How the Israeli Navy transitioned from obscurity to a missile pioneer.
In the beginning, when Britain ruled Palestine, mere glimpses emerge: of twenty-three Jewish frogmen and their British commander disappearing without a trace on a seaborne mission against Vichy Lebanon (1941);1 of Jewish soldiers learning naval skills at the British naval base in Haifa (1943); and of Jewish workers posing proudly next to two minesweepers they have constructed for the Royal Navy in Tel Aviv harbor (1944).
The historian, however, begins his labors where he will, and our story commences not in British Palestine but at Fleet Landing in distant Newport, Rhode Island. It was here in April 1946 that a motorized liberty launch put in carrying crewmembers of the USS Massey and their guests—a group of Annapolis midshipmen who had come aboard for two weeks of drills. On reaching land, some of the midshipmen and crewmembers bounded ashore only to be summoned back to the launch, where they received an informative lecture from Lieutenant Paul Shulman, the Massey’s engineering officer. The topic was standard disembarkation from a naval vessel, and the take home message was this: If the sailors wanted to do things according to regulations, then officers were to debark first, followed by midshipmen (since they were destined to be officers) and finally crewmembers. While highly enlightening, the lecture seems not to have been appreciated by men anxious to begin their liberty—although they did do a commendable job of applying their new knowledge when Shulman finally let them leave the launch.2
Gruffness was nothing new to Paul Shulman. His biographer, J. Wandres, relates that five years earlier, while an Annapolis midshipman himself, he had had a terse exchange with a revered houseguest at his parents’ home. The visitor had remarked that he was delighted that Jewish boys like Shulman were studying to be naval officers since an independent Jewish state, once it came into being, would require men with such skills. Shulman snapped back that he intended to be a career officer in the U.S. Navy and wished the houseguest luck with recruitment elsewhere.3 The houseguest, David Ben-Gurion, found Shulman’s sense of commitment impressive and did not forget him.
Career plans enunciated by 18-year-olds are apt to change. And so it was in the case of young Shulman. The Holocaust—and Britain’s subsequent refusal to allow the survivors of that catastrophe to immigrate to the Jewish National Home in Mandatory Palestine—made a deep impression on the maturing officer. Obtaining his release from active naval duty in 1946, he helped front an organization that purchased decommissioned U.S. and Canadian naval vessels for use in smuggling European Jews to Palestine in the teeth of Britain’s draconian blockade. (Unfortunately, the Royal Navy intercepted most of these vessels, sending the passengers back to Europe or to internment on Cyprus.)4
In April 1948, the 25-year-old Shulman accepted an offer to serve as Chief-of-Staff for naval training in the nascent Israeli Navy.5 Weeks later—on May 15th—five Arab armies crossed the frontier of the newborn Jewish state intent on annihilating it. Within the navy, at this time, there existed two competing operational philosophies. The Palyam—a frogman-based commando unit—believed that commando operations could meet all of Israel’s naval requirements, including staging attacks, keeping sea-lanes open, blockading enemy ports and transporting marines.6 Shulman adhered to the rival view, outlined by former Royal Navy officer, Robert Stephenson Miller, that a traditional navy would better serve Israel’s needs.
In the event, both operational schools were vindicated. At the outset of the war, four decommissioned naval vessels intercepted by Britain during the illegal immigration campaign were at anchor in Haifa harbor. Just prior to declaring independence, Israel took possession of these vessels, carried out repairs and formed them into the so-called “Big Flotilla” in accordance with Miller’s conception.7 In the meantime, an Israeli agent had purchased six “explosive” speedboats. Formerly belonging to the “Decima Mas” special operations unit of the Italian Navy,8 these became the chief strike weapon of the Palyam (now know as the “Marine Sabotage Unit”9 and soon to be renamed “Flotilla 13”—a name that finally stuck10).
The stage was now set for the most stunning naval feat of the war—a combined operation, involving both the Big Flotilla and the Palyam. Because the explosive boats could not travel long distances on the open sea, they were being transported in the lifeboat position aboard one of the Big Flotilla ships when the latter, commanded by Shulman, cornered the Egyptian flagship, Al Emir Farouq, off the Gaza coastline on October 21, 1948. A ceasefire had just gone into effect, but when an Egyptian shore battery opened fire on the Israeli flotilla, Shulman obtained permission to attack directly from Ben-Gurion.11 The explosive boats were lowered into the water and sped toward their quarry—each carrying 650 pounds of explosive in the prow. At a distance of 100 yards, the Palyam pilots, commanded by Yochai Bin-Nun,12 locked their rudders in position and jumped overboard. On impact, the explosives separated from the boats, sunk and exploded below the water line.13 Struck twice, the Egyptian flagship broke in half, carrying 500 men to the bottom, while a third torpedo boat crippled an Egyptian minesweeper.14 Five days later, Ben-Gurion promoted Shulman to command of the Israeli Navy with the rank of Aluf (i.e., Admiral). According to J. Wandres, Shulman would muse afterwards that he must be the first U.S. Naval lieutenant to achieve the rank of admiral in just three years.15
Notwithstanding the success of the Al Emir Farouq operation, Israel’s War of Independence was decided on land. The navy had neither to clash with an enemy fleet nor to forestall an attempt at amphibious invasion, nor even to protect seaborne commerce. (Marine insurance rates actually fell by half during the war.16) Mere shore bombardment proved beyond the fleet’s means. Because the U.S. and Canadian navies had removed the original artillery from the ships comprising the Big Flotilla, the Israeli Navy employed field guns (secured to the decks by rope) for such bombardment attempts with most unsatisfactory results.17 In sum, says one historian, the Israeli Navy emerged from the war as “a disorganized collection of unsuitable ships, operated by inadequately trained crews,” which was manifestly unable “to come up with a useful role for their service…”18 To square the circle, Shlomo Shamir, a distinguished army officer with no naval experience, was chosen to succeed Shulman in command.19
Although the equipment improved with the purchase of some bona fide naval destroyers in 1955, finding a useful mission remained problematic. Given little guidance from the rest of the military, the navy began training for the purpose of protecting Israel’s sea lines of communication in the event of another war. But the IDF (Israel Defense Force) did not intend to ask the navy to fulfill this purpose in wartime. Because Israel relied heavily on citizen reserves, a prolonged conflict was deemed impracticable. The widespread requisitioning of manpower, trucks, planes and ships at a moment’s notice upon the outbreak of war would bring the economy to a standstill—a condition that could not be long maintained. Consequently, all planning was geared toward rapid blitz-style military actions—the outcome of which would be determined before open or closed sea lines could come into play.20 The main reason that the navy was able to requisition the aforementioned destroyers21 at all seems to have been a belief on the part of the IDF brass that it would force Israel’s enemies to overspend on their own navies in order to keep up, thereby diverting the enemies’ resources from military equipment needed for the decisive battle on land.22
The navy’s new equipment saw its first action during Operation Kadesh (i.e., the 1956 Sinai Campaign), wherein Israel joined Britain and France in a war against Egypt—the Israelis responding to Egyptian-sponsored terrorist raids and the blockade of Eilat (her southern port); the British and French retaliating for Egyptian President Gamel Abdel Nasser’s nationalization of the British- and French-owned Suez Canal. At the outset, Israel’s Anglo-French allies insisted that the Israeli Navy avoid the main area of operations so as not to become entangled with the large allied naval assault force. Israeli landing craft (obtained during the early 1950s) did play a role in the Gulf of Aqaba by transporting four light tanks to southern Sinai for the IDF assault on Sharm-el-Sheikh, but it appeared that the destroyers would be consigned to the sidelines for the duration. In the event, they were spared this disappointment by the Egyptian Navy, which dispatched the frigate, Ibrahim El Awal, to bombard Haifa. As the ship withdrew, the destroyers gave chase supported by torpedo boats and IAF fighter-bombers. Crippled in the water by Israeli fire, the Ibrahim El Awal was boarded by Israeli sailors and towed back to Haifa, where it was repaired and re-commissioned as an Israeli naval vessel.23
This positive outcome did not negate the fact that the Israeli Navy had been taken by surprise at its own base of operations (Haifa) or that the Egyptian ship had fired off 160 shells and begun sailing for home before the Israelis were able to react. It was a humbling reminder that the principal duty of a small state’s navy is to guard the coastline.24 This message was driven home with finality the following year when the Soviet Union sold a new weapon—the missile boat—to Syria and Egypt. Capable of traveling at 38 knots and firing the ship-to-ship Styx missile at targets up to 40 kilometers distant, the new threat rendered Israel’s destroyer-based navy all but obsolete. Although the missile boats could not detect specific land targets owing to the cacophony of shoreline radar echoes, were they to open fire on Israel’s target-rich coastal cities, there was nothing the lumbering destroyers could do about it.25
While such weapons systems were in development in Western nations including the United States, they were not yet operational or available for sale.26 Hence, a new conception for Israel’s Navy was necessary—tilting the balance away from the “traditional navy” Miller plan and towards small ships for coastal defense. Chosen to lead the drive was former Palyam commander, Yochai Bin-Nun, who served as Commander of the Israeli Navy from 1960 to 1966. Under his leadership, the old Palyam commando concept became so preponderant that the effects still reverberate. Says one historian, “Nearly every navy in the world has commando forces at its disposal. But … in no other navy in the world do commando operations have such a predominant status.”27
Directly countering the Syrian and Egyptian missile boat threat was a prime challenge for the new navy. With no similar weapons systems existing in the West, Israel began work on its own—the Gabriel missile.28 Based on a blueprint developed by MIT-trained IDF Major General Amos Horev in 1953 and brought to fruition by the Drexel-trained engineer, Ori Even-Tov, in 1965, the new missile was smaller and of shorter range than the Soviet Styx, but had a more advanced guidance system and was virtually invisible to targeted vessels since it traveled just above the ocean plane.29 To carry the Gabriel, Israel chose German-designed patrol craft manufactured in France.30
At the outbreak of the 1967 Six Day War, these weapons were still in production. Consequently, commando operations formed the crux of the navy’s contribution. The results were discouraging. The day of explosive boats had passed with the widespread adoption of radar.31 Israel’s naval commandos now based their operations on a lone operational submarine—the 1930s-vintage, former Royal Navy S-Class Tanin—and a flotilla of underwater, Bond-like “Swimmer Delivery Vehicles (SDVs),” whose prototypes—known by the very un-kosher term maiale or “pigs” (a name which stuck with them ever after despite protests from the IDF’s chief rabbi32)—had been developed in Mussolini’s Italy. On the first night of the war, frogmen deployed by the Tanin attempted to raid Alexandria harbor only to find the base empty of military targets. Worse still, on their return they missed the rendezvous and were later captured in an attempt to hide on land. The Tanin, meanwhile, went 0 for 8 in torpedo shots against an Egyptian frigate and then got pinned down for three hours by depth charges launched in retaliation.33
On the same night the SDVs attempted a raid on Port Said at the entryway to the Suez Canal. They, too, found no targets in port, and only narrowly withdrew after shore batteries and patrol boats spotted them and opened fire. Operations off the Syrian coast—one of them commanded by Yochai Bin-Nun, who had been summoned from retirement34—fared no better, and in the end, the navy’s lone success in the war came accidentally with the capture of Sharm-el-Sheikh on June 7. The site, from which Egypt had blockaded the Straits of Tiran making war inevitable, was to have been taken by Israeli paratroopers with the navy in support. Owing to catastrophic losses in the Sinai, however, the Egyptians had already fled. Consequently, when Israeli naval forces arrived ahead of the paratroopers, they were able to come ashore unmolested to secure the vital position.35
It remained for the navy to play a role in the one great blunder of the war: In a dreadful mishap on June 8th, Israeli jets and torpedo boats attacked the American signals intelligence ship, USS Liberty, severely crippling the vessel and inflicting 205 casualties including 34 deaths. The ship had been specifically identified as the USS Liberty earlier that morning after an Israeli Noratlas reconnaissance plane detected its hull number.36 But the vessel was then lost to follow up—in large measure because after the lapse of several hours, its position marker was taken off Naval Command’s situation map as being no longer accurate. Worse still, word of the ship’s sighting was not passed on at the ensuing shift change.37
In an unfortunate coincidence one hour later, a loud explosion at El Arish in Sinai (now held by Israeli forces) was mistaken for an Egyptian naval bombardment. At the time, all other U.S. naval vessels had withdrawn from the coast, but the Liberty acting under separate orders from the National Security Agency and Joint Chiefs of Staff, had failed to receive its orders to do likewise. Thus, it continued patrolling the coastal waters north of Sinai where Israeli torpedo boats, which had not been alerted to the possible presence of an American warship, now sighted it and mistook it for an Egyptian vessel.38 Acting in accordance with IDF Chief-of-Staff Yitzhak Rabin’s standing orders to sink all unidentified vessels in the war zone, the torpedo boats requested air force assistance. After two initial flyovers failed to discern friendly markings,39 the ship was attacked from the air. Later, the Israeli torpedo boats arrived on the scene to inflict more damage.
The first clue that a tragic mistake had been made was the recovery, by one of the torpedo boats, of a life raft from the Liberty that possessed a U.S. Naval insignia. Israel immediately offered apologies to the U.S. government and offered to pay compensation. The episode has become the subject of conspiracy theories and cover-up charges, but ten subsequent U.S. government (and three Israeli) investigations have failed to expose any evidence or motive to support the notion that the attack was anything but a terrible and unintentional blunder.40
Four months after the war, the navy suffered a humiliating setback. During a routine patrol along the Sinai coastline on October 21st, the destroyer Eilat, Israel’s flagship, discerned a flash of light from Egypt’s Port Said at the outlet of the Suez Canal. It was a Soviet-made Styx missile, and it found its mark in the Eilat’s stern. Some 15 minutes later a second missile found its target. The ship began to list. For two hours, Israeli sailors attempted to salvage the destroyer, but when a third Styx struck the vessel’s magazine, her captain issued the order to abandon ship. Within a quarter of an hour, the Eilat went to the bottom. A fourth of the crew were killed and fully half wounded in this sea-to-sea missile strike—the first ever in naval history.41
Three months later, disaster struck anew when the T-class submarine, Dakar, manned by a crew of 69, disappeared without a trace during its maiden voyage home after purchase in Great Britain. Its fate remained a mystery for 30 years until its wreckage was discovered on the ocean bottom, 1.8 miles down, off the island of Crete in 1999. The cause of the tragedy has never been determined.42
Despite these devastating reverses, new vistas were opening for Israel’s navy. Possession of the Sinai Peninsula with its extensive coastline promised a vast expansion in its scope of operations. Hoping to capitalize on this fact, Israel’s new naval chief, Avraham “Cheetah” Botzer, sought to enhance the navy’s relevance by realigning its mission in accordance with the needs of the other branches.43 Henceforth, the navy was to regard itself not as a separate entity, but as an integral part of the IDF. Reflective of the new outlook, it adopted IDF-style uniforms to replace its former navy attire and relocated “Naval Command” from Haifa to Tel Aviv where the rest of the IDF was headquartered.44
In order to patrol Sinai’s Mediterranean and Red Sea coastlines effectively, the navy needed to press ahead with procurement of the French-built, German designed missile boats that were to carry the new Gabriel missile. Known by the designation SA’AR (Hebrew for “Storm”45), the new boats were less than 1/10th the size of a destroyer.46 Hence, they were faster, more maneuverable and required far smaller crews (eliminating the risk of an Eilat-magnitude disaster should a single ship be lost). At the same time, the compact new missile system allowed them to pack a stronger punch, all at a fraction of the cost of a new destroyer.47
Unfortunately, there was a problem. Just prior to the Six Day War, the French government had placed an embargo on military sales to Israel in order to appease Arab sentiment. Two of the missile boats had already been delivered, and France allowed two more, which had been paid for while under construction, to sail for Israel after the war. But when Israel used French-made helicopters in a raid on Beirut Airport in retaliation for Palestinian terrorist attacks on Israeli planes (1968), President de Gaulle ordered a halt to all further deliveries. Alerted to the decision several days before the orders reached Cherbourg where the boats were under construction, Israel informed the port authorities that they would be running sea trials on two nearly complete boats on January 4, 1969. Unaware of de Gaulle’s decision, the port approved. Once out to sea, the boats simply kept going until they reached Haifa.48
As these vessels, too, had been purchased in advance, the action didn’t exactly constitute theft, but de Gaulle angrily declared that five boats still being built at Cherbourg—for which contracts had been signed replete with a 30% down-payment49—were not to reach Israel. Instead, they were resold to a Norwegian company involved in oil exploration off the coast of Alaska with Israel being reimbursed from the proceeds. The boats set sail from Cherbourg on Christmas Eve 1969 in the teeth of 30-foot waves and 70-knot winds. Two days later they were sighted off Gibraltar, where the British authorities effectively winked at them by signaling, “bon voyage” as they sailed past.50 On New Year’s Eve they arrived in Haifa. Though headed by a well-known Norwegian shipping agent, the Norwegian “company,” was actually a front for Israeli buyers, and the crewmen were actually Israeli sailors participating in Operation Noah to recover Israel’s contractual property.51
With the missile boats now on hand to fill the roles of attack and forward defense, the Israeli Navy rounded out its inventory upgrade by obtaining shallow-draught, U.S.-made Dabur (“hornet”) class patrol boats for coastal and rear defense and by incorporating landing craft (some of which were built domestically at Haifa’s “Israel Shipyards”) for amphibious operations carried out in cooperation with the IDF.52 Equipped with its new arsenal, Israel’s Navy was poised to sail into a new era.
1 This was Operation Boatswain—an attempt to sabotage the oil refineries in Tripoli (Samuel M. Katz, The Night Raiders: Israel’s Naval Commandos at War. New York: Pocket Books, 1997, 27-28).
2 J. Wandres, . The Ablest Navigator: Lieutenant Paul N. Shulman, USN, Israel’s Volunteer Admiral. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2010, 28.
3 Wandres, 14.
4 Wandres, 39.
5 The course was taught in English since Hebrew lacked naval terminology (Wandres, 58).
6 Mommsen, 22-23.
7 Mommsen, 28, 30.
8 A former Italian naval officer (and ex-Fascist), Fiorenzo Capriotti, trained the Palyam in the boats’ operation. (Katz, 60-61).
9 Moshe Tzalel, From Ice-Breaker to Missile Boat: The Evolution of Israel’s Naval Strategy. Contributions in Military Studies, Number 192. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2000, 10.
10 The name derived from the unit’s tradition of toasting its membership on the 13th of each month (Katz, 72-73).
11 Mommsen, 40.
12 After targeting the minesweeper and locking his rudder, Bin-Nun had trouble ejecting with his flotation device—finally exiting the boat under fire with only 40 meters to spare. He received the Medal of Valor for his role in the raid (Katz, 68-69; Abraham Rabinovich, The Boasts of Cherbourg. New York: Seaver Books, 1988, 24-25).
13 Mommsen, 29.
14 Wandres, 1-3; Mommsen, 40; Tzalel, 90. The reason the Al Emir Farouq had 500 men aboard was because it was transporting troops to the Gaza front (Katz, 69).
15 Wandres, 3.
16 Tzalel, 11.
17 Tzalel, 10.
18 Tzalel, 14.
19 After serving one year as naval Aluf, Shamir was given command of the air force.
20 Tzalel, 16-18; Mommsen, 44-46.
21 Also obtained was a small flotilla of torpedo boats, several WWII-surplus infantry landing craft and three small wooden Italian boats, which were carried overland across the Negev to Eilat to serve as the Israeli Navy in the Gulf of Aqaba (Mommsen, 52).
22 Mommsen, 46.
23 Mommsen, 67-68; Moshe Dayan, Diary of the Sinai Campaign, New York: Harper & Row, 1965, 110-14. On November 3, the IAF accidentally attacked a British frigate in the Gulf of Aqaba, mistaking it for an Egyptian ship that had been sunk by the British two days earlier. The Israelis lost a plane in the attack. (Mommsen, 69; Tzalel, 27)
24 Tzalel, 2, 93.
25 Mommsen, 77-78.
26 Mommsen, 81.
27 Mommsen, 79.
28 The name was suggested by a Canadian engineer, whose firm codenamed its war materiel after angels and Catholic saints (Rabinovich, 48).
29 Mommsen, 80; Rabinovich 37.
30 There was domestic opposition in Germany to the sale of weapons to Israel, so the German manufacturer subcontracted production to a French shipyard.
31 Mommsen, 52-53.
32 Katz, 93.
33 Mommsen, 85, 105-07; see also Tzalel, 101.
34 Mommsen, 113.
35 Mommsen, 107-111; Tzalel, 100.
36 Mommsen, 116; Tzalel, 144-45.
37 Tzalel, 145; Michael B. Oren, “The USS Liberty: Case Closed.” Originally published in Azure, Spring 5760 / 2000, No. 9. Accessed here November 19, 2013.
38 Oren, op cit.
39 Admiral Thomas Moorer of the U.S.N., would later express astonishment that Israeli pilots could not identify ships accurately, but in a prior exercise, this had been shown to be a distinct shortcoming of Israeli fighter pilots. (Tzalel, 147-48)
40 Mitchell Bard, Myths and Facts: A Guide to the Arab-Israeli Conflict. Chevy Chase: The American Israeli Cooperative Enterprise (AICE), 2002, 62-64; Oren, op cit.
41 Rabinovich, 5-9; Mommsen, 127-28; Tzalel, 108.
42 No distress call was ever received. Examination of the wreckage, which was discovered by Nauticos—the same company that located the wreckage of the Titanic— showed that the periscope was extended (indicating that the submarine was near the surface when the problem occurred). The hull, broken into two pieces, had imploded—evidence that the submarine broke apart under pressure (Mommsen, 144).
43 Tzalel, 43-44.
44 Mommsen, 152; Tzalel, 46-47. Naval Command did not relocate until 1972.
45 Rabinovich, 65.
46 The boats displaced 250 tons compared with 3,500 tons for the average destroyer (Rabinovich, 28).
47 Rabinovich, 28, 67.
48 Rabinovich, 13-20.
49 Rabinovich, 88.
50 Rabinovich, 151-52.
51 Mommsen, 137-42. France had considered bombing the vessels after they were sighted off Gibraltar, but as this technically would have been an act of war, they dropped the idea.
52 Mommsen, 145-46.
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