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.
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.
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.
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.
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 LondonDaily
Telegraph, filed a story about the mystery on 18 December – the day the
twelfth and last boat was launched.
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
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?
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.
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
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?
brought Israel good news. The Southampton meteorological office predicted
later that afternoon that the wind would ease. Ezra agreed to leave.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
brought Israel her reward. A few respectable
burghers of Cherbourg on their way to 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.
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
by Christmas Day.
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
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
Somewhere to the south lay Cape Finisterre, which means the end of the earth. In this forbidding place the Scheersberg A hove to.
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
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.
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
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.’
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
know and I don’t care. I’m a naval officer. I can’t tell you if these ships are
suitable for oil prospecting.’
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.’
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.