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 Latrun

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Latrun Definition

Latrun - Latrun (Hebrew: мишепэ) (al-Latrun in Arabic) is a strategic hilltop in the Ayalon Valley overlooking the road to Jerusalem, at the north end of the Jerusalem Corridor. It is located 15 kilometers west of Jerusalem and 14 kilometers southeast of Ramlah. It is also the name of the monastery that is situated there and of a former Arab village that was destroyed in the Israel War of Independence.

The name "Latrun" may be a corruption of the name of a Crusader castle, ", "Le toron des chevaliers" or it may be derived from "Castellum bonu Latronis" - the "good thief" Barrabas who was to be crucified alongside Jesus.

Location of Latrun

Latrun is a junction dominating several key roads that converge there: To Jerusalem via Sha'ar Hagay (Bab El Wad ), To Jerusalem via Beit Horon (northerly route), from the Shefela plain and Jaffa and the southern coast, and to Gezer, the valley of Ayalon and Jaffa via Ramla.

map of Latrun and area

History of Latrun

In ancient times Joshua defeated the Amorites (Joshua 10:1-11) in this area, King David was victorious over the Philistines, and Judah Maccabee defeated the Seleucid Syrians. 

In 1187, the Templars fortified the castle. Of the Templar period, only the tower remains. In 1890 a "silent monastery" of the Trappist order was built there. It was destroyed by the Ottoman Turks and rebuilt in 1927. The monastery sells wine and olive oil, and has a display of archeological findings. 

Monastery of Latrun

Following the Palestine Arab Revolt of 1936-39, the British built a Tegart police fort on the hill overlooking the monastery.

Latrun Tegart fort

Near Latrun, the British also set up detention camps where they held large numbers of Jewish prisoners during the uprising following World War II.

In the  Israel War of Independence of 1948, Israeli forces failed to take Latrun in several assaults (see below). Latrun was crucial because British officered Jordan Legion forces stationed there controlled the road to Jerusalem and enforced the siege of Jerusalem by firing on traffic arriving from Hulda. In June of 1948, 5he Israelis finally built a bypass road, the Burma Road, that was not visible from Latrun and allowed the siege of Jerusalem to be broken.

The area remained in no-man's land until 1967. In the Six day war of 1967, Israel conquered all of the West Bank area including Latrun. A large museum, the Armored Corps Museum was built there. The museum displays about 150 armored vehicles used by Israeli forces since 1948. The site is used for swearing in new recruits and on other ceremonial occasions.

 

Battles of Latrun

Because of its crucial importance in guarding or blocking the road to Jerusalem, Latrun was the target of several Israeli attacks in the War of Independence. The Tegart fort of  Latrun guarded the way to Jerusalem, and the Tegart fort of Iraq el Sueidan (Sweidan, Suweidan) guarded the way to the Negev. These two positions were therefore of supreme strategic importance. Latrun was never conquered. Iraq el-Sueidan held out until November 9, 1948. The failure of Israeli forces to take these positions by repeated direct assaults in 1948 is significant for understanding the real balance of power in the Israel War of Independence. Revisionist historians, counting numbers of troops and weapons that existed on paper at the end of the war, are able to show that Israel had an immense superiority. But this reckoning is a sleight of hand. The weapons did not exist at the beginning of the war, most of the soldiers were relatively untrained, and the officers and general staff of the IDF had no conception of how to fight a war against regular armies. Some of the strategies employed were the modern equivalent of Pickett's charge in the United States Civil War - a massed assault by  unprotected troops against a fortified position defended by machine guns and heavy artillery. Poor timing, poor intelligence, poor coordination and communications and poor navigation all contributed to the reverses. However, even if all the plans had worked perfectly, it was doubtful that Israeli forces could have taken Latrun with the forces and equipment they had at their disposal. The Jordanians had between 1,000 - 2,000 soldiers there, depending on whom you believe. The Israelis should have concentrated at least twice as many attackers, aircraft, tanks and heavy artillery, but they didn't have any of those things. They had no bombers at the time, and they had two ancient 1906 model French 65 mm "Napoleonchik" artillery pieces.  

The failures of Latrun began with the evacuation of the position by the Haganah on May 16-17, 1948. This was due to poor coordination, lack of good strategic planning and lack of resources. Yitzhak Rabin protested and wanted to detach a force to hold Latrun, but his opinion was overruled. The Transjordan Legion took up the positions abandoned by the Israeli Harel Brigade. They understood the strategic significance of Latrun only too well. They fortified Latrun with 25 pound cannon, piat anti-tank guns and machine guns, and used it to enforce the siege on Jerusalem.

When the importance of Latrun became apparent, David Ben-Gurion ordered Yigal Alon to take the position at all costs and to escort a waiting convoy that had assembled to Jerusalem. Alon protested to no avail that the Hagana did not have the troops or equipment to do the job. Alon was right apparently. The planned attack was code named "Operation Bin Nun." By this time, the Jordan Legion had taken up positions in Latrun and neighboring villages, but  the Haganah did not know the extent of Jordanian forces.

The first attack began early on the morning of May 25, ten days after the British had left Palestine.  Yitzhak Levi gives a detailed account of the forces in the battle, which was led by Shlomo Shamir (Levy, Yitzhak Nine Measures ("Tish'a Kabin"), page 266) . The Israeli attack force consisted of 1,650 soldiers of the 7th brigade and 450 soldiers of the 32nd battalion of the Alexandroni brigade. Addionally, 300 soldiers of the Harel Brigade.  were in the area, but had no direct part in the attack. They were not even aware it would occur, and found out by accident after intercepting a radio transmission to headquarters. The strike force consisted of the 32nd battalion that would attack the Latrun fortress, and the 72nd  battalion of the 7th brigade that would attack Arab positions to the south of Latrun. The 71st battalion was to be held in reserve, while the 73rd armored battalion was to provide general mobile support.

According to Yitzhak Levi, (based on the account of Mahmud Russan, "In the eyes of the enemy", published in Hebrew translation in 1955. cited in Nine Measures "Tish'a Kabin" by Yitzhak Levi) the Jordanian forces numbered about 3,500, including 2,300 regulars, 600 Jordanian volunteers and 600 local volunteers. The regular soldiers were two battalions of the 3d brigade of the Legion, including the fourth battalion of the 3d brigade, reinforced by the second battalion which had arrived from Ramallah on the 24th of May. The Jordanian forces were spread out in positions at Latrun, Emmaus, Yalu, Dir Ayub, Hirbet El 'Aker and various adjacent hills. The 2nd battalion, when it arrived, took up positions in the eastern part of the defensive perimeter, along a line from Yalu to Dir Ayub, freeing up 4th battalion troops to reinforce Latrun.

According to a Jordanian account, the Jordan Legion numbered about 1,200 against 6,500 Israeli attackers. The latter number may represent all the Israeli forces in central Israel at the time, but it could not possibly have been the number of Israeli attackers of Latrun. The actual battles were fought at Latrun, along the road and at positions in the surrounding hills, notably hill 314. Not all the forces of either side actually participated in the frontal battles.

The composition of the 71st and 72nd battalions of the Haganah 7th  brigade is unclear. Some sources claim they  were mostly immigrants newly arrived from European DP camps. Others claim there were only about 145 new immigrants in all. They spoke a variety of languages, but had almost no language in common. The 73rd battalion consisted of relatively experienced Haganah troops under the command of Captain Haim Laskov, who had gained experience in WW II. Their armor consisted of about 15 vehicles of varied construction, half of which were probably Armored Personnel Carriers, some homemade armored "sandwich" vehicles built in Haganah workshops, and armored patrol wagons. They had no tanks.

The bulk of the fighting however, fell on the relatively seasoned troops of the 32nd battalion of the crack Alexandroni brigade. The Jordanians had 17 armored battle wagons equipped with cannons, the Israelis had none. The Jordanians had about 105 machine guns against 53 on the Israeli side. The Jordanians had  8  British 25 pound cannon. Against these, the Israelis had two  65 millimeter French guns manufactured in 1906 (affectionately known as "Napoleonchiks"), mounted on wooden wheels, and three home made "Davidka" pieces that were not used. According to one source (Collins and Lapierre, O Jerusalem), they also had a single 25 pound cannon.

According to Yitzhak Levi, Haganah intelligence had not discerned that Latrun was now held by the Legion. It assumed that the position was held by about 1,000 irregular troops , though it was known that the legion was in the vicinity. Neither the 32nd battalion nor the 7th brigade had done any serious pre-attack reconnaissance. The battle plan was reminiscent of successful commando raids against positions of irregulars. Only about a quarter or a third of the force was used for the actual attack on Latrun, and two thirds were held in reserve for cover and defensive actions.

However, according to Collins and Lapierre, they did find out about serious reinforcements of Latrun on the night of the attack:

"... It was an urgent communication from Yadin timed at 7:30 PM: 'Enemy wheeled force of 120 vehicles including large number of armour and gun carriers left Ramallah apparently for Latrun. They are now at map coordinates 154-141"

(Collins and Lapierre, O Jerusalem, Page 480)

It was too late to change battle plans, and Ben-Gurion was pressing for a breakthrough, because the situation in Jerusalem was desperate. The attack had already been delayed for 24 hours because of supply foul ups and soldiers that had failed to materialize when they should have. The delay allowed the Jordanians to bring an  additional four 25 pound cannon to Latrun.

The assault was to have occurred at night. However, owing to the usual delays in assembly, the columns started moving between 2 and 5 AM, rather than at midnight as planned. According to the Jordanian account, the full moon allowed the Jordanians to see the  troops of the 32nd battalion advancing toward Latrun. Jordanian spotters lit flares, and the Legion opened up highly effective machine gun fire and pinned down a part of the 32nd battalion, which was eventually forced to  retreat. The actual attack took place after dawne. A part of the 32nd battalion was pinned down by enemy action. The armored 73rd battalion of Haim Laskov tried to move east along the road and rescue them, but they were stopped by deadly Jordanian cannon fire. The 72nd battalion of the 7th brigade was also intercepted as it moved east toward Beit Sussin and at least one platoon was practically wiped out.

Enormous heat, and the fact that the fighting was done mostly in daytime, with no element of surprise, contributed to the problems of the attackers. Eventually, thanks to some valiant covering actions, most of the Israeli forces managed to retreat, but in poor order and with loss of equipment. In all, the Israelis suffered at least 73 or 74 dead, 140 wounded and six captured. Fifty of the dead belonged to the 32nd battalion, seasoned veterans of the Alexandroni brigade who carried out the brunt of the attack.  There may have been more casualties, as not all the new immigrant recruits had been properly registered and recorded. However, the notion that was later publicized, that the rout was caused by the unseasoned immigrant troops of the 7th brigade is untenable; they did not suffer most of the casualties and the taking of Latrun was not their direct responsibility. According to Shlomo Shamir, who commanded the Seventh brigade and wrote a history of the battle, about 19 of the dead were new immigrants. According to Yitshak Levi, the major reason for the failure was that the attack was planned as if Latrun was held by irregular forces, using tactics that had worked in the past.  In any case, it was doubtful that other tactics would have been used successfully, since no other tactics were really known and practiced by the Haganah at the beginning of the war. They had never fought a regular army. The main part of the plan was a frontal assault, crawling through the fields in front of dug-in machine gun positions, artillery and spotters on a moon-lit night. Since the American civil war, everyone had understood that such tactics can only lead to disasters.

Neither side had any really effective air power at the time. Two Egyptian twin-engine airplanes (apparently bombers) operated against Hulda and another nearby target on that day, and Chief of Staff Yigal Yadin gave this as the reason (or excuse-since the aircraft were not fighter planes) for not sending Israeli air support, but it is doubtful if such support as was available would have made a difference.

In the terms in which defeats are generally reckoned, the first battle of Latrun was not a military disaster. Most of the attacking forces remained intact, and most of the equipment was not destroyed. The battle for Latrun in fact did not end on May 25, and it was not a total rout, as some accounts relate. The 7th brigade was reinforced with the 52nd battalion of the Givati Brigade (later withdrawn).

Three subsequent assaults by the Haganah also ended in failure.  Preparatory to a second attack, a force from the 72nd and 73d battalions (including some of the same immigrant soldiers) captured Beit Sussin on the night of 27/28 May. In this period, they also shot down an Iraqi plane that landed in Arab territory. Shlomo Shamir tried again to capture Latrun on May 30 (called Operation Bin Nun Bet), and failed. This time the attack included armored flame-throwers designed by Captain (later General) Haim Laskov. These produced a tremendous effect, but as the fire they started lit up the whole battlefield, they apparently became perfect targets in the night. A third attack on June 9th, operation Yoram, planned by the American Colonel Mickey Marcus (David Daniel Stone), attempted to take Latrun from the rear. That failed too, as did a subsequent attack on July 16. An attack planned for July 18 was called off because of communications failures.

It is easy to be misled by the dramatic narratives of each battle into believing that "if" one or two crucial mistakes had not been made, Latrun would have been captured by the Israelis. However, the experiment was tried four or five times, and each time it failed. The conclusion that must be drawn is that with the arms, coordination and commanders available to the IDF in that phase of the war, Latrun could not be conquered.

Ami Isseroff


Synonyms and alternate spellings: Latroun

Further Information: The Battle of Latrun, Latrun


Hebrew/Arabic pronunciation and transliteration conventions:

'H - ('het) a guttural sound made deep in the throat. To Western ears it may sound like the "ch" in loch. In Arabic there are several letters that have similar sounds. Examples: 'hanukah, 'hamas, 'haredi. Formerly, this sound was often represented by ch, especially in German transliterations of Hebrew. Thus, 'hanukah is often rendered as Chanuka for example.

ch - (chaf) a sound like "ch" in loch or the Russian Kh as in Khruschev or German Ach, made by putting the tongue against the roof of the mouth. In Hebrew, a chaf can never occur at the beginning of a word. At the beginning of a word, it has a dot in it and is pronounced "Kaf."

u - usually between oo as in spoon and u as in put.

a- sounded like a in arm

ah- used to represent an a sound made by the letter hey at the end of a word. It is the same sound as a. Haganah and Hagana are alternative acceptable transliterations.

'a-notation used for Hebrew and Arabic ayin, a guttural ah sound.

o - close to the French o as in homme.

th - (taf without a dot) - Th was formerly used to transliterate the Hebrew taf sound for taf without a dot. However in modern Hebrew there is no detectable difference in standard pronunciation of taf with or without a dot, and therefore Histadruth and Histadrut, Rehovoth and Rehovot are all acceptable.

q- (quf) - In transliteration of Hebrew and Arabic, it is best to consistently use the letter q for the quf, to avoid confusion with similar sounding words that might be spelled with a kaf, which should be transliterated as K. Thus, Hatiqva is preferable to Hatikva for example.


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This work and individual entries are copyright © 2005 by Ami Isseroff and Zionism and Israel Information Center and may not reproduced in any form without permission unless explicitly noted otherwise. Individual entries may be cited with credit to The Encyclopedia and Dictionary of Zionism and Israel

 

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