The fight for Latrun

The famous battleground is now a fascinating place to visit.

jp.services2 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
One of the fiercest and most important battles of the War of Independence was the fight for the fortress of Latrun, which commands the main road between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. This series of engagements is important in its own right, and also because some who fought there went on to become monumental figures. Two would even rise to the office of prime minister: Yitzhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon. The fortress at Latrun, and the nearby Trappist monastery, overlook the scenic Ayalon Valley, about 16 kilometers west of Jerusalem. Its commanding location along an ancient route gives it great strategic value, making it the site of many battles going back to biblical times. Here, Joshua prayed for God to make the sun stand still so he could finish defeating the Amorites (Joshua 10:12-13). There is also evidence that Latrun is the site of Emmaus - where Jesus appeared to two of his disciples after the resurrection (Luke 24:13-35), and in 167 BCE the Ayalon Valley was where Judah the Maccabi won an important victory over the Seleucids. The Templars built a fortress there in 1187. In the late 1930s in Mandatory Palestine, there were a series of riots by Arab residents against the Jewish community and British rule. Because of this, the British army built a series of "Taggart" forts, named for the engineer who designed them, which were essentially fortified police stations at strategic points. Latrun was a natural site for a Taggart fort due to its view of the main Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway. But as the British garrison left Latrun on May 14, 1948, the Arab Legion of Transjordan moved in, initiating one of the darkest hours for the new Jewish state. The Arab Legion used this location to deny Jewish access to Jerusalem, and its 100,000 Jewish residents began to starve. As one drives along this route today, one can see the carefully preserved remains of the crudely armored trucks that were destroyed trying to break the blockade nearly 60 years ago. David Ben-Gurion believed that the loss of Jerusalem would be fatal to the newly established state, so he made a risky decision to commit scarce military resources to the taking of Latrun. On May 24, the fortress was unsuccessfully assaulted by Israeli forces, including a young platoon commander named Ariel Sharon, who was severely wounded during the attack. The initial assault cost the Arab Legion heavy casualties. A week later, on June 1, another attempt was launched, and although the outer defenses were breached this attack was also repulsed, this time with heavy losses on both sides. A third attack was repelled in the days leading up to the first truce of June 11. Many of the Israeli conscripts were Holocaust survivors who had been thrown into battle poorly trained and poorly equipped soon after arriving in the land. Their high casualty rate remains a point of controversy to this day. Despite the fact that the attacks failed to drive out the Arab Legionnaires, they did prevent the Jordanians from leaving the fortress, and this bought the Jews the time and space they needed to carve out an alternative route to the south that lifted the siege of Jerusalem. This "Burma Road" was built by engineers of the new IDF, led by Col. David Marcus, a graduate of West Point and a World War II US Army veteran. Using bulldozers to widen an ancient goat path, the road was completed just before the first truce went into effect on June 11, allowing a flow of soldiers, weapons and supplies into west Jerusalem and quite possibly saving the newborn state. No further attempts were made to dislodge the Arab Legion from Latrun during the War of Independence, and so the Latrun salient stayed under Jordanian control according to the terms of the cease-fire agreement of 1949. Arab snipers made the fort a constant hazard to Jewish travelers along the Tel Aviv to Jerusalem highway until the Six Day War, when the IDF captured it in one hour. Following the 1967 conflict, the Taggart fort was turned into a museum that today is the central feature of Yad Lashiryon, as the site is now called. There are over 150 armored vehicles on display, from primitive armored cars used in the 1948 war to the latest Israeli-built Merkava Mark IV, the most advanced battle tank in the world. Armored vehicles from other nations are also on display, including American, British, French and even Soviet-built equipment. Perhaps the most interesting vehicles are two German Panzer tanks originally used by the Wehrmacht in World War II that fell into the hands of the Soviet Red Army, were transferred to Syria in the 1950s and later captured by the IDF in fighting on the Golan. Other features of the museum include a Wall of Names, where the names of all the IDF soldiers who have fallen in the country's wars are inscribed. A Hall of Honor holds pictures of the fallen and information about who they were. The old British police station contains a library and walk-through museum where visitors can learn about the history of the IDF Armored Corps and soldiers can prepare for their future careers. Despite being a museum, Latrun is still in everyday use as a training, education and resource center. Much of the material in its library is only accessible to soldiers with a high security clearance. A few hundred meters away is the Latrun Monastery, built in 1890 by Trappist monks from France. The monks are strict vegetarians, have taken a vow of silence, and support themselves through manual labor. This includes the production of grapes for wine and olives for oil. The monastery is also a place of pilgrimage for many Christians who come to study on the quiet grounds, enjoy the beautiful scenery and soak in the rich history of the area. While in the area, visitors can also tour Mini-Israel, an outdoor theme park which features many of the country's most famous landmarks in 1:25 scale, and take their children to Merkavot Latrun, where they can enjoy pony rides and a tractor tour of the entire Ayalon Valley.