Why Inspector Denley cried
By Tom Segev Haaretz, May 2, 2008
From the viewpoint of Inspector John Denley, it began on April 21, 1946. He was in charge of the Ramat Gan police force. On that particular day he was away from the station. When he learned that members of the Irgun - the underground organization led by Menachem Begin - were attacking it, only one thought raced through his mind: His wife and two children were in their apartment on the floor above the station.
The members of the gang, as Denley wrote years later, used a simple trick: They phoned the station to report a fight between Jews and Arabs. Most of the policemen rushed to the scene of the supposed fight, leaving the station almost empty. The assailants arrived in a stolen military vehicle. Half of them wore British uniforms and pretended to be taking in a group of Arab thieves. All of them burst into the station and started to clean out the arsenal, which was the reason for the operation.
The attackers did not immediately put the wireless operator out of commission, and he managed to summon Denley from the Petah Tikva police station. When Denley arrived he saw the truck laden with munitions driving off, but before all the Irgun men had boarded it. One of the assailants emerged from the station after the truck had already left. Denley shot him in the face. It was Dov Gruner.
About 30 years later, Denley wrote his memoirs, and his son recently gave them to the Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem. It is a singular document that describes the relations - almost of friendship - that developed between the British police officer and the Jewish terrorist.
They met a second time about nine months after the attack on the station. Gruner had in the meantime undergone a series of hospital treatments; Denley was sent to escort him to the military court in Jerusalem. He handcuffed himself to his prisoner. They were thus fated to spend long hours together, tied almost as with an umbilical cord, as Denley wrote. They could not help but engage in conversation.
Denley did not forgive Gruner and his friends for endangering his wife and children. You ought to be ashamed, he told him. Gruner assured him that he had not intended to hurt anyone, least of all the police, but had only wanted to steal the weapons in the station. In retrospect, Denley reflected that he should not have made up with Gruner so easily, but time did its work, tempers cooled, and the Irgun had also revoked its intention to kill Denley to prevent him from testifying in the trial, as one of the defense team told him.
He emphasized repeatedly that he was only a policeman and had not intervened in politics. He did not care for the court proceedings, describing them as a charade. While they were waiting for the judges to enter, Gruner told him about the Holocaust and, invoking II Samuel 7:10, said, "I have established a home for my people Israel."
Denley described Gruner as a slight, thin little Jewish fellow, but Gruner left a deep impression on him that would stay with him for the rest of his life. He also persuaded the British officer that his oath of allegiance to his monarch did not oblige him to serve in Palestine. "In fact, Dov Gruner pointed out to me that I was nothing more, and probably a bit less, than a mercenary soldier," Denley wrote.
When he took the stand as the first prosecution witness, Gruner gave him a big wink as though to say, "Quite correct, old boy." In the break Gruner and Denley were already good friends. They divided the police lunch between them, Gruner was given a soft drink, and then the judges returned to announce that they had sentenced him to death. Gruner shouted, "In blood and fire Judea fell, in blood and fire shall Judea arise."
Denley was badly shaken. He returned his prisoner to the police and left. Before he reached his car he was called back: Gruner wanted to tell him something more. He asked if Denley would be willing to shake his hand. Denley of course consented and took both his hands in his. Gruner said that in other circumstances they could have been "big pals," and asked Denley not to feel bad when he would hear that he had been hanged. He had only done his duty as he understood it, and Denley was doing his. "I turned away and walked toward the armored car. Tears ran down my cheeks," Denley wrote.
Denley hoped that Gruner would receive amnesty. At one stage Gruner agreed to submit a request, which would mean recognition that the British had the authority to try him; accordingly, it is likely that the British would have spared him. But the leaders of the Irgun suggested to him that his life was less important than his death. Gruner obeyed. He was hanged; the Irgun gained a hero.