Secret documents reveal plans for 'British Haganah' in Palestine as Mandate ended

A telegram from March 1948

A telegram from March 1948

British men and women living in Jerusalem during the last days of the Mandate period planned to establish a "British Haganah" to protect themselves.

In a series of secret documents from the colonial period, newly released by the national archives after almost seven decades, the uncertainty felt by the British in what was then Palestine in the spring of 1948 becomes apparent.

Members of the British community in Jerusalem met in early 1948 to discuss setting up a group, which they described as a "British Haganah", noting that it was "the first time in 42 years" that they were discussing the question of protection.

The Jerusalem British community council was created "for the protection of their individual and collective interests", although it was predicted that the situation would not deteriorate "to such extent that all physical means will be used for protection". But a document explained that the aim "would be protection of life and property" and stating that "about 100 men of the community will be able to use arms". It continued: "The problem of arms will certainly not be a difficulty… as the withdrawing administration will provide them with enough equipment".

Minutes from regular meetings held from January to April detail discussion about medical supplies and policing arrangements for after the end of the Mandate period, including consideration of whether remaining British personnel should be concentrated "in a distinct and neutral residential area" and whether "a municipal police force in Jerusalem… could be left in being after the evacuation".

From the start of the year a series of warnings were issued urging Britons who were not government workers to leave Palestine "by the end of April", because "thereafter it will not be possible to arrange escort or transport facilities for them". On April 19, the High Commissioner noted that after the next day, any Britons who remained in the area did so at their own risk.

British officials seemed concerned not least as to who would bear the cost of the conflict, with one document noting that "in the event of a serious worsening of the situation many British subjects will approach this Government or subsequently His Majesty's Government's Political Mission, with requests for evacuation".

In a telegram to the Foreign Office on March 30, the High Commissioner for Palestine wrote that "the question arises regarding the care of British subjects… after the evacuation of Jerusalem". Sir Alan Cunningham explained that there would be around "100 Britishers", and that while they had been advised to stockpile supplies "the question of their subsistence during such a period is causing some anxiety".

In a sign that standards were not diminished even as war was imminent, a document from March 1948 reveals discussion about the provision of a British chauffeur for the representative arriving to oversee the transition.

But it was not all panic and planning for the worst. One document contained a request for British officials to acknowledge the efforts of those remaining in the area "to carry on the good work and keep the flag flying". And the minutes from a community council meeting two months before the British left reveal that a screening of the film Great Expectations had been arranged for members for March 17 – although there is no mention of whether the event went ahead as planned.

Last updated: 11:09am, April 26 2013