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Middle East 1930 - 1947:

Palestine and Trans-Jordan 1930-1948

In terms of casualties, overall the British involvement in Palestine between September 1945 and June 1948 cost 754 Army personnel their lives, making it the fourth greatest loss of life for the British Army post Second World War. 1,443 died in Malaya, but over a period of twelve years, 1,441 in Northern Ireland over a period of thirty-eight years, and 1,129 died in Korea between June 1950 and July 1954. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission lists 997 deceased British service personnel between 1 January 1945 and 31 December 1947, although some of these died in accidents, drownings, or through illness and disease.

The involvement of the United Kingdom in the politics of the Middle East extends over many years, but it was following the end of the Great War, or First World War, that British involvement increased. The success of the military campaigns in Gaza and Palestine, and in neighbouring Mesopotamia, gave the U.K. government military and political control of large areas of the former Ottoman Empire.

The British had gained de-facto control of Palestine, and the French gained control of Syria and Lebanon. The U.K. government then set about establishing British governance of Palestine, and created the nominally independent nation of Trans-Jordan, or Jordan as it is known today, but under British influence. This led to years of conflict between Arabs and Jews, with the British caught up in a situation that some described as being of their own making.

During the First World War, in their determination to defeat the Central Powers, the U.K. government had made commitments to leaders of both the Arab and Jewish communities. In particular, the Balfour Declaration was seen by many as a clear intention to facilitate the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. The problem was that commitments had been made to Arab leaders for self-determination once the Ottoman Empire had been defeated. The simple issue was that competing commitments had been made to different groups, which involved the same area of land.

The United Kingdom assumed responsibility for the Mandate for Palestine and Trans-Jordon on 29 September 1923. Palestine Command was formed on 1 February 1922 to control all British forces in the mandated territories, which on 1 October 1926, was renamed Headquarters Trans-Jordan and Palestine. This was a R.A.F. Command, as this service was given the lead in maintaining military control in both Palestine & Trans-Jordan and Iraq. It was reduced to Group status on 21 February 1928.

There were various periods of internal hostilities between the Jewish and Arab populations, which led to an increase in units deployed in the Command. In 1930, two British infantry battalions, the 2 Bn. The South Staffordshire Regiment and the 1 Bn. The Northamptonshire Regiment, were detached from Malta and deployed to Palestine. There were some disturbances in 1933, but it was three years later when a major upsurge in violence occurred resulting from increased immigration and British Government policy.

In 1936, the Arab Higher Committee called for a general strike and relations broke down with the British authorities. As a result, there was an upsurge of violence between Jews and Arabs. With the increased violence, the War Office commenced posting British Troops to Palestine. On 8 September 1936, Lieutenant General J. G. DILL was appointed as the first General Officer Commanding, Palestine & Trans-Jordan, taking up the post on 15 September when control was passed to the War Office.

Two infantry brigades were deployed in Palestine from the United Kingdom in 1937. With tensions increasing, and terrorist acts taking place regularly, the military forces were increased to a total of about 20,000 troops in 1938. Two divisional formations were established, the 7 Infantry Division and the 8 Infantry Division. Neither of these two formations were organised as standard infantry divisions, but were garrison and internal security divisions.

The first reinforcements after the outbreak of war were the units of the 1 Cavalry Division, with the divisional headquarters opening in Haifa on 31 January 1940. The division had taken its horses with it, and initially deployed on internal security duties controlling the Arab and Jewish populations. During the Second World War, Palestine was relatively quiet, and became a major training base for the British Army. The Australian I Corps was based in Palestine for a period, before leaving for home in January 1942. The Polish soldiers and their dependents that were released by STALIN moved overland from the Soviet Union to congregate in Palestine. Here they were formed into II Polish Corps and its subsidiary units.

In January 1945, the 1 Infantry Division arrived in Palestine from Italy. With the end of the Second World War, there was increased immigration to Palestine by Jews, which led to increased confrontation with the Arabs, Palestine Police and British Forces. On 26 May 1946, Trans-Jordan was granted independence as the state of Jordan. On 14 May 1948, the U.K. Government relinquished the mandate, the State of Israel came into being, and British Forces commenced withdrawing through the Port of Haifa. H.Q. British Troops in Palestine closed in June 1948. In the early hours of the 30 June 1948, the withdrawal commenced, leaving 40 Commando Royal Marines as the rearguard. They were embarked on H.M.S. Striker by 10.00 hours, which cast off and the British Forces presence in Palestine was over.

For further information on the background and involvement of British troops in Palestine, please download the History and Personnel and Chronology of Events documents.

Two books on the subject I recommend for your perusal are: SHERMAN, A. J. Mandate Days – British Lives in Palestine 1918 – 1948 (New York, Thames & Hudson, 1997) [ISBN 0-500-25116-9] and WILSON, Major General R. Dare, C.B.E., M.C. (1949) With 6th Airborne Division in Palestine 1945 – 1948 (Barnsley, Pen and Sword Military, 2008) [ISBN 978 1 84415 7 716]

Two websites that you may wish to peruse are:

British Forces in Palestine

Roll of Honour

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