Holocaust survivors whose efforts to reach Palestine after the war were halted by the Royal Navy were sent in 1947 to grim camps in Germany and Austria surrounded by barbed wire and watchtowers.
But they did not go without a fight, according to secret documents released this week by the National Archive.
The struggle between well-equipped troops and the refugees brought deep embarrassment and international criticism for the British government.
The “illegal immigrants” from the ship Exodus — captained by Yossi Harel, who died last month — were sent to internment in Germany as a result of a government decision to get tough with Jews attempting to break the Royal Navy’s blockade of Palestine.
Secret Cabinet minutes show ministers would not countenance “in any circumstances that [the refugees] be returned to Cyprus or Palestine”. Instead, they would be sent back to Europe in three British prison ships, in a move codenamed Operation Oasis.
“It will be most discouraging to the organisers of this traffic if they end up by returning from whence they came,” said Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin.
First port of call was Port-de-Bouc near Marseilles, but the French authorities would not aid British attempts to force the refugees to disembark. A decision was taken that the ships should proceed to Hamburg, in the British zone of Germany, despite warnings from diplomats that “an announcement of a decision to send immigrants back to Germany will produce violent, hostile outburst in the press”.
In an attempt to deflect criticism, the Foreign Office issued a statement blaming “Zionist threats and propaganda” for dissuading the refugees from disembarking in France. Yet the army received a secret Whitehall memo ordering that “disembarkation will be carried out with the assistance of troops, and physical force if necessary”.
There was recognition that British troops faced an unpleasant task, and so they were supplied with fresh uniforms and provisions “including beer and cigarettes”. Meanwhile, “the Jews are thinly clad and supplies are short”.
A graphic description of the battle as disembarkation began was written by commanding officer Lt Col Gregson, who had served in Palestine and was placed in charge of the operation.
He reported that on the biggest ship, the Empire Rival, the refugees disembarked quickly, “stimulated” by a home-made bomb they had hidden.
On the Runnymede Park, the officer said he considered using tear gas against the refugees, but “if tear smoke is used there is always a risk of a panic and injuries. The Jew is liable to panic.”
Paratroopers and military police attempted to remove the refugees from the holds of the ship, but “the Jews were fighting madly all the way”, wrote Lt Col Gregson. “In several cases the resistance, even by children, was fanatical.”
Troops came under fire from refugees throwing “every available weapon, from biscuit tins to bulks of timber”. One soldier “was downed with half a dozen Jews on top kicking and tearing at him. About 90 per cent of the Jews had to be dragged up the stairs from the holds.”
A different view was given by Noah Barou from the World Jewish Congress. “The disembarkation was a very painful, heartbreaking picture. I consider the operation was, from the military point of view, very bad.
“The soldiers were very young and I am told some were stationed before in Palestine. They went into the operation like a football team and did not understand the languages of the refugees.”
Dr Barou said he had also witnessed violence at one of the detention camps, Poppendorf, in Austria, where detainees had burnt an effigy of Bevin.
“I counted out 68 people being carried out by soldiers, four to eight soldiers to each one. Over 20 were covered in blood and carried on stretchers with their heads covered. Many were shouting at the troops ‘Hitler commandos’ and ‘gentlemen fascists’.”
Jewish MP Sidney Silverman visited Poppendorf. He told the Cabinet that the “entire place is surrounded with barbed wire... If the policy of returning these people to Germany in these conditions is presented to the whole world, it will be seen as wanton retaliation.”
Bernard Josephs has been given a lifetime award by the Next Century Foundation