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Breaking the British Blockade


Marvin Weiss







Dedicated to my grandchildren

 Avery, Danielle, Marlena, Rachel, and Zachary

 who like my stories.








Breaking the British Blockade.


When I got out of the Navy I was gung ho for Engineering School but there were millions of GIs with the same idea and I could not get in. After a year of trying I decided to wait a year and try again later. So I volunteered to work on a refugee ship that would try to break the British blockade that was preventing Jewish refugees of the holocaust from getting into Palestine.


Hitler had killed most of the Jews in Europe but there were about one million Jews left living still in the concentration camps with no place to go. Some went to Canada, some to Australia, Cuba, China, wherever someone would let them in. But many wanted to go to Palestine and build a new nation.


The Jews of Palestine organized a large clandestine movement to break the British blockade. There were about 40 ships of all sizes. The Exodus was the most famous of these. There were 10 ships from the United States including mine, all manned by volunteers like me and a few professional sailors. In all about 250,000 refugees were brought to the shores of Palestine, almost all them caught by the British and interned in camps in Cyprus. Eventually all of them ended up in Israel.


This is the story of my trip on the USS Northland, a Coast Guard icebreaker, later renamed "The Jewish State", "Medinat Yehudim" in Hebrew. A Panamanian flag company had purchased it for this purpose by the Haganah, the Jewish defense organization. It had been mothballed and abandoned and had been idle for several years when I joined it in Baltimore harbor in March 1947.


Northland had been commissioned in 1927 and designed to serve in the arctic, breaking surface ice to allow shipping to northern ports.  She had a strong welded hull to withstand the ice and was insulated with cork for warmth.  She weighed 2000 tons and had a length of 216 feet. She was a small cutter with a Coast Guard crew of 150 designed for long tours in the arctic.


Northland was a diesel electric ship, probably one of the first of its kind. It actually had masts and sails as a backup which shows you how much they trusted those diesel engines.



                                                                                                                  Coast Guard Cutter MS Northland



She had two diesel engines each with four cylinders for propulsion and a fifth to serve as an air compressor. I remember the cylinders as being 2 or 3 feet in diameter and 6 feet tall but my memory may exaggerate them a bit. They needed a lot of work. The fifth cylinder served both as an air compressor and a starting motor when the diesel engine started up.  Without stored compressed air you could not start the engines. 


Each engine drove a DC electric generator, a huge open frame contraption that Edison would have been familiar with.  These two generators drove two DC electric motors on the single propeller shaft in a series loop, generator, motor, generator, motor. When it happened that only one engine was running, as happened often, the idle generator and the idle motor could be shorted out with two huge knife switches that would be at home in a science fiction movie.


Northland had a single screw and a rudder just behind the screw, an arrangement that protected it from the ice and for us it made the ship very maneuverable. This was useful for attempting to break the blockade as it happened.  The ship was underpowered, a defect that was recognized by the Coast Guard and documented. With both engines running in a calm sea she could make 12 knots. With one engine she could barely do 4 knots.


Being a diesel electric ship, Northland was all electric. Every vital component that on most ships might be run by steam was electric on the Northland. The anchor winch was electric. The steering engine was electric. All the pumps were electric.


I was classified as an electrician because of my navy training so from their point of view they had covered that base.  I was in charge of everything electrical on the ship. The rest of the crew was equally sparse. Actually I had never seen a motor larger than my fist and had no nautical experience at all. An aircraft carrier is a city. But electricity is electricity, a motor is a motor, and I actually knew enough.


Most of the time we had two Israeli operatives on board. They were cordial but reserved and clearly were wary of the volunteer crew as well they might be.  One of them became the curator of a museum in Haifa after the war and was a relative of my son's wife. I met him there once. During the final run with 2,663 passengers on board there was a third Israeli.


Most of us were idealistic young Jewish men from various parts of the US and Canada who had had some Zionist background and were determined to do something heroic. We had little or no useful experience and I suppose that we were difficult to handle.


We had a hired captain who was less than useless.  He stayed by himself most of the time drunk almost always. At least he stayed out of the way. We needed him, I suppose, for his captain's papers.


There was a Chief Engineer, named Kalemetsoff, an Old Russian Jewish sea dog with experience in the Russian merchant marine who knew his stuff. Without him we would have been in trouble.


We had two hired experienced seamen and a Jewish radio operator, named Metzer, with experience in the Murmansk convoy run during the war. He still lives in Connecticut and I see him occasionally.  We were a motley crew of thirty, a very small crew for such a task. I am third from the left on the top row.



                                                                                                                                   Supplies on the deck

The crew gradually assembled on the ship in Baltimore harbor and there was a period of getting to know each other. I spent my time examining all the old electrical stuff filled with apprehension. I found a lot of spare parts from the old days covered with grease and in good shape. Kalemetoff showed me a few things and reassured me. The Israelis spent time putting supplies on board.


They knew what they were doing. One item they put on board that saved the mission was a small diesel air compressor to back up the standard ones attached to the engines. We needed that to pump up enough compressed air and would have been stranded without it.


After a few weeks we sailed. The engines started and lo, we were on the Atlantic. It was a very stormy, difficult crossing. Much of the time we were running on one engine or were just drifting. It took us seven weeks to cross the Atlantic. I was as sick as a dog for a week or so and then was OK. I didn't have that much to do in the beginning.


                                                                                                             Northland mostly under water in a storm.


The main problem was the diesel engines that kept on blowing their cylinder head gaskets. Diesel engines generate very high pressure internally.  They had massive cylinder heads sealed with copper gaskets. When they blew we had to lift the cylinder head, a steel disk about 4 inches thick and 3 feet in diameter using a chain hoist, replace the gasket and screw it back down. It took the whole crew to do it and was very dangerous because of the stormy weather. Some of us worked the chain hoist, most of us tried to keep the monstrous cylinder head from breaking loose and wrecking the engine room.


Fortunately we had enough spare parts and didn't run out of gaskets. The Coast Guard must have known about the problem otherwise why would we have had dozens of the copper gaskets aboard?


I got into trouble inspecting the anchor winch. I needed to at least take a look at all the machinery so during a calm day I unscrewed the cover of the anchor winch engine and took a look. It was mainly another old-fashioned DC motor and a gearbox. So I screwed the cover back down and went my way. But I didn't screw it down hard enough and during the next storm it got drenched with seawater and I discovered a couple of days later that there was a lot of water in it.


For me it seemed like a disaster. Salt water can short out everything and wreck insulation. An anchor is an essential safety device.  When you need it to avoid being blown onto a rock it is essential. I was not able to disassemble it to clean it so I tried to dry it out with improvised heaters. I must have spent half my time during the crossing messing with that motor. Actually we never used it during the entire trip. We always docked at piers, never with the anchor so I do not know to this day if it would have worked.


By the time we entered the Mediterranean Sea we were an experienced crew and the engines were working fine. We docked at a little pier in Marseilles and prepared to have a little time ashore. It was not to be. As soon as we docked there was an Israeli messenger who immediately secreted himself with the other Israelis. We were in Marseilles only a few hours when we sailed right out again. I learned later that the word was that British sappers were in the harbor and were plotting to sink us right at the dock. Of course I wasn't privy to any of the hush hush stuff. So for me it was a mystery and only learned what had happened later.


So out we went into the Mediterranean heading back to the Atlantic. Where were we going? They would not tell us. Security was tight. Only the Israelis were in on the secrets. But while we were in the Mediterranean, a British destroyer shadowed us or a British airplane hovered over us.



                                                                                                              This plane stayed with us for a week


We ended up in a little port five miles up a little river in a French town called Bayonne in the Bay of Biscay at the corner between France and Spain. Nobody bothered us there and we stayed 3 months getting the ship ready for the passengers.


It was an idyllic summer. We worked hard six days a week but had Saturday's off and were able to do the town. It was a pleasant part of France with things to do, a couple of bars and a dance hall. I actually had a French girl friend named Janinne that I met in the dance hall.  She was the daughter of a surgeon in Paris and was visiting friends for the summer. 


  The Israelis treated the crew to a sightseeing tour into Spain in the nearby Pyrenees Mountains. We could visit a fancy resort town nearby named Biarritz that had a gambling casino. There was a Basque military marching band in the town that always marched early in the morning, interfering with our sleep. Very picturesque but they could have moved it up a couple of hours.


 How do you get over 2600 passengers on a little ship like the Northland? The Israelis knew how. We had some advantages over other clandestine ships. We had a well-equipped galley with two huge steam pots capable of cooking up large amounts of hot food. We were seaworthy, stable and not likely to fall apart in a storm. We anticipated a trip with passengers of up to ten days and prepared for that.


Every available space below decks, holds, store rooms, etc. were fitted with wooden shelves, six feet deep and three feet apart. Every passenger was allotted an 18-inch space on a shelf for him or her and all baggage. As an example, a typical hold that was 14 feet by 14 feet by 9 feet high could house 48 passengers. But getting enough air down below was a problem.


How about sanitary facilities?  We built overhanging shelves on both sides of the ship. On each shelf we build four toilets over the sea, one side for men and the other side for women. It worked fine when the weather was calm but got a little sloppy in stormy weather, which fortunately was rare. We were able to keep them clean with the fire hoses.


One of my responsibilities was ventilation, a real problem with so many people on board. I was supplied with four large centrifugal fans and a large amount of canvas tubing. The tubing was really inadequate. It had no internal structure, just flat strips of canvas folded over and sewed along the edge. I bolted the fans to the bulkhead on deck and snaked the tubing down various hatchways into the various passenger holds. The internal air pressure was supposed to keep the tubing open but it was a huge problem going around corners. It took some ingenuity to keep the tubes open. Each corner was a separate problem to be solved with string, tape, and pieces of wood.


At the end of the summer in 1947 we sailed out of Bayonne and reentered the Mediterranean. From that point on we always had a British destroyer on our tail or a British airplane overhead. We stopped at no ports and sailed directly to the Dardanelles and into the Black Sea.  Things happened rapidly after that.


We docked in a Bulgarian port named Burgas and were not allowed to go ashore. That evening the passengers started to arrive by bus and truck.


Our passengers had survived the holocaust in Siberia. They were mostly Eastern European Jews who had managed to escape the invading German armies as they swept west. How they got to Siberia is not clear to me. Some of them actually traveled there by railroad during a period when this was still possible. The Russians helped some of them in the early stages of the Nazi campaign.


The passengers had had a few years in Siberia and had not suffered overt persecution there. There had been a modicum of organized help from various Jewish agencies. Their lives were atrocious but they weren't being killed. There appeared to be a lot of intact families but it turned out later that most of these families were not the original ones. Most of the survivors were individuals who had formed into new families while in Siberia.


In Siberia they lived in sod huts dug into the ground. I don't know where they got food but they looked OK. There had been some education for the kids and there were some Zionist organization. The main language was Yiddish but there was some Hebrew and some Israeli songs.


I understood later that the Soviets had agreed to ship them to Burgas and let them go at a price of so much a head. Partly their motivation was to embarrass the British. Whatever their motive the passengers arrived in good health and with a bit of baggage.


Packing them down into the ship into their wooden shelves took place in the dark of night as rapidly as possible. It must have been a traumatic experience for them but they had been prepared for it and were quite cooperative. The operation went smoothly and we sailed the next morning September 26, 1947.


The trip to Palestine took seven days. The ship behaved itself and there were no mechanical problems. The passengers got two hot meals every day served in the rooms where they slept. The weather was fine. They were allowed up on deck in relays, as there was only enough room for a few hundred of them at a time.


My main concern during the trip was to keep the ventilation going. It was quite inadequate and it got very hot down below but there was actually no danger. Some of the passengers tried to get a little more air by cutting holes in the canvas tubing and it was a constant battle to keep the tubes full. The centrifugal fans worked the whole trip with no problems.


Those of us that spoke Yiddish were able to "join" a family and become "members" of it. We were encouraged to do this. I had a nice intact family with a husband, a wife, two small kids and a teen-age girl. When I had time for them I enjoyed their company. In the turmoil later and because of my illness I lost contact with them and never was able to recover it.


In addition to this family I had a wonderful boy of about 11 that attached himself to me and followed me around wherever I was, helping me as best he could. He had a great deal of energy and was a perfect little gentleman. I lost contact with him also and it is my great regret that I don't know what happened to him. He was very talented and I am sure he was successful in life.


From the time we sailed out of the Dardanelles there was a British destroyer following us and when we reached the shores of Palestine there were six destroyers waiting for us one of which one had a big drawbridge intended for boarding. There ensued a six-hour game of tag during which we zigged and zagged leading them on a merry chase. We were much more maneuverable than they. They did not want to ram us but in the course of the rumpus we did ram one of them making a small hole is the side of one of the destroyers. Fortunately the sea was unusually calm and the hole was above the waterline so the ship did not sink. There was some tear gas thrown but no gunfire. It was the practice of the Haganah refugee ships to carry no arms of any kind. So it was a kind of impasse.


Unfortunately I only saw the beginning of the chase. After we had been dodging about half an hour I got an emergency call about a problem with the steering engine that operated the rudder. The motor was smoking and was very very hot. I took a look and yes the constant turning back and forth was overheating the motor. What to do?


There was a mechanism for turning the rudder by hand but it took two strong men to do it and was slow and difficult. We needed to set up a way to communicate from the bridge to the room in the bottom of the boat where the steering engine was. I made an emergency announcement asking for volunteers and would you believe, I got a dozen men all of whom claimed to be electrical engineers. I deployed six of them to constitute a human telephone line to yell instructions from the bridge. All they had to yell was "rechts", right, or "links" left. The rest of them I detailed to keep putting wet towels on the hot motor and keeping a fan blowing on it. It turned out that the motor did not burn out and lasted the whole time of the rat race. But I had to be below and didn't see the action.


Eventually the British did succeed in boarding us. There was very little violence. At the very last ten minutes when they were fanning out to every part of the ship we managed to remove all the control handles from everything and throw them overboard so that the British could not operate the ship. They had to attach a cable to us and tow us into Haifa harbor. The crew all dispersed among the passengers and became anonymous.  Those of us that knew Yiddish had an easy time. The others relied on being silent. The British did not identify any of the crew.



                                                                                                                     The Jewish State in Haifa Harbor

                                                                                                                                 October 3, 1947 


You can see the British soldiers on the bridge with their white helmets. I am somewhere in this picture. Can you find me?


There we were parked at a dock in Haifa harbor under guard. The British were prepared for us. They had a passenger ship ready to take us to Cyprus to the detention camps. There were crowds of people on the shore looking at us and shouting slogans. There was no longer any discipline on board and as many people as could fit crowded up on deck waiting to see what happens next. The British sent some bundles of food on board, mostly bread, and some containers of drinking water and announced that we would be transferred to Cyprus the next day.


It was possible for crewmembers to avoid being sent to Cyprus by hiding in a secret compartment in the bottom of the ship. Later, workmen would enter the ship to clean it up and they would help us escape. The Israelis all did that and I had the option of doing it too. But we were warned that the British might fumigate the ship against rats and there was danger of being gassed. I opted against it since in any case we would be in Cyprus only one month so what was the rush? The Israelis had a lot of reasons to rush but I didn't. Besides I did want to see what Cyprus would be like.


The next morning there was a gangplank to the dock ready for us to disembark and get onto the passenger ship. When it came my turn I had a funny feeling that the British watching me walk down the gangplank would be able to see by the way that I walked that I was an American. Nonsense of course. But that’s what I thought and to disguise myself I tried to walk in a heavy exaggerated tread that I thought looked like the walk of a Hungarian peasant. The British soldiers seeing me walk that way called out "Hey Tarzan". I had a terrible time holding back from laughing and not letting on that I understood.


The detention camps on Cyprus about 60 miles from Palestine were typical, double barbed wire fences all around. Soldiers patrolling, Tents for the inmates, a few huts with eating facilities. But there was no persecution and the Jewish agencies were free to come and go and run the camps internally. I was put in a tent with other crewmembers and we were told that we would be transferred to Palestine in the next contingent of 750 Jews that the British allowed to immigrate each month. It was rather enjoyable. We organized a baseball game and relaxed. One day we were called to a meeting and lo, Golda Meir showed up and gave us a pep talk.


One month after I arrived in Cyprus, in November 1947, the UN passed a resolution calling for the partition of Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state.  The Jews accepted the partition but the Arabs rejected it. In Cyprus we had a two-page newspaper that gave us the news.


                                                                                      The UN Resolution.   Palestine Divided Among Jews and Arabs


But then I started to show the first signs of Hepatitis. I could not digest the food. I had fever. In sickbay they didn't know what was wrong. I could not eat a morsel. I was admitted to the sick bay for observation. I missed being sent to Palestine on the first contingent and started to lose weight. Eventually I started to turn yellow and they figured out what was wrong. Sick as I was I made the next shipment to Palestine in December 1947.


The Israeli war of independence actually started the same month I arrived in Palestine, in December. There were Arab riots in Jerusalem and the road from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was blocked by Arab villages that were preventing supplies from getting through. The first phase of the war was largely fought to open that road although there was serious fighting in the south and in Galilee. The British were still in charge.  The Jews tried to send lightly armored convoys through but these were mostly ambushed and destroyed. It wasn't until April after heavy losses that they succeeded in opening the road and establishing a connection from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.


A year or so before, there had been a small ship that had managed to sneak through the blockade and land on the beach in Palestine. The refugees had jumped off and avoided capture. To compensate for this, the British held each contingent from Cyprus in a temporary camp in Palestine named Atlit and that is where they were taking us. Transportation from Haifa to Atlit was by bus with Jewish drivers. There were no soldiers on the bus.  On the way the bus suddenly pulled over to the curb and parked.  The door opened and the driver looked away and started to smoke a cigarette. That was a signal for us to jump off the bus and run away to avoid the month of detention.  It was poorly planned; I had no idea where we were or what to do. I jumped off the bus, unable to run or walk very far. I entered a little apartment building on the street and hid under the stairwell where a British policeman soon found me. All the others were soon rounded up and we ended in a police station under guard. A British sergeant started to interrogate us in English. We pretended that we didn't understand. Again, I had difficulty keeping from laughing. I kept stuttering a few words in Yiddish. After a few hours he gave up in disgust and sent us on to Atlit.


In Atlit I really got the full Hepatitis, symptoms, turned yellow as a lemon and spent the month in bed. There was no specific treatment for it. Just avoid eating any food with fat in it. Even a piece of bread would lie like a lead weight in my stomach. I could eat some fruit and veggies, that was all. The sick bay was small and on the other side of a thin wall women were constantly giving birth. I don't know why there were so many babies born that month. The screaming and yelling was ear shattering.  Otherwise I have almost no memories of that month.


By the end of the month I was starting to recover slightly. I had lost a lot of weight but I was released and could go wherever I wanted.  It was January 1948. There was fierce fighting on the road to Jerusalem. Here is a picture of the ID card that the British issued to me under the assumed name "Moshe Guttenberg".  I had lost about 30 pounds.



At the end of January, 1948 I showed up at my aunt's house in Tel Aviv looking like a wreck. Her name was Mania, my father's sister. I had never seen her before. She asked me who I was and when I told her she immediately threw me into bed and brought me some chicken soup. I stayed with her until March, recovered my strength.


Here is how I looked later when Israel issued me an ID card.


The war was going poorly, Jerusalem was still blocked. The British were "neutral" which meant keeping both sides disarmed. In practice this meant keeping the Jews disarmed because the Arabs had plenty of sources. The Jordanian army was trained, supplied and officered by British officers. 38 British officers resigned their commissions and joined Glubb Pasha, the leader of the Jordanian army. But by April the Jews had constructed a new protected road, bypassing the Arab villages. They called it the "Burma Road" and were able to supply Jerusalem.


In March I was essentially an unaffiliated Jewish adventurer. I had lost contact with the Haganah who in any case did not need me any more and had other things to take care of.  I could have enlisted in the army but instead decided to visit a kibbutz in the Galilee, Mayan Boruch, where I knew some Americans from my teen age years in Habonim and where I might play a role.


Mayan Boruch had been established as a kibbutz only a few months before on the site of a Moshav that had been abandoned many years before due to a riot and massacre in the area. It had three groups of participants. There was an American group of about 20 people who had known each other in Habonim and had formed a "garin" a seed so called, and been trained in agriculture in the US. There was a similar group of South Africans. And there was a group of young sabras who had served in the Palmach, the elite special forces of the army.


In late March I showed up in Mayan Boruch in the northern Galilee, a few miles from the Golan Heights in a beautiful green valley. Galilee is greener than the rest of Israel with rolling hills and cultivated fields. It looks a little like Northern Italy. The Golan Heights, a mountain ridge along the border with Syria, ran north and south as far as the eye could see.


But right on the border, just under the heights were two kibbutzim, Dan, and Dafna within sight of Mayan Boruch. There were being shelled sporadically almost every day by the Syrians and lived part of the time in their bomb shelters.  The Russians had fortified the Golan Heights, very effectively. There were multiple layers of pillboxes, cannon emplacements and tunnels and the Jews could not do much against them at the time. The Syrians had short-range cannons, howitzers that could not reach us so we were safe from them. Later the Jews did attack the heights, full boat with everything they had. They took a lot of casualties but they did succeed and they hold the heights to this day.


Mayan Boruch was considered an important defensive kibbutz and was being fortified against an expected attack from the north by Syria. When they learned that I was an electrician they said "Good, that’s what we need." And put me right to work.


I spent four months there installing a string of perimeter lights, standing guard duty at night, and doing a little patrolling in the area. The Syrians did not attack in the Galilee. Only once did we encounter a hostile patrol and then at a distance of a mile or so. They took a few shots at us and it was the only time when I ever heard the zing of a bullet flying over me. I did not get to shoot a single bullet. They went away and we returned to the Kibbutz.


But I did learn how one goes about fortifying a kibbutz.  There is a central village on a little hill surrounded with a stone wall. There is a watchtower with a searchlight and there is a bomb shelter consisting of a deep trench with a galvanized roof and covered with sand bags. Inside are a couple of tables and chairs, two oil lamps, a battery operated radio, and some water in cans.


About seventy yards from the stone wall is a star shaped perimeter fence consisting of two layers of concertina barbed wire. It could slow down an infantry attack but would be useless against armor.  The area in between is deemed no-mans-land. It has a number of pillboxes connected with communication trenches.  In case of attack we could run from one pillbox to another through the communication trenches with the few rifles that we had to maximize their effect. If this sounds meager to you, it was. If we were attacked we could maybe hold out for as long as it took for some regular army to show up. But we were not attacked.


The whole thing was like a movie set. If you wanted to make a movie you could have used the whole place just as it was with no changes.


One thing I got out of the experience happened due to the long hours I spent on guard duty at night. We had four-hour shifts at night and it was lonely and boring. When I started doing guard duty I did not know how to whistle. I had never taken the time to learn. Here was my opportunity. So I practiced and practiced and eventually mastered it quite well. Nobody bothered me about it although maybe it wasn't all that secure. To this day I can whistle a tune and have an octave and a half under control.


In April the war took a turn for the better, Jerusalem was secure. Things quieted down and on May 14 Ben Gurion declared the State of Israel. The US and France and others, recognized the new state and the British abandoned the mandate the next day. There were a few days of quiet and then five Arab armies invaded. The second phase of the war had started.


Does it look like a plot? Here the British had done what they could to keep the Jews disarmed. Sure the Jews had small arms. They had rifles. They had invented the Uzi, a small cheap submachine gun. They had no way to manufacture the precision rifled barrel that such a gun needed. So they took a standard German rifle, a mouser, that had a long barrel, cut the barrel into three equal parts, enough to make three Uzis and made all the other parts out of sheet metal. Pretty clever but what do you do against tanks? The Jews were effectively disarmed.


The British had arranged to get out of the way a few days before five Arab armies invaded. Did they know about the five armies poised to attack? How could it be otherwise? The Jordanian army of 4000 men was trained, equipped and officered with British officers. The Egyptians had a 10,000 man force ready to go with artillery and tanks. There was a 5000-man force from Iraq, 5000 from Syria, 1000 from Lebanon.  Surely, they and most of the rest of the world thought that the Jews would not last a week.


So how did the Jews win? A combination of chutzpah, absolute determination, a tremendous amount of intelligence, and long and careful preparation.  The superb organization of the clandestine ships of which I had been a part is one aspect of it. They had organized a large number of surplus airplanes that were available after the war and had negotiated the purchase of a lot of arms with the Czechs via their Russian masters.  They bought artillery, even fighter planes.  They had recruited pilots and navigators in US, Britain, South Africa to fly them.  The day after the British pulled out, before the Arabs had gotten started, these airplanes started to fly to Tel Aviv Airport.


Within days the arms were being distributed.


Arab incompetence played a big role too. The Egyptians had infantry and tanks and they should have been able to roll right over the little kibbutzim in the south and the Negev.  These Kibbutzim were armed and defended just like Mayan Boruch, not better.  But when tanks attack a dug in position the infantry must be right behind the tanks. Tanks cannot see people hiding in foxholes. For that you need infantry.  So when the Egyptian tanks advanced on the kibbutzim with their infantry 200 yards behind, it was possible for someone to jump out of a foxhole, throw a Molotov cocktail at it and jump back into the foxhole.  End of tank.  The Kibbutzim actually defeated the Egyptian army.


In June, I had completed the installation of the perimeter lights. Not much was happening in the Galilee. The three separate groups that had been crammed together to start the kibbutz were not getting along. The young Israelis were very insular and had trouble relating to outsiders. The Americans and the South Africans were competing for something intangible. Prestige maybe? I don't know. I did not find the social atmosphere congenial. But that can be a subject for quite another book. 


I read an ad for aircraft technicians in the newspaper and I answered it. There was a little company that was flying under contract with the Haganah. They flew DC 3 aircraft from Tel Aviv to little runways in the Negev to supply the Kibbutzim there that were cut off by the Egyptians. They could only fly at night because of small arm ground fire. The distances were short and a plane could make two trips a night.  So I quit the kibbutz, moved to Tel Aviv and started work there. I worked on those airplanes four or five months until there was no longer and need when the roads became passable.


In March 1949 the war was over. I waltzed myself into a US Consulate office in Tel Aviv and told them who I was. The only identification I had was the Israeli ID. But I also had my fingerprints. They took down all the information,  took my fingerprints, took my picture and told me to come back in two weeks. I did that and lo, I had a passport good for one trip only back to the states. Here is my picture on it.





I didn't have enough money to buy a ticket on the boat. So I wrote to my dad who sent me the money and in April I was back in the States.  The Lausanne Peace conference took place in April too.


I had some fears that all these adventures outside of normal legal channels would somehow taint my educational possibilities or my career as an engineer. But I never had any problems. I passed many top-secret probes as an engineer working in defense and never heard a peep from anyone.


Israel's Navy


Medinat Yehudim, my boat, became the first ship in Israel's navy. Here is a picture of it with its first crew as the "Elath". It was commissioned in May, 1948.


I hope that after they commissioned it they fixed a few things. The anchor winch motor, used very infrequently, might have been overlooked. It had been soaked in salt water and may not have worked when needed. I understand that they had steering trouble. Maybe that steering motor did finally burn out. And last but not least I hope they had enough copper cylinder head gaskets for the engines. There were plenty of them still there when I left.


Israel desperately needed a navy. The war of independence lasted another year with periods of intense fighting and periods of truce. The Elath was one of three refugee ships sitting rusting the Haifa harbor and were pressed into service. Two of the others had been Canadian Corvettes not very different from the Elath. A fourth ship was a retired river cruise boat, the Boaz. They were fitted with a couple of small cannons and a few machine guns, manned mainly with volunteers from abroad, and shazam, Israel had a navy.  I would have been one of its crew if I had not got sick and dropped out of the club.


They had a navy and it worked. They patrolled the coast and kept the lanes open all during the war. I guess that the enemy was equally limited.


How did they know that they would need a navy in the midst of the incredible turmoil after the war with the millions of refugees, the camps, the British blockade. How did they

manage to find and buy ships with military provenance while at the same time, recruiting the crews, negotiating with the disorganized governments, the Russians, the Czechs, buying arms, arranging transportation, conducting an efficient intelligence operation?


How did they do everything right all at the same time? How could they have been prepared in advance for so many simultaneous challenges?  To use a trite phrase, it boggles the mind. I am as secular a person as you can find. I don't believe in miracles. But when I think about it I am in awe.


That they survived the war and emerged victorious is itself bizarre. On May 15 the British pulled out. On May 16 five Arab armies invaded. 11,000 Egyptian troops with armor, artillery, warplanes, and well-equipped infantry marched in. 6000 Jordanian troops, trained and equipped by the British marched in. 38 British officers resigned their British commissions and joined the Jordanian army. No doubt they expected it to be a short enjoyable adventure, make a little money, be back under the British flag in a few weeks, and have stories to tell in their clubs from then on.


There were 2000 Iraqis, 1000 Syrians, and 1000 Lebanese too. Who could have imagined that the Jews would defeat such a force? Can you believe that the five of them plus the British did not plan the whole thing in advance and anticipate a cakewalk?


That the Jews had bought a fleet of surplus airplanes, negotiated with the Russians, assembled them in a Czech airfield, filled them with arms, recruited a viable team of pilots and navigators in preparation, transported them, housed them, kept them amused and organized and got them ready to fly, is literally amazing.


On May 17 the planes started to fly and started to land in Tel Aviv airport. The arms were distributed within days where they were needed before the slow moving Arab armies had gotten started.  They were not just small arms. Would you believe that they included fighter planes too? The Haganah had purchased 25 Messerschmitt fighter planes, had disassembled them and flew them to Tel Aviv. They started to arrive a few days later and were in use in a few weeks.  They won some air battles against superior Spitfires although they were inferior and had lots of defects. The landing gear was too weak and kept collapsing. The synchronizing mechanism that allowed the machine guns to fire through the propellers was faulty and sometimes caused them to shoot their own propellers.


 How did the lightly armed kibbutzim, with defenses consisting of stone walls and barbed wire, defeat the Egyptian armored brigades? It seems impossible.  They were defeated by a combination of Egyptian incompetence and Israeli determination, tactics and bravery. Visibility from a tank is poor. They cannot see people hiding in foxholes. When attacking well dug in infantry, tanks should be closely followed by foot soldiers that protect them from infantry weapons and serve as their eyes and ears. But the Egyptian infantry was 200 yards behind the tanks. The tanks were undefended. It was possible to jump out of a foxhole, throw a Molotov cocktail at a tank and jump back in the foxhole. The Egyptians were intolerant of losses. Lose one or two tanks and they retreated. End of battle.


The story of the Israeli military successes in the many wars is well known and well documented. Unfortunately military success is necessary but not a sufficient condition to achieve peace and security. But that is another story.  This is supposed to be about the Israeli navy.


Before getting back to the story of the Israeli navy and how it became the effective force that it is today I want to tell about what happened to the Golan Heights. I had lived several months in Kibbutz Mayan Boruch, a few miles from the heights and had witnessed the constant and random shelling by the Syrians from their fortified positions.

The Golan Heights is a long steep mountain ridge at the edge of the Galilee plain, about 1700 feet high, not unlike the Palisades along the Hudson River. 



There was nothing that the Israelis could do about it at that time. The heights had been fortified by the Russians. They had done a good job with concrete bunkers, pillboxes, cannon emplacements and tunnels. The Syrians did not invade from there during the war but after the war the fortification were strengthened and reinforced. Over the next 19 years the harassment continued. The Israelis could do nothing about it.


Then came the Six Day War in 1967 nineteen years later. Egypt had closed the Suez Canal and expelled the UN peacekeeping forces. It assembled 1000 tanks and 100,000 soldiers on Israel's border and closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping. Syria and Jordan also massed troops and Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Sudan contributed troops.  


Israel mobilized, called up every able bodied man in the country, and launched a pre-emptive strike. It was extremely successful and by the end of a few days Israel controlled Jerusalem, the west bank, the Gaza strip and all of Sinai.


After the initial successes there was intense discussion about the possibility of a successful attack on the Golan Heights. Initially Moshe Dayan was against it. He thought that the price would be too high, that there would be 30,000 casualties. But with the victories elsewhere, and the availability of troops, they decided to do it.


There were no possible tricks that could be used. It had to be a frontal attack, straight up the mountain. The Israelis planned it carefully. They knew the location of every emplacement and had a detailed plan. But nevertheless they anticipated many casualties. It turned out to be much easier than they had thought. The Syrians put up a fight at first but had no staying power. After two days they started to fold and by the third day the Israelis were on the plateau on the top. They had only a few hundred casualties.


But there was a tragic event a few days after the end of the Six Day War. The Elath, my ship was still in service and was in a routine patrol off the coast of Egypt. It was attacked by four Styx missiles; Russian made anti-ship missiles, and sank after two hours. It had a crew of 199 at the time of which 47 lost their lives. There is an account in the Internet by an American sailor who survived the attack after spending eight hours in the water and was then rescued by another Israeli ship.


The Israeli Navy


Naval activity during the War of Independence in 1948 and the Suez war in 1956 was minimal. Neither Israel nor the Arab countries had any notable naval power. The sinking of the Elath was tragic but it occurred after the Six Day War and did not affect its outcome.


But after that naval affairs started to be much more important. The cold war between the US and the Soviets was in full flower and Russia supplied Egypt and Syria with modern high-speed missile bearing boats that were a serious threat. The Russian boats, Komar class and later the Osa class boats, had top speed of 44 knots and were equipped with ship to ship Styx missiles that were deadly.


Israel had its old World War II clunkers of which Elath was lost. It had two Flower class corvettes with top speed of 16 knots, not much better. It could not hope to defend its shores with them.


 In the 1960's, recognizing the coming threat, Israel purchased 12 unarmed high-speed boats from France that could be converted to military use. They were Sa'ar 3 class, (look them up in Wikipedia) and had a top speed of 42 knots. They had a chance to match the Russian made ships. The French delivered five of them to Israel in 1967 and then had second thoughts and withheld the rest of them. At the last minute two more were delivered but then there was a total embargo. The remaining five ships, bought and paid for, were interned in Cherbourg harbor. A year later in an operation that to this day is clouded with secrecy, the Israelis managed to retrieve them. Don't ask them how. Israel had a real navy.


The real test came in the Yom Kippur war of 1973. Egypt had not given up on its intent to destroy Israel and it, in combination with Syria, had secretly prepared and carried out an attack on the Day of Atonement when everyone is in a synagogue. How the vaunted Israel intelligence service had missed this is hard to believe.


Israel had armed and equipped its ships just in time. It had the Gabriel ship-to-ship missile, designed and manufactured in Israel. It had good radar and it had the Harpoon missile, made by Boeing.


The Russian-made missile boats were superior in most attributes. They were faster, larger and had greater range. But most important, the Styx missile had a range of 30 miles while the Gabriel missile's range was only 20 miles.


Think what this means. In an actual engagement the Israeli ship and the Egyptian ship are approaching each other at high speed. They can see each other via radar. When they are 30 miles apart the Egyptian ship can fire its missile but the Israeli ship must wait several minutes before it can fire. How can the Israeli ship win?


The Israeli ship can dodge the incoming missile. Both the Gabriel and the Styx missiles are subsonic. They fly below the speed of sound at about 600 miles per hour. On its radar the Israeli ship can see both the enemy ship and the incoming missile. It takes the Styx two minutes to reach its target. Enough time to dodge if you are alert and know how.


The Styx missile has terminal guidance, which means it can be steered to hit the target. But the terminal guidance depends on radar. You can disable the enemy radar with chaff, strips of aluminum foil, shot into the air.  You can jam the enemy radar with countermeasures.


The Gabriel missile had an advantage. It skimmed the water at an altitude of just two yards, very difficult to see on radar.


The end result was a complete victory for the Israelis. Their sophisticated electronic methods, never before tried in combat, worked. At the battle of Latakia the Syrian lost three missile boats, a torpedo boat and a minesweeper. The Israelis lost nothing. The Syrians never came out of their harbor again.


This was the first naval battle between missile boats and it revolutionized naval warfare. Many of the small nations of the world, including Singapore, Taiwan, South Africa, with sea coastlines adapted the methods developed by the Israelis.


A few days later, at the battle of Baltim, the Israelis engaged the Egyptian missile ships. Again the Israelis were completely victorious. Three Osa class Egyptian ships were sunk and a third escaped back into Alexandria harbor. Again the Israelis lost nothing. The Egyptians too never emerged from their harbor again.


In all, the Arabs fired 57 missiles during the Yom Kippur war. None of them hit the target. The only success they had was the sinking of the Elath by four Styx missiles just after the six-day war. The little ship that I had nursed nineteen years before is at the bottom just outside Alexandria harbor.











Peace is better than War



War is better than Death



Victory is better than Defeat



When David slew Goliath he was being unreasonable.



When faced with an existential threat




Be Unreasonable !