A Matter Of Survival:
The Role of The Arms Ships In Israel's Independence War
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
Armed Forces". Two days earlier, at a meeting of the "People's
Administration" [The provisional government, established following
resolution of Nov. 29, 1947], B-G. reported: "We already have lot's
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
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
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
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
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
sending three prominent members abroad - Yehuda Arazi, Ehud Avriel
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
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
for transporting the arms - Santa-Chiara, Ressurectio, Maestralle,
Monte-chiaro, Scio and Nora. For obvious reasons, the ships continued
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
Ada Sereni, upon Arazi's instructions, on dec. 47 , even before he
any contracts. Arazi explained this instruction : "It is better that
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
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
On the other hand, the Palestinians had nearly "open borders" to the
Here is the story of three arms ships who broke through, before the
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
The Story Of The Nora
The most famous one is the Nora - the first ship to arrive just on time
provide the much needed arms to "Operation Nachshon", which marked
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
1948, forty five days before the end of the British Mandate. The arrival
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
managed - with the help of Adam-Robert Avramovitch, a Jew with the
connections, offering his services for free - to reach directly to
manufacturing company "Zboroyovka" in Czechoslovakia and have a deal.
turned out, that the Czechs - with the blessing of the "Big Brother",
- were eager to sell not less than the buyer, who offered hard currency
didn't haggle too much over the prices. During the negotiations, it
discovered that the international-law prohibits states from selling
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
ways to ship the consignment of arms - which included hundreds
weighing over 500 tons - to a port of embarkation. Out of the three
alternatives ( all Soviet Block countries ) - Yugoslavia, Poland
Romania - Avriel preferred the route through Yugoslavia, which was
shortest one and familiar to him, from his involvement in the illegal
emigration activities, back in 1946. Avriel reported to B-G. on Jan.
1948 that: "In principle there is an approval [by the Yugoslavs] for
passage of the shipment, but a final answer will be given only tomorrow".
positive final answer was indeed given, but only after a month! The
has nothing to do with the negotiations over the passage terms - all
"shipping & handling" costs were agreed upon and paid in advance
rather the result of Yugoslavia having to get the blessing of USSR
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,
the message that the shipment would reach Tel-Aviv "by Feb. 10 and
earlier". This time-table was revised twice, mainly due to delays on
question of the passage through Yugoslavia to the port of Shibenik.
the shipment finally arrived at Shibenik, at the beginning of Mar.
ship was waiting for it, and the "acquisition" had to wait there over
Why did it happened? How come, that in times of "heavy starvation"
arms, such a delay could occur ? Unfortunately, one has to find the
in "the politics" of internal-personal relations among high ranking
of the "acquisition system" and the Mossad alike. B-G. was aware of
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...".
enough it became clear that even B-G. was unable to restrain the ego
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
handled the arms acquisition and its shipment to Yugoslavia. As for
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
his diary about it on the 4th of Jan. 48 : "Ada [Sereni] was told to
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,
knows nothing about B-G.'s diary entry. To the question of why one
ships already available - the Santa-Chiara or the Ressurectio
engaged in arms shipment at that time, beginning of Mar. 48 - hadn't
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.
Avriel understood that the Mossad is not going to help him with a ship,
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
help from the Mossad, fearing leakage of information to the British
Intelligence. "For security reasons", their agents, Sahar &
approached Efraeim Eileen, a Jewish private businessman dealing with
shipments from Egypt to Italy, asking him to purchase for them a ship
prepare her to the mission. At the beginning of March the Nora was
purchased in Venice. Before departure to Shibenik, she was loaded with
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)
an experienced field-person of the Mossad (unlike most of the escort,
was not a Palyam member, but the decision to have him aboard turned
be a very good one), and Avraham Lichovsky, an experienced "Gideonee"
The Italian crew suspected that an illegal mission might be involved.
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,
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
an area of active fighting. Some of them wanted to sign off, but they
"convinced" by the Yugoslavs that such a move would "not be to their
benefit". Ben, a charismatic person, managed to convince them to take
to sea, and in addition gave them a raise and even a promise, to get
"air umbrella" protection, once they reach the port of destination
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,
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
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
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
Nora was expected, if not delayed by the storm – B-G. was on the verge
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
he fails to expedite arm shipments by... air. On the same day he had
a risky decision to divert arms from other fronts in favor of "Nachshon
forces", preparing themselves to reopen the main road to Jerusalem.
days latter, Nora unloaded the brand new rifles & machine-guns,
grease on, they were rushed directly to "Nachshon" fighters!
beginning the operation.
Summarizing the affair few days latter, B-G. wrote in his diary on the
of Apr. 1948: "The delay of the first shipment caused by a lack of
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
desired improvement. Two months latter, Lova Eliav reported to B-G.
Italy: "As far as acquisition goes... I see here a complete chaos.
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,
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
kept "Radio silence", for the simple reason that there was no radio
"Gideonee" on board. The only misS OUT happened during the unloading
anchorage, where some of the stevedores - all volunteered to work during
the holiday – fainted, because of the intoxicating smell coming from
rotten "cover" vegetables.
The 20-mm guns were the most "heavy canons" the Hagana had up to that
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
British hands until 30 June 48). The first one, as from 21 May, the
(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
learn from B-G.'S entry in his diary May 18 1948: "I raised the request
the "Marine Service" to arm the illegal immigration ship "Northland"
protect the immigration traffic from Cyprus. Yigal [Yadin], Ratner
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
legal commerce, on the line Marseilles – Algiers, in order to maintain
herself and cover her real operational intentions. Looking into the
tables, one can see that the ship could have been deployed first in
beginning of Mar. 48 to ship Avriel's cargo from Shibenik and
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
two weeks - would not occur, B-G. should have appointed right from
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 Story Of The Borea-2 (Santa-Chiara)
Santa-Chiara (Hebrew nickname Behira), capacity 1,200 tons, hoisting
Panamanian flag and operated by an Italian crew, arrived at Tel-Aviv
on May 13 1948, two days before the termination of the British Mandate
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,
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,
the cover cargo in Naples. The escorts were Tzvi ("Miri") Katzenelson,
Palyam member, and Nachman ("Bob") Burstein, a "Gideonee". En-route
ship's name was converted, "semi-formal" as Arazi put it, to "Borea-2"
(nickname "Erez") and some "cosmetic changes" were implemented, in
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
as if the changes made en-route were effective, so Miri decided to
ashore to coordinate the unloading. Soon after, the destroyer was back
a British boarding-crew climbed onboard and ordered the captain to
Haifa. The Italian captain took the initiative and ordered to "sabotage"
the engine. The British tried to repair the engine, but failed. After
they took no chances and began towing her to Haifa, arriving there
Friday, May 14 1948 several hours before the end of the British Mandate.
The search begun immediately. The "combination" of strong odor
the rotten vegetables and the unmotivated young British seamen, who
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
of Israel. At that point, the search was suspended and everybody waited
instructions and/or new developments. Few minutes before midnight a
officer came to the captain and told him that he got no orders and
Mandate is over, he his leaving and "you can do whatever you want".
time the engine was "fixed" and the ship sailed back to
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
day two of the "Napoleon" canons were rushed to halt the Syrian
the Jordan Valley.
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
invasion of the neighboring Arab regular armies. From the Day of
Independence to the end of the first "cease fire" agreement, on Jul.
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
years to the arrival of the Nora, B-G. raised his voice and summarized:
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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