First Battle for Latrun Takes Place

May 24, 1948

Located ten miles outside Jerusalem on a hilltop overlooking the Ayalon Valley, the fortress of Latrun was built by the British in 1940 after the Arab rebellion of 1936-1939. On May 14, 1948, as the British were evacuating their forces from Palestine, Jordan’s Arab Legion took control of the fort and thus the entrance to Jerusalem from the west. The Arab Legion was able to strengthen its siege on Jerusalem, which had started in February and which was isolating 100,000 Jews in Jerusalem.

David Ben-Gurion believed that liberating Jerusalem was essential for the nascent state and that capturing Latrun was the key to liberating Jerusalem. Going against the advice of some of his top military advisors, including Yigal Alon, Ben-Gurion ordered the assault. The advance took place in the early morning hours, and the Jordanian forces were helped by a full moon, which allowed them to see the oncoming soldiers. Israeli forces had little experience combatting a regular army. Using outdated tactics and no air support, the Israeli attack failed. Approximately 75 Israeli soldiers died. Two future prime ministers, Ariel Sharon and Yitzhak Rabin, were involved in the battle. Sharon was wounded.

Many of those who died in the first attack were Holocaust survivors from displaced persons camps in Europe. They had arrived in Israel only days before the attack. They had no training, and virtually none of them spoke Hebrew. Three subsequent attacks on Latrun also failed to take the fortress. In June 1948, under the command of American Col. David “Mickey” Marcus, Israeli forces built the Burma Road as a bypass to Jerusalem. Israel did not capture Latrun until the June 1967 Six-Day War. Today the site is a tank museum and a memorial to fallen soldiers from Israel’s Armored Corps.

The photo shows Arab Legion soldiers on the roof of the Latrun fortress in 1948.