Undercover and underrated

A crack team of naval commandos, the 32 men of Israel’s Flotilla 13 were the unsung heroes of the Yom Kippur War.

Shayetet Flotilla 13 521  (photo credit: News Photo)
Shayetet Flotilla 13 521
(photo credit: News Photo)
When Israel’s air force and ground army mounted the winner’s podium after the Six Day War to be garlanded by a grateful nation, the navy stood quietly in the shadows. Five times during the war, its warships and commandos had set out on operations against the Egyptians and Syrians without once completing their mission. In a country besotted by the great victory, few outside the military even noticed.
In his new book, Flotilla 13 (Naval Institute Press), Adm. (ret.) Ze’ev Almog describes the transformation of the naval commandos from that low point into a model of planning and execution. It is a tale that bears special resonance today, against the background of the naval commandos’ imbroglio in May with the Turkish flotilla, marked by faulty intelligence and unintended resort to lethal force.
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Almog was appointed to head the naval commandos in May 1968. Despite its grand name, Flotilla 13, the entire combat force consisted of 32 men. Prior to the Six Day War, the unit had not engaged in combat since the War of Independence 19 years before. Its morale was shattered by the 1967 performance, and the high command had lost confidence in it. Eight months after the war, chief of General Staff Lt.- Gen. Haim Bar-Lev was still rebuking the commandos for their poor performance.
However, the war had added 800 kilometers of coastline to Israel’s borders, and the country was separated now from its main enemy not by desert but by a water barrier, the Suez Canal.
There was work to be done if the unit could pull itself together, operationally and psychologically.
Almog began by establishing close working relations with the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit (Sayeret Matkal) to build up his men’s infantry skills, including techniques for infiltrating enemy territory. The naval commandos, in turn, taught the unit’s soldiers marine skills, including swimming and operating rubber craft. Naval commandos began ferrying Sayeret patrols across the Suez Canal at night for intelligence gathering or ambushes, the commandos securing the bank while the reconnaissance men pushed inland. The flotilla also carried out small independent operations like planting barrels of dynamite in the seabed at the entrance to the canal, which could be detonated remotely beneath Egyptian vessels.
Given the challenges of the new borders, the 18-month training program for flotilla candidates was expanded and intensified to prepare the men as both frogmen and land raiders.
Almog hammered home the themes of professionalism, adherence to mission and discipline.
When a veteran frogman was late for a briefing before a raid, he was, to his dismay, replaced on the spot.
New tactics were devised and equipment acquired, particularly “pigs” – torpedo-like submersibles that could carry two to four commandos underwater. Commandos riding the pigs reconnoitered Egyptian defenses and oil facilities in the Gulf of Suez, building up a target list. Abandoning the notion of landing on a hostile shore by boat, the commandos rehearsed coming in from a drop-off point offshore by swimming on the surface or underwater.
In the flotilla’s workshops, ammunition, communication equipment and weapons were insulated against water pressure so they could be used immediately by men emerging from the sea.
Impressed by the flotilla’s methodical preparations, the General Staff gave it its first significant independent assignment in June 1969.
Egyptian artillery in the War of Attrition was taking a heavy toll among IDF troops on the canal. In retaliation, the flotilla was ordered to attack a coastal radar station at Adabiyah on the Gulf of Suez and to liquidate the garrison. After extensive reconnaissance, 25 commandos swam in at night from rubber boats that dropped them offshore. Penetrating the defenses undetected, they killed 30 soldiers in the garrison without suffering serious casualties. It was the first amphibious combat operation ever carried out by the IDF.
When the Egyptian artillery barrages continued unabated, the General Staff decided to launch a spectacular commando attack on Green Island, a fort in the Gulf of Suez three kilometers from the southern end of the canal.
Built by the British to protect the canal, the fortress rose straight from the sea on a rock outcropping.
It had little military importance in the context of the confrontation with Egypt along the Suez Canal, but its seeming invulnerability was precisely the reason the IDF command decided to attack it. The intention was to demonstrate in a mano-a-mano encounter the superiority of the Israeli soldier and to erase a notion becoming popular in Egypt that Israel’s strength came from technology and aircraft, not the fighting ability of its soldiers.
Writes Almog: “The prime objective of the Green Island assault was to strengthen the IDF’s power of deterrence and force the Egyptians into suing for a cease-fire.”
Reflecting the trust that the high command now placed in Flotilla (Shayetet) 13, Almog was assigned command of the operation. His plan called for 20 naval commandos to reach the island at night underwater. After they gained a foothold, 20 men from the Sayeret Matkal would follow in rubber boats.
With the onset of darkness on July 19, 1969, a dozen rubber boats containing the attack force set off from the Sinai shore. Nine hundred meters from the island, an hour before midnight, the commandos slipped into the water.
The men swam on the surface for an hour against a surprisingly stiff current, then moved underwater to ensure that they would not be seen when they approached the island.
Since the force had to be prepared for immediate battle when it emerged from the water, a novel technique had been devised. The commandos were all linked to a central rope to ensure that they did not lose each other underwater and that they arrived on target simultaneously. They thus formed a single 40-legged sea creature as they moved underwater in tandem.
Special webbing to which frogman and infantry gear were attached rendered the men true amphibians. Strapped to their chests were Kalashnikovs or Uzis wrapped in plastic sheeting, as well as ammunition and other infantry gear. Scuba sets were strapped to their backs, and their faces were hidden by goggles and a mouthpiece. The men wore sneakers for the land battle, but they had been fitted for the dive with detachable frogman fins to be removed before they stepped ashore.
In addition to the 20 commandos in the main force, three had gone ahead on a “pig” to take up position on a maritime signpost off the southern end of the island. They would provide diversionary fire when the main force attacked from the north.
H-hour was fixed at 00:30, but an hour’s delay was allowed for in case strong currents were encountered. If the attack had not begun by 01:30 at the latest, it would be called off. Otherwise, the men would be unable to complete the battle and distance themselves from the island before first light exposed them to Egyptian artillery on the mainland, which covered not only the island but most of their escape route back to the Sinai shore.
The commander of the first wave, Lt. Dov Bar, found the progress underwater exasperating.
The water was rough, men were breathing heavily in their masks, and some were being dragged down as much as 12 meters by their loads. At 00:30, he surfaced and saw that they were still 530 meters from the island. Signaling the men to come up, he told them they would revert to swimming on the surface to make better headway despite the adverse current. They had less than an hour, and he exhorted them to make a maximum effort. Failure, he made clear, was not an option.
Almog tried to contact him and so did Maj.- Gen. Rafael (Raful) Eitan, chief paratroop and infantry officer, who had attached himself to the force. But Bar did not respond for fear of being ordered to terminate the mission.
What seemed to be a radar platform projecting from the island marked the commandos’ landing point. At a distance of 160 meters, Bar took his men down beneath the surface to avoid being seen by a sentry on the platform whose burning cigarette was visible. At the island’s edge, the men crouched in meter-deep water to remove their scuba gear. It was 01:25.
Emerging silently, they took shelter beneath a short bridge connecting the radar platform to the roof of the fort. Men with wire cutters began slicing through a fence separating the muddy inlet from the fort. An Egyptian soldier with a flashlight suddenly appeared and was brought down by gunfire. The sound was the signal to the diversion force to open bazooka and machine gun fire from atop the maritime signpost at the other end of the island, which quickly drew a heavy response from the garrison.
The roof of the fort, strewn with gun positions, was 2.5 meters above ground level at the landing point. The first man to reach it was Lt.
Ami Ayalon. He was boosted up by a tall commando who stood with his back against the wall and cupped his hands to receive Ayalon’s foot. Standing on his comrade’s shoulders, Ayalon threw two grenades at the closest enemy positions, but neither exploded. Nevertheless, he swung onto the open roof, followed by another commando whose finger was promptly shot off, and charged a gun position.
(Ayalon, who would receive the IDF’s highest award for his performance on Green Island, was wounded three separate times, evacuating himself only when the battle was over. He would eventually become commander of the navy, head of the Shin Bet and, thereafter, a peace activist.) The outbreak of fire was also a signal for the second wave, the Sayeret Matkal team, to close on the island. The naval commandos were almost out of ammunition when the reconnaissance men joined them. At 02:10 the General Staff’s tactical headquarters, which was monitoring the battle from the Sinai shore, ordered Almog to halt the fighting and begin evacuation. Almog nevertheless ordered his men to silence the last gun positions on the fort’s roof. At 02:17, with two-thirds of the island captured and no more resistance being offered, evacuation began.
The fighting had lasted 39 minutes, and the evacuation would take as long. Three naval commandos and three members of the Sayeret Matkal had been killed. The IDF would estimate that 70 to 80 Egyptians were killed. The wounded were the first to be evacuated in rubber boats under the supervision of Flotilla 13’s medical officer, Dr. Shimon Slavin, who tended to them during the trip back to southern Sinai. The boats with casualties moved more slowly than the others despite the danger from artillery to permit Slavin, jumping from boat to boat, to treat the wounds. (Slavin would in time become a major cancer researcher and head of the bone-marrow transplantation center at Hadassah University Medical Center in Jerusalem.) Before departing the island, the commandos laid explosives that would demolish the northern wing of the fort. As the last boat pulled away at 02:55, radar-guided Egyptian artillery began to pound the island and to reach for the boats as they scurried for the Sinai shore 10 kilometers away. One craft was disabled by a shell, and the six men in it took to the water.
Although exhausted from the swim to the island and the battle itself, they had now to begin swimming again. It was two hours before helicopters plucked them from the sea under a hail of artillery fire.
Dr. Mustafa Kabha of Tel Aviv University, who interviewed Egyptian sources, found that the attack on Green Island was seen in Egypt as a turning point in the War of Attrition “in which the military initiative passed to the hands of Israel.”
THREE WEEKS after the raid, the commando unit was called on for another operation, this one in classic frogman mode. The General Staff had decided to send a small armored force across the Gulf of Suez on a 40-kilometer raid along the Egyptian coast to demonstrate to the Egyptians their vulnerability. In the wake of the Green Island attack, however, the Egyptians had deployed two torpedo boats in the area that endangered any crossing by the slow tank landing craft.
The torpedo boats were believed to anchor at night in the vicinity of a fuel terminal off the Egyptian coast. Two “pigs” were sent to search for them. Each submersible carried two operators and two “swimmers” who were to attach limpet mines to the enemy boats if they could be found. The pig operators were ordered by Almog to descend to minimal buoyancy as they crossed the gulf in order not to be detected by Egyptian radar.
This meant the frogmen had to traverse 14 kilometers with only the operators’ heads above water, the waves slapping their faces continuously.
Reaching the vicinity of the fuel terminal the pigs split up, each to search a pre-designated sector. Within half an hour, one of the operators spotted two torpedo boats tied to a buoy. He brought the pig down to the seabed, 11 meters below the surface, and the swimmers rose to confirm the identity of their targets.
One of the swimmers was Ami Ayalon, who had fled a recuperation center and persuaded Dr. Slavin that he was sufficiently recovered from his wounds to return to duty. Ayalon and his partner dove beneath the torpedo boats and fixed mines to their undersides. The second crew arrived shortly afterward, and its swimmers attached mines as well. On the way back to base, the perfect operation turned tragic when a self-destruct device on the second pig accidentally went off, killing three of its fourman crew. However, the torpedo boats had been sunk, and the way was open for the IDF to stage its tank raid across the gulf.
When the Yom Kippur War broke out four years later, Almog was no longer commander of Flotilla 13. He had been appointed naval commander of the Red Sea theater with headquarters at Sharm e-Sheikh. For the navy, the center of gravity during the war was no longer the Suez area but the Mediterranean. Missile boats that Israel had conceived and secretly built – the first missile boats in the West – were confronting Soviet missile boats that had been supplied to Egypt and Syria. It was surface warfare on a new and voracious scale, employing missiles that homed in on their prey with radar.
These battles in the Mediterranean were focused on keeping the vital shipping lifeline to Haifa open and had virtually no direct impact on land operations.
However, naval operations in the Gulf of Suez remained intimately linked to ground operations on the Egyptian front. Almog would find himself once again directing commando operations as part of his broader sphere of concerns.
A small number of patrol boats under his command beat off attempts by sizable Egyptian commando forces to land in southern Sinai.
However, missile boats that the Egyptians had moved into the area threatened a major strategic contingency plan that had been drawn up before the war. Conceived by deputy chief of General Staff Yisrael Tal, the plan – named Or Yarok (Green Light) – called for landing a tank force on the Egyptian side of the gulf. It resembled the tank raid in 1969, but unlike that earlier hit-and-run operation by six tanks, Tal called for ferrying across an entire armored division made up of Soviet-made T-55 tanks captured in the Six Day War. They could turn north to attack the Egyptian army on the Suez front from the rear or threaten to strike deep into Egypt.
If the tank crossing was to be attempted, the vessels would have to be destroyed in their base at Hurgada on the western coast of the Gulf of Suez. An air attack would have been best, but Hurgada was defended by batteries of formidable surface-to-air missiles that would likely have made any such attempt costly. Almog believed the task could be done by the commandos alone.
Close to 100 kilometers from Sharm e-Sheikh, Hurgada was out of reach of the pigs. The distance and the choppy seas made it a difficult transit for rubber boats as well, while larger boats would easily be spotted by Egyptian radar.
The Hurgada anchorage itself was a maze of reefs and channels. The main entrance was three kilometers north of the pier, where the missile boats were believed docked. It was a long swim for frogmen; and if rubber boats attempted to enter the harbor, they would be exposed to lookout posts. There was also a southern entrance to the anchorage just 1.6 kilometers from the pier, but the passage was so narrow that divers might easily be spotted in the clear waters.
Almog was not dissuaded. “My underlying premise,” he writes, “was that the greater the defenses at a target, the more its guards tend to place their trust on the network of fortifications.
These very advantages tend to blur the defenders’ sight.” Almog wanted to apply continuing pressure on the Egyptians by commando attacks so they would go into defensive mode rather than continue their attempts to land forces in Sinai.
At a meeting on the third day of the war, Almog was told by his successor as head of the naval commandos that the Hurgada infiltration proposal was too risky. Agreeing with him were two retired admirals, both former commanders of the navy, who had come south to serve as informal advisers. “I left my office in a fit of rage,” Almog writes. Telephoning to the office of navy commander Adm. Binyamin (Binny) Telem in Tel Aviv, he obtained a green light but was warned that no air cover would be available if the commandos got into trouble.
The first attempt at Hurgada was made that night. Two rubber boats succeeded in entering the main channel leading to the anchorage, but a torpedo boat blocked further progress and they were recalled. The next night they tried again. This time they got close enough to put four divers into the water. It was three hours before the frogmen reached the anchorage.
Lt. Gadi Kroll, who had been cited for heroism for his part in the Green Island assault, commanded the frogmen. Swimming towards the sound of grenade explosions, Kroll and his partner spotted a missile boat and succeeded in fixing four mines to its underside.
Rocked by the grenades being tossed into the water from Egyptian boats as a defense against frogmen, they and the other pair swam deep to avoid the explosions around them and made it back to their collection point without being spotted.
Determined to keep up the pressure, Almog decided to send a commando team back to Hurgada with a new weapon that had been shipped overland to Sharm e-Sheikh: explosive boats.
On the night of October 19 – now 13 days into the war – two explosive boats and two mother boats set out from Sharm e-Sheikh. The men had been given just one day to work out a method of attack and to practice it. The four craft were able to reach the Hurgada anchorage unchallenged.
Using night-vision glasses, the commander of the operation spotted a missile boat at the pier and gave the general direction to the two officers manning the explosive boats. The first, Yedidya Ya’ari, a future commander of the navy, set off, but the flare that was to illuminate the target fizzled out prematurely. Making another circle, Ya’ari charged again, but this time the flare was fired in the wrong direction. Ya’ari aimed for the pier itself and ejected, the seat sliding backward and a parachute opening to pull him out. The boat’s steering mechanism, however, had jammed and it veered away. As his mother boat was pulling Ya’ari from the water, the vagrant boat suddenly roared by, missing them by 10 meters. It eventually exploded in the distance.
Meanwhile, the second explosive boat made its run, likewise without illumination to guide it. It exploded against the pier.
The men were subdued when they returned to Sharm e-Sheikh, but Almog was jubilant. The noisy attack had not sunk the missile boat, but it clearly added pressure on the Egyptian command to switch to defensive thinking. And once again, there were no Israeli casualties.
The task of the commandos in the Red Sea theater was deemed now by the navy command to have ended, and the men were ordered to fly back to their base in the north.
They were already on the ramp of the plane when Almog got a call from Telem announcing a change in plan. The General Staff had put Operation Green Light – the crossing of the gulf by a tank division – back on the agenda. Therefore, said the navy commander, the commandos must attack Hurgada again.
The men were stunned when Almog broke the news. They had pushed their luck beyond any reasonable measure by entering the anchorage three times in 12 days. There was a difference between risky and suicidal, and the new order appeared to push them over the line.
Almog asked the admiral for permission to join the attack himself so that he would not be thought of by the men as someone who sent them on suicide missions while he remained behind. Permission was granted.
Telem wanted the attack carried out with another new weapon the commandos were unfamiliar with: LAW anti-tank rockets received in the American military airlift. Twenty of these rockets would arrive at Sharm the next day, he said, together with instructors.
The commandos had a day to learn how the LAW worked, to determine its effective range – about 100 meters – and to get used to firing it from a bobbing craft. Using the LAW meant that the attack on the anchorage had to be made by surface craft, not frogmen, which in turn meant approaching within zero range of an aroused hornet’s nest.
Two boats would make the attack, and each got 10 rockets. Five were to be used by each crew for practice, five for the attack that night.
If all else failed, each boat was provided with a 28-kilogram explosive charge that could be tossed onto the missile boat from close up.
When they approached Hurgada that night, the commandos found the area completely dark, unlike the previous three times. Eerily, the two boats proceeded up the central inlet toward the anchorage without being challenged. Suddenly, the commandos made out a dim object 900 meters to their front. At 450 meters they could see it to be a missile boat. It was sheltered behind a reef, apparently as protection against explosive boats and frogmen.
At 120 meters, fire was opened on the intruders from the shore and from the missile boat itself. Almog ordered his two boats to press on.
At 80 meters, the two LAW “snipers” knelt and fired their first rounds, three apiece. All missed.
Almog ordered the boats to get closer still. At 40 meters, both snipers fired their fourth round, again too high. Each man now steadied himself and fired his fifth and last rocket. Both hit, and the missile boat burst into flame.
As they tried to turn, Almog’s boat became stuck on the reef. The burning Egyptian vessel lit up the area, exposing the Israeli boats to enemy fire. Almog ordered all but the driver to leave the boat. Relieved of their weight, the boat freed itself from the reef, but the propeller had been damaged. The other crew tied Almog’s boat to their stern and pulled it up the channel and out into the open waters of the gulf as gunfire tapered off behind them and dawn began to break. They were halfway back to Sharm when informed by radio that a ceasefire had been declared. (Fighting would nevertheless go on for another two days.)
Green Light was in the end canceled, but the repeated attacks on Hurgada had a dramatic effect. Egypt removed all its naval vessels from the harbor and shifted them 48 kilometers south to Safga, effectively ceding control of the northern Gulf to Israel. Thus a score of bone-weary naval commandos, displaying professionalism and adherence to mission, succeeded in achieving a strategic victory without the assistance of the air force, army or even the surface navy. Post-Yom Kippur War Israel provided no victory podiums for its fighters, and the performance of the naval commandos would remain largely unknown.
The writer is author of The Boats of Cherbourg and The Yom Kippur War. abra@netvision.net.il