The mystery of the 'Dakar'

In 1968 the Israeli submarine 'INS Dakar' sank, not to be seen again for three decades.

Dakar submarine 88 248 (photo credit: Jerusalem Post Archives)
Dakar submarine 88 248
(photo credit: Jerusalem Post Archives)
On May 28, 1999, the Israel Navy announced that the submarine INS Dakar had been found after 31 years of searching. The loss of the Dakar remains one of the country's worst nautical disasters, yet the reason for her loss has never truly been explained. In the British city of Portsmouth, a few hundred meters from where the Dakar set sail in 1968, stands the Royal Submarine Museum and in its archives previous captains of the Dakar share their theories on the tragedy. The Dakar began life as HMS Totem, a T-class submarine, built in 1944 to fight in the final months of World War II. During a tour of Canada in 1945, the crew was presented with a totem pole by the Cowichan tribe. Legend stated that as long as the crew sailed with the totem, the ship would come to no harm. This legend was followed by her crew and the totem was always attached to the conning tower when she entered port. ON NOVEMBER 10, 1967, the Star of David replaced the Union Jack and HMS Totem became INS Dakar. She was crewed by 69 experienced IDF sailors led by Lt.-Cmdr. Ya'acov Ra'anan, a man noted as having "a professional submarine approach of the first rank" by his Royal Navy counterparts. Ra'anan was a rising star of the Israel Navy and visited Portsmouth three times supervising the purchase of submarines. In 1958 he spent a year in the city during the purchase of the INS Tanin and INS Rahav, two model S-type World War II vessels. Ra'anan then served as deputy commander of the Tanin on its voyage to Haifa. In 1963 he returned to Portsmouth to attend the submarine commanders course at Dolphin Base in Gosport, the same base he would return to in 1967 while the Dakar was being renovated. After renovations by an Israeli technical team, the Dakar sailed from Portsmouth on January 9, 1968, bound for Haifa. First she sailed to the British naval base at Gibraltar where she took on supplies. From Gibraltar Ra'anan was ordered to sail to Haifa underwater, partly for secrecy and partly for training purposes; 10 days after leaving port the Dakar vanished. The Dakar was ordered to report her position every eight hours. The last clear transmission received by naval command was at 6:10 a.m. on Wednesday, January 23. A distorted transmission was received at 12:02 a.m. the following day giving her position as 580 km. west of Haifa. On Friday, no signal was received at all and on Saturday, January 26, an emergency was declared and search operations were launched. Operational headquarters was set up at the British base in Cyprus, and the Israeli search teams were joined by ships from Britain, the US, Greece, Turkey and Lebanon. On January 31, the search was finally called off and the Dakar was declared missing with no hope of recovering the crew alive. THE SEARCH was hindered by not knowing exactly where the Dakar was supposed to be. After leaving Gibraltar, Ra'anan requested to enter Haifa 24 hours early, but was told to wait at sea as the prepared welcoming ceremony could not be brought forward. However, he was not told exactly what to do with this spare day. There is a consensus among maritime historians suggesting this order was issued, but naval command has officially denied it. There is no record of any such transmission, yet in the '60s it was not customary to record these transmissions. Indeed this only became standard practice across the IDF after the Dakar's sinking. As with all disasters, theories abound as to the cause of the sinking. It was briefly believed that she had been sunk by the Egyptians, a theory investigated after the peace agreements and discounted. The lack of floating wreckage resulted in an official assumption that the Dakar sank in one piece and had been the victim of an unexplained accident. Cmdr. Brian Forbes captained HMS Totem two years before it was sold to Israel. He argues that the submarine had built-in flaws which account for the above average loss rate of the T-class. Out of 50 vessels built, 18 sank. Forbes says: "The Model-T had a dead sonar field right in front of them. It could very well be that the submarine went down to a low depth, with the periscope raised and a passing ship crushed the induction pipe, communications pipe and periscope. This happened to HMS Truculent in 1950." Forbes also points to a breakdown in communication between the ships crew and the technical team which carried out the renovations. "In principle most of what's done during a renovation job as the Totem/Dakar underwent is supposed to be double checked, but it doesn't always work that way. We've had more then one or two cases of subs going out on a voyage and serious faults being discovered." WHILE THE Dakar was being refitted, her sister ship, the INS Leviathan, finished her own refitting and sailed to Haifa under the command of Cmdr. Ze'ev Almog. Almog and Ra'anan corresponded regularly via radio and diplomatic post. Both complained about the total lack of communication between the technical teams and the ship's crew. Ra'anan's wife, Naomi, said in 1994: "I remember that period. I had never seen him in such a state before. He saw lots of work being done and during that whole period, he kept grumbling about the quality of the renovations. As commander he was pushed aside by the technical team who worked like contractors. He had command of the crew, but no authority over the technical team." After working on the Leviathan, the Israeli technical team believed they were experienced; however, according to Forbes: "The British technical crew claimed the Israelis knew nothing about Model-T subs." This inexperience and lack of communication led to a series of problems, the most serious being a water leak from the Leviathan's induction pipe and a water leak from the torpedo tubes, caused by the door between the torpedo tubes and the adjoining compartments not being correctly sealed. Such a leak is lethal for a submerged submarine. Even if it were contained, the weight would prevent the submarine from resurfacing. In his correspondence Ra'anan voiced grave concern that his own ship would suffer similar problems. It was also during this refit that the legendary totem pole was removed from the conning tower, an action declared as a bad omen by the superstitious British submariners. Today a replica of the totem pole remains in the Royal Naval Museum, in an exhibit dedicated to the Dakar. A second theory revolves around a flotation compartment which was added during renovation and the presence of IDF commandos. Guss Briton, a former historian at the Royal Submarine Museum in Gosport, believes the Dakar was overloaded with supplies, including spare parts. "A submarine is designed to carry herself and her crew, not to act as a cargo ship," he states. However, he also claims extra crewmen were aboard, in the form of commandos. A major difference between the Israel Navy and the Royal Navy was every IDF submariner was also a trained paratrooper. So Briton is right to suggest commandos were on board as the entire crew were commandos to British eyes. HOWEVER, BRITON'S theory is built upon by Tony Watson, the assault course instructor at Faslane naval base in Scotland where Ra'anan and his crew trained and carried out sea trials. Watson says: "His crew completed the training and maritime maneuvers with very high marks. Everyone at the base was talking about how capable the Israeli crew was. The sinking was certainly not a human error, but a technical one." According to Watson, one technical problem was caused by an added flotation compartment. Such a compartment was added during the renovation of each T-class vessel bought by Israel. The Dakar's sister ship INS Dolphin, which sailed in 1968, saw action in the Yom Kippur War. While operations remain shrouded in secrecy, it is believed she took part in operations against Egyptian harbor installations. This compartment would have been used to deploy special forces troops and had the Dakar reached home, she would have almost certainly been used for similar purposes. British engineers were against this compartment as it not only added surplus weight but also gave the vessel stability problems. The Defense Ministry would not allow Ra'anan to hold training sessions with it while the Dakar remained under British supervision. As Watson says: "Ra'anan needed to practice with it the moment he was away from the British and close to port. When he received the 24-hour order, that is most likely what he did." ALL OF these factors combine into one final theory, proposed by Cmdr. John Moore, who captained HMS Totem in 1949. Moore points to the vessel's batteries. "Those types of batteries generate hydrogen" he claims, "and if they are not completely dismantled, hydrogen pockets can form which can easily explode and result in a flood of water. In the case of the Dakar, the flotation compartment which was added during the renovation would have caused instability which would have caused those hydrogen pockets to form." If such hydrogen pockets led to a small explosion, this would have resulted in an intake of water, as feared by Ra'anan in his correspondence with Almog. As the Dakar was ordered to sail submerged from Gibraltar, she would have certainly been underwater and would not have been able to get to the surface. This would have left the crew no choice but to release the emergency buoy and wait for rescue or until they ran out of air. This theory was given extra power when the Dakar's stern emergency buoy washed up on the beach of Khan Yunis in the Gaza Strip a year after the sinking. THERE HAS never been an official verdict from the navy. In February 1968 official findings were presented to the Knesset in the form of a speech by defense minister Moshe Dayan. He did not offer causes for the sinking, but gave a brief outline of events and added: A terrible tragedy has befallen us. A wonderful team of the best of our sons has fallen in the line of duty. May their memory live on forever." A day of national mourning was declared and the names of the lost were added to the monument for the fallen on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem. In 1999 the Dakar was finally located by the Nauticos Corporation, the same company which found the Titanic. She was found at a depth of approximately 3,000 meters, between the islands of Crete and Cyprus, 800 km. from Israel. On Wednesday, October 10, 2000 the Nauticos team and the Israel Navy began to raise the conning tower to the surface. After nine hours of work, the tower was finally raised at 4:30 a.m. to symbolically finish her voyage to Haifa naval base. Tom Dettweiler, the Nauticos expedition leader, said: "To be the first to stand on the bridge of the Dakar after 32 years, attaching lines to secure her to the deck of our ship for the final leg in the voyage home to Haifa, is a feeling I will remember forever. She rode into Haifa standing upright, and proud, the Israeli flag flying over her. These images will be with me for eternity." The conning tower was taken to Haifa and today it stands outside the Clandestine Immigration and Naval Museum, remaining a poignant monument to Ra'anan and his crew who remain on eternal patrol. With thanks to the Royal Submarine Museum, Gosport, Portsmouth.