A civilian caper

Mordechai Limon made his most celebrated military move - capturing the Cherbourg boats embargoed by France.

Cherbourg boats 88 248 (photo credit: GPO, archive photo)
Cherbourg boats 88 248
(photo credit: GPO, archive photo)
Mordechai Limon left his military career behind him when he retired as commander of the Israel Navy, but his memorable contribution to military lore was yet to come. It was as a civilian that Limon, who died last month at 85, concocted a dazzling military caper that provided the world a hearty laugh and displayed the country at its improvisational best without killing anyone, at least for awhile. Admiral (ret.) Limon was head of Israel's arms purchasing mission in Paris when president Charles de Gaulle on the eve of the 1967 Six Day War embargoed selected arms shipments to the Middle East, mainly Mirage warplanes purchased by Israel. In January 1969, after an IDF commando raid on Beirut airport, the embargo was extended to other military items, including small boats being built in Cherbourg. The innocuous looking craft, ostensibly patrol boats, were the product of a brainstorming session called in 1960 by the then navy commander, Adm. Yohai Bin-Nun. The navy was a floating anachronism made up of World War II castoffs. There was talk in the general staff of eliminating the navy altogether and making do with a coast guard. With the country's security clearly resting on its air force and army, money invested in new ships meant less for tanks and planes. The question Bin-Nun put to his senior officers at the two-day forum was how to make the navy relevant despite its tiny budget. The major proposal that emerged was fanciful, if not hallucinatory - to build a type of warship that did not exist anywhere, one firing missiles. Rafael, the weapons development arm, had produced a missile with a primitive guidance system - the missile directed onto target by a forward observer with a joystick and binoculars - but neither the army nor the air force was interested. If the missile, with its large payload, could be adapted for use at sea, suggested an officer at Bin-Nun's forum, it could be mounted aboard cheap patrol boats, giving them the punch of heavy cruisers. Born of desperation, that extravagant idea would be pursued for more than a decade virtually round-the-clock in a development program that paused only on Yom Kippur, and for some senior personnel not even then. Israel's fledgling military industries, seizing the opportunity to operate on the forefront of high technology, joined in. The vessels being built in Cherbourg were the platforms for this revolution in naval warfare. The unlikelihood of guiding a missile to target with a joystick from a rolling boat quickly became apparent. An engineer at Israel Aircraft Industries came up with a brilliant alternative - installing radar and an altimeter aboard the missile, which would pursue the target by itself. SEVERAL YEARS into the program, the navy learned that the Soviet Union had developed its own missile boats whose Styx missile had twice the range of Israel's Gabriel. The Soviets were providing the boats to Syria and Egypt. Their devastating effectiveness was demonstrated in October 1967 when the Israeli flagship, the destroyer Eilat, was sunk off Port Said by two Styx missiles fired by a small boat on the horizon. A naval engineer, guessing at what his counterparts in the admiralty in Leningrad had put into the Styx guidance system, devised electronic countermeasures that he hoped, but could not guarantee, would divert incoming missiles. Meanwhile, in Paris, Limon nurtured his connections with the French establishment despite the embargo. His Left Bank home was regularly visited by French politicians. Parties organized by his wife, a former Miss Israel, drew a wide range of personalities. Picking up early signs of De Gaulle's anger at the Beirut raid from these contacts, Limon telephoned the head of the naval mission in Cherbourg and suggested that any seaworthy boats depart immediately for Israel. Of the 12 "patrol boats" ordered, five had already sailed for Israel where they were being fitted out with the complex missile system. Construction of boats 6 and 7 was complete. Boat 6 slipped out of Cherbourg that night. But Boat 7 had not yet undergone sea tests. Two nights later, Limon was informed by one of his sources that a written embargo order was about to be sent to customs officials in Cherbourg. Limon managed to have the order sent to a district office rather than directly to Cherbourg, delaying receipt until after the weekend. He telephoned the mission commander in Cherbourg and urged him to depart immediately. Clearing the cables and equipment still cluttering the deck of Boat 7, the officer departed a few hours later with a skeleton crew. Israel decided to continue with construction of the remaining five boats contracted for. It was hoped that by the time the last was ready, toward the end of 1969, the embargo would have been dropped. De Gaulle in fact resigned in the middle of that year, but his successor, Georges Pompidou, kept the embargo in place. Although Limon was no longer in the military chain of command and was not in the diplomatic loop, he had assumed the central role in the affair. Ambassador Walter Eytan in Paris, Israel's foremost diplomat, was unwilling to engage in back-room shenanigans and neither was the Defense Ministry. Limon proposed running off with the boats when the last one was ready, but defense minister Moshe Dayan was more concerned about the danger of France severing relations than about a few boats. "Don't do anything illegal," warned Dayan. Between "legal" and "not illegal" lay a nuance, thin as a lawyer's comma, that Limon believed wide enough to push a missile boat flotilla through. If the plan he was hatching stayed inside the law, however precariously, the sympathetic French bureaucracy would cooperate. His idea was to sell the embargoed boats fictitiously to a private party abroad and have that party sell it back. The French authorities would be happy to see an end to the affair, which harmed France's reputation as an arms supplier. There were few civilian tasks the high-powered craft were suited for, but they might plausibly be offered as supply vessels for oil rigs. A friend suggested that Limon contact Martin Siemm, head of the largest shipbuilding firm in Norway and a resistance hero. Siemm, 75, had visited Israel and was struck by its dynamism. He agreed by telephone to meet Limon at an airport restaurant in Copenhagen where Limon spelled out his plan. Israel would openly sell the boats to Siemm and he would quietly sell them back. There was nothing in it for him except possible trouble, but he would be helping Israel defend itself. Two days later Siemm accepted. Only then did Limon inform Tel Aviv of his plan. The reply was a firm negative. After long-distance cajoling, tentative approval finally came. He now set in motion the hocus-pocus intended to make the deal "not illegal." Felix Amiot, the Cherbourg shipyard owner who was party to the plot, received a letter from Siemm expressing interest in acquiring boats capable of doing 35 knots and taking strong seas. Amiot informed the French Defense Ministry which promptly called Limon. Would Israel waive its claim to the boats and accept its money back? Limon waited a few days before reporting Tel Aviv's agreement. "An excellent transaction that should serve as a model," wrote foreign minister Maurice Schuman when informed of the arrangement. "Bravo." SIEMM SENT a letter to Amiot - drafted, like all the correspondence between him and Amiot, by Limon - asking if the Israelis would permit their crews to ferry the boats to their first destination. Two contracts were signed in Paris in mid-December, one canceling Israel's original purchase of the boats and another by which Siemm's Starboat Company purchased them from Amiot at the same price. Copies went to the French government. The next day, Limon, Siemm and Amiot met again to secretly sign documents undoing everything they had signed the day before. With the Israeli government now involved, the operation had become a structured military operation. In Haifa, a freighter and a car ferry were fitted out as refueling vessels and deployed along the 3,200 mile escape route from Cherbourg. Other freighters, diverted from regular runs, were positioned as support vessels. Navy crewmen in civilian dress were dispatched in small groups to Paris where they were placed aboard trains for Cherbourg, under orders to speak no Hebrew. In Cherbourg, they were driven to the boats and hustled below decks. The breakout was fixed for Christmas eve when the French would presumably be less alert. But a Force 9 gale in the English Channel prevented the boats from venturing out. At 2 a.m. the BBC weather report announced the wind was shifting. "We're sailing," said the commander of the breakout to his captains, huddled with him around the radio. As the boats cast off, Limon stood on the pier in the rain and watched them disappear into the towering waves. Report of the breakout was seized upon by the world media as an extraordinary holiday gift in the news-dry Christmas season. The disappearance of embargoed Israeli boats into a powerful gale on Christmas eve was the stuff of banner headlines. "Where are they?" cried one. Newspapers chortled at the display of hutzpa. Television crews in hired planes flew north toward Norway, the boats' ostensible destination, and south over the Mediterranean. As the boats passed Gibraltar, a signal light from the British monitoring station flashed "What ship?" The Israelis made no reply and a Lloyd's helicopter circling overhead could detect no flags or identity numbers. The light on Gibraltar flashed again: "Bon voyage." The Israelis took it as a salute from the British officers who understood now who they must be. When finally spotted by television crews, the boats were hugging the North African coast and moving fast. The furious French defense minister, Michel Debre, urged at a cabinet meeting that they be "interdicted" by the air force but prime minister Pompidou calmed him down. The boats were near Crete when two warplanes swooped overhead. As they pulled up, the Star of David was visible on their wings. The boats docked in Haifa as New Year horns were sounding in 1970. The French government asked for Limon's recall but he was not declared non grata. Foreign minister Abba Eban said that Israel did not stand as the accused "since there had been no breach of law" but as the injured party. Returning home, Limon became a representative of the Rothschild interests. When he landed in Paris six months later on business, the arrivals officer studied his passport for some time. "You are Admiral Limon?" Limon said he was. The officer reached over the glass partition to shake his hand. "Congratulations." A NATION with half the population of New York City had pulled off the coup with an organizational proficiency major powers could envy and with a piratical flair that only a small country with a strong will and little margin for failure could muster. Three more years of intensive development lay ahead before the missile boats were fully operational. The first exercise of the entire flotilla, including break-in of a critical new command system, was held in the first days of October 1973. The day after the boats returned to harbor, Yom Kippur, war broke out. In the missile-to-missile naval battles that ensued, the Israeli boats were outnumbered and outranged. The Arabs got in the first salvos, the Israeli boats raising their electronic umbrellas and charging to reach Gabriel range. The craft diverted all 54 missiles fired at them and sank eight enemy vessels. After the first days, the Arab fleets, bereft of anti-missile defenses, did not venture out to sea. Thus, more than 100 freighters carrying vital supplies were able to reach Haifa Port during the war unhindered. It had taken 13 years for the whimsical idea that floated to the surface at Bin-Nun's brainstorming session to become reality, without a day to spare. The writer is author of The Boats of Cherbourg (US Naval Institute Press). abra@netvision.net.il