The Battles of Latrun
The monastery of Latrun and the adjacent fort built by the British became famous in 1948 as the site of three bloody battles, which were outstanding and controversial failures of the Haganah and Israel Defense Force in the 1948 War (Israel War of Independence). They are important for many reasons.
Latrun bestrides the road to Jerusalem and the Transjordan Legion had been using their position to enforce the blockade against Jewish Jerusalem. Israeli PM Ben-Gurion insisted that scarce resources be allocated to take Latrun, because he felt that if Jerusalem fell it would be a tremendous blow to Israeli national morale and in effect, the war of Independence would be lost.
The battles of Latrun took place in the early phases of the war and the tactics, organization and failures tell us a great deal aboutthe state of readiness and capabilities of the Israeli armed forces in the initial phase of the Arab invasion, following the declaration of independence.
Owing to shortage of manpower, many new immigrants, just arrived from European DP camps, were drafted into the Haganah and they were sent to battle without much training. Over the years, the myth grew that large numbers of these immigrants had died. Partisans of right and left have insisted that the battle was an example of the "Bolshevik" mentality of the Ben-Gurion and the Mapai leadership, which was willing to make any sacrifices in order to achieve its goals. Post-Zionist historian Ilan-Pappe said, "Latrun is a stain in the collective Israeli memory." (Quoted here )
Of the use of immigrants at Latrun, Pappe said:
Pappe is also one of the most vociferous advocates of the notion that the Israeli forces won the war because they achieved superiority in numbers and weapons over the Arab attackers. He, and others, claim that it is a myth that the Israeli forces were initially outnumbered and out-gunned. The battle of Latrun, the historiography of the battle, and the reactions of the participants are a good proving ground for understanding how the history of Israel is written and rewritten, how myths are made in Israel and elsewhere, who makes the myths and why.
Hostilities between Arabs and Jews began almost as soon as the the UN partition plan was announced on November 29, 1947. The Palestinian Arab irregulars had the advantage of being able to smuggle in weapons over the borders, and in many places, particularly in the "corridor" leading to Jerusalem, they had the advantage of numbers. They could call out relatively large numbers of armed villagers for "faza" attacks on convoys. A certain quantity of materiel probably entered Jerusalem and other areas from friendly Arab regular armies even in this period. Additionally, the British had allowed the Salvation army of Fawzi El Kaukji into Palestine at the beginning of 1948. Compared to the Jewish underground army, they were well armed, though not necessarily well trained.
This situation produced some difficult moments in the siege of Jerusalem, to the point where Haganah commanders despaired of the situation in March of 1948>. When the convoy to <A href="http://www.zionism-israel.com/dic/Gush_Etzion.htm">Gush Etzion</A> was ambushed at Nebi Daniel in March of 1948, the Haganah in Jerusalem lost whatever armored vehicles it had had. Nonetheless, the Jewish forces had achieved superiority over the Palestinians by the time of independence.
>The situation changed with the departure of the British. The state of Israel was declared independent on May 15 1948, in accordance with the partition plan of UN resolution 181> and following the evacuation of the British. The Arab states, in particular Egypt, Syria and Transjordan, promptly declared war, and those three countries, with reinforcements from Saudi Arabia and Iraq, invaded both the territory allotted to the Palestinian state to be and territory allotted to Israel. Though they invaded ostensibly to protect the Palestinians, the Arab states did not support or allow the formation of a Palestinian state except as a meaningless gesture, later in the war. The open participation of regular Arab armies in the war after May 15, 1948 changed the equation of forces. The Jews were no longer fighting irregulars like themselves, but real armies with trained soldiers, tanks, artillery and aircraft. The departure of the British made it possible to draft and train soldiers in the open and to bring arms shipments and immigrants into the country. However, the army could not possibly be organized in a week or two, and the land was small enough to be completely occupied in a few days if resistance collapsed. The first period of the war following independence was therefore crucial.
Jerusalem had been accorded international status by the UN. It was isolated from the remainder of the area allotted to Israel, and had been blockaded by Palestinian irregular forces since December of 1947 with varying success. For a time in April, Operation Nachshon had opened the road to Jerusalem by removing Arab irregulars from several villages, allowing some convoys to get through, but the blockade was soon renewed. Operation Nachshon was the first significant coordinated military operation that the Haganah undertook while the British were still in Palestine. Operation Maccabi renewed the clearing of the road and for a brief time, the Latrun fortification was in Israeli hands. However, the Israelis did not evidently grasp the strategic significance of Latrun, and did not have the troops to hold it against large force. The fortifications dominate the area because of their location on a hill. But to take advantage of this strategic position, the occupiers would require artillery. The Israelis had no artillery at this time. With the coming of independence, they abandoned the position and rushed troops south to defend the Negev, under attack by the Egyptian army.
After May 15, 1948, the Transjordan Legion undertook to block the road. It is highly doubtful that the Israelis had sufficient force to defend against the Jordanians had they wanted to do so. The Legion brought a force equivalent to one or two brigades, backed by 25 point cannons. The Israelis had neither the manpower nor the artillery on May 15.
At the time of the first battle of Latrun, ten days after Israeli independence and the Arab invasion, the Israeli forces, still organized as the "Haganah," the underground army, numbered about 25,000 in all, including non-combat soldiers and those with only nominal training. Most of these troops and most of their officers had hardly any experience fighting or planning battles against regular armies. Logistical organization was chaotic and knowledge of battle tactics scanty. Soldiers recruited immediately after Israeli independence were necessarily untrained initially, like the immigrant draftees used at Latrun, and often there were not enough weapons to go round. At the beginning of the Arab invasion, Israel had no armor, no fighter or bomber aircraft and no artillery. Even the "trained" "elite" soldiers of the Alexandroni brigade had no real experience fighting a regular army like the Jordanian Legion or the Egyptians. The success of a modern army doesn't depend on just numbers of soldiers or numbers of weapons, but also on logistics, coordination, planning and discipline. These require training and organization that simply weren't available to the Israeli forces, as well as communications equipment and a sufficient number of soldiers and officers to do good staff work and organize logistics. The entire organization of the Haganah and the orientation and battle concept of its officers was still based on the idea of perimeter defense of small settlements against terror attacks and marauders, rather than the strategic vision needed to capture or defend large areas, transportation routes and cities from organized armies.
In the invasion of Palestine/Israel, the Egyptian army made the greatest incursion, since they had cut off the Negev and thereby deprived Israel of half of its territory. However, the Transjordan Legion was the greater threat, because it operated in the center of the country, and threatened to cut off and/or conquer Jerusalem. The Legion was the best trained army in the Middle East. It had been created by the British as the Arab Legion and, though it became the army of Transjordan, it was still officered in large part by the British, and received abundant supplies from Britain in the early part of the War of Independence. About 2/3 of the all officers, and 49 of 51 senior officers of the Legion were British. On May 30, after the first battle of Latrun, Britain issued an order for British personnel to leave the Legion, but this did not happen in practice for quite a while.
The Battles of Latrun
Our story will focus on the first battle of Latrun, which is the one that produced the most famous rout. A map of the area and of the battle plan is below.
Plan of attack and actual attack on Latrun, May 25, 1948. Map based on Yitshak Levi, Nine Measures, page 268 and on the map and account given at the Alexandroni Brigade Web site.
The Latrun position consisted of a Tegart (named after Sir Charles Tegart, formerly of the Indian police, who advised the British on how to quell the Arab uprising in Palestine) fort built by the British in 1941 and 1942, and the adjacent Trappist monastery situated on a hill controlling a few strategic intersections. At this point, the road to Jerusalem from Rehovot and Hulda joined the road from Tel Aviv via Ramla, the road to the Masmiya junction, and just beyond it, the road to Ramallah split off from the road to Jerusalem. The fort commanded the major junctions in central Israel between Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and the south. Equipped with 25 pound cannons, Piat anti-tank weapons, a large number of machine guns and mortars, it was able to successfully stop Israeli convoys to Jerusalem. At this point in time the situation of Jerusalem had become critical, as food and supplies were blocked because of Arab control of the roads. PM Ben-Gurion was afraid that Jerusalem would fall, resulting in a great loss of morale as well as a strategic disaster. Yigal Alon, who commanded the central front, believed that divided Jerusalem could hold out, and that the Haganah did not have the resources to mount a coordinated attack that would allow for conquest of all of Jerusalem and its environs. However, Ben-Gurion decided that the road to Jerusalem must be opened.
The first Israeli failure regarding Latrun was abandonment of positions in Latrun that had been captured by the Harel Brigade on May 16-17, 1948. This was due to poor coordination, lack of good strategic planning and lack of resources. At the time, Yitzhak Rabin protested and wanted to detach a force to hold Latrun, but his opinion was overruled. When the importance of Latrun became apparent, Ben-Gurion ordered Yigal Alon to take the position at all costs and to escort a waiting convoy that had assembled to Jerusalem. Alon protested to no avail that the Haganah did not have the troops or equipment to do the job. The planned attack was code named "Operation Bin Nun." By this time, the Jordan Legion had taken up positions in Latrun and neighboring villages, but it is not clear that the Haganah knew this.
The first attack was carried out early in the morning of May 25, ten days after the British had left Palestine. Yitzhak Levi (in his book, Nine Measures, page 266) gives a detailed account of the forces in the battle, which was led by Shlomo Shamir. Israeli attackers consisted of 1,650 soldiers of the 7th brigade, 450 soldiers of the 32nd battalion of the Alexandroni brigade, and 300 soldiers of the Harel Brigade. The 300 Harel soldiers were in the area, but had no direct part in the attack. They were not even aware it would occur, and found out by accident after intercepting a radio transmission to headquarters. The strike force consisted of the 32nd battalion that would attack the Latrun fortress, and the 72nd battalion of the 7th brigade that would attack Arab positions to the south of Latrun. The 71st battalion was to be held in reserve, while the 73rd armored battalion was to provide general mobile support.
According to Yitzhak Levi, (based on the account of Mahmud Russan, "In the eyes of the enemy", published in Hebrew translation in 1955. cited in "Tish'a Kabin by Yitzhak Leni) the Jordanian forces numbered about 3,500, including 2,300 regulars, 600 Jordanian volunteers and 600 local volunteers. The regular soldiers were two battalions of the 3d brigade of the Legion, including the fourth battalion of the 3d brigade, reinforced by the second battalion which had arrived from Ramallah on the 24th of May. The Jordanian forces were spread out in positions at Latrun, Emmaus, Yalu, Dir Ayub, Hirbet El 'Aker and various adjacent hills. The 2nd battalion, when it arrived, took up positions in the eastern part of the defensive perimeter, along a line from Yalu to Dir Ayub, freeing up 4th battalion troops to reinforce Latrun. According to a Jordanian account, the Jordan Legion numbered about 1,200 against 6,500 Israeli attackers. The latter number may represent all the Israeli forces in central Israel at the time, but it could not possibly have been the number of Israeli attackers of Latrun. The actual battles were fought at Latrun, along the road and at positions in the surrounding hills, notably hill 314. Not all the forces of either side actually participated in the frontal battles.
The composition of the 71st and 72nd battalions of the Haganah 7th brigade is unclear. Some sources claim they were mostly immigrants newly arrived from European DP camps. Others claim there were only about 145 new immigrants in all. They spoke a variety of languages, but had almost no language in common. The 73rd battalion consisted of relatively experienced Haganah troops under the command of Captain Haim Laskov, who had gained experience in WW II. Their armor consisted of about 15 vehicles of varied construction, half of which were probably Armored Personnel Carriers, some homemade armored "sandwich" vehicles built in Haganah worships, and armored patrol wagons. They had no tanks. The bulk of the fighting however, was to fall on the relatively seasoned troops of the 32nd battalion of the crack Alexandroni brigade. The Jordanians had 17 armored battle wagons equipped with cannons, the Israelis had none. The Jordanians had about 105 machine guns against 53 on the Israeli side. The Jordanians had 8 modern British 25 pound cannon. Against these, the Israelis had two 65 millimeter French guns manufactured in 1906 (affectionately known as "Napoleonchiks"), mounted on wooden wheels, and three home made "Davidka" pieces that were not used. According to one source (Collins and Lapierre, O Jerusalem), they also had a single 25 pound cannon.
According to Levi, Haganah intelligence had not discerned that Latrun was now held by the Legion. It assumed that the position was held by about 1000 irregular troops according to a telegraphic transmission of May 23, though it was known that the legion was in the vicinity. Neither the 32nd battalion nor the 7th brigade had done any serious pre-attack reconnaissance. The battle plan was reminiscent of successful commando raids against positions of irregulars. Only about a quarter or a third of the force was used for the actual attack on Latroun, and two thirds were held in reserve for cover and defensive actions.
However, according to Collins and Lapierre, they did find out about serious reinforcements of Latrun on the night of the attack:
"... It was an urgent communication from Yadin timed at 7:30 PM: 'Enemy wheeled force of 120 vehicles including large number of armour and gun carriers left Ramallah apparently for Latrun. They are now at map coordinates 154-141"
(Collins and Lapierre, O Jerusalem, Page 480)
In any case, was too late to change battle plans, and Ben-Gurion was pressing for a breakthrough, because the situation in Jerusalem was desperate, as usual. The attack had already been delayed for 24 hours because of supply foul ups and soldiers that had failed to materialize when they should have, but the delay had worked in favor of the Jordanians. Among other things, they had brought four additional 25 pounders to Latrun.
Owing to inevitable delays in assembly, the columns started moving between 2 and 5 AM, rather than at midnight as planned. According to the Jordanian account, the full moon allowed the Jordanians to see the troops of the 32nd battalion advancing toward Latrun. They had been charged with taking the fort. Jordanian spotters lit flares, and the Legion opened up highly effective machine gun fire and pinned down a part of the 32nd battalion, which was eventually forced to retreat. According to another account, the attack took place after dawn, but the result was the same. A part of the 32nd battalion was pinned down by enemy action. The armored 73rd battalion of Haim Laskov tried to move east along the road and rescue them, but they were stopped by deadly Jordanian cannon fire. The 72nd battalion of the 7th brigade was also intercepted as it moved east toward Beit Sussin and at least one platoon was practically wiped out. Enormous heat, and the fact that the fighting was done mostly in daytime, with no element of surprise, contributed to the problems of the attackers. Eventually, thanks to some valiant covering actions, most of the Israeli forces managed to retreat, but in poor order and with loss of equipment. In all, the Israelis suffered at least 73 or 74 dead, 140 wounded and six captured. Fifty of the dead belonged to the 32nd battalion, seasoned veterans of the Alexandroni brigade who carried out the brunt of the attack. There may have been more casualties, as not all the new immigrant recruits had been properly registered and recorded. However, the notion that the rout was caused by the unseasoned immigrant troops of the 7th brigade is untenable; they did not suffer most of the casualties and the taking of Latrun was not their direct responsibility. According to Shlomo Shamir, who commanded the Seventh brigade and wrote a history of the battle, about 19 of the dead were new immigrants. According to Yitshak Levi, the major reason for the failure was that the attack was planned as if Latrun was held by irregular forces, using tactics that had worked in the past. In any case, it was doubtful that other tactics would have been used successfully, since no other tactics were really known and practiced by the Haganah at the beginning of the war. They had never fought a regular army. The main part of the plan was a frontal assault, crawling through the fields in front of dug-in machine gun positions, artillery and spotters on a moon-lit night.
Neither side had any really effective air power at the time. Two Egyptian twin-engine airplanes (apparently bombers) operated against Hulda and another nearby target on that day, and Chief of Staff Yigal Yadin gave this as the reason (or excuse-since the aircraft were not fighter planes) for not sending Israeli air support, but it is doubtful if such support as was available would have made a difference.
In any event, three subsequent assaults by the Haganah also ended in failure. The battle for Latrun in fact did not end on May 25, and it was not a total rout, as some accounts relate. The 7th brigade was reinforced with the 52nd battalion of the Givati Brigade (later withdrawn). Preparatory to a second attack, a force from the 72nd and 73d battalions (including some of the same immigrant soldiers) captured Beit Sussin on the night of 27/28 May. In this period, they also shot down an Iraqi plane that landed in Arab territory. Shlomo Shamir tried again to capture Latrun on May 30 (called Operation Bin Nun Bet), and failed. This time the attack included armored flame-throwers designed by Captain (later General) Haim Laskov. These produced a tremendous effect, but as the fire they started lit up the whole battlefield, they apparently became perfect targets in the night. A third attack on June 9th, led by the American Colonel Mickey Marcus, attempted to take Latrun from the rear. That failed too, as did a subsequent attack on July 16. An attack planned for July 18 was called off because of communications failures. It is easy to be misled by the dramatic narratives of each battle into believing that "if" one or two crucial mistakes had not been made, Latrun would have been captured by the Israelis. However, the experiment was tried four or five times, and each time it failed. The conclusion that must be drawn is that with the arms, coordination and commanders available to the IDF in that phase of the war, Latrun could not be conquered.
Every failure in the Israeli War of Independence has the potential to be viewed as a great blot on the myth of Israeli invincibility. The failure at Latrun was the subject of exaggeration and recriminations. The myth grew up that the failure was due to the cynical and unfeeling use of immigrant troops. Then opposition MK Uzi Landau supposedly once claimed that 2,000 soldiers had died at Latrun.
The failures associated with the battles of Latrun were reminiscent of Union army foul-ups early in the US civil war, rather than of coordinated attacks planned by a modern army. Poor intelligence led to failure to assess enemy strength correctly, or even, according to Yitzhak Levy, failure to recognize that the Haganah was going to face the Jordan Legion. The strategic planning of the first battle was therefore totally inappropriate. Communications, logistics and organizational failures plagues the rest of that battle, as well as others. A battalion failed to arrive, or arrived late, or arrived without weapons, forcing postponements of more than 24 hours, which may have been critical and certainly contributed to the failure. Such armor as there was not used effectively. The attack of May 30 had also been postponed by a day. In the third attack, a fortuitous wrong turning led to the capture of Jordanian headquarters, but the Israelis didn't have the flexibility to exploit the opportunity. No reinforcements came, and the position was lost.
The battles were lost because of
Shlomo Shamir summed it up, by saying:
Israel sent some of its best soldiers to Latrun, men who had proven themselves in battle before and after many times - men like Eliahu Arbel, Shlomo Shamir, Ariel Sharon. These were not untrained new immigrants as the myth would have us believe. They failed because apparently it was not doable. The general staff had all been opposed to these efforts and the events proved them right, so it is not a failure of the general staff.
While some of the tactical problems were also evident in the performance of the Egyptian army of 1948, as shown in the complaints of Col Nasser, and were also typical of the disorganization in the Israeli army after the surprise attack in October 1973, they were much less likely to occur in the Jordan Legion or any other efficiently run army, and probably should not have been so prevalent in a well planned operation.
A bigger issue is the strategic question, "Why were the battles fought?" They were a classic example of civilians overruling the military in a disastrous way. Ben-Gurion was probably right about the need to protect Jerusalem, but that was not the way to do it. Jerusalem was saved for Israel, but it was done in a different way, by building a circuitous bypass road, called the "Burma Road," which got around Latrun.
Historiography and Myth Making
It is very likely from the above that the story of the numerous immigrants sent to their deaths by a Bolshevist leadership is a myth. True, the battles of Latrun were costly and avoidable mistakes. However there are many avoidable mistakes in every war, so they are perhaps unavoidable. It is also true that Shlomo Shamir, whose history is the real basis for reexamining the first battle of Latrun, is necessarily biased, since he was defending his own record as commander of the Seventh Brigade. His view of history is also not one to inspire confidence that he has tried to be accurate:
Moreover, the notion advanced by Pappe that there was an ideological basis for sending new immigrants into battle is not groundless, since Shamir said:
Was it necessity or ideology? He is ambiguous, probably reflecting his own doubts. Nonetheless, Shamir's account fits with other accounts of veterans. There is no way of knowing how much these accounts influenced each other. It is certain however, that the new immigrants were not the majority of the soldiers, and were not responsible for the main attack or its failure and did not suffer the huge number of casualties created by the myth. Nobody disputes those facts. Faced with this evidence, Ilan Pappe said:
Inequality of Forces and Israeli Performance in the War
A detailed examination of this battle and some others sheds light on a larger question - which side had absolute superiority in numbers and equipment in the War of Independence. Israeli revisionist historians have claimed that Israel had superiority in objective resources - both men and equipment. By the end of the war, when Israel had about 100,000 men under arms, and had successfully imported arms from Czechoslovakia and other clandestine suppliers, this was certainly true. However, prior to independence, the Haganah and Palmach together numbered about 25,000 soldiers, many of them without equipment. In February of 1948, the Alexandroni Brigade had slightly less than 550 rifles and Sten guns for all their soldiers. Supplies had improved by May 1948, but even as late as the battle of Latrun, the Alexandroni brigade stripped the soldiers of the 32nd battalion of their rifles before detaching them to the 7th brigade, because there simply weren't enough rifles for each soldier.
The comparison of numbers of soldiers is also deceptive because the Jordanian, Syrian and Egyptian soldiers were all front line soldiers, supported by additional supply and logistics personnel in the rear. The count of Israeli soldiers represents all the soldiers under arms, including front line troops, reserve, logistics, paramilitary Gadna troops who were teenagers and were not assigned combat duties, and those in the rear. As the Israeli army was transformed from being an underground group of volunteers who lived at home to a regular army of conscripts, and as the size of units increased, the ratio of noncombatant soldiers necessarily increased. For example, in the Jerusalem city guard ("Heyl Hamishmar") there were 893 soldiers in January of 1948, of whom 750 were combat troops. This number had increased to 4,673 soldiers on May 23, but only 2,700 of these were combat troops. (Yitzhak Levy, "Nine Measures" (Tisha Kabin in Hebrew) 1987, page 368).
Ilan Pappe tries to brush off the battle of Latrun as atypical:
The facts don't appear to support his contentions. Latrun represented the best effort that the Israeli forces could muster for defense of the most important objective at that period. If anything, it was an exaggeration of Israeli combat capacities as the time. It reflected the general balance of power. The balance of forces in Jerusalem itself was even worse. The Jewish quarter of the old city had to surrender for lack of defenders. In the south, against the Egyptians, the cause appeared hopeless for a while. If the forces at Latrun had no tanks and hardly any artillery or air support, it was because the Haganah had no tanks or artillery or air force on May 25, 1948. Without going into the theological or ideological issues, it is clear that objectively, in May and June of 1948, and perhaps even after the first cease fire on June 10, the Israeli forces could have been overrun by the Arab armies, which were superior in numbers, training and equipment. This did not happen. We needn't attribute the Israeli victory to God or superior morality, but we cannot simply ignore the numbers and facts and say it didn't happen, or that numbers and facts are only important for empiricists. As we do not accept supernatural explanations, we can't be content with other types of mythmaking either.
What the record shows is that when Israeli soldiers went up against regular Arab armies, the results were variable. The Haganah and IDF never had great success fighting the Transjordan Legion when the Legion chose to attack. It seems this was true in most of the war. The Legion didn't overrun West Jerusalem because their "attack" on the Mandelbaum gate was probably due to an error. There were disasters of planning and coordination such as that at Latrun and the fall of the Jewish quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem, there were less spectacular failures such as the failure to take the Egyptian-held fort at Iraq El-Suweidan until nearly the end of the war, there were brave and futile stands such as the fighting at Gush Etzion, more successful efforts against great odds at Negba and Yad Mordechai, as well as brilliant successes such as the conquest of the Negev.
The accomplishment of the first period of the war, from the Israeli point of view, was that Israel was not overrun. In part this may be due to superior motivation, in part to unwillingness of the Transjordan Legion to attack areas outside of those allotted to the Palestinians, and to lack of coordination among the Arab forces. Part of the secret of success was persistence in goals rather than in means to achieve the goals. Since frontal attacks could not take Latrun, a road was built around it. The Egyptians could not be routed from their fortress in Iraq El Suweidan, but they were eventually reduced to an isolated pocket in Faluja, that was bypassed. The fighting spirit of guerilla soldiers must not be discounted, until two weeks before, the Haganah had been an underground guerilla force. The same people who insist that if the Israelis, essentially a guerilla force, won against the Arab armies, it must be because they had better equipment and more men, also insist that guerilla armies will always win a conflict even though they are weaker. The improvisation, local initiative and close camaraderie that characterized the Palmach and Haganah helped to make up in part for lack of experience, lack of equipment and poor organization. This in fact became a part of the IDF mystique eventually, though not before attempts were made to root it out and turn the IDF into a regular army with strict discipline and organization. That program was stopped and the army was reorganized after several notable failures in the early 50s. The approach that didn't work is indicative of the reasons for success. In the later part of the war, Israeli success was probably due in large part to better Israeli equipment and training, and superior numbers. However, this was not true of the initial stages, and the organization, supply and training of the IDF in war conditions was also an achievement that should not be discounted.
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