The Royal Navy and the Palestine Patrol. By Ninian Stewart. ISBN 0-7146-8243-3. Portland, Oreg.: Frank Cass, 2002. Photographs. Appendixes. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Pp. xvi, 217. $25.00.
Few post-World War II peacetime naval assignments were as difficult as that given the Royal Navy off the Palestinian coast from 1945 until Britain withdrew from the Palestinian mandate in 1948. Thousands of desperate [End Page 286] holocaust survivors attempted to escape from Europe to Palestine; they had not only the support of much of world public opinion (though not that of the Arabs), but also the backing of the United Nations and its Relief and Rehabilitation Authority (UNRRA) and a number of European governments, including France and Italy. The Royal Navy, for its part, was struggling to maintain a worldwide presence at a time of serious cutbacks in both ships and men, which made the task no easier.
Ninian Stewart prepared this study as an official Naval Staff History in 1996 essentially as a fiftieth anniversary commemoration; this is the first such compilation to be made available immediately for public consumption. Though the book reads like the official document it is, it is fascinating nevertheless in its detail. There was nothing simple about the Navy's task of intercepting immigrants defined by Britain as illegal. Refugee ships sometimes organized very spirited resistance to boarding, which required the use of firearms, tear gas, and other persuaders; lives were sometimes lost as a result. Conditions aboard the immigrant ships were commonly horrible, the passengers desperate for food, water, and medical aid. Zionist organizations on shore did their best to sabotage British vessels in the main port of Haifa, and constant vigilance was essential. Legal difficulties made it necessary for the most part to stop immigrant ships only when they were within the three-mile limit, which was seldom easy. Numbers could be daunting: the immigrant ships Pan Crescent and Pan York, sailing in December 1947, carried between them over 15,000 immigrants, and when they were diverted to Cyprus, they were escorted by a force that included two cruisers, two destroyers, and two frigates. But overall, Stewart makes a persuasive case that Royal Navy personnel showed extraordinary restraint, and the animosities generated at the time seem generally to have been short-lived.
Without doubt the most famous episode of the Patrol was the arrest of
the SS President Warfield, better known to the world as Exodus
1947, whose 4,554 immigrants were "arrested" only after fighting
off boarding attempts by five destroyers for some hours. This case
attracted such attention because Britain attempted to apply a policy of
refoulement, i.e., sending the immigrants back to their country
of origin, which in this case was designated as the British occupied
zone of Germany, of all places. That policy soon went overboard, but the
damage to Britain's reputation was done. It is possible to wish for more
discussion in this book of policy decisions on high, and to fault some
sections for a certain naiveté regarding "well-meant efforts to
hold the balance of fair play between Arab and Jew" (p. 37) which take
little account of the imperial interests dictating Britain's Palestine
policy in those years. Still, it is a valuable study which for the first
time relates the British Navy's side of this particularly controversial
peacetime naval operation.
Briton C. Busch
Hamilton, New York