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Operation Damocles

Today, one of the principal concerns of the Israeli government is the threat of missile attacks from Hamas in Gaza or Hezbollah in Lebanon. The danger from rockets is not new, however, having first emerged in July 1962 when Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser announced four successful tests of missiles capable of striking anywhere in Israel.

Egypt’s announcement came as a surprise and Israel subsequently learned that Nasser had recruited German scientists who had developed the V1 and V2 rockets the Nazis fired at Great Britain during the war to build missiles for him. According to Otto Joklik, an Austrian scientist involved with the project, based in a secret desert facility known as Factory 333, the rockets being developed were programmed to use a radioactive waste.

Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion tasked the Mossad with the mission of preventing Egypt from producing the missiles. The Mossad subsequently commenced Operation Damocles to scare and, if necessary, eliminate the scientists helping the Egyptians.

In September 1962, Heinz Krug, head of a Factory 333 shell company called Intra, vanished in Munich. The Mossad set up a sting involving a former SS officer and war hero named Otto Skorzeny who Krug was led to believe would help keep him and the other scientists safe. Instead, Skorzeny killed Krug and a team of Israeli agents poured acid on his body and buried his remains in the forest outside Munich. The leader of the Mossad team was Yitzhak Shamir, the head of the special operations unit and later prime minister.

In November, two parcel bombs arrived at the office of the missile project’s director, Wolfgang Pilz, maiming his secretary and killing five Egyptian workers. In February 1963, another scientist, Hans Kleinwachter, escaped an ambush in Switzerland. That April, two Mossad agents in Basel threatened to kill the project manager Paul Goerke and his daughter. A pistol was fired at a West German professor who was researching electronics for Egypt in the town of Lörrach.

Two Mossad agents, Joseph Ben-Gal, an Israeli, and Otto Joklik, Austrian, were arrested in Switzerland for threatening Goerke’s daughter. The subsequent publicity caused a scandal and threatened the diplomatic effort underway to improve relations between Israel and West Germany.

According to Ronen Bergman, the Israelis told the West German government about Factory 333 and the Germans offered the scientists jobs in Germany. “Nearly all the scientists accepted—perhaps in fear for their lives—and Egypt abandoned its plot.”

Ben-Gurion halted the operation and Mossad director Isser Harel resigned. His replacement, Meir Amit, claimed Harel had overestimated the danger to Israel posed by Egypt’s missile program.

Sources: Ronen Bergman, “Killing the Killers,” Newsweek, (December 13, 2010);
Yossi Melman, “Targeted Killings - a Retro Fashion Very Much in Vogue,” Haaretz, (March 24, 2004);
Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman, “The Nazi Who Became a Mossad Hitman,” Forward, (March 27, 2016).