All Thanks to the Blue Box – Travelling in Time with Australia's Dennis Rudnick

Thursday, June 28, 2012 9:48 AM

85 year-old Australian Dennis Rudnick took part in Israel's War of Independence. Recently, he revisited his Israeli past with KKL-JNF.

The Battle

Dennis Rudnick with 1948 photo of Negba Water Tower (in background). Photo: Gabi Bron

“For several days, we were busy with preparations for the storming of the besieged fort. We tried to determine how long the fuse cord needed to be, to ensure that the explosives would go off just as the jeep crashed into the concrete wall of the building. Under cover of darkness, one of the soldiers crawled towards the fences and planted a white stick to indicate the point at which the driver should jump out of the explosives-laden jeep. We placed a large crate of dynamite in the jeep and attached the fuse. Then we tied the steering wheel with rope so that it wouldn’t turn once the driver had bailed out, and we applied fixed pressure to the accelerator pedal. Then the operation got underway and someone lit the explosive fuse cord. As the jeep began to move, we quickly took cover in the foxholes here, just where the path to the fort is today.”
This first-hand account describes not a recent military operation, but one of the toughest battles of Israel’s War of Independence, which, thanks to the exploding jeep, culminated in the breaching of the thick concrete wall of the British Iraq Sweidan fort. The attackers swarmed into the building, where they fought a decisive battle that enabled them to take possession of it and wipe out the “Falluja pocket” where the invading Egyptian forces were holed up. All this took place on November 9th, 1948.
Who is Dennis Rudnick?
Eighty-five-year-old Dennis Rudnick was one of the remarkable people who took part in that battle. Today he lives in Sydney, Australia, and recently he took a trip back in time and revisited his Israeli past, which happened to coincide with one of the most tempestuous periods in the country’s history. Nowadays, Dennis continues to devote his energies to helping the State of Israel, and to intense activity on behalf of  JNF Australia in particular.
Decked out in a broad-brimmed Australian hat, Rudnick arrived in Israel accompanied by his children Aubrey and Charlene, ready for what promised to be perhaps the most significant journey of his life in recent decades. This visit, which took place at the invitation of KKL-JNF, was not in any way routine. Those who know Dennis Rudnick in Australia firmly believe that this man, who devotes his time and energies to promoting the Blue Box project among friends of KKL-JNF in Australia, thoroughly deserves to be honored.
Dennis was very excited. No less so were his son and daughter, who had heard his stories over the years, but had never imagined that they would one day accompany him back to those distant locations and those chapters of history that laid the foundations for the independent State of Israel. Throughout the day Charlene Rudnick carefully noted down what she saw and heard: “You can’t imagine how important it is to us, to the whole family,” she explained. “Suddenly all those photographs and stories of my father’s have taken on a completely different meaning.”

At Iraq Sweidan fort, next to the blown up hole that won the battle. Photo: Gabi Bron

British Mandate Palestine: Immigrate at Your Risk
Dennis recounts: “I was born in South Africa to parents who were also born there. As a youngster, I joined Beitar and I was active in it until 1947, when it was decided that volunteers should be sent to help the Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel. Eight of us left Cape Town and traveled to Italy, because we didn’t have official permission to enter the Land of Israel. In Italy we joined the maapilim (i.e., Jews who risked their lives to immigrate to Israel, despite it being deemed illegal under the British Mandate) on their ship Caserta, and were supplied with forged Polish identity documents so that we could mingle unnoticed with the immigrants, who were all Holocaust survivors. We found ourselves surrounded by hundreds of people who looked like walking skeletons. Their physical condition was appalling, especially when compared to ours.”
British ships pursued the Caserta and surrounded it near the island of Rhodes, but it managed to break through the cordon and eventually entered the port at Haifa under the watchful eye of the British fleet. As the immigrants were being transferred for deportation to Cyprus, the British identified the eight young South Africans and brought them ashore. They took them to the Tel Litvinsky army base (today Tel HaShomer) where they were made to enlist in the British army. Dennis Rudnick and his companions received their first uniforms at British army headquarters in Beersheba, but saw no active service. The British were starting to leave, and Rudnick and his friends were left behind. Within a few days, they had become overseas volunteers in the 8th Brigade, which was formed south of Tel Aviv, and they went into combat as regular soldiers – and that is how Dennis found himself among the troops who stopped the invading Egyptian army near Ashdod, helped to raise the siege of Kibbutz Negba and besieged the Iraq Sweidan fort, one of the dozens of Tegart forts constructed by the British throughout the area of their mandated territory in the Middle East.
"I can't believe it, I simply can't believe it"

L-R: Charlene, Dennis and Aubrey Rudnick. Photo: Gabi Bron
Clearly moved, Rudnick stood in the courtyard of that same fort, now known as Metzudat Yoav (“Yoav Fort”). “I can’t believe it, I simply can’t believe it,” he told his grown-up children and his companions over and over again. Unhesitatingly, he identified the route taken by the famous jeep, the position of the fences and the location of his foxhole in that long-ago battle.  Dennis Rudnick sat with his children in the darkened hall of the history museum and all three discreetly wiped away a tear as they watched a film that included footage shot during the fighting and immediately afterwards.
In the car that picked up the family from their hotel in Tel Aviv, Dennis Rudnick had already begun to produce from his bag a series of old photographs of the burnt-out Tegart fort and of himself in British army uniform (wearing a cap with a little pompom on top) and with his comrades from the 8th Brigade. He had also kept a photo of Kibbutz Negba’s water tower, another emotional landmark: when he revisited it he tried to reproduce the precise angle from which the photograph had been taken so that he could stand once more on the spot where he had stood all those years ago.
The second part of the day spent touring the hot expanses of southern Israel focused on two of Dennis Rudnick’s great enthusiasms: the Israeli Air Force and KKL-JNF. It turned out that shortly after the battle at Metzudat Yoav, Dennis’s technical abilities had plucked him from the infantry brigade and assured him a place in the air force, where he continued his military service as a technician.
In this capacity, he continued to play a role in combat as he serviced the first Piper Cub airplanes, which were used as improvised bombers that dropped mortars shells on enemy convoys and positions in the south. After the war, because of his native command of English and his other talents, he became one of forty technicians selected to join a delegation dispatched to the USA to learn how to maintain the four large Constellation passenger planes that were about to make their way to Israel. David Ben Gurion visited the members of this elite technical staff at their training base in California, and now, on this visit to Israel, Dennis had the opportunity for an emotional reunion with an El Al veteran who had worked alongside him as a passenger plane maintenance technician.
Following the Blue Box: Nir Am Reservoir

At the Nir Am Water Reservoir. Photo: Gabi Bron

Standing on a lookout platform above the large water reservoir adjacent to Kibbutz Nir Am, Dennis heard about the hundreds of reservoirs that KKL-JNF is in the process of establishing throughout Israel, and the success of the reclamation scheme that enables sewage water to be recycled for agricultural use. This was also one of the two vantage points from which he looked out towards the Gaza Strip and experienced for the first time the true extent of Israel’s current border confrontation. In Beersheba, he observed first hand the enormous benefit the ever-growing city and its inhabitants are deriving from the Beersheba River rehabilitation project. He was especially impressed by the new residential neighborhoods that have sprung up along the banks of the freshly restored river.
The hot weather did not manage to spoil Dennis’s nostalgic and empowering visit to the Hatzerim Air Force Museum, where he and his family listened to gripping tales from the Air Force’s past and viewed some of the planes that had played an active role in the annals of the Israeli state. Later, on their way back to Tel Aviv, they observed how KKL-JNF prepares the infrastructure for new forests amid the arid hills of the desert. These forests flourish thanks to the revival of ancient agricultural techniques that divert the meager floodwaters to the immediate vicinity of the trees.
Dennis Rudnick paid other nostalgic visits to the Palmach Museum, Ramot Menashe Park and Kerem Maharal, and summed up his journey back to the early episodes of both his life and the history of the State of Israel as follows: “Today I live in a Jewish sheltered residential unit in Sydney. Together with two friends, I’m responsible for all activities connected with the Blue Box operation, in which all the local residents are involved. Now I know that when I return home I’ll be tripling the extent of my activities – mainly so as to tell people about everything I’ve seen with my own eyes, and also in order to stress how important it is to give. Giving isn’t just providing financial help to carry out projects for the benefit of Israel’s inhabitants and its environment; it has to stem from an understanding of the excitement and complexities of life in Israel, and the experiences I’m taking back with me from here will surely serve to deepen that understanding.”