The First Arab-Israeli War of 1948 is one of the most politically significant conflicts of the latter half of the 20th Century. In terms of the military history of the war, most of it focuses on the ground conflict, or else on the hodgepodge group of flyers, many of them volunteers and mercenaries, that formed the early Israeli Air Force.
Less gets recorded about the proto-Israeli Navy, which is somewhat understandable considering that service’s meagre beginnings. In fact, the Israeli Naval Service, as it was then called, was only able to cobble together a handful of warships during the war. Despite this, they performed a very active role on the conflict, including little remembered surface actions against the Egyptian Navy.
But there is one operation that really stands out – one that marked the start of a tradition of Israel maritime Special Operations and would lay the initial groundwork for the foundations for the elite Shayetet 13 special forces unit.
I’m talking about the time when a handful of dedicated, and arguably crazy commandoes attacked the Egyptian flagship with a couple of explosive Kamikaze boats.
As said, while the Israeli naval service played an active part throughout the war as best they could, they were always limited by the sort of warships they were able to obtain – normally through subterfuge – and therefore incapable of being able to deliver a truly effective blow against the Arab navies that were contesting control of the seas off of the new nation. And this was critical to Israeli goals to establish control of as much contested territory as possible.
The Egyptian Navy was able to move troops up and down the coast and provide gunfire support to Arab forces, as well as threaten the critical supply ships carrying weapons and ammunition, as well as Jewish immigrants, to Israel.
For the Israeli’s something exceptional would have to be tried if they were to achieve the naval dominance they desperately needed. And they had just the thing.
In March of 1948, the Israeli’s had acquired six Italian-built MTM explosive motorboats.
These were designed to be piloted at an enemy ship and, one hundred meters from impact the pilot would jam the steering and throw himself clear. If the boat hit the target, it would smash to pieces and the explosive charge, which weighed 300kg (c.660lbs), would detonate at a depth of one metre.
Such an attack would prove catastrophic to most ships, and indeed had done in the past. With the Italian Naval Commandoes, MT boats had been used successfully during the Second World War, including crippling the British cruiser HMS York in Crete, an event that ultimately led to the ship’s loss.
But the use of MT boats was always something of a specialist, even desperate operation, and their usage during the war probably had more failures as successes. After all, a light, wooden boat – even if it is capable of doing 30 knots as the MT’s were – isn’t going to be able to take a lot of punishment and it is notable that when they had the misfortune to run into alert defences, MT boats and their crews would often be wiped out.
Naturally, such an esoteric weapon was hardly common even during the war, so it may seem odd that the Israeli’s should be able to acquire them. But then we come to another and also little-known aspect about the creation of the Israeli Navy.
The first modern maritime school for Jews was actually founded in Fascist Italy in 1934. This had the blessing of the hierarchy of the Italian Navy, foreign office and also apparently of Mussolini himself.
It may seem odd now, considering the direction things went, and in fact the school would close in 1938 as Italian Fascism came more and more under the influence of German Nazism. But those early days meant that many links were established between the first Jewish naval cadets, many of whom would go to become the founders of the Israeli Navy, and Italian naval officers.
And this meant that, when Israeli agents were touring Europe and America seeking to purchase arms for their new nation, one of the most fertile for prospective naval equipment was Italy. So they were able to acquire the six MTM boats and get them shipped to Israel, using the ploy of having them painted up to appear like civilian speed boats.
The Israeli’s were also able to acquire the help of a former Italian naval officer, Fiorenzo Capriotti.
Capriotti had been a mechanic and pilot who had served in two of the major attacks that used MT boats, the attack in Crete that had damaged the York, and the later failed attack on Malta harbour. Though he had become a leader of neo-fascist Movimento Sociale Italiano after the war, he apparently was an admirer of the idea of a Jewish state and was recruited to train the new Israeli attack force – codenamed as the Rescue Boat Unit – in how to use the MTM’s.
The new outfit was under the command of Yohai Ben-Nun, a tough and experienced guerilla fighter. However, his men apparently didn’t impress their trainer on first impression. Later testimony states that when he first saw the recruits for the new unit Capriotti is reported to have asked where “these brats shoes are” and when the soldiers were going to arrive.
But gradually he was won round to his trainees, who soon learned what was required from them and demonstrated that they could perform the job. Indeed, by the end of his time with the Israeli’s he is reputed to have said that if he had had three hundred such men, they could’ve beaten the British in the Mediterranean.
However, first lessons needed to be learned, and quickly, and the training soon showed that the boats could not operate independently. So, as the Italians had done previously, a mother ship was allocated to carry the craft for any attack. This was the INS Ma’oz, formerly the US Navy patrol yacht USS Cythera.
The Israeli’s also decided not to follow the Italian procedure of abandoning the MT crewmen to be captured after their attack. Instead, one boat would be used to retrieve the crewman after they abandoned their charges and developed a lasso system to pick them up from the water while the rescue boat kept moving.
Training with Capriotti continued until a suitable target became available. The special unit didn’t have long to wait.
On the 15th of October the Israel’s launched Operation Yoav, which was intended to seize the Negev desert and drive a wedge between Egyptian forces on the coast and inland. Naturally, for both sides naval control was imperative, and the deployment of Egyptian warships gave the Israeli’s the opportunity, and the strategic need, to attack them.
So it was on the 22nd of October, after reports that two Egyptian naval vessels were operating off the coast of Gaza, that a small flotilla of Israeli ships set out to intercept them. They found their targets at just after four o’clock in the afternoon, the sloop El Amir Farouq, the flagship of the Egyptian Navy, and a minesweeper as escort.
But there was a problem. A few hours previously, a UN-sponsored ceasefire had notionally been agreed and gone into effect.
Now, this didn’t count for much. Two previous ceasefires had basically been ignored by both sides, and the Israelis were sure that the Amir Farouq was transporting troops to reinforce their garrison in Gaza.
The commander of the Israeli squadron, Paul Shulman, was frantic to get permission to attack, and demanded that the situation be reported directly to Ben-Gurion, the Prime Minister of Israel.
Shulman, incidentally, was an American who had served in the US Navy during the Second World War and had been instrumental in helping to create the infant Israeli Navy. Now he paced the bridge of his command ship, the corvette INS Wedgwood, sending repeated radio messages to his High Command and waiting to see if he would get the call to take action.
And then, after night had fallen, the radio buzzed to life and the voice of Ben-Gurion himself came through, saying:
“Paul, if you can sink them, shoot; if you can’t, don’t.”
And with that, the Ma’oz maneouvered in closer to the Egyptian ships and deployed its cargo; four of the MTM boats. The plan was for the first boat, crewed by Zalman Abramov, to attack the El Amir Farouq, while the second, manned by Ya’akov Vardi would attack the minesweeper.
The third, crewed by Ben-Nun, would act as a reserve while a fourth boat would conduct pickup of the men in the water once they had launched their attacks.
But as the MTM’s approached, the Egyptians, assumedly suspecting something was up, began to get underway and manned their guns, which as it was several 6-pdr and three-inch cannon, as well as multiple 20mm Oerlikon anti-aircraft guns represented a real threat to the light MTM’s.
Abramov headed for the Amir Farouq. Opening his throttle to full, he bailed out and his MTM struck the ship and exploded. Bobbing in the water, he later said in an interview that the ship made a great hissing as seawater rushed in on the ships boilers.
Vardi seems to have been confused, somewhat understandable considering that the Egyptians now opened fire, and instead of attacking the minesweeper he also turned to the Amir Farouq. However, he had a problem with his bailout gear and had to pull a circle while he sorted it before he too launched an attack on the ship.
Ben Nun, seeing that both boats had attacked the flagship, now charged the minesweeper, which was firing with all its weapons by this point. Closing swiftly, he too bailed out, and his boat smashed into the target and detonated.
The El Amir Farouq sank in five minutes, whilst the minesweeper managed to make port, though was later scrapped because of the extent of the damage it had suffered.
The rescue boat then managed to pick up the three men and beat a retreat back to their mother ship, before returning to port safely.
The action was a serious setback to Egypt’s attempts to interdict Israeli shipments, whilst also cleared the way for the small Israeli Navy to continue its own efforts to grab Arab arms shipments, a useful source of supply to the new nation.
For the officers who took part, a number had storied careers.
Shulman, the American squadron commander, would be appointed as Admiral of the Israeli Navy a week later. Seeing as he was only 26 at the time, that is quite something, and he would joke he was the only US Navy officer to have ever gone from Lieutenant to Admiral in three years.
Ben Nun would receive the Hero of Israel award, one of only twelve issued, and apparently this was viewed by the unit as a joint award for their actions. He would later go on to form the Shayetet 13 naval special operations unit, and in 1960 was appointed as commander of the Israeli Navy.
As for Capriotti, well, he returned to Europe, and assisted in arranging shipments of specialist equipment to Israel for use by their naval special forces. Ultimately, he appears to have left politics, and in 1992 was invited to Israel where he was made an honorary commander in Shayetet 13.