When hardcore Jewish militants turned Kenya into battlefield

Sunday January 14 2018

Gilgil detention camp in 1947

Some of the Jewish detainees in Gilgil detention camp in 1947. PHOTO | COURTESY 

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Except for 1973 when Kenya severed diplomatic ties with Israel over the Yom Kippur war, the relationship between the two countries has always been strong, with a shared history that goes back many decades.

While Kenyans were resisting British colonial rule, the Israelis were heavily involved in the fight for the establishment of a Jewish state.

It is during this period, in February 1947, that the British planned a secret operation code named “Malvolio” to transfer 290 Jewish detainees from Eritrea to Gilgil in Kenya.

Most of the detainees were members of Irgun Zvai Leumi, a militant Jewish nationalist group which advocated the use of violence to establish the Jewish State in the Mandatory Palestine.

The Mandatory Palestine was a geographic area administered by the British that covered what is today known as Israel, Palestine and Gaza until May 1948.


During its operations, the Irgun Zvai Leumi carried out assassinations and unleashed terror against the British and Arabs.

Many of its members were arrested and detained in Acre Prison located in a city of Acre. In 1944, because of the security threat the militants posed and also out of fear that they could be rescued by their friends, the British deported hundreds of detainees from Acre to Camp Sambel in Eritrea. The fears were realised in May 1947 when 28 detainees escaped after blowing a hole in the Acre Prison wall.

Shortly after their arrival in Eritrea, the Jewish militants began making escape plans.

The most daring one was in August 1946 when around 50 detainees escaped after digging a tunnel below the camp.

Owing to political and security considerations, in particular the threat the escapees posed to the public, the British Government decided  to move the remaining detainees to Kenya.

An order was given to prepare Gilgil Camp, which had initially served as a jail for criminal soldiers during World War II.

A European newspaper editor in Kenya got a tip off on the plans and on February 14, 1947 asked the Deputy Chief Secretary of Kenya about it. He got a “no comment” but threatened to publish the information anyway.


Fearing that the publication of the story would jeopardise the whole move, the Governor of Kenya Sir Philip Mitchell persuaded the editor to hold the article until March 2 when the operation was to begin.

On March 2, 1947, the detainees were herded out of Camp Sambel Eritrea and transferred to the port of Massawa for a ship to Mombasa. From Mombasa they were railed into Gilgil Camp by cargo trains. The location was to limit the chances of escape.

The violent nature of the Jewish Gilgil detainees was captured in a letter by Lt-Col Charteris, a counter terrorism officer in Jerusalem, who later became Queen Elizabeth’s private secretary

“A party of about 25 Jews, ten per cent of the number in Kenya were responsible for the partial destruction of the King David Hotel with loss of 90 lives,” read the letter.


Back in Palestine, the Jewish militancy was at its height and the British mandate in Palestine was also becoming unpopular back home and internationally. As a result, the British Government expressed its intentions of terminating the Mandate on May 14, 1948.

In essence, this meant that after the termination the British government was not going to have legal grounds to hold the detainees in Gilgil. There were also doubts on whether the detainees would be allowed into Palestine by the new authority after the British had left.

This threw the colonial government in Kenya and officials in London into panic on how to handle the detainees.

The governor of Kenya in particular, was not keen on having the “criminals” and told the authorities in London, who had dumped the detainees in Gilgil that the detainees should leave before May 15, 1948.


The fear was partly because Kenya’s colonial legislation wouldn’t cover the deportation of the Jewish militants after that date, unless a special law was enacted. This would leave the detainees stranded.

But the transfer of the detainees to Palestine wasn’t going to be an easy task — with military and political challenges to overcome.

The British feared that after years in detention in Eritrea and Kenya, the radical detainees were in vengeful mood and were likely to launch attacks on the British troops who were to withdraw from Palestine about a month after the termination of the Mandate.

The Director of Medical Services had visited the Gilgil detainees and warned that the atmosphere in the camp was disturbing and “that he and the camp commandant feared that unless some definite information regarding their return could be given at an early date then there was a high probability of a very serious incident taking place.”


British officials in London met and suggested that the transfer of the detainees ensure they arrived in Palestine “when the last withdrawal of British troops would take place” or at the “latest possible date before the military evacuation”.

The governor of Kenya was also asked to tell the detainees that it was not possible to transfer them to Palestine before the mandate is terminated.

Kenya’s deputy governor responded: “I do not see how we can agree to detainees remaining in Kenya, after May 15, 1948. If such a course were to be adopted, I am advised that the incidents resulting in bloodshed are bound to occur.”

He suggested that instead of holding the militant detainees in Gilgil after May 15, a slow ship should be hired to take them round the South African cape to buy time.

“If they left Mombasa by around 7th May, surely it would be possible to arrange for the ship not to reach Palestine until July.” 

Then they would be detained in the Haifa enclave until the departure of the British troops.

On March 5, 1948, the Colonial Office through assistant secretary in charge of the Eastern Department JD Higham officially announced that the Jewish detainees would be kept in Kenya after May 15.


Means of repatriation presented another hurdle.

According to Military Division, British Middle East Office, the only practical method of returning detainees to Palestine was through the Suez Canal.

Under their proposal of April 22, 1948, the detainees were to leave Mombasa on June 1 1948, aboard a special ship, Ocean Vigour under guard.

However, the British Ambassador to Cairo was not happy about the detainees using the Suez Canal. He argued the Egyptian authorities had to know about it, since under the International Sanitary Convention of 1926, every ship passing through the canal had to announce its presence and cargo to the port officials.

“Assuming as we must, that the Jews and Arabs will be in a state of war by June... there is a grave risk that an attempt may be made to remove the detainees by force with at least the tacit connivance of Egyptian authorities, or the shots will be fired on the ship on her way through the canal.

“Any such incident might provoke an acute crisis in Anglo-Egyptian relations especially as the knowledge that we are returning these terrorists to Palestine is bound to have provoked great indignation throughout the world,” wrote an official from the Embassy.


He recommended that the detainees be sent by air, if it could be done without landing in any Arab state, or else by the long sea route round the Cape in South Africa — an option rejected by the commander in chief of British Middle East Forces as “too uneconomical to be practicable, and cannot in any case be arranged in time.”

On May 7, 1948, the Colonial Office and the War Office reached the final conclusion that the detainees should arrive around, 15th of June, a fortnight before the final evacuation of troops.

The frustrations and desperation among officials became more evident when the arrival date was again moved to the end of June by the commander in chief of British Middle East Forces.

“It is clear we cannot retain these detainees in Kenya; they are little more than thugs and criminals caught in some cases with the aid of the Jews. They have not been tried and the continued commitment of guarding them is unacceptable,” wrote A.V Alexander, the Minister of Defence.


While Mr Bervin of the Foreign Office wrote: “If as a result of political objections we delay the return of the detainees to Palestine until a moment when we are no longer physically able to push them in, we risk being left with them on our hands. The Arabs will not admit them and the Jews might quite possibly refuse to accept some or all of them.”

Amid the back and forth, some detainees at Gilgil had managed to escape after excavating an 80 metre-tunnel under the camp. Using South African passports brought in by their accomplices, they made their way to Uganda, into the Congo and finally to Brussels Belgium.

One of the escapees was Ya’aKov Meridor, who later served as Israel’s Minister of Economics and Inter-Ministry Coordination between 1981 and 1984.

Towards the end of May 1948 the situation over transfer of Kenya detainees to Palestine was radically altered by the UN Security Council resolution which barred all the parties to the Arab-Israeli conflict from bringing into Palestine men of military age.


The British Foreign Secretary therefore decided that the Gilgil detainees would not be sent to Palestine, saying of the initial promise to the detainees that “We cannot allow our hands to be forced by this”. It meant that the repatriation was to be put on hold again.

As a result, a specially caged vessel to ferry the militants was put on hold in Haifa until further notice and the International Red Cross officials who had been sent to Kenya to accompany the detainees to Palestine were left stranded in Gilgil.

To the Governor of Kenya Philip Mitchell, this was a breach of assurances given and total embarrassment.


Not ready to be mollified, he refused to take further responsibility for guarding the detainees in Gilgil and warned that as long as they remained in Kenya there was a real danger of tragic loss of life and subsequent bad publicity.

He advised that the detainees were in a “mood to create such an incident that might lead to wholesale killing, and that if this occurred the political repercussions of black guards killing Jews would be severe.”

The governor’s warning was echoed by the British Colonial Secretary, Creech Jones, also nicknamed “unofficial Kikuyu at Westminster” who warned, that he foresaw a “danger of grave disorder in the camp in Kenya, probably involving serious loss of life at the hands of coloured African guards” which could result in serious reaction in America and Britain.


The detainees had already stated that they didn’t care whether they lived or died and would not attempt to escape to Palestine but merely to make the African guards slaughter them.

However, there were other British officials who felt that maximum force should be applied in dealing with the detainees.

Mr B Burrows of the Foreign Office wrote that it was important for the Kenyan government to stop being weak and must quell any mutiny using force   “even it means shooting”.

In concurrence, Sir Orme Sargent the Deputy Under Secretary Foreign Office said “a strong line” was needed to stop any mutiny by the Gilgil detainees.

Fearing the effects on world opinions if the detainees were massacred by African guards, one British infantry company was quickly dispatched from Eritrea to replace the African guards.


The commander in chief of British Middle East Forces also informed the governor that he was ready to take full responsibility of the Gilgil camp. By this time the number of detainees had dropped from 290 at the time of their arrival to 250 after some escaped.

Meanwhile the Foreign Secretary had already reached out to Count Bernadotte, the United Nations Mediator of the Arab-Israeli war, about the Gilgil dilemma.

The mediator said that he did not consider that the return of Kenya detainees would be a breach of ceasefire since they were residents of Palestine and not immigrants.

He regarded the matter as one for settlement between the Jewish authorities and the British Government and asked only to be informed of the date and place of detainees’ arrival in Palestine. Two months later he was also assassinated by the Jewish extremists.

The Gilgil detainees were finally evacuated from their camp in July 1948 and flown by air to Cyrenaica, then by ship to Palestine.

The writer is a researcher and journalist based in London