency as well as threats of greater Zionist resistance and an Arab uprising put on an already strained British economy, and the mounting criticism over the government's failure to replace the White Paper of 1939 with a new policy.[11] Colonel Archer Cust, who had been Chief Assistant to the Chief Secretary of Palestine, said that "The hanging of the two British sergeants did more than anything to get us out" in a 1949 lecture to the Royal Empire Society.[31]

Menachem Begin claimed in his book The Revolt that the "cruel act" was one of the events which tipped the balance in the British withdrawal from Palestine.[1] During the last interview of his life in 1991, Begin said that the decision to hang the sergeants was the most difficult decision he made as Irgun commander, but said that "after the brutal act there were no more hangings of Jews in Palestine."[32] Former Irgun high command member Shmuel Katz later said that "The British understood that after the Olei Hagardom went to the noose with their heads held high and after the sergeants were hanged, there was no more scope for escalation. The game was over."

In a November 1948 letter regarding an entrance visa to the United States for Menachem Begin, Robert A. Lovett wrote that it might spark a conflict with Britain, due to Begin's association with Irgun acts including the hangings of Paice and Martin.

In 1981 it was claimed that Clifford Martin met the Halachah definition of a Jew, since his mother came from a Jewish family from Cairo.[33][page needed]

The hanging of the Sergeants is one of the many historical incidents referenced in Michael Moorcock's book Breakfast in the Ruins - though Moorcock's fictionalized depiction considerably departs from the actual historical circumstances. Bernice Rubens also depicted a fictionalized version of the event in her novel The Sergeants' Tale.


  1. ^ a b c d e "The Gallows". website with content by Professor Yehuda Lapidot. Archived from the original on 23 April 2008. Retrieved 17 January 2008.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Bethell, Nicholas (1979). The Palestine Triangle. London: André Deutsch. pp. 323–340. ISBN 0-233-97069-X.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i Bagon, Paul (2003), The Impact of the Jewish Underground upon Anglo Jewry: 1945-1947 (PDF), M.Phil Thesis, St Antony's College, University of Oxford, pp. 127, 128, retrieved 15 January 2008
  4. ^ "Britain's last anti-Jewish riots". New Statesman. 22 May 2012. Retrieved 23 November 2020.
  5. ^ Segev, Tom (2001). One Palestine, Complete: Jews and Arabs Under the British Mandate. London: Abacus. p. 401. ISBN 978-0-349-11286-2.
  6. ^ Guy Carmi, On the Constitutionality of the Death Penalty in Israel
  7. ^ a b c Gordis, Daniel: Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel's Soul (2013)
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Bowyer Bell, John: Terror Out of Zion (1976)
  9. ^ UNSCOP Report to the General Assembly Archived 1 April 2009 at the Wayback Machine
  10. ^ a b "The Role of Jewish Defense Organizations in Palestine". Jewish Virtual Library. Retrieved 1 February 2008.
  11. ^ a b c d Hoffman, Bruce: Anonymous Soldiers (2015)
  12. ^ a b c Eshel, Aryeh (1990). The Breaking of the Gallows (in Hebrew). Zmora Beitan. pp. 307–312.
  13. ^ The 'cruel revenge' that helped drive the British out of Palestine
  14. ^ Three Gunmen Hanged
  15. ^ Three Palestine Youths to Be Hanged Today; Irgun Warns Hostages Will Die
  16. ^ a b "Hanging of Irgunists Considered Move by Palestine Govt. To Provoke Disturbances". 30 July 1947.
  17. ^ Bygone Days: They went to the gallows singing 'Hatikva'
  18. ^ Alon, Mati: Holocaust and Redemption, p. 251
  19. ^ A. J. Sherman (2001). Mandate Days: British Lives in Palestine, 1918-1948. The Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 0-8018-6620-0.
  20. ^ a b c "Eye for an Eye for an Eye". Time Magazine. 11 August 1947. ISSN 0040-781X. Archived from the original on 12 July 2007. Retrieved 24 January 2008.
  21. ^ Fisk, Robert:The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East
  22. ^ Ph.D, Mitchell D. Bard (1 September 1999). The Complete Idiot's Guide to Middle East Conflict. Penguin. p. 150. ISBN 9780786542376.
  23. ^ Netanya, Sergeant's Grove
  24. ^ Four Jews Killed, Many Injured when British Police Riot in Tel Aviv
  25. ^ Troops and Jews Clash in Tel Aviv Following Riots; Police Attempt to Disrupt Funeral
  26. ^ The Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle, 8 August 1947
  27. ^ Wyman, David S. and Rosenzveig, Charles H.: The World Reacts to the Holocaust, p. 618
  28. ^ "Jewish Chronicle". 8 August 1947. p. 1.
  29. ^ Article from the Manchester Guardian, quoted in Paul Bagon's 2003 M.Phil thesis: "The anti-Jewish demonstrations which have marred the week-end in Manchester, Liverpool and other towns are clearly the work of the most irresponsible and hooligan elements in our population. But that does not make these outbreaks less menacing or less disgraceful ... The man who condemns the Zionists in Palestine on account of the crimes of the Irgun gangsters is only a degree better than the youth who expresses his hatred by mobbing the innocent men and women of Cheetham Hill or Wavertree. There is no political fault so common or so dangerous as this primitive confusion between many and few. The murder of the British sergeants in Palestine was a brutal crime, the act of crazed fanatics. answer terrorism in Palestine with terrorism in England is sheer Hitlerism. We must be desperately careful to see that we do not let ourselves be infected with the poison of the disease we had thought to eradicate."
  30. ^ Article from The Jewish Chronicle quoted in Paul Bagon's 2003 M.Phil thesis: "Passion and fanaticism have, alas, spread to Britain itself and Britain's reputation suffers in consequence. The anti-Jewish riots which have occurred in several towns, on the pretext of the Palestine murders, are shameful in the extreme, both for themselves and for the fact that they represent the newest extension of the evil principle of holding the innocent to blame for the guilty."
  31. ^ Begin, Menachem: The Revolt (1951)
  32. ^ Shilon, Avi: Menachem Begin
  33. ^ The Sanctity of Death:. The History of Death Penalty in Israel. Shai J. Lavi.[1]

Further reading[edit]

Coordinates: 32°16′12.09″N 34°53′14.74″E / 32.2700250°N 34.8874278°E / 32.2700250; 34.8874278