This past week we read the portion of the Torah in which Abraham makes a treaty with King Avimelech and the place where this takes place is given the name Beer Sheva. 97 years ago the British conquered Beer Sheva in a daring cavalry charge. This important victory for the British was due to a certain extent to the creative and brave efforts of Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen. The British had twice tried to attack the city of Gaza , an important port city, and failed. At this point the British decided to bring in General Edmund Allenby to lead the Palestine campaign. He understood that victory or defeat in the desert lies in water. The British army could not sustain a long and drawn out war like they experienced in Europe because they would not have enough water over a long period in the Negev Desert. This brought him to the conclusion that he must take Beer Sheva a relatively small Turkish outpost that held important water sources. The problem was that Beer Sheva had to be taken by surprise otherwise the Ottomans would dig in and again the British would have a water issue.
Richard Meinertzhagen the British intelligence officer came up with a daring plan. He fabricated fake secret battle plans. These plans laid out a plan of attack that included a decoy attack on Beer Sheva. He pretended to drop the satchel with the "secret papers" where a Turkish patrol would find them. In order to make it more believable he included fake personal letters together with the secret plan. The Turkish army bought the ruse and transferred defenses to Gaza. This made it possible for the Australian Lighthorse unit to capture Beer Sheva in a daring full cavalry charge that took the defenders by surprise. Beer Sheva provided water and opened a corridor so that within 6 weeks on December 9 Jerusalem too fell to the British.
Meinertzhagen, who was also the British liaison to the Nili Jewish spy ring, had many other exploits. He writes in his biography of many creative intelligence operations. One such escapade was in the capture of Jaffa. For two weeks preceding the attack the British dropped propaganda leaflets calling for surrender along with cigarettes to the Turkish forces. The Turkish soldiers would throw away the leaflets and smoke the free cigarettes. Two days before the attach Meinertzhagen dropped cigarettes that he filled with opium to "ease" the British assault.
He was a strong supporter of Zionism. In 1948 he arrived by boat at Haifa port and took part in some of the battles. He lived to see the victory of the 6 day war before his death in 1967
In 2007 a book called The Meinertzhagen Mystery brought into question many of the stories. The book claims that Meinertzhagen was a fraud and must of the stories were not true.
The role of Meinertzhagen in the British conquest of Beer Sheva is dramatized in the 1987 Australian film Lighthorsemen.
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