Acre was conquered by the Ottomans at the beginning of the 16th century. The governor of Galilee, Ahmed al-Jazzar, developed the town, building a fortress and markets and turning it into the “main gateway” to Eretz Israel (Palestine). Under the British Mandate, the fortress served as a jail, where underground fighters were imprisoned and where eight Irgun fighters went to the gallows. Acre prison was the most highly-guarded fortress in the country; surrounded by walls and encircled to the east and north by a deep moat; the sea to the west. It was located in the heart of an Arab town with no Jewish inhabitants.
Despite these factors, the underground never ceased to plan their escape. The turning point came when an Arab inmate, in charge of supplying oil to the kitchen, related that while working in the oil storeroom (in the south wall of the fortress), he had heard women’s voices. This was reported to Eitan Livni, the most senior Irgun prisoner, who deduced that the south wall of the prison bordered on a street or alley in the Old City. The information was conveyed by underground post to the Irgun General Headquarters, with a proposal that the wall of the oil storehouse be exploited for a break-in to rescue the Irgun inmates.
Amichai Paglin (Gidi), chief operations officer, toured Acre disguised as an Arab, and after thorough scrutiny of the area, concluded that a break-in was indeed possible. After discussions at headquarters, Livni received a letter stating that it was possible to breach the wall from outside, but that the success of the operation depended on the ability of the prisoners to reach the south wall on their own. To that end, explosives, detonators and a fuse were smuggled into the jail by the parents of prisoners, who were permitted to bring their sons delicacies, such as jam, oil, and fruit. The explosives were smuggled in inside a can, under a thick layer of jam. A British sergeant opened the can and examined its contents. When he poked inside, he felt hard lumps (in fact gelignite), but accepted the story that the jam had not gelled properly. The detonators and the fuse were concealed in the false bottom of a container of oil, which was also thoroughly examined. The sergeant poked in a long stick to examine the level of the oil, but since the fuse and the detonators were less than one centimeter thick, he did not notice the false bottom.
At that time, 163 Jews were being held in Acre prison (60 of them Irgun members, 22 Lehi and 5 Haganah, the remainder felons) and 400 Arabs. The Irgun General Headquarters decided that only 41 could be freed (30 Irgun members and 11 Lehi members) because it was technically impossible to find hiding places for a larger number of fugitives. Eitan Livni was given the task of deciding who was to be freed and who would remain in jail (the Lehi prisoners chose their own candidates for escape).
The Final Plan
Irgun Fighters in British Uniform
The break-in was planned for Sunday, May 4, 1947, at 4 p.m. The day before, the fighters met at a diamond factory in Netanya. A map was pinned up and the briefing began. The first speaker was Amichai Paglin, who explained the plan in detail. He was followed by Dov Cohen (Shimshon), who had been appointed commander of the operation. He revealed that the fighters would be disguised as British soldiers and instructed them to conduct themselves in Acre like "His Majesty's troops."
After the fighters had been assigned to their units, they were all given an 'English' haircut. The next day, they were taken to Shuni, a former Crusader fortress (between Binyamina and Zichron Yaakov), then serving as a settlement for the Irgun supporters. Twenty of them wore British Engineering Corps uniforms, while three were dressed as Arabs. After they had been briefed and armed, they set out in a convoy of vehicles including a 3-ton military truck, two military vans with British camouflage colors, and two civilian vans. The convoy was headed by the command jeep, and Shimshon, dressed as a be-medalled British captain, sat beside the driver.
When the convoy reached Acre, the two military vans entered the market, while the truck waited at the gate. Ladders were removed from one of the vehicles and the 'engineering unit' went into the Turkish bath-house in order to 'mend' the telephone lines. They climbed the ladders to the roof adjacent to the fortress wall, and Dov Salomon, the unit commander, helped his deputy, Yehuda Apiryon, to haul up the explosive charges and to hook them to the windows of the prison.
Dov Cohen (Shimshon)
At the same time, the two blocking squads had scattered mines along the routes leading to the site of the break-in. One three-man squad was commanded by Avshalom Haviv and the second consisted of two fighters, Michaeli and Ostrowicz.
An additional three-man squad, disguised as Arabs, was positioned north of Acre, and when the operation began they fired a mortar at the nearby army camp. The command jeep halted at the gas station at the entrance to the new town, laid anti-vehicle mines and set fire to the station.
Afternoon walk of Acre prisoners
While these units were taking up positions outside the fortress, the plan was being put into effect inside the prison. At 3 p.m., the doors of the cells were opened for afternoon exercise. Those prisoners who were not scheduled to escape went down to the courtyard to create a diversion, while the escapees remained in their cells. They were divided into three groups, each in a separate cell.
At 4:22 p.m., a loud explosion shook the entire area, as the wall of the fortress was blasted open.
The first group of escapees leapt out of their cell and ran down the corridor towards the breach in the wall. They had to push their way through a crowd of Arab prisoners who ran out of their cells in panic and blocked their path. The first escapee, Michael Ashbel, attached explosive charges to the locks barring the gate of the corridor, and lit the fuse. There was an explosion, and the gate blew open. The second gate was blown open in the same way, opening the route to freedom. At that moment, the second group went into action; they created an obstruction by igniting kerosene mixed with oil. The ensuing fire blocked the escape route, so that the guards could not reach it. The third group threw grenades at the guards on the roof, who fled. In the confusion created by the explosion, the gunfire and the fire, 41 prisoners made their way to freedom.
The first group of escapees boarded a van and drove off, but the driver mistakenly drove towards Haifa, instead of Mount Napoleon. On the shore, a group of British soldiers who had been bathing in the sea opened fire on them. The driver tried to turn back, but hit the wall of the cemetery and the van overturned. The escapees ran towards a gas station, the soldiers pursuing them. Dov Cohen fired his Bren at them, but was mowed down by a volley of 17 bullets. Zalman Lifshitz, at his side, was also killed. When the firing stopped, five of the first group of 13 escapees were dead, six injured and only two were unscathed. The survivors were returned to jail.
Acre prison's wall after the explosion
The blocking unit, consisting of Avshalom Haviv, Meir Nakar and Yaakov Weiss, also suffered a mishap. They did not hear the bugle signal to withdraw and stayed put when the other units had already left Acre. After a protracted battle with British soldiers, they were caught and arrested. The second blocking unit, consisting of Amnon Michaeli and Menahem Ostrowicz, also failed to hear the bugle (which signalled withdrawal) and were likewise caught by the British.
The remaining escapees and members of the strike force in the truck and the second van escaped safely. They reached Kibbutz Dalia, abandoned their vehicles, and made their way on foot to Binyamina. There they were given refuge in the Nahlat Jabotinsky quarter and the following morning were dispersed throughout the country to pre-designated hiding places.
Haim Appelbaum of Lehi, wounded during the retreat, succeeded in boarding the last van, but died soon after. His body was left in the vehicle, and members of Kibbutz Dalia conveyed it to the burial society in Haifa the following day.
To conclude, 27 inmates succeeded in escaping (20 from the Irgun and seven from Lehi). Nine fighters were killed in clashes with the British army; six escapees and three members of the Fighting Force. Eight escapees, some of them injured, were caught and returned to jail. Also arrested were five of the attackers who did not make it back to base. The Arab prisoners took advantage of the commotion, and 182 of them escaped as well.
Despite the heavy toll in human lives, the action was described by foreign journalists as “the greatest jail break in history.”
The London Haaretz correspondent wrote on May 5, 1947: “The attack on Acre jail has been seen here as a serious blow to British prestige... Military circles described the attack as a strategic masterpiece.”
The New York Herald Tribune wrote that the underground had carried out “an ambitious mission, their most challenging so far, in perfect fashion.”
In the House of Commons, Oliver Stanley asked what action His Majesty’s Government was planning to take “in light of the events at Acre prison which had reduced British prestige to a nadir.”
Shortly after the Acre jail break, Andrei Gromyko, USSR representative to the UN, caused a sensation when he informed the stunned delegates that his country took a favorable view of the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine.
Three weeks after the jail break, the five Irgun fighters who had been captured after the operation were put on trial. Three of the defendants - Avshalom Haviv, Yaakov Weiss and Meir Nakar - were carrying weapons when they were caught close to the jail wall. They challenged the authority of the court and, after making political statements, were all sentenced to death.
The other two, Michaeli and Ostrowicz, were captured, unarmed, at some distance from the jail. Since there was a chance of saving them from the death penalty, the Irgun General Headquarters decided to conduct a proper defense procedure. The counsel for the defense succeeded in producing documents proving that the two were minors, and the court sentenced them to life imprisonment.
It Was an Inside Job
[Ed:] In 2020, The Guardian revealed that the escape was made possible by a British civil servant who built the prison and provided the Jews with plans to the building. Peres Etke a Russian Jew and American citizen, was a prominent engineer working for the British forces. He had already demonstrated an interest in helping the Jews when, during the Arab riots of 1921, he transferred weapons to them from the British-run armory in Jaffa. Though Etkes was punished for his action, he later received the King’s Medal for Service in the Cause of Freedom for building a deep water port in Haifa and for constructing a vast network of roads. During a visit in the 1950s to family in New York, Etkes said he gave the plans to the Jews “because the prison was like a fortress, and unless they had the map, there was no way to get out.” His great nephew told the paper Etkes never told his story publicly because he didn’t want the attention and feared losing his pension.
The Guardian noted the prison break was viewed “as a dramatic symbol of London’s declining ability to maintain control in Mandatory Palestine, which ended a year later.”
Sources: Menachem Begin, The Revolt, (NY: Nash Publishing, 1977), p. 224;
J. Bowyer Bell, Terror Out Of Zion, (NY: St. Martin's Press), p. 172;
Anne Sinai and I. Robert Sinai, Israel and the Arabs: Prelude to the Jewish State, (NY: Facts on File, 1972), p. 83;
Benjamin Netanyahu, ed., "International Terrorism: Challenge And Response," Proceedings of the Jerusalem Conference on International Terrorism, July 25, 1979, (Jerusalem: The Jonathan Institute, 1980), p. 45;
Oliver Holmes, “Palestine: 1947 escape from British prison exposed as inside job,” The Guardian, (August 30, 2020).