The Irish Rover

He fought in the British Army in Palestine and deserted in order to join Jewish fighters in the war of 1948. Hard-drinking, warm-hearted John Patrick Cooper, a tough fighter who lost all contact with his family after leaving home, is still remembered fondly by friends and comrades-in-arms.

Dakia Karpel
Dalia Karpel
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Dakia Karpel
Dalia Karpel

He did not lift his gaze from the large group of armed Arabs who were milling about in an alley of the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in the eastern part of Jerusalem. It was the morning of April 13, 1948, four days after the operation by the Jewish Irgun and Lehi pre-state underground organizations at Deir Yassin, a village at the city's western edge. John Patrick Cooper, a sergeant in the British Army, sensed that an attack by the Arabs was imminent. He went to the unit's staff sergeant and told him that with B Company's experience, they could disperse the armed Palestinians within minutes. The staff sergeant rejected the suggestion.

Shortly afterward, Cooper and his comrades-in-arms saw the Jewish convoy - two ambulances, two buses and supply vehicles, escorted by two armored vehicles of the Haganah militia - ascend the road toward Hadassah Hospital on Mount Scopus. Noticing that in contrast to past occurrences, there were no British armored vehicles escorting the convoy, Cooper again asked the staff sergeant what was going on; the latter hushed him and said they would take no action. Cooper insisted on doing so, but his superior officer threatened to court-martial him for refusing an order. Cooper had already been tried in the past for that; this time he obeyed.

As the convoy made its way through Sheikh Jarrah a landmine went off, blowing a hole in the road, and the passengers were immediately attacked by rifle fire and hand grenades. Six of the 10 vehicles managed to elude the ambush by turning around and returning to the west of the city, but the two armor-plated buses and two armored Haganah vehicles were unable to maneuver around the hole in the road. For five hours they were under attack.

John Patrick "Paddy" Cooper.

Haganah headquarters asked the British authorities for permission to try to rescue the besieged civilians and soldiers. Permission was denied. At midday, a British officer with the rank of major arrived on the scene. He tried to persuade the people trapped inside to make a run to his armored vehicle and an accompanying van. However, they preferred to wait for the Haganah. Meanwhile, three armored vehicles of the Palmach, the Haganah's elite strike force, tried unsuccessfully to reach the site. When the ammunition of the soldiers escorting the convoy ran out, the assailants approached the buses and set them ablaze with the occupants inside.

Seventy-eight men and women, most of them from the faculty of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and from Hadassah Hospital, were killed. At 3:45 P.M. the British arrived and found scorched and burnt vehicles. There were no survivors. David Ben-Gurion, speaking at a meeting of the Jewish Agency Executive, termed the event "an English massacre." The English, he said - as quoted by historian Benny Morris in his book "1948" - "were there, didn't lift a finger and prevented others from helping."

In the years that followed, Cooper often spoke about his abhorrence of the staff sergeant. Just 24 at the time, Cooper - or Paddy, as everyone called him - was the son of an Irish mother and an English father. He served in a British Army logistics unit as a mechanic and also was the driver of heavy vehicles; in 1948 he served as the unit's sergeant. Having witnessed no few atrocities as a soldier in World War II, he could not understand what had prompted such a cruel decision in Jerusalem on that spring day in 1948. The events of that day transformed him, he wrote to a friend. That evening he decided "to do a terrible thing," as he put it: to desert his unit in order to cross the lines and fight "on the side of the Jews."

"I cannot serve in an army that allows atrocities like that," he told Yohanan Piltz, deputy commander of the 89th Battalion of the nascent Israel Defense Forces, who received Cooper into his unit. Piltz, like others, had heard the rumor that Cooper had taken revenge on the staff sergeant. For years afterward, after downing a few pints of beer and some medicinal brandy, Cooper hinted that he had fulfilled a fantasy and with his own hands disposed of the staff sergeant and five other soldiers. He repeated this account in a letter to his Israeli girlfriend, Dalia Lamdani, in June 1965. However, his friends from that period say that Cooper was too kind to have committed such a crime and that the "Old Man" - commander of the Palmach Yitzhak Sadeh - who interviewed Cooper before drafting him, would never have allowed him to join the Jewish forces if he had killed his commanding officer. Naftali Arbel, who was Cooper's commanding officer in the IDF, also says Cooper did not kill any British soldiers.

Thirsty for information

More than 40 years have passed since Cooper died, in Mitzpeh Ramon in the Negev, where he spent his last years. In recent years his sister, Veronica Kreuzer, who is researching their family history, has made great efforts to uncover the Israeli chapter in Paddy's life. She herself did not see him or speak to him after he left for Palestine in November 1947 with his unit, when she was six years old.

Kreuzer is thirsty for every scrap of information about her brother. Last year she received his personal file from the British Army archives, along with the medals he was awarded in World War II (see box ). She also discovered that two of her siblings were born before her mother married John William Cooper, though no one in the family knows what became of them.

Kreuzer had hoped to find in her brother's IDF file a summary of the interview that Yitzhak Sadeh conducted with him after he deserted and showed up at a Palmach position in Jerusalem, but she was disappointed. British records show that her brother was not officially declared a deserter until June 9, 1948. The IDF file shows that he was initially assigned to the Gadna, an organization under Haganah administration which prepared young people for military service. The documents describe Cooper as having a high-school education and being a capable professional. The Gadna made use of his skills as a driver and a mechanic, and his combat experience.

A friend of Cooper's, Mike Isaacson, who is today a businessman in South Africa and served in the IDF in 1948, said in a telephone conversation that Cooper was a gunner in World War II, a specialist with the Vickers medium machine gun.

"When we attacked the Iraq Suweidan police station in November 1948," Isaacson recalled, "the engineers dynamited the wall of the fortress. We went in through the breach - Paddy, Rej Seiger and me - and threw grenades. Paddy found a Vickers machine gun there, loaded it and started to fire every which way. He was our hero that day."

John Patrick Cooper was formally inducted into the IDF on July 2, 1948, and assigned to the 8th Brigade under the command of Yitzhak Sadeh. He was posted to B Company in the 89th Battalion, which consisted of former Gadna personnel from the Sharon district and from Emek Hefer, and of a squad of foreigners, including volunteers from Japan, China, South America and even an Indonesian, as well as Scotsmen and Englishmen. The company commander, Akiva Saar, was told that Paddy had deserted from the British police and had volunteered to serve in the battalion. Paddy told Saar about the attack on the Hadassah convoy in the wake of which he had decided to desert and "enlist in the commandos."

Paddy drove the half-track used by the company's commanders and took part in Operation Dani to capture the villages of Qula and Tira, and in the raid on Lydda (Lod ). The commander of the battalion was Moshe Dayan. His deputy, Yohanan Piltz, now 87, lives in a handsome home in the Ganei Yehuda neighborhood of upscale Savyon.

"The soldiers of the 89th Battalion, including me, captured this place in 1948," he says proudly. Piltz remembers Cooper fondly.

"He was a lone-wolf type," he recalls. "For some reason he adopted the Jewish cause and sometimes was more patriotic than the Israelis. He was good-looking and had a lot of girls and he learned Hebrew. He didn't like England; he viewed the English as occupiers. He was a soldier by nature, who liked army life and discipline. Paddy was a character. On the one hand he wrote his family, and especially his mother, but at the same time his emotional life was rooted here in Israel."

He apparently once told his girlfriend Dalia Lamdani, a translator and editor, "I know what it is to suffer discrimination, because as an Irishman I suffered discrimination like the Jews."

'No fear'

"I can't use the word 'deserter' in reference to John Patrick Cooper - he left the British Army," says Naftali Arbel, who succeeded Saar as commander of B Company. Arbel, 81, an historian and publisher, was 19 when appointed commander in July 1948.

"I was introduced to the soldiers, who were from Mahal - the force of foreign volunteers. There was also an Israeli there, Zvi Hazan, who introduced me to his good buddy, 'the most Israeli Irishman I know,' namely Cooper, an impressive man, tall and handsome," Arbel recalls. "I was given to understand that he had recently joined our forces. 'Once you get to know him, you will discover what a great soul he has,' Hazan said."

According to Arbel, when Cooper was asked what induced him to join the Israeli army, he replied "God" and pointed skyward. "He said he would never forget that when they embarked on the war, they were told that they would have to fight until the German army was destroyed and the Nazi monster annihilated. There was a Holocaust and European Jewry was exterminated; Cooper talked about what that did to him. But when he came to Palestine as a soldier in the British Army, he was surprised. He didn't understand why they had gone to war against Nazi Germany in 1941 and returned alive only to be dispatched to the Middle East to fight the Nazis' victims."

Cooper was raised a Catholic, and as the son of an Irishwoman - Agnes Collins - he supported independence for Ireland. Arbel relates that Paddy often told him that he understood the Jews in Israel; as a soldier, he did not know the meaning of fear.

Arbel: "In the battle of Beit Jubrin we fought against armored vehicles of the Jordanian Legion. Paddy took a PIAT [an antitank weapon] and advanced, along with his buddy Rej Seiger, a Rhodesian-born Jew who was previously a first officer in the British Navy and came here at his initiative in 1948. Paddy was tall, Rej was short. It was high noon. Paddy decided to get close to one of the Legion's armored vehicles. For the PIAT to be effective, you have to be about 50 meters from the target. Fortunately, the Jordanian vehicles moved too close to the stone fence. Together we worked out the trajectory and suddenly I see Paddy moving even closer, cocking the PIAT, firing and hitting the armored vehicle."

"In the first truce," Arbel continues, "we left the base at Ben Shemen and went up north to Beit Netofa Valley, where there was a broad area that was suitable for exercises with half-tracks. We came under sniper fire from the village of Manda. Two soldiers were hit. One suffered a serious head wound but lived; the other, who seemed to be lightly wounded, died. Paddy and Bert Feigin, an English half-Jew who was a paratrooper in the British 6th Airborne Division and a boxer, and another buddy, [Leslie] Marcus, a Jew from South Africa, set out to silence the sniper. I saw Paddy pick up a heavy stick. They flanked the sniper, who was still shooting, and Paddy came at him from behind and smashed his head in. He had no fear."

"The half-track of Paddy and Zvi Hazan looked like a mess hall," Arbel says. "It also had a record player and records. They would cook on the half-track, because they didn't like the meatballs from the rations box."

It's not clear who taught whom how to drink, but Hazan and Cooper drank a lot (both later died from cardiac arrest ). Cooper never got upset when people remarked to him about his drinking. His father, he told them, drank from a young age, his grandfather and great-grandfather died from excess drinking - and it didn't look as though his fate would be different.

Drinking brought out a violent streak in him. "One day," Arbel relates, "after one of the battles in the south, a group of foreign volunteers went to a restaurant in the Park Hotel in Tel Aviv. Diplomats from the United States and the Soviet Union were staying at the hotel. The group ordered supper and there was a pleasant atmosphere - until the check arrived. They saw at once that they didn't have enough money to pay. Paddy announced that he had the solution to the problem in his pocket. What he had in his pocket was not cash but a smoke grenade. Without thinking twice he threw the grenade into the lobby and the group made its escape under cover of the smoke."

Cooper was discharged from the IDF on April 5, 1949. A special committee that dealt with foreign soldiers decided that he would return to England, "with the travel expenses to be paid from General Staff funds." However, Cooper accepted only five Israeli pounds - the standard bus fare given discharged Israeli soldiers to get home - and stayed in the country with his friend Hazan. He told Arbel that his mother in England longed to see him, but had warned him not to come home, because he would serve seven years in prison for desertion. On April 1, 1958, Britain issued a general amnesty for all deserters, including Cooper. He received an official document from the British Defense Ministry informing him that he would not be arrested if he came to England. But he decided to stay in Israel.

Desert inn

Aliza Hazan, Zvi Hazan's widow and a former school principal, now lives in Tzofit, a moshav near Kfar Sava. She met Hazan in 1953, when she was 16, while visiting a girlfriend in Moshav Rishpon, north of Herzliya, where Hazan was in charge of security. He was 30, twice divorced and was virtually "married" to his good buddy Paddy Cooper.

Hazan arrived in Palestine at the age of 10. His father was a journalist in Poland and had covered the Dreyfus trial. The family settled in Tel Aviv and the boy was sent to the prestigious Kadouri school. In 1940, though he was only 17, he enlisted in the British Army and served with the Royal Engineers in Libya and Italy. At the end of the war he returned to Palestine and joined the underground organization Lehi. He met Cooper in the IDF in July 1948 and the two became inseparable.

"In the army they carried each other on their backs," Aliza Hazan recalls. "Zvi spoke excellent English and the two were never apart. Paddy was pro-Israel and fell in love with the country."

In 1958, Hazan and Cooper opened an inn in the Negev, on the road from Mitzpeh Ramon to Eilat. They named it Neveh Midbar, Desert Oasis. There were two cabins and a gas station there, Aliza Hazan recalls; one cabin housed the restaurant and the other had rooms for visitors. Hazan and Cooper hunted deer and drank heartily every night. As the inn was not then connected to the electric grid, they got their power from a generator. They brought in water in a container from Paran, in the Arava. The business constantly lost money: The co-owners hosted everyone generously and couldn't bring themselves to ask for payment, because "they were all friends."

It was at the desert inn that Arbel saw Cooper for the last time. "They were down and out and had no idea how to run a business," he remembers. "Whenever a mutual friend who trucked fruits and vegetables to Eilat passed the place, he would stop, supposedly to use the washroom, but really so that the two could filch a few crates of produce from the truck."

One winter evening, when Paddy was totally inebriated, he wrote a letter to Queen Elizabeth asking for a pardon. On March 11, 1958, a short notice was sent from Buckingham Palace confirming the letter's arrival. On April 1 he received the letter from the British Army, informing him that he was no longer considered a punishable deserter.

According to Aliza Hazan, Zvi was jovial and outgoing, while Paddy was quiet and shy. "They would drink a little and start to sing British Army songs. But they lived in the present and hardly ever talked about the past and the wars. They lived in their own private paradise. Like twins, they sat and laughed heartily at the same stories and jokes. One of them would start a sentence and the other would finish it."

At the end of 1959, Aliza Hazan left the inn, taking with her a three-month-old daughter, Arava. She moved to a small apartment in Mitzpeh Ramon and taught in a local school. Her husband joined her on weekends. Cooper, she says, often functioned like one of the family. "He accompanied both pregnancies and always bought a generous number of cloth diapers. He was shy and only loosened up when he drank. He would force Zvi to buy me flowers on my birthday."

Arava Reisis, Aliza and Zvi Hazan's daughter, a zoologist and the mother of three children, has only good memories of Cooper - as a laugher and a joker, always smiling. He used to put her and her brother Naveh on his shoulders and run wild with them, something their father never did.

"In his last years Paddy visited us a great deal," she says. "We lived in a small ground-floor apartment with a yard. When I was eight he bought me a watch; I was the only girl in my class who had one. When the siren sounded on Remembrance Day for the IDF fallen and Paddy was drunk, he would come to attention and salute while lying on the ground."

In 1962, Zvi Hazan decided to stop drinking hard liquor and make do with beer, and then only once a week. The two sold the inn after Aliza, who provided for the family and paid off the debts, put her foot down. In 1969, Zvi Hazan was elected head of the local council and held the post until 1973.

'Rootless freedom'

More than four decades after Cooper's death, Dalia Lamdani still has every scrap of paper, every letter, photograph and testimony about him in her home. In perfect order, like an archive.

They met in 1964. Lamdani was then 33, divorced and the mother of a six-year-old girl. Cooper was a bachelor of 40. They met at a bar at the corner of Frishman and Dizengoff Streets in Tel Aviv.

"He was drunk, merry and didn't have a care in the world. There was nothing in him to attract a woman who appreciated men who could be relied on," she recalls. "I felt that there was boundless freedom in him, what I would now call rootless. I had divorced my husband after 10 years and the idea of freedom appealed to me. He said it was love at first sight.

"Not long afterward, I went with him to Nazareth for Christmas. He worked for a while at the Dead Sea and had an Arab friend who invited him for the holiday. The trip was a disaster, because he got drunk and I had to drag him from house to house when we went to visit the friend's relatives in Nazareth. We did not get to Mass. He collapsed. He got sick from the drinking and the next day I had to take him to my place in Tel Aviv. It took him four days to recover. That was my introduction to what became a constant struggle against chaos."

She remembers him as generous, gentle, good-hearted and loving. Paddy had a special way of solving problems - by running away from them - and there was no shortage of problems. He was a person with depth and breadth, but there was always something that I never managed to reach," Lamdani says. "He was not clear even to himself. And there was the drinking, of course, his clear-cut path of self-destruction."

He missed his family in England, but did nothing about it. Lamdani urged him to renew the ties. Thanks to her, he corresponded with his mother in the last years of his life, but did not mention his relationship with Lamdani. His sister, Veronica Kreuzer, who wanted to find out more about her long-lost brother, was disappointed to discover that her mother had not kept his letters. She herself corresponded with Dalia Lamdani. She was sorry to hear about his drinking problem - the same one that afflicted their sister Ursula and their brother Peter, she informed Lamdani.

Another brother, Brian, whom Paddy visited in Staffordshire before leaving for the Middle East, gave him the rifle of an S.S. officer and a knife as a present. Paddy told family members that he had killed a Nazi officer while doing guard duty in a POW camp. Another brother related that Paddy had informed him that he was serving in the Israeli army with Moshe Dayan, which was indeed true. Cooper mentions the incident with the Nazi in a letter he sent to Dalia Lamdani in June 1965.

Happiness and torment

Life with Cooper was a volatile combination of happiness and torment, Lamdani says. They broke up every few months, but when their mutual longing intensified got back together. Lamdani was an incorrigible optimist when it came to Cooper. She signed on as his guarantor so that he could get a loan to buy a truck of his own, but to this day does not know for sure what happened. Cooper said he bought the truck but that it crashed in an accident. It took Lamdani, the guarantor of the loan he used to buy it, a few years to repay the debt.

He demanded total love from her, a commitment to love him for all time. She declined and he responded with pressure, but was not violent. He tended to disappear after fights with her. In the last two years of his life they saw each other less and less, despite the longings. He lived in Mitzpeh Ramon and had a hard time holding down jobs. When he stopped drinking she thought it might be a turning point for him.

In his last year of life Cooper kicked the alcohol habit, but his body had already begun to betray him. He tripped and broke his leg and was in a cast for half a year, so he didn't work.

"There were days when he didn't have anything to eat," Arava Reisis says, "but he would come to us, or we brought him food. His money ran out, but he was not depressed and certainly not a whiner."

One morning in September 1969, Cooper emerged from his apartment and sat on a fence to get a little air. No one was there when he collapsed and fell. A passing neighbor found him sprawled on the ground. "He had a cardiac arrest. His liver was finished, too. Dad was the council head then, and he was called to the scene. An ambulance came, too, but it was too late," Reisis recalls.

In September 1969, a small convoy of cars with their headlights lit drove through the streets of Jaffa and stopped next to the Franciscan church. The priest waited at the entrance, and a children's chorus sang as six members of the 89th Battalion of the IDF bore a coffin engraved with a crucifix into the building. About 20 Jews attended the ceremony. And John Patrick Cooper, known to all as Paddy, was buried in the small Catholic cemetery in Jaffa.

For the record

John Patrick Cooper's personnel file in the British War Office, which his sister Veronica received, shows that he enlisted in the British Army on April 23, 1942, at a recruiting center in north London. He declared his age to be 18 and gave his date of birth as December 28, 1923; in reality, he was 17. His file states that he refused to be immunized. He is described as tall and sturdy, with blue eyes and brown hair. Religion: Catholic. Cooper served in the Home Guard for a year and on April 23, 1942 became an army truck driver in the Middlesex Regiment. On May 14, 1943, he and his unit were shipped to North Africa, where he served until July 1944, and afterward in Europe. In June 1945 he was tried for returning late to his base. In November 1945, when his unit was in Milan, he went AWOL and was arrested and tried. He spent 21 days in prison.

Cooper was discharged from service in December 1946 in England, with three medals to his credit: the Italy Star, the War Medal for 1939-1945 and the Defense Medal. The summation in his file is impressive. But Cooper did not reacclimatize to civilian life. In October 1947 he returned to the British Army as a driver. A month later he was sent with his unit to Palestine. On February 11, 1948, he was tried by a military court for "violating a legal order" and jailed for a month. The army record shows that he was officially declared a deserter on June 9, 1948.

Choosing sides

No one has yet done a comprehensive study about deserters from the British Army during the 28 years of British Mandatory rule in Palestine, asserts historian Benny Morris. It is also important not to confuse deserters with the volunteers from abroad who fought in Israel's Mahal unit. In 1948 thousands of such volunteers were serving in the Israel Defense Forces, including about 150 non-Jews, most of whom served in the air force. The 7th Brigade, which operated in Galilee, was addressed in English, because its commander was Ben Dunkelman - a Jewish volunteer from Canada.

The most famous deserters from the British Army were Harry MacDonald, a Scottish tank commander, and Mike Flanagan, an Irish mechanic, who stole Cromwell tanks and burst through the gate of the British base in Haifa. The two tanks became the "core" of the IDF's first tank battalion, and the two deserters took part in the War of Independence in IDF uniform. MacDonald later immigrated to Canada. Flanagan stayed in Israel, converted to Judaism, supervised the tank repair unit at the Armored Corps base in Julis, and married and raised a family here. The remains of the two Cromwells are on view in the Armored Corps Museum at Latrun.

According to the historian Yoav Gelber, 53 British soldiers deserted to the Arab side, while only a few joined the Jewish side. One deserter joined the defenders of the Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem, and after the fall of the quarter was taken prisoner by the Jordanians along with all the other soldiers and civilians. Another deserter, George Shelley from New Zealand, was taken prisoner by the Egyptians but escaped, reached Cyprus and returned to Israel.

Gelber: "The personnel reports of the British Army in Palestine at the end of March 1948 note there were 53 deserters, six of whom turned themselves in. Sixteen Englishmen deserted from the British police force. A few British deserters were killed or captured while aiding the Arabs. According to a British intelligence report, two or three were killed while preparing an explosive device in Nablus, though a different version says they were killed while dismantling a booby-trapped car that was brought into Nablus by a Lehi man disguised as an Arab, but which was discovered before it went off in the wake of an informer.

"Another Englishman was killed in the village of Qaluniya in Operation Nahshon. Three were killed in the attack on Neveh Yaakov; another three were captured on the same occasion by the British Military Police and tried. Two Britons were captured on Mount Zion and two were killed at [Kibbutz] Ramat Rahel. Another two were later taken prisoner by the Givati Brigade. Some of the deserters joined the Army of Salvation whose commander, Qawuqji, afterward dragged them with him to Galilee, as documents seized in Nazareth show. In contrast, there is no documentation of British deserters in the Haganah other than the three already mentioned. There were probably more deserters in April 1948, but not in the dozens."

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