Britain’s Guantanamo Bay in Eritrea

This story describes how Britain used Eritrea as a prison camp during the Second World War.
This story describes how Britain used Eritrea as a prison camp during the Second World War.

By Martin Plaut,

The controversial detention of alleged al-Qaeda members by the United States at Guantanamo Bay is not the first time difficult prisoners have been held without charge for long periods of time.

Nearly 60 years ago, Britain detained members of the Jewish underground in a similar way.

In October 1944, with the Second World War drawing to a close in Europe, Zionist groups were determined to see the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine once the fighting ended.

But a minority was not prepared to wait that long.

Two groups in particular – the Irgun and the Stern gang – waged a violent campaign against British targets, and a large number were rounded up and detained.However detention camps in Palestine were difficult to guard, and the authorities looked for somewhere to send their troublesome prisoners, where there would be no friends or family to aid their escape.

The answer the British hit on was Eritrea, which had been captured from the Italians. On 14 October 1944, 251 of the toughest prisoners were put on planes bound for the capital, Asmara.

Among those who were deported was a man who later became prime minister of Israel: Yitzhak Shamir (of the Stern gang). Once there, they were sent to Sembel camp, close to the airport, and about two kilometres north of the capital.

Escape Attempts

But the prisoners were well motivated, disciplined and organised, and soon set about attempting to escape.

Within weeks the first breakout occurred. The man charged with getting them back was David Cracknell, then deputy commissioner of police.

Now in retirement in Dorset in Britain, he says that during the 20 months that they were in Eritrea, there were in all about 12 escape attempts involving 107 prisoners, of whom 106 were re-captured.The most daring escape took place in June 1946, when about 50 prisoners broke out of the camp using a 75 metre long tunnel dug under the wire.

The first that Mr Cracknell knew of the escape was when a policeman told him that there had been two or three arrests of strangely dressed individuals, speaking no known language.

One groups of escapees tried to pass themselves off as a British military platoon, complete with fake regimental cap badges, a military policemen with a red cap and white webbing belt and wooden revolver, as well as a major in charge.

Intensive Search

This group commandeered a bus and set off for the Ethiopian border. After about 50 kilometres, the bus ran out of petrol, and the escapees handcuffed the driver and conductor to the steering wheel and set off on foot.

“We spread the news around by radio and runner, and as a result the whole lot were surrounded by villagers and handed over to the police,” Inspector Cracknell remembers.

There still remained a dozen or so at large, and an intensive search was mounted for them.The British received help from a Yemeni Jew – part of the small Yemeni Jewish population in Asmara.

“I put him on the task of infiltrating any pro-Zionist groups he came across,” says Mr Cracknell. “He was in touch with me for several days, saying he was making progress, and then suddenly there was no more from him.

“One morning as I got to the office a constable reported that a piece of paper was found fluttering from a window. It was from this missing informer. “I buckled on my belt and revolver, drove to an Italian villa and went inside. One door was wedged. I put my shoulder to it and broke in.

“‘Don’t shoot, don’t shoot’ came a voice from the darkness. I ordered the lights to be put on and there were eight Jews sitting there, with my informer in the corner, handcuffed and gagged.”

Slipping the net

During that time there were many escapes, and one man managed to get away – Eliyaju Lankin. After five months he reached Djibouti via Addis Ababa, and finally sailed on a French boat to Marseilles and then on to Paris. “His name is imprinted on my soul”, says Mr Cracknell.

Among those who attempted to get out was the future prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir.

The British were alerted that a further break-out had taken place when Shamir, Meridor and some other senior prisoners were said to have gone missing.An earlier escapee – Rahamim Mizrahi – had managed to live at large in Asmara and was known to be in touch with Jerusalem by radio to co-ordinate their efforts.

Mr Cracknell sent an Italian police inspector to make links with the Italian underworld to try to discover the whereabouts of the escapees.

“Three weeks later I got a phone call. He was in the port of Masawa. They were in hiding, awaiting the arrival of a Lloyd Triestino boat bound for Italy.

“All I could do was to ensure that no one got on that boat. And so by putting a cordon around it, by floodlighting it, even having police in rowing boats around it, I ensured that no one got on board it. When it sailed, I knew that they would have to come back to Asmara.”

Escape Route

The Italian inspector discovered that they had arrived in Masawa by water tanker, and so offered to send them back by the same route, for a fee of £60. His phone call came saying they were leaving at midnight. David Cracknell set an ambush, at a point seven kilometres out of Asmara. At around three o’clock a diesel engine was heard rumbling up the hill.

“As it approached, the police lorry shot across the road. Headlights came on, and the tanker screamed to a halt. The terrified driver in the front was handcuffed and the head of criminal intelligence was told to get into the tanker and arrest the three.”

“He was very sceptical about the whole exercise. His head popped out, and he said ‘no-one here’. I told him to look down through the baffle plates (at the bottom of the tanker), which are to stop the water surging. And sure enough, he caught the three. We grabbed them – including a short, fair-haired chap, who turned out to be Yitzhak Shamir. They were handcuffed and taken back to the camp,” Mr Cracknell said.

It was not long after that in March 1947 when they were packed up and sent off to Gilgil camp in Kenya, where most of them remained until the declaration of the state of Israel.

On the morning of 12 July 1948 the African exile of the members of the Jewish underground ended, as they reached Tel Aviv.
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