I cannot help observing that this year marks the 40th anniversary of the Six Day War, which I reported as a young war-correspondent and about which, together with my late Father, Randolph – who was to die just a year later – I went on to write an account of the war, which proved a best-seller.
How well I recall – it was my first visit to the state of Israel – meeting former Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, who had invited me for an interview at 6:30 am in his suite at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem.
It was Monday, 22 May – two weeks to the day before the outbreak of war. Kol Israel interrupted its programs to announce that President Nasser of Egypt had closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping – cutting, at a stroke, Israel’s vital oil lifeline from the Persian Gulf. Ben-Gurion, shaking his great mane of white hair gravely, declared with sorrow:
‘This means war. I am very frightened. Not for Israel, for she will survive – we cannot afford otherwise – but for the younger generation. It is always the best of their generation who never return.’
How easy it is to imagine – with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, which we all enjoy – that the outcome of the Six Day War was a foregone conclusion! But, for the ordinary citizens of Israel, nothing could be further from the truth. With the entire Arab world mobilising to deliver the death blow to the fledgling state of Israel, that had been in existence less than 20 years, and with President Nasser making blood-curdling threats as to how he would drive the Jews into the sea, there was a real fear among the civilian population of Israel.
In Tel Aviv thousands of graves were being dug in the public parks in anticipation of large-scale civilian casualties. Public appeals were made for blood, to which I, among thousands of others, responded. Among all, except the highest echelons of government and the military – who, alone were privy to Israel’s war-plan – there was a deep-rooted fear that, with all the Arab nations mobilising against her, Israel might lose the war – a prospect too terrible to contemplate.
It took an Ezer Weizman, the most recent head of the Israeli Air Force, to be bullish about the situation as it presented itself in the first few days of June 1967, with the entire Arab world mobilising and, as they supposed, moving in for the kill. Well do I recall him telling me, over breakfast in the Tel Aviv Hilton with his swashbuckling bravado: ‘The Arabs have surrounded us again – poor bastards!’
But, among the rank & file, there was deep anxiety, even fear. My Israeli reservist escorting officer, a lawyer in his mid-forties, recently married with a small daughter, told me in all earnestness that, in the event that Israel was being defeated, he would have no hesitation killing his wife and daughter, rather than let them fall in to the hands of the Arabs. It would indeed have been a second Masada.
For my part, I found myself wondering what I – a Goy and a Brit – should do in that event, given that I was from a foreign land and had no direct involvement in the quarrels of the Middle East – beyond a Grandfather who had been a strong supporter of the Balfour Declaration!
Without hesitation, I concluded that I would grab whatever weapon might come into my hands and fight at the side of the Israelis. From that moment onwards, though I avow the right of the Palestinians to have their own independent state within the confines of Biblical Palestine, which has been their homeland over the centuries, I have counted myself a Zionist, firmly believing in the justice of the existence of the State of Israel.
Just after dawn on 5 June 1967 – just as the world was beginning to believe that Israel’s days were numbered – Israel made her lightning strike, destroying the Egyptian Air Force in 2hrs50mins & four Arab air forces in the space of 36 hours. It was one of the most instant and dramatic military victories of all time. To many it seemed to be the ‘war to end all wars’!
But things are rarely so; indeed in my interview, barely two weeks earlier, Ben Gurion had mused: ‘What is defeat? For Israel it is unthinkable – it would mean the destruction of the hopes and dreams of centuries! While for the Arabs, it represents no more than the loss of an army – within six years, they will have another!’ The great man called it spot-on. Precisely six years later, Israel found herself attacked in the Yom Kippur War of 1973.
Like the Israeli government of the day, I was taken by surprise, finding
myself a prisoner Westbound on the QE2, committed to a 2-week lecture-tour
of the United States. By the time I could get back to Israel, the war was
almost over, bar the shouting – Israel having dramatically turned
the tables on her attackers, Egypt & Syria who had thought to take her
-Winston Churchill, Johannesburg, February 2007
(Winston Churchill is the grandson of Sir Winston Churchill. He was war correspondent for The News of the World during the Six Day War. Subsequently, working with his father Randolph he published a book on the War.