Themes

Altalena Affair

 

          It is no longer a secret that this famous arms-ship served as the instrument of a sinister plot.  When Mr. Ben Gurion, on the rostrum of the first Israel parliament, modestly boasted “I have some part in that ship lying not far away from here,” he was interrupted by a question from a member of Maipai: “But who was it who urged you to do it?”

 

Mr. Ben Gurion was silent.  His silence was perhaps even more eloquent than any words.  The attack on the Altalena was prepared in secret and with intent.  The boat was destroyed by fire.  Dense smoke rolled out of her and enveloped her.  We cannot extinguish that fire; but we will seek to dissipate the screen of smoke.

 

The tragic fact was that the “Altalena” was late in coming.  Had this landing-craft arrived off the shores of Eretz Israel immediately on the liquidation of British rule, that is, in the middle of May, 1948, the whole condition of the nation would have been radically changed.  We should then have placed at the disposal of the Government and the Army eight or ten battalions, fully equipped with arms and ammunition - instead of their customary equipment; unlimited readiness for self-sacrifice and short-ranged Sten-guns.  At our first attack we should have captured Ramleh.  This Arab town, besieged by the Irgun Zvai Leumi at the request of the Haganah in order to draw away enemy forces from the Latrun front, was on the point of falling when we had to withdraw.  The morale of the inhabitants had been lowered, mainly by the shelling of our 3 inch mortars.  Our boys stormed the approaches to the town and in the opening stages captured large parts of it.  But lack of arms and ammunition proved fatal.  They needed only a few hundred rifles and additional ammunition, but on the Ramleh front that quantity was not available either to us or to the Hahanah Command.  Three hundred rifles, or six per cent of the number loaded in the hold of the “Alatalena” ...

 

Had we been able to capture Ramleh at that time - and its conquest depended solely on these additional arms - the united Jewish forces would have broken the Arab front at Latrun and our strategic situation would have been changed fundamentally, its effects being felt as far as Jerusalem, as far as the Old City.  With the fall of Ramleh, the fate of Lydda would have been sealed.  Thus we should have smashed the enemy on the central front in the first stage of his invasion, instead of only after the first “truce.”   And the Jewish forces would have been free in the second stage for a full-scale attack on the ‘Triangle.’  In a word, we should today have held the Western bank of the Jordan - at least.

 

All the Jewish forces were very tired; the enemy had superior armament.  This was no longer an underground partisan-political fight.  This was a fight in the open field and the consequences of defeat might be destruction of our people.

 

Immediately ... (upon its arrival off shore) ... we communicated with the Israel Department of Security and gave them detailed information about the boat and its cargo of munitions.  Now - we said to the representatives of the Security Ministry - it is for you to decide whether to permit the boat to come, or divert her.  Official propaganda, hiding behind the smokescreen, pretended that the Irgun had brought over the “Altalena” in order to prepare an armed revolt against the Government of Israel.

 

As for the UNO prohibitions, we would manage somehow.  After all, the Government knew.  In the circumstances this was no question of morals.  Nobody was helping our attacked people; the situation was one of life and death; and we thanked God that the Government understood the situation, weighed what had to be weighted and disregarded what in the circumstances it was forbidden to take into account.  At once a code message went out to the “Altalena” where, as we later learnt, it aroused even greater joy.  Instead of “Keep Away” it was now “Full steam ahead.”

 

This fact must be re-emphasized, for it is from this point onwards in this sad history that the black smoke-screen has been thrown up.

 

And it was the Government that decided to bring the “Altalen” in during the truce period.  Otherwise she would not have come.

 

When the independence was declared on the 14th of May, 1948, there was no immediate formation of a unified army.

 

We were gratified at the official recognition of “the Irgun Zvai Leumi soldiers in Jaffa,” but out of concern for the tender growth of our State we wished to uphold the status of the Prime Minister as such.

 

Our staff was thus an official and recognized body when it was called to discuss with the representatives of the Ministry of Security the unloading of the “Altalena” arms.

 

The “Altalena” had nine hundred soldiers, five thousand rifles, four million rounds of ammunition, three hundred Bren guns, 150 spandaus, five caterpillar-track armored vehicles, thousands of air-combat bombs, and the rest of her war equipment. 

 

*This shipment of arms from America was in the planning for over a year, involved the escape of prisoners and detainees in Africa for its organization, and was fulfilled by the vast organized efforts of those Irgun members who had been negotiating for years in the States, gathering financial and political support for these arms.

 

She had been acquired by the Hebrew Committee of National Liberation and the American League for a Free Palestine, and we had intended bringing her in while the British forces were still ruling - with men or arms or both.

 

Jerusalem was a “separate entity.”  Israel Sovereignty had not been extended to our capital.  The official leadership, which had accepted the UNO decision on partition in its entirety, had resigned itself to the imposition of an international regime in Jerusalem.  Mr. Ben Gurion had demanded at a meeting ... that his movement exert its utmost influence to prevent even any talk of “conquering Jerusalem” or extending the boundaries of the State.  Consequently the Israel Army was not established in Jerusalem even after it had been formed and operating elsewhere. 

 

We must bow our heads to all the Jewish soldiers irrespective of organizational affiliation, who fought the Arab invaders with supreme bravery.  They all had great victories.  They all had their bitter defeats.  They all suffered from insufficient equipment.  We never taunted others with retreats or defeats.  But what fantastic and untrue tales have not been told of our comrades?   Everywhere we lacked arms and ammunition.  All this is part of the background to the discussions on the distribution of the arms of the “Altalena.”

 

Israel Galili, Commander of the Haganah, informed me ... that 20% of the arms were to be allowed to the Jerusalem front.  Only much later did it become clear precisely what the real intention behind this “agreement” was.  The 20% was to be sent only to Haganah troops in Jerusalem.

 

Galili, at the time for unloading the Altalena arms, said they would not help us.   “We wash our hands of the unloading of the arms,” he declared.

 

The Government’s refusal to cooperate in unloading the arms was a serious blow.  We had neither the lighterage, nor the vehicles, nor the required tackle ... nor available men. 

 

Despite the difficulties, we threw ourselves whole heartedly into the work.  The moral strength and endeavor of the boys seemed to be doubled and trebled.

 

But only part of the arms were unloaded - and went into action only after the killing of numbers of Irgun men. 

 

Still, the arms unloaded proved a decisive factor in the fight against the Arabl invaders. 

 

And not only her arms.  “Altalena” brought over a battalion of fighters (many from Nazi concentration camps).  These young people were overwhelmed with joy when they reached the shores of their Homeland.

 

Suddenly we noticed that we were surrounded on all sides by troops.  A few minutes later I received an ultimatum from the local Army Commander, a ten minute ultimatum.

 

Suddenly we were attacked from all sides, without warning.  With machine guns, with mortars.  Many were wounded on board ... and there was no doctor.  The Palmach officer promised to send a boat immediately from Tel Aviv port.  We waited.  One hour, two hours.  But no boat came.  The condition of the wounded grew worse.

 

Suddenly ... something whistled over our heads.  “That’s a shell!  They’ll set the ship on fire!”  We called to the Palmach commander, reminding him that he had promised a complete cessation of fire.  He did not reply.  A second shell, a third, a fourth.

 

A few minutes later a shell penetrated the belly of the ship.  Fire broke out and smoke poured forth.  We began evacuating the wounded while Munroe Fine ordered the flooding of the hold and thereby saved not only the lives of all of us on board but also many in the houses on the Tel Aviv shore.  Had the vessel exploded the damage must have been widespread.  All the time shells were falling around the burning ship, and bullets came whistling past the men as they were getting the wounded away on improvised rafts in the water.

 

The “Altalena” went up in flames.

 

The ship became the common grave of a number of the brave men who had come as volunteers to fight for their people.

 

We had swore an oath: “In no circumstances will we use arms against our fellow Jews.”  Not one shot was fired by our boys against the Haganah.

 

Let them not boast in their hearts of that act which “somebody urged them to do” nor excuse themselves on his responsibility.  “The Lord is watching, and he knows mens’ hearts.”

 

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THE ALTALENA AFFAIR - Brother Against Brother

In the words of Yoske Nachmias

 

 

I was also involved in the Alatalena Affair. 

 

The Altalena was a ship which the Irgun brought in 1948 full of weapons and ammunition by the organization’s funding raising and procurement efforts of Hillel Kook (Peter Bergson) in the United States, purchasing American Army surplus.

 

They reached France, and in France the French government handed us, free of charge, all kinds of arms and ammunition.

 

Nine hundred and fourteen (914) Irgun warriors were on board, which had been trained in Europe (survivors of the death camps) by Irgun members and were coming to Eretz Israel.

 

When the ship was in route, the State of Israel was declared, 15 May 1948. 

 

The Irgun came to the temporary government and told them the ship was on the way with its 914 warriors and the Irgun were willing to give everything away to the new government ... but that 20% of the arms were to go to our units in Jerusalem.

 

Why Jerusalem?

 

Because Jerusalem was supposed to be “international” ...

 

and there was an ordinance with the temporary government, wherever there is not a Jewish regime, there the Underground would continue to exist.

 

So the demand of arms to their units in Jerusalem, and they asked where the ship should go (to land).

 

The temporary government said to land at Kfar Vitkin, a village by the beach half way between Haifa and Tel Aviv.

 

I was a company commander at the time in the Irgun.  The leader of operations of the Irgun, Gidi Paglini, told me to come to Kfar Vitkin with my company.

 

Without arms, we were to be put with the group to unload the supplies on the ship.  Gidi put me into confidence that the ship was coming with so many arms and people, he wanted me to be there with my unit to work as porters to off-load the ship.

 

My company got to Kfar Vitkin and there found the Palmach and IDF units also at the beach.  We sat together ... we waited on the ship coming ... then together we started unloading arms.

 

We didn’t unload many arms, working together three or four hours, when suddenly the Palmach and IDF units left the area and all that were left were members of the Irgun.

 

The Headquarters of the Irgun were there - Menachem Begin, Ya’acov Meridor, and many others were in meeting.  We decided we decided to offload by ourselves.

 

Suddenly a burst of heavy fire came on us, on the Palmach, on the IDF units!

 

Menachem Begin on the shore said -

 

          “Don’t fire back!”

          There will be no war between brothers!

            The first and second House of David was destroyed by brother hate ...

            There won’t be a destruction of the third House of Israel!”

 

And we didn’t fire one arm back!

 

Suddenly, Ya’acov Meridor, 2nd in Command, said -

 

          “You, Yoske - take the Commander and go on board and leave ...

          Wait for instructions there!”

 

Menachem Begin didn’t want to leave his men.

 

“We must leave,” I told him.  And my wife (also with the Irgun) took one side of his arm, another girl, Shula, took his other side, and I from his back pushed him into a landing craft.  We went into high seas to the Altalena.

 

From there we went to Tel Aviv with a white flag flying.

 

We had very big loudspeakers, and we broadcast saying -

 

            “We want to negotiate ...

            We don’t want to have war with our brothers!”

 

They didn’t listen to us.

 

Instead of talking to us, they (Yitzhak Rabin in command) fired on us a hell of a fire!

 

Menachem Begin was on the command position of the bridge, with a loudspeaker saying -

 

          “Don’t fire back!”

 

            “Let them kill us all!”

 

            “We will never lift a hand on a Jew!”

 

Menachem Begin called me and said -

 

          “Yoske - go ashore and with negotiation try to stop the fighting!

            You are going down without any arms ...

            You are going only with the ‘wireless.’”

 

I took a little landing craft and started sailing toward the beach. 

 

Heavy fire was on me all the time.

When I reached the beach, I jumped from the craft and I ran in zig-zags to a house where we thought - from there they are firing upon us.

 

I started shouting -

 

          “Who is the Commander here?”

 

A voice replied -

 

          “Yoske - is that you?”

 

He recognized my voice, it was my cousin!

 

“Look, Avraham,” I replied -

 

          “We don’t fire back, we don’t want war between brothers!

          Please stop the fighting!”

 

He said -

 

          “I swear to you, we are not firing at you!

          They are firing on you from the north there!

          (He pointed where the Hilton stands today.)

 

I looked there and I suddenly saw a burst of fire!

A mushroom came out of the center of the ship!

 

I took the wireless from my back, running to the sea. 

While I was running there was a blast of heavy fire raining on me. 

I ran in zig-zags ...

I got to the water ...

there was a hell of a fire on me while swimming as fast as I could back to the ship!

 

I looked for my wife - “Where is she?”

 

She was on the bottom deck caring for the wounded.

 

“Yava, the ship is ready to blow - let’s get out of here!”

 

She replied, “First let’s offload the wounded!”

 

And from God’s help - who knows how - lots of little canoes came - hundreds of them - I don’t know where they came from - under the firing they didn’t stop even for one second!

 

We offloaded all the wounded ...

Menachem Begin was at the deck giving orders ...

 

I said -

 

          “My Commander - JUMP!”

 

“NO!  I am the Captain - I am the last one to jump!” he said.

 

I said -

 

          “Excuse me, the Captain is Miran Fine - he is taking care of the ship.

 

            You are a Captain of the Jewish nation - JUMP - please!”

 

He said -

 

          “No - you jump - I am the last one to jump!”

 

I took two or three youngsters,

we put on him a life vest - by force (I didn’t know if he knew how to swim) -

 

AND WE THREW HIM OVERBOARD!

 

And then I told my wife to jump (my wife doesn’t swim) and she said to me -

 

          “You go first and wait for me.”

 

So she jumped down to me ...

and I took her, swimming on my back ...

all the time fire raining down on us!

 

I swam to the nearest dingy ...

Put my wife in ...

I said I can’t go to shore ...

 

I didn’t get in because five comrades were swimming ...

I called to them ...

 

One was shot in the head as he climbed in the dingy, and he drowned.

 

Another began to climb in and was hit in the arm and my wife grabbed his shirt.

 

We went on the high seas ...

The Israeli Navy picked us up ...

and jailed us.

 

Those five who came to the dingy were from Cuba.

 

They had come to us ...

Not even Jewish people ...

They came to help the Jewish people in Eretz Israel ...

They were strangers to us.

 

We were put into a room together,

and in the morning the Israeli police fingerprinted us.

 

I believe my wife, Yafa, and me were the first “gangsters” in the free land of Israel, with the Cubans!

 

Later I found out (as we were six generations in Jerusalem, and I was of ten brothers and sisters) some of us were in the Palmach (2) ... some in the Irgun (4).

 

They had summon up my brother’s Palmach unit (unit “L”) - of which he was the commander - to the beach, and he said -

 

          “Whom are we fighting here?”

 

They told him -

 

          “The Irgun.”

 

My brother said -

 

            “Are you crazy?”

 

“I don’t fight against Jews and especially against the Irgun because by brothers might be there!”

 

And he left.

 

He was jailed because he left the combat area.

 

Years later Ben-Gurion said that concerning the ship Altalena ...

somebody misinformed him ...

 

And that’s why he gave an order -

 

            Not to talk to the Irgun people and to fire to destroy the ship at all costs.

 

We had sixteen Irgun dead and many wounded ...

(some of the 914 survivors of the death camps died) ...

 

WE DIDN’T FIRE ONE SHOT BACK.

 

*          *          *

 

(PERFIDY – Ben Hecht)

 

Because of the liberation of Tel Aviv (at the battle of Jaffa), the Jews were able to repel the first blow. Soon the retreats began. Daily, almost hourly, the five Arab nations closed in on the new and tiny state of the Jews. The Israel Army lost its big battle of Latrun to the Arab legions. Ben-Gurion explained the defeat by revealing that the combined Jewish forces had only thirteen hundred rifles.

 

Now the betrayal begins. While the battle-worn Palmach and Irgun stand in the hills of Jerusalem holding off the Arabs with almost no arms or ammunition, Ben-Gurion assures the UN that his new government doesn’t want Jerusalem, and cravenly agrees to “internationalize” the Old City.

 

And riding to the rescue out of Marseilles is the Irgun ship Altalena (literary pseudonym of Jabotinsky).  It carries five thousand rifles, one million rounds of ammunition, one thousand grenades, three hundred Bren guns, fifty cannon, four thousand aerial bombs, nine tanks and fifty anti-tank guns and quantities of medical equipment. Also 920 trained combat soldiers – volunteers. The arsenal had been financed by “The Hebrew Committee for National Liberation,” established in New York by Irgun representatives Peter Bergson and Samuel Merlin. The recruiting and sailing of the vessel had been accomplished with the close cooperation of the French authorities.

 

The Weizmann-Ben-Gurion Government had given a precise and specific go-ahead to the Altalena. It had also promised to help unload the cargo that would ensure the safety of the new Israel and relieve the siege of Jerusalem.

 

Dropping anchor off the shores of Palestine, the arms ship ran smack into Ben-Gurion’s betrayal.

 

On board the Altalena were Begin, his aides, and Merlin.

 

In the bow of the ship, looking at the land of Israel into which he had smuggled thousands of refugee Jews, stood the Homeric Abrasha Stavsky. He was returning after fourteen years to the haven to which he had piloted his thousands. He was shot facing his betrayers and died of his wounds.

 

Merlin was wounded. The Altalena was sunk. Twenty of its Hebrew fighters were killed, half of them in the water while trying to swim ashore, some on the shore in cold blood.

 

The facts were these. (The Ben-Gurion government) had planned the whole scurvy business from the beginning . It would appease the British by selling out the Jerusalem fighters to the UN, and it would explode an old rage at the Irgun even if it meant blowing up half the city of Tel Aviv. A single shell landing in the Altalena explosives would have accomplished this Neronian feat.

 

Ben-Gurion sank the cargo that could have brought total victory over the Arabs, but removed a possible political rival, the Irgun.

 

Flushed by this coup, Ben-Gurion made a ringing statement in the newly-established provisional parliament of Israel.

 

He said to the Jews and to all the world:

 

“Blessed be the cannon that blew up the ship. It should be enshrined in the Third Temple of the Jews.”




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