Eyewitness account of Cherbourg

July 17, 2012 by Henry Benjamin
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At 2a.m. on Christmas Day 1969 the French city of Cherbourg lay deeply asleep following the traditional dinners and late Mass…so deeply asleep that the roar of twenty diesel engines starting up failed to awake them and five patrol boats paid for by Israel and embargoed by the French were on their way to Haifa.

The story of the “rescue” of the boats captured the imagination of the world at the time…and aboard one of the boats was Ygal Shapir, currently the executive director of the NSW branch of the Jewish National Fund.

Ygal told his story to JNF supporters at a function held to announce the 2012 Gala dinner.

More than 150 supporters sat in stunned silence as the former naval officer told the story of the acquisition of the boats illustrating it with photographs he took himself at this important stage in the history of contemporary Israel.

The boats were to play a highly significant role in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

Ygal took us back to the events of 1969 which revolutionised the Israeli navy.

In the early 1960s, the Israeli navy received only a small amount of the IDF budget affording it only destroyers and submarines of WWII vintage. The Israeli navy was determined to bring about the changes needed to modernise its fleet. a program which received the support of a young Shimon Peres an official at the Ministry of Defence. Money had become available following a meeting between Ben-Gurion and German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer after reparation and compensation funds had become available.

In the meantime, the Russians had developed the Osa, a small high-speed boat that attacked the “Eilat” using sea to sea missiles.”

The plan was simple. Replace the destroyers with small fast patrol boats. The Israeli Aircraft Industry had developed missiles which could be adapted to become sea-t0-sea weapons named Gabriel. The vessel earmarked to deliver these missiles based on the design of the German-built Jaguar patrol boat.  The Israeli Navy had not acquitted itself well during The Six Day War in 1967 on Oct 21 1967 and the Egyptians had launched missiles from Port Said which sunk the Israeli destroyer “Eilat” patrolling outside Egyptian territorial waters. 51 Israeli sailors and officers lost their lives. The Egyptians had been using Russian-build subsonic Styx missiles. Shapir said: “I have a friend who was standing on the bridge of the destroyer and he saw this fireball coming in very slowly and hitting the ship. Two other missiles followed and caused most of the fatalities among the Israelis already in the water.”

A few months later, the Egyptians also sunk the Israeli fishing-boat “Orit”. Shapir said: “This accelerated the development of the counter-measure systems. “Eilat, a former British destroyer, had been the flagship of the Israeli Navy and was one of three.

Following commercial threats from the Arab Bloc, the plans to build patrol boats for Israel were scuttled by the Germans and the Israelis turned to a small shipyard in Cherbourg on the French Normandy coast.

In 1968 a terrorist attack launched in England had emanated from Lebanon and Israel launched a counter-attack on its neighbor. Shapir said: “I remember being at sea on one of these patrol boats from which Israeli commandos  launched rubber dinghies and attacked Beirut airport in retaliation destroying 10 aircraft.”  Shapir continued: “As a result of this, the French declared an embargo on offensive weapons to the Middle East, meaning Israel..so two programs were affected by this definition. The Mirage aircraft and the naval boats.”

Refueling from the MV Netanya off Gibraltar

Cherbourg had already delivered five of the twelve boats ordered to Israel. When the embargo was declared two boats were ready to be sent to Israel. In December 1968, the two boats left Cherbourg and made it safely to Israel. The shipyard continued to work building the remaining five vessels to complete the contract. The relationship between the French and Israeli navies deteriorated as the two boats had left unofficially from a French naval installation. The other five boats under construction were to be berthed outside of the French Naval base.

At this point, Shapir himself enters the story. He said: “I graduated from the Naval Officers’ Course at the end of 1968 and went to the flotilla of missile boats as an officer. In May 1969 I was sent to a diesel engine factory in Germany for three weeks. I got a phone call and was told to take a train to Cherbourg to launch the tenth patrol boat as a Chief Engineer. Every three months, the shipyard launched a vessel which the Israelis trialled…but the embargo was set so the boats could not leave the French port.”

The tenth boat and there were now three in the water…the Gash, the Sufa and the Cherev with the others due at three months’ interval. The last boat was due to be launched in December 1969.

Shapir told the hushed audience: “It was absolutely crucial that the navy got these boats. There is a big difference between a fleet of seven and a fleet of twelve. The naval chiefs went to Prime Minister Golda Meir requesting permission to take the boats ‘somehow'”.

Meir gave approval but asked the navy brass to “make it Kosher – I don’t want to have political problems with the French”. A Norwegian company then issued a tender to buy five fast boats on the pretext that they were needed to service the off-shore oil platforms in the North Sea. Acceding to Meir’s request documents were prepared stating the boats were sold to the Norwegian company.

In the meantime, Israeli crews found their way to Cherbourg. The twelfth boat was launched…at the same time as the launch of a French nuclear submarine attracting journalists from Paris. Shapir explained: “One noticed that there was a much better story on the other side of the city. He called the commander and started asking questions. Somehow he was convinced not to publish the story.”

The legal documents had been prepared with the designated buyer being in Oslo., with all prepared on December 18, 1970.

Ygal SHapir tells the story of the “Eilat”

The Cherbourg police were suspicious and there is a letter documented from them to Paris written on December 20 saying that they believe “that the sale of these boats is fictitious and that the boats are going to Israel”.

Shapir explained that he believed that because of the advent of Christmas, the letter was not opened until shortly after the New Year.

On the 24th of December the boats had been fully fueled and the export papers cleared by Customs.

All was ready but bad weather had set in. Shapir said: “There were 9m waves and this was a one way ticket. We could go out to sea but we could not go back. We were scheduled to leave at 10pm. but we could not leave because of the weather. At 2am a decision was taken to leave. This was something to remember. At two o’clock in the morning twenty diesels started up. It was very noisy. Nobody complained because they were all worn out after their Christmas dinners”. The police came when we turned on a small diesel generator but this time they didn’t come and it much noisier. I felt we were making history.”

Shapir tells of the journey. :The sea was as we expected and communications were bad. We had to follow the blue stern light of the ship ahead. Our officer followed a merchant ship by mistake. The other boats noticed one vessel was lost. It took hours before we managed to get together before crossing the notorious Bay of Biscay and had to sail at low speed traveling up and down the waves rather than through them…but we made it to Gibraltar and found a small bay where we had a rendez-vous with an Israeli merchant ship which had been fitted out to refuel us. It took us a day to fuel the five boats. We refueled again with a  specially fitted-out Zim passenger ship called “Dan” off Malta.”

He continued: “As we approached the Israeli coast Israeli Air Force F-4 Phantom jets welcomed us”

To allay suspicion all boats had been renamed before leaving Cherbourg…Starboat 1 to Starboat 5 and the crews were wearing the overalls of the Norwegian servicing company. The vessels arrived in Haifa on December 31 and not the naval base as the ships had a commercial appearance.”   ‘Sufa’ Herev’ ‘Ga’ash’ ‘Hanit’ and “Hetz’ – [Storm, Sword, Volcano, Spear and Arrow] had arrived home albeit using false names.

In 1973, Israel had its boats and its missiles and had developed the systems to use its new weaponry. The boats, now equipped with their weaponry, had now become very powerful military machines.

Shapir said: “During the Yom Kippur War in 1973 the Egyptians shot at us but our counter-measures worked and our Gabriels sank about thirty Egyptian and Syrian ships.

One of the small patrol boats has been renamed “Eilat” in honor of the Israeli destroyer sunk by the Egyptians.













2 Responses to “Eyewitness account of Cherbourg”
  1. Anna says:

    I lived in Haifa at the time of this event and remember it vividly. One of our neighbors, whose name I cannot remember, was one of the officers serving on one of the ships.. It was a fantastic achievement and I remember the excitement in Israel when that happened. Everybody knew that the Mirages and boats were paid for and with the embargo put on the planes and vessels, Israeli sympathies and trust in the French were lost forever.

    Most of the elder Australians would not recall this incident, just as those world wide. It was never dwelt on. Therefore the current generation of early middle aged people were not aware of it. What a pity that history is here not to be remembered but to be forgotten.

  2. Halina says:

    What the excellent story! I don’t know about the other people, but I living in Sydney knew very little about the Jom Kippur War, and absolutly nothing about the preparations for this. Thank you Henry!

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