The officers arriving at Israeli naval headquarters atop Haifa’s Mount Carmel in late 1961 had been summoned to a two-day brainstorming session. There was only one item on the agenda presented to them by the navy commander, Admiral Yohai Bin-Nun – how to reconstitute the navy as a fighting force and prevent its downgrading to a coast guard.
The fleet was a collection of World War II castoffs, even including a former icebreaker. The Defense Ministry was unwilling to expend its limited budget on new ships. The country’s security plainly rested on the Air Force and Armored Corps, not the Navy. If the Navy could not make do with the starvation budget allocated to it, then it would be restricted to coastal defense and protection of the sea lanes would be left to the Air Force.
Bin-Nun opened the floor to suggestions. From the welter of ideas that were put forward, one floated to the surface at the end of the session. It was an unprecedented proposal, an extravagant gamble, but the only one that offered a chance of answering the navy’s needs at minimal costs.
Israel’s fledgling military industries has produced a missile for the Artillery Corps which could be guided onto target by a forward observer using a joystick. The Artillery Corps turned it down; the Air Force was also not interested. One of the officers at Bin-Nun’s meeting suggested adapting the missile for use at sea. If it could be mounted on patrol boats, which were cheap enough for the navy to afford, it would give these small vessels the punch of a heavy cruiser.
Missile boats did not at the time exist anywhere in the world. Supported by Israel’s military industries, which were eager to sink their teeth and their development budgets into a cutting edge weapon system, the navy began a development project which would continue for a decade, virtually round the clock, including for some key personnel on Yom Kippur. One team of officers visited navies in Europe and the United States in search of a fast and sturdy patrol boat suitable as a platform for missiles. It found what it was looking in Germany, a World War II design still in service – “made for war” the search team reported. An order was placed with a Cherbourg shipyard to construct twelve of these “patrol boats”, as they were termed. They would be converted to missile boats, an extremely complex and innovative process, only after their arrival in Israel.
The Navy experienced repeated failures trying to guide the missile onto target at sea with a joystick. A brilliant engineer finally came up with the idea of placing a radar on the missile itself and using an altimeter so as to enable it to home on enemy vessels while skimming the sea surface.
Midway through the project, the Navy learned that the Soviets had also developed a missile boat and had provided dozens to the Egyptian and Syrian navies. The Soviet missile, the Styx, had a 45 kilometer range, more than twice that of the Israeli Gabriel. To overcome that serious handicap, the navy’s chief electronic officer devised electronic countermeasures that he hoped would permit the Israeli boats to deceive or confuse the Styx radar. To do this, he had to guess the likely parameters of the radar his counterparts in the Soviet admiralty in Leningrad would have put into the Styx. He could not know if he had guessed right until the test of war.
Seven of the boats built in Cherbourg had already sailed for Israel when French President Charles de Gaulle imposed an embargo on the sale of French military equipment to the Middle East, an act aimed mainly at Israel. The head of the Israeli Defense Ministry procurement mission in Paris, Admiral (ret.) Mordecai (Mocca) Limon, was determined to get the remaining five boats out despite the Israeli government’s reluctance to get into a diplomatic tangle with France. Limon was a former commander of the Israeli navy. Employing an elaborate ruse, and with the secret support of mid-level French officials sympathetic to Israel, he prepared the boats’ breakout.
Meeting with a prominent Norwegian oilman, a wartime resistance fighter sympathetic to Israel, he obtained his agreement to set up a dummy company in Oslo to which the five remaining boats could be fictitiously sold. Fearful that the dubious legality of the deal would become known when examined closely, Limon decided that the boats would be extracted secretly on Christmas eve 1969 when alertness of harbor security would be minimal. In the days before, Israeli sailors were flown in small groups to Paris in civilian clothes and made their way to Cherbourg by train to flesh out the skeleton crews already there. The new arrivals were hidden below decks.
Israel staked out a 3,000-kilometer escape route, with commercial freighters posted in the Bay of Biscay and along the Mediterranean Sea as backups. Some of the ships were specially fitted out to refuel the runaway boats, others were positioned for rescue operations should the small craft encounter difficulties.
The commander of the boats in Cherbourg, Capt. Hadar Kimche, planned to cast off as Cherbourg’s residents were having their Christmas eve dinner. But a storm churning up the English Channel had turned into a Force 9 gale, sending even sizeable freighters scurrying for harbor. The other captains joined him on his bridge as he monitored the BBC and French radio stations for weather indicators. Limon, who was to remain behind, joined them as they waited. One of the French shipyard executives, who was in collusion with the Israelis, went to midnight mass in town and prayed that the Israelis reach safe harbor.
Finally, at 2 a.m., the BBC reported the wind shifting from west to northwest, which would put the wind at their back. Kimche ordered his captains to cast off. Limon descended to the pier and watched the boats slowly pull out in line. Standing nearby was a sobbing local girl who had learned that her Israeli sailor was leaving.
The boats moved through towering seas and at times lost each other but all joined up off the coast of Portugal. Because of Christmas, their departure was noticed only two days after their departure by a local journalist. When the flight of the boats became known, the cheeky caper became an international sensation. Some television crews flew out over the Mediterranean in search of the fleeing boats. Others flew north, thinking they might be on the way to Norway. The false leads planted by Limon also mentioned Alaska and Panama as possible destinations. The furious French defense minister proposed at a cabinet meeting that the Air Force “interdict” them but Prime Minister Pompidou calmed him down. As the five vessels passed Gibraltar, the British naval post atop the rock signalled “What ship?” Kimche did not respond but the British, ever appreciative of the Nelsonian spirit, signalled “bon voyage.” The boats linked up with refueling vessels in hidden coves. As they reached Crete, a flight of Israeli Phantom Jets roared low overhead, wagging their wings in welcome.
The Navy now began the arduous process of fitting out the 12 vessels as missile boats and devising an operational system and tactics for a totally new kind of naval warfare – as innovative as the first use of ironclads or the first modern naval guns. Full scale maneuvers of the missile boat flotilla were held for the first time at the beginning of October, 1973. The vessels returned to Haifa on the eve of Yom Kippur. The next day war broke out.
Kimche’s successor as flotilla commander, Commander Michael Barkai, led five boats north on the first night to the Syrian coast off Latakia. The feisty officer told his men that if the enemy missile boats did not come out of harbor to fight, the Israeli boats would go in after them. Three Syrian missile boats emerged and the first-ever missile battle at sea commenced. The Syrians fired first. The sailors on the Israeli vessels could see large fireballs rise into the sky and head in their direction. In Haifa, the naval command heard the flotilla commander report that the Syrians had launched their missiles and that the Israeli boats had raised their electronic umbrella. For two minutes, the radio was silent.
Then the report: “Missiles in the water.” The electronic counter-measures had worked.
The Israeli boats opened full throttle and closed to Gabriel range. Two of the Syrian boats were sunk by Gabriels; the third deliberately beached itself and was destroyed by gunfire. Two nights later, the story was repeated off the Egyptian coast – Egyptian missile boats firing the first salvo and turning immediately back towards harbor. The missiles were deflected and the Israeli boats took up pursuit. Three Egyptian boats were sunk, no Israeli boats were hit.
From that point, the Arab navies did not venture out of their harbors. More than 100 cargo vessels would reach Haifa safely during the war with much needed cargos. A new era of naval warfare had dawned.
Abraham Rabinovich, The Boats of Cherbourg: The Navy That Stole Its Own Boats & Revolutionized Naval Warfare. Naval Institute Press, 1997.
[Revised eBook Edition Published 2013]