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A Jewish British Airman’s Awakening

Reggie Sutton in uniform pictured in August 1944

I remember the words of a Military Royal Air Force rabbi, to a dozen British Jewish servicemen on active service in Libya shortly after the successful El-Alamein campaign.

"If by any chance any of you are able to take leave in the near future, then request a travel voucher permitting you to go to Palestine. There you will be amazed to find a land being settled by Jews, and in particular, the creation of an all new city named Tel Aviv which is similar to Brighton on England's south coast. The Jewish people living there are very hospitable and reasonably happy, despite living under the regime of a British mandate. You will be very welcome, and you will discover a modern-day miracle, the beginnings of the creation of a new state by Jews, for the absorption of Jews from all over the world."

His words about Palestine remain clearly in my mind because I had no knowledge of the Jewish people or religion, having had little Jewish education in the UK. .

My unit, a small mobile unit carrying out repairs and salvage of distressed or crashed aircraft, was posted to Egypt. Shortly after, we were reposted to Palestine, and set off across Egypt from Alexandria to El Qantara and in darkness entered the Sinai desert. It was a rough, dangerous ride and I recall passing through the town of Gedera on the way to the gates of a large RAF station, Aqir, later IAF Tel Nof.

On the first off-duty with friends, I ventured to a café in Gedera and realized that everyone was Jewish. I am also Jewish, I said to myself. My upbringing had barely touched on my Judaism, so, in effect, I was starting a crash course on Judaism from scratch.

Jewish life had made no major impact on me up to then, and there I was, totally unexpectedly, being immersed day by day in the affairs of the Jews in Palestine. But of course I was also a part of the British Mandate force. That was uppermost in my mind most of the time, but receded gradually as I received hospitality from families who hosted Jewish and other military personnel.

This situation exposed me to the ongoing friction that was part and parcel of life then in Palestine.

I met members of the Palestine Police and the local population quite often for sporting activities. As time went on and friendships developed, my understanding of Judaism was developing. I also learned about the moshav and kibbutz movements. I realized that I was undergoing a kind of metamorphosis, for want of a better phrase, "dual loyalty".

My movements with my unit often involved travel to neighboring countries so I inevitably compared what I saw and heard there to conditions in Palestine.

There was always, I felt, underlying resentment from soldiers at the trouble the Jews and Arabs were causing, which resulted in the soldiers being kept far from their homes. There was also at the same time a kind of hidden envy that I could move so easily and freely among the local population. There was little understanding of the Jewish presence in Palestine or its connection to the Mandate and the war in Europe.

Tel Aviv was a great eye-opener and its cosmopolitan atmosphere was appealing to many soldiers on leave. We were provided with transport at weekends from Aqir to Tel Aviv and back again. I remember that after visiting friends in north Tel Aviv, I would have to hurry along the stretch of Ben Yehuda Street to Mograbi Square in order not to miss the last transport back to base.

Later, when I was stationed further North, I frequently visited Afula and Haifa, where I was surprised to see such a busy, thriving and prosperous port.

Reggie Sutton in 1944

The Jews I encountered were always curious and wanted answers to questions about my life and upbringing and it was during such conversations that I realized increasingly how much I was missing and had indeed missed in my past - what it meant to be a Jew.

In 1945 I met Hannah, a Palestinian Jewish woman who had escaped with her parents from Germany in 1938 and lived in Tel Aviv.

We met as often as we could whenever I was off duty and could get to Tel Aviv. I made new Jewish friends through her family and friends.

As a technician, I would frequently have to leave my base and travel to other, often remote locations throughout the Levant, sometimes for only a few days but often longer. One such period in Aleppo was four months.

It was while I was in Aleppo that I realized how attached I had become to Hannah and to my newly discovered Jewishness. By the time I was able at last to see Hannah again, I had already learnt that I would be eligible for repatriation and demobilization to the UK in January 1946.

We decided that we would no longer be separated and that we would marry in Palestine, but the arrangements were far from simple since we were obliged to satisfy military regulations. The situation was made more difficult by the fact that I was detailed to move from my base at an air strip at Muqeibila, about halfway between Afula and Jenin, to Aleppo.

How was I going to meet Hannah and make all the arrangements for marriage and repatriation?

I knew that, in principle, the military preferred that British personnel did not marry or have liaisons with local civilians and when a serviceman informed his commanding officer of his intention to marry a local inhabitant, the information was sent to the chaplain responsible for his religion for review. If approved, then after marriage he could be recognized officially as a married soldier, but approval was in no way automatically granted.

While in Aleppo I received notification that I should return to my unit since I needed to travel to Tel Aviv to rendezvous with my prospective wife so that we could travel by train to Egypt and then to England by ship.

Arriving at my base, enquiries at the adjutant's office revealed that the communication requiring me to report to the Transport Office in Cairo to board a ship had not been forwarded until it was too late. My attempts to reach Tel Aviv involved hitchhiking southwards through Homs and Hama in Syria to Beirut, on to Haifa, Muqeibila and finally Tel Aviv. I was greatly excited to be reunited with Hannah and to be able to tell her that we were about to start our journey to the UK.

I had succeeded in delaying repatriation as a single man, and wedding arrangements had to be made quickly. My future parents-in-law arranged for the Vaad HaKehila in Tel Aviv to perform the ceremony. When I arrived in Tel Aviv, I was invited to Jerusalem with Hannah to meet the Jewish Military Chaplain, Rabbi Nathan, who was responsible for all religious matters for Jewish airmen in the Levant.

We learned during this visit that Hannah and the rabbi's wife had studied in the same school in Hamburg. Rabbi Nathan approved the marriage for military and religious purposes and accepted an invitation to perform the marriage ceremony in Tel Aviv.

What I didn't realize was that Hannah's father had already arranged with the Vaad HaKehila that they accept the marriage of a Jewish Englishman to a local Jewish woman and a representative was prepared to come to Hannah's parents' apartment, replete with a chuppah, to perform the ceremony on the same date at the same time!

The difficulties seemed insurmountable because I was in Aleppo; Hannah was in Tel Aviv, Rabbi Nathan in Jerusalem and my application for repatriation with my wife, my records and base in Muqueilia. There was also the matter of the civil ceremony to be performed at the office of the High Commissioner in Jaffa, as a Jewish wedding of a British citizen overseas would not be recognized in the UK. The British High Commissioner was licensed to perform such ceremonies.

The details were ironed out and on the same day as the civil ceremony in Jaffa, it was arranged that we would have the religious ceremony under a chuppah in Tel Aviv. The two ceremonies in the presence of Hannah's parents and friends took place on February 21, 1946. We received a British passport for Hannah and travel documents to enable us to travel to Egypt from Lydda by a train which crossed the Sinai desert only twice a week. At El Qantara station on the Suez Canal we were ordered off the train as Hannah was refused entry to Egypt because she didn't have a visa. We had not been forewarned. We were rescued by an anonymous British sergeant who took our passports promising help. After a short time and a flurry of activity he returned with our passports and the requisite documentation and told us to get on the train which was about to depart.

In Cairo the officer in charge of troop movements, said that he regretted that The Mauritania, the ship sailing to England, was unable to delay and when we didn't turn up had left.

Finally, in mid 1946, we sailed to England to introduce Hannah to my family after my absence of more than four years. That was where our first child was born. We left England once more in 1949 to return to the country that had become Israel, where I joined the IAF.

I was married to Hannah for 67 happy years.

Reggie Sutton served both in the Royal Air Force and later in the Israeli Air Force.



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Wednesday, 07 June 2023

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