The story of the "stealing" of the five Israeli missile boats - which had already been paid for - from the French shipyard of Cherbourg at the end of 1969 is one of great daring, resourcefulness, drama, and ingenuity. Few condemned Israel in the world arena at that time - the massive condemnation Israel was to endure in the world arena came mainly in the wake of Israel's victory in the 1973 War.
The Cherbourg boats were, in Israeli military thinking, essential for the modernization of her navy and the security of the state. The point was vividly brought home one day in October 1967 - a few months after Israel's lightning victory in June.
It was a Saturday, at 5:20 p.m., and the War of Attrition, (which we discussed to a certain extent last week), was already in full gear (although the worst fighting occurred in 1969-70). Israeli Brigadier-General Alex Argov was captain of an Israeli-converted vintage World War II British Destroyer, formerly known by the British as HMS Zealous. During World War II the ship "had accompanied British convoys to Russia bearing vital wartime supplies over one of the stretches of water in the war to assist Russia" to survive their common enemy after June 1941, Hitler's Germany. In the 1940's HMS Zealous was a formidable ship. The Israelis had purchased her and renamed the ship the Eilat.
If the Israeli Navy had been debating whether to upgrade her fleet or not, the events of October 21, 1967 definitely influenced her thinking. On that day, as the Eilat was 14 miles off of Egypt's Port Said, two Russian-built Egyptian missile boats lay in wait armed with Styx missiles. The Egyptians had been tracking the Eilat all day with Russian advisers aboard. Only when the Russians were convinced that they could hit the Eilat did they permit the Egyptian seamen to fire on the Israeli ship.
Brigadier-General Argov had to make a quick decision as "Something in the sky caught his eye and he looked up. Two balls of fire hung momentarily at their zenith high on the horizon before making what appeared to be a slow descent down into the Mediterranean." Captain Argov knew he was looking at incoming missiles and with "a sickening sense of dread pressed the general alarm." There were 191 Israeli officers and men aboard the ship, and they began firing at will. It was useless. The two missiles struck the Eilat and nearly split the ship in two. The men struggled to keep the ship seaworthy for the next two hours, increasingly to little avail. Two hours later another missile hit the ship.
Captain Argov gave the order to abandon ship. A fourth and last missile fired at the ship hit the water, and the underwater shock waves injured many of the survivors.
Somehow, of the 190 sailors aboard the Eilat, 152 survived. Of them, 41 were wounded. Forty-seven Israeli sailors were killed.
The sinking of the Eilat was not highly publicized at the time, for reasons of prestige, but its impact was enormous. It galvanized the Israeli Navy into seeking out more and better naval craft, more suited to the modern conditions of missile combat. The day of the great warship - for the Israelis at least (but not for the Great Powers) - was over. Israel would be looking for small and efficient ships able to patrol her shores and undertake offshore operations at high speed, while at the same time able to evade enemy tracking and missiles as much as possible. The new ships would also have to have more offensive capabilities than they previously had - namely, the new generation of ships would need to be equipped with missiles.
The West had few boats of the kind Israel was looking for, "so the Israelis began designing their own boats. These were to be fast and maneuverable, and packed full of on-board instrumentation." The boats were originally supposed to be built in Germany, and indeed production did begin. The Germans were already building the most advanced missile craft until then, called the Jaguar, and the Israelis thought it could be a good match. Israel was also developing her Gabriel missile, which would be perfect for the fast-moving Jaguar missile boats. "The Gabriel missile had an advantage over its Soviet counterparts in its ability to fly low over the sea after launching, and thus avoid detection by radar."
Accordingly, in late 1962 Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion sent Deputy Defense Minister Shimon Peres to Germany, "where he met Chancellor Adenauer. Adenauer had agreed to supply Israel with arms as part of an attempt to make reparations for Germany's crimes against world Jewry, and now he signed an agreement as requested to supply Israel with twelve of the Jaguar vessels." They were to be built in German shipyards but Adenauer asked that the deal remain secret, so as not to incur the wrath of Arab countries should they find out.
By the end of 1964 three of the twelve missile boats had been built and delivered from Germany to Israel. But a German member of the government leaked news of the deal to the New York Times at that time. He apparently still harbored Nazi sympathies and did not wish to help Israel.
When the news appeared the Arabs were enraged, and Germany caved in to Arab threats of economic sanctions, and even a boycott, of German goods.
The Germans, however, agreed that the boats could be constructed elsewhere. The Israelis gave the work to Cherbourg shipyards in the southern coast of France. Thus there was little damage incurred by the German renunciation of their agreement to build the boats, other than a lingering feeling that the Germans should have been more considerate of Israeli sensibilities than Arab ones.
In the mid 1960's the French were supplying Israel with perhaps three quarters of Israel's arms. It made good sense to work with the French, and it also gave a boost to Cherbourg's under-employed work force. For the time being everyone was happy.
The Cherbourg shipyard workers had little experience of building ships of this kind, but with the German designs and the Israelis on hand, they were able to begin construction of the ships. The Gabriel missiles were being built simultaneously in Israel - and they would cost more than the ships themselves.
Within a few months "over 200 Israelis were living and working in the port town of Cherbourg." Many of them were French speakers - often Israelis who were born in and emigrated from the French provinces of Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco. The Israelis, with linguistic and cultural affinity with their French hosts, fitted into their surroundings smoothly.
Brigadier General Mordecai Limon oversaw the Cherbourg Project. Limon had served in the Palmach during World War II, and later served in the British Army, where both Palestinian Jews and the British temporarily found a confluence of interests. After the war ended in 1945, Limon participated in the Haganah's naval group running the British blockade of Palestine. He was involved in many daring and courageous operations, and by 1950, when he was only 26, he was "made commander-in-chief of Israel's…navy." Four years later he left the navy in order to study for a Business Degree at Columbia University in New York. With a business background now under his belt, he "played a vital role in Israel's attempts to modernize its armed forces in the late 50's and early 60's."
The first boat to leave Cherbourg did so in April 1967 (it was the fourth ship overall to arrive in Israel, including the three ships delivered from Germany already), and the second left about a month later.
These boats arrived too late to be armed and of use during the Six-Day War of June 1967. But that was inconsequential. An event was to occur soon after with much greater implications. On June 2, 1967, just a few days before Israel's preemptive strike on Egyptian airfields on June 5, 1967, French President Charles de Gaulle declared that France would no longer supply weapons of "offensive nature" to the Middle East - which basically meant Israel. On the eve of war, Israel was cut suddenly cut off from her major source of arms.
This event may have hastened Israel's decision to make a preemptive strike, in that a hoped-for quick end to the war would not obviate the need for spare parts and a resupply of weapons from the French - which would not be forthcoming.
Mordecai Limon headed an Israeli delegation to Paris "which argued furiously with the (French) government in an effort to get them to honor their commitments." But the French would not. With the end of the war with Algeria and the French withdrawal from her former Arabic-speaking provinces in North Africa a few short years before the 1967 War, France was interested in rebuilding her relations with Arab states and assuring a free supply of oil and economic concessions in the Middle East. Israel only figured into their calculations negatively.
But no one seemed to have noticed the embargo in Cherbourg. Two more boats sailed for Israel in the Fall of 1967. But things took a turn for the worse. On December 26, 1967, Palestinians attacked an Israeli aircraft at Athens airport. In retaliation, two days later Israeli commandos attacked Beirut airport and blew up 13 Lebanese aircraft on the ground.
French Premier de Gaulle was enraged. He "declared that the French arms embargo would now be total." This meant the Cherbourg boats too.
Mordecai Limon immediately sent Defense Minister Moshe Dayan news of the total embargo. Dayan was one of the many who were deeply disappointed by the change of relations between de Gaulle and Israel. In the 1950's, Dayan had agreed with Ben-Gurion when he called de Gaulle "'a true friend, a true ally.'" De Gaulle "had sent Dayan a personal letter of congratulations on his book The Sinai Campaign 1956."
Now de Gaulle was refusing to remove the embargo from the boats that had already been paid for by Israel.
Three more missile boats were almost complete in Cherbourg Harbor. On January 4, 1969, a week after de Gaulle made news with his announcement of the complete embargo on weapons bound for Israel, small crews made their way onto the boats. The Israeli crews spent three hours getting them ready. When all was set, they "raised the Israeli flag and set off. No one challenged them. They simply sailed into the English Channel and never returned."
The French Minister of Defense demanded to know what had become of the ships. Mordecai Limon responded: "'They were given orders to sail to Haifa. They belong to us.'" President de Gaulle was furious. So were others in the French Cabinet. But they got little help from the locals in the French coastal town of Cherbourg. "In Cherbourg, naval authorities and customs men simply shrugged their shoulders. By an extraordinary coincidence, no one seemed to have read a newspaper, watched television or listened to a radio during the preceding days. Said one of the local people: 'We did not know anything of the embargo.'" Israel was lucky to have made some firm friends among the local population.
Officials in Cherbourg "claimed that they first heard of the embargo in a letter of instructions received from Paris on (January) 6th - 2 days after the boats had left. They produced documents and a statement from the post office supporting their claims." They said something must have been wrong with the postal service.
While accusations flew between the government in Paris and the locals in Cherbourg, construction continued on the last five missile boats "as if nothing had happened." Still, French naval and customs authorities were bothered by claims of negligence and kept a sharp eye on the last remaining boats.
In the summer of 1969, Mordecai Limon, still in France, "renounced all further Israeli interest in the boats and opened negotiations with regard to compensation." But the Israelis purposely quibbled over details of the negotiations for months. Meanwhile, construction of the boats continued, and an Israeli team remained in Cherbourg.
The Israelis, of course, had no intention of renouncing their boats, and had every every intention of getting them. The question was how to do so - and legally, because Israel did not want to worsen the already aggravated relations between France and herself over the issue.
On the other hand, the War of Attrition was by then in full swing, and the Egyptians had no difficulty in obtaining advanced armaments from the Russians. Meanwhile, 5 missile boats remained in Cherbourg Harbor, and Israeli pre-paid orders for Mirage aircraft went unfulfilled.
Israel decided to get the boats, but in a way the French would not suspect.
In November 1969 a man named Martin Siem came to visit Felix Amiot, the French supervisor of the missile boats in Cherbourg, and expressed an interest in purchasing the boats. He presented himself as a Norwegian shipping owner, who was involved in oil exploration off the coast of Alaska. He claimed his company was based in Panama.
The two quickly closed the deal, and the French government approved it.
Government officials didn't check the deal as clearly as they might have. The Panamanian-based Norwegian firm had in fact only been created a few weeks before. Martin Siem, who was in truth a very big shipping magnate in Norway, was friends with an Israeli shipping magnate named Mila Brenner. Brenner persuaded Siem to work as a front man on behalf of Israel.
It seems quite likely that the French ministerial committee assigned to examine all French arms exports must have contained at least one, if not several, people who were sympathetic to Israel and were willing to help her get the missile boats. This would seem to be so because the cover story Israel used seemed highly improbable. But "there was nothing the Israelis could think of which would make more sense." As Stewart Steven writes: "These were missile boats, and there was no way that fact could be disguised."
But the French were apparently eager to get rid of these boats and their problems quickly, and at the same time they would be paid enough to cover the costs of repaying Israel. Moreover, there was even a clause in the contract that affirmed that the boats could not be re-exported. From the French point of view, this meant the boats would not find their way into Israeli hands.
Young sailors began arriving in Cherbourg. It was explained to the locals that they were Norwegians, part of the team that had purchased the ships, which also explained why so many were blonde-haired and blue-eyed. The fifty or so young men were in fact Israelis, perhaps with backgrounds in Nordic countries, but Israelis nevertheless.
Meanwhile, about 70 other Israelis remained in Cherbourg. No one seemed to question their presence. They even reserved space at a local restaurant for a festive meal on Christmas Eve - so as to give the impression that they weren't going anywhere.
The Mossad plan was to take the boats on Christmas Eve, when all of France would be celebrating and it seemed very unlikely that many people would be paying attention to the goings-on at Cherbourg Harbor.
Cherbourg residents began to get used to the "Norwegians" and the more veteran Israelis as well. Even so, there was some odd behavior a discerning citizen could recognize. As Dennis Eisenberg, Uri Dan, and Eli Landau write in The Mossad: Inside Stories, some locals "noticed that some of the 'Norwegians' were such accomplished linguists that they included Hebrew among their repertoire of languages." The 'Norwegians', as we saw, were really Israelis.
Ezra Kedem, a naval officer who had been involved with the taking of three of the Cherbourg boats in January 1969, was there again in December. He scanned the harbor and the sea beyond with high-powered binoculars. He peered at the two channels used by ships coming to or leaving Cherbourg. The more commonly used western channel was 65 feet deep. The eastern channel was used less often, "not only because it was narrower than the other, but because of the unstable submerged rocks which had accumulated in it for years." The Israelis had used this channel when taking out the three boats in January. Radar was unable to detect every nuance of that channel - a fact Ezra Kedem knew from his conversations with the French authorities.
The Israelis would use the same channel again this time.
By late afternoon, about 20 Israeli sailors were aboard each of the five boats. But a storm had arisen and a strong wind was blowing. These were bad conditions for any ship, but even more so for the missile boats, which were not designed for such conditions. But there was no choice. They had to sail that night.
As the engines started up around 9 p.m., seats reserved for 70 Israelis at the local restaurant we mentioned above remained unfilled, and the meals uneaten.
French Intelligence had noticed the many unwarranted coincidences in the previous few weeks, but either they or their superiors decided not to take action against the Israelis. At some point on the night of December 24/25, 1969, the five missile boats engined their way out of the harbor into the English Channel.
Two men came to watch the last boats leave Cherbourg. One was Mordecai Limon. The other was Felix Amiot, the French supervisor of the construction of the ships at Cherbourg. He had concealed it, but he had known about the Israeli operation from the beginning.
Amiot was not the only one who participated in this "conspiracy of silence." In a "dockside cafe, the barman remarked to customers huddled over their glasses of red wine: 'I see the Norwegians have left for Alaska.' His audience roared with laughter."
On December 26 local and then international news picked up wind of the story. The French government soon knew what had happened and were furious again. But with the boats on the high seas already, they recognized there was little they could do. Nevertheless, the French Foreign Minister, Maurice Schumann, did summon two Israeli diplomats to his office in the Quai D'Orsay. He had just returned from a tour of Algeria "where he had promised friendly relations and large supplies of armaments in return for Arab oil." And then the Israelis took the Cherbourg boats. Schumann was sure that the Arabs would see it as French collusion in the matter, and he felt humiliated. He warned the Israeli diplomats that if the boats did show up in Israel, "the consequences will be very grave indeed…"
The Israeli government did not accept direct responsibility at first. The boats did receive attention on the high seas however, as the sailors aboard viewed a myriad of French Mirages flying overhead. Later they encountered American and even Soviet ships. But the boats motored on to Israel unimpeded. As the ships approached the shores of Israel, an escort of Israeli fighter planes accompanied them.
They were safe then, and they were received with public jubilation when they arrived in Israel.
There were repercussions in France. Mordecai Limon, who had lived in France for 7 years, was asked to leave. Two French generals were dismissed from their posts for their part in approving the sale of the missile boats to the fictitious Norwegian/Panamanian firm. Felix Amiot was blamed for his part in the affair, but he vigorously defended himself. "'Security is not my problem. My job was to build ships. I got along very well with the Israelis, but as far as I know that is not a crime.'"
The citizens of Cherbourg continued to keep quiet about the whole affair. And their silence - which the French government was well aware of - was a boon to Israel, for without it she may never have gotten the boats of Cherbourg.
Ian Black and Benny Morris - Israel's Secret Wars: A History of Israel's Intelligence Services
Dennis Eisenberg, Uri Dan, and Eli Landau - The Mossad: Inside Stories
Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman - Every Spy a Prince: The Complete History of Israel's Intelligence Community.
Stewart Steven - The Spymasters of Israel