A Matter Of Survival:
The Role of The Arms Ships In Israel's Independence War

Background

On Friday, May 14 1948, David Ben-Gurion (B-G.), the first Prime Minister of Israel wrote in his diary: "At 4pm Jewish Independence has been declared and the state [of Israel] established. Its fate is in the hands of the Armed Forces". Two days earlier, at a meeting of the "People's Administration" [The provisional government, established following the UN resolution of Nov. 29, 1947], B-G. reported: "We already have lot's of arms... but it's not here. If all the arms we have out there had been here...we could have had a peace of mind".

B-G. could have made such a claim due to intensive hard-work starting three years before, at the end of WW-II in Europe. On July 1945, B-G. made a trip to the USA. There, he succeeded, secretly, to secure the financial and political support of a group of  Jewish millionaires, known as the "Sonneborn Institute", to enable the Jewish community in Palestine (Hebrew name Eretz-Israel) still under the British Mandate - to prepare itself for a full scale war against the Arabs, over the right for an independent state.

In Dec. 1946, B-G. assumed the defense portfolio of the Jewish Agency, and soon after, he conducted a "Security Seminar" in order to increase the awareness of Hagan's top ranks to the need to prepare for a full scale war - anticipated around the end of the British Mandate - against regular Arab armies. B-G.'s recollection from this seminar: "I said ... we are facing a war ... and we need heavy arms...there were Hagana's people who laughed at me and said I'm crazy".

During 1947, B-G. expanded the arms "acquisition" system of the Hagana by sending three prominent members abroad - Yehuda Arazi, Ehud Avriel and Munia Mardur to find sources of arms and make all necessary arrangements to ship arms to Palestine towards the end of the British Mandate. Each one of them got his own budget and had to operate independently of his colleagues and report directly to B-G.

During Dec. 1947 to Mar. 1948, the  "acquisition" organizers purchased six ships for transporting the arms - Santa-Chiara, Ressurectio, Maestralle, Monte-chiaro, Scio and Nora. For obvious reasons, the ships continued to carry foreign flags and were operated by their foreign crews. For "safety reasons", the "Mossad" placed on board every ship an escort "Palyam" naval cadets and "Gideonee"s ["nom the guerre" for Hagana's radio operators ].

 The first two ships - Ressurectio and Santa-Chiara - had been purchased by Ada Sereni, upon Arazi's instructions, on dec. 47 , even before he signed any contracts. Arazi explained this instruction : "It is better that the ships would wait for the arms than vice versa".

When the armed struggle - forced upon the Jewish community by the Palestinians following the UN resolution of Nov. 29 1947 - begun, B-G. decided to take risks by giving orders to advance the shipments, in spite of the blockade imposed by the British Navy. The reason for this decision was simply because the Hagana hadn't enough rifles, let alone heavy arms. On the other hand, the Palestinians had nearly "open borders" to the Arab neighboring states.

Here is the story of three arms ships who broke through, before the end of the British mandate. Their precious cargo - 1,450 tons of arms facilitated the Jewish side to defeat the Palestinians and halt the invasion of the regular neighboring Arab states armies, which started on 15 May 1948.  

The Story Of The Nora

The most famous one is the Nora - the first ship to arrive just on time to provide the much needed arms to "Operation Nachshon", which marked a turning point in the war against the Palestinians and the battle for Jerusalem. Nora    ( Hebrew nickname, Yoram ), carrying an Italian flag with capacity of 840 ton, reached the small anchorage of Tel-Aviv on Apr. 1 1948, forty five days before the end of the British Mandate. The arrival of the "first swallow", marked the end of an epic, starting four months earlier, when, on Dec. 2 1947, B-G. instructed Avriel to "jeopardize $300,000 and send [a ship] to Tel-Aviv".

 The next day, Avriel went to Europe and started to "sniff" for arms on the "Black Market". In less than a month of extensive despairingly  search, he managed - with the help of Adam-Robert Avramovitch, a Jew with the right connections, offering his services for free - to reach directly to the arm manufacturing company "Zboroyovka" in Czechoslovakia and have a deal. It turned out, that the Czechs - with the blessing of the "Big Brother", USSR - were eager to sell not less than the buyer, who offered hard currency and didn't haggle too much over the prices. During the negotiations, it was discovered that the international-law prohibits states from selling arms to organizations (not to mention illegal ones, like the Hagana). The problem was solved by the "laboratory" of the "Mossad", which provided forms, according to which the arms were sold to... Ethiopia.

 The deal, expanded to $750,000, included 4,500 rifles, 200 machine-guns and ammunition. Right after, in early Jan. 1948, Avriel examined the best ways  to ship the consignment of arms - which included hundreds of cases weighing over 500 tons - to a port of embarkation. Out of the three alternatives ( all Soviet Block countries )  - Yugoslavia, Poland and Romania - Avriel preferred the route through Yugoslavia, which was the shortest one and familiar to him, from his involvement in the illegal emigration activities, back in 1946. Avriel reported to B-G. on Jan. 18 1948 that: "In principle there is an approval [by the Yugoslavs] for the passage of the shipment, but a final answer will be given only tomorrow". A positive final answer was indeed given, but only after a month! The delay has nothing to do with the negotiations over the passage terms - all "shipping & handling" costs were agreed upon and paid in advance - but rather the result of Yugoslavia having to get the blessing of USSR (The rift between the parties happened half a year latter).

The initial estimation was that the shipment would reach Tel-Aviv within four weeks - from Czechoslovakia by rafts over the Danube river to Yugoslavia and then by train to the embarkation port. Accordingly, B-G. got the message that the shipment would reach Tel-Aviv "by Feb. 10 and possibly earlier". This time-table was revised twice, mainly due to delays on the question of the passage through Yugoslavia to the port of Shibenik. When the shipment finally arrived at Shibenik, at the beginning of Mar. 1948, no ship was waiting for it, and the "acquisition" had to wait there over two weeks!!!.   Why did it happened? How come, that in times of "heavy starvation" for arms, such a delay could occur ? Unfortunately, one has to find the answer in "the politics" of internal-personal relations among high ranking members of the "acquisition system" and the Mossad alike. B-G. was aware of the inter-personal issues from a complaint E. Kaplan made (Jan. 1 1948): "Eliezer complains bitterly about our agents... that one ignores, sometimes even slanders, the others. Fredi is against the procurements of Yehuda [Arazi]. Yehuda ignores Ehud [Avriel]. There is no cooperation...". Soon enough it became clear that even B-G. was unable to restrain the ego of his high ranking people.

Nora's purchase demonstrates how poor coordination resulted in the arms waiting for the ship rather than the other way. Avriel, as described above, handled the arms acquisition and its shipment to Yugoslavia. As for the ship, he had all the reasons to believe that the Mossad branch in Italy - specialized in dealing with ships - would take care of it. B-G. wrote in his diary about it on the 4th of Jan. 48 : "Ada [Sereni] was told to buy a ship". Many years latter, in 1995, Ada claimed, that she can't remember being told to buy a ship for Avriel's shipment and more then that, she knows nothing about B-G.'s diary entry. To the question of why one of the ships already available  - the Santa-Chiara or the Ressurectio were not engaged in arms shipment at that time, beginning of Mar. 48 - hadn't been directed to Shibnek? Ada RESPONDED that she doesn't recall being instructed to do so and that in such an important matter, Avriel had to address directly to Arazi.

No wonder B-G. started pressing hard on Avriel. Finally, late in Feb. 48, Avriel understood that the Mossad is not going to help him with a ship, so he decided to deal with it himself. He asked the people of the "acquisition unit" in Italy to help him, but these people were actually reluctant to get help from the Mossad, fearing leakage of information to the British Intelligence. "For security reasons", their  agents, Sahar & Yariv approached Efraeim Eileen, a Jewish private businessman dealing with shipments from Egypt to Italy, asking him to purchase for them a ship and prepare her to the mission. At the beginning of March the Nora was purchased in Venice. Before departure to Shibenik, she was loaded with 300 tons of onion and potato sacks and wooden-plates, to be used as a "cover" ( double meaning ) for the real cargo.

 As an escort, Avriel assigned "his best men", Benjamin (Ben)  Yerushalmi, an experienced field-person of the Mossad (unlike most of the escort, Ben was not a Palyam member, but the decision to have him aboard turned out to be a very good one), and Avraham Lichovsky, an experienced "Gideonee" (with a radio-transmitter).

The Italian crew suspected that an illegal mission might be involved. At the beginning they weren't told that the final destination is Palestine, Yet it was difficult enough to convince them to sail to Yugoslavia, because the hatred towards Italians in the Dalmatic coastal areas, occupied by Italy in WW-II, was still quite big. Around Mar. 19 1948 the Nora entered into Shibenik port. During the loading, the Italian crew understood that they are going to be involved in a large scale smuggling of arms into an area of active fighting. Some of them wanted to sign off, but they were "convinced" by the Yugoslavs that such a move would "not be to their benefit". Ben, a charismatic person, managed to convince them to take out to sea, and in addition gave them a raise and even a promise, to get an... "air umbrella" protection, once they reach the port of destination - Tel-Aviv.

East of Crete the Nora ran into a severe storm that forced her to take shelter in Larnaca Bay, Cyprus. She stayed there in company with two British destroyers, belonging to the "Palestine force" blockading the coast. When the storm was over, the destroyers sailed to the east, and the Nora followed crawling in the same direction towards Tel-Aviv.

 Late by four days, due to the storm, the Nora arrived at Tel-Aviv Anchorage on Apr. 1 1948. While maneuvering to anchor, a British destroyer - one of the two Nora had met in Larnaca - approached the ship and started to circle her. The Italian captain, afraid the British discovered the nature of the cargo, got panicked uttering a sigh: "Adeso, tuto finito" (now, it's all over), before collapsing. Ben, "assuming command", impersonated as the captain, ordered to salute the British destroyer according to the maritime tradition. The destroyer returned a salute and sailed away.

Nobody in the Hagana's H.Q. knew the exact day of Nora's arrival, because Ben and Avriel agreed to maintain "Radio silence". On Mar. 28 - the day Nora was expected, if not delayed by the storm B-G. was on the verge of loosing his nerves. On that day one of the worst for the Jewish side since the struggle  begun B-G. threatened to return Avriel back home, if he fails to expedite arm shipments by... air. On the same day he had taken a risky decision to divert arms from other fronts in favor of "Nachshon forces", preparing themselves to reopen the main road to Jerusalem. Four days latter, Nora unloaded the brand new rifles & machine-guns, Still with grease on, they were rushed directly to  "Nachshon" fighters! Just before beginning the operation.

Summarizing the affair few days latter, B-G. wrote in his diary on the 5th of Apr. 1948: "The delay of the first shipment caused by a lack of a ship... everybody buys his own ships. We need somebody to coordinate... better If it would be assigned to Shaul" [Avigur, the head of the Mossad]. Unfortunately, even this new assignment as a coordinator of the arms acquisition in addition to his role in the Mossad, had not resulted in the desired improvement. Two months latter, Lova Eliav reported to B-G. from Italy: "As far as acquisition goes... I see here a complete chaos. Everyone hinders the others."  

The Story Of The Ressurectio

Ressurectio (nickname Rex), a 1,000 tons ship hoisting the Italian flag, arrived in Tel-Aviv port on Apr. 23 1948 - on the eve of Pessach (Passover) holiday - 21 days before the end of the British Mandate. The shipment, purchased by Arazi, included 25  20 m"m guns and 250 tons of ammunition. The ship loaded  in Marseilles ,France, and made a stop in Catania, Sicily to load a "cover" cargo of potatoes and artichokes. According to the testimony of the Palyam escort, Arie ("Kipi") Kaplan, the journey passed without any problems (A day latter, the British navy caught "Mishmar Haemek", illegal ship. The emigrants were deported to Cyprus) . The ship kept "Radio silence", for the simple reason that there was no radio and no "Gideonee" on board. The only misS OUT happened during the unloading in the anchorage, where some of the stevedores - all volunteered to work during the holiday fainted, because of the intoxicating smell coming from the rotten "cover" vegetables.

The 20-mm guns were the most "heavy canons" the Hagana had up to that time. Some of them were allocated to the "fighting" ships that the "Marine Service" selected from the "shadow flotilla" (ex illegal immigration ships). 5 ships were repaired and commissioned in Haifa Port (still in British hands until 30 June 48). The first one, as from 21 May, the "Eilat" (ex "Northland", us ice-breaker), anchored in Tel-Aviv in order to "supply".. air cover to the area. The allocation of those guns was discussed in the General H.Q. meeting, and decided by a... vote, as we can learn from B-G.'S entry in his diary May 18 1948: "I raised the request of the "Marine Service" to arm the illegal immigration ship "Northland" to protect the immigration traffic from Cyprus. Yigal [Yadin], Ratner and Lerer objected, because the guns needed here. Shkolnik, Yosef, Israel [Galily] and myself were in favor".

As described above, Ressurectio has been purchased in Dec. 1948. While waiting for Arazi's contracts to materialize, she was operated in legal commerce, on the line Marseilles Algiers, in order to maintain herself and cover her real operational intentions. Looking into the time tables, one can see that the ship could have been deployed first in the beginning of Mar. 48 to ship Avriel's cargo from Shibenik  and then, return on time, in the beginning of Apr., to carry Arazi's cargo from Marseilles. To ascertain that such a failure- causing the arms to wait for a ship over two weeks - would not occur, B-G. should have appointed right from the beginning, someone with full authority over the whole system. He appointed Avigur too late, and before long he realized that even he, isn't "supplying the goods".  

The Story Of The Borea-2 (Santa-Chiara)

Santa-Chiara (Hebrew nickname Behira), capacity 1,200 tons, hoisting the Panamanian flag and operated by an Italian crew, arrived at Tel-Aviv port on May 13 1948, two days before the termination of the British Mandate and the invasion of the neighboring Arab regular armies. She arrived somewhat beyond schedule because her original trouble-making crew had to be replaced. The shipment, bought by Arazi, included 5 antique 65-mm guns, the famous "Napoleon", 200 "Chateau" machine-guns and about 650 tons of ammunition. In addition, about 450 tons of onion, starch and tomato juice-cans were used as "cover". The arms were loaded in Marseilles, and the cover cargo in Naples. The escorts were Tzvi ("Miri") Katzenelson, a Palyam member, and Nachman ("Bob") Burstein, a "Gideonee". En-route the ship's name was converted, "semi-formal" as Arazi put it, to "Borea-2" (nickname "Erez") and some "cosmetic changes" were implemented, in order to fool the British.

Upon arrival to Tel-Aviv, the ship was approached by a British destroyer. At first the British took no action and let the ship cast anchor. It looked as if the changes made en-route were effective, so Miri decided to go ashore to coordinate the unloading. Soon after, the destroyer was back and a British boarding-crew climbed onboard and ordered the captain to sail for Haifa. The Italian captain took the initiative and ordered to "sabotage" the engine. The British tried to repair the engine, but failed. After that they took no chances and began towing her to Haifa, arriving there on Friday, May 14 1948 several hours before the end of the British Mandate. The search  begun immediately. The "combination" of strong odor coming from the rotten vegetables and the unmotivated young British seamen, who after several hours were still struggling with the "cover" cargo, brought nothing but tomato juice...

Meanwhile at 4pm, B-G. declared in Tel-Aviv the establishment of the State of Israel. At that point, the search was suspended and everybody waited for instructions and/or new developments. Few minutes before midnight a British officer came to the captain and told him that he got no orders and as the Mandate is over, he his leaving and "you can do whatever you want". In no time the engine was "fixed" and the ship sailed back to Tel-Aviv, arriving there on May 15 in the late morning, where she was "welcomed" by Egyptian bombers attacking Tel-Aviv on the first day of the independence. Luckily the Egyptian pilots missed, so unloading started immediately and on that same day two of the "Napoleon" canons  were rushed to halt the Syrian attack in the Jordan Valley.  

Summary

Those three ships brought about 1,450 tons of arms to Palestine, enabling the just born state of Israel to defeat the Palestinians and check the invasion of the neighboring Arab regular armies. From the Day of Independence to the end of the first "cease fire" agreement, on Jul. 20 1948, eight more voyages one each by Ressurectio, Borea-2, Monte-Chiaro and  Scio, two by  Maestralle, and one each by two charter ships, Inako and Auopunia - brought additional 4,000 tons of arms and enabled the I.D.F (Israel Defense Forces) to move from defensive to offensive, and eventually win Israel's Independence. In 1968, on a special broadcast commemorating 20 years to the arrival of the Nora, B-G. raised his voice and summarized: "We wouldn't have been alive today without those arms!".   

Written by Yehuda Ben-Tzur, Caeseria, Israel, 1977

Yehuda  was the Palyam escort of the Maestralle, arrived on the 27th June 48. The story of the Nora is a shorter version of an article Yehuda wrote in 1995, dedicated to the memory of Ben Yerushalmi.

 

 

  

At the front, from left to right: Tzvi Tzur (IDF Chief of Staff), David Ben-gurion (Prime Minister),
Yochai Ben-nun (Commander in Chief, IDF Navy), Yehuda Ben-tzur (Commander, IDF Naval Academy)
Haifa, Israel, 1962

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