Forty years ago this Christmas eve, five small boats showing almost no lights slipped out of Cherbourg harbor into the teeth of a Force 9 gale which kept even large freighters from venturing out.
Built for the Israel Navy, the vessels had been embargoed at the beginning of the year by French president Charles de Gaulle. Their empty berths on Christmas Day and the absence of any announcement about the embargo's termination prompted media inquiries, which failed to elicit convincing explanations. "Where are they?" asked a banner headline in a local newspaper.
In the news doldrums of the holiday season, the international media scented an outlandish story: Had Israel stolen back its own boats? A television team flew out over the North Sea to see if the boats were headed for Norway, to which they had ostensibly been sold; others flew out over the Mediterranean.
The boats were indeed on the run. Battered by towering waves as they crossed the Bay of Biscay, they dropped anchor in a Portuguese cove alongside an Israeli freighter fitted out as a refueling ship, one of several support vessels deployed along the 5,150-km. escape route. When the boats entered the Mediterranean, British maritime monitors on Gibraltar signaled "What ship?" A Lloyd's helicopter circled the silent vessels but saw no identity numbers or flags. The British monitors, guessing the boats' destination from the media reports, flashed "bon voyage" in salute to Nelsonian flair.
Stung by Israel's audacity, French defense minister Michel Debre called for the air force to interdict the vessels which had been spotted off the North African coast racing east. Prime minister Jacques Chaban-Delmas refused. Near Crete, IAF Phantoms roared low overhead protectively and waggled their wings. The boats sailed into Haifa harbor on New Year's Eve, 1970, to cheers for a bravado display of high-stakes hutzpa.
For Israel's navy, however, the flight from Cherbourg was no lighthearted caper but a matter of life or death - its own. A decade earlier, it had been warned that it could be downsized to a coast guard because of budget constraints. In 1960, the navy commander, Admiral Yohai Bin-Nun, assembled his senior officers in naval headquarters on Mount Carmel to explore alternatives. Renowned for his exploits as a naval commando, Bin-Nun offered a low-cost alternative of his own - a navy based entirely on naval commandos who would strike at enemy navies in their bases.
From two days of heated discussion, an even more radical idea floated to the surface. A guided missile developed by Rafael, the keystone of Israel's nascent arms industry, had drawn no interest from the ground or air forces. If the Luz, as it was called, could be adapted for use at sea, suggested one of Bin-Nun's officers, it might be mounted on inexpensive patrol boats and provide them with a powerful punch. No such weapon system existed in the West although, unknown to the participants, one was nearing completion in the Soviet Union.
TO IDENTIFY a craft that could serve as a platform for the concept, Bin-Nun dispatched officers to several Western navies. Their choice was a German torpedo boat, the Jaguar, which had begun life in World War II as a Schnellboot (S-boat). "This is a ship of war," reported the search team after returning from a training exercise on a Jaguar in the North Sea.
In 1962, the Soviets began distributing their new Komar missile boat to Warsaw Pact allies and friendly Arab countries. Bin-Nun decided it was time to seek government backing for Israel's own missile boat concept. Meeting with the dynamic deputy defense minister, Shimon Peres, he was surprised by the quick response. "You'll get the money." It would come from the military aid package the German Federal Republic had been persuaded to provide, largely by Peres himself.
To oversee the project, Bin-Nun assigned his deputy, Capt. Shlomo Erell, who enthusiastically embraced it. The Luz warhead was as devastating as the eight-inch shell of a heavy cruiser, its range was about the same and if its guidance system could function in a rolling sea its chances of hitting a target were far greater than gunfire. Israel could not think of acquiring a new 3,500-ton destroyer, let alone a 15,000-ton cruiser, but if the missile boat could be realized, it would have a fleet of 240-ton vessels as powerful as a cruiser, faster than any destroyer and capable of sinking any ship in the eastern Mediterranean.
In blissful ignorance of the difficulties that lay ahead, Erell organized a think tank of naval officers and asked them to begin formulating the outlines of the boat circling at the center of his mind.
Development of the maritime version of the Luz, which was guided onto target by an operator using a joystick, was proving problematic. A maverick engineer at Rafael, Ori Even-Tov, whose alternative suggestions were ignored, was lured away by Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI), founded by American immigrant Al Schwimmer, and brought to meet Erell. He proposed dropping the joystick approach and developing an autonomous guidance system that would enable the missile to seek out the target by itself, even in darkness. To the dismay of Rafael, Erell ordered the project shifted to IAI.
Ensconced in a large, empty office, Even-Tov asked for two things - a mathematician to work with him and a set of basic American textbooks on airborne radar and allied fields. Ground-to-air and air-to-air missiles employing radar to home on targets existed in the West, but Israel was not privy to their secrets. What was available was textbook theory, and this the two men now ingested. For weeks, they pored over the material like students cramming for an exam, pausing to exchange comments and make notes. When they were finished, Even-Tov had a clear vision of his direction. It was one never taken before.
He proposed using an altimeter to have the missile fly just a few meters above the sea surface, making it a difficult target to hit by defensive weapons and enabling it to strike at the waterline. Radar would home the missile onto target. His proposal to split the guidance system by using both altimeter and radar was an innovation in missile technology. The Luz, whose aerodynamic features were retained, had been steered by impulses sent to its tail from the ground.
The redesigned missile, dubbed the Gabriel, would be a homing missile that tracked the target on its own. But the cone, in which a rotating radar would normally be placed for this purpose, was packed with explosives and redesign of the missile would involve unbearable outlays and delay. Instead, Even-Tov improvised a stationary radar antenna projecting from the missile's side.
When at Erell's request he presented his report to Peres, Even-Tov saw a copy of it already lying on the latter's desk. Alongside it was an analysis from Rafael and the air force that Peres had requested. Their conclusion was that, on the basis of the data supplied by Even-Tov himself, the proposal was totally unfeasible. Peres was nevertheless reluctant to drop the project which would enable Israel's fledgling military industries to cut their teeth on a substantial venture. He told Even-Tov he would send him to France to meet with engineers at three of the country's leading aeronautical plants to get their appraisals.
At two of the plants the verdict was a resounding negative. At the third, the chief engineer, a White Russian, questioned Even-Tov closely. "I think it can work," he said finally. "But it won't take five years and $5 million as you say but more like 20 years and $50 million." On the basis of that one quasi-positive appraisal, Peres authorized continuation of the program.
Meanwhile, German naval engineers, at the request of Israeli counterparts, were redesigning the Jaguar boats that had been ordered, including lengthening them by 2.4 meters to accommodate the numerous systems the Israelis wished to place aboard. Plans to build the boats in a German shipyard were scuttled when Arab states learned of it and threatened to break off relations with Germany. Germany would quietly provide the funds for the boats, but they would now be built in the Cherbourg shipyard of 70-year-old Felix Amiot.
BACK IN Haifa, the teams appointed by Erell to develop the overall weapon system now numbered hundreds of men, including naval officers and engineers and scientists from military industries. The highly classified project was dubbed Shalechet (Falling Leaves). The teams were divided into subgroups, each charged with resolving a specific design aspect. How many masts were needed to accommodate the dense electronics array? What kind of engine was powerful enough to provide 40 knots, yet small enough for this size boat? How could launch procedures be made simple enough to enable seamen in the midst of battle - not just technicians in laboratory conditions - to operate the system?
The questions were endless and each solution carried with it new problems. How can missiles be launched on the small deck without endangering the crew manning the gun nearby? What to do about mutual interference - electronic, noise, electromagnetic - among systems located near each other? How to prevent the sea-skimming Gabriel being struck by waves in rough seas?
The team leaders met regularly to report on progress and thrash out differences. Search radar, which scanned for enemy ships, and fire-control radar, which guided the missile at the beginning of its flight, vied with each other for higher position on the mast; gun and torpedo tubes elbowed each other for position on the deck; sonar argued against being thrown out to save weight. When no compromise could be reached, the Shalechet chief would generally decide; sometimes the decision would be passed on to the navy commander. The project's expanding scope obliged the navy to triple the number of men passing through its officers' courses.
The heart of the system was the below-decks war room, the combat information center, from which boat commanders would direct the battle. The radar screens, consoles and communication equipment were state-of-the-art. Information from the boat's sensors and outside sources like aircraft or other ships would be instantly analyzed and displayed to provide a real-time picture of the battle zone and clear options.
The flow of information was constant - from everyone to everyone - and the pace manic. Tests were constantly being set, reports presented, contracts for components signed, meetings scheduled. The pace would last for years, laced for all with moments of despair when it seemed mad to have attempted the enterprise, when it seemed an exercise in hubris that must end in farce, if not tragedy. As the pieces slowly began to fit together, however, this mood gave way to a sense of an epic voyage. Looking about him, Erell was convinced that no major power had ever invested as much energy in the design of a battleship.
It was the biggest and most complex technical enterprise ever undertaken by Israel until then and would be a major turning point for its military industries. Fear of being overtaken by war drove all with a sense of urgency. At the IAI plant at Lod, key men on the Gabriel project put in at least 12-14 hours every day of the year except Yom Kippur; Even-Tov and a few others came in on that day as well. Leaving the windowless plant to go home, they were sometimes startled to find that night had come, sometimes come and gone.
Some key elements like radar and the fire-control system had to be developed abroad since Israel did not yet have the know-how. Naval officers and IAI engineers were posted at plants in Europe to work with foreign engineers on their design and production. As they gained confidence, the Israeli engineers overcame initial diffidence and began demanding changes from the veteran continental engineers who more than once expressed skepticism about what they were being asked to do.
Straw boss of the Shalechet teams was engineer Aviah Shalif, who had grown up in Jerusalem with Even-Tov and Yohai Bin-Nun. Wiry and acerbic, he could deftly lay a tangled problem bare and propose a solution. His ability to make quick decisions and keep things moving was more important than the relative merits of the technical approaches he had to choose between. There were no pauses for agonized reflection as long as he was in the picture. In a document of several hundred pages, he formulated the comprehensive "logic" of the weapon system, showing how all the elements were linked and how they affected each other. It was an excruciating task, carried out without the aid of a computer, which he had not yet learned to use.
For most of the men involved, this would be the greatest adventure of their lives. A backward navy in a small country with no sophisticated industrial base had taken upon itself to create a major weapon system. Officers who had sailed in nothing but antiquated World War II castoffs found themselves plunging through uncharted waters at the frontier of military science. The challenge evoked ingenuity, technical daring and sometimes engineering brilliance.
IN OCTOBER 1967, the threat of the Soviet missile boats supplied to the Arabs became suddenly real when the Israeli flagship, the destroyer Eilat, was sunk by three Styx missiles fired by an Egyptian vessel emerging from Port Said, 21 km. away. Forty-three sailors were killed and more than 100 wounded.
The accuracy and deadliness of the Styx stunned the naval command. Many there had thought the Soviets, who had gone through World War II without developing effective radar, incapable of devising a homing missile. Capt. Herut Tzemah, the chief electronics officer, was tasked by Erell with coming up with a solution. Examining what was known about Soviet missile technology and speculating on how his opposite number in Leningrad had designed the Styx radar, he sketched out proposed methods for jamming it. In addition, he recommended the use of rockets firing chaff, strips of aluminum that confuse radars by reflecting their beams. Israel did not yet have the electronics base for producing the sophisticated equipment Tzemah wanted built, and the navy turned for assistance to a major electronics firm in Italy.
The critical importance of an anti-missile shield became apparent when Israel learned that the Styx had a 45 kilometer range compared to the Gabriel's 20. This meant that the Israeli boats could be exposed to incoming missiles for close to half an hour before they reached Gabriel range. Whether or not the boats survived the crossing of this so-called "missile belt" depended on how accurately Tzemah had guessed the Styx parameters.
In 1969 the first test of a Gabriel with a live warhead was staged, with a defunct destroyer as target. As observers watched, a missile lifted off a naval vessel. Half a minute later there was a flash and explosion. A second missile sent the destroyer to the bottom, carrying with it a naval era. It had taken eight years to develop the Gabriel, more than the five Even-Tov had estimated but far less than the French expert had predicted. The development cost of $11 million was less than a 10th of what it would have been in the US, Even-Tov would estimate.
SEVEN OF the 12 boats ordered from Cherbourg had reached Haifa to be fitted out when the embargo in January 1969 cut off the last five. De Gaulle imposed the embargo after Israeli commandos raided Beirut airport in reprisal for an attack on an El Al plane in Athens. Admiral (ret.) Mordecai Limon, head of Israel's arms purchasing mission in Paris and a former navy commander, advocated running off with the boats, but prime minister Golda Meir refused for fear that France might sever relations. Eventually she agreed on condition that the boats' extraction be carried out "not illegally." Limon would demonstrate that the gap between legal and "not illegal" was wide enough to push through a missile boat squadron.
Through an intermediary, Limon met with prominent Norwegian shipbuilder Martin Siemm. A resistance leader during World War II, Siemm had visited Israel and admired its vitality. Limon spelled out the importance of the embargoed boats, which Israel still owned, and proposed their fictional sale to Siemm, who would secretly sell them back to Israel. There was nothing in it for Siemm except the possibility of serious legal entanglements, but he agreed.
Limon and his wife, a former Miss Israel, hosted parties in their Left Bank apartment attended by French officials, and Limon found sympathetic ears among them. He decided that the boats would have to slip out before the authorities could closely examine the thin legal cover he was about to create. Christmas Eve was chosen because the alertness of the port authorities would presumably be dimmed.
On December 22, Limon met in Paris with Siemm and Amiot. The owner of the Cherbourg shipyard signed a contract with Limon canceling the original sale of the boats to Israel. Amiot then signed a contract with Siemm selling the boats to the Norwegian for the same price. Copies of the contracts were immediately dispatched to the relevant French authorities. The next day, the three men met again to secretly sign contracts undoing everything they had signed the day before.
Meanwhile, 80 Israeli sailors in civilian dress were dispatched in small groups to Cherbourg where they were hidden below decks by the skeleton crews maintaining the boats. The gale on Christmas Eve threatened to keep the boats bottled up, but at 2 a.m. the BBC reported the wind shifting slightly and the boats cast off. Limon waited on the wharf for half an hour, his raincoat collar turned up against the driving rain, to see if the storm would force the boats back. He then drove to Amiot's nearby apartment. He had to wait a few moments before Amiot's sleepy voice responded to his knock.
"I want to inform you," said Limon after entering, "that the boats have sailed." The old man bowed his head and began weeping. He poured cognac into glasses and the two men toasted each other and the operation's success. Before leaving, Limon took a billfold from his jacket pocket and handed Amiot his final payment, a check for $5 million.
It would take another three years after the boats' arrival in Israel before the missile boat flotilla was ready, with not a day to spare. It concluded its first full-scale maneuvers the day before Yom Kippur 1973. War broke out the next day.
THAT NIGHT, five boats led by flotilla commander Michael Barkai sailed north to engage in the first-ever missile battle at sea off the main Syrian port of Latakia. The feisty Barkai told his captains that their objective was to draw the Syrian missile boats out of harbor. "If they don't come out, I mean to sail in and get them with guns."
Two Syrian picket boats were encountered well off the Syrian coast. The first, a torpedo boat, was sunk with gunfire. The second, a minesweeper, was hit with missiles, the Gabriel's first blood. Three Syrian missile boats already at sea turned to meet the intruders. With their 25-kilometer advantage, the Syrians got in the first salvo. The Israeli boats raised their electronic umbrella and charged.
In naval headquarters, officers monitoring Barkai's radio net heard him report the Syrian launch. His voice was level but taut. Herut Tzemah braced. The lives of 200 men as well as the fate of the missile boat program hung now on whether he had assessed the Styx's parameters correctly. The radio remained silent for the two minutes it took for the Syrian missiles to complete their flight. Then Barkai's voice. "They missed." The three Syrian boats ran for harbor, but one, the only one with missiles remaining, turned on the closest Israeli pursuer.
As the two boats raced at each other, the Syrian fired first. The Israeli vessel again put up its electronic and chaff umbrella and at maximum Gabriel range launched two missiles. The Styx and Gabriel missiles passed each other, the former hitting the sea, the latter exploding on the deck of the Syrian vessel. A second Syrian boat was sunk a few moments later. The Soviet-built vessels had no countermeasures and were doomed once the Israelis reached Gabriel range. The captain of the third Syrian boat, realizing the situation, ran his vessel onto the shore to escape.
Word of the stunning success brought crowds down to the Haifa breakwater the next morning to welcome the returning squadron. Barkai had decided that there would be no brooms tied to masts, the traditional symbol of a naval victory. Any flaunting of the victory over the Syrians, he said, "wouldn't be respectful to them or to ourselves."
The next night, the story was repeated off the Egyptian coast, with three Egyptian missile boats sunk and no Israeli vessel hit. For the remainder of the war, neither the Syrian nor Egyptian fleets would venture out again, enabling more than 100 freighters carrying vital supplies to safely reach Israel, which was in the throes of a brutal, two-front ground war.
In retrospect, the most impressive display of daring would prove to have been not the escape from Cherbourg or even the boats' bold battle performance, but the audacity of the naval planners in the 1960s in permitting themselves to think beyond the horizon.
The writer is author of The Boats of Cherbourg (US Naval Institute Press). firstname.lastname@example.org n