In Summary
  • During its operations, the Irgun Zvai Leumi carried out assassinations and unleashed terror against the British and Arabs.

  • Shortly after their arrival in Eritrea, the Jewish militants began making escape plans.

  • The Gilgil detainees were finally evacuated from their camp in July 1948 and flown by air to Cyrenaica, then by ship to Palestine.

Except for 1973 when Kenya severed diplomatic ties with Israel over the Yom Kippur war, the relationship between the two countries has always been strong, with a shared history that goes back many decades.

While Kenyans were resisting British colonial rule, the Israelis were heavily involved in the fight for the establishment of a Jewish state.

It is during this period, in February 1947, that the British planned a secret operation code named “Malvolio” to transfer 290 Jewish detainees from Eritrea to Gilgil in Kenya.

Most of the detainees were members of Irgun Zvai Leumi, a militant Jewish nationalist group which advocated the use of violence to establish the Jewish State in the Mandatory Palestine.

The Mandatory Palestine was a geographic area administered by the British that covered what is today known as Israel, Palestine and Gaza until May 1948.


During its operations, the Irgun Zvai Leumi carried out assassinations and unleashed terror against the British and Arabs.

Many of its members were arrested and detained in Acre Prison located in a city of Acre. In 1944, because of the security threat the militants posed and also out of fear that they could be rescued by their friends, the British deported hundreds of detainees from Acre to Camp Sambel in Eritrea. The fears were realised in May 1947 when 28 detainees escaped after blowing a hole in the Acre Prison wall.

Shortly after their arrival in Eritrea, the Jewish militants began making escape plans.

The most daring one was in August 1946 when around 50 detainees escaped after digging a tunnel below the camp.

Owing to political and security considerations, in particular the threat the escapees posed to the public, the British Government decided  to move the remaining detainees to Kenya.

An order was given to prepare Gilgil Camp, which had initially served as a jail for criminal soldiers during World War II.

A European newspaper editor in Kenya got a tip off on the plans and on February 14, 1947 asked the Deputy Chief Secretary of Kenya about it. He got a “no comment” but threatened to publish the information anyway.


Fearing that the publication of the story would jeopardise the whole move, the Governor of Kenya Sir Philip Mitchell persuaded the editor to hold the article until March 2 when the operation was to begin.

On March 2, 1947, the detainees were herded out of Camp Sambel Eritrea and transferred to the port of Massawa for a ship to Mombasa. From Mombasa they were railed into Gilgil Camp by cargo trains. The location was to limit the chances of escape.

The violent nature of the Jewish Gilgil detainees was captured in a letter by Lt-Col Charteris, a counter terrorism officer in Jerusalem, who later became Queen Elizabeth’s private secretary

“A party of about 25 Jews, ten per cent of the number in Kenya were responsible for the partial destruction of the King David Hotel with loss of 90 lives,” read the letter.


Back in Palestine, the Jewish militancy was at its height and the British mandate in Palestine was also becoming unpopular back home and internationally. As a result, the British Government expressed its intentions of terminating the Mandate on May 14, 1948.

In essence, this meant that after the termination the British government was not going to have legal grounds to hold the detainees in Gilgil. There were also doubts on whether the detainees would be allowed into Palestine by the new authority after the British had left.

This threw the colonial government in Kenya and officials in London into panic on how to handle the detainees.

The governor of Kenya in particular, was not keen on having the “criminals” and told the authorities in London, who had dumped the detainees in Gilgil that the detainees should leave before May 15, 1948.


The fear was partly because Kenya’s colonial legislation wouldn’t cover the deportation of the Jewish militants after that date, unless a special law was enacted. This would leave the detainees stranded.

But the transfer of the detainees to Palestine wasn’t going to be an easy task — with military and political challenges to overcome.

The British feared that after years in detention in Eritrea and Kenya, the radical detainees were in vengeful mood and were likely to launch attacks on the British troops who were to withdraw from Palestine about a month after the termination of the Mandate.

The Director of Medical Services had visited the Gilgil detainees and warned that the atmosphere in the camp was disturbing and “that he and the camp commandant feared that unless some definite information regarding their return could be given at an early date then there was a high probability of a very serious incident taking place.”


British officials in London met and suggested that the transfer of the detainees ensure they arrived in Palestine “when the last withdrawal of British troops would take place” or at the “latest possible date before the military evacuation”.

The governor of Kenya was also asked to tell the detainees that it was not possible to transfer them to Palestine before the mandate is terminated.

Kenya’s deputy governor responded: “I do not see how we can agree to detainees remaining in Kenya, after May 15, 1948. If such a course were to be adopted, I am advised that the incidents resulting in bloodshed are bound to occur.”

He suggested that instead of holding the militant detainees in Gilgil after May 15, a slow ship should be hired to take them round the South African cape to buy time.

“If they left Mombasa by around 7th May, surely it would be possible to arrange for the ship not to reach Palestine until July.” 

Then they would be detained in the Haifa enclave until the departure of the British troops.

On March 5, 1948, the Colonial Office through assistant secretary in charge of the Eastern Department JD Higham officially announced that the Jewish detainees would be kept in Kenya after May 15.


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