At the foot of Ammunition Hill

'Post' art critic and cartoonist Meir Ronnen recalls his company's role in the battle for Jerusalem.

mike ronnen 88 (photo credit: )
mike ronnen 88
(photo credit: )
When a Jerusalem Brigade infantry battalion commanded by Lt.-Col. Nehemia Oz was activated in May 1967, its D Company was issued kit and weapons at Mahaneh Stone, an IDF facility in the Greek Colony which also secretly housed some Sherman tanks. The NCOs were given new Uzis, but the rankers received old single-shot, bolt-action rifles. My Uzi was still covered in factory grease. Then for the first time, we were issued with new uniforms and new aluminum mess tins. I had never seen a new mess tin set before, not even in the Australian army. It made a great impression on me: I recall remarking to Browning gunner Zvi Ben-Yishai, now retired as deputy head of Rambam Hospital in Haifa, that this was clear evidence that things were really serious. The battalion was quartered in pup tents on the Hebrew University's Givat Ram campus, where we commenced training, visited in the evenings by wives and children bearing snacks. In a highly unusual scenario, Hebrew University professor Haim Barkai, a platoon sergeant in D Company (commanded by poet-soldier Haim Guri), brought three volunteers to Col. Oz. The three, from Barkai's faculty of economics, were American-born Prof. Don Patinkin, later an Israel Prize laureate and a pioneer of economic research, and two lecturers, Robert Shereshevsky and Haim Yeshayahu. None had any military training, but the gung-ho Oz agreed to enroll them in D Company. Patinkin was 45. Oz and I were 40, but many of the company were in their late 20s, all with low medical profiles. Oz, who knew me from prewar live-fire exercises, had just assigned me to train the entire battalion on the .30 caliber Browning and the use of the bayonet. Now he asked me to train the volunteer trio. The three economists learned to strip and work our weapons, but there was no shooting range where they could experience firing them. Despite the picnic atmosphere of our pup-tent encampment, an air of anxiety prevailed. Israel was nervous. One evening, lying in our pup tents, we listened on our little transistor radios to premier Levi Eshkol's stuttered speech to the nation. Hearts sank. But morale soared when we heard that Moshe Dayan had been appointed defense minister. AT AROUND 8:30 a.m. on June 5, D Company was issued grenades and a woefully small quantity of ammunition (but a handy 12,000 rounds for the Brownings) and was taken in Egged buses to Sanhedria, where elderly women in the Pagi apartment complex brought us buckets of tea and cakes. Just after 10 a.m., schlepping kit, personal weapons and the heavy Brownings and their tripods, we doubled through the Sanhedria cemetery (a most unsuitable place to start a war, I panted to Ben-Yishai) and debouched into a woefully shallow trench at the foot of Ammunition Hill. There were no officers with us. Guri was called to a commander's conference, and his platoon commanders, one of them author David Shacham, were all on leave (another lieutenant, a paratroop officer, deserted and was later cashiered, as was our sergeant-major, a wealthy contractor who probably thought he had a lot to lose). The trench position was dismal. I ordered the first platoon to drop everything and drag some nearby planks to cover the trench, as protection against mortar shells. We were to relieve a small unit of young reservists manning the Pagi blockhouse, but before they could leave the Jordanians suddenly opened fire. All of my platoon jumped into the trench, leaving their weapons in the open and on the Jordanian side. I lay on my stomach throwing the guns one by one into the trench and, like a good soldier, looked at the serial numbers for my own Uzi. I never found it, but kept the last Uzi for myself. I then rolled over and over into the trench. I never recovered my helmet. We had been ordered not to fight from the blockhouse, as it was a clear target. But one of my gunners, a tubby house painter who was the butt of the company, had opened fire from the blockhouse with a Browning mounted by the previous occupants. I was so amazed at the sight of this Schweik in action that I hesitated to stop him. The Jordanians on Ammunition Hill promptly put a recoilless cannon shell into the top of the blockhouse. One of the young reservists, a corporal manning the observation post, lost his shoulder. We carried him out and along the trench under heavy machine-gun fire. Our wretched position, a "peacetimer," was also dominated by the Sheikh Jarrah Police School. Profs. Barkai and Patinkin were directly beneath its walls when the Jordanians opened fire. Their younger colleagues Shereshevsky and Yeshayahu, who were firing back at the Jordanians from another position to the rear, were both killed by machine-gun fire almost immediately. Barkai, lonely on our extreme right flank, called to me for help; he wanted a Browning with him. But when I reached him, I saw that there was no field of fire. I told him to use his Uzi. Company D remained under fire all day. The Jordanian cannon, mounted on a jeep on the summit of Ammunition Hill, put shell after shell into the back lip of our zigzag trench. One hit in the zig next to my zag and blasted my eardrums, leaving me dizzy and nauseous for more than half an hour. Later in the afternoon, a terrifying barrage of heavy Israeli mortar shells fell on Ammunition Hill. Thankful for its accuracy, we later saw that it had no effect on the Jordanian bunkers, but it put paid to that deadly jeep-mounted cannon, which was burned out. AT NIGHTFALL, as Motta Gur's paratroopers formed up in our rear, the entire area was shelled by heavy Jordanian mortar and artillery fire. More than 40 paratroopers were wounded as they debussed on Rehov Shmuel Hanavi, including a medic who later became my wine merchant. Several others were killed by a shell when they took up covering positions in the windows of the Pagi shikun behind us. The 25-pounder shells, red hot and visible at night, passed overhead and clanged against the shikun like hammers against a giant anvil. Some shells fell around us, but we were just below ground. Only my kit outside the trench was a casualty. In my side haversack, a splinter neatly opened my toothpaste. As the paratroops crossed no-man's-land to take the Police School from the flank, our CO, Haim Guri, who had earlier rejoined us under fire, followed by his faithful runner, ordered a ban on firing to our front, so that we would not hit any paratroopers. At first light, I couldn't tell friend from foe and refrained from bringing down a trio of soldiers to my front who vanished into the smoke at the side of Ammunition Hill. We had little idea of the horrific casualties sustained by the two paratroop companies assigned to take the Police School and Ammunition Hill. Shortly after dawn on June 6, I watched the attack of the surviving paratroopers on the last Arab Legion bunker, together with Col. Aharon Davidi, then chief paratroop officer, who had entered my position unarmed and without a helmet, accompanied by Dayan's adjutant, a lieutenant-colonel. We raised our bare heads cautiously. Davidi then thanked me, as though he had dropped in for tea, and left. When I raised my head again, I could see the paratroopers passing satchel charges over the top of the bunker. At the same time, one of the Jordanians inside the bunker spotted me and fired two bursts of tracer just over my head. I sank down smartly, thinking, what a brave man! About to die and still firing! Minutes later, the bunker was destroyed. The few surviving paratroopers left the hill with their 35 dead and many, many wounded. D Company was ordered to secure the hill, after circling to its rear. As we formed up, a jeep carrying Dayan and his adjutant bounced through the debris of our lines, on their way to the encircled Israeli garrison on Mount Scopus. Approaching the hill from the rear, D Company went to ground at a thunderous burst of firing from over the hill. Showing off, I went forward alone and did a Davidi, slowly raising my head above the stone wall and, oddly enough, thinking about Captain Stein doing the same thing in Leon Uris's book Battle Cry. I saw that the firing was coming from the Shuafat road junction, where the Harel Brigade was turning north to Ramallah. Waving D Company on, with my section in the lead, we entered the hill. We passed blackened Arab corpses, the crew of the recoilless jeep-mounted cannon that had terrified us the previous day. Going down into trenches of the bunker system, one of my section stupidly kicked an unexploded Israeli phosphorous grenade. It went off, putting him in hospital and burning holes in my ancient Australian army sweater. We had suffered the first casualties in the battle for Jerusalem; and I then had the strange privilege of firing the last shot on the hill. Rather anxiously leading the way into the deep communication trenches, I nearly had a fit when I turned a corner and bumped into two Jordanian soldiers in greatcoats. I pressed the trigger of my Uzi. Nothing happened. Nightmare! As I frantically shoved forward the safety catch, the two soldiers sank to the ground. They were dead and had died standing up, jammed together in the trench. I then heard voices coming from what seemed to be an airshaft in the side of the trench. I fired down the shaft, and a soldier with me who spoke Arabic shouted for the Arabs to come out. Five Jordanians emerged from the command bunker and were taken prisoner by a section commanded by Sgt. Yisrael Segal, who later became a popular TV presenter. I then came upon the shattered bunker that had held out to the last, and from which a Jordanian had tried to kill me. Four young corpses lay inside, another outside. Other bodies were in small fragments. Using prisoners, we buried the whole bodies, together with other Legion dead, in one of the very top trenches of the hill. Thinking that this temporary grave would later be visited by a Jordanian war graves unit, I decided, with Guri's permission, to erect a grave marker. This consisted of a Jordanian semi-automatic rifle (an American World War II Garand M1) stuck barrel-first in the grave. To the butt of the rifle I tied a large piece of blue cardboard, torn from a Jordanian platoon rollbook. With a black felt-tip marker I used for drawing cartoons, I wrote, in English: "Defense Army of Israel - Here lie buried 17 brave Jordanian soldiers." The marker and the rifle were later photographed, but both were soon souvenired. King Hussein quoted the marker in his book on the war. D COMPANY was then taken, courtesy of Egged, to Ramallah, with an occasional stop to deal with snipers. It was scary being out in the open. However, we soon found ourselves anxiously hugging the walls of an apparently deserted Arab town. A tall, beautifully dressed young Arab in tie, white shirt and custom-made suit suddenly appeared and introduced himself as the mayor of El-Bireh. "We wish to cooperate with you," he told me in perfect English. Guri, a Francophile, didn't speak English. I thanked the mayor and said someone would get in touch with him. Reaching the Ramallah police station, its door blown in by a tank, I charged with my gun section up the stairwell to the roof as two legionnaires jumped off the other side. We mounted the Brownings and I put up the first Israeli flag, which I made from a sheet and green ink. I have it still. Col. Oz arrived, threw us a salute from below and later told Jerusalem Post editor Ted Lurie that I had taken the place on my own. Untrue, but my stock at the Post soared. Next day, I was given four vehicles and told to lead the first motorized patrol through Ramallah. Turning a corner, we suddenly entered a scene from a Fellini film: dozens of pierrot-like figures, all completely white, were milling around in a street covered with white powder. Hungry Arabs had broken into an UNRWA flour store. I stopped a man with a full sack balanced on his head. He said his family hadn't eaten for days. I let him go with a grin and a rukh el bet ("Go home"). From Ramallah, D Company was moved to Eizariya (Bethany) on the Jericho Road, where I posted the Brownings on the highest rooftop. The home owner spoke some prewar Hebrew and became a postwar friend. Down the Jericho Road, we rounded up stragglers in Legion camps and found Jewish gravestones from the Mount of Olives used as paving. We saw that the desert was full of scared and thirsty refugees from Eizariya. With Patinkin's help and Guri's blessing, I rounded up some volunteer drivers and deserted Legion vehicles, including a crane, and used them to carry jerrycans of water to the Arabs. Loading the women, children and old men onto the vehicles, even onto the crane, we made several runs to bring more than 80 of them back to Eizariya. I very much doubt if anyone in this now hostile town remembers this. Some 17 days after war broke out, I was back with my family. They were unharmed, but there was a mortar bomb crater in the middle of our lawn. I drove my 89-year-old grandfather to the Mount of Olives, where we found the grave of my great-grandfather untouched and which I could visit for the first time. We were happy. It was going to be all right. This piece originally appeared in the Post in 2002.