THE JORDANIANS ATTACK WEST JERUSALEM
by Eric Hammel
Copyright © 1992 by Eric Hammel
At 1330, after two hours of sporadic and inconclusive duels along Jerusalem's Green Line, the little war in Jerusalem finally boiled over. The event that finally forced Israel to act on a much grander scale began at noon with an order from King Hussein to Brigadier Ata Ali Haza'a, the commander of the Jerusalem-based King Talal Infantry Brigade. The monarch directed Haza'a to occupy the long, broad ridge in southern Jerusalem that incorporated Government House, formerly the residence of the British High Commissioner for the League of Nations Mandate in Palestine and lately the headquarters of the United Nations Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO). The sprawling U.N. compound and the entire ridge upon which it sat presented a commanding view of the entire southern half of the city. Israelis, who had had little use for the British and now had little more than contempt for what they saw as being a pro-Arab United Nations, took great pleasure in calling the hill by its Biblical name, Jebel Mukaber--the Hill of Evil Counsel.
Interestingly, Radio Amman had announced the seizure of Jebel Mukaber at 1030, fully three hours before the Jordanian operation actually began. The Israelis had taken notice of the announcement, but the government had been unwilling to do anything to deflect the presumed blow in advance. In any case, for Jordanian troops to seize the Jebel Mukaber was really throwing down the gauntlet; it was an act that would certainly evoke a hostile response from the Israelis. It was also an act that immediately confused and alarmed the Israeli military authorities, for the hill was in the south of the city, in the exact opposite direction of Mount Scopus, which is where the Israelis expected any Jordanian blow to fall. There were 120 lightly armed Israelis on Mount Scopus, and many more as close to it as they could get. But there were only five Israeli soldiers in proximity to Government House. They were guarding Kibbutz Ramat Rachel, which had been evacuated days earlier.
The unit that Hussein specifically ordered Brigadier Haza'a to employ in the seizure of Government House was a battalion of the Imam Ali Infantry Brigade that had been brought into East Jerusalem on June 2. In fact, during his June 3 inspection tour of Jerusalem, the king had given Haza'a and the battalion commander, Major Badi Awad, direct orders to reconnoiter Jebel Mukaber and Government House from the Jordanian side of the truce line. This Major Awad had done, so, when the moment of truth was upon him, he was fully prepared to send two of his three small infantry companies up the hill.
The 150 Jordanian infantrymen climbed the hill by way of a motor road. They encountered most of the U.N. staff and a number of their dependents--about 100 souls in all--in a small wooded area just to the north of the main U.N. headquarters building. The civilians had taken shelter in the woods because several Jordanian artillery rounds that had been meant to pass over the hill toward targets in West Jerusalem had clipped several structures atop the hill.
While a handful of U.N. military officers and civilian officials complained bitterly to Major Awad and other officers about the incursion into the neutral zone, the Jordanian infantrymen set to digging in along the western and southern crests of the ridge. Several jeep-mounted 106mm recoilless rifles were driven up from East Jerusalem, and an artillery forward-observer team began spotting targets that had hitherto been visible only on maps. The U.N. officials could do little to stop the Jordanians from occupying the woods and outlying buildings, but several of them manhandled a Jordanian machine gun out of Government House itself when the crew tried to set the weapon up in a second-floor window. The U.N. commander, Norwegian Air Force General Odd Bull, argued vehemently but to no avail with Major Awad.
In short order, the Jordanian artillery forward observer was directing fire from a 25-pounder battery against Kibbutz Ramat Rachel, to the south, and Zahal's Allenby Barracks, to the west. At the barracks, one of the Jerusalem Infantry Brigade's four second-line infantry battalions was just then mobilizing. The five-man squad at Ramat Rachel was forced to take cover, and the second-line infantry battalion had to evacuate the barracks after the battalion commander, a company commander, and several soldiers were wounded.
As soon as Jebel Mukaber was firmly under his control, Major Awad ordered his reserve company to advance against Ramat Rachel, and a platoon was sent forward to occupy the Israeli Ministry of Agriculture experimental farm in the neutral zone west of Government House. The five Israeli infantrymen holding the little kibbutz were allowed by higher authority to flee, but the Jordanian troops on their way to the experimental farm were stopped cold when the farm director's wife and an elderly auxiliary policemen fired an ancient Czech light machine gun at them. The Jordanian troops backtracked into a treeline bordering the farm and, before they could muster another attempt, two reinforced companies from the Jerusalem Infantry Brigade's Infantry Battalion 161 rushed up the hill to occupy the experimental farm in force. The remainder of Infantry Battalion 161 beat the Jordanian company into Ramat Rachel.
All along the truce line, Jordanian soldiers were firming up their positions while waiting to see what the Israelis were going to do about increasingly strident provocations, particularly the seizure of Jebel Mukaber. Most of the Jordanian troops and officers did not know very much about what was going on beyond their little nodes of hostility, but all the news that was reaching them was good. Radio Amman was reporting the death of the Israeli Air Force and uncontested penetrations by several Egyptian divisions into southern and south-central Israel. Across the way, where Israeli Reservists from the Jerusalem Infantry Brigade were trying to cope, there was not much more news to be had. Kol Yisrael, the Israeli national radio station, wasn't saying anything. However, Jordanians and Israelis alike were thinking, "Now is the time; now is the time to strike. Now is the time to correct the mistakes of 1948."
Brigadier General Uzi Narkiss had been dreaming about taking control of all of Jerusalem off and on for nearly two decades--ever since the relief force he had commanded in 1948 had broken into the Old City, had fought a bloody battle there, and then had been thrown out with heavy casualties. Jerusalem was an old wound Jerusalemite Narkiss never quite allowed to heal, and he often thought about what had gone wrong in 1948.
Now, however, since he had become one of his nation's senior military officers, Uzi Narkiss's plans were less sanguinary than his dreams. He only hoped he might have a chance to ease some of the pressures and many discomforts the 1948 truce had imposed upon his fellow Jerusalemites. In the week before June 5, 1967, all Narkiss thought he might be able to get out of the impending war was a band-aid here and a lifeline there--a snip, a cut, a stitch. However, it happened that the Jordanian occupation of Jebel Mukaber and Government House played more into Narkiss's decades-old dream than into the modest plan he had formulated.
It was Narkiss's plan that his first moves in Jerusalem--once the government authorized any moves--would be a breakthrough to the enclave on Mount Scopus, followed by some sort of pretext to get Israeli troops atop Jebel Mukaber. That way, Israelis would be in control of the dominating heights to the north and the south of the Old City, and from there they could extend their holdings along the curve of ridges and hills that further dominated the Old City from the east. Narkiss knew exactly how he was going to get a large force atop Mount Scopus--a direct assault to open a permanent route to the enclave--but he had no clear idea about how to get troops atop neutral Jebel Mukaber. Nevertheless, as early as 0930 on June 5, Narkiss ordered the commander of the Jerusalem Infantry Brigade to be prepared to seize both heights, and he made his first official requests to Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin at 1130 and 1150. Rabin said "No" both times, and a third request, this time to Deputy Chief of Staff Chaim Bar-Lev, was answered with a terse "Nyet!" However, Narkiss was not easily deterred; he kept telling the Jerusalem Infantry Brigade commander to be prepared to seize both objectives at a moment's notice.
In the end, Narkiss's dilemma with respect to Jebel Mukaber was resolved by the King of Jordan. When Major Badi Awad's infantry battalion appeared around formerly neutral Government House, Narkiss had all the pretext he could have craved.
The initial Israeli decision to respond to the Jordanian occupation of Government House was made on his own authority by Lieutenant Colonel Asher Driezin, the combative 34-year-old Regular in command of the Jerusalem Infantry Brigade's Infantry Battalion 161. Driezin was at the Allenby Barracks, due west of Government House, directing his own mortars against Jordanian positions. The moment he heard that Jordanian troops had attempted to occupy the Israeli experimental farm just to the west of Government House, he sent two companies of his battalion directly to the farm, and only then did he transmit news of his action to his brigade commander, Colonel Eliezer Amitai. By then, acting on his own authority, Amitai was already at work implementing a long-standing plan to counter a long-feared Jordanian occupation of Jebel Mukaber. The Jerusalem Infantry Brigade's single squadron of French Sherman tanks and the brigade reconnaissance company had been alerted to undertake a counterattack alongside Infantry Battalion 161.
As soon as Lieutenant Colonel Driezin finished speaking with Colonel Amitai, he, his runner, and a forward observer for the battalion's mortars sprinted out of the Allenby Barracks and ran all the way up the hill to the experimental farm. Without regard to the damage they might cause to the U.N. facility, Driezin ordered his battalion's 81mm and 60mm mortars to open fire on the Jordanian troops digging in along the treeline. At the same time, machine guns set up in the forwardmost Israeli positions succeeded in forcing the nearest Jordanians to pull back out of sight of the experimental farm.
Half the Jerusalem Infantry Brigade's French Sherman tanks and all its reconnaissance halftracks and jeeps were on the way. As soon as they arrived, the two companies of Infantry Battalion 161 that were already at the experimental farm were to join in coordinated attacks against two key positions atop Jebel Mukaber. The first was Antenna Hill, the highest point atop the ridge, on which the U.N. force had set up a radio antenna. The other was Government House itself. Once these positions were in Israeli hands, the attack was to continue on to Government House's east gate in order to sever the north-south Jerusalem-Bethlehem secondary road that passed right by. Then the Israelis were to turn south to attack out of the U.N. neutral zone and through a heavily defended portion of Jebel Mukaber known as the Sausage. Finally, once through the Sausage, the Israelis were to proceed partway down the ridge to occupy the Arab town of Sur Bahir and a Jordanian defensive zone that dominated Kibbutz Ramat Rachel.
By the time eleven of the Jerusalem Infantry Brigade's twenty-one French Shermans tanks and the brigade reconnaissance company reached the Allenby Barracks, Lieutenant Colonel Asher Driezin was at the experimental farm, and communications with the brigade headquarters were temporarily down. Neither of the company commanders knew what was expected of him, but they decided to advance abreast up a dirt lane that connected the barracks with the experimental farm. The tanks moved ahead in a column on the road itself, and the halftracks and reconnaissance jeeps drove through fields to the right of the roadway. As soon as the Israeli armored vehicles moved out of the Allenby compound, a Jordanian 25-pounder battery set up on Abu Tor, a high defended hill just to the northwest of Jebel Mukaber, opened a furious direct-fire barrage. A number of the Shermans were struck by artillery shells, and all were sprayed with shrapnel, but none were damaged.
The tanks, which arrived first, were met at the farm gate by Asher Driezin, who despite his rank was younger and less experienced than either of the Reserve company commanders. The tank commander, Major Aharon Kamara, an especially aggressive product of guerrilla action in the late 1940s against the British, was all for pitching straight into the Jordanians with all of his tanks. Driezin ordered him to deploy five of the Shermans in the trees to lay down a base of fire while three others advanced on Government House and Antenna Hill and the remaining two made straight for the east gate. Kamara agreed and went off to brief his tank crews. Driezin then went over to brief the reconnaissance company commander, Major Yosef Langotsky, who had just arrived.
Langotsky was more deliberate than Kamara, and even a bit too deliberate for Driezin. He asked the infantry battalion commander to draw a diagram in the dirt so as to avoid blind confrontations between separate Israeli forces attacking through the trees. Driezin was primed to go, and he yelled at Langotsky, "If you are not ready to go immediately, I will shoot you." With that, one of Langotsky's corporals butted in and said to Driezin, "Take it easy. If not, I'll cut your throat."
Only in Zahal! Langotsky remained calm, and he managed to calm Driezin, who knelt in the sand and drew the diagram. Basically, the tanks were to break down the UNTSO compound's west gate and deploy in the trees or attack Government House and Antenna Hill or straight through to the east gate. The halftracks were to follow the tanks through the west gate and, while one section attacked Government House, the main body was to veer southward to attack the Sausage position down its long axis. On foot behind the halftracks, one of Driezin's infantry companies was to turn north to clear the woods in that direction.
Everyone was ready to go and Driezin was about to order the attack to commence when, a little before 1430, Colonel Amitai canceled the attack in a radio message from brigade headquarters. Five minutes earlier, General Odd Bull, the UNTSO chief, had requested a ceasefire, and the government had felt obliged to comply. The Israeli attack was called off. The Israeli tanks and halftracks tried to back down from their attack positions, but eight of the Shermans became mired in mud in the open. When the Jordanians peppered the tanks with small-arms fire, many Israelis returned the fire, and the tanks opened fire at Government House and Jordanian artillery positions on Abu Tor and farther to the east. For some reason, the Jordanian jeep-mounted 106mm recoilless rifles, which could have destroyed the exposed Shermans, never put in an appearance.
The Israelis occupying the experimental farm endured the Jordanian shelling and gunfire for an hour, until, at 1530, Central Command ordered it to complete the occupation of Jebel Mukaber. With eight of eleven tanks unable to advance out of the mud, Lieutenant Colonel Driezin opted for a scaled-own plan.
The three drivable French Shermans crashed through the west gate on cue, but the Israeli infantrymen were unable to cut their way through the barbed-wire fence and had to use the gate also. By the time they got there, the tanks and halftracks were well ahead and the Jordanians defending the gate had recovered. The Israeli company commander was shot dead, several of his men were wounded, and the infantry company took cover.
Asher Driezin was directing the approach of the Israelis on Government House from aboard Major Kamara's headquarters halftrack. He personally accounted for three recoilless-rifle jeeps with a .50-caliber machine gun, but shrapnel from the Jordanian 25-pounders on Abu Tor severed an artery in his right forearm. He stopped firing just long enough to allow a medic to apply a tourniquet and strap the arm to his waist.
By the time the halftracks and lead tanks were approaching Government House, the crews of the mired tanks had managed to tow several of them from the mud. These followed the lead elements into the U.N. compound, one by one, and joined the fighting wherever they were needed.
Two of the Shermans and the command halftrack bypassed Government House and rolled through the east gate. The view was breathtaking, and everyone commented on it. Even the native Jerusalemites had never seen their city from that direction. After having his look, Driezin ordered the halftrack to return to Antenna Hill, which was by then in the possession of three Shermans. He expected to find Major Langotsky and the reconnaissance halftracks below Antenna Hill, ready to attack the Sausage, but only the three tanks were on the scene.
Langotsky and one of his halftrack platoons was at Government House, which took a little more time to secure than Driezin had anticipated. There were a few dozen Jordanians in and around the U.N. headquarters building, and it took considerable ingenuity to pry them out without killing any innocent U.N. personnel or dependents. Once the Jordanian soldiers had been overcome, it also took some haggling with General Bull to get him to stop protesting the violation of his neutral compound. In the end, though Bull insisted on being repatriated via Jordan, he and his staff were led down the west side of Jebel Mukaber to Israel.
Through the fighting for Antenna Hill, the east gate, and Government House--and despite over an hour's fair warning--Major Awad, the bulk of his battalion, and several recoilless rifles remained on the northern brow of Jebel Mukaber, from which Awad inexplicably expected the major Israeli attack to develop. Even after the Israeli tanks broke through the main gate, Awad and most of his soldiers stayed where they were, well away from the fighting. Awad did call in artillery fire from Abu Tor, but it hit his troops as well as the Israelis. When three Shermans attacked the left side of his static position, Awad radioed the King Talal Brigade headquarters and asked for permission to withdraw by way of the east gate. Brigadier Ali Ata Haza'a agreed, and Awad's force pulled out, leaving five dead and twenty-five wounded to the Israelis. Firing from the former Jordanian positions, the French Shermans blanketed Abu Tor.
Shortly after regrouping the main body of his battalion east of Government House, Major Awad asked Brigadier Haza'a to support a counterattack with an artillery barrage. Haza'a complied, and the 25-pounder battery on Abu Tor blanketed the entire summit of Jebel Mukaber. The Jordanian infantry then attacked through their own artillery fire and occupied an undefended salient on the northeast side of the U.N. compound. With that, the Jordanian 25-pounders turned their attention to West Jerusalem, using the King David Hotel as an aiming stake.
As soon as the Jordanian artillery was shifted away from Jebel Mukaber, a small force of Israeli infantrymen and tanks attacked Major Awad's little enclave and, once again, Awad and his soldiers left the field--this time for good. It was then 1550--only twenty minutes after the Israeli attack had begun.
In all, fifteen Jordanians were killed and over thirty were wounded and left to the Israelis. One Israeli died in the attack on Jebel Mukaber, and seven were wounded. Toward dusk, the U.N. colors were struck and an Israeli flag was raised over Government House. By then, Lieutenant Colonel Asher Driezin's makeshift task force of tanks, reconnaissance vehicles and troops, and infantrymen on foot had invaded Jordan.
The inexpert Jordanians had created a catastrophic dilemma for themselves by failing to place one commander over the Jerusalem sector's three separate infantry brigades. East Jerusalem itself was defended by Brigadier Ata Ali Haza'a's King Talal Infantry Brigade, but the adjacent area to the northwest came under the control of the Imam Ali Infantry Brigade, and the area just to the south came under the control of the Hittin Infantry Brigade. Later in the afternoon, the Imam Ali Infantry Brigade was placed under Brigadier Haza'a's command, which helped when the fighting spread to northern Jerusalem, but Haza'a was not put in charge of units on the southern edge of his sector.
The Hittin Infantry Brigade's headquarters was in the Judean city of Hebron, and nearly all the troops were spread out along the ridgeline from Bethlehem all the way to Samua. But two companies of the battalion that was headquartered in Bethlehem were actually in what the Israelis--but not the Jordanians--considered to be the southern environs of East Jerusalem. One of these companies, which had no direct communications link with the King Talal Brigade headquarters, was the one that was occupying the heavily defended portion of Jebel Mukaber known as the Sausage. This company had no part in the seizure or defense of the adjacent U.N. compound, and it is doubtful that its commander ever received news of what happened only a matter of yards to the north of his defensive zone.
Lieutenant Colonel Asher Driezin waited for nearly 30 minutes at the top of Antenna Hill for Israeli troops to emerge from the fog of war that had spread across the UNTSO compound. During that time, he assembled several Sherman tanks, the reconnaissance company jeep platoon, and a platoon from one of the infantry companies.
The Sausage had been built to prevent the Israelis from attacking into East Jerusalem from Ramat Rachel. Its complex of three trenchlines and numerous bunkers were oriented to the southwest. Relying upon standard Zahal breaching tactics, Driezin ordered the jeep platoon's twenty-four men to break down into three teams, one to seize each trenchline. While the tanks fired to force Jordanian heads down, one of the teams crept forward to breach a barbed-wire barrier. As soon as the wire was cut, all the recon troopers dashed across a stretch of open ground and on into the trenches, firing their Uzi submachine guns as they ran. Behind the recon teams, Driezin sent squads from his infantry company to mop up bypassed bunkers and pillboxes.
Only a third of the way through the Sausage, the recon squads began running out of hand grenades and bullets. There was no way to get a resupply from the rear, so they slung their Uzis and picked up Jordanian rifles, which were clumsier but just as deadly at close range. By then, 1630, most of the Jordanians had fled by way of the south end of the defensive zone.
Thirty Jordanians died in the Sausage, and only one Israeli was wounded. The Jordanian commander, a major, was one of the dozen or so wounded Jordanians captured in the Sausage. He could not understand why his countrymen had not counterattacked.
As soon as Driezin reported that his troops were in possession of the Sausage, Colonel Amitai, the Jerusalem Infantry Brigade commander, ordered him to proceed south to Sur Bahir and attack west into a Jordanian strongpoint known as the Bell, which directly overlooked Kibbutz Ramat Rachel. The wounded battalion commander replied that he had only a few dozen soldiers at his direct disposal and that they were nearly out of ammunition, Amitai told Driezin to find more men and that he would send up more bullets and hand grenades.
It took nearly two hours for the Israelis to reopen their attack. In that time, Driezin spread six of the French Shermans and his entire Infantry Battalion 161 across Jebel Mukaber and through the Sausage to deflect a possible Jordanian counterattack. The attack on the Bell would be undertaken by the Jerusalem Brigade's reconnaissance company and five of the Sherman tanks.
It was not yet 1830 and thus still light out when the column of halftracks and tanks proceeded down the Jerusalem-Bethlehem secondary road that ran past the east side of the UNTSO compound and behind the Sausage. The next settlement on the road was Sur Bahir, but the road twisted and turned along the tops and around the edges of several hills. At the first blind curve, the column was stopped by two stalled civilian automobiles that blocked the narrow roadway. The occupants of the cars were merely frightened civilians who were found hiding in a shallow cave. Without further ado, the lead Sherman drove right over the cars, and crushed them flat. For some reason, the second tank tried to go around, and it tipped over the edge of the road. One of the crewmen had been killed in the fall.Major Aharon Kamara made the tough choice and ordered the column to proceed without stopping to see if the tank crewmen needed help. Too much time had been lost to too many little incidents, and the column was now in a vulnerable position on the open road.
It was almost dark when the lead tank reached Sur Bahir. The village was full of anxious and scared civilians, but no soldiers were in evidence. The Bell was to the west, across some fields on the far side of the built-up area. The tanks turned right, off the secondary road, and advanced quickly along the village's main street. Unbeknown to the men in the lead, the sixth Israeli vehicle, a halftrack, broke down and blocked the narrow passage. Thus, only two tanks and three halftracks were advancing in the dark toward the quite formidable Bell.
When the Israelis reached the end of the village street--the lead tank crushed a house that blocked its view of the Bell--Major Langotsky jumped down from his halftrack and asked in a loud voice, "Where is everybody?" More than half the column had failed to arrive, but there was no time to straighten out the mess. Asher Driezin ordered Langotsky to get on with it, and this time Langotsky was as eager as the battalion commander. A brief radio message was flashed to the Infantry Battalion 161 rear command post, and an array of recoilless rifles, machine guns, and tanks assembled in the Sausage and by another infantry battalion that had fortified Ramat Rachel reached out toward the Jordanian trenchworks. Unfortunately, some of the fire from Ramat Rachel went astray in the dark, and the Israeli attackers had to dodge to avoid being struck by the friendly fire.
There was supposed to be a whole infantry company from the Hittin Infantry Brigade manning the six trenches and numerous pillboxes and bunkers that comprised the Bell position, and perhaps there was when the attack started. But, if so, fully half the Jordanians melted away into the night before the Israelis could catch up with them.
The only unobstructed route into the Bell was via an access lane that ran from Sur Bahir into the rear of the defensive position. The lead halftrack, with Major Langotsky and most of the recon troops aboard, drove along the lane, which was paralleled by a deep steel-reinforced granite trench. Langotsky ordered his driver to stop, and he and a few recon troopers entered the trench. They took a prisoner, who was led to the rear. Then, as he was leading his men deeper into the trench, Langotsky shot and killed two Jordanians.
When he heard the first shots fired, an impatient and mildly unnerved Asher Driezin ordered the drivers of the other two halftracks to follow his command group with their vehicles into the Jordanian position. He had no idea where Langotsky's team was, but he feared for the safety of his men.
Langotsky's team was making good progress in the dark, shooting up and grenading bunkers and pillboxes as it went. There was one close call when one of the Shermans far to the rear fired blindly and blew up a bunker moments before the recon men were about to enter it. A few minutes later, a Jordanian soldier shot and killed the recon company communications sergeant.
While the main body of the recon team worked around from the right, Driezin and his headquarters men entered the Bell from the left and worked toward them. Over their heads, a gunner in one of the halftracks pounded bullets into the trench just in front of the running men. At least a dozen Jordanians were killed by grenades, small arms, and the machine gun as Driezin's team worked through the trenchline. Soon, however, the sound of gunfire from the left grew loud enough to cause Asher Driezin to wonder when he was going to run into friends. In the nick of time, the two groups of Israelis stopped firing. In a few moments, they joined up, fortunately without mishap.
The Israelis climbed out of the trench to make way for the halftracks and tanks to fire at other Jordanian positions inside the Bell. Word arrived that a company of Israeli infantrymen was on the way up from Ramat Rachel, and that Driezin's force could return to Government House as soon as it arrived.
The Israeli officers and their men relaxed. Five dark shadows approaching along the trenchline appeared to be joining the group when there was a cry in Arabic, followed by bursts of gunfire. The men on either side of Asher Driezin were shot dead, and he was severely wounded by grenade fragments in the left hand and arm. Two other Israelis were shot and killed, and a lieutenant was shot in the eye. All five Jordanians were killed by a hand grenade that landed in their midst.
It was nearly midnight before the relief company had picked its way across thick belts of Israeli and Jordanian mines to take possession of the Bell, and then the wounded and dead Israelis were evacuated in the reconnaissance company halftracks, first to Government House and then to a hospital in West Jerusalem. Also, the crew of the Sherman tank that had gone off the road to Sur Bahir was eventually rescued.
By the late evening of June 5, most of southern Jerusalem was securely in Israeli hands.