The Boats Of Cherbourg
“A tense, exciting thriller all the more fascinating because it’s true.”
Curt Schleier, Newsday
“Abraham Rabinovich writes so well that I kept fearing the day I would finally finish reading his masterpiece of international intrigue.”
By James J. Bell (Chamblee, GA United States) Amazon.com reader.
About the book
On Christmas Eve 1969, five small boats slipped out of Cherbourg harbor after midnight into the teeth of a Force Nine gale that sent large freighters scurrying for cover. The boats, ordered by Israel from a local shipyard, had been embargoed for more than a year by French President Charles de Gaulle. In a brazen caper, the Israelis were now running off with them. As the boats raced for home and Paris fumed, the world media chortled at Israel’s hutspa. But the story was far bigger than they knew.
Eight years before, the commander of the Israeli navy had assembled senior officers for a brainstorming session. The navy faced downgrading to a coast guard unless it could reconstitute itself as a fighting force on a starvation budget. What to do? A desperate proposal emerged from the two-day meeting.
Israel’s fledgling military industries had developed a crude missile which was rejected by both the army and air force. The navy would now try adapting it. If placed on small patrol boats, the missiles, with their large warheads, could give these cheap vessels the punch of a heavy cruiser.
Over the next decade, engineers working virtually round-the-clock developed the first missile boats in the West. Of a dozen boat platforms ordered in Cherbourg seven sailed to Israel before the embargo. The five that escaped completed the flotilla. But the Soviets had meanwhile also developed missile boats which they distributed to their Arab allies. Their powerful and accurate missiles had twice the range of Israel’s. To secure Israel’s sea lanes, the navy devised electronic countermeasures that would hopefully divert the enemy missiles.
On the first night of the Yom Kippur War, an Israeli squadron engaged three Syrian missile boats in the first ever missile-to-missile battle at sea. The Syrian boats fired first but all three were sunk. Two nights later, three Egyptian missile boats were sunk. The electronic umbrella had worked and no Israeli boat was hit. A new naval age had dawned.
Where to buy
The Boats Of Cherbourg is available in eBook formats from most major book retailers including:
“Dear Mr. Rabinovich:
Your recent book, The Boats of Cherbourg, almost caused my wife to divorce me, especially when I began to read it for the second time. I cannot recall a more fascinating book.
As the consummate reporter you correctly suspected a story but you had a tiger by the tail, didn’t you. It truly was a ball of yarn that you unraveled. “Truth is stranger than fiction” is an understatement when thinking of the threats to Israel and how they were met, the “imagineering” required to conceive and design the missile boats – then to fund them and actually acquire them.
Were it not for possible political and diplomatic embarrassment that might result from popularizing Israeli cunning and chutzpah in the escape from Cherbourg, The Boats would provide the scenario for a thrilling motion picture or TV Special.
I thank you for a memorable reading experience.”
A letter from Morton H. Harmel, Yarmouth, Massachusetts.
“Techno thriller — an admirable story, very well told.
If this book had had a press agent, it would have been a bestseller. It has the technical depth of a Clancy thriller — but it is a true story, based on over a hundred interviews. The battle scenes are especially remarkable. Chess for keeps. The Israelis used a short range “smart” missile against a long range, not-so-smart missile. Each 14,000 hp missile boat had to charge its enemy at full speed to close the range gap, under fire, with many miles to put under the keel before it could realistically open fire itself. An Israeli boat was able to do this successfully by cloning itself electronically, so that the incoming Russian-made missiles “saw” multiple racing targets instead of one. The hair-raising aspect of this primitive countermeasure was that one of the targets seen by the incoming missile was indeed the real, almost completely vulnerable oncoming Israeli missile boat. Put this one next to Hornblower. A classic.”
Written by an Amazon.com reader.
“The best kept secret in Naval History.
The heart of the story, the dramatic plan to “liberate” the patrol boats, is told in a manner that makes you feel the suspense and the tension the Israelis manning the boats must have felt. A must on any Naval History buff’s bookshelf.”
By Kevin Lane (Norfolk, VA United States) an Amazon.com reader.
“Triumph of an Idea.
Israel had purchased a particular type of boat from France but De Gaulle refused to release them. Thus an incredible plan was hatched to steal them (well, take what was theirs) and somehow return to home waters.
The background, the arrangements, the spies, the methods and the actual theft is better than fiction. Needless to say, the import was more than “stealing a ship”. It was about developing a gunboat with a special type of rocket that could skim the surface and inflict maximum damage. The fruits of this labor were borne out in the 1973 Yom Kippur War in which Israel took total control of the seas, entered Egyptian waters, and prevented any Arab naval excursions. Great story.”
By Avid Reader an Amazon.com reader.
This is a fantastic and gripping book. Israel’s development of missile boats is a story of small maverick teams trying to achieve breakthroughs; of innovative naval commanders; of maverick combat leaders; of strategy and planning. An outstanding and inspiring book on many levels. Highly recommended!”
Written by an Amazon.com reader.
“A great book about an amazing Naval story.
This is a very well written book which should be studied by midshipmen at every naval college. The stealthy breakout of the boats from Cherbourg reads like a spy thriller. The first experience in naval history of ships engaging missile to missile reads like a techno thriller. Kudos to the author for combining all of this in one book.”
Written by Matthew Bracken “author of Enemies Foreign And Domestic” (Jacksonville, FL USA).
1. The Eilat, 1967
The bridge of the destroyer Eilat was crowded, as it always was towards sunset, when the watch is doubled against surprises lurking in a world half drained of light.
Through binoculars, Commander Yitzhak Shoshan, captain of the Eilat, could make out the tops of cranes in Port Said silhouetted against the horizon to the west. Around him, commands were being given laconically into intercoms with the exaggerated enunciation used for clarity in shipboard communication.
Shoshan’s orders were to skirt the edge of Egyptian territorial waters twelve miles from Port Said; he was 13.5 miles out and intending to get no closer. After asking the watch officer to confirm the distance with a radar check, he ordered the vessel turned south, towards the Sinai coast.
Ever since Israel’s spectacular victory in the Six Day War four months before, the navy had been patrolling Sinai’s coasts and showing the flag. In its forays towards Port Said, the northern entranceway to the Suez Canal, the navy was not only showing the flag but ramming it down the Egyptians’ throat. It was highly unlikely that the devastated Egyptians would do anything about it, particularly since the Israeli vessels kept to international waters.
Despite Israel’s postwar euphoria, Shoshan had been ill at ease about these brushes with Port Said ever since a night action three months before. Two unidentified vessels had been detected on the Eilat’s radar emerging from the Egyptian harbor and turning east. His standing orders were to attack if Egyptian vessels ventured into territorial waters off Sinai. Shoshan took his destroyer ten miles out to sea and ordered two torpedo boats operating with him to lie close to the shore at Romani, where the land mass would mask them from radar detection. The intruders were soon abreast of Sinai. When their escape route had been cut off, the torpedo boats sprang.
The Egyptian vessels turned out to be torpedo boats as well. They split as soon as they detected their pursuers, one running back along the coast and the other heading out to sea. The two Israeli boats overtook the inshore vessel and raced in an Indian circle around it, the gunners keeping their fire bearing on the Egyptian vessel until it burst into flames. The other Egyptian boat was intercepted by the Eilat and blown out of the water.
Instead of reveling in this classic ambush, Shoshan was uneasy. The Egyptian navy, he felt, was unlikely to let the humiliation pass without attempting revenge. Shoshan was one of the few people in Israel who had reason to believe that the Egyptians had the means to achieve it.
Since 1962, Egypt had been receiving vessels from the Soviet Union designated as missile boats. No one in Israel knew the nature of those missiles — neither their range nor whether they had the capacity to home in on a target. Neither the Egyptians nor the Syrians had yet attempted to use them, not even in the Six Day War, when they had twenty-four missile boats between them. Israeli military circles believed that even if the Soviet-made missiles had some kind of homing capacity—and that was far from certain — the Egyptians were unlikely to operate them sufficiently well in combat conditions for the vessels to constitute a serious danger. In any case, Israel’s ability to punish the Egyptians severely made it unlikely that they would even attempt to fire the missiles.
Before receiving command of the Eilat two years before, Shoshan had been the navy’s chief electronics officer. He knew from that tour of duty that Israel had no effective measures to counter missiles. In the skirmish off Romani, he had initially kept his distance in case the Egyptian vessels were missile boats, which would find the relatively large silhouette of the Eilat an easy target. For the same reason, he ordered the Eilat this day—October 21, 1967—to turn away from Port Said while still a good mile and a half from Egyptian waters. According to intelligence, there were missile boats inside Port Said harbor.
It was now almost 5:30 p.m., and the eastern Mediterranean embraced the ship with its usual autumnal calmness. In five minutes there would be a routine sounding of battle stations as the sun prepared to slip below the horizon. Off-duty sailors lingered at the rails to watch the sunset or stare into the chameleon waters, which had now turned blue-black. This would be the last swing past Port Said on this patrol. In a few hours the Eilat would turn towards home.
“Green rocket to starboard.”
The cry from the bridge shattered the sunset reverie. From the direction of Port Said, the starboard lookout had seen a flaring of greenish light. The glow turned orange-yellow, and from a roiling of smoke on the horizon a dark object hurtled into the sky. Shoshan swung his binoculars and saw a bright ball of light. It was not rising like a flare but wafting lazily toward them, trailing smoke. He saw it swerve slightly and knew instantly that he was looking at his nightmare. The missile age at sea was beginning. He had less than a minute to try to save his ship and its 200 crewmen.
The sinkng of the Eilat changed the nature of naval warfare as dramatically as had the appearance of ironclad vessels a century before. A small boat firing from the horizon had destroyed a ship ten times its size.
The West had known of the existence of Soviet sea-to-sea missiles but had no idea of their accuracy or power. Three of the four missiles fired at the Eilat had hit their target. The fourth had missed only because there was virtually nothing left of the ship sticking out of the water.
There was only one country in the world working on an answer to this new weapon. That country, as it happened, was Israel.
2. The First Escape
The two small craft with the spindly masts seemed out of place in the vastness of the naval base in Cherbourg. They flew no flag, displayed no names, and bore no armament.
The vessels were the sixth and seventh in a series of twelve ordered by the Israeli navy. The first five had sailed for Israel since the sinking of the Eilat fourteen months before. But the small Israeli naval mission posted in Cherbourg was becoming increasingly pessimistic about the chances of the remaining boats being permitted to leave after their launching. An embargo on arms shipments to the Middle East imposed by President Charles de Gaulle on the eve of the Six Day War had not initially been applied to the unarmed boats being built in Cherbourg. Few people outside Cherbourg knew of their existence; in Cherbourg the local press deliberately refrained from mentioning them for fear that employment at the shipyard might be affected if the boats’ ambiguous status became a public issue. However, with Paris’s new pro-Arab orientation becoming increasingly blatant, the fate of the Cherbourg boats was clearly endangered. Captain Hadar Kimche, the head of the Israeli mission, had begun seeing to it that freshly launched boats waiting for completion of sea tests had enough fuel to get away if an embargo seemed imminent.
Now, in the last days of December 1968, that moment seemed to have come. Israeli commandos had raided Beirut Airport three days after Christmas and destroyed thirteen planes in retaliation for an attack on an El Al plane in Athens by Palestinians a few days before. No one had been killed in the Beirut raid, but the Israelis in Cherbourg feared Paris’s reaction to this blow at the dignity of a country that had been a French mandate.
The feeling of unease was shared by Admiral (ret.) Mordecai Limon, a former commander of the Israeli navy now serving as head of the military purchasing mission maintained by the Israeli Defense Ministry in Paris. With his extensive political contacts, Limon had reason to believe that De Gaullian wrath might now be extended to Cherbourg.
Telephoning Kimche on Wednesday, January 1, 1969, Limon relayed rumors he had heard that action might be taken against the Israeli boats. “Things are getting warm here,” he said. Boat Number Six, launched in November, had completed its trials and was scheduled to sail for Israel in a few days. Boat Number Seven had been launched only a few days before and had not yet been tested at sea. Speaking elliptically, Limon made it clear to Kimche that if Boat Number Six could leave that night, it would be a good idea to do so. Kimche indicated his assent.
Assembling the crew and going aboard Boat Number Six to prepare it for sailing, Kimche left to his deputy, Commander Moshe Tabak, the delicate task of getting clearance from the French navy to leave port without revealing to them that the boat would not be coming back. At the operational level, this involved arrangements for opening a swing bridge that would let the boat out of the arsenal, as the French naval base was referred to. At the quasi-diplomatic level, it was much more awkward.
Before the departure of each boat for Haifa, the Israelis would notify the French naval authorities in Cherbourg. At a ceremony in naval headquarters in the arsenal, Kimche would present the captain of the departing craft to the French admiral commanding and there would be mutual toasts. The Israelis had requested anchorage facilities in the naval base while the new boats were being tested for fear of a possible Palestinian attack in the unguarded civilian port in the weeks between their departure from the shipyard and their departure from Cherbourg. The French had generously obliged, even providing living quarters for the crewmen and support facilities. To delude them now and run off with Boat Number Six under false pretenses was an unsavory act for the Israeli officer, who had developed warm personal relations with his French counterparts. But Tabak accepted that his own feelings were of little consequence in the matter.
Telephoning Commandant Sardas, the French liaison officer with whom the Israelis dealt, Tabak said that the crew of Boat Number Six would be taking the vessel out again in the evening for a running-in exercise. This time it would be a long-distance test that would last forty hours. Captain Kimche would be joining the boat and there was a chance, if the weather was good and the test produced no problems, that the boat might continue on to Israel, rather than return to Cherbourg and risk bad weather on its scheduled date of departure the following week.
“Oh, no, Commandant,” said Sardas. “How would I explain that to my superiors?”
“If you want,” said Tabak, “I’ll explain it to them.”
The boat’s preparations were nearly completed when darkness fell. Its captain, Lieutenant Commander Yaacov Nitzan, told his radioman to inform the arsenal that the boat would be leaving at 7:00 p.m. and to request that the swing bridge be opened at that hour. Tool kits left behind by shipyard workers who had been putting finishing touches on the vessel were still aboard when it slipped through the arsenal exit into the harbor.
High seas pursued the boat as it raced south at thirty knots. Nitzan had been assured that the boat would be easy to handle, but he could barely control its movements. The waves were moving at the same speed as the vessel, which was behaving like a bobbing cork. Hoping that increased speed would afford the boat a better grip, he moved up to thirty-seven knots, but the boat heeled over so sharply as it skidded down a wave that he feared it was going to broach. Nitzan throttled back to twenty-one knots and found that the boat responded well.
Nearing Cape Vincent at the southern tip of Portugal on the second night, Nitzan was informed of fifty-knot headwinds awaiting him if he turned the corner into the Mediterranean. He chose to wait out the storm in the shelter of the cape. Dropping anchor close to shore, he ordered the galley to prepare a hot meal for the exhausted crew.
The premature departure of Boat Number Six had taken by surprise Lieutenant Commander Shabtai Levy, designated as captain of Boat Number Seven. Each of the Israeli boats departing Cherbourg normally carried the captain of the boat that was to follow so that he could familiarize himself with the boat’s handling during the six-day run. Levy, who was in London when the boat left, boarded a commercial flight to Gibraltar to intercept the vessel at its first refueling stop.
The same storm that had forced Nitzan to seek shelter was battering Gibraltar’s airport when the British airliner carrying Levy approached. The pilot announced over the loudspeaker that because of the weather the plane was diverting to Algiers. The Israeli naval officer, who was wearing civilian clothes, asked a stewardess to speak to the pilot urgently. Upon learning Levy’s identity, the pilot agreed to brave the storm and land at Gibraltar rather than risk having his passenger taken into custody by the Algerian authorities.
Meanwhile, shipyard workers in Cherbourg who found the boat gone expressed their disappointment to Tabak at having been deprived of the farewell cocktail party that preceded the departure of each Israeli vessel.
“You haven’t missed out on anything,” he assured them. “We’re going to have the party Friday on Boat Number Seven.”
That vessel was still covered with an untidy clutter of cables and unfastened equipment, but tables for the celebration were set up in the boat’s largest cabin. In a brief speech, Tabak praised the workers for having finished Boat Number Six on schedule. “As you know, the boat has gone out for testing. Captain Kimche has decided to continue with it to Israel. He reports all the systems functioning perfectly.” Raising a glass, Tabak offered a toast: “To the life of the boat and to those that will come after it. May they reach safe harbor.”
In the spirit of bonhomie, a foreman announced that he would come the next day to install heating on the bridge of Number Seven, which was to begin its sea trials on Sunday. Tabak’s aversion to cold was well known in the shipyard. “I don’t normally work on Saturdays,” said the foreman, “but I will do it for you — providing, of course, that the boat will still be here.”
Tabak joined in the guffaws. Gesturing at the exposed cables, he said, “Do you think we would sail three thousand miles in this?”
“Do I know?” replied the foreman with a Gallic shrug. “You people are capable of anything.”
The frantic week was not quite behind Tabak when he arrived home that evening. He put in a call to Gibraltar to make certain about fueling arrangements for Number Six, called London to confirm Levy’s departure for Gibraltar, and contacted Haifa to inform Israeli naval headquarters of the latest developments.
These chores completed, he could at last turn to that snug harbor in which the Jewish people have ever been able to find brief solace in a stormy world — the Sabbath. Unlike most Friday nights, this time there were no guests for the Sabbath meal. His enjoyment of the quiet family meal with his wife, Esther, and their infant son was heightened by the prospect of a solid night’s sleep that lay ahead.
He was still sleeping the next morning at eight when the phone rang. “It’s Mocca,” said Admiral Limon, using the nickname by which he was known to intimates. “Do you remember the vacation in Israel that you asked for? Well, they’ve approved it. I’d be interested in your leaving as soon as possible.”
Tabak had asked for no vacation but, groggy as he was, he understood that Limon was telling him to get Boat Number Seven away to Israel. The two had discussed a few days before the possibility of having to escape with Number Seven if an embargo seemed imminent, but in view of the boat’s condition they had spoken only of taking it across the Channel to get it out of French jurisdiction.
“Are you sure they want me to take the vacation in Israel and not England?” Tabak asked.
“No, no, they want you to go to Israel, as you requested,” said Limon. “You’re needed there. Can you leave today?”
“I’ll have to check some things — tickets and flight schedules. I’ll try to make it today. I’ll call you as soon as I know.”
Hanging up, Tabak wondered if he had understood Limon correctly. However, as his mind focused, he decided that he had. He telephoned an aide and told him to get to the crew’s quarters immediately and make sure no one left for the weekend. Dressing swiftly, he made his way to mission headquarters, the task before him unfolding in his mind. The boats were normally tested hundreds of miles before being sailed to Haifa and serious problems were often uncovered. Boat Number Seven would be risking winter storms on a three-thousand-mile journey with no testing at all. It would have to sail with only a crew of twelve — all the crew members remaining in Cherbourg — instead of the normal complement of thirty, and its captain, Lieutenant Commander Levy, had flown to Gibraltar to join Number Six. Furthermore, it had a handicap none of the other boats had had. In order to test the boat’s stability when armed, an unwieldy seven-ton dummy cannon had been secured to its deck.
On the street, Tabak saw a car carrying his chief machinist and two other sailors. He flagged them down.
“We’re going to Paris for the day,” said the machinist.
“Your plans have just been changed,” said Tabak. “Get back to the boat and get it ready to sail. We’re leaving today for Haifa. The French aren’t to know about it.”
Remaining behind to mind the shop would be Lieutenant Haim Shachak, the mission’s supply officer. Tabak told him to get food aboard Number Seven and, if possible, to get customs clearance so that, legally at least, the boat would not be a runaway. The one legal requirement before departure, the Israelis had learned, was customs clearance, which attested that the foreign parts imported to France for the boat, like its German engine, were aboard the boat when it sailed. Informing the French navy of departure was merely a courtesy.
It was raining heavily when Shachak rang the doorbell of the customs officer’s home on the outskirts of Cherbourg.
“Oh, Commandant, what wind has brought you?” asked the Frenchman in surprise, ushering him in.
Shachak apologized for interrupting the official’s weekend and said that an emergency had occurred. “You’ve probably heard about the raid on Beirut Airport,” he said. “There’s a lot of tension now in the Middle East, and the boat is needed there. We want to sail today and would like clearance. We need your help.”
“But the boat is unarmed,” said the customs officer. “What could you do with it?”
“We’ll put a gun on it and patrol.”
When Shachak quoted a passage from Jonah to reinforce a point, the customs officer’s wife, who had joined them, responded enthusiastically. She was the daughter of a minister and was delighted at the opportunity to exchange biblical quotations with the Israeli visitor.
“Listen, Jacques,” she said to her husband. “The commandant has come especially for you. Go with him.”
The official dutifully put on his coat and accompanied Shachak.
There remained the vital task of obtaining a weather map of the treacherous Bay of Biscay. Tabak assumed that Limon had understood that to be the meaning of his remark about checking timetables. Intent on avoiding Commandant Sardas because of the embarrassment over Boat Number Six, he went directly to the office of the arsenal’s weekend duty officer, instead of going through the liaison officer. As he entered the room, Tabak was startled to see that the duty officer behind the desk was Sardas.
“What are you doing here?” asked the Frenchman warily.
“I’ve come to apologize,” said Tabak, recovering quickly. “I heard you were duty officer.”
Sardas’s tense demeanor relaxed a bit. “You don’t know how angry they were with me in Paris,” he confided. “I was rebuked.”
The two men chatted awhile, and then Tabak said, “We’re having trouble with the propeller of Number Seven and want to test it. Can I get the weather?”
“No problem,” said Sardas.
He went out to the meteorologist’s office down the hall and returned with a large map of the region. Tabak pretended to study the Cherbourg area, but out of the corner of his eye he carefully noted the barometric readings for the Bay of Biscay. He was relieved to see no troublesome lows.
Still missing from his weather picture was the area farther south, around Cape Vincent. For this he radioed Boat Number Six, which was still anchored there. Kimche reported that the wind had dropped sufficiently for his vessel to get under way for Gibraltar. Tabak hinted that they might be seeing each other sooner than expected.
Shortly before noon, the boat’s chief petty officer informed Tabak that it was impossible to fuel the boat because the shipyard foreman and two assistants had arrived to install the heating system on the bridge. There was nothing to do but wait. The foreman would immediately have understood what was afoot if he had seen the boat being fueled for a long journey. Fortunately, the workmen were done in less than an hour and fueling could begin.
As the day wore on, Tabak was increasingly troubled by a sense of unease over the operation. Contacting Haifa, he expressed his misgivings and asked whether the urgency was real. “If you’re sure about the boat’s seaworthiness,” headquarters replied, “go.”
By midafternoon, preparations were complete. Attempts to pry loose the dummy gun had failed and the boat would have to sail with it aboard. Tabak telephoned Limon in Paris. “I’ve got my tickets and I’ll be leaving Cherbourg by train at 4:30.”
Limon wished him a good journey.
Tabak returned to the boat to find a new French duty officer taking a keen interest in the unusual Saturday afternoon activity around the Israeli vessel. Tabak introduced himself and informed him that they were going out in order to test the boat’s propeller. Could a sailor be posted to open the bridge at 4:30? The duty officer assured him it would be taken care of. The bridge swung open at the designated time and Tabak conned the boat out through the narrow opening.
The boat ran well across the relatively calm Bay of Biscay. With the excitement of the departure behind him, Tabak was again seized by doubts. Had the escape really been necessary? Had Limon perhaps overreacted? By running off for the second time in three days — deceiving the French naval authorities again — were they not endangering the boats yet to be built? Ten hours out to sea, Tabak received a message from Haifa congratulating him on his rapid organization and departure. It eased his mind to know that headquarters was pleased. Presumably they knew something he didn’t.
Limon had not overreacted. He had been informed on Friday by a senior French official that de Gaulle had decided to declare a total embargo in reaction to the Beirut raid. An order was to be sent later in the day from Paris to all customs offices to halt clearance of war materiel destined for Israel. The directive was being issued before a public announcement of the embargo in order to forestall any last-minute flight of materiel that Israeli machinations might contrive. Limon was able to persuade a French official to have the message to the Cherbourg customs office misaddressed to a district customs office in Normandy and dispatched only late on Friday. The directive would not be rerouted to Cherbourg until after the weekend.
Tabak was unaware of this as he rounded Cape Vincent and entered the Mediterranean. The sea was mountainous but the wind was behind him. Low clouds were thick around Gibraltar. Entering the harbor, he tied up alongside Boat Number Six and stepped down from the bridge for the first time in forty-nine hours. Kimche was on the quay to greet him.
Leaving the two boats to sail on to Israel the next day under Tabak’s command, Kimche flew to London and took the cross-Channel ferry to Cherbourg to face the French wrath.
“Oho, are they looking for you,” said Commandant Sardas when Kimche telephoned him. Donning a dress uniform for the confrontation, the Israeli officer was ushered into the office of the admiral commanding the arsenal.
Flanked by aides wearing severe expressions, the French officer remained standing and did not offer Kimche a seat. The Israelis had not acted “avec honneur,” said the admiral. They had violated the French navy’s hospitality and he was therefore obliged to ask them to leave the premises of the arsenal within twenty-four hours. Kimche was asked if he had anything to say.
“What would you have done in my situation?”
“That is not a question I am obliged to answer,” said the admiral.
The tension eased somewhat as the admiral accompanied Kimche to the door, the official message having been delivered. As they parted, the admiral shook hands and said, “In the same situation, I might have done the same.”
Outside the door, French officers were waiting to make arrangements for the transfer of Israeli property from the arsenal. Kimche asked for a twenty-four-hour extension which was readily granted.
The punishment was far milder than expected. The Israelis had feared banishment from Cherbourg and possibly a halt in further construction of the boats. They had been willing to risk it to ensure that at least Boats Six and Seven were in hand because of their critical importance.
The boats of Cherbourg were not the conventional patrol boats they seemed. They were in fact among the most unconventional vessels afloat, platforms for a technology and method of warfare almost a decade ahead of any Western navy’s. Israel was gambling the future security of its sea frontier and maritime lifeline on these frail-looking craft. They were the realization of a revolutionary concept that had emerged eight years before in Israeli naval headquarters in Haifa almost as a passing thought.
How I came to write The Boats Of Cherbourg
It was two years after the Yom Kippur War that I first heard about the Israeli missile boats. The media had reported virtually nothing about the navy’s activities in the war. With the country’s existence hanging on the fierce tank battles raging in Sinai and on the Golan and on the air force’s desperate attempts to stem the Arab tide, the navy had clearly played a marginal role at best.
I was part of a Jerusalem Post team that covered a symposium on the war in 1975 addressed by Israel’s top military commanders and political leaders. Although it was not part of my assignment, I stopped by to hear a lecture by the navy commander, Admiral Binyamin Telem, out of curiosity about what the navy had in fact done. His talk was a revelation. There had been battles at sea, which the public was unaware of, and they had been fought — for the first time in history — not with guns but with missiles which pursued enemy vessels with their own radar. Israel had employed a new kind of warship, missile boats, and so had the Arab navies.
The Egyptian and Syrian missile boats, acquired from the Soviet Union, outnumbered the Israeli vessels by more than two to one and their missiles had more than twice the range of the Israeli missile. Yet the Israeli missile boat flotilla had come through the war without losing a boat or a man while sinking almost every Arab vessel encountered and driving the Arab fleets into harbor. Israel had itself conceived and developed its missile boat. No other country in the West had anything similar.
This, then, was not some irrelevant skirmishing of gunboats on the margins of a bloody land war but a turning point in the history of naval warfare. A nation of three million had developed an advanced weapon system that not even the United States possessed and it had proved superior to the only other missile boat system in the world, developed by the Soviet superpower.
Months later, in an idle moment of reflection, Telem’s talk came to me as I walked down Ben-Yehuda Street in central Jerusalem. Before I reached the corner, I had an epiphany – a sudden recollection of the arrival in Haifa five years before of newly built patrol boats that Israeli sailors had run off with from Cherbourg after the boats were embargoed by the French government. The world had chuckled at Israel’s audacious “theft” of vessels which it had ordered and paid for. The boats had escaped on Christmas eve into the teeth of a Force 9 gale and made it to Haifa after a week-long run. Might those innocent-looking patrol boats, I wondered, have been the platforms for the missile boats which performed so spectacularly in the war three years later? Might that have been the reason that Israel went to such lengths, endangering its relations with France, to get them out of Cherbourg?
Taken together, the two episodes made for a tale greater than its parts, a tale of national will that surpassed conventional bounds.
I wrote to the Israeli Defense Ministry to express my interest in writing a book on the subject and to request access to relevant military sources. The request was kicked up to Defense Minister Ezer Weizmann himself who sent me a letter saying that the matter was still too sensitive to be written about, particularly the Cherbourg aspect. When Weizmann was replaced by Ariel Sharon I tried again and received a similar reply from his office. In late 1982, Sharon was forced out as defense minister and the portfolio was temporarily taken over by Prime Minister Menahem Begin. I wrote once more. This time I received a reply from naval headquarters in Tel Aviv inviting me to a meeting. Apparently no one in Begin’s office knew what to do with my request and it had been passed on to the navy. A friendly captain behind a desk questioned me about my background and about the kind of book I intended to write while a female officer took notes and asked me to send a copy of a book I had previously written.
A month later I was invited back. Looking solemn this time, the captain informed me that after consideration the navy had decided it could not cooperate. Crestfallen, I was about to take my leave when he stopped me. “We won’t stand in your way if you want to interview people on your own. We could even provide telephone numbers of any specific persons you ask for.”
“But where would I begin?” I said. “I don’t know who to ask for.”
The officer wrote something on a piece of paper and handed it to me. On it were the names of two persons and their telephone numbers. He did not tell me who they were.
I left the office uncertain whether to be depressed or elated. It took me a while to understand what was happening. The navy did not want to get involved in the project officially. The captain had mentioned that after seeing a recent movie about Israel’s naval commandos the naval command had regretted cooperating with the film company that made it. On the other hand, it wanted to have the story of its exploits told – exploits unknown even to the Israeli public. The navy would help me with my project, but from a discreet distance.
The names on the slip of paper given me by the captain were Hadar Kimche and Moshe Tabak. I called Kimche first and traveled to his home on Mount Carmel in Haifa on a stormy winter evening without knowing what edge of the story I was about to touch. It was only after we began talking that I realized that I was not at the edge of the story but at its very center. Kimche had commanded the Cherbourg breakout and was the first commander of the missile boat flotilla. When I left his home after four hours the piece of string the captain in naval headquarters had handed me had become a web leading in a dozen different directions. From Tabak, who had been Kimche’s deputy, I received an expanded picture and the names of still more people to track down.
There would be more than a hundred interviews in the coming years. I would have lengthy talks with former commanders of the navy instrumental in the development of the missile boat concept, including Yohai Bin-Nun, whom I met at his kibbutz on the Mediterranean coast; Shlomo Erell, then serving as inspector general of Israel’s defense establishment; and “Binny” Telem on his small farm near Netanya. “Yomi” Barkai, the feisty officer who commanded the flotilla during the war, recounted the battles as we sat in the cabin of the small yacht he lived on for half the year between sailings as captain of a merchant vessel.
I had two long sessions with Yitzhak Shoshan, who had commanded the destroyer Eilat, the first ship ever to be sunk by a missile. As we sat in the small plant he now managed, he displayed the emotional scars inflicted by the loss of his vessel and a quarter of his crew shortly after the Six Day War. Many of the interviews with ex-naval officers were conducted in electronics plants in the Haifa and Tel Aviv areas where they had gone to work after completion of their military service. The navy made relevant active duty personnel available for interviews at the Haifa naval base. I was permitted to join a missile boat on a training mission and even to simulate firing a missile at night. Moshe Arens, a former aeronautics professor at the Technion who had gone on to become Israel’s defense minister, met with me in hisJerusalem office.
A key figure in the story, Admiral (ret.) Mordecai (Mocca) Limon, who master-minded the Cherbourg breakout, initially refused to be interviewed, noting that he had declined numerous requests because of the political sensitivity of the subject. He relented, however, when informed of the navy’s cooperation. We met twice in his executive offices in Tel Aviv, where he managed Rothschild interests in Israel. To meet another key figure in the story, Ori Even-Tov, the developer of the Gabriel missile, I traveled to the United States, where he had founded an electronics plant in a Philadelphia suburb.
In Washington, D.C., declassified documents on the Sixth Fleet activities during the Yom Kippur War were made available at the Naval Historical Division in the navy yard. Retired Vice Admiral Daniel Murphy, who commanded the Sixth Fleet during the Yom Kippur War, shed light during an interview on the little known confrontation between the American and Soviet fleets in the Mediterranean as their client states battled nearby on land — the largest naval confrontation of the Cold War. American naval authority Norman Polmar offered helpful insights on missile development as well as encouragement, noting that there was virtually no literature on the subject of Israel’s missile boats. Retired Rear Admiral Julian Lake (USN), a member of the American team that debriefed Israeli naval officers after the war, had carried out a study on the development of modern weapon systems around the world. The way the Israeli navy analyzed the threats facing it and the steps it took to deal with them, he told me, “stands out as the one clear example where everything was done right.”
In Cherbourg I met with Monsieur Corbinais at the Amiot shipyards which had built the missile boat platforms. On the basis ofIsrael’s success, his shipyard would win numerous orders for similar boats, including from Arab countries. A shipping agent in Cherbourgprovided me with the Paris telephone number of a shadowy figure, Victor Zipstein, reportedly a former Mossad agent, who had traveled toCherbourg with Limon the night of the escape. From a public telephone in a Paris railway station I contacted Zipstein who, after initially refusing to speak, went on to offer important confirmation about central points in the Cherbourg affair and new revelations while a long line of impatient Parisians formed behind me before dispersing in search of other working phones.
I met in Paris with General Cazelles, who had been sacked by the Pompidou government for his inadvertent role in the affair, and found the distinguished old officer still dazed by what had happened to him. From retired French officials, I obtained copies of relevant documents, including intelligence reports on the flight of the Cherbourg boats. Ex-Premier Jacques Chaban-Delmas described in an interview the government’s deliberations when the escape was discovered, including a proposal from the defense minister that the French Air Force interdict the fleeing boats.
In the end, all these strands emanating from the piece of investigative string offered by the captain in naval headquarters would weave together into a single tale. There were three distinct parts to the story – the development of the missile boat system, the escape fromCherbourg, and the performance of the boats in battle. For me, the first part was the most exciting even though it was the most sedentary – an act of intellectual daring and creative teamwork that would foreshadow the successes of Israel’s military industries in future decades such as the Iron Dome anti-rocket system. The story of the Cherbourg breakout is told comprehensively for the first time on the basis of interviews with the principals involved.
In maritime encounters around the world after the Yom Kippur War, the missile would prove to be king. In the Falklands campaign, the British, despite electronic defenses, lost two vessels to Exocet missiles fired by Argentine planes. In the Persian Gulf, tankers would become targets in a shooting gallery for Iranian and Iraqi missiles and even the American destroyer, USS Stark, would fall victim.
The virtual absence of references to the Israeli missile boat performance in the Yom Kippur War, even in professional literature, was probably due to the secrecy with which the Israeli navy initially shrouded events for security reasons as well as to tight-lipped habit and lack of publicity consciousness. Even in Israel, the story of the electronic defenses that permitted the Israeli missile boats to overcome the technology of a superpower and ward off all incoming missiles was virtually unknown outside the navy itself. But the tale was too good to be left to old sailors spinning yarns in pubs.