Themes

CONSEQUENCES OF THE LACK OF ARMS

 

We believed then, and in the later light of our knowledge of Arab strength and depositions, there is little doubt that in those couple of weeks the Irgun would have changed the face of the country, precisely in accordance with strategic objectives we had laid down in January.

 

The elimination of Jaffa as the direct consequence of the acquisition of a reasonable quantity of arms was no accident.

 

It was rather an indication of what could be achieved.

 

ON 15 MAY THE IRGUN, WITH ITS VERVE AND ITS THRUST AND THE POWER OF ITS NAME (SINCE JAFFA GREATLY ENHANCED) COULD HAVE BROKEN THE BACK OF THE ARAB ATTACK ON THE CENTRAL FRONT.

 

***The Jewish forces could have pressed on to the Jordan.

 

We had for months the 15th of May and the days immediately following as days of crisis and opportunity.

 

They were.

 

The opportunity was probably even greater than we had foreseen.

 

FOR LACK OF ARMS, WE MISSED IT.

 

          *        *        *

 

(BEVIN) CONCENTRATED HIS EFFORTS, AT WASHINGTON AND THROUGH THE AMERICAN AMBASSADOR IN LONDON, ON THE CENTRAL AND CRUCIAL OBJECTIVE: TO KEEP THE AMERICANS FROM LIFTING THE ARMS EMBARGO.

 

In this his success was complete.

 

          *        *        *

 

Our Interlocutors having taken our offer on the Altalena to Ben Gurion, Galili on 17 May gave Avraham the reply on the telephone. 

 

It was negative.

 

There was no counter-suggestion. 

 

There was no explanation.

 

          “What about the .303 bullets?” I asked Avraham.

 

          “They didn’t even mention them” he replied.

 

          *        *        *

 

The crew was relaxed and sociable when we went aboard the plane at Haifa.

 

In Paris our parting was cordial.

 

Activity at headquarters had become more feverish than ever.

 

Volunteers, offers of help, commercial proposals for the sale of arms came from all sides.

 

Emissaries had to be sent in various directions to check on the authenticity of proposals or to conduct negotiations.

 

NOW TWO AGENTS WENT OUT TO SEVERAL COUNTRIES TO ARRANGE FOR THE CROSSING INTO FRANCE OF HUNDREDS OF OUR MEMBERS SELECTED TO TRAVEL BY THE ALTALENA TO SERVICE IN PALESTINE.

 

Two days before any return Ariel had at last had a conclusive reply from the French Government.

 

At Chauvet’s direction he had then met for the first time Jean Morin, Director of the Foreign Minister’s Cabinet.

 

*Morin informed him that the Government had decided to accede to our request for arms.

 

*In the light of the terms of our request the decision was a turning-point in the relations between France and Israel.

 

It came at a time when on the public international plane the French attitude to the new State was still, for a number of reasons, some traditional some empiric, painfully if understandably equivocal.

 

As late as March we had through Ariel protested to the French Foreign Minister at a slighting statement about the Israel fighting forces made by the French delegate at Lake Success, Alexander Parodi.

 

THE DECISION TO GIVE THE IRGUN ARMS, CONFIRMED IN FORMAL TERMS BY BIDAULT WHEN HE RECEIVED ARIEL THAT 19 MAY, was a long and bold step forward towards the fraternal empathy which has subsequently infused the relations of Paris with Jerusalem.

 

The decision was governed by pragmatic political considerations and calculations.

 

Yet Ariel was able to subsequently to report innumerable manifestations of a quite spontaneous warmth, of a frank informal enthusiasm, in the French officials entrusted with its execution.

 

It had taken almost two months for the Government to make up its mind.

 

Now its execution had to be arranged through the necessary channels.

 

They, to our harassed and impatient minds, were too numerous.

 

Day followed day and still no final date could be set.

 

At the Foreign Office Ariel was now in constant touch with Morin – who worked hard to speed the process.

 

Ten days went by before Ariel saw General Revera, the Chief of Staff of the Army.

 

Three days later, on the last day of May, Ariel reported that the Army had received the necessary instructions for the actual delivery of the arms.

 

He had already seen General Coudraux, the officer responsible for the operation.

 

WE WOULD RECEIVE THE ARMS ON 5 JUNE.

 

            *          *          *

 

On Sunday afternoon, 30 May, we had a business meeting on the Altalena arrangements.

 

Ariel was there, in buoyant mood.

 

From Marseilles came Monroe Fein, the captain of the Altalena, precise and plain spoken, a U.S. Navy veteran of the War in the Pacific.

 

With him came Abraham Stavsky.

 

For years Stavsky had been occupied with Aliyah B projects.

 

He had negotiated the purchase of the Altalena for the Hebrew Committee, and he appeared and acted as its owner.

 

He was also its business manager.

 

He was also a kind of universal uncle to the American boys serving on the ship who, like all who knew him, had soon discovered the lovable personality under that large rather hulking exterior.

 

Fein raised two practical problems on which he asked for decisions.

 

*THE FIRST WAS THE POINT OF LANDING.

 

The Altalena was a product of American wartime shipbuilding ingenuity – a L.S.T. built for the speedy landing of tanks.

 

The ideal beach for this type of landing boat is one that is steep.

 

There the boat can be brought square up to the land.

 

*The greater the distance form the land the more complicated became the unloading.

 

*In our circumstances of potential enemy air-attacks it could be dangerously slow.

 

We had no reply for Fein.

 

None of us had the necessary scientific knowledge.

 

*IN ANY CASE THIS WAS NOT MERELY A PHYSICAL PROBLEM.

 

If we did not get cooperation from the Haganah our choice of sites would be limited.

 

At that stage, envisaging the need for bringing many of our own people to help in the unloading, we suggested the beach opposite Frishman Street in Tel Aviv as the most suitable site.

 

Fein’s problem was that of signals for visual communications when the ship came in sight of land.

 

The proposals I had brought with me from Tel Aviv did not satisfy him.

 

I cannot remember the reason.

 

I remember he convinced me.

 

He made an alternative proposal.

 

WE DECIDED TO SEND AN EMISSARY TO PALESTINE TO CLEAR UP THESE QUESTIONS, AS WELL AS TO BRING US A MORE UP-TO-DATE REPORT ON THE SITUATION.

 

The choice fell on Aryeh Ben Eliezer.

 

WITH HIM ON 3 JUNE WENT NIKO (NATHAN GERMANT) ONE OF MERIDOR’S COMPANIONS IN THE GREAT ESCAPE FROM KENYA.

 

At least one of them was to return without delay.

 

There was no certainty that this decision could be fulfilled.

 

There was still no regular air service to Palestine, though a South African Jewish group of businessmen, which had set up the Pan African Air Company, was not keeping the route open.

 

*HOWEVER THE ALTALENA HAD ITS RADIO AND THERE WAS A RADIO ON SHORE AT THE OTHER END.

 

*NOW MOREOVER, IN A VILLA SOME DISTANCE FROM PARIS A RADIO TRANSMITTER WAS BEING ERECTED FOR US BY OUR “SCIENTIFIC COMMITTEE” – A GROUP OF PHYSICISTS WHO HAD VOLUNTEERED FOR SERVICE AND WHOM LANKIN HAD ORGANIZED AS A UNIT.

 

*WE FELT THAT THIS THREE-WAY COMMUNICATION WOULD BE ADEQUATE TO OVERCOME THE PROBLEM THAT MIGHT ARISE IF BEN ELIEZER OR GERMANT DID NOT RETURN BEFORE THE SHIP SAILED.

 

The next day Eli, from his own tiny headquarters in the one-room flat of the Homesky family in the Champs Elysees, telephoned to every corner of Europe our instructions for the timing of the transports of people.

 

THESE WERE TO ARRIVE AT ONE OF THE TWO CAMPS PREPARED FOR THEM NEAR MARSEILLES AT LATEST BY 6TH JUNE.

 

LANKIN, WHO HAD BEEN APPOINTED BY THE HIGH COMMAND TO BE THE COMMANDER OF THE EVOLVING MILITARY UNIT ON THE ALTALENA, WENT TO TAKE UP HIS TASK AT MARSEILLES.

 

I remained alone at headquarters in Paris.

 

Meanwhile we had been the recipients of a complaint from the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

 

It was addressed to Ariel on 25 May and read as follows:

 

          The French government asks me to request that you convey to the Command of the Irgun Zvai Leumi in Palestine the following communication:

 

            “Reports from Jerusalem indicate that French establishments, some of which have been occupied by troops and others subjected to artillery fire, have been pillaged or are threatened by destruction.

 

            On the other hand the French Consulate General is the object of heavy firing from both sides.

 

The French Government can hardly tolerate the prolonged destruction of a work of civilization more that a thousand years old.  It demands of the Commander-in-Chief in the most energetic terms that he given his troops the necessary orders in order to put an immediate end to this situation.”

 

“The happy development of our relations with the Irgun are in danger of being compromised if it does not take this appeal into consideration.”

 

“The same communication and for the same reasons has been conveyed to the Jewish Agency and to the Arab States.”

 

I knew that during the Jaffa battle the French consul there had called at Irgun forward headquarters to ensure that French buildings in the town should be spared damage. 

 

He had been given assurances provided he saw to it that every such building flew the French Flag. 

 

I thought it extremely unlikely that the Irgun in Jerusalem would tolerate pillage or avoidable damage of French property. 

 

At that point moreover the Irgun had not occupied any French building, nor did wee have any artillery in Jerusalem.

 

However the message was conveyed to Tel Aviv and thence to Jerusalem.

 

Assurances were given there and in Paris.

 

Our relations with the French in Palestine remained good to the end.




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