Wartime Issue 27 - Observer at large

By Dr Peter Londey

It was Keith Howard’s first day on the job, and more or less the first thing that happened to him was that he got shot.

On a Monday afternoon in Jerusalem, the 46- year-old was reporting for work at Government House, a stately edifice built by the British when they ruled Palestine under a League of Nations mandate. Since Israel’s independence, Government House had been the headquarters of the United Nations Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO), whose military observers monitored the various ceasefires between Israel and its neighbours, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt.

A Second World War veteran, Howard had served in the Middle East and Borneo. After the war he returned to the militia and rose to the rank of colonel, before deciding to become a UN military observer. The price was that he would have to drop in rank to major. Against that, the lure of a period in the Middle East was strong, and his wife Joan would be able to go too.

So Howard arrived in Jerusalem on a Friday, spent the weekend sightseeing, and reported for duty on the Monday. Unfortunately, the Monday in question was 5 June 1967: early that morning, Israel had launched a pre-emptive strike against Egypt, and the Six Day War had begun. Before the war, Jerusalem was divided between Israel and Jordan: Government House stood on neutral ground, the place known biblically as the “Hill of Evil Counsel”, overlooking the two sides.

Although Israel owed its existence to the United Nations, Israelis had never much liked the organisation; they thought the name of the place where UNTSO’s headquarters stood was all too appropriate. By the middle of the day, fighting was breaking out around Government House. Three Jordanian soldiers entered the building, but left soon afterwards. The Israelis were more determined, and used tanks to blow down the gate and fire on the building itself.

Howard found himself in a room with an American sergeant and a number of UN women and children lying down to shelter from the firing. A group of Israeli soldiers came in, led by a major waving an Uzi submachine- gun. The American prudently jumped up and shouted, “Don’t shoot, UN, UN”, to which the Israeli major responded, “Don’t do anything, I’m rather nervous.” “Yes, so are we all,” was Howard’s wry comment.

As the situation calmed down, Howard helped his new colleagues evacuate people and records from the building, before leaving it to the occupying Israelis. At some point in the fighting – probably when the Israelis first fired on the building – Howard had been wounded in the upper thigh by a bullet or a piece of shrapnel. The wound was painful and bleeding quite badly, but not incapacitating. With the UN convoy fast disappearing, Howard leapt into his vehicle, still drivable despite a flat tyre and a holed radiator; other vehicles in the car park were burning after being hit by Israeli fire. Slithering around the streets of Jerusalem, he finally caught up with the convoy at a hotel, only to have the Dutch Transport Officer come out, look at the steaming engine, and roundly berate him for driving a UN vehicle without water in the radiator.

Extricating himself from the Transport Officer’s ire, Howard was taken to Hadassah Hospital – chaotic with ambulances and stretchers as war casualties were brought in – where he was X-rayed but a doctor opined that the object in his leg could safely be left where it was, to work itself out at its leisure. Thirty-seven years later, it is still there.

For Howard, the adventures of that day were the start of ten years’ service in the Middle East, during which he rose from humble military observer to acting commander of UNTSO. After the Six Day War, UNTSO had to contend with a new set of problems. In the north, the Israelis had pushed up onto the Golan Heights, seizing a large swathe of Syrian territory. In the south, Israel had pushed west across the Sinai, so that the ceasefire lines with Egypt ran along the Suez Canal. There another Australian, Major Roy Skinner, set up a control centre at Qantara, moving into the village while there were still houses on fire from the heavy fighting in the area. In full view of the opposing forces, Skinner raised the UN flag over a building on the bank of the canal, and established his headquarters. Over the following weeks, he organised the selection of sites for observation posts, developed operational procedures, established good working relationships with Israeli commanders, dealt with the press, and in general created a UN presence in the area.

Meanwhile, Howard had been posted north to the Golan Heights, where UNTSO’s commander, Lieutenant General Odd Bull of Norway, had negotiated a ceasefire on 10 June. Next day the observers had moved into the area and marked out a north-south buffer zone, between 1.5 and 5 kilometres wide, and were soon selecting sites as observation posts on either side of the lines. At first the posts consisted of no more than the vehicle the observers had come in; later there were tents, then caravans for accommodation, and eventually more permanent structures, complete with bunkers, observation platforms, and other amenities.

In 1967, that was all some way in the future. What was most important was to dig in to provide some protection from incoming fire: the UN observers had chosen their sites well, and soon found the warring parties setting up positions uncomfortably close by in order to take advantage of the same vantage points. Howard had periods based at Kuneitra, a formerly Syrian village now in Israeli hands; at Damascus, the Syrian capital; and at Tiberias, where UNTSO had its local headquarters perched high on a ridge overlooking the Sea of Galilee. Years later, as war broke out yet again in 1973, Joan Howard would stand at her window in Tiberias watching the Syrian army pushing down from the Golan Heights, and Israeli jets screaming low overhead as they flew across the lake and into battle.

In November 1969 Howard moved to the Sinai to take over as Officer in Charge at the Qantara Control Centre, originally set up by Major Skinner. Hostilities along the Canal had escalated considerably, and the building Skinner had selected, right on the canal bank, was coming under too much fire to be a secure base of operations. So the headquarters was moved back to Rabah, on the old British railway line a few kilometres to the east. The site was in the traditional lands of a local Bedouin sheik, who proved hospitable enough once the observers acknowledged his right to come onto UN land to harvest his melons and dates. He would come and drink coffee during the morning briefings, sometimes inviting Howard and others to his tent.

Along the Canal, not all was so friendly. As on the Golan Heights, the UN observation posts, well sited on the large, sandy bank running along beside the canal, soon had military positions established nearby. Generally the observers would have to crawl forward to positions from which they could view the canal. Aerial attacks by both sides were frequent; the UN observers were not a target, but could easily be caught in the cross-fire. The posts had well dug-in caravans for accommodation and substantial dug-outs for shelter from fire; on occasions caravans were destroyed, or observers were caught as dug-outs caved in. On one occasion Howard’s vehicle was hit by an Egyptian mortar round; fortunately it did not explode. His successor as Officer in Charge, a Swedish major, was less lucky: standing on the bank of the canal one day, he was shot dead by a careless Egyptian sniper.

While in the Sinai, Howard had a run-in with the man who is now Prime Minister of Israel. On the Golan Heights the Israeli Liaison Officers (ILOs) insisted on escorting observers to and from their observation posts, but then camped nearby and let them get on with their work. On the Canal, Howard found, the ILOs were staying in the caravans with the observers, in effect making a third member of the observation teams. This compromised their neutrality. On one occasion an ILO had physically restrained an observer from making a report, going so far as to reach over and switch the radio off. All this was far from satisfactory, and Howard soon instituted measures to ensure a proper distance. That was not to the liking of the Israeli high command, and Howard was instructed to visit the Israeli Southern Army commander in Beersheba. Arriving at the commander’s tent, he entered and saluted the brilliant, young, aggressive Major General Ariel Sharon. Sharon left him standing at attention while he berated him, thumping the table, over his impudence in thinking he could dictate to Israeli military personnel: if he did not change his attitude, Sharon would make representations to have him removed. Howard left, inwardly seething. He reported what had happened, but did not change his attitude over the ILOs. Nothing further came of it.

With one break of six months, Howard continued in the Middle East for ten years, rising progressively (at UN request) to the rank of colonel. In 1973, he went to Cairo on secondment to help set up the second United Nations Emergency Force, acting as Chief of Personnel and Logistics. From August to December 1975, he served as Acting Chief of Staff. By the time he left the mission in 1977, Keith Howard had proved himself one of Australia’s most distinguished peacekeepers.


Dr Peter Londey’s book Other people’s wars: a history of Australian peacekeeping will be published by Allen & Unwin in October 2004. He is now one of a team of historians writing the Official history of peacekeeping and post–Cold War operations. The author thanks Keith and Joan Howard for their hospitality and kindness when he interviewed them in August 2003. This article is largely based on those interviews, now part of the Memorial’s collection.