Chapter 12

Home to Haifa

 

In November 1969 Cherbourg was wearing an increasingly curious aspect. It is a compact town, huddled around the harbour and dockyards that are its main reason for existence, and it was hard to overlook the presence in the community of an ever-growing number of Israelis.

Some had been there since 1966 when construction of the Israeli boats had begun. They were mostly officials and technicians. Many had brought their families to Cherbourg and some sent their children to French schools. But as the last gunboats neared completion – the eleventh was launched on 14 October, the twelfth was due in the third week of December – more and more sailors arrived. CMN installed some of the officers at the red-bricked Hotel Atlantique, no longer a hotel but the company’s headquarters and main design office, close to the waterfront. Most of the seamen were accommodated in boarding houses and private lodgings throughout the town.

This perplexing situation was the result of a compromise that had been hammered out after the Israeli cabinet had authorized Mossad to take charge of fetching the gunboats. The Navy conceded the operational design of the mission to Mossad, but insisted that it was going to sail the gunboats home itself.

Mossad had been compelled to devise a story to captain why there were so many Israeli seamen in Cherbourg when the gunboats had supposedly been bought by a Norwegian Company for work in the North Sea. The official reply to anyone who asked was that Starboat had requested the Israeli Navy to deliver the boats to Norway on its behalf. It was a farcical explanation but no one in Cherbourg, least of all the local press, was inclined to pursue the matter.

The British press displayed no such inhibitions – and in journalists from England was invited to Cherbourg on a junket to celebrate the launching of France’s latest nuclear submarine, the Terrible. They were puzzled to come across so many Israelis, and Anthony Mann, Paris correspondent of the London Daily Telegraph, filed a story about the mystery on 18 December – the day the twelfth and last boat was launched.

Mann wrote of the ‘extraordinary situation’ in Cherbourg with ‘five Israeli crews of thirty-three men each’ waiting there. Mann said that the future of the five gunboats seemed ‘obscure’ but added that an official of the Israeli Embassy in Paris had told him: ‘We know of no plans to sell these ships to anyone else’. Mann’s most telling line came at the end. ‘It is understood that some Israeli naval personnel will return home on Christmas Day’.

In Paris, Mann’s article caused consternation. France’s external intelligence service, the SDECE (Service de Documentation Exterieure et de Contre-Espionnage), clipped the report and send it with a sharp memo to the Ministry of Defence, asking what was going on. Once again a sympathizer in the Ministry of Defence tipped Israel off. And when Admiral Limon learned of the danger to Israel’s carefully laid plans he sent word to Mossad: it was time for a little less stealth and a little more daring. The original scheme had called for the gunboats to sail at least some of the way towards Norway in order to preserve the story that they were destined for Siem. The time for such niceties was passed, Limon said. When the boats left Cherbourg they should – to put it crudely – turn left for Israel instead of right for Norway.

 

Early on 24 December Admiral Limon left Paris in his official black jaguar, its diplomatic licence plate – 59 CD 59 – openly displayed. It was a show of flamboyance that seemed the best antidote to the anxiety that even Limon was beginning to feel: Had Israel left it too late?

Towards lunchtime the Jaguar pulled up at the Cherbourg Sofitel, a hotel in a barren slab of a building at the heart of the harbour area. Limon took one room in his own name and one for his chauffeur, who gave his name as Victor Zipstein. The hotel asked Zipstein if he and his boss would be wanting the Christmas Eve dinner, a traditional French celebration. Zipstein said they would not. ?Jews don’t celebrate Christmas,’ he explained. ‘We’re here on business.’ Soon afterwards Limon departed to have lunch with Felix Amiot.

After lunch Zipstein drove Limon to the waterfront. Limon walked the short distance across the quays to where the gunboats were tied up in a neat row of five. There he met the man who would take charge of the fleet on its long journey home, a handsome and imposing Israeli navy officer who used the name Commander Ezra. Limon told him it was imperative for the five boats to leave as soon as darkness fell.

Ezra replied that this would be very difficult, and pointed out the foaming while caps on the sea beyond the harbour walls. The waves were running at between fifteen and twenty feet high, the gunboats had after all been built for the Mediterranean, not the English Channel or the Atlantic in winter. Limon could not conceal his impatience. When was the next weather forecast due?

The British brought Israel good news. The Southampton meteorological office predicted later that afternoon that the wind would ease. Ezra agreed to leave.

The lifting of the five gunboats had been coolly and meticulously planned, with moves made in places as far apart as Tunis and Panama, in a game that had gone on for months. That evening the final preparations for departure bordered on panic. The order to round up the five crews was hastily spread through Cherbourg. Dinner booking went uncancelled and shaving tackle was left in washbasins as Israelis hurried to the quayside in ones and twos.

Until that point the fiction that the boats were bound for Norway was still being fulfilled. An export permit for the boats had arrived from Paris and was safely lodged in the office of the Cherbourg dockyard agent. But there were some formalities left to complete. Cherbourg’s harbour regulations include a rule that all vessels must give twenty-four hours notice of their intention to leave. Limon decided to ignore it. If their cover really was about to blow it would be far too risky to alert the French to what was going on.

The route out of Cherbourg also presented considerable hazards. The five boats were tied up inside a harbour that was formed by the jaws of two jetties. Beyond that was Cherbourg’s outer harbour, guarded by a long sea wall which Napoleon had built. Beyond that lay the open sea.

The problem facing Limon and Ezra was this. The western jetty that helped form the inner harbour was also part of the perimeter wall of Cherbourg’s naval base. As the home of France’s nuclear submarines, the naval base was heavily guarded, even in the early hours of a Christmas morning. The customary route out of Cherbourg lay past the naval base and through a gap at the western end of napoleon’s sea wall. If the gunboats chose that route they could scarcely avoid being seen.

There was only one alternative. That was to veer east after leaving the inner harbour and aim for a narrow gap at the other end of the outer sea wall. No one should see the bouts if they left that way. But there were other dangers. The channel was dredged to a depth of only ten feet, giving the gunboats clearance of less than two feet, and the narrow gap in Napoleon’s wall was made more perilous by the submerged rocks of the nearly Ile Pelee (the ‘bare island’). The route was bleakly dismissed on the official harbour charts as ‘interdit’ – forbidden. But that was the route, Limon and Ezra decided, the five boats would have to take.

Boldness brought Israel her reward. A few respectable burghers of Cherbourg on their way to midnight mass did see the last Israeli sailors, clutching packets of American cigarettes, hurrying to the quayside. The only other witness was Napoleon himself: or rather his statue, astride a bronze horse, pointing out to sea from a vantage point above the harbour. The plinth of the statue was inscribed: ‘I have resolved to repeat at Cherbourg the marvels of Egypt’. Otherwise, Cherbourg simply awoke to find that the gunboats, so long a part of the landscape, had disappeared.

 

The Scheersberg A had spent most of December in the Mediterranean waiting to play her part in the operation. From Lulea she had sailed to Lisbon, arriving on 2 December. She left three days later and called next at the French Mediterranean port of Toulon. She stayed there for just twenty-four hours before putting to sea again. She now spent nine days lazing her way down the Spanish coast to the port of Almeria, 150 miles from Gibraltar.

Ever since the Cherbourg plan had been drawn up, Mossad had intended to use the Scheersberg A to refuel the gunboats. Exactly where that would take place had been left undecided. It would depend on how far the boats went towards Norway before turning back. It could perhaps have been carried out somewhere to the north of Gibraltar, the first port used by boats one through seven as they made their legitimate way to Haifa. But, with the cover story in growing disarray, everything changed.

The Scheersberg A had already arranged to put in at Almeria on 20 December to collect a load that Mossad had organized and to await further orders. On 21 December the orders came. The Scheersberg A was to proceed towards France at all possible speed. She must reach the Bay of Biscay by Christmas Day.

Loading was hurriedly completed and the ship left Almeria the next morning. She declared her destination as Brake, a port close to the mouth of the River Weser in West Germany. She told the Almeria harbour authorities that the drums she had taken on board contained industrial sand. In fact, they were full of diesel fuel.

Sailing close to her maximum of 12˝ knots, the Scheersberg A passed through the Strait of Gibraltar that evening. The next day, 23 December, she reached the southern tip of Portugal, then headed up Portugal’s west coast. She arrived at her destination off the northwest tip of Spain in the early hours of Christmas morning. The nearest port was La Corunna. To the east were the wild waters of the Bay of Biscay. Somewhere to the south lay Cape Finisterre, which means the end of the earth. In this forbidding place the Scheersberg A hove to.

The meeting point had been carefully chosen. With the Norwegian fairy story near collapse, it was no longer possible to assume that the five gunboats would be able to leave Cherbourg with full tanks. From Cherbourg to this position via the Bay of Biscay was some 500 nautical miles, one third the gunboats’ range at their customary cruising speed of twenty-two to twenty-three knots. And from here to Haifa was 2,600 nautical miles. That was the longest distance the gunboats could be certain of covering with only one more refuelling.

Because of the bad weather in the English Channel which delayed the gunboats’ departure, the Scheersberg A had twenty-four hours to wait. Shortly before dawn on 26 December the gunboats arrived, being guided over the final stretch to their rendezvous by walkie-talkie. The oil contained in the drums carried by the Scheersberg A weighed 150 tons, three-quarters the Plumbat load, but the transfer was far more awkward in the Atlantic than it had been in the eastern Mediterranean a year earlier. It was almost evening before the task was completed. Then the Scheersberg A and the gunboats parted. The gunboats continued south for the Strait of Gibraltar and the Mediterranean, while the Scheersberg A headed north for her declared destination of Brake.

The refuelling operation, despite its obvious hazards, had been conducted with one enormous advantage: the French government did not yet know the gunboats had gone. Its blissful ignorance was the result of an 3extraordinary conspiracy of silence on the part of the town of Cherbourg.

Cherbourg is served by two newspapers: La Presse de la Manche and Ouest-France. Reporters on these publications also act as correspondents – known in the trade as stringers – for other French newspapers and agencies. The journalists of Cherbourg, reversing their normal role as disseminators of information, now suppressed the news about the flight of the gunboats.

Marc Giustiniani, managing editor of La Presse de la Manche, unashamedly justified his newspaper’s decision soon afterwards: ‘As the result of a tacit agreement with the manufacturer, the representatives of the press kept silent. We were guided by our unique concern not to harm the activity of the most important local industry, which employs more than 1,200 people. We would have observed exactly the same position if the shipyard had been working for any other country.’

Forty-eight hours passed before the news broke. Somebody in Cherbourg tipped off the Paris office of Associated Press. Within minutes the story was on the wires and the Paris newsdesks hastily obtained confirmation from their hitherto mute Cherbourg colleagues. Then they called the ministry of Defence. The Ministry was puzzled at the fuss and at 2:12 am on 27 December it issued a statement. The boats were ‘the subject of a normal commercial arrangement with a Norwegian company.’ And so far as the Ministry knew, Norway was where the boats had gone.

The Norwegian embassy soon exposed this for the nonsense it was. Later that day it issued a statement. Starboat was not a Norwegian Company. The boats had no right to fly the Norwegian flag. And they were not expected in Norway. Any remaining doubts where the boats were bound were dispelled that evening when Lloyd’s agent in Gibraltar reported seeing the five boats race through the Strait into the Mediterranean. His news was broadcast on French radio that night.

France had been humiliated. But as Pompidou himself told his aides, unknowingly echoing Mossad’s own judgement, he was not de Gaulle. There would be no grand military gesture in the General’s style, no attempt to arrest the gunboats on the high seas. The only planes which swooped on the gunboats as they hurried east were those of the world’s press vying to take pictures from the closest range. Later Pompidou, raging at the ‘unbelievable carelessness and intellectual complicity’ of his officials, fired two senior members of CIEEMG, the committee which had approved the deal, and demanded Admiral Limon’s banishment to Israel. It all came too late to remove the gloss from Israel’s victory.

Under cover of darkness the gunboats refuelled for a second time off Sicily. On 30 December, the Scheersberg A slipped quietly into Brake. Late in the afternoon of 31 December the five gunboats made their triumphant entry into Haifa. There was no longer any point in secrecy and Israel turned the occasion into a public celebration, one more episode to be written in Israel’s short but heroic history.

General Moshe Dayan, surrounded by reporters and cameramen, was at the harbour to welcome the boats home. The news of their arrival was flashed to prime Minister Golda Meir at a meeting of the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem.

Such was the excitement that Israel took the unusual step of permitting Commander Ezra, the hero of the hour, to answer questions at an impromptu and chaotic press conference. The commander did his best to stick to matters of seamanship. The waves in the Bay of Biscay had been ‘eighteen to twenty feet high’, but then ‘December is not the best month to travel at sea’. He had been on duty for six days, snatching no more than ten minutes sleep at a time.

More awkward questions intruded: who were the ships for? Commander Ezra understood they were for Netivei Neft, Israel’s oil exploration corporation. Indeed, Netivei Neft had sent a representative to the quayside but as he insisted on speaking Hebrew, foreign reporters turned back to Commander Ezra. What would the boats be used for?

‘I don’t know and I don’t care. I’m a naval officer. I can’t tell you if these ships are suitable for oil prospecting.’

Ezra was asked if the five boats had been refuelled during their journey. ‘Yes,’ he replied tersely. ‘I refuelled.’ Pressed for details, he said that the refuelling had been carried out by a ship that was ‘not a tanker’. Pressed again, he announced: ‘I am tired. I think I am going home to bed.’

Commander Ezra’s reticence on this point was understandable. Israel was happy to bathe in the inspiring publicity of the gunboats’ dash for Haifa. But as Ezra had been warned, the question of the refuelling was the one above all that Israel did not wish to see explored. If the part played by the Scheersberg A was the strongest single link between the missing 200 tons of uranium and the state of Israel. It was time to get rid of the evidence.

 

Chapter 13

Loose Ends