“I thought of stuffing wool in my ears”
From her cottage in the heights of Tiberias, overlooking the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel, Joan Howard was afforded a commanding view of the Yom Kippur War in 1973. For more than two weeks she endured the wail of sirens and the distant crack and thump of artillery, tank fire and bombs as Israel and Syria wrestled for control of the Golan Heights on the opposite shore of the Sea of Galilee. The sound and vibrations of battle became so taxing that Joan “thought of stuffing wool in my ears”.
Joan Howard had arrived in the Middle East in 1967 after her husband Keith, an officer in the Australian Army, was posted to the United Nations Truce Supervision Organisation (UNTSO). As a Military Observer, Keith was to help monitor the ceasefire and maintain the peace between Israel and its neighbours, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. The posting was meant to be for eighteen months, but the Howards so much enjoyed the experience and the opportunities the region offered for travel, culture, and amateur archaeology that Keith repeatedly had his posting extended and they stayed for almost a decade.
By 1973, Keith was officer-in-charge of the Tiberias Control Centre. He was responsible for 43 UNTSO observers and a series of Observation Posts along the Golan Heights, the contentious border region between Israel and Syria. When not touring the ceasefire line, visiting Observation Posts, or looking after the welfare of his observers, Keith was at home with Joan in the cottage they rented in Tiberias.
The Howards were about to embark on a couple of days of leave when the war broke out. At 2 pm on 6 October 1973, on the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur, artillery barrages and air strikes erupted across Israeli positions on the Golan and along the Suez Canal, as Syria and Egypt sought to reclaim the territories each had lost in the Six-Day War of 1967. Shells from the first artillery salvo landed on one of the Observation Posts under Keith’s command, leaving the camp and observation trailer “a flaming inferno”. The two observers had narrowly avoided the barrage and, for the next week, maintained radio contact to report on the battle raging around them.
The Six-Day War had consumed Keith’s first week with UNTSO and left a piece of shrapnel embedded in his right leg, so he was well aware of the dangers posed to the unarmed Military Observers. Keith’s chief concerns were thus the safety of his officers and with re-establishing some semblance of calm on the Golan. He would be out moving between the battlefields each day, seeing to his observers, trying to liaise with Israeli and Syrian commanders, and arranging for the safe passage of UN personnel trapped between the battlefronts.
Only occasionally would Keith return home for a few hours to eat and catch some fitful sleep. Joan later told their daughters that Keith would arrive at the cottage “FILTHY” and “terribly tired” and confided that, although he had “seen a few awful battle fields in his time”, “he says he’s never seen anything like this.” Keith had fought at Tobruk, El Alamein and on Borneo during the Second World War.
As the fighting moved closer to Tiberias, coming within 35 miles of the Howards’ cottage, Joan could observe the deadly scale of the conflict for herself:
I could watch the daily air battles overhead, the planes crashing into the Lake, the air-to-ground missiles spitting from the Israeli planes onto the Syrians & from our balcony the 3 day tank battle which raged across the other side of the Lake – 400 tanks on each side.
With the war so close, the UN offered to evacuate the observers’ families to Cyprus. Joan refused to go. Despite the cottage “rattling like mad” with the constant “thumpings and great thuds” of battle and the incessant scream of jets “trailing their white tails and breaking the sound barrier over and over”, Joan was more concerned about Keith. “The VERY LAST THING I’M DOING IS LEAVING,” Joan wrote to her daughter Zoe, “I’m fit and fine and not worried about the situation at all – only Keith’s welfare. AND I COULDN’T LOOK AFTER THAT FROM CYPRUS.” Besides, Joan reassured her family, she was keeping abreast of all developments through BBC Radio and was well provisioned in case of an emergency. She had a full tank of petrol, enough food to last two weeks, and stores of water and gas in case the plumbing or power went out.
As it happened, Joan spent most evenings with the wives and families of the other Military Observers posted to Tiberias. Gathered in the UN control centre – the Mixed Armistice Commission House – they chatted away to distract themselves from the fighting. A week into the war, Joan told her daughter that, “All families of U.N here in Tiberias are in good health and heart but some wives (quite naturally) not too keen on all the noise… [since] they maybe have small children who get a bit frightened.” Joan, a former Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) nurse, became something of a stoic figure to the wives and provided support where she could. She even gave up the last of her instant milk powder to the family of an Irish observer with a newborn.
The situation continued, almost unabated, until the war finally ended with a ceasefire on 25 October. But there was no rest for the Howards. Keith was placed in charge of establishing a ceasefire line through the Golan. “[H]e hasn’t an Observation Post left of course,” Joan explained to some family, “they are nonexistent or such a complete shambles that not even a pair of binoculars or a camp stretcher is left.” Keith and his observers worked tirelessly over the next few days to create a buffer between the Israelis and Syrians. Lieutenant General Ensio Siilasvuo, the Finnish head of UNTSO, was so impressed with their efforts that he requested Keith’s services in Egypt. Joan was left to pack up the cottage and car for a move to Cairo as Keith was whisked away to help establish the United Nations Emergency Force II, a new observer mission being raised to create a buffer zone and supervise the ceasefire between Israel and Egypt.
Joan had remained stoic throughout the war and its aftermath, and only once in Cairo did she have a chance to reflect on the anxiety she felt:
… the worry for me was Keith – I’d die a thousand deaths listening and watching through the endless days and nights until he got back from the battlefield, which he described as ‘unbelievable’ – and he smelt like it.
Joan’s worry was especially acute since her first husband, Flying Officer Anthony Warren, had been killed in a flying accident during the Second World War.
The Howards remained in the Middle East for a further three years as Keith occupied increasingly senior positions with UNTSO. Despite the stress, anxiety and dangers of the posting, Joan reflected some years later that, “I’m very glad that I went and had the experience of living in that part of the world”.
Further reading and listening:
Australians at War Film Archive 835 – Keith Howard (Blue)
PR05717 – Howard, Keith Desmond (Colonel, b.1920 – d.2010)
Peter Londey, Rhys Crawley, and David Horner, The Long Search for Peace: Observer Missions and Beyond, 1947–2006, vol. 1 of The Official History of Australian Peacekeeping, Humanitarian and Post-Cold War Operations (Cambridge University Press, 2020), pp. 532–537.
S02155 – Colonel Keith Desmond Howard as a military observer United Nations Truce Supervision Organisation (UNTSO), Middle East 1967–1977, interviewed by Dr Peter Londey.
S02157 – Joan Kathleen Howard as the wife of Colonel Keith Desmond Howard, military observer United Nations Truce Supervision Organisation (UNTSO), Middle East 1967–1977, interviewed by Dr Peter Londey.