S. Alan Shemtob-Reading
(1912 - )
At the time of writing (December 2002) Capt. Alan Shemtob-Reading was aged 90 years. He was born in London on Dec. 5th 1912, scion of the distinguished Babylonian Jewish family of Shemtob. In April 1936, he joined the Intelligence Corps of the British Armed Forces and due to his language skills in Hebrew and Arabic, successfully applied to be posted to the Middle East.
At this time there was an Arab revolt taking place in British controlled Mandate Palestine, and as 315996 Capt. Reading, he was sent in 1936 to work for the Special Service Office (an undercover unit similar to MI6) in Jaffa. The brief of this unit was to meet senior Arab and Jewish political leaders, gather intelligence and especially to report on the movements of Arab terrorist gangs, such as those led by the Syrian outlaw, Kawoukchi. The unit was based in a large, discrete Arab house, serviced by Sudanese domestic staff – attired in their red fez and sash with white robes.
Unwilling still to describe his work, which is still shrouded in secrecy, Alan would only say that it was very dangerous and also extremely frustrating, as there were constant murderous Arab attacks against the Jews. After a short spell in Nazareth, he was transferred to Military Intelligence HQ in Jerusalem, where he had the unpleasant duty of meeting the notorious anti-Jewish Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin el Husseini. As history well records, Husseini was constantly inciting the Arab population against the Jews and later conspired with the Axis powers, spending the war years in Berlin where he planned with Eichmann, the building of gas chambers in nearby Nablus to kill the Jews of Israel in due course. Before war broke out in 1939, a top secret order came from London to arrest Husseini . However, Alan’s local intelligence chief decided Husseini was too valuable a source of information, and instructed Alan to tip off the Mufti about the order. With no alternative but to obey his superiors, Alan was reluctantly sent to carry out his duty. Donning a woman’s clothes, Husseini escaped by car to Jaffa and thence by boat to Lebanon.
A much greater pleasure for Alan was meeting (then) Col. Orde Wingate, the great British Christian Zionist military leader. Based at Kibbutz Ein Harod in the Jezreel Valley, Wingate was training and leading, with British officers and NCO’s, the Jewish Special Night Squads, aimed at striking back at the Arab terrorists. On several occasions, Alan had to meet with Wingate on matters of mutual Intelligence work and on knocking at Wingate’s hut door, would enter and find the great man stark naked standing on his head, testing his limits of discomfort and stamina! Many other eye-witness accounts in the many books on Wingate substantiate Alan’s descriptions.
The Arab Legion and the war in Iraq
In November 1940, Alan was part of the British Military Intelligence Mission attached to The Arab Legion in Ma’an, Jordan, serving on camel and horseback in the vast desert. His mission was to gather intelligence and also act as a listening post to Cairo, Baghdad and Damascus. Again, Alan is unwilling to say much about this work , only that it was of great strategic importance to what was to follow.
In May 1941, Alan was involved in much fighting during the British Army advance from Mandatory Palestine and Tansjordan to Baghdad and Damascus, to crush the pro-Nazi regimes of Rashid Ali and the Vichy French. Many Jewish Haganah soldiers and scouts were used in this campaign by the British Army – including Moshe Dayan, who lost his eye in the campaign.
Rashid Ali escaped into Iran and the British reached Habbaniyah. Here, Alan heard about the anti-Jewish pogroms against the community in nearby Baghdad. In vain Alan tried to persuade the British Commander to intervene to halt the massacre, not least because he had family there, and he has always been traumatised by his failure to do so. Alan had further to witness the Iraqi Regent, Abdul Ilah, meet the British GOC and thank him for defeating Rashid, but also ask for him to help stop the killing in Baghdad. He too was refused, as the General had orders from London not to enter Baghdad (this episode will be of great interest to the many Iraqi born Jews now living as citizens of the UK and USA).
After this the British campaign continued into Vichy Syria and again Alan was in action, dodging Luftwaffe strafing and Vichy artillery. At Palmyra there was intense fighting and heavy casualties and both Alan and his Intelligence Chief became casualties and were evacuated to Tel Hashomer military hospital near Tel-Aviv. Alan was six months recuperating and then transferred to 8th Army HQ in Cairo.
The Raid on Rommel and the MBE
Following the fall of Tobruk in summer 1942, Rommel's unstoppable forces inexplicably halted about 60 miles short of Alexandria. Cairo HQ received urgent orders from London to find out what was Rommel's strength, strategy and plans. Meanwhile, fully expecting Rommel to advance, all military offices in Cairo and Jerusalem began burning their secret documents and were preparing for evacuation. At the same time the Egyptians were publicly celebrating the imminent arrival of Rommel.
Alan was immediately attached to a unit of 11 members of the Long Range Desert Group, and ordered to set out in three jeeps from El Alamein – the allied line – for Rommel’s HQ at El Aghela, detouring south into the Quatarra Depression first, and over the notorious escarpment and many minefields – an exceedingly dangerous roundabout distance of well over 1000 miles behind enemy lines. On several occasions they were spotted by German aircraft and strafed, and one jeep was destroyed with its 4 man crew .
Alan would not say how the raid was carried out and how they entered German HQ, but using the services on the raid of a British convict who was a specialist safebreaker, they opened the safe in Rommel’s HQ, copied the required documents and replaced them so nobody would know they had been there. It was clear from what they read that Rommel had simply run out of fuel - a tribute to Allied efforts in sinking most of his supply transport in the Mediterranean.
The return journey, it was decided, would go further south than the inward trip, to avoid the minefields, but tragically they encountered quick sand and the jeep carrying the safe-breaker with his 10,000 golden guineas reward, hit an area of quicksand and was gone within seconds! Only Alan’s jeep and its four men made it back with the much needed secret report, to Cairo. For this courage and persistence, Alan and all his team were awarded the MBE.
Alan spent the rest of the war in North Africa and from 1945 to 1948 in Israel. He will say nothing of this period but clearly he was able to be of great use to the Haganah in their Intelligence gathering preparing for the inevitable War of Independence when Britain left the Mandate of Palestine.
Alan’s awards besides his MBE (Mil.) and Jordanian Service Medal, are the Palestine Service medal, 1939-45 Star, Africa Star with 8th Army clasp and War Medals, and Long Service Regular Army Medal.
Alan was a long serving member of the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women and the Monash (Jewish) branch of the British Legion. The Israel War veterans awarded him with their veterans badge – a gold, blue and white Israeli flag emblem, which, with other medals he always wore with pride when acting as escort to the Chief Rabbi and other clergy at the AJEX Annual Remembrance Service and Parade at the Cenotaph in Whitehall . Sadly Alan died in 2007 leaving a wife and a very large extended family in Israel, a place he visited very often.
In recognition of his service at this time, Alan was awarded in 1999, the Jordan Service Medal personally by King Hussein, together with ten other British soldiers or their widows, at the Jordanian Embassy in London.
Sources: Martin Sugerman, Reprinted with Permission