Themes

TENSION MOUNTS WAITING IN FRANCE WITH THE ALTALENA, JUNE

 

At the last moment we were subjected to a further delay.

 

*The delivery of the arms was postponed for three days.

 

*Meanwhile hundreds of young men and women had arrived in the camps.

 

*They had to be fed and kept tranquil for the extra days.


*The owners of the land on which one of the camps was set up threatened legal proceedings at the extended tenure and were with difficulty appeased.

 

*Tension at Prot de Bouc (and at Avenue de Hessine) was heightened when the French police discovered a mysterious consignment of rifles in the Marseilles railway station.

 

We had had them stored in Paris awaiting the day when at last they could be sent to the Altalena.

 

Though the Ministry of the Interior had issued orders and made arrangements with the police, with the Customs and with all other possible authorities to ensure the unmolested dispatch and movement of our arms to the boat, this odd consignment from Paris was by some error in the consignment note delivered to the baggage room at Marseilles.

 

*When our agents arrived to claim it the police arrested them.

 

A COMPLETE DIPLOMATIC OPERATION IN PARIS WAS NECESSARY IN ORDER TO ACHIEVE AN EXPLANATION FROM THE UPPER TO THE LOWER ECHELONS OF AUTHORITY AND ORDERS FOR THE NOISELESS RELEASE OF OUR UNLUCKY REPRESENTATIVES.

 

The delay in the major consignment brought home with redoubled force the grave political and security problem which faced us.

 

BY 2 JUNE BOTH THE PROVISIONAL GOVERNMENT OF ISRAEL AND THE ARAB STATES ANNOUNCED THEIR ACCEPTANCE OF THE TRUCE DECIDED ON BY THE SECURITY COUNCIL.

 

(see CEASEFIRES theme)

 

***NO SANE ISRAEL GOVERNMENT COULD ACCEPT SUCH A TRUCE WITH THE INTENTION OF OBSERVING IT, ANY MORE THAN THE ARAB STATES WOULD STOP RECEIVING ARMS UNDER “LONG-STANDING” CONTRACTS FROM BRITAIN.

 

There was no doubt in my mind then that the Provisional Government intended to exploit the truce (as we later learnt that it did) in order to correct our dangerously inferiority in arms.

 

*That, truce or no truce, they would welcome the arrival of the Altalena (however sour their welcome might be) was, to be obvious.

 

*With the declaration of a truce, however, the danger was that our ship might be attacked in the open sea by the Egyptians or, what was more in an onrush of loyalty to U.N. decisions, plead justification.

 

How great was this risk, and how good were the ship’s chances of breaking through if attacked?

 

These questions we discussed long and earnestly with Monroe Fein.

 

Fein had handled precisely the same type of vessel against the Japanese.

 

He was confident of his ability to evade attack: and in the repelling attacks he would be well-equipped on board with weapons that could be used against aircraft.

 

We decided:

 

          *That in the light of the gravity of the arms situation, we must take the risk that might ensue from a formal breach of the truce;

 

          *That the boat should therefore sail, taking whatever action its commander thought necessary to evade or resist enemy action;

 

          *That the commander should do whatever possible to evade United Nations truce surveillance. 

 

*To this end, unloading of the arms on the Palestine coast should be carried out preferably at night, and the boat stand off during daylight.

 

TUESDAY 8 JUNE WAS FINALLY FIXED FOR THE DELIVERY OF THE ARMS BY THE FRENCH GOVERNMENT.

 

On that day I traveled down to Marseilles and to Port de Bouc.

 

At the camps some nine hundred young men and women, in between meals and physical training and unarmed military exercises, fretted and complained at the inaction, at the delay, at not being given arms.

 

Rammy, who had been summoned from Geneva to take charge of the large camp, was exhausted by very cheerful.

 

He had succeeded in maintaining order, cleanliness and discipline and to hold the owner of the land at bay.

 

He was looking forward eagerly to the conclusion of this triple test of his capacities.

 

Late in the evening, with Dr. Ariel and Madame Vayda, I paid my first and only visit to the Altalena.

 

Fein then took me round the boat, explained its proposed organization, showed me the substantial arms and supplies from diverse sources that had already come aboard, including half-a-dozen caterpillar trailers.

 

I was still unable to give him Tel Aviv’s reply to his queries on signals, or the point at which he was to land.

 

In that event Germant arrived the very next morning and in my absence from Paris flew straight down to Marseilles.

 

*He brought to Fein the High Command’s approval of the signals he had suggested; and their request to bring the ship to the beach opposite Frishman Street in Tel Aviv.

 

We paced the deck that moonless Tuesday night for an hour or more turning over the whole project.

 

Hanging over the rail when Fein had left me to attend to some chores, I pondered over this young American and Americanized Jew, quiet-spoken and clear-headed, responding to a call he had only just begun to recognize.

 

Now, coolly and pragmatically, without heroics or sentimentality, he was about to drive into whatever danger offered or threatened.

 

In those spring days of1948 there were many of his kind who came from the counties of rooted comfort to give expression to the sudden sense of solidarity with their ancient people.

 

There were many; yet they were few.

 

Too many more, albeit moved by the spectacle of their embattled brothers and cheering them on, yet remained at a distance in New York and Los Angeles, and London and Buenos Aires and Johannesburg.

 

Suddenly I felt very tired.

 

I went on to the piers, got into the car we had come by, and fell fast asleep.

 

I was thus saved a nerve-wracking wait.

 

I was awakened by voices and movement.  I got out.

 

The head of the convoy of trucks had arrived.

 

The commander of the convoy, a Major, got out of his car, came up to where Ariel was standing with Madame Vayda and the Divisional Commissioner for the Surveillance de la territoire of the Surete.

 

The Major asked the civilian official for “Mr. Ariel.”

 

Ariel identified himself.

 

The Major saluted and said “I am Major X, head of this convoy of arms directed to you.  I am at your disposal.”

 

*THERE WERE TWENTY-SEVEN TRUCKS.

 

*THE MAIN ITEMS IN THE TRANSPORT WERE FIVE THOUSAND LEE-ENFIELD RIFLES,

           

*FIVE MILLION ROUNDS OF AMMUNITION AND

 

 *250 BREN MACHINE-GUNS.

 

It was about two a.m. Wednesday.

 

The steel-helmeted soldiers began unloading the trucks.

 

A team of stevedores began the loading of the ship.

 

We decided that the ship would sail on Thursday.

 

After a few hours’ sleep I flew back to Paris.

 

          *        *        *

 

That day it was announced that the two sides in Palestine having agreed on the terms, the ceasefire would come into force on Friday morning.

 

In the week since their acceptance of the truce in principle the military situation had, in our balance, changed to worse.

 

*ON ALL THE FRONTS THERE WERE TWO NOTABLE COMMON INGREDIENTS: FIERCE AND DAUNTLESS JEWISH FIGHTERS AND A STRIKING JEWISH INFERIORITY IN FIRE-POWER.

 

Even now there was a hitch at Prot de Bouc.

 

On arriving in Paris I found a telephoned message from Marseilles.

 

The stevedores working on the Altalena had gone on strike, ordered out by their Trade Union.

 

We were given an official explanation.

 

Ariel intervened with the Union, but meantime the French soldiers set to work.

 

Sixty men, and then another sixty, were brought from the Irgun camp to do the work of the stevedores.

 

They were more enthusiastic but not as fast.

 

Another day was lost.

 

Work went on incessantly for two days.

 

AT MIDDAY ON FRIDAY 11 JUNE THE LOADING WAS COMPLETED.

 

THE ALTALENA SAILED FOR PALESTINE AT 8:30 THAT EVENING.

 

Indeed the space I have here devoted to this incident is far grater than it occupied in my mind at the time.

 

I was overwhelmed by a sea of real troubles.

 

At eleven p.m. on Friday night I had received the message of the sailing of the Altalena.

 

Early the next morning a thunderbolt came down.

 

A TELEGRAM ARRIVED FROM TEL AVIV ASKING ME NOT TO SEND THE BOAT AND TO AWAIT INSTRUCTIONS.

 

I was shocked and dismayed.

 

What could have happened?

 

On Tuesday, the day I went to Marseilles, I had had a telegram from Tel Aviv asking whether the boat had sailed.

 

The next day Germant had arrived bringing the instructions for beaching.

 

They knew therefore that we were making preparations for the sailing.


What had happened in these several days?

 

In fact nothing had “happened.”

 

There was a certain lack of (mental) correspondence in our thinking.

 

Begin had assumed the he would be informed in advance of the date we fixed for a sailing.

 

He too was watching the negotiations for a truce and its likely effect on the affairs of the Altalena.

 

More significantly and materially his estimate of the probable effects of a breach of the truce on our part was different from ours.

 

*He was not prepared t commit a breach of the truce without the prior consent of the Israel Government; we believed that the Israel Government would give its blessing to an accomplished fact.

 

The situation could still be corrected.

 

I drafted a message to be sent o our radio to the ship.

 

Now came the second blow.

 

*Our transmitter did not work.

 

I did not stop to investigate. 

 

I CABLED TEL AVIV THAT THE SHIP HAD SAILED, THAT I HAD NO CONTACT WITH HER, THAT THEY SHOULD TRY TO COMMUNICATE WITH HER DIRECT.

 

I then raced to the Yugoslav Embassy.

 

While the boat had supplies enough, at a stretch, for four weeks, the prospect of a thousand people sailing aimlessly round in the Mediterranean for a month in the midsummer heat was not a pleasant one to contemplate.

 

A friendly port might give her discreet shelter for at least part of the time.

 

THE ONLY GOVERNMENT I BELIEVED MIGHT AGREE WAS YUGOSLAVIA.

 

Yugoslavia had indeed recently broken with the Soviet Union, she had indeed opposed partition.

 

Yet there was no unequivocally hostile attitude to us.

 

We had noted this the previous year during the United Nations Commission’s session in Palestine, during our conversation with the editor of Borba in Tel Aviv, my talks with (the) Yugoslav representative in Geneva, and my meeting with Brilej.

 

Brilej was now an Assistant to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, and I hoped, through him, to obtain ten or fourteen days’ asylum for the boat.

 

I do not know what Brilej’s reaction would have been.

 

I applied for a visa, was told the application must be sent to Belgrade.

 

I asked that it be sent telegraphically and be referred to Brilej.

 

Perhaps this was a mistake.  The official did not look pleased.

 

Nevertheless I asked him to telephone as soon as he had a reply.

 

Certainly in the ten days I remained in Paris I did not receive any reply.

 

*The days passed in unrelieved anxiety, deepened by the knowledge that from the moment it sailed the Altalena’s voyage had been reported, though not prominently, in the British Press.

 

I was, too, kept occupied by the maintenance of a dozen airmen sent from Canada and the United States to man the planes which had been bought on our behalf. 

 

The planes themselves had not arrived.

 

At last came news, this time good. 

 

On Thursday 17 June Aryeh Ben Eliezer, returned from Palestine.

 

He reported on what had gone forward there since the receipt of my telegram of Saturday.

 

***BEGIN HAD SENT A TELEGRAM TO LANKIN ON THE SHIP INSTRUCTING HIM TO KEEP THE SHIP AWAY FROM THE PALESTINE SHORE UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE OWING TO THE TRUCE.

 

*As we learnt later the order was received on board and Fein and Lankin made the necessary arrangements.

 

*Lankin instituted rationing of food and drink and cigarettes to last four weeks.

 

*IMMEDIATELY AFTER SENDING THE INSTRUCTIONS THE IRGUN HIGH COMMAND APPLIED ITSELF TO SECURING THE GOVERNMENT’S AGREEMENT TO THE COMING OF THE SHIP.

 

They communicated with Galili and gave him a full account of the ship and its contents, of its sailing without permission from France, of the order that had now been given to the ship to keep away.

 

***IF THE GOVERNMENT AGREED, THE ORDER WOULD BE RESCINDED AND THE SHIP BROUGHT IN.

 

***IF NOT, THE SHIP WOULD REMAIN AT SEA UNTIL THE END OF THE TRUCE.

 

THE GOVERNMENT’S DECISION, SAID ELIEZER, HAD BEEN COMMUNICATED AT A MEETING WITH SHKOLNIK AND GALILI, AT WHICH HE HAD BEEN PRESENT, ON TUESDAY 15 MAY.

 

The decision was: to bring the ship and to bring it with all possible speed.

 

In great relief and indeed joy Begin had sent a new order to the ship: “Full Steam Ahead.”

 

“They are now on internal problems,” said Ben Eliezer.  “Galili has promised that the Haganah will send trucks to help us unload the ship as quickly as possible so as to reduce to a minimum its exposure to possible U.S. interventionThey were due to discuss later other details, about where to beach the ship and how to distribute the arms.  Everybody is now relaxed, and I felt free to leave for Paris.”

 

I at once communicated (the news) to Ariel who had been brooding in his own way over the developments of the preceding week.  He was overjoyed.

 

The anxiety which had hung over the office those several days was transformed into  a quite disproportionate light-heartedness.

 

The boat was still in danger.

 

Yet no rationalization can alter the fact that neither Arabs, nor British, nor U.N. observers now caused us any serious anxiety.

 

***THE ONE THING WE DID NOT, COULD NOT, FORESEE WAS ABYSMAL BETRAYAL BY THE GOVERNMENT OF A MONTH-OLD ISRAEL FIGHTING FOR ITS LIFE.

 

Now, except for the planes which had still not arrived, and would have to be forwarded to Palestine when they did arrive, the Irgun Zvai Leumi in Europe could be reduced to skeleton (proportion).

 

It would not yet be entirely wound up.

 

WE NEVER FORGOT JERUSALEM, WHERE THE ISRAEL GOVERNMENT WOULD NOT LET ITS WRIT RUN, WHERE THE BATTLE WAS STILL HEAVILY JOINED, WHERE THE OLD CITY HAD FALLEN AND THE NEW IN MANY-PRONGED DANGER.

 

There the Irgun would have to continue its independent existence to struggle for the inclusion of the whole of the city in the Jewish State.

 

It might be for only a matter of weeks.

 

It might be for months or years.

 

*Until we knew, a remnant of the Irgun abroad must be kept in being.

 

*For the present, however, as many of us as could possibly get back to Israel, to the front, must do so.

 

Indeed of all our officers only Aryeh and Ariel remained in Paris, with Yehoshua Helpern to look after finances.

 

All the rest packed their bags.

 

There were about twenty-five of us.

 

I decided again to charter a plane – this time French.

 

We took with us Major Samuel Weiser who had come from London and Conrad Berkovici one of the band of writers in America who had for years given dedicated service to our cause through the Hebrew Committee.

 

With us too came Samuel L. Katz; and a young woman from London, Gusta Feingold, with a baby in arms.  Her husband and her brother, who had both served as officers in the British Army, had sailed on the Altalena.  She was hurrying to Palestine to make a home for all of them in the new State.

 

On Tuesday 22 June we left Paris.



As we waited among our suitcases on the pavement of Avenue de Hessine for the taxis to take us to the airport, Ariel arrived.

 

He was agitated.

 

He called Eli and me aside and showed me a slip of paper.

 

He had just had a telephoned message from the French Foreign Office.

 

There a telegram had arrived about the Altalena.

 

THE BOAT, SAID THE MESSAGE, HAD ARRIVED OFF EFAR VITKIN AND HAD BEEN FIRED ON.

 

What could it mean?

 

Kfar Vitkin was a communal village north of Natanya peopled exclusively by Mapai members, by definition enemies of the Irgun.

 

We left our thoughts unspoken.

 

Through my mind, unbidden, flashed an incident from South African history.

 

The Zulu Chief Dingaar invited the Boer leaders to a friendly parley in his kraal.  Inside they were massacred to a man. 

 

I reproached myself for such macabre and probably unjust thoughts.

 

Our only stop on the way was at Ajaccio in Corsica, where we spent the night.

 

There we heard no news at all from Palestine.

 

We reached Haifa the next afternoon.

 

At the airport we rushed to buy the newspaper.

 

IN GIGANTIC HEADLINES IT TOLD US THAT TWENTY MEMBERS OF THE IRGUN HAD BEEN KILLED, AMONG THEM ABRAHAM STAVSKY, AND THAT THE ALTALENA WAS BURNING TO DEATH OFF THE SHORE OF TEL AVIV.

 

            *          *          *

 

Begin has published his account of the Altalena in The Revolt, and Lankin – The Story of the Commander of Altalena.

 

Monroe Fein, at my request wrote his own laconic factual report immediately after the event.

 

This was supplemented by the report of Jerry Salaman, the crew-member who had been charged with the defense of the boat.

 

Fein’s and Salaman’s reports have never been published.

 

(NOTE: They are preserved in the Jabotinsky Museum in Tel Aviv.)

 

Except for minor details all the accounts confirm and supplement each other.

 

Indeed it is not difficult to get at the essential truth of the story of the Altalena.

 

***The numerous fabrications issued in the name of Provisional Government and which flooded the Press in Israel and outside were only needed by their authors for a few days.

 

The obvious facts – or the facts that soon became obvious – lit up their lurid mendacity.

 

It was by then too late for them to be of effect.

 

***Moreover, mistakes were made by the Irgun leadership which helped Ben Gurion obfuscate the issue and “get away” with it.

 

            *          *          *

 

*It had been agreed between the Irgun and the Haganah that on the official proclamation of the National Army, the Irgun would be incorporated into the army unit by unit under its own junior officers.

 

To organize the transfer and until the process was completed the Irgun High Command would continue in being as a Military Staff recognized by the new Army Command.

 

By the middle of June, when the negotiations of the Altalena took place, a number of Irgun units were already serving in the Army.

 

Indeed they could be identified on all the fronts.

 

One of them had participated in the heroic defense of Negbah, one of them had captured the Arab village of Yibneh north of Ashdod.

 

*With the eager consent of the Government to the bringing of the ship, Galili (now Assistant minister of Security) and his colleagues were asked to determine the most convenient point for the boat to land.

 

*Their answer was: Kfar Vitkin.

 

Galili even gave an unsolicited explanation of the choice: it would be easier there to evade United Nation surveillance.

 

Hence the order went out from Begin to the Altalena to make course for Kfar Vitkin.

 

When it was received on board the ship Eliahu Lankin was overwhelmed with delight.

 

As he explained to Fein, who was blissfully ignorant of Jewish politics – This was obviously a Government choice.

 

This meant that the Government was cooperating with the Irgun in the operation.

 

“All our troubles” he told Fein “are over.”

 

Fein however did not forget the Arabs and the British.

 

He was wary of air attacks.

 

*Throughout the voyage men were trained as anti-aircraft gunners, and by the time the boat arrived off the Palestine coast, he had mounted twenty-two guns and thirty Browning machine-guns as anti-aircraft defense.

 

*On shore the nest phase of the discussions began: how to distribute the arms.

 

*There was some surprise on the Irgun side that there should be any question.

 

The Irgun, after its years of struggle as an independent organization, was now drafting its units into the army.

 

All of them were short of arms.

 

They were bleeding on every front for shortage of arms.

 

THE ALTALENA AND ITS ARMS, A COLLECTIVE ACHIEVEMENT, BASED ON YEARS OF EFFORT BY THEM AND THEIR COMRADES, HAD BEEN PLANNED TO REACH THEM, SHOULD HAVE REACHED THEM, AT LEAST A MONTH EARLIER, EVEN BEFORE THE NATIONAL ARMY WAS ESTABLISHED.

 

HAD THIS HAPPENED EVERY IRGUN UNIT JOINING THE ARMY WOULD HAVE PHYSICALLY BROUGHT ITS OWN ARMS WITH IT.

 

This was indeed our contribution to the defense of the State: an army.

 

This was indeed the significance of our entering the army: as units, with our colors flying and bearing our arms.

 

*As for Jerusalem, there the shortage of arms was most painful.

 

*Moreover there was no National Army - there the Irgun continued its independent existence, parallel with the Haganah.

 

Who could object, who indeed had the right to object, to hard acquired Irgun arms going to our contingent in Jerusalem?

 

***THE IRGUN NEGOTIATORS INSISTED THAT TWENTY PERCENT OF THE ARMS MUST BE EARMARKED FOR THE IRGUN IN JERUSALEM.

 

*On Jerusalem – Galili told Begin – the Provisional Government had agreed: twenty percent of the arms would be allotted to Jerusalem.

 

*For the rest – the reply was negative.

 

*The arms must simply be handed over to the Provisional Government.

 

*The Irgun continued to press that the Irgun soldiers in the Army should have priority in getting arms which their comrades had acquired.

 

Begin records what he said to Galili:

 

          “Had the boat come several weeks ago, as we had planned, the Irgun would have had all the arms.  Wouldn’t you agree that our boys should come into the Army at least fully armed and equipped?  You yourself demanded that in view of the gravity of the situation all arms and equipment in the possession of the Irgun should be issued to the Irgun boys who were going into the Army.  What has now changed?  These particular arms were merely late in arriving.  Our boys are already in the Army or will be within a matter of days.  It would only mean that they will be mobilized with the full equipment which we in any case would have given them.  What is wrong with that?  Why can’t you agree?”

 

Galili remained adamant.

 

***NOW HE MADE THE ASTONISHING PRONOUNCEMENT THAT AS NO AGREEMENT HAD BEEN REACHED ON THE DISTRIBUTION OF THE ARMS THE GOVERNMENT WOULD NOT UNLOAD THE SHIP.

 

This was a severe blow. 

 

***IT WAS NOT EASY FOR THE IRGUN NOW TO MOBILIZE THE EQUIPMENT FOR UNLOADING AND REMOVING THE ARMS.

 

All available manpower not yet actually in the Army and all possible sources of transport were alerted.

Even a football match was exploited to this end.  Over the loud speaker at half time the announcer called on all owners of vehicles to report with their vehicles for special duty.

 

Avraham, incurably optimistic, decided to try the Army once more.

 

He telephoned to David Cohen, the liaison officer at the Ministry of Security (who had been present with Galili and Bahkol at our midnight meeting a month earlier).

 

He appealed to him for help in unloading.

 

He pointed out that speed would be essential for the operation.

 

Surely they did not want to give the U.N. observers time to interfere?

 

Cohen promised to convey the request and suggested Avraham telephone again the next day.

 

The next day he informed Avraham that the reply was positive.

 

The army would send trucks to Kfar Vitkin.

 

It was now Friday 18 June.

 

On the evening of the next day the Altalena arrived off the coast.

 

She was a little too far south.

 

It was some hours before the signal lights on shore were spotted.

 

Only at 3:30 a.m. on Sunday morning (20 June) did the boat reach the beach at Kfar Vitkin.

 

            “It was impossible to bring the LST all the way up to the shore” wrote Fein.  “The bow of the ship … was approximately forty meters from the shore … The shore parties had constructed a number of rafts made out of empty oil-drums and we attempted to lash these together with hopes of forming a bridge.  However the surf was too high to handle them safely and this attempt was abandoned.  We also attempted to land a group of passengers on the LCVP (small boat) but the coxswain, after attempting to run up on the beach several times, decided not to risk the boat and the people and returned with them to the ship.  By this time daylight was approaching, and we gave up the attempt to land anything that night and put out to sea once more with the intention of returning as soon as darkness had fallen in the evening.”

 

What had happened on shore?

 

Everybody had gone to Kfar Vitkin.

 

There was an atmosphere compounded of action and celebration.

 

It was indeed a holiday.

 

At last all the months of hope and striving and sheer hard work had come to fruition.

 

Late it might be, but not too late to turn the scales in the battles soon to be renewed.

 

For Begin himself it was a great and historic occasion.

 

He felt, probably more poignantly than his comrades, the significance, after years of underground struggle, of this dramatic, open manifestation of Irgun achievement.

 

IT SEEMED TO ALL OF THEM A FITTING LAST ACT FOR THE IRGUN ZVAI LEUMI, NOW RAPIDLY FADING INTO THE SHADES OF HISTORY.

 

Everybody went to Kfar Vitkin.

Except for brief visits by one or other of the members of the High Command nobody remained at Irgun headquarters in Tel Aviv.

 

To the Freud Hospital building where the Irgun Headquarters were situated David Cohen of the Ministry of Defense came that Sunday afternoon.  He had participated in the midnight meeting there on 15th May.  He served now as the Ministry’s liaison officer with the special Staff set up by the Irgun to coordinate the entry of the Irgun units into the newly formed Israel Army.

 

He found there his opposite number, Amitzur, who told him that the ship had been ordered out to sea and would be brought back to the shore after dark to be unloaded.

 

To Amitzur’s query he repeated the promise to help in the unloading of the ship.

 

He added that he would himself be on the spot and would mobilize help in the neighborhood.

 

THE PROMISED TRUCKS NEVER CAME.

 

Nor did Cohen, nor Galili, nor anybody who had taken part in the negotiations with the Irgun.

 

A personal appearance on the beach at Kfar Vitkin was quite incompatible with their purpose.

 

On the contrary: this was their moment for springing the trap.

 

No sooner had Galili received the information that the boat was within his reach than he hastened to give the necessary orders.

 

The task of carrying them out fell to the lot of the Army commander in the area, Dan Even, who headed the “Alexandroni” Brigade.

 

In later years Even wrote a foreword to a book about this brigade and there related in detail the briefing he was given that Sunday.

 

According to his account (which has never been denied) Galili said to him:

 

          “The I.Z.L. has brought a boat filled with arms and ammunition to the shore at Kfar Vitkin.  We knew the (arms) were due to arrive and reached an agreement whereby we and they were to unload the arms together.  The I.Z.L. has broken the agreement.  They did not inform us of the date of the boat’s arrival nor where it was going to anchor.”

 

ON THE STRENGTH OF THIS BRIEFING WHICH WAS DELIVERED IN THE PRESENCE OF THE CHIEF OF OPERATIONS YIGAL YADIN, BRIGADIER EVEN PROCEEDED TO PREPARE THE ATTACK ON THE I.Z.L.

 

At nine o’clock on the Sunday evening the Altalena returned.

 

Now arrangements had been made on board.

 

IN THE FIRST TWO HOURS, WITH THE HELP OF THE LCVP – AND AFTER BEGIN HAD BEEN TUMULTUOUSLY WELCOMED ON BOARD – THE WHOLE IRGUN CONTINGENT WAS LANDED.

 

Nearly a thousand happy men and women were immediately packed onto lorries and taken to a rest camp at Natanya.

 

A handful remained with the crew to take part in the unloading together with the large crowd of Irgun members who had come to Kfar Vitkin.

 

The unloading went on all night.

 

During the night a group of Palmach soldiers appeared and lent a hand.

 

They asked Lankin to show them over the Altalena.

 

He took them out in a motor boat to the ship.

 

They expressed wonderment at the size of the arms shipment.

 

They were not seen again.

 

It was very slow work.

 

It would have taken a literal week of nights to complete.

 

It was decided not to suspend work for the daylight; unloading until Monday midday or later.

 

Avraham had gone back to Tel Aviv.

 

There … he went and asked … to arrange for the dispatch of lighters from the port to speed up the work of unloading.

 

On his way he saw troops going towards Kfar Vitkin.  He wondered vaguely why.

 

During the night two strange ships had taken up position near the Altalena.

 

“At daybreak” writes Fein “we identified the shops as corvettes of the Israel Navy and consequently paid very little attention to them the rest of that time.”

 

***Suddenly on the beach Begin and Meridor saw that soldiers were taking up position round them in a wide circle.

 

They were asking themselves what this could mean when an officer arrived with a note for Begin.

 

It was signed by the local Army commander.

 

It was very terse.

 

THE SHIP AND THE ARMS MUST BE SURRENDERED WITHIN TEN MINUTES; OTHERWISE THE ARMY WOULD APPLY ALL THE FORCE AT IT DISPOSAL.

 

The world collapsed around them.

 

Begin sent a reply that “this was not matter that could be settled in ten minutes.”

 

The army commander did not carry out his threat.

 

Yaacov Meridor was permitted to leave the area to see the heads of the Local Councils of Kfar Vitkin and Netanya.

 

They promised to intervene with the Government.

 

Begin sent word to the ship to stop unloading.

 

Meridor returned.

 

AFTER LONG DISCUSSION, BEGIN FELL IN WITH MERIDOR’S PROPOSAL THAT HE BOARD THE SHIP AND MAKE HIS WAY TO TEL AVIV.

 

“In this way” writes Begin “we could extricate ourselves from these siege conditions and I would be able to communicate directly with the Government and put an end to what I still hoped was a perilous misunderstanding somewhere.  I was doubtful about leaving the boys, surrounded as they were.  But Meridor insisted that I go.”

 

The men on the beach were called together for Begin to explain what he was about to do.

 

AT THAT MOMENT, AS THEY CLUSTERED TOGETHER, THE ARMY LAUNCHED ITS ATTACK.

 

From all sides and with a variety of weapons – rifles, machine-guns and mortars the small crowd of unarmed men was attacked.

 

Begin shouted to the men to scatter.

 

Under a hail of bullets Begin and Lankin and a number others raced to the motor-boat waiting at the shore and took off for the Altalena.

 

Among them was Abraham Stavsky.

 

Among them was Merlin of the Hebrew Committee, who had come from Tel Aviv.

 

Monroe Fein, startled by the burst of shooting, “suspected some sort of a sneak Arab attack and my thought was to protect the ship by going to sea.”

 

          “I then learned” he wrote “that there was a party of people coming from the beach in our LCVP which had been tied up at the pier at the time.  I gave them instructions to stand off until I was clear of the beach and then I would take them aboard.  As we started our engines and began to move off the beach, we saw the boat leaving the pier with approximately thirty people on board.  As the ship swung around and headed seaward, our starboard side was facing the two corvettes which remained in the same position as they had all during the day and the previous night.

 

          “Suddenly, and without any warning whatsoever, both corvettes opened fire on the Altalena with heavy machine-guns.  We were completely unprepared for such an attack and could not begin to return fire.  I noticed the gunfire was aimed towards the LCVP as well and swung the ship around to a position between the boat and the corvettes.  As soon as we had completed this maneuver the firing from the corvettes stopped and we began to receive a signal from them.

 

            “As we were taking aboard the men in the boat, one of the corvettes again began firing but this time the shots ere placed across the bow and were obviously intended as warning shots to make us comply with their orders, which was to proceed immediately to Tel Aviv.  We signaled back that we would comply with these orders.  As soon as the LCVP was stowed aboard, we turned south and set a course for Tel Aviv.  One of the corvettes had taken up her position to the west of us and the other astern of us.  As we continued, the latter gradually dropped out of sight.”

 

NOW CAME A NEW THREAT.

 

As she sailed southward to Tel Aviv the Altalena naturally hugged the coast.

 

There Fein felt she would be safest from attack by the corvette.

 

*Suddenly the corvette sent an order to change course and head for the open sea.

 

The ominous significance of the order was patent. 

 

What purpose could have there been in driving the boat from the safety of the shore?

 

          “As we had not intention of complying with this order” wrote Fein “we adopted various ruses to stall them off …”

 

IT WAS AFTER MIDNIGHT OF 21 JUNE WHEN THE ALTALENA REACHED TEL AVIV.

 

Running in at full speed she was grounded opposite Frishman Street.

 

She was greeted by a flurry of fire from the shore.

 

Soon after, the two corvettes took up positions nearby. 

 

When dawn came those on board saw that the shore area was surrounded by soldiers.

 

          *        *        *

 

The last act of the tragedy may be simply described.

 

FROM THE ARRIVAL OF THE BOAT AT TEL AVIV UNTIL IT WAS DESTROYED THERE WAS NO HINT OR SIGN FROM THE PROVISIONAL GOVERNMENT OF ANYTHING BUT THE DETERMINATION TO KILL.

 

To this end even the white flag hoisted or flourished that day was disregarded.

 

No proposal, no demand was made of the Irgun leaders, of the captain of the ship.

 

Even formal “surrender” did not help.

 

THE ONLY LANGUAGE USED BY BEN GURION WAS THAT OF THE RIFLES AND FINALLY OF THE BIG GUN.

 

          *        *        *

 

Avraham, in Tel Aviv, on learning of what was happening at Kfar Vitkin, had sought out Yitshak Gruenbaum, now a member of the Provisional Government in whose name agreement to the Altalena’s coming had been given.

 

They met at the Bristol Hotel.

 

***Gruenbaum, the member of the ruling group who had taken part in all the earlier negotiations with the Irgun was startled to learn what Avraham told him.

 

***He had not, nor had the Government as well, been informed at all of the discussions with the Irgun leaders about the Altalena.

 

***They had not been told of its expected advent.

 

Ben Gurion, Yitshak Gruenbaum, had told his colleagues that the Irgun had sprung a surprise on the Government, brought a boat with arms which they refused to hand over to the army.

 

This was a revolt, declared Ben Gurion, which had to be crushed.

 

Much taken aback now by the truth, Gruenbaum promised to see Ben Gurion immediately.

 

He an Avraham moreover worked out together an interim proposal for a compromise.

 

The arms should be landed and stored while a reasonable arrangement was worked out for their distribution.

 

*Avraham explained to Gruenbaum that the Irgun would regard it as a great injustice if the Irgun soldiers were not given priority of these arms, but the Government would inevitably have the last say.

 

THE IRGUN HOWEVER WOULD INSIST IN ALL CIRCUMSTANCES ON TWENTY PERCENT OF THE ARMS GOING TO THE MEN IN JERUSALEM.

 

There the Government did not claim sovereignty; by agreeing to the boat’s coming it had in effect agreed to the transit of weapons to the independent Irgun in Jerusalem.

 

However the immediate requirement was to put and end to the “siege” by the Government, ensure the safety of the invaluable arms, and work out an arrangement in a more relaxed atmosphere.

 

Avraham never heard again from Gruenbaum.

 

When they parted the boat was already on its way to Tel Aviv, carrying a target for Ben Gurion much more important than a few thousand rifles, and a few million rounds of .303 bullets and the rest.

 

Aboard the Altalena was Begin, maneuvered into a position where he might be treated as a rebel.

 

After Begin was disposed of (and if to this end the ship had to be blown up the price was worth it) there would no doubt be noise and criticism, maybe even an uprising of Begin’s followers.

 

All the better: they could be crushed in masse.

 

          *        *        *

 

I write this fifteen years after the events.

 

I write it without heat.

 

Very few new material facts have come to light since that time.

 

Yet I hesitated a long time before reaching this conclusion.

 

It would have been much pleasanter to be able to find an explanation,

 

… to show that it was all a misunderstanding,

 

… that something went wrong in the communications,

 

… it was error in aim that made it possible for unarmed men swimming away from the burning ship to be fired on,

 

… that it was sudden physical blindness striking all the soldiers at once that made them unaware of a white flag fluttering on the ship,

 

… of white handkerchiefs waved frantically by swimming men.

 

          *        *        *

 

ON BOARD THE SHIP, BEGIN’S CENTRAL THOUGHT WAS STILL TO ENSURE THE SAFE LANDING OF THE ARMS.

 

Their destiny could be worried about afterwards.

 

          “A group of armed men was sent ashore in the LCVP to take up positions round the beach” writes Fein “in order that discharging of cargo could begin.

 

”But when a second group was approaching the shore they were suddenly fired on from the beach on all sides.  The boat succeeded in landing this party but it could not return to the ship because it was subjected to heavy fire each time it approached.  The fact that the crew of the boat was waving a white flag” writes Fein “did not seem to diminish the firing.”

 

“On the ship” - continues Fein’s account – “the order was given to the men in the defense unit to fire on such of the army troops as they could definitely see were firing on the ship.  When the order to open fire was given the after-battery mistakenly fired one burst at one of the corvettes (which) had shown no inclination in joining in the fight.  The ship continued to receive heavy firing from the shore for a period of about one and half hours.  Some of the heavy machine-guns ashore were using armor-piercing ammunition which passed right through steel bulkheads of the ship.  This fact began to cause us numerous casualties.  We had no doctor on board and some of our casualties were very seriously wounded.  We contacted, through Etzel headquarters ashore, the army commander and requested a ceasefire in order to allow us to remove the wounded men form the ship.  We arranged that we would use our own LCVP for this purpose.  Ceasefire was agreed to almost at once and all firing on both the shore and ship had stopped within a few minutes.  From this point on there was not a single round of ammunition fired from the ship for the remainder of the afternoon.

 

“Immediately after the ceasefire order we attempted to contact the LCVP which had remained on the beach to the north of the ship.  However, we discovered that we were unable to reach them as apparently their radio set had gone dead.  Jack Baron, the Chief Officer volunteered to swim to the boat to tell the crew of the arrangement that had been made.

 

“As soon as he was in the water, he was fired upon many times from the shore, but succeeded in reaching the shore, only to be captured by army men.  He was not allowed to walk up to the boat.

 

“When we saw there was no possibility to communicate with our own boat, we immediately made this fact known to the Palmach commander and asked that a government boat be sent from the harbour to take off the wounded.  This was immediately promised us.  We then settled down to wait for the appearance of this boat, meanwhile caring for the wounded as best we could.

 

“During the time one of them died.  One hour and a half later, and after repeated requests there was still no sign of any boat.  We had also tried to signal to the two corvettes to make the same request, but they gave no indication that they even saw our signal.

 

“At this time, we were suddenly taken under fire by a large gun which was located on the coast to the north of the city.  This gun fired three shots, all of which passed over the ship and exploded in the water shortly beyond.  We immediately got on the radio and asked whether or not the ceasefire order still was in effect and if so, what was the reason for the renewed gunfire.  A reply was made that the ceasefire order was still in effect and that the gun would be silenced immediately.  Following this there was a period of about fifteen minutes in which no more gunshots were made.

 

“During this time I conferred with the Commander-in-Chief of the Irgun and told him that if the gunfire should hit the ship, the ship, the cargo and possibly a good many lives would be lost and that he should at all costs maintain the ceasefire order until there could be further negotiations.  This he agreed to do, but as he himself came up to talk on the radio to the headquarters ashore, the heavy gun resumed firing.

 

“As soon as the gun started a second time, I struck the flag as a sign of surrender.  We again inquired of the Palmach commander whether the ceasefire order was in effect and the reply came that the ceasefire order was in effect but that he had been ‘unable to contact all fronts.’  Within a few seconds after this message was received, there was direct hit on the ship which started a large fire in the cargo-hold.  The ship’s crew made immediate and valiant efforts to put out this fire, but because of the nature of the cargo it proved beyond our capacity and I ordered all men aboard to prepare to abandon the ship.

 

“The first thought all of us had was to remove the wounded men.  There was no panic.  Everyone behaved in an extremely calm and heroic manner.  As the men began jumping off the ship and swimming towards the shore, those of us still on board saw that they were being shot at continuously from rifles and machine-guns on the beach.  I rushed to the bridge and began waving a white flag and shouting to stop the fire on the men who were swimming for their lives.  At the same time another man hoisted a large piece of white canvas on the halyard, but these efforts were of little avail, as the firing continued.

 

“We continued in our efforts to take off all of the wounded men and we received much assistance from those who rowed out from shore in a number of paddleboats, exposing themselves to the danger of the firing from the beach and the explosions on the ship which by that time had begun and continued in increasing frequency.  Several men among us made a trip below decks throughout all parts of the ship which were still accessible and made certain that no man had been left on board.  When this had been done and when the violence of the explosions warned us that it was highly dangerous to remain on the ship any longer, all men were ordered over the side and the ship left burning and exploding violently.  By this time the harassing fire from the shore had ceased and the only danger to those of us still in the water was from flying shrapnel of the ship itself.

 

“Those of us who reached the shore were unmolested on the beach and most were taken immediately to Etzel headquarters where we received clothing and arrangements were made for shelter.”

 

*Members of one of the Irgun units incorporated in the army, when the incredible news of the Army attack on their comrades reached them, broke camp and made their way to Tel Aviv.

 

They tried to get through the cordon surrounding the beach.


They failed.

 

The reporter of Haaretz who saw their effort at two different street intersections near the beach noted in transparent surprise in each case that they did not use force, did not open fire.

 

Only later, when the shelling of the boat started, noted the reporter, the Irgun called to the Army soldiers to stop the shelling, and broke through their lines – but again without shooting.

 

Some of the Army soldiers joined with the Irgun in shouting that the shelling should stop.

 

But nobody seemed to know where the gun was.

 

The shelling of the ship, and the shooting at those aboard who tried to save themselves by swimming, went on to the end.

 

THE SHIP WAS DESTROYED, THE MAJOR PART OF THE PRECIOUS LOAD OF ARMS DESTROYED, SIXTEEN MEMBERS OF THE IRGUN WERE KILLED, SOME FORTY WOUNDED.

 

Two Haganah Army soldiers were killed in the burst of retaliation and several wounded.

 

Mr. Ben Gurion had truly won a great victory.

 

The object of this sacrifice of lives and material however, was not achieved: Begin was not killed.




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