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Israeli War of Independence: Sinking the Emir Farouk

(October 22, 1948)

When the Jews of Palestine created an Israeli state in 1948, the neighboring Arab nations --with more than a million men under arms-- invaded Israel with the avowed goal of "driving the Jews in to the sea." In the aftermath of the Holocaust, many American Jews thought Jewish survival depended on a national homeland. American Jewry contributed funds to purchase arms for the fledgling Israeli armed forces, which had fewer than 75,000 soldiers and almost no heavy weapons. A thousand courageous Americans put their lives directly on the line fighting for Israel’s survival and many made indispensable contributions. West Pointer Mickey Marcus became Israel’s first commanding general; Rudy Augarten was the air force’s leading ace. Paul Shulman, a twenty-six year old Annapolis graduate, became the Israeli navy’s first commander.

David Ben-Gurion, the first Prime Minister of Israel, personally recruited the tall and dark-haired Shulman to serve as naval commander. A veteran of only three years service in the U.S. Navy, Shulman, although young, had the requisite training and experience. While he did not speak Hebrew, Shulman was familiar with the struggle for a Jewish state. The son of committed Zionists, Shulman had worked closely with the Haganah, the Jewish underground army in Palestine, to purchase surplus ships to transport European Jewish refugees to Palestine in defiance of British immigration restrictions. This pre-independence work impressed the Israelis, especially Ben-Gurion.

By the third week of October 1948, the invading Syrian, Lebanese, and Jordanian armies were largely repelled and only Egypt remained a threat. Although true peace was remote, a United Nations-sponsored truce was scheduled for October 22, 1948. That morning, Commander Shulman learned that two Egyptian warships had anchored outside Tel Aviv harbor including the cruiser Emir Farouk, flagship of the Egyptian navy. The Egyptians were clearly trying to prevent Israel from rearming by sea during the truce. Ben-Gurion ordered Shulman to evict the intruders.

The Haganah had obtained several armed motorboats that had been used to great effect by Italian commandos during World War II as kamikaze-type weapons. The boats were loaded with explosives and aimed toward an enemy ship. At the last moment, the pilot would leap to safety while the boat continued to its target. These boats became Shulman’s secret weapon.

Shulman organized a three-boat force to confront the Egyptians. One, the Ma'oz, carried the Italian motorboats on deck. All three vessels had been used before the war to bring European Jewish refugees to Palestine. Upon declaring independence, Israel hastily converted them into warships. The three vessels pulled alongside the Egyptian ships and Shulman called out over a loudspeaker: "Truce period or no truce period, if you don't get the hell out of here, I'm going to shoot!" The two Egyptian vessels departed for Gaza and the Israeli ships followed closely. An hour later, Egyptian shore batteries in Gaza opened fire at the Israeli vessels, as Shulman had hoped. He radioed for permission to attack the Egyptian vessels. "No," came the response. Shulman radioed a second time, asking that his request be forwarded directly to Ben Gurion, who replied, "Paul, if you can sink them, shoot; if you can't, don't."

Shulman decided on a night attack, positioning the Ma'oz between the Egyptian ships and the moon. At dark, the Ma'oz crew lowered four small vessels into the water. It took nearly an hour for them to reach the Egyptian ships. The pilot of the first vessel gunned his boat toward the Farouk, explosives armed. At the last moment, he leapt into the water. He heard an explosion and saw that the Farouk had been hit. Almost immediately, the second assault boat scored a direct hit on the huge warship, which erupted in flames and sank within minutes. As the Farouk slipped below the surface, the retrieval boat plucked the commandos from the sea.

The sinking of the Farouk was Israel's most dramatic naval victory in the War of Independence. Some five hundred Egyptian sailors perished, many from that nation’s upper class. However, the event received little formal publicity at the time: Israel wanted to draw no attention to its arguable violation of the truce; the Egyptians hoped to keep the Israeli triumph a secret. Nonetheless, news of the enormous loss reached the Egyptian public and for nearly a year the Egyptian navy had difficulty recruiting new sailors.

In the aftermath, Egypt complained to the U.S. State Department that an American citizen had sunk its navy's flagship. The State Department asked Shulman to resign his naval reserve commission. When the war ended in 1949 and Israel’s independence was established, Shulman became an Israeli citizen and founded a major engineering corporation in Haifa. While only a thousand or so dedicated Americans --most of whom were, like Shulman, combat experienced -- fought on the Israeli side, without their contributions the Israeli Defense Forces might not have prevailed against such overwhelming odds.

Sources: American Jewish Historical Society