The Arms Ships

Back to the home page

powered by FreeFind

Smuggling meaningful quantities of arms to Mandatory Palestine started immediately after the end of WW-II. Limited shipments of arms made their way to the ports of Tel Aviv and Haifa, concealed in general cargo ships. Most of these weapons were illegally acquired by Hagana members – soldiers of the British Brigade or members of the Transportation Division (Ha'Chavura), who arrived in Italy in 1944 – in the battlefields of WW-II all over Europe. Arms as well as heavy machinery for the emerging Military Industry came also from the USA; they were organized by a mission of the Hagana, which started operating there in 1945.

The responsibility for the arms procurement activity was that of the Procurement Unit of the Hagana, which was transferred to the Ministry of Defense when the State of Israel was founded in 1948. The unit with its complex network of people and agencies, in Israel and abroad, which operated various missions of procuring and transporting the arms to Israel, is commonly referred to as the Procurement System. We refer to their activities as
The Procurement Enterprise, reflecting the huge scope and variety of means they involved. Compared to Aliya Bet (The Ha'apala Enterprise), The Procurement Enterprise has remained quite an unknown chapter in the history of the struggle to establish the State of Israel, probably because it lacked a human-drama element;  Nevertheless, the State of Israel survived and overcame her aggressors during the War for Independence thanks to it, and some of its stories are just as fascinating and dramatic as those of Aliya Bet.

At the end of 1946, David Ben-Gurion took over the office of Defense in the Jewish Agency, and soon realized that the weapon arsenal in the hands of the Hagana would not suffice to stand against the armies of the neighboring Arab nations which were expected to invade once independence is declared. Even prior to the historic U.N. resolution of the 29th of November 1947, B.G. sent out three prominent leaders of the Hagana abroad: Yehuda Arazi, Ehud Avriel and Meir "Munya" Mardor, to procure and transport arms for the future State. Soon after the historic UN Resolution, The Procurement Enterprise picked up speed and volume, becoming the most crucial element for the survival of the Yishuv (the Jewish community in Eretz Israel/Palestine), in anticipation of an eventual end to the British Mandate and an all-out war with the neighboring Arab countries. The appointment in March 1948 of Shaul (Meirov) Avigur – who had managed Aliya Bet to that point – as head of arms procurement in Europe reflected the importance attributed to this activity.

The main obstacles facing arms procurement were the British control in Eretz Israel/Palestine until May 1948; the Embargo on military equipment and arms imposed by both the USA and British governments, on supplying arms to either of the fighting sides; and the arms Embargo imposed by the United Nations following the Declaration of the State of Israel. There was also a certain concern that arms transport en-route Israel would be intercepted by the Arabs, particularly by the Egyptian Navy. Arms procurement required carefully planned clandestine operation, smuggling it out of the country of origin and masking its real destination, using fictitious foreign firms and/or third party countries.

In mid-May 1948, the USA State Department, which viewed American interests in cooperating with Britain and the Arab world, managed to pull back the USA support for the 29 November 1947 UN resolution, replacing it with a call to a temporary UN trusteeship. “The weapons are on their way” – a declaration made by Ben-Gurion on the 12 May 1948 assembly of the ‘People-Council’ (Israel's Provisional Government, prior to the declaration of statehood), was no doubt the deciding factor due to which the Assembly voted to declare the State on the 15th, thus rejecting the heavy American pressure not to do so (once  declared, it was to President Trumann’s credit that he recognized the State of Israel within minutes after the declaration, ignoring the view of many in his own administration).

In the struggle for Independence, the state-to-be enjoyed the support of an important ally, the Soviet Union. The expression of this support was clearly evident from the surprisingly pro-Zionist speech by Andre Gromyko – the Soviet delegate to the UN – at the UN in mid-May 1947; its enthusiastic support of the 29 November 1947 UN resolution; its acceptance of a the immigration of Jews from the USSR and Eastern Europe to Eretz Israel, via Aliya Bet and in the huge wave of Aliya following the declaration of Statehood (most immigrants in this wave came from Eastern Europe, and their contribution in manpower to the IDF is considered a crucial factor in Israel’s victory of 1948; click here for details about GACHAL – the recruitment from abroad); and last but not least, their ‘Green Light’ of approval to the arms deals with Czechoslovakia, which saved the new State from a disastrous defeat (click here for the details). The USSR support was the result of several factors: a wish to disrupt British interests in the region; hope that the new-born State would be pro-Soviet, thus alienating the US from Israel (indeed, officials in the US government were certain that the arms deals with Czechoslovakia were hinged on agreements between Israel and the USSR); as well as generating income for the recuperation economies of the Eastern European countries.

The main source of the arms was Czechoslovakia, with Yugoslavia playing an essential role in facilitating their transfer to Israel, by allowing vessels and planes to use its port in Shibennik (today in Croatia), as well as two airports in its territory, as transport stations en-route. Other significant sources for illegal arms were Italy, France, Switzerland, Britain and the USA. The French also allowed, up to a certain point, the use of the Ajaccio airport (in Corsica).

Riffles and machine guns are loaded on the Maestralle in Shibennik port, Yoguslavia

Most of the funding for the arms deals came from donations by American Jews. In contrast to this support, the American government passed in early Dec. 1947 a Neutrality Act, prohibiting sale of any military equipment to any of the fighting sides in the Middle East, and started to strictly chase violators of the act within and outside the US. The US Government also applied significant pressure on other countries, not to break the UN Embargo. For example, in August 1948, Czechoslovakia had to stop, under heavy pressure from the US, all Israeli-bound activity at the ‘Etzion’ airbase in Zatec, Czechoslovakia (this airbase was a central base for Operation Balak – the air-lift of arms from Czechoslovakia to Israel – as well as an important junction in smuggling planes from all over the globe to Israel). Despite the Neutrality Act, smuggling of a great deal of military equipment from the US to Israel continued, and several operators were caught, prosecuted and punished (click here for details). Most of the arms and equipment for the Military Industry smuggled out of the US made its way to Israel camouflaged as innocent civilian cargo in commercial vessels (e.g., five Mustang planes, dismantled, were smuggled in crates declared to have carried combine tractors; two of them carried out military missions during the Independence War).

A well known story in the history of The Procurement Enterprise is that of 10 cargo planes, all but one C-46 Commandos, and three B-17 ("Flying Fortress") bombers, that were smuggled out of the USA and eventually reached Israel (more planes were acquired, but they failed to either leave the USA or reach Israel). The cargo planes, operating under the guise of LAPSA (Panama’s National Airline) airplanes until September of 1948, played a crucial role in the airlift of weapons from Czechoslovakia to Israel (Operation Balak), and later, in military cargo flights within Israel, they airlifted supplies to the besieged Negev area during Operation Avak (Dust) and carried out air bombardment missions in Operation Yoav to free Beer-Sheba and drive the Egyptian army out of the Negev.

The ships which carried the weapons to Israel and were owned by or leased to (directly or indirectly) the Procurement System, made over 50 voyages to Israel during the War for Independence, carrying over 35,000 tons of arms, including cannons, tanks and airplanes. The experience, infrastructure and connections established in Aliya Bet provided a solid base for developing the maritime infrastructure of The Procurement Enterprise. The ships were escorted on their voyages by Palyam sea-men and “Gideonim” (radio operators), veterans of Aliya Bet. By definition, they represented the interests of the cargo owners, and their key role was to assure the foreign ship captains would operate according to the directives of the Procurement System.

David Ben-Gurion assessed The Procurement Enterprise, in a radio broadcast in 1968, commemorating 20 years to the historic arrival of the ship Nora to Tel Aviv with weapons from Czechoslovakia:

"Without these arms we would have all been massacred".

Ben-Gurion played a central and personal role in managing The Procurement Enterprise, and his words well reflect the enterprise's general success. However, the Procurement System  has been criticized of several organizational snafus, the result of ego conflicts, which caused delays in arms reaching the fighters at the front. A reference to this criticism can be found in the article about the arms ship Nora; we have concluded that the ship could have arrived a month earlier than it actually did (click here the details).

While most of the arms cargo made its way by sea, transporting some of it by air had a crucial importance, due to time pressure and immediate need. Arms transported by air included what was air lifted from Czechoslovakia in Operation Balak, as well as numerous airplanes which made their way to Israel by flying on their own: the cargo planes and bombers which had been smuggled out of the USA, some of the Spitfires purchased in Czechoslovakia and flown to Israel in Operation Velveeta I & II, some of the 20 Norsman light cargo planes purchased in Germany, the planes that Emanuel Zur smuggled out of Britain (Dragon Rapid,  Miles Aerovan, Mosquito and Bristol Beaufighter bombers), and the Dakotas and other planes purchased by Boris Senior in South Africa.

The incredible contribution of MACHAL volunteers from the USA to the procurement of airplanes won a great deal of publicity. The part of MACHAL volunteers in the maritime transport of arms is less known; it is described here in the article: Smuggling Arms from USA and Mexico – the Story of Dromit (click here).

The story of The Procurement Enterprise wouldn't be complete without including in it the stories of The Pirate Operation, in which arms destined for the Arabs was seized on the high seas and subsequently put to use by the I.D.F. to fight the Arab forces during the War of Independence (click here for details), and the tragic story of The Altalena Affair.

Written by Tzvi Ben-tzur
English translation: Nava Goren & Tzvi Ben-tzur

The Arms Ships

באתר מפורסמים סיפורים אישיים רבים; אין למערכת האתר אפשרות לאמת את כל פרטיהם ולכן הכתוב בהם באחריות בלעדית של כותביהם.

Copyright© 2006 - 2021: Articles/stories/presentations/pictures - respective authors and/or copyright holders; Website design & code (html/php/xml/javascript) - Tzvi Ben-tzur; All rights reserved.