On July 22, 1946, members of Irgun destroyed part of the King David Hotel, a symbol of the British Mandate, with explosives.

The King David Hotel Bombing

The King David Hotel
From the Matson Collection

The King David Hotel as it was in the 1930s. The view is from the southeast.

In 1946, the King David Hotel was one of Jerusalem's most imposing structures. Partly a hotel, it was also the headquarters of the British Mandate government, and housed a number of important military and civilian officials.1 Following a British raid in which some 2700 members of Jewish paramilitary organizations were arrested, the Hagana high command decided on a number of retaliatory measures, among which was the bombing of the King David Hotel. Accordingly, Moshe Sneh, chief of the Hagana General Headquarters instructed Menachem Begin , head of the Irgun, or Etzel, to carry out the operation.2

According to Thurston Clarke, author of By Blood and Fire: The Attack on the King David Hotel , leaders of the Hagana, Lehi, and Irgun knew about the operation, and word of the impending attack spread to members of the yishuv connected to the paramilitary, and this lead to an extraordinary number of last minute room cancellations, while more than the usual number of Jewish office workers called in sick. Clarke also writes that a UPI stringer, who was also a member of Irgun , actually wired to London that there had been an explosion at the King David Hotel over an hour and a half before the actual explosion.3

On the morning of Monday, July 22, 1946, bombs fitted with delayed-action fuses hidden in seven milk churns were brought to the King David Hotel by truck, accompanied by an Irgun assault team dressed as Arabs. A separate group, also dressed as Arabs, whose job was to help carry the milk churns into the hotel, traveled to the scene by bus.4 Each of the milk churns was packed with 50 kilograms of TNT and gelegnite, a relatively stable form of dynamite.5

The assault team took over part of the hotel basement by rounding up hotel kitchen staff at gunpoint, and carried the milk churns along a corridor to the hotel's basement restaurant, La Regence, which was directly beneath the Palestine Government Secretariat, in the south wing of the hotel.6,7 Along the same corridor between the kitchen and the restaurant was the British military telephone exchange, staffed by the Royal Corps of Signals, and when an officer came out to investigate, he was held up, and shot twice in the stomach. Ten minutes later a number of the Irgun fighters were seen escaping from the hotel basement, and were shot at by British troops. There was a diversionary explosion in the road outside the hotel, and at 12:37 there was a huge explosion that tore away the southwest corner of the hotel, and destroyed about twenty-five rooms.8

The seven stone floors in the affected portion of the hotel were cut away. Injured were trapped under masonry and stone blocks, and across the street, on the face of part of the YMCA recreation hall, there was a bloody patch that showed where a man had been blown against the wall, some fifty yards from the center of the explosion. Three others were blown across the street into the YMCA lot.9

Soldiers and office workers later described their experiences: seeing a sheet of flame from their window; being blown across the room and then discovering that an entire wall was now gone; seeing others grievously wounded by flying glass and debris. A police officer and a lieutenant-colonel had been about to search the hotel basement when the bombs exploded. Both were blown down a corridor, but were unhurt.10

The rescue operation was begun by the British military and police, and members of the Arab Legion, who were joined by the Royal Engineers of the Sixth Airborne Division. Water was passed to those trapped in the ruins, while the work of removing stone debris continued with bulldozers, cranes, and hand tools, and went on at night under electic lights.11

On the next day, Tuesday, rescue work continued at the site of the explosion. The noise of jackhammers was interspersed with enforced quiet periods, so that rescuers could talk to those still caught in the debris. An Assistant Secretary, D.C. Thompson, was brought out after being trapped for over thirty hours.12

As to the perpetrators, two men, both Jewish, one wounded and one dead, were found. They had been seen running from a car containing arms the previous day. The Times writer thought that further arrests would depend on the cooperation of the Jewish community and the Jewish Agency in particular, the official leadership of the yishuv in the eyes of the British government.13

On that same Tuesday, the Prime Minister, Atlee, spoke to the House of Commons about the bombing:

Honorable members will have learned with horror of the brutal and murderous crime committed yesterday in Jerusalem. Of all the outrages that have occurred in Palestine, and they have been many and horrible in the last few months, this is the worst. By this insane act of terrorism, 93 innocent people have been killed or are missing in the ruins.
The House of Commons listened in silence, except for muted cheers when the Prime Minister expressed condolences for the families of the killed and wounded. Attlee declared his determination that violent acts wouldn't deter Britain from finding a peaceful solution to the Palestinian situation.14

Duplicities

On the day of the bombing, the Jewish Agency and the Va'ad Leumi had released the following statement:

The executive of the Jewish Agency and the executive of the Vaad Leumi express their horror at the dastardly crime perpetrated by the gang of desperadoes, who today attacked the government offices in Jerusalem, and shed the innocent blood of government officers and other citizens, British, Jewish, and Arab. They extend their deepest sympathy to the relatives of those who have been murdered, and to those who have been injured. The Jewish community in Palestine is called upon to rise up against these abominable outrages.15

As was pointed out above, according to the Irgun website, Moshe Sneh, a member of the Hagana high command, instructed Begin to bomb the King David Hotel, and today, the Hagana website describes Hagana as the secret military arm of the Jewish Agency and the Va'ad Leumi .16

There was in fact an agreement at this time between Hagana, Irgun, and Lehi concerning joint operations. The Irgun website describes its genesis. In late 1945, the Jewish establishment in Palestine was disappointed by British Prime Minister Atlee's refusal to abandon the provisions of the 1939 White Paper concerning Jewish immigration to Palestine. In September, 1945, Moshe Sneh suggested in writing to Ben-Gurion that an "incident" be staged. Ben-Gurion replied in writing on October first.:17

We must not confine our reaction in Palestine to immigration and settlement. It is essential to adopt tactics of S [sabotage] and reprisal. Not individual terror, but retaliation for each and every Jew murdered by the White Paper. The S. action must carry weight and be impressive, and care should be taken, insofar as possible, to avoid casualties... 18

A month later, at the end of October, Hagana, Irgun, and Lehi had drawn up an agreement forming "The United Resistance", under which, the three paramilitary organizations would act in unison. The agreement stated:19

The command of the United Resistance movement consisted of Moshe Sneh and Yisrael Galili from Hagana; Irgun chief Menachem Begin; and Nathan Yellin-Mor from Lehi.20

The British had noticed this, and in a White Paper, published on July 24, two days after the bombing, pointed out connections between the executive council of the Jewish Agency, headed by David Ben-Gurion, and paramilitary organizations. Written well before the King David Hotel bombing, the White Paper detailed coded telegrams, intercepted by the British, linking the Jewish Agency leadership, including Ben-Gurion, with attacks by the Hagana , Lehi , and Irgun .21,22

Then in Paris, Ben-Gurion told the news media that he questioned the authenticity of the telegrams, and said that he would publish a "Black Paper" to list acts of British violence and terrorism in Palestine.23

Moshe Sneh turned up in Paris as well, to attend the meeting of the World Executive Committee of the Jewish Agency. He denied that he had fled British authorities in Palestine, and explained that although he had recently been in Palestine, he hadn't been in Jerusalem at the time of the bombing.24

According to the Irgun site, after the event Ben-Gurion joined in the general condemnation, stating that Irgun was "the enemy of the Jewish people." Irgun, at the request of Hagana, took responsibility for the bombing. The Irgun site also numbers the dead, parsed by ethnicity: 28 British, 41 Arabs, 17 Jews, and 5 others.25

One of Ben-Gurion's biographers says that he had approved the bombing operation, but then changed his mind.26

Devoted and Impartial Service

On Wednesday, two days after the bombing, Sir John Shaw, Chief Secretary, eulogized the lost civil servants:27
No man could wish to be served by a more industrious, loyal, and honest group of ordinary, decent people. Their only crime was their devoted, unselfish, and impartial service to Palestine and its peoples. For this they have been rewarded by cold-blooded mass murder. I shall mourn them as long as I live.

1 Michael Omer-man, "This Week in History: The King David Hotel bombing," The Jerusalem Post , July 22, 2011, http://www.jpost.com/Features/In-Thespotlight/This-Week-in-History-The-King-David-Hotel-bombing
2 Irgun site, The Bombing of the King David Hotel, Accessed June 29, 2016, http://etzel.org.il/english/index.html
3 Thurston Clarke, By Blood and Fire: The Attack on the King David Hotel , (New York: Putnam, 1981), 160
4 Irgun site
5 Clarke
6 Clarke
7 "39 Killed in Jerusalem Headquarters," Times of London , July 23, 1946, 4
8 Times of London , July 23, 1946
9 Times of London , July 23, 1946
10 Times of London , July 23, 1946
11 Times of London , July 23, 1946
12 "General Cunningham Returns," Times of London , July 24, 1946, 4
13 "General Cunningham Returns," Times of London , July 24, 1946, 4
14 "Action To Cope With Terrorists," Times of London , July 24, 1946, 4
15 Times of London , July 23, 1946, 4
16 Hagana site, "A Concise History of the Hagana," Accessed July 19, 2016, http://www.irgon-haagana.co.il/show_item.asp?itemId=56&levelId=60321&itemType=0
17 Irgun site, The United Resistance (Tnuat Hameri)
18 Irgun site, The United Resistance (Tnuat Hameri)
The Irgun site places the word sabotage in brackets after the letter S, and it very plausibly fits in the context of the rest of the statement.
19Irgun site, The United Resistance (Tnuat Hameri)
20 Irgun site, The United Resistance (Tnuat Hameri)
21 "British Charge Jewish Agency with Violence,", The Washington Post , July, 25, 1946, ProQuest Historical Newspapers
22 "Text of the British White Paper Linking Jewish Agency to Zionist Terrorism in Palestine,", The New York Times , July, 25, 1946, ProQuest Historical Newspapers
23 Clifton Daniel, "Arabs Reject Plan To Split Palestine; Will Shun Parley," The New York Times , July 28, 1946, 1
24 AP, "A Hunted Zionist Turns Up In Paris," The New York Times , August 4, 1946, 1
25 Irgun site, The Bombing of the King David Hotel
26 Dan Kurzman, Ben-Gurion, Prophet of Fire , (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983), 267
27 "General Cunningham Returns," Times of London , July 24, 1946, 4

D.G.