Steven Wagner. Intelligence & National Security. Volume 23, Issue 5. October 2008.
“Definition of a Zionist: A Jew who pays another Jew to send a third Jew to Palestine.” — Tailpiece to Air Levant HQ intelligence summary dated January 1947, WO275/121, The National Archives at Kew, London]
It was in the early hours on Saturday 29 June 1946. The British Army in Palestine had begun Operation Agatha, and was well underway on its searches for Jewish Agency, Haganah and Palmach members and their arms. This mission had mixed success. About one hour before British troops entered Tel Aviv, the British Military HQ at Citrus House in that city received a phone call from a woman inquiring when the curfew would begin. This was the first sign that British security had been breached and Jewish intelligence had advance warning of the operation. In the weeks prior to the raid, special reconnaissance had been taken to ensure the locations of specific targets, including that of the Haganah General Headquarters and its chief, Moshe Sneh. The office was raided by the army and many individuals were arrested. However Sneh, known to the British as head of the Haganah, an advocate of violence and liaison with the terrorist organizations, Irgun and Lehi, was nowhere to be found. Elsewhere, the British 6th Airborne Division was busy searching for the address 107 Keren Kayemet Avenue, which was believed to house David Ben-Gurion, the president of the Jewish Agency Executive who, with some justification, was thought guilty of complicity with terrorism. The address did not exist. Ben-Gurion was in Europe. When the army came to arrest David HaCohen, they found him at their given address, only to discover that no important belongings or documents were on the premises. HaCohen, a labour Zionist and head of the Building Contractors, told the troops who had come for him that he was glad not to be disappointed, as he had been expecting this raid and his arrest for two days. The British arrested about 2700 people, including most of the political leadership of the Jewish Community of Palestine, the Yishuv, seized dozens of arms caches and returned with three 3-ton trucks full of captured documents.
The operation was considered a success:
The operation has demonstrated the firmness of HMG not to tolerate the situation where leaders engaged in lawful political activities lead double lives and direct and control the illegal armed organizations at the same time; it will be a salutary lesson to those who follow in the shoes of the arrested political leaders.
The main value of the operation has probably been psychological, and it is this, if anything, which will have the effect of restoring law and order to Palestine.
This view proved overoptimistic. Instead, the raids multiplied the level of Jewish violence against British forces and reduced the number of Jews willing to work with them. Within a month, the British High Commissioner in Palestine, General Sir Alan Cunningham, concluded that ‘immediate partition is the only solution which gives a chance of stability’. British policy had been beaten. So had its intelligence.
This article will assess the function, use of, and usefulness of intelligence in Palestine. From the winter of 1945 through to the summer of 1946, a united Jewish Resistance Movement (JRM) emerged between the Haganah and Palmach, Irgun and Lehi, directed and coordinated by the Jewish Agency for Palestine, despite the objections of some of its left-wing members. The JRM aimed to weaken or destroy British rule in Palestine, to delegitimize the mandate’s rule through violence. More importantly it aimed to achieve a reversal, one way or the other, of the restrictive immigration policy outlined in the 1939 White Paper, which limited Jewish immigration to Palestine from European Displaced Person (DP) camps.
In the autumn of 1945, the Haganah dropped its policy of Havlagah, or restraint, towards the Mandate authorities, and forged a secret agreement with the terrorist organizations Irgun and Lehi. The Haganah was originally the Yishuv’s defence organization against the Arabs, who were largely hostile to Zionist settlement in Palestine. This organized territorial militia, under the direct control of the Jewish Agency, defended the various Kibbutzim and Moshavim or Jewish communes and settlements in Palestine. In 1938 certain Haganah units assisted the British in fighting Arab rebels. During the Second World War the Palmach, an elite offensive unit, was created by the British military in May 1941 to assist them in the event of a German invasion of Palestine. The Haganah provided legitimacy and a form of power to the Jewish Agency, especially after the Second World War when many of its forces had wartime experience.
The Irgun Zvai Leumi, or National Military Organization, was created in 1931 when some Haganah officers broke from the parent organization over the issue of socialist politicization in the defence forces. The Irgun was unstable and marginal until Menachem Begin took leadership in 1943. He reorganized the group into a secret revolutionary army, an independent body with its own front organizations for fundraising and political programmes, separate but inspired by Revisionist Zionism, which opposed the socialist aspects of labour Zionism. Irgun aimed at the establishment of a Jewish state on both sides of the Jordan River.
Known to the British as the Stern Gang, the Lochemi Herut l’Israel (Lehi) or Freedom Fighters for Israel, split from the Irgun when the Second World War broke out, and the Irgun agreed to cooperate with Britain during the war. Founded by Abraham Stern, the radical-right group originally had fascist sympathies. It pursued agreements with Mussolini and the Nazis in 1940. For obvious reasons, Hitler did not respond to the Jewish group’s request for an alliance. In 1942 Abraham Stern was killed in an arrest operation, allegedly while trying to escape, but the group continued to function. It assassinated Lord Moyne in Cairo in November 1944. The arrest of those responsible provided one important piece of intelligence on the group. Its security was airtight. None of the three men knew the others’ true names or addresses or those of their commanders. Lehi, suppressed during the subsequent ‘hunting season’, when the Haganah and the British cooperated against illegal terrorist organizations, was reinvigorated during the Jewish Resistance Movement.
This article will survey British intelligence on Jewish political and paramilitary organizations during the period of the Jewish Resistance Movement, especially from the perspective of the most important British policymaker in Palestine, General Sir Alan Cunningham, High Commissioner from 1945 until the end of the mandate in 1948. This story illustrates the broader experience of British politics and military policy and procedure when faced with insurgency in the colonies.
Both the evidence and the literature on these topics are multinational. They are divided between two languages and countries, much of the evidence still is not available, while another part was only released in February 2006. The most important English language work on this topic is David Charters’ book, The British Army and Jewish Insurgency in Palestine, 1945-47 and his article ‘British Intelligence in the Palestine Campaign, 1945-1947′. These pieces are solid discussions of British counterinsurgency and policy in Palestine, which also give a detailed account of how British intelligence was collected, how it worked and to a lesser extent how it was used. They remain good surveys of the topic, with clear limits. Little MI5 or SIS documentation was available at the time Charters wrote these works, nor did he use part of the evidence which was available, such as the records of the British 6th Airborne Division. Thus, some of Charters’ comments are inaccurate. For instance, he states that: ‘The security forces acquired strategic intelligence of adequate quality on the Haganah, but not on the Irgun or Stern Gang. That standard of strategic intelligence made possible more effective operations against the former than against the latter groups.’
This article will demonstrate that the British had strong political intelligence on the Yishuv as a whole but poor operational intelligence on the Haganah, and even less on Irgun or Lehi. The limited information which was available was not put to effective use. Again, Charters suggests there was no warning from intelligence prior to the King David Hotel bombing on 22 July 1946. In fact, intelligence warned Cunningham of this possibility in January 1946. A few weeks after the police HQ bombing of December 1945, he received a copy of a report from A.J. Keller of MI5 to the Defence Security Officer (DSO) in Jerusalem, noting that the King David Hotel was among leading possible targets. Ultimately, Charters names intelligence failures as a cause for failure in Palestine as a whole. This article will argue that the problem was much more policy than intelligence.
Other relevant works in English include Menachem Begin’s The Revolt and autobiographical material by Begin, Ben-Gurion and the like which illuminate the political dimension within the Yishuv and the resistance to Britain. The remaining important works related to this topic are in Hebrew and generally take the perspective of insurgent intelligence. A good example is Yoav Gelber’s The History of Israeli Intelligence.
The JRM was a formal agreement between the Haganah, Irgun and Lehi to coordinate operations, In Charters’ words, it was a loose ‘marriage of convenience’. It was headed by a three-man high command that had to approve Irgun or Lehi operations before they could be carried out. Irgun and Lehi received legitimacy through the support which the JRM represented, while the Haganah was able to restrain the two other groups. JRM planning and coordination was done by the ‘X Committee’ which consisted of two Haganah representatives (Moshe Sneh and Yisrael Galili); Menachem Begin from the Irgun; and Natan Friedman-Yellin from Lehi. While joint operations were limited, the movement represented the Yishuv leadership’s united opposition to Bevin’s decision to continue the White Paper policy, and a consensus that only military action could reverse it.
The JRM’s first operation was a united countrywide attack on rail and police, but no other joint attacks ever occurred again. The Haganah operated separately from Irgun and Lehi, but still it undertook offensives and followed the spirit and guidelines of the JRM. Its political goal was to pressure the British on the policy issues of immigration and statehood. The Irgun and Lehi, however, used the agreement to conduct operations they could not have carried out without the complicity of the Haganah and the Jewish Agency. ‘Complicity’ is a key word, because it is unclear how far the Haganah and Jewish Agency actually supported terrorist operations, other than by giving the nod of approval to the X Committee.
The Jewish Agency was divided on the matter of terrorism. Chaim Weizmann, a figurehead by this time, opposed it. Moshe Sneh advocated it. Ben-Gurion, ever a realist, believed it could serve a purpose for the Yishuv. He viewed the 1939 White Paper as being complicit with the Holocaust, hence, violence against it was certainly acceptable. In an October reply to Sneh’s proposal to stage a ‘grave incident’ Ben-Gurion said: ‘It is essential to adopt the tactics of S [sabotage] and reprisal. Not individual terror, but retaliation for each and every Jew murdered by the White Paper.’ Either way, the JRM allowed all its signatories to get what they needed at a given time. In practice it gave the Haganah some ability to guide and veto actions by the Irgun and Lehi, while allowing the latter two organizations to minimize the Haganah’s opposition to their independent operations. This arrangement had its limits and the Haganah did not oppose many operations. Ultimately the JRM served the interests of Lehi and Irgun far more than those of the Jewish Agency. The latter, caught in a tough political situation, driven by emotion and frustration, tried to play the British off against Begin. This did not work well. Cunningham was not the only man to make political mistakes during this period.
British respect for the mysterious ‘Jewish Intelligence Organization’ or service ubiquitously pops up in the documentation. In a debate in Parliament after Operation Agatha, the pro-Zionist labour MP Richard Crossman described the ‘Jewish Intelligence Service’ as ‘probably the best in the world’. A British 6th Airborne HQ report on Operation Agatha acknowledged that ‘the Jews have an extremely efficient intelligence organisation’ and stressed the importance of secrecy before the operation. Little, however, has been written in the English language about the Jewish intelligence services. Its most important and largest organization was the Mossad L’Aliyah Bet, or Institute for Illegal Immigration, which established a network in Europe for getting DPs to Palestine. MI5 did not start to pay much attention to the organization until August 1946. They did not know what it was called, but they had a good sense of how it worked.
In September 1946 (after the Jewish Agency and Haganah dropped the JRM following the King David Hotel bombing) MI5 staff debated and established policy for contacting representatives of the Jewish Agency intelligence service. This piece of documentation is particularly interesting because the two names they considered approaching are blanked out throughout the record. It is now clear that these men were Teddy Kollek and Ze’ev Sherf, two important and senior intelligence officers for the Jewish Agency. Their names will come up again, but contrary to the view which made headline news in Israel in 2007, the evidence suggests that they were central to a policy by the Jewish Agency and Haganah to manipulate Britain. The next most important Jewish intelligence organizations were those established by Ben-Gurion, including Shabak or Shin-Bet, and the Sherut HaYedioth (SHAI), the predecessor of the Mossad. According to Dr Yoav Gelber from Haifa University, the Israeli expert on the topic, Britain knew very little about the SHAI and ‘understood even less’. He added that this ignorance was mutual.
During the Second World War, British security intelligence in the Middle East achieved a triumph, blocking threats by German and Italian intelligence, and officials in Arab states, but failed against the Yishuv. Generally, it viewed Jews less as threats than as allies, and more reliable than most of them. In Egypt, Security Intelligence Middle East (SIME) had several trusted Jewish officers and sources—including the famous controlled agent, Cheese, aka Renato Levy, a ‘Jewess—believe it or not—in the telephone exchange of the Dresdner Bank’ in Cairo, who allowed SIME before the war to monitor contacts between the Abwehr and the Egyptian Prime Minister, Ali Maher Pasha—and, above all, a ‘special volunteer organization of Sephardic Jews [who] gave their unpaid services to operate a country-wide organisation of agents, rumour-mongers and useful under-world mouthpieces’. In Palestine, the MI5 liaison, the DSO in Jerusalem and the political police, the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), relied for intelligence primarily on open sources, and the Jewish Agency. Since 1935, British officers had aided the Agency’s security branches, which reciprocated with help during the Arab Revolt of 1936-39, in preparing a stay-behind network against Germans during 1942, and against Jewish terrorism in 1944-45.
British security authorities recognized that conflicts with the Yishuv were looming. In 1942, during Britain’s blackest moment in the Middle East, when allies were imperative, SIME held that if Britain executed the 1939 White Paper, the Irgun and perhaps part of Haganah would rise violently: ‘It is necessary, therefore, to weigh the immediate advantage of having an armed and trained [sic] of young Jews, who would help to resist an Arab rising or an Axis invasion, against the possibility that this force may be used against us in a few years’ time.’ By 1943, MI5 held that ‘both Zionist and Revisionists’ would use their paramilitary bodies ‘as a form of blackmail for securing their demands’ when negotiations reopened between Jews, Arabs and Britain after the war. In 1945, the DSO in Palestine, Lieutenant Colonel H. Hunloke, noted about one abortive bombing of British installations: ‘IZL usually more efficient. Cannot help wondering if left wing implicated in order to try and frighten authorities into acceding to certain requests such as immigration and Jewish Police forces.’
British officials also realized that intelligence on this issue would be hard to gather. From 1930, they thought it a truism that few Jews would report to Britain on the political attitudes of their fellows, most of whom would be detected. During the war, many of their few agents in the Yishuv were assassinated or fled to exile. Under wartime censorship, British intelligence intercepted Jewish Agency traffic, but it had few officers who spoke Hebrew and barely any human sources in the Yishuv—none in terrorist groups, protected by ferocious security and loyalty. After consultation with the DSO and the CID, a senior officer at SIME warned military intelligence in London not to expect success like that against German espionage, because ‘to penetrate small fanatical and intensely loyal terrorist organisations of this kind is infinitely more difficult than penetrating an intelligence organisation, which in its efforts to obtain intelligence must employ sub agents of uncertain loyalty and therefore leave itself open to penetration’.
This situation drove British security to rely on monitoring agencies outside the Yishuv which might cooperate with terrorist organizations, such as French authorities in Syria, but above all to cooperation with its counterparts in the Jewish Agency. This came at an obvious cost. A.J. Kellar, head of the MI5 branch responsible for the Middle East, noted that Britain relied entirely on the Jewish Agency for intelligence on Irgun and Lehi, but the latter’s cooperation was ‘conditional and limited’, on its own terms and for its own reasons. In some cases the Agency named innocent people as terrorist suspects, ‘paying off old scores by giving the Authorities the names of persons more of a nuisance to themselves than to us’. ‘Tactically, the Agency have thereby become very well placed and in their collaboration are quite certainly following their own interests rather than ours. The more the Police are made dependent on them, the more authority the Agency consider they acquire, and indeed do, in the Civil administration of Palestine.’ By giving the Agency and its security arms an ‘extra-constitutional’ position, complete with powers to arrest and interrogate Jews, Britain ‘had in fact given it something of the status of an imperium in imperio’. British authorities knew the situation left them open to manipulation; this knowledge did not keep them from that fate.
Figure 1 is a simplified visual representation of how information flowed within the British decision-making system. Cunningham, as High Commissioner, had at hand three principal sources for intelligence. The most important, and most under-researched, was the Palestine Criminal Investigation Department. While other documents refer to or cite important reports and reflections from them, the actual records have been discussed only in the Hebrew language, especially in a 2003 doctoral dissertation by Eldad Harouvi from the University of Haifa entitled ‘The CID in Palestine, 1918-1948’. According to Harouvi, the quality of the CID’s information was very good, ‘on a scale of 1-100 … 60-70 were the best numbers’. Harouvi acknowledges the CID’s shortcomings, such as their inability to catch Menachem Begin, but overall considers them to be the most important, though not the most senior, intelligence organization in Palestine. This article shares Harouvi’s conclusion that lack of intelligence did not cause British failure in Palestine. The CID had case files on important individuals, and tracked them. For instance, during Operation Shark, the search for Jewish terrorists in Tel Aviv which began on 29 July 1946, the Palestine Police administered the screening procedures for individuals who were detained. Some disguises and hiding places, such as the secret compartment that concealed Menachem Begin in his apartment, defeated the police. Detailed CID records, however, foiled disguises such as that of Lehi leader Yitzak Yesernitsky (later known as Shamir). A kink in the future Prime Minister’s right eyebrow gave him away.
Although the documentary record is incomplete, British authorities clearly gained much from communications intelligence, but not enough to deliver a killing blow. According to Sir Richard Catling, chief of the CID’s special branch, when interviewed by Israeli researchers 50 years after the event, opening letters and intercepting communications were standard practices of Police intelligence. He also told his interviewers that he had only five human sources, though they were all well placed and he trusted them. The CID immediately had every record of every Jewish Agency Executive meeting, including ones that were not held at headquarters. There were, however, limits to the value of this information. Jewish Agency sedition was public while its support for insurgency was mostly secret. With a curiosity that evokes The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, British intelligence seems to have had a serious (and, as Catling admitted, useless) curiosity as to how the Yishuv raised funds around the world. Finally, according to Catling, all British intelligence services worked together and shared information on a routine basis. The documentary evidence also shows that inter-service cooperation was good.
British military intelligence, conversely, gained importance only towards the late summer of 1946. The principal source of military intelligence was the British 6th Airborne’s 317 Field Security Section. By autumn 1946 it produced regular, accurate and detailed reports, especially unique because they contained rumours, showing it was tuned into the happenings in the Yishuv and Arab communities. This material was useful, but not available in the late spring of 1946. Cunningham met regularly with the military and heard their information and opinions, but it was not the tool of choice when fighting terrorism before Operation Agatha. Until then, the policy in Palestine was to combat terrorism primarily through the police, police intelligence and the courts. The General Officer Commanding (GOC) employed the army as a last resort, and to support the police in larger operations. Terrorists were treated as criminals rather than a military threat, and tried and sentenced in court.
The DSO in Jerusalem, Sir Gyles Isham, ran the MI5 station in Palestine. He collected information from all sources, especially the CID. He also met regularly with Jewish Agency representatives such as Teddy Kollek (codename Scorpion), Zeev Sherf (misspelled in the documentation as ‘Sharif’) and, with less frequency, Chaim Weizmann. Both Kollek and Sherf were involved with Yishuv intelligence. Kollek, in the Jewish Agency’s political department, served as liaison within the Yishuv and with other intelligence organizations such as the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and SIME. Sherf was a deputy in the SHAI, the Haganah’s intelligence service, whose focus was work against Irgun and Lehi. In 1945 information provided by Kollek and Sherf allowed the British to pursue terrorist organizations, and so these men gained their trust. Over the next year, however, these two often (it would appear) deliberately misled the British, as did another human source, codenamed Circus, from whom Isham extracted much information. It is unclear who Circus was. The nature of the reports based on Circus and the fact that the source was once described as ‘he’, suggest that it is most likely a person rather than communication intelligence. Circus usually provided information on the Jewish Agency and Haganah. Circus appeared regularly in MI5 reportage, but the information, like that given by the Jewish Agency representatives, was often misleading. Where Kollek and Sherf tended not to tell the whole truth, Circus gave more false or inaccurate information. Another source, Peke, described as having journalistic contacts and contacts within the Irgun leadership, provided more information on the Irgun. Additionally, MI5 collected volumes of intercepted letters and telegrams of the Jewish Agency. The DSO regularly reported to MI5 and also to Cunningham’s staff meetings. Given the limits to the documentation on the CID and the way that the local intelligence system operated, the DSO’s reports offer the best overall picture of the view of British security intelligence in Palestine during 1945-46. Its main consumers were Cunningham in Jerusalem and MI5 in London.
MI5 collected reports from the DSO, as well as from SIME. While an able organization, SIME was less useful as Palestine was not its priority. MI5 also had a source called Buttercup, most likely a human source having contacts with French journalists or intelligence officers, though possibly a form of signals intelligence based in Paris. Buttercup provided intelligence on all matters within the Yishuv, though its accuracy was inconsistent. On rare occasions, MI5 would intercept mail from suspected terrorists which were addressed to Revisionist offices in London. MI5 collected intelligence, analyzed it and then decided whether or not to pass it on to a relevant authority. Usually, any information that MI5 took seriously was passed on to the Secretary of State for the Colonies or his Undersecretary. Analyses often were passed back down to the DSO for dissemination in Palestine.
A good example of the MI5-DSO relationship occurred in February 1946 in the context of ongoing attacks and the upcoming Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry. For weeks MI5 and DSO debated whether there was an agreement between Haganah and Irgun. On 25 February 1946, MI5 resolved that the Haganah appeared to be against terrorism and would not undertake anti-British operations unless its other political options failed. Considering the Palmach attack that occurred four days earlier, this report was strikingly inaccurate. The Haganah was blatantly engaging in the insurgency, as even Cunningham knew. This exemplifies the gap between the intelligence of the Palestine government and MI5. Even more strangely, earlier that month MI5 believed that the Jewish Agency and Haganah had decided to assist the Irgun so long as it stopped robbing Jewish individuals, businesses and banks. This was evidence of collaboration between them. A captured Haganah circular of 25 February 1946 on terrorist attacks indicated that it lacked foreknowledge of the recent attacks and did not condone them. It also called for discipline in the ranks. MI5 took the document as legitimate, but read more into it than was wise. Haganah was clearly engaging in anti-British military operations four days prior to this circular, when Palmach men attacked British camps. This view suggests some naïveté on the part of MI5, perhaps influenced by deception fed to Isham by Kollek, Sherf or Circus. Cunningham, on the other hand, knew exactly who was responsible.
Cunningham had great experience in the use of intelligence. In 1940-41 he controlled a campaign in Ethiopia which featured signals intelligence, deception, subversion and guerrilla warfare. He was among the first British commanders to use ULTRA, during the preparations for and early stages of the Crusader campaign in November 1941. Though primarily a soldier and increasingly enraged at the Jewish Agency’s seditious and subversive stance, he had a tolerably sophisticated grasp of politics in the Yishuv. Cunningham also received massive amounts of information from various sources. The information generally flowed well, but one serious problem seems to have existed in the period of the Jewish Resistance Movement.
In the early months of 1946, MI5 and the DSO were struggling to determine the nature of the relationship between the various Jewish political and paramilitary organizations. They regularly exchanged evidence and opinions on the matter. In May 1946 MI5 records first mention a Jewish Resistance Movement, though its interpretation of the JRM was inaccurate. MI5 did not mention the involvement of the Jewish Agency in the movement and saw the JRM as the project of a faction of right-wing Haganah staff. Cunningham’s records, however, do not mention any sort of agreement resembling the JRM until his June 1946 offensive was already underway. Furthermore, MI5’s lack of understanding of the JRM is perplexing, because even if they lacked the details, they had fully documented the October meetings which established it. A SIME report based on the source Peke stated that ‘The Irgun Zvai Leumi is now prepared to accept the orders of the Haganah, if the Yishuv as a whole agrees to resort to armed resistance, but it stipulates that it must be permitted to operate as independently as possible’. There clearly was a large intelligence gap between MI5 and the DSO, especially considering that they each had a record of Irgun’s willingness to accept Haganah’s orders. Not only did MI5 and the DSO differ over matters of assessment, so too did they and Cunningham. Either Isham did not pass on some of MI5’s conclusions, which is unlikely unless he himself doubted them, or else Cunningham himself ignored or misinterpreted these reports.
A separate intelligence effort also supported the fight against illegal immigration. The Royal Air Force used reconnaissance aircraft with submarine spotters to locate illegal immigrant ships which the Navy would then intercept. In general the RAF had poor security intelligence as it suffered a number of attacks throughout the period in question. At one time, the Admiralty deliberated on a plan to use ‘peaceful means’ to induce illegal immigrant ships to sail directly to the detention camps on Cyprus. The plan was rejected for its impracticability, although diversion to Cyprus was agreed upon. This meant that the British were forced actively to engage immigrant shiploads of Holocaust survivors on the high seas should their efforts at prevention at points of embarkation failed. The Yishuv tried, with much success, to turn every such interception into a propaganda coup.
In late autumn 1945, as Alan Cunningham began his tenure as High Commissioner for Palestine, the hot-button issues were illegal immigration and the 1939 White Paper. On 10 November the Secretary of State for the Colonies sent Cunningham a telegram outlining ways to stop illegal immigration, especially prevention at the points of embarkation and interception and capture of ships on the high seas. The message was clear: stop this flow now. Three days later, Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin issued a statement on immigration policy which basically maintained the quotas of the 1939 White Paper. This decision pushed the Jewish Agency towards the Jewish Resistance Movement, and led Haganah to drop its policy of restraint. During early November, in the first JRM operation, Haganah and Palmach fighters attacked the British in coordination with Irgun and Lehi.
Thus Cunningham had two main tasks: to control and defeat terrorism and to make the Yishuv accept British policy. He and most decision makers believed they could and would achieve these aims, but they also understood that in order to do so they must overcome great Jewish resistance. Some intelligence personnel, such as an MI9 officer sent to establish an escape organization in Palestine in late 1945 and early 1946, thought that British policy would cause ‘war’ with much of the Yishuv. Cunningham himself appreciated from the start that in the end partition might be unavoidable.
On 30 September the DSO, after a discussion with a ‘senior Agency official’, reported that Haganah’s policy was to use arms only to protect immigration, though it might seize territory by force if the White Paper policy continued. Isham also believed that Irgun and Lehi were allied, that Haganah would probably no longer restrain them, while some of its members would defect to the latter. Like MI5, he thought the danger lay in unauthorized actions by elements of Haganah, rather than in its official actions as a whole. There was no shortage of evidence about the convergence of Haganah and Irgun. MI5, however, doubted that the Agency and Haganah would openly take arms against the Palestine government. The DSO was also informed that the Irgun was in financial straits. On 21 November, the DSO reported that Lehi had broken away from Haganah and Irgun, and would attempt to assassinate 6th Airborne commanders, and the GOC. These threats were taken seriously in intelligence circles.
During this time, Teddy Kollek was regularly meeting the DSO on behalf of the Jewish Agency. It is likely that he was the source for this material, and if so it is certain that he was manipulating the DSO. For example, on 20 October Kollek led Isham to believe Haganah would not control or work with the Jewish terrorist organizations, but rather was still trying to break them up and negotiate their absorption. By 20 October 1945, however, while the Haganah offered Menachem Begin an agreement to absorb the Irgun as a part of a united effort against Britain, it certainly was not pursuing terrorists and was trying to ally with them. This was exactly the time when the Jewish Resistance Movement was being forged, which Ben-Gurion had already told Moshe Sneh he was inclined to support. Kollek would have been among the first in the Yishuv to know about the negotiations that were going on. Hence, any discussions he had with Isham were an effort by the Jewish Agency to deceive the British about its intentions.
Deception was possible because British intelligence relied so heavily on its counterparts in the Jewish Agency for data on terrorism. It was easy, because in order to execute deception, all Kollek and Sherf had to do was not tell the whole truth—they did not even have to lie in order to deceive. What remains unclear is how sophisticated this effort was: whether it consisted merely of natural caution by Kollek and Sherf, or was part of a broader campaign of disinformation. In any case, this campaign did throw dust in the eyes of British intelligence because of its reliance on one source, but had less impact on its ultimate target, Cunningham himself, because he focused on areas where the Agency’s intent was harder to disguise, as in its public statements to the Yishuv.
A combination of the lack of British understanding about the various Jewish groups and the deceptive information from Kollek, led them to misunderstand the agreements that were being forged. Since Lehi’s assassination of Lord Moyne in Cairo, the British had depended on support from the Jewish Agency and Haganah against terrorists. In this process, Kollek himself had given them good intelligence, and had effectively pursued terrorists for the Jewish Agency, Haganah and Palmach. The British had some reason to trust him, but failed to follow the political underpinnings for his actions. It should have been easy to estimate that Bevin’s speech and Britain’s immigration policy would marginalize those Jews who still were willing to negotiate with Whitehall on the matter. Indeed, for precisely these reasons, by December 1945 Cunningham was already becoming suspicious of the Jewish Agency. His distrust was not based on Isham’s reports but rather the publicly expressed attitudes of the more hard-line Jewish Agency Executive members, perhaps augmented by the CID’s records of their private discussions.
Cunningham thought the Jewish extremists expected Ben-Gurion to form an aggressive policy against the British, and concluded that Haganah might work with the Irgun and Lehi. While this was old news within Jewish circles, it shows that Cunningham understood the Jewish political scene better than his intelligence officials did. His correspondence also indicates that the military reactions to the JRM’s sabotage on the night of 31 October/1 November were conducted without much intelligence. The police conducted 123 searches. At one particular Jewish settlement which their tracking dogs led them to, they encountered resistance and fought a gun battle in which six Jews were killed. The police, that is, lacked the intelligence needed to predict the attacks or to apprehend those responsible.
Through December, Cunningham told Whitehall that up to half of the Yishuv supported armed opposition to Britain, and that he wished actively to disarm the population. By January 1946, he concluded that the Jewish Agency indirectly condoned terrorism; for it was the first time he expressed the desire to occupy its building. He believed that the Jewish Agency had some control over the Haganah, but none over Irgun and Lehi, yet that its funds were supporting terrorist groups. Cunningham did not know precisely what was happening behind closed doors at the Jewish Agency, yet he had a good sense of Jewish sentiment there and in the Yishuv. He was right to be suspicious.
Cunningham based his opinions on terrorist incidents such as the attacks on the Palestine CID headquarters in Jerusalem and Jaffa, which destroyed the former and damaged the latter, and on the publicly expressed opinions of the Jewish Agency. In particular after Ben-Gurion warned he could not control the Yishuv’s reaction to British policy, Cunningham wished to close the political side of the Jewish Agency; he could not ‘ignore [its] defiant attitude’. Aware that he lacked the intelligence to defeat terrorism, he also believed that elements in the Jewish Agency were aiding it. Despite his suspicions, he was ‘satisfied’ that the Agency generally opposed terrorism. He realized such an action would look bad politically and cause ‘widespread disorder’, especially since British and other media already thought the immigration policy was oppressive. Thus, the reasons for going after the Agency were outweighed by those against it.
Meanwhile, the DSO reported on a meeting between Begin and the Palmach in Tel Aviv on 29 November. If Cunningham knew about this, it would have confirmed his suspicions about the Haganah and the Agency. Again on 27 December SIS estimated the Irgun and Lehi membership at 2000 and 250, respectively. Irgun was a large organization, but one wonders if the SIS estimate includes youths who merely posted propaganda posters. The point is that British intelligence as a whole was beginning to track the size of terrorist groups in Palestine, indicating that it was taking the threat more seriously, and was looking for more detailed and current information on the groups.
After the New Year, MI5 collected as much intelligence as possible on the CID bombings. Circus gave it the most valuable information, which at this stage was accurate. The DSO discovered a rumour that Sneh was informed of the attack just before it happened, he tried to phone Ben-Gurion and Bernard Joseph so to halt the operation but was too late. Some 300 former Polish partisans were believed to have joined the Irgun, which especially disconcerted the DSO because of their experience in irregular warfare. The final point of the telegram derived from Circus is most revealing.
The Irgun is believed to have sent an ultimatum to the Jewish Agency and Hagana [sic] command demanding that the next operation should be a joint undertaking, as was the attack on the railway on 31st October. The Irgun threatens to increase its sabotage activity unless the Hagana co-operate.
This shows that MI5 had hard evidence about the Haganah’s 31 October offensive and the nature of the JRM, which furthermore indicated that it was a weak alliance. Cunningham’s next such report noted that a meeting of the Haganah command had decided on closer collaboration with the Irgun: 460 Palmach men were to transfer to the Irgun in January and during the next two months the Haganah would pay the Irgun £300,000.
Other information received during January illustrates how the Agency tried to control its actions during JRM. For instance, MI5 gave the Colonial Office Circus information that representatives of Haganah and Palmach would go to Europe to spread propaganda, that Haganah would use arms only to support illegal immigration (this was confirmed by Kollek), that Haganah and Palmach were pressuring the Agency for an aggressive policy while defections to terrorist organizations were possible. Kollek also warned Isham that he was concerned about splits in Agency policy. Since the start of the JRM, Kollek fed a consistent line to the British, that Haganah would only use arms to support illegal immigration. Clearly his actions were designed to throw the DSO off Haganah’s case. A sliver of dishonesty in otherwise accurate reports did confuse MI5 assessments.
Meanwhile, in January Cunningham was concerned about the attacks on the CID HQ while MI5 warned that future potential targets included administrative and military headquarters and government house. The King David Hotel was deemed to require ‘special precautions’. The DSO replied that security steps already taken ‘should be adequate’, while he and the GOC agreed that eventually a forceful suppression of Jewish insurgents should take place along the lines of the Arab Revolt in 1936.
We are trying, in between outrages, to carry on a normal administration under ‘peace’ conditions. The conditions are however nearer those of war than of peace. Most of the Jewish population is against the Government in sentiment, while the terrorists and the unlawful organizations, heavily armed, equipped, well-trained and holding the initiative as is necessarily the case, periodically exploit the situation by force of arms … So long as these conditions persist it is inevitable that risks have to be taken which might be susceptible of elimination if the Government could come out into the open and face the situation by giving up all pretence of normal administration (as was indeed done to some extent in the Arab rebellion of 1938/39), concentrating essential activities … and directing all its resources and energies to the forcible suppression of the armed opposition to the Government.
As six months later the King David Hotel was partially destroyed, MI5’s analysis and the GOC’s preference for the use of force were reasonable, while security at the hotel was not as adequate as Isham believed. If Cunningham ever asked himself the question, ‘If I were a Jewish terrorist and wanted to conduct a spectacular terrorist outrage against the Palestine government, what would I do?’, then this MI5 assessment should have provided the answer. On the other hand, the King David Hotel incident occurred more because of elementary security failures than anything else.
In February 1946 the situation appeared to be calming. The British promised to bump the immigration quota from 500 to 1500, though Cunningham considered the outraged Jewish reaction to this offer ‘ungracious’. Also, he recognized that there was public support for a ‘maximalist programme’ within the Yishuv, and increasingly thought the Agency was complicit in terrorism. Cunningham believed that the Haganah illegal broadcast station Kol Israel, or the ‘voice of Israel’, had confirmed Haganah’s responsibility for 21 January attacks on the Coast Guard, and an abortive raid on an RAF radar station. This, incidentally, shows that for over 10 days neither he nor his subordinates had a clue who was responsible for the attacks, a clear indication of the limits to their information. Later in the month, Cunningham noted a speech by Moshe Shertok which seemed to confirm the guilt of the Jewish Agency. Shertok, a known dove, said:
The continued existence of the White Paper … causes people to despair of peaceful ways and abolishes the public basis for a stand against terrorism. Unable to subdue those who fight against it, Government retaliates by murderous and atrocious laws, which threaten the public as a whole. Elementary ideas of law and justice are trodden down. In a regime of suppressing the freedom of the individual and outlawing human life, peaceful Jewish citizens are being shamelessly murdered by military forces. Official communiqués hush up the bloody facts in distorted descriptions. Jews who have been abducted from their homeland by force and sent to detention abroad, are being abandoned there to acts of murder by human beasts who have been put in charge of them.
Cunningham asked his legal advisors whether the speech was seditious enough to justify an arrest or detention. He did not pursue the matter, but the Jewish Agency and specifically Shertok were in Cunningham’s sights. He believed that Ben-Gurion and Shertok had led the Agency to pursue a public anti-British agitation, which in turn motivated many members of the Yishuv to participate in or support terrorist organizations, and that they could not draw back from this language without losing authority over the Yishuv. The Jewish Agency was actively and secretly supporting anti-British terrorist operations. Despite these suspicions, Cunningham clearly was unaware of the Agency’s role in the JRM, reporting to Whitehall that ‘the extent to which they cooperate with terrorist organizations is in some doubt’. Ironically, his assessment of February that the Jewish Agency had bound itself to extremism and could not ‘draw back without losing their authority over the Jewish Community’, would become true a few months later, when Operation Agatha and the King David Hotel incident pressured the Agency to abandon terrorism.
Cunningham concluded: ‘There are increasing signs that the Jewish leaders would accept partition as a solution though any other solution would probably not result in an easement of the tension for it is the extremist tail that wags the dog.’ He thought partition a viable solution to the Palestine problem, and the Agency reasonable enough to negotiate on those terms, but that negotiations could not happen until the extremists were eliminated. He was charged with imposing British policy on the Yishuv and refused to negotiate under threat. The goal of elimination of terrorism was becoming a higher priority, because this would lead to a restoration of peace and conditions for negotiations with the Yishuv, though he was not entirely sure to what end.
On the night of 25 February 1946 the Irgun and Lehi attacked RAF bases at Kfar Syrkin and Lydda, destroying five aircraft and damaging 17. Four days earlier, the Palmach attacked a Palestine Mobile Force camp, resulting in four insurgents dead. Cunningham observed that the Jewish Agency’s attendance at the Palmach fighters’ funerals indicated its support for terrorism. He noted how the fighters were eulogized as ‘martyrs of the Jewish Resistance Movement’. This was the first time on record that Cunningham heard the term ‘JRM’, but whether he realized what it meant is a different matter. The Jewish Agency was using seditious language in communications to the public and showing moral support for dead Palmach fighters. Cunningham believed that sooner or later those supporting terrorism must be arrested and terrorist organizations destroyed.
In February, Zeev Sherf took Kollek’s place as liaison with British intelligence. In his first meeting with the DSO he estimated the Lehi to have 300 militants and 200 youth members. Soon, he said that he believed Lehi would not attack the Anglo-American Commission. J.C. Robertson at MI5 took this report seriously. This intelligence on Lehi’s restraint was obviously accurate, though it is hard to tell if the membership estimate was correct. In general, despite the changing political situation, British intelligence still trusted its liaison with the Jewish Agency, and worried about terrorist operations abroad. In order to handle this menace, MI5 recommended increased visa security, and extra screening of Jews and anyone from Palestine.
It also was concerned constantly about Soviet support for terrorists in Palestine, especially in February when Lehi publicly threatened to seek Soviet support for its operations and a Jewish state. The DSO concluded that Lehi, a right-wing organization, was unlikely to seek Soviet support and more likely to fear it. In fact, though Lehi would have preferred to avoid any external political influence, it might well have sought Soviet support. It was willing to seek Nazi and fascist support in 1940, therefore it probably considered any enemy of Britain to be a friend. Concern about a Soviet-Irgun relationship was quickly rejected in a long report on the Irgun by Captain Guy Liddell, an old MI5 hand. Judging by Begin’s language in The Revolt and the nature of the organization, the Irgun probably would not have sacrificed any of its autonomy to any foreign movement.
Liddell thought, based on information from Peke, that Irgun’s intelligence organizations had a ‘highly developed system of espionage inside the Government and Police offices’. His report to Colonel Vivian at MI6 continued: ‘They state that they know exactly when and where searches are to be made, and make their arrangements accordingly. They are in a position to tap telephones, open mail, and even to have access to official correspondence between government departments.’ Furthermore, Peke reported that the Irgun were confident that the Haganah would join them and Lehi ‘under a single command’ in the event of adverse government policy. This view was obviously inaccurate; the JRM had been operating for months. Peke gave information which was true but well-known, combined with a fib intended to confuse British intelligence assessments. Liddell, an experienced MI5 officer, showed concern for Irgun’s penetration of the Palestine Government and British military, which was almost unavoidable since the members of the Yishuv held almost all positions in the local administration and urban economy. This breach of security exposed the British to a double threat; a lack of success against Irgun and the potential that it might deceive the British. MI5 took the threat seriously in February 1946, which may account for the back-and-forth discussions about the relationships between Irgun, Haganah and Lehi. However, through March British intelligence still had not learned anything about the JRM, which was the most important piece of information they could have had at that stage, especially if they wanted to delegitimize the Agency in front of the Anglo-American Commission.
In March, Palestine was quiet for one reason: the Anglo-American Commission. Both Jews and Arabs were trying to make a good impression and put forward their cases. However, MI5 and the DSO were busy through this time. Looking for links to foreign support groups, MI5 began to track Jews abroad through the use of commercial and professional channels. In early February it established a connection between Lehi and foreign revisionist youth movements. It also received intelligence from the CID that the High Commissioner and then Bevin would be targets for assassination by the Lehi. MI5 believed that the leaders of the Lehi were meeting in Jerusalem, while Lehi was receiving a ‘steady flow’ of recruits and sympathy from ‘important Jews in Palestine’. All staff took the reports seriously, including Kellar at MI5. There is no reason to believe that this intelligence was wrong. Circus, until this point, had been a good source.
In March, Jewish journalists also informed the DSO that the Haganah, Irgun and Lehi had agreed not to attack the commission. This appears to be the first contact between Jewish journalists and the DSO on such matters. Captured documents revealed a Lehi-Irgun agreement on the nature of their war with the Mandate, assassinations abroad, the military character of attacks and a rotational political council with a permanent military staff. This description fit the way the JRM worked but it excluded mention of the Haganah. It is difficult to tell whether the document was a plant, part of the JRM’s deception of British intelligence, or a separate agreement between Irgun and Lehi. In any case it tripped up intelligence assessments. Also, in March the Jewish secretary of a French liaison officer was kidnapped by the Irgun, which asked if France would sell it arms. She was returned and the incident immediately reported. The DSO took it seriously, as did J.C. Robertson. He doubted that the French liaison would arrange a sale of arms, but it became known that Irgun was in the market, trying to build its supplies for a prolonged conflict or an eventual war. It is ironic that the Irgun’s approach to France was not taken more seriously. Through May, the Irgun received large sums of money from that country and in August 1946 a 35-ton arms cache destined for Palestine was found near Bordeaux.
In April 1946, MI5 began to tune more closely into political happenings in the Yishuv. It followed the World Zionist Organization and Jewish Agency elections and assessed the implications on the ground. It was surprised by an increase in support for revisionists which it also expected to see within the Yishuv, meaning increased support for the revisionist Irgun. MI5 also followed each group. It knew about Mizrachi party meetings where the party decided to allocate 75% of its defence funding to the Irgun. The DSO correctly believed that Haganah was not associated with the Irgun or its blackmail and robberies. Buttercup accurately revealed that Lehi was responsible for the 25 April attack on a British 6th airborne car park, where seven soldiers were killed, and indicated that the Haganah was considering strong action to stop these attacks. Cunningham, infuriated by the incident, his frustration growing, wanted to pursue Haganah and the Agency. MI5, however, knew that it was not a Haganah operation and for once it had accurate information when Cunningham did not, though MI5 exaggerated Haganah’s willingness to act against Irgun. The ‘hunting season’ was long over. A political divide remained, however, as the Haganah newsletter, ‘Eshnav’, denounced the Irgun for blackmailing Jews, while Haganah was increasingly irritated at Irgun’s violence against Jews and Lehi’s car park operation. These political complexities probably contributed to the all-round confusion over the nature of the relationship between Haganah, Irgun and Lehi.
On 8 May 1946 the DSO made his first reference to the JRM, though the information was clearly wrong. It described the JRM as an alliance between Irgun, Lehi and a separate, extreme element of the Haganah. Here, the British either misinterpreted a source or received false information. The JRM was a partnership between the three organizations, not a subdivision of the Haganah. At the same time, MI5 was tracking other pieces of information. It heard that Friedman-Yellin, the Lehi leader, had changed his appearance. Explosives were discovered on the HMS Chevron, docked in Haifa Bay. Originally this was thought to be an attempted sabotage but a Jewish crewman was smuggling the explosives into Palestine and was caught and arrested. A Lehi broadcaster named David Blau visited Baghdad to gain support from the Jewish community there. MI5 recommended that security be increased on the Iraq-Palestine route. Robertson from MI5 learned of a meeting from early May where Haganah, Irgun and Lehi agreed to take no offensive action until the 100,000 immigrants recommended by the Anglo-American Commission reached Palestine, but to resume terrorism if the British government pursued its demand for disarmament. This was probably false and perhaps damaging information, because in May the JRM began to plan for its June operations.
The DSO discovered plans to attack Ramat David Aerodrome, petrol dumps and military installations, which specifically indicated participation by Haganah and Palmach. One report mentioned that when Ben-Gurion gave the orders, the Irgun and Lehi would attack British military installations in the same area. There is no indication that Cunningham received this information, as he never referred to it or expressed any outrage over it, although even if he did receive it that would not have changed his opinions. From the beginning of 1946 he was determined to operate against the Jewish Agency and was just waiting for a suitable opportunity. He saw the Jewish Agency as being in a position to lead the Yishuv away from terrorism and thought that by taking them down he could stop terrorism. The British still did not know exactly what the JRM was, although by this point they knew of some form of collaboration between Irgun, Haganah and Lehi.
So, why were there still a large number of attacks in June? The plans detected by the British never materialized, but other unexpected attacks involving the Haganah and Palmach, Irgun and Lehi, did. Most likely, the JRM scrapped these plans once they were captured and turned to other ideas. On 16 June 1946 the Haganah and Palmach destroyed all bridges connecting Palestine to neighbouring countries. On the next day, the Lehi seriously damaged rail workshops in Haifa. Finally, in the most outrageous of attacks, on 18 June Irgun kidnapped six British army officers, one of whom escaped; two were released after four days and the remainder after 12 days when the death sentence of captured Irgun fighters was commuted. The timing of the attacks was clearly coordinated by the JRM. They provoked Alan Cunningham to outrage.
At 02:00 on 19 June, he reported on the events of the previous three days to the Secretary of State. Cunningham placed most importance on recovering the kidnapped soldiers, but doubted his ability to do so. He asked Whitehall to cease discussions on the issue of 100,000 immigrants and requested permission to ‘put into effect a full plan against Jewish illegal organizations and [the] Jewish Agency’, largely because he believed the likes of Moshe Sneh and the extremists had won the debate within the Agency over the use of terrorism. Later that morning Chaim Weizmann, anticipating a harsh and violent response from the British, met with Cunningham to discuss the issue. Weizmann expressed his disgust at the publication of the original plan to close the Jewish Agency and to arrest those responsible. The fact that even the most reasonable of Jewish leaders opposed current British policy probably reaffirmed Cunningham’s notions about the Agency. A team of SHAI agents, with the help of a British officer with Zionist motivations, had stolen the plans on 15 June. They were made public within a few days. Efraim Dekel, the chief of the operation, described the British reaction as follows:
The British CID were beside themselves with rage … They blamed the army for the leakage, while the army vented their rage on the police … The most careful and painstaking work of dozens of years—the collection of thousands of names and addresses, the compilation of information, reports, and maps referring to arms caches and training fields, the offices and headquarters of the Hagana—all suddenly were worthless. Years of work by the British police and CID in Palestine had collapsed like a house of cards.
This was an embarrassment to Cunningham. After receiving another message of clarification, the Secretary of State denied Cunningham permission to close the Jewish Agency building, and authorized arrests only of those individuals ‘against whom there is clear evidence’ of responsibility for terrorism.
This exchange reveals key points about the intelligence available to Cunningham. He had a blacklist of Agency members whom he wanted to arrest, probably based mostly on public information and less on secret intelligence. Second, military security was poor enough to allow theft of military plans two weeks before D-day. Third, despite the existence of an MI9 escape organization, British authorities had no success in recovering the remaining kidnapped officers. MI5 placed hopes in an anonymous tip on the kidnappers which led nowhere. Fourth, there was little discussion of how to pursue the terrorists, and a weighty focus on the Jewish Agency, demonstrating that Cunningham and the GOC had no idea who to arrest or how to destroy the terrorists. Had they known more about the JRM, they would have understood that the Agency could provide few answers on how to destroy Irgun or Lehi, whose security was too tight, and that the point was not to gather information on terrorists, but political: how to deal with the united opposition of the Yishuv to British policy. On the whole, Cunningham and his staff acted on suspicion and anger rather than intelligence, even though their grasp of events was fairly good.
The 6th Airborne Division took the lead in Operation Agatha, which began at 04:15 on 29 June 1946. The original plan, Operation Broadside, was scrapped after it was made public by the Haganah. Planning for Agatha began on 23 June. It was a broader assault on the Yishuv, whereas Broadside was limited to the Haganah Command Headquarters. The operational objectives of Agatha were to occupy the Jewish Agency building and capture documents there, detain Jewish Agency politicians suspected of complicity in terrorism, occupy suspected headquarters of illegal armed organizations and finally to arrest illegal armed forces members. The seizure of arms, while not officially an objective, in effect became a major part of the operation. Agatha was covered by improved security precautions. The ‘Bigot’ security system was used for electronic and paper communications, meetings were held secretly and in disguise, and normal life in the Yishuv was maintained as best as possible. Planning was, however, difficult because there were no accurate or modern town maps or plans. A Jewish guide map from 1942 was the main source of addresses and whereabouts of officials. The locations of Haganah CHQ and other targets were discreetly reconnoitred before the operation. During the operation, reconnaissance aircraft provided air cover against any movement of Jewish columns. Despite all this effort, a last-minute tip-off from a pro-Zionist British police officer allowed the Haganah to keep its most senior commanders from arrest and saved the majority of Haganah arms from confiscation.
This operation began with little intelligence on the Jewish Agency and virtually none on the illegal armed organizations. It ended with three 3-ton truckloads of documents on the Agency, 2700 individuals under arrest, and virtually no information on illegal armed organizations. Those responsible for the kidnappings which started Agatha were still at large. The entire Agency was in detention except Sneh, its guiltiest member and David Ben-Gurion, a close second. Cunningham requested that Ben-Gurion, who was in London, be apprehended but this was not done. Outrage among the opposition in parliament prompted the Secretary of State to have Cunningham forward all evidence against the Jewish Agency. All the armed organizations continued to function and the detention of the Jewish Agency sparked the Yishuv to declare a general strike in protest. In short, the only leadership of the Yishuv which was capable of bringing the JRM to an end by cutting off support for terrorist groups was locked up in detention camps, while the terrorists, still at large, had provoked the overreaction they sought.
British intelligence was wrong about very important things. By 18 June MI5 believed a CID assessment that Irgun, Lehi and Haganah would soon work together, based on circumstantial evidence such as reactions to Bevin’s speeches, not hard intelligence. British intelligence had no clue about the real relationship between these organizations, or that they had supported each other in attacks over the previous two days, and eight months. Their assessment was further confused by Circus, which indicated that the Irgun had threatened to break away from their agreement, intensify its fight and declare a Jewish state. It seems likely that this was bogus information. On the same date, 18 June, MI5 intercepted mail from a Lehi member in Palestine to a friend in London which mentioned how the Yishuv was united against the British. This might have been taken as evidence contrary to Circus’s report. In general MI5 was getting mixed reports, some indicating a split between Irgun and Haganah, others suggesting that a non-cooperation campaign would commence at the end of June and Haganah would support the Irgun in the Kibbutzim. MI5 knew that Irgun and Lehi were united. The deceptive pattern of excluding the Haganah from the JRM continued even through its final days. On 29 June the Irgun attacked the Haganah in the media, perpetuating the myth that the organizations could no longer work together.
Through July, neither MI5 nor DSO had good information on any illegal armed organizations. Lehi was initially believed to be responsible for the King David Hotel bombing on 22 July 1946, when it was actually Irgun. MI5 continued to believe that the Agency and Irgun were negotiating an agreement, when in fact Irgun, Lehi and Haganah were discussing how to respond to Operation Agatha, which they considered an act of war. Three days before the King David Hotel bombings ‘a most secret source’, which usually means a form of signals intelligence, indicated that Irgun was believed to be planning an attack against the British officials in Beirut. This threat was taken extremely seriously and all relevant authorities were warned. It is impossible to say for certain whether or not the threat was real but it is unlikely that the Irgun at that time would have attempted to assassinate British officials out of Palestine or the UK proper apart from anything else because assassination was not its common practice.
If British intelligence was deceived, then Cunningham and his administration were clueless. Incompetent security at the King David Hotel was a condition for the bombing, yet the threat had been evident for at least six months, while on 29 June MI5 received indications that the military and government offices would be targets of Irgun.
Cunningham and his military staff got together yet again to plan another operation, called ‘Shark’. Operation Shark, which began on 29 July 1946 and lasted for several days, sought to disrupt and destroy the Irgun and Lehi by uprooting them in Tel Aviv. The city, divided into several cordons, was methodically searched as every individual went through a screening process administered by the CID. This operation captured massive arms caches including one in the basement of the Great Synagogue of Tel Aviv. Security precautions before the operation were improved, including a ban on the use of telephones, while aerial photographs were used as well as Tel Aviv city maps. The operation was considered successful and the Lehi was believed to be mostly rounded up. Very few important persons were actually arrested however, and the organizations continued to function. This indicates that Britain could not break Irgun or Lehi security.
By August 1946, British actions bore some fruit. The Jewish Agency had suffered a tactical setback. It dropped terrorism as a policy and took up negotiations with the British. The Agency had lost some power to the Irgun while the Yishuv was increasingly unwilling to follow Britain’s lead as the London Conference, which was meant to settle the situation, was on the horizon. This was a partial success for Cunningham’s policy, yet far from complete. It was a double-edged sword: Cunningham got the Agency to drop terrorism, but in the process failed to crack the illegal armed organizations—indeed he strengthened them. On 18 August Cunningham noted:
This evidence that moderate local Government and business circles are acquiring increasing influence on policy discussion in the absence of extremist political leaders is slightly encouraging. Their influence over terrorists and para-military organizations is however negligible and further demonstrations of violence by the latter are anticipated in the near future.
The Agency dropped terrorism because it could no longer gain from it. The King David Hotel incident hurt the Agency’s negotiating power with the British and Americans and it wanted to avoid open war, so it jumped at the chance to negotiate. Immediately MI5 got busier and busier, and its information suddenly became more accurate, as it was no longer in the interests of the Agency or Haganah to deceive the British. Cunningham’s focus shifted back to politics, illegal immigration and fighting the Irgun, which seldom came to anything.
In general, British intelligence in Palestine during the period of the Jewish Resistance Movement in 1945-46 lacked two crucial things. First and foremost was security, and second was good intelligence on terrorist organizations. Not until August 1946 did military intelligence discover that military telephone conversations were routinely being tapped.
On 8 Aug direct evidence showed that a very important pair of telephone wires between NORTH PALESTINE and the SOUTH had in actual fact been tapped. The degree of technical knowledge necessary for the Jews to be able to single out this particular line, shows that the amount of information available to them must be considerable and that their intelligence organization is very active and of a high order.
This was only the start of British realization of the extent and complexity of the Jewish intelligence organizations. British intelligence and policymaking clearly suffered from a specific effort at deception during much of the Jewish Resistance Movement. The involvement of the Haganah was constantly left out of any description of the JRM during its existence. Deception led to a lack of British preparedness for major JRM operations in the early summer of 1946. These operations resulted in frustration and political missteps for Cunningham and General Barker. Their policy was problematic—was the aim of Operation Agatha to stop terrorist operations, or was it meant to force the Jewish Agency into negotiations? JRM operations were designed to hurry immigration issues and ended up backfiring on both the Jewish Agency and the British. The Agency was shut down temporarily, and the Irgun doubled in strength. Neither effect was positive for the Agency or the British. Ultimately, Cunningham achieved one of the desired results, forcing the Yishuv back to the negotiating table, but he simultaneously failed in the greater aim by strengthening the organization most responsible for terrorism.
In the end, intelligence did not matter much to policy, as it is only useful if a decision maker is willing to see it. Without much consultation with intelligence, and ignoring the warnings of the Colonial Office, Cunningham pursued the disruption of the Jewish Agency. MI5, among the best security services in the world at the time, consistently had bad intelligence on important issues, with the DSO depending on assessments from information provided by his liaison with a secretly hostile organization.
Cunningham, the police and the army needed operational and political intelligence on terrorist groups, to prevent attacks, capture wanted men and destroy their organizations. This did not exist, and the vulnerability to terrorism made it hard for Cunningham to play calm and rational politics. While Cunningham had a decent general sense of events, MI5 did not catch up to hidden developments until June. If Cunningham needed to know one thing during his first year in Jerusalem, it was that his pressure on the Jewish Agency would turn the moderates within the Yishuv away from negotiations with the British, so empowering the terrorists in numbers and popularity. Cunningham miscalculated how the Yishuv would react to Operation Agatha. He hoped to send a message to the extremists, but instead enraged the Yishuv. In the end, Cunningham based his decisions more on his reading of the political situation than on secret intelligence about the illegal armed organizations and the Jewish Agency. Even if he had used the information available, he would have been misled by the JRM’s deception effort. In this case a decision maker did not use bad intelligence, and still ended up making poor decisions. Ultimately, Cunningham achieved one of his goals—the Agency dropped terrorism and resumed negotiations. Largely due to lack of intelligence, however, he was unable to handle the threat posed by the Irgun.
David Charters claims that British policy failed in 1946 because it suffered from an intelligence failure. In fact, the real failure was of policy, not intelligence. Intelligence really did not affect Cunningham’s policy at all, nor is it easy to see how Britain could have changed that policy and continued with the Mandate under the terms it wished. The real problem lay with power and policy. British intelligence was mediocre, but one may doubt that even excellence in this area would have transformed events. Once the Yishuv withdrew its consent for a continuation of the Mandate, no means which the British had and were willing to employ could make it change its mind.