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Yom Kippur – less-known: In 1st missile battle at sea in 1973, Israeli craft evaded Soviet-made missiles

The passport control officer at Orly Airport glanced at the Israeli passport handed him and then at the line of young men in blue windbreakers waiting their turn. The man opposite him was also wearing a blue windbreaker.

“What kind of group is this?” asked the officer.

“Students.”

“Come off it,” said the Frenchman, who assumed that the bronzed and purposeful faces in the line were not for cloistered studies destined. “Are you military?”

Even more startling than the question was the language in which it was asked — Hebrew.

“No, why do you ask?”

“Because you’re all wearing the same windbreakers and you’ve all got fresh haircuts.” Nodding at several other Israelis who had just passed through and were waiting near the exit, he added: “And all your passports are numbered consecutively.”

The Israeli, agitated, called to the men at the exit. “Leave the airport.” There was a chance, he thought, that some might get away before the gendarmes closed in.

The passport officer calmed him with an upraised palm. “Take it easy,” he said. “You’ve done nothing illegal.” He identified himself as a Moroccan-born Jew who had lived for some years in Israel. “But you ought to tell your superiors about this.”

Had the Mossad been involved, such mistakes would doubtless have been avoided, but the navy was unschooled in semi-clandestine crossings far from the sea.

The men were among 100 naval personnel — most just a couple of years out of high school — being sent to the port of Cherbourg to run off with five boats embargoed by the French. They were to be hidden below decks by maintenance crews stationed there until the boats sailed.

The vessels were the last of 12 “patrol boats” ordered by Israel from a local shipyard. Seven had already reached Israel over the previous two years but French President Charles de Gaulle, seeking closer ties with the Arab world, seized on an Israeli commando raid on Beirut Airport to embargo the last five. Prime Minister Golda Meir rejected the navy’s proposal to just run off with the boats one night. Nothing illegal must be done, she said, that might give France a reason to sever relations.

Admiral (ret.) Mordecai Limon, head of Israel’s military purchasing mission in Paris, argued that legality in this instance was an arbitrary term. Israel had purchased the boats in good faith while the French government was undoing a legal contract to promote geopolitical objectives. Limon proposed cloaking the getaway with a veneer of legality, leaving behind a fait accompli for lawyers to argue about to their hearts’ content after the boats had sailed. After being convinced that the boats were truly needed, Meir gave her consent.

Limon, a former commander of the Israeli navy, flew to meet Martin Siemm, owner of a large Norwegian shipbuilding company. An underground leader during World War II, Siemm had been recommended to Limon by a mutual friend as a friend of Israel. Meeting in an airport restaurant, Limon described Israel’s quandary regarding the boats. A possible solution, he said, would be for Israel to sell the boats to a foreign entity, or at least be seen to sell them, and then to discreetly reclaim them. Would Siemm agree to be party to such a scenario? “Give me 48 hours,” said Siemm. When he called Limon in Paris it was with a positive response.

Limon chose Christmas eve for the breakout when alertness in the port would be minimal. Two hours after midnight mass, the Cherbourg boats, as they came to be known, slipped past the harbor’s breakwater into a Force Nine gale roiling the English Channel. Pursuit in this weather was unlikely. As the boats turned south, the land mass of England shielded them from the full force of the storm. But as they emerged into the open Bay of Biscay, mountainous waves came at them from the west where the storm had been raging for days in the Atlantic. Captain Hadar Kimche, commanding the operation, ordered that no one venture onto deck unless secured by a line. Some bridge officers lashed themselves to their seats.

The mad roller coaster continued as Christmas day dawned. As the boats rose higher towards the crest of a wave, a huge green wave would lunge from behind and crash just astern. Then the descent began, a stomach-turning downward rush in which the helmsman could feel the wheel reluctant to respond. When the boat plunged into the bottom of the trough, the surging sea brimmed the deck and seemed about to pull the boat under. Then the vessel would somehow break loose and begin the agonizing climb again. For the men on the bridge it was an extraordinary and frightening sight. Below decks the crew could feel the boat shudder and wondered whether it would rise up again. Except for an occasional terse order and the noise of the engines there was total silence.

Kimche stood on the bridge of the lead vessel with a stopwatch adjusting the boat’s speed. If it descended a wave too rapidly, the prow could be thrust into the trough and control lost. If it was too slow climbing out, tons of water would crash upon its stern. Kimche had hoped to sail at 30 knots, but finally settled for an average speed of 18. Constant orders from the bridge required quick responses from the engine room. The crewmen, almost all seasick, worked steadily but kept buckets close to hand.

Anchored in a sheltered bay on Portugal’s southern coast, Capt. Amnon Tadmor, master of the freighter Lea, told his chief mate that he would not have taken his ship to sea in this weather even though it was many times the size of the Cherbourg boats; if he was already out, he said, he would have sought shelter. The Lea was the first of a string of Israeli merchantmen that the navy had deployed along the boats’ 3,500-mile escape route in order to refuel them and otherwise provide assistance. First contact from the boats came at dusk on December 26, in a message from Kimche asking Tadmor to confirm his position. Four hours later Tadmor saw them rounding the corner of the bay, five small boats showing only navigation lights and moving fast.

In the post-Christmas torpor, France was slow to realize that the boats were no longer there. Officials were not immediately concerned because Limon had sent copies of documents to the relevant authorities showing that Israel had renounced its claims to the boats in return for the money it had paid the shipyard, effectively negating the embargo The authorities also received documents from the owner of the shipyard, who was party to Limon’s plot, and from Siemm (both letters drafted by Limon) showing that the Norwegian had purchased the boats from the shipyard to service offshore oil rigs. Two days before Christmas, the three men met in Paris to sign a new set of documents undoing all they had agreed to in the earlier documents and restoring the status quo ante. In other words, Israel still legally owned the boats. These documents were not sent to the French authorities.

As the media got its teeth into the story of the missing Israeli patrol boats rumors began circulating; the boats were headed for Oslo, for Israel, for Alaska, even for Panama (a Panamanian law firm had drawn up documents creating a fictitious Norwegian company that was ostensibly involved in the sale).

The Norwegian government, fearful of the impact on the Arab world where Norwegian oil tankers were widely used, publicly refuted any connection to the missing boats. As the Israeli ruse became clear, the French defense minister urged that the air force “interdict” the fleeing boats but cooler heads prevailed. (Polls showed that a large majority of the French public applauded Israel for pulling it off.) “Where are they?” asked a chipper banner headline in one of Cherbourg’s dailies. As the story took on momentum, television teams flew out over the Mediterranean and the North Sea to look for the boats.

On New Year’s eve, 1970, the boats arrived in Haifa bay to the sound of celebratory sirens from vessels in the harbor and cheers from the crowds on shore.

Most Israelis today probably remember the escape, if at all, as a “cheeky caper,” in the words of a British newspaper at the time. But the public would remain unaware of a broader context — the boats’ role in a bold project that would transform naval warfare.

It had begun a decade before when Israel’s Defense Ministry rejected the navy’s request for funds to update its aging fleet. Israel’s wars, the ministry said, would be decided by tanks and planes, not ships. In a desperate bid to remain relevant, the navy command decided to explore development of a new kind of warship — small, affordable boats armed with missiles. Heavy guns could not be placed on small boats because of their recoil, but missiles had no recoil. Their warheads, on the other hand, could pack as much punch as those of a heavy warship. Furthermore, if the missile was guided by radar it could pursue its prey and thus be more accurate than shellfire.

As persuasive as these arguments were, there was one formidable counter-argument — such boats did not exist in any Western navy; nor did sea-to-sea missiles. The navy nevertheless decided to pursue the idea despite its lack of an innovative tradition. A think tank made up of naval officers as well as experts from Israel’s fledgling military industries, particularly Israel Aircraft Industries, began to discuss the concept. Before long the concept evolved into a project involving hundreds of engineers, scientists, naval architects and others.

Admiral Shlomo Erell, the commander of the navy, was the driving force behind the project, a forerunner of Israel’s emergence as the “startup nation.” The intensity was unrelenting. Twelve to 14 hour working days were common and for a period, key personnel worked every day of the year except Yom Kippur. The innocuous-looking boats that had fled Cherbourg — together with the seven which had preceded them — would be converted in Haifa into the first missile boats in the west.

Midway through the project Israel learned that the Soviet Union had also developed missile boats, and had begun distributing them to Egypt and Syria. Israel had little information about them but was inclined to skepticism about the accuracy of the Soviet sea-to-sea missile, the Styx, because the Soviet Union had been laggard in the development of radar in the Second World War. Four months after the Six Day War, the Israeli flagship, the destroyer Eilat, was on routine patrol off Sinai when an Egyptian missile boat emerged from Port Said and fired four missiles from a distance of 13 kilometers. Three hit; the fourth missed only because there was nothing remaining on the surface to hit. Of the Eilat’s 200-man crew, 47 were killed and 100 wounded. The Eilat was the first vessel ever sunk by a missile.

Admiral Erell asked his chief electronics officer, Capt. Herut Tsemach, whether anything could be done to block the Styx. Tsemach estimated what his opposite number in the Soviet fleet headquarters in Leningrad had likely put radar into the design of the Styx. On the basis of this educated guess, he shaped electronic and other counter-measures aimed at diverting incoming missiles. His systems were installed on the Israeli boats but their efficacy could be determined only in a real-time confrontation.

This would come on the first night of the Yom Kippur War. Four Israeli missile boats were approaching the Syrian port of Latakia when three Syrian missile boats emerged. The Styx had twice the range of Israel’s Gabriel missile and the Syrians duly got in the first volleys. Israeli bridge officers could see fireballs arc into the sky and then descend directly towards them. In the final seconds, the fireballs appeared to wobble and then exploded in the sea. The Israeli boats closed to Gabriel range and sank two of the Syrian boats with missiles. The captain of the third Syrian vessel, out of missiles, beached his boat and managed to escape with his crew but the vessel was set ablaze by gunfire. Two other Syrian warships — a torpedo boat and a minelayer — were also sunk.

Sailing back to Haifa after the battle, the flotilla commander, Capt. Michael Barkai, decided to forego tying brooms to the mast in the traditional naval symbol of a “clean sweep.” They had left a lot of Syrian sailors at the bottom of the sea, he told his men. To flaunt victory “wouldn’t be respectful to them or to ourselves.”

Two nights later, a similar scenario was played out on the approaches to Alexandria, with three Egyptian missile boats sunk. From the next morning until the end of the war, two weeks later, the Arab fleets did not venture out of harbor, leaving the sea lanes to Haifa open to vital cargos.

The Israeli missile boats — the five Cherbourg boats and their seven sisters — came through the war intact despite the 54 Styx missiles fired at them.

Capt. Tsemach, whose electronic umbrella had proved decisive, would say that the first missile-boat battle in history, the one off Latakia, deserved ranking with the battles of Midway and Trafalgar in the annals of naval warfare, small in scale and strategically marginal as it was.

Israel, whose population at the time was three million — half that of New York City — had bested the weapon system of a superpower and fundamentally changed the way battles at sea are fought.

Last Christmas day, naval veterans who had participated in the escape from Cherbourg gathered in an auditorium near Haifa to mark the 50th anniversary of the event. Among them was their commander, Hadar Kimche, who had retired as an admiral, and the son of Admiral Limon, who died in 2009. Also present were several hundred veterans who participated in the battles at sea during the Yom Kippur War.

Header: The crew of a missile boat at sea during the Yom Kippur War, October 11, 1973. (Alon Reininger/GPO)

Author: ABRAHAM RABINOVICH – TOI