IN EARLY May, a few weeks prior to the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War, surviving members of Battalion 66, of the 55th Paratroopers Brigade that famously captured the strategically crucial Ammunition Hill ‒ a battle that has gone down in history as the most bloody and brutal of the campaign that liberated Jerusalem ‒ were reunited.
The assumption at such a gathering would be that these men ‒ the youngest now in their early 70s, the oldest approaching their mid-80s ‒ would return to the site of the battle at which 36 of their comrades fell, along with 71 of the Jordanian defenders. It was not to Ammunition Hill that they physically returned, however, though it was the main subject of conversation throughout the day.
Instead, the veteran paratroopers toured a series of key sites at which their predecessors, the Palmach fighters of the 1948 War of Independence, prevailed against all the odds. It was very important for them, close to Independence Day, to show their respect and admiration for the previous generation’s remarkable achievements.
Such a gesture says a great deal about the collective nature of the men whose achievements on June 6, 1967 helped pave the way for a military victory that stunned the world.
Without exception, those who agreed to share their memories related their stories with modesty, sometimes with reluctance, and without a hint of bravado. Famous battles might excite those reading of such exploits, but those I met repeatedly highlighted the one critical ingredient that is so often the difference between life and death in the unimaginable carnage of battle and the dizzying fog of war ‒ luck.
The paratroopers had not expected to be sent to Jerusalem. Instead, the 55th Brigade, highly trained reservists who had completed their statutory military service a few years earlier, had been preparing for a parachute mission on June 5th, the opening day of the Six Day War, in El-Arish in the Sinai Peninsula. At the last minute, though, they were diverted to Jerusalem knowing little of what awaited them and unaware of their specific objective.
Ammunition Hill proved to be their target. Historians have robustly debated the strategic necessity of capturing the Jordanian- held position, drawing conclusions for and against the decisions taken that day. They have questioned the motives behind the decisions made by Mordechai (Motta) Gur, the 55th Paratrooper Brigade commander, and others, as well as the chaos that ensued during the ferocious battle prompted by poor intelligence reports that meant the paratroopers encountered far more resistance than anticipated from the Jordanians (who occupied the high ground and had prepared a series of fortified trenches).
Those were decisions made on high, but what has never been questioned is the way in which Battalion 66 took the fight to the Jordanians.
In their everyday lives, many hailed from kibbutzim (both secular and religious), had normal day jobs and professions, some were full-time students, some were married with children. Once called up for duty, though, they would meld into a well-trained elite force, something few other armies in the world to this day can achieve at such short notice.
The Battle of Ammunition Hill began at 2:30 a.m. in complete darkness. The well-documented tales of the battle included a paratrooper throwing himself onto a live grenade to save his comrades, junior officers picking up the baton and leading the charge after their senior officers had fallen, and other notable incidents of valor above and beyond the call of duty.
But after spending a day with these men ‒ some impressively defying the aging process and still appearing physically strong, others beginning to show the inevitable ravages of time ‒ the one thing that puts their achievements into true perspective is not that they were extraordinary men doing extraordinary things that June night 50 years ago. It is, more remarkably, that they were ordinary men who did extraordinary things in the most challenging of circumstances.
Dan Shiloah, who organized the day out and regularly organizes other such events, was persuaded to tell his remarkable story of surviving the Six Day War against all the odds. It is breathtaking in the simple, matter-of-fact way he calmly recalls what happened.
“I WAS wounded in my head [during the battle at Ammunition Hill]. I told the medic to just put a bandage on and that I wanted to leave [to return to my unit]. He told me, “You need to have stitches.” I told him to just put the bandage on, then took my helmet ‒ which had holes in it ‒ and I went back.
“A day later I was wounded again in my chest at Augusta Victoria, hit by both bullets and shrapnel. This is my story. I never tried to be famous or anything like that. I don’t like stories of war.”
Shiloah’s huge stroke of luck stemmed from the fact that his helmet was too small for him and sat an inch or two above the top of his head. After being felled by the impact of the bullet, he saw the enemy signaling that he was dead, but the bullet had skimmed the top of his head, going through the gap between the inside of the helmet and his scalp.
You couldn’t make it up. He still has that perforated helmet as a souvenir of the battle and the good fortune that came his way.
Dan Eyal, who trained alongside Shiloah at the paratrooper training center throughout the previous two years, was 24 years old at the time of the battle and father to a three-year-old son. Part of the mortar unit, he has rarely spoken of his experience at Ammunition Hill but after a little persuasion agreed to share his story.
“I never went into the details of the battle with other people,” Eyal tells The Jerusalem Report
. “We tried to shell the [police] school and were told that [our field commanders] could not see our hits. This was explained later on because the shells had fallen in the middle of the building, which had a courtyard surrounded by walls, so the courtyard itself couldn’t be seen. They told us to come down from the small open plot where we were. It was in a built-up area and had a street slightly below it that led down to the middle of the [residential] neighborhood.
“On our way down, I saw that many soldiers were gathered between a building and a small fence, so I went further along the street. Gideon (Gingy) Rosenfeld was by my side. On the other side of Gideon was Avinoam Kantorovich. There was heavy machine-gun fire right above us, high above us, but nothing that we were too worried about. Gideon said to me, ‘Have you loaded your Uzi?’ and I said, ‘Yes.’
“The thing was that no one had told us to load our guns. At that time, there were strict orders not to load your gun unless you were told to. They were shooting all around us, and I thought it seemed obvious that we should be prepared for anything. Suddenly, there was an explosion that hit the building next to us. Then Gideon began saying, ‘I’m dead. I’m dead.’
“Both Avinoam and I looked at him and he seemed OK, as though nothing had happened. I said to him, ‘Gideon, there’s nothing wrong with you. You’re fine.’
“THEN WE saw he had been hit on his right side and there was a big hole. We tried to take care of him with some sort of bandage. As far as I can remember, an ambulance showed up near us soon after and we left him with them. At exactly the same time, in a vehicle next to the ambulance, I saw the bodies of a number of our friends.
“They took Gideon off to the hospital. Despite his wound, we had expected him to survive. I never thought he would die, but it seems he was so badly hurt that they couldn’t save him. We were lying down so close to each other when the explosion happened that his shoulder was literally touching mine. It was pure luck that I survived and that, sadly, he didn’t.”
Unknown to Eyal (because his paratrooper brigade moved a few days later to fight in the north against the Syrians), Rosenfeld, from Kibbutz Eyal, near Kfar Saba, fought for his life for eight days in the hospital in Jerusalem until eventually succumbing to his wounds on June 14, 1967. He was 21 years old.
One of the most senior officers at Ammunition Hill was the deputy commander of Battalion 66, Doron Mor. Judging by the respect in which he is still held to this day by his men, Mor, who went on to become an acclaimed geologist and was influential in a number of major cross-cultural education projects, was a soldier’s soldier.
He stepped away from the gathering for a few minutes to share his personal memories of the battle.
“My personal experience is of absolute terror ‒ that lasted one second,” Mor told The Report
. “It has stayed with me all my life. There was a fierce battle and we didn’t know exactly what the situation was.”
Mor told battalion commander Yossi Yaffe that he wanted to help sort out the confusion between two tanks that, judging by radio communications, hadn’t managed to locate each other’s position.
“Just then, two other tanks that had been clearing mines came up [the hill] so I asked for them and got them. I thought that if there was any more resistance, I could use the tanks and clear the area.
“My radio operator and I went on the first tank, sitting [outside] on the back. The operations sergeant, who later was killed in the Yom Kippur War, went onto the second tank. While we were going up the hill, there was terrible fighting all around us and there we were on top of the tank like sitting ducks!
“I WAS leaning on the turret and suddenly heard a burst of fire. I turned and saw a Jordanian soldier 10 meters from me holding a carbine rifle. He fired all his bullets, then the magazine fell and he started to load another. I had my Uzi hanging on my right side and the Jordanian was standing to my left. Moving the Uzi to the left, loading, aiming and firing took two or three seconds. It should have taken only a second for him [to reload and fire]. I bent over expecting to be hit, then heard gunfire and the Jordanian fell. The shots came from the tank following me. They shot and killed him.
“That moment, the moment that I thought, ‘I’m going to get it in the back,’ is my most vivid memory of Ammunition Hill.”
I asked Mor about the confused intelligence reports on the day of the battle. He accepted that, for a variety of reasons, the situation on the ground was not as anticipated.
The Jordanians had moved from the police school ‒ where intelligence reports had suggested they would be found – to Ammunition Hill itself. Mor suggests it is difficult to know whether that was a planned strategic move or simply happened spontaneously as the battle began, but he conceded there were some three times more defenders present than had been expected.
After a brief pause, the 82-year-old asked if I’d like to hear another story. I told him I would ‒ and am very glad I did. This is a remarkable account, rarely heard, of a key moment in Israeli military history witnessed by Mor, told in his own words, in its entirety:
“I bore witness to a moment that even now makes me feel very emotional. On the morning after [Ammunition Hill], I was at Sheikh Jarrah, which is on the route to Mount Scopus, which we hadn’t yet received orders to ascend. Suddenly, an open jeep arrived driven by Uzi Narkis, the chief of staff. Next to him sat Moshe Dayan, the defense minister, and in the back seat was Ezer Weizman, chief of military operations. We’d met previously.
“Narkis said to me, ‘Listen, we need to get quickly to Mount Scopus. Drive in front of us and secure the way.’
“I said to him, ‘Sir, the way has not yet been cleared. We haven’t connected.’
“So he said, ‘Then go in front and clear the way.’
“I didn’t have any manpower. Everyone was scattered all over. I took a few spare hand grenades and a few Uzi bullet magazines and said to the driver, ‘Just drive as fast as you can. If we need to fight, I’ll do the fighting.’
“He really put his foot on the gas. How on earth could I have fought! I had to hold on with all my strength so as not to fly out of the jeep! We got up to Mount Scopus and they greeted us with hugs and kisses. Then we went higher to what is now the National Library and walked up onto the roof. It was so quiet. After that dreadful night [at Ammunition Hill], now seeing all of Jerusalem quiet, no fire, no smoke. You could just hear the tweeting of the birds.
“Then I heard Moshe Dayan and Uzi Narkis talking about entering the Old City. There still was no permission, but Dayan said, ‘If permission is given, where will you go in?’
“Uzi Narkis began explaining to him where our forces were positioned ‒ at the Damascus Gate, Herod’s Gate, Zion Gate and Jaffa Gate. Then Moshe Dayan said to him, ‘Why don’t you go in through the Lions’ Gate?’
“It had never been considered before. There was silence, and then Uzi said, ‘You know what Moshe, since the time of King David, Jerusalem has never been conquered from the east.’
‘Then this will be the second and last time,’ said Dayan. And, with that, the conversation ended.
“I felt that King David and the fighters of ’67, together, were handing Jerusalem back to the Jewish people after a gap of 3,000 years. I remember getting goosebumps. A man is indeed fortunate to witness a moment of history such as this. To this very day, this really is a very emotional memory for me.”
The next day Israeli forces entered the Old City through the Lions’ Gate, confounding all predictions of where such an entry would take place. The rest, as they say, is history.
After that stunning story, Mor took his leave of me and rejoined his men. With the deputy commander’s stunning recollection still ringing in my ears, the gathered old soldiers were recalling Ammunition Hill and its place in Israeli history following on from the War of Independence 19 years earlier.
“The fight for Jerusalem didn’t start in 1967,” concluded one of the speakers standing in the shade of the trees alongside the 70 or more former paratroopers, many accompanied by their wives. “It began in 1948 ‒ and it’s still going on today.”
Paul Alster is an Israel-based journalist. His website is www.paulalster.com and he can be followed on Twitter @paul_alster