The 11th Hussars and the Arab Rebellion, 1936


In April 1936 a mass revolt of Palestinian Arabs broke out in what is now Israel. Following the Great War, Britain had assumed a mandate to control Palestine (following the collapse of the Turkish Empire), and increased Jewish immigration had caused indigenous Palestinian Arabs to become concerned. British impotence over the Italian invasion of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) had lowered prestige in the area and smuggling of weapons and ammunition into Tel Aviv, followed by a spate of racial attacks and murders, sparked a full-scale revolt.

The 11th Hussars were, at the time, in Egypt, but were quickly moved to Palestine to support British troops there. An RAF Armoured Car Company provided support in the southern part of the country, so the 11th were sent to the north, initially with headquarters at Nablus.

Road conditions at the time were very poor, with no coast road, so all supplies to British forces had to use the road through the central hills, which were completely controlled by Arab guerrillas. It was the job of the 11th with their Rolls Royce armoured cars to offer protection to the lorries carrying supplies, and to infantry units attempting to pacify the area.

The regimental history explains: “The daily convoys with their loads of mails, merchandise and Jewish passengers presented the most tempting bait for ambush, and thus provided the British forces with the best opportunities for bringing the armed bands to action.” This was achieved by an RAF wireless lorry travelling with a convoy. If attacked, a call was sent for assistance, either from the air or ground forces in the area. It was recorded that an RAF strike was undertaken within 9 minutes of a call being made!

The amount of calls on the regiment’s 40-odd armoured cars meant a heavy load as time for rest and maintenance of vehicles was very limited.  A convoy escort might mean a 7-hour trip; for one Squadron of four Troops, one Troop of two armoured cars would support the convoy while two troops waited with the Striking Force, ready to intervene in the event of an attack.

The fourth troop was on call for a night escort: 2- or 3-pounder guns had been removed from ships of the 3rd Cruiser Squadron and mounted on lorries hired from a Jewish firm. These operated in pairs, with a third lorry carrying a searchlight. Escorted by a Troop of armoured cars, these would leave their billets at 10.00 p.m. and patrol until about 3.00 a.m., surprising guerrillas trying to blow up bridges or to block roads with piles of stones.

The first main fight fell to B Squadron, on 28th July, when Number 3 troop were escorting men of the Lincolnshire Regiment who were ambushed at “Windy Corner”, a popular ambush site on the main road between Haifa and Nablus. The infantry (in un-armoured lorries) were fired on and a man of the Lincolns injured. The RAF wireless lorry sent a distress call and the armoured cars of the 11th used their machine guns to pin the Arab assailants down. A light of Hart biplanes arrived, as did some tanks, and a full-scale battle started. The ambush had started at 8.00 a.m. and the battle lasted until dusk. 21 Arabs were killed in the action.

As the armoured cars were impervious to rifle fire (all the Arabs possessed) another, more dangerous, weapon was a land mine. This was made from an old Turkish artillery shell filled with scrap iron and gelignite, and fired by a nail actuated by “a sort of mouse trap.” The regimental history describes it as “… a very vicious species of land-mine … very prevalent in the Nablus area.” In September, Lance Sergeant Harry Petch won the Distinguished Conduct Medal for defusing one of these mines under fire, at night, while protecting an ambulance. He had spotted the wire connecting the nail to the ‘mouse trap’ in his armoured car’s headlights, and despite the danger went to prevent disaster. Harry Petch was later commissioned and ended the Second World War as a Major, and was also awarded the Military Cross.

These incidents carried on through August, during which month the regiment also took responsibility for patrolling the main oil pipeline from Iraq, which was in remote areas and buried only a few inches from the surface. “To the Arab saboteur with all his natural love of pyrotechnics it offered a very tempting bait … a little easy digging, a bullet into the pipe, the lighting of an oily rag – and the job was done, with the most satisfying pyrotechnic results.” A Troop of C Squadron was detached to undertake “… perhaps the most unenviable job in Palestine”, driving up and down hill in low gear all day, waiting for an ambush.

In September 1936 the level of the rebellion caused the British Government to send a full infantry division from Aldershot to take over control. The arrival of this formation swiftly brought the campaign to an end, and in October the 11th were directed to return to Egypt.

Throughout the campaign, the 11th were lucky never to suffer serious casualties although the wear and tear on men and machines was immense. Lieutenant Tommy Pitman (nephew of the commanding officer who took the regiment to France in 1914) won a Military Cross for his gallantry and his Troop Sergeant, Tom Mattison, a Military Medal.

The campaign in 1936 was fought mostly by small groups of armoured cars, co-operating with other arms. Often the men of the 11th were under the command of junior officers or non-commissioned officers in positions where swift decision-making was required to save lives. There can be no doubt that the experience gained in Palestine in 1936, and again in 1938 when another revolt broke out, made the 11th Hussars the fine armoured car regiment they were in 1940 when the war in the desert began.