In 1941, the "Yishuv" (the Jewish community in Eretz Israel/Palestine)
was shocked by the tragic death of the "Kaf Gimel Yordey Ha’sira"
– 23 Hagana
seamen who disappeared without a trace, along with their British observer, on their way by boat to sabotage
German targets in Lebanon (under the Vichy regime at that time).
A year later the appalling scope of the Holocaust started to unfold. Both events led ranks and files of the Palmach to demand the establishment
of a naval unit that would eventually take part in bringing the survivors of the war to Eretz Israel/Palestine. In the beginning of 1943 the Palmach command, somewhat
unenthusiastically, made a step in this direction, and the first two ‘boat commanders’ (skippers) courses were held in Sdot Yam. At the end of these courses, no naval unit was
established though and the graduates were sent back to their original units, due to lack of funding and the Palmach command's view of the courses as mere complementary to
the standard infantry training. But the graduates didn’t give up and due to their pressure, Ha’Machlaka Ha’Yamit (The Naval Platoon of the Palmach, later
renamed The Palyam after it grew in size to become a company) was created towards the end of 1943.
While their Palmach comrades worked for their living mostly in agriculture, the
members of Ha'Machlaka Ha'Yamit worked in various temporary jobs in the port,
onboard fishing boats and merchant marine ships (one ship in particular deserves
a special note: about 15 members worked on the ship named Amos, which belonged to
a Jewish-owned company called Atid; click here for
the story of Amos in her role as the Artemissia
– a pre-WW-II Aliya Bet vessel).
The program of the ‘boat commanders’ course, which lasted about 3 month with about 30 participants, included rowing, sailing and coastal navigation. The goal was to prepare
the cadets for unloading ma’apilim (illegal immigrants) once their vessels come close enough to
the shore. At the end of 1943,
‘Ha’Mossad Le’Aliya Bet’ decided to
fund the Palmach’s naval training in order to develop a skilled force for future Aliya Bet operations. Until Apr. 1948, 8 more courses took place,
most of them in Sdot Yam.
Overall, about 300 cadets were trained as boat commanders. The “heavy equipment” of these courses were three big sailing boats -
‘Dov’, ‘Rivka’ and ‘Tirtza’ -
which the Palyam “inherited” from the Kaf Gimels’ group.
At the beginning of 1945 the training activities were expanded to include a ‘naval officers’ course which lasted about 5 months. The courses took place in the Technion’s
old building in Haifa, and ended with a voyage onboard a fishing vessel. The program – focusing on astronavigation, ways to outfit cargo ships as
makeshift passenger (i.e. ma'apilim) ships,
and how to supervise the ma’apilim during the voyage – was designed to prepare the cadets for the role of escorting & commanding Aliya Bet vessels. At this
stage (Apr. 1945) the Naval Platoon became The Naval Company – Palyam, and the first graduates were sent to Europe to take part in Aliya Bet operations there.
At the same year, a marine engine mechanic course was also given. Until the beginning of 1948, 5 naval officers courses, with the participation of about 100 cadets, were held.
The training camp in Sdot Yam of the first two boat commanders courses, 1943
The Palyam boat 'Dov'
The cadets of the Palyam's 1st naval officers course, 1945
Cadets of the 5th boat commanders course, just before leaving to sabotage
the British coastal patrol station in Sidni Ali, in retaliation for the
interception of the Aliya Bet vessel 'Berl Katzenelson' in Nov. 1945
Cadets of the 6th boat commanders course during training at sea
Cadets of the 4th naval officers course practice
astronavigation onboard the fishing boat 'Nun'