Forgotten Arab fighters who took the King's shilling

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The Independent Online
HUSSEIN Ali Mahmoud still knows how to salute a sergeant major. Ramrod straight, arm at a perfect right-angle to the body, stomach in, chest out, his old grey eyes staring in front of him. From across the frozen wadis behind his south Lebanese village comes a mutter of machine- gun fire while far above his tiny olive grove whispers an Israeli jet. But when Hussein Ali pulls up his sweater and shirt, the livid scar he shows you comes from another war, a line of still purple, rippled flesh torn through by a Wehrmacht bullet on the last day of the battle of El Alamein.

He will salute another visitor on Tuesday when the United Nations' Finnish battalion arrives at his home in Israeli-occupied Lebanon with the British military attache. Colonel David Sievwright - a slightly quaint figure who turns up at cocktail parties sporting a monocle - is coming. And, Hussein Ali hopes, with some rather tardy news: that 51 years after giving him his discharge papers as a lance corporal in the British Palestine Regiment - 'B' Company, 16th Arab Battalion - the faraway government in London will grant him a permanent disability pension for the wounds he suffered while serving under General Montgomery's command.

His right hand is still stiff. It shakes like a palsy in his draughty home as the 77-year old veteran tells you a story of hardship and poverty. A story about leaving a penniless household in French-mandate Lebanon in 1940 to seek employment in the British army in Palestine to fight in a war he scarcely understood - invading his own country to capture Beirut and then Damascus from the Vichy French in 1942, entrained from Beirut through Palestine to Egypt to spend a week under canvas, watching from behind palm trees as the Luftwaffe bombed Suez. "So many planes - I had never seen anything like the German air force," he says, his shaking right hand swooping through the cold air in imitation of unforgotten Dorniers.

Hussein Ali had joined up in the British army at Sarafand with Hassan Azzam, another dirt poor farmer's son from Taybe village. "I was with Hassan all along. We were good friends. But we were bombarded in Tobruk and he was killed right beside me. Write his name, please, remember him. A lot of us were killed in Africa. I almost got through El Alamein unhurt. I was in the infantry behind the first tanks on the first day. And it was only on the last day of the battle that I was shot."

Historians have not devoted much time to the Arab soldiers who died fighting Rommel although the sacrifice of Jewish troops in the Palestine Regiment - as Arabs point out - is well known. But the names of Palestinians and Lebanese can be found on the memorial tablets commemorating the battle which began at El Alamein on 23 October 1942. Hussein Ali is lucky not to be among them.

"On the very last day, I was escorting prisoners back down the line - we captured 19,000 of them - and putting them in a camp. We were ordered to let no one into the camp, even British personnel were not allowed in. Then this lorry drew up partly covered in canvas but with soldiers in the back dressed in British uniform. The officer got out and talked to me in English, he even had a British officer's cap on. He told me to open the gate. I refused. Then about seven men jumped out of the back of the lorry and started shooting. They were all Germans, trying to release their men."

Hussein Ali's right hand is shaking so much that he grips it with his left hand. "I had a breach-loading rifle with 11 rounds in it and fired back and I hit four of them. But I was out of ammo so I ran towards one of our tanks where I knew there were more clips.

"I'd just got there when the German officer started firing at me. I could hear the bullets going past me and I was zig-zagging but then one hit me, going through the back of my right arm and across my stomach. More soldiers came and killed the Germans. But I was 90 days in hospital and I never really recovered."

From an old red envelope, Hussein Ali produces a sheet of brown paper which almost comes to pieces in his hand. The discharge papers of Lance Corporal Hussein Ali Mahmoud were signed by Lieutenant Colonel GF Fairchild on 16 October 1945, listing his father's nationality as "Ottoman", his period of service as four years and 345 days, his service outside Palestine as one year and 337 days. In spidery handwriting another British officer has assessed Lance-Corporal Hussein Ali as "an intelligent man of smart appearance".

Back in post-war Taybe village, Hussein Ali tried to join the new Lebanese army but was refused entry on the grounds that he had been wounded. For almost 20 years, he says, he petitioned the British embassy in Beirut for a pension. He was examined by an embassy doctor and urged by an ambassador to ask for his pension. But none came.

Then in the 1970s, Taybe came under the control of Yasser Arafat's Palestinian guerrillas. Hussein Ali fled the village and was in Beirut when the Israelis staged their first invasion of Lebanon in 1978, pulverising Taybe and destroying his own home with tank fire. Inside the building was Hussein Ali's 1942 Africa Star British campaign medal, lost forever in the rubble of the house.

Last year, the British Embassy sent Hussein Ali pounds 300 and a letter stating that the Government was considering him for a permanent disability payment. Hussein Ali's eyes light up when the letter is re-read to him. "People are very kind to me," he says. "The Finnish UN soldiers come to see me and their Finnish doctor looks after me and my wife when we are ill. He has examined my old wound. But now I am waiting for Tuesday."

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