The officers converging on Israeli naval headquarters atop Haifa’s Mount Carmel in late 1960 had been summoned to a brainstorming session by the navy’s commander, Admiral Yohai Bin-Nun. There was only one item on the agenda: how to make a navy consisting of World War II castoffs, from aging destroyers to an icebreaker, relevant. The Defense Ministry had made clear that there was no money for new ships. The navy, it warned, might be downscaled to a coast guard if it could not reconstitute itself as a credible force within its limited budget.
From two days of discussion, an offbeat idea floated to the surface as if on its own accord. The government’s weapons-development arm, Rafael, had produced a primitive guided missile, the Luz, which both the artillery corps and air force had rejected. If the Luz, with its 331-pound warhead, could be adapted to patrol boats, someone suggested, these cheap vessels would have the punch of cruisers. The suggestion was dismissed as futuristic whimsy by most of the participants. No missile boat existed in the West, but Admiral Bin-Nun assigned his deputy, Captain Shlomo Erell, to explore the idea.
Erell was the closest thing in the Israeli navy to a crusty professional sailor. Joining the British merchant marine in the Second World War, he participated in the Dunkirk evacuation and made the Murmansk and Atlantic convoy runs, surviving two torpedoings. The small-boat/big-punch concept intrigued him. In blissful ignorance of the difficulties that lay ahead, he formed a team to give shape to the boat circling at the center of his mind.
Laying the Foundation
Tested at sea, the Luz failed consistently. The missile was supposed to be brought onto target by an aimer with a joystick tracking a bright red flare on the Luz’s tail through high-powered binoculars. But dense smoke caused by the humidity’s effect on the missile’s exhaust emissions at sea shrouded the flare.
An engineer at Rafael, Ori Even-Tov, had scorned the joystick approach from the start. It was, he argued, an attempt to fuse missile technology with a bow-and-arrow guidance system. Although Even-Tov had been at Rafael only a short time, he had earned a reputation as a brilliant engineer and a maverick difficult to control. His comments on the Luz gained no traction at Rafael, but at a demonstration of a new weapon in the Negev Desert, Even-Tov found himself sharing a tent with a naval officer. “I don’t think the Luz is ever going to work as a sea-to-sea missile,” Even-Tov told him. What it needed, he said, was an autonomous guidance system that would permit the missile itself to seek out the target. An altimeter would keep the missile at a fixed height above the water, and radar in the missile would guide it to target.
Even-Tov was born in Jerusalem and had not finished high school. Swept up in Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, he served as a platoon commander and stayed on in the army. At age 25 he traveled to the United States where he graduated from Columbia University, obtained an engineering degree at Drexel, and served as a project manager at a large defense plant before returning to Israel. As he had hoped, his remarks to the naval officer reached Erell, who consulted with managers at Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI), Rafael’s main rival.
Israel’s fledgling military industries had funding and were eager for projects to sink their teeth into. “The IAI’s a good horse to run with,” Erell told Bin-Nun. Even-Tov was contacted by IAI and agreed to jump ship. Settling into his office in the firm’s headquarters in Lod, he asked for a mathematician to work with him and a set of American textbooks on airborne radar and allied fields. Guided missiles existed in the West, but Israel was not privy to their secrets. However, textbook theory was available, which Even-Tov and his assistant proceeded to digest.
The navy was stunned in 1962 when it learned that the Soviets had built their own missile boats and were providing them to Egypt and Syria. Admiral Bin-Nun requested an urgent meeting with Deputy Defense Minister Shimon Peres (who today, at 90, is Israel’s president). Bin-Nun warned that the refitted Arab fleets could strangle Israel’s maritime lifeline. If Israel acquired half a dozen missile boats, he said, it could deal with the threat. An appropriate boat platform had been identified. Two of his officers touring foreign navies had gone to sea on board a German Jaguar torpedo boat. The Jaguar had begun life in the Second World War as a Schnellboot (S-boat) harassing Allied shipping. The vessel impressed the officers with its power and ease of handling. Although not very comfortable for the crew, it had ample room for armaments and electronic apparatus. “This is a ship of war,” the officers reported.
What was needed now, Bin-Nun said, was funding. “You have my blessings and you’ll get the money,” Peres assured him.
Five years before, Peres had driven through a snowstorm to the Bavarian hometown of Germany’s defense minister, Franz-Josef Strauss. Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion had decided that Israel’s security situation obliged it to seek help from the country that had murdered six million Jews little more than a decade before. During a five-hour talk, Peres spelled out to Strauss Israel’s need for military equipment. The subsequent German defense budget would include an allocation of $60 million over five years for “aid in the form of equipment.” The beneficiary was not mentioned but the equipment list would now include six Jaguar torpedo boats.
Captain Erell had larceny in his heart when he flew to Germany in March 1963. At his meeting with defense officials in Bonn, he said that the Jaguars destined for Israel required modifications. After listening to Erell spell out the modifications at length, the head of the German team leaned forward and said bemusedly: “Ja, ja, very interesting captain. But tell me, don’t you want a grand piano on this boat, too?”
What Erell wanted was a new boat. He requested permission to meet with the Jaguar’s builders, the Bremen firm of Lurssen Brothers. Here he found immediate understanding. Israeli naval architect Commander Haim Shahal, who accompanied him, told the shipbuilders that the Jaguar was too small to contain all the systems planned for it. Would it be possible to insert two more of the frames that formed its hull to stretch the vessel by 7 feet 10 inches, giving it a total length of 147 feet 8 inches? He also wanted to repartition the internal space. Lurssen’s chief naval architect, Herr Waldemuth, grasped what the Israelis were getting at. Making his own calculations, he said, “We can do it.”
The first test of Even-Tov’s radical redesign of the Luz came in 1964, and was witnessed by members of the General Staff, top defense officials, and observers from Rafael. The first missile arced into the sky and plummeted straight down. So did the next two. Raucous hoots came from the Rafael delegation. The next test, three months later, was a duplicate of the first. “Ori, we’d also like to see it work occasionally,” a senior official said tartly. This time, Even-Tov asked for nine months to prepare for the next test.
Back in the IAI plant the next day, Even-Tov reckoned that the project was unlikely to survive another failure. A technician asking to speak with him interrupted his cogitations. The man, Yaacov Becker, had only recently joined the team, which was top-heavy with engineers and scientists. Becker believed the problem was that the altimeter packaging was not robust enough to withstand the launch. Although Becker had only a vocational school education, Even-Tov had already marked him as a craftsman.
“Do you have any proposals?” Even-Tov asked.
“Give me a few days.”
When Becker submitted his plan, Even-Tov summoned the two senior engineers dealing with the altimeter. Both termed the plan unworkable, adding that they would rather resign than pursue it. “In that case,” said Even-Tov, “your resignations are accepted as of now.” He appointed Becker in their place, with 30 men working under him.
The third test of the missile, in 1965, was on a secluded stretch of coast south of Haifa. The Luz had acquired a new name—the Gabriel—but it had yet to prove it could fly. The observers on the dunes looked funereal as the countdown began over loudspeakers: “Three, two, one, launch.” The missile arced into the sky and fell like a stone. There was hardly time for despair to set in before the second missile was launched. Reaching the top of its trajectory it seemed to hang in midair. It was several seconds before Even-Tov realized that the missile was not defying gravity but was leveling off and heading out to sea. The crowd cheered. It cheered again when the third missile struck the target. Even-Tov turned to look at the dune where the Rafael observers had been standing, but they were gone.
The missile-boat project now had momentum, but a new set of problems suddenly descended—political. The Arab states had learned of the arms deal and threatened to break diplomatic relations with Bonn. Embarrassed, Germany told Israel it would give it the money to have the boats built elsewhere. Erell balked. Israel, he insisted, also needed the revised Jaguar plans and the license to use them. Germany said it couldn’t do that for fear of Arab ire. An aide called Erell’s attention to an article in Jane’s, the British defense publication, mentioning that Lurssen was cooperating with a shipbuilding firm in Cherbourg in building patrol boats. When contacted, the French firm said it would be able to have the plans and license for the modified Jaguar transferred to it. And so it was.
Construction of the first missile boat at the Cherbourg shipyard, Les Constructions Mecaniques de Normandie, began in 1965. An Israeli naval contingent took up residence in the town to test the boats—dubbed the Saar (Storm) class—as they came off the ways, ostensibly as patrol boats. Not until they arrived in Israel would they be fitted out as missile boats. The first vessel was subject to 10,000 miles of punishing sea tests, sometimes running down the Normandy coast past the D-Day beaches.
Erell, who had succeeded Bin-Nun as navy commander, persuaded the General Staff to double the number of missile boats to 12 to enable the navy to cope simultaneously with the Egyptian and Syrian fronts. Meanwhile, at naval headquarters, a planning team was translating the grand vision into tangible dimensions. The team, which would eventually number several hundred men, was broken into subgroups charged with specific aspects. How many masts were needed to accommodate the dense electronic array? What procedures would enable seamen in battle—not just engineers in laboratory conditions—to fire the missile effectively? What to do about mutual interferences—electronic, noise, electromagnetic—among systems located near one another? The questions were endless and each answer carried with it new problems.
Israel’s military industries, reaching into new areas of technology, were able to provide many solutions. However, key elements like fire-control systems, which aim the guns and missiles, had to be developed at firms abroad. The young Israeli naval engineers sent to oversee this work gradually overcame their diffidence vis-à-vis the veteran continental engineers.
Team leaders in Haifa met regularly to report to each other on progress and thrash out differences. Search radar, which scanned for enemy ships, and fire-control radar, which guided the missiles onto target, vied with each other for higher position on the mast; guns and torpedo tubes elbowed each other for choice position on the deck; sonar argued against being thrown overboard to save weight. The flow of information was constant, and the pace manic. Tests were constantly being set, reports presented, contracts for components signed. The intensity would last for years, laced for all with moments of despair, when it seemed mad to have attempted the enterprise. Looking about him, Erell was convinced that no major power had ever put as much energy into the design of a battleship.
A New Threat
For most of the men involved, this would be the greatest adventure of their lives. A country of three million inhabitants with no sophisticated industrial base had taken upon itself to develop a major weapon system. Officers who had sailed in nothing but hand-me-downs found themselves plunging through uncharted waters at the frontier of military science. It was an exhilarating experience, edged by the knowledge that war was waiting in the wings.
It came before they were ready, in June 1967. It ended after six days with an astonishing Israeli victory. The navy had taken almost no part. Three months later, however, the destroyer Eilat, flagship of the fleet, was patrolling off Sinai when lookouts saw a flaring of light off Port Said, 14 miles west. A minute later, a Styx missile exploded in the heart of the ship. Three more missiles would hit, sending the Eilat to the bottom. Of the 200-man crew, 47 were killed and 91 wounded.
The West had known of the existence of the Styx but not its precision or power. A small boat on the horizon had sunk a warship ten times its size. The world’s navies would have to adjust to a new reality. Israel’s was the only one already doing so, but it now had a major correction to make. Intelligence had learned that the range of the Styx was 27 miles, more than twice the Gabriel’s 12 miles. The Saars would have to cross a 15-mile “missile belt” in which they would be vulnerable to the Styx without being able to respond. Erell asked his chief electronics officer, Captain Herut Tsemach, what could be done. Guessing at the parameters of the radar his counterpart in Leningrad had installed in the Styx, Tsemach devised electronic countermeasures. Whether they worked would have to await the test of battle.
In Cherbourg, boats were launched every two or three months and sailed to Israel after their sea tests. This routine changed with the launching of Boat Seven. The head of the Israeli military-purchasing mission in Paris, retired Admiral Mordecai Limon, learned that the French were about to impose an embargo on the boats for political reasons, even though Israel had already paid for them. Limon telephoned the commander of the Israeli contingent in Cherbourg and suggested elliptically that Boat Six, which had just completed her sea tests, and Boat Seven, which had not yet started them, make a run for it without informing the French naval authorities. The boats succeeded in getting away. A few days later, France imposed the embargo.
The embargo did not affect construction of the remaining boats, only their departure. Limon urged Jerusalem to permit the remaining five boats to escape after the last was completed. Unwilling to risk diplomatic rupture with France, the government authorized the boats’ departure only if it could be done “not illegally.” As the last boat neared completion in December 1969, Limon resorted to a sleight of hand. He waived Israel’s claim on the boats, and a Norwegian shipowner—a friend of a friend of Limon—offered to buy them, ostensibly to supply offshore oil rigs in the North Sea. French customs authorities granted permission for the boats to depart. Fearing that this legal fiction was too thin to pass close scrutiny, Limon advised the commander of the Cherbourg contingent, Captain Israel Kimche, to get away as quickly and quietly as possible.
The Israeli Defense Ministry, rising to the occasion, organized a quasi-military operation, fitting out a freighter and a car ferry with extra fuel tanks and pumping equipment to refuel the boats at sea since the fleeing vessels would not be able to enter ports for fear of seizure. Israeli freighters, diverted from their regular runs, were spaced along the 3,200-mile escape route in case the boats encountered trouble. Scores of Israeli naval crewmen in civilian dress were given passports and flown to Paris. In small groups they made their way by train to Cherbourg, where they were hidden in the boats below decks.
Departure was set for early Christmas Eve, but a force 9 gale kept even large freighters from venturing out. At 0200, when the wind began to shift, Captain Kimche cast off. Battered as they crossed the roiling Bay of Biscay, the boats reached the Portugese cove where the first refueling vessel was waiting for them. (The other was off Lampedusa, the southernmost island of Italy.)
When the French discovered the ruse the infuriated defense minister proposed that the air force interdict the vessels, but calmer voices prevailed. The international press leaped on the caper with glee. Television crews rented planes to search for the boats—some over the North Sea route to Norway, some over the Mediterranean. A press plane finally sighted five small boats racing along the coast of North Africa, as far from French waters as possible. On New Year’s Eve 1970, the boats anchored in Haifa.
The next three years and nine months were spent converting the Saars into missile boats, developing tactics for a totally new type of warfare, and training crews. It was not until the first week of October 1973 that all the boats joined in a flotilla maneuver. The day after they returned to base the Yom Kippur War broke out.
The First At-Sea Missile Battles
The flotilla commander, Commander Michael Barkai, immediately dispatched a half dozen boats south to block any Egyptian sally. With nightfall, he led five others north into Syrian waters. From the radio in his boat’s combat information center (CIC), the feisty officer addressed the other captains. Their objective, he said, was to draw the Syrian missile boats out of Latakia, Syria’s main harbor, and sink them. “If they don’t come out, I mean to sail in and destroy them with guns. We’re going to go in close enough to heave our docking lines if we have to.”
Eighteen miles southwest of Latakia, the task force disabled with gunfire a Syrian patrol boat on picket duty. Barkai left a boat behind to finish her off. Within minutes, the lead vessel picked up a minesweeper 15 miles away racing for Latakia. The overeager captain fired when he reached maximum Gabriel range. Barkai groaned. In the two minutes the missile was in the air, the fleeing target pulled out of range.
On board another Saar, the Reshef, Captain Micha Ram waited until he was 11 miles from target. Personally verifying that the radar was locked onto the correct target and that it was in adequate range, he pressed a white button labeled “permission to fire.” Two minutes later, cheers were heard from the bridge as a flaring on the horizon signaled a hit.
Almost simultaneously, search radar picked up three vessels close to shore. The Syrian missile boats were coming out. On the bridge, balls of light could be seen arcing over the horizon. In the CIC below, fast-moving dots appeared on radar screens. The first missile battle at sea had begun. The boats’ loudspeakers erupted with the warning, “missiles, missiles, missiles.” The boats activated electronic deceptors and jammers, which analyzed the characteristics of the Styx’s radar and sent back signals on the same wavelength to create false targets. At the same time, the boats zigzagged wildly and sent up rockets that released chaff—aluminum strips intended to further confuse the Styx’s radar.
The navy’s war room in Israel heard the missile warning. Then the radio went silent. Herut Tsemach, who had retired from the navy, was back for the war. The lives of the 200 men in the task force depended on the accuracy of his educated guess about the Styx’s capabilities. After two minutes, Barkai’s voice broke the silence. “Missiles in the water.” The normally reserved Tsemach let out an Indian whoop as cheering filled the room. Cupping the top of his head with one hand, Tsemach spun himself around the room as if he were a top.
Raising their electronic umbrellas, the Saars charged across the missile belt at 40 knots. One of the Syrian boats came directly at them. Lieutenant Commander Arye Shefler commanded the Israeli boat now in the lead, the Gaash. The Syrian boat fired first, at half her maximum range. The Styx was still in the air when the Gaash reached Gabriel range. Shefler pressed the “permission to fire” button. As the Gabriel launched, the Styx exploded in the water, but the Gaash’s electronic sensors detected another Styx lifting off. The first Gabriel was still in the air when Shefler launched another. Theoretically, the dueling missile boats could have blown each other simultaneously out of the water, but the second Styx exploded harmlessly before the first Gabriel had completed its trajectory. Meanwhile, the Miznak, Barkai’s command vessel, had fired a Gabriel at a second Syrian boat. The men watching from the bridges of the Israeli vessels saw the horizon torn by jagged light. Across the water came the roll of two explosions, a few seconds apart.
Barkai, who was watching the battle on the radar screen in the CIC below deck called to his operations officer, “Where are the Syrian boats?”
Barkai was stunned. He had sunk enemy vessels innumerable times during exercises on a simulator, but it hadn’t occurred to him that they would disappear from the screen the same way in reality. There was one more Syrian boat to account for, and radar showed her heading for shore. With no more missiles, her commander ran his boat onto the beach, and the crew clambered off. Despite fire from shore batteries, Barkai went in close and destroyed her with gunfire.
It was light when the returning Saars approached Haifa. Word of their stunning success had spread through the city and the breakwater was lined with spectators. Barkai decided not to tie brooms to the mast in the traditional symbol of a clean sweep. The boats had left a lot of Syrian sailors at the bottom of the sea, he said. Any flaunting “wouldn’t be respectful to them or ourselves.”
On to Egypt
Two nights later, it was Egypt’s turn as three pairs of Saars moved west toward Alexandria. Sensors picked up indications of four missile boats emerging from the harbor and moving east. Off Baltim, near where Nelson had sunk Napoleon’s fleet, the signals grew stronger. As they closed range, crewmen at the CIC consoles and screens began shouting: “Here they come. Four of them. Right at us.”
The sensors indicated an Egyptian missile launch at maximum Styx range. Despite Barkai’s cool demeanor, he felt fear at every salvo. The Saars’ antimissile devices created many diversionary targets, but the boats themselves were also targets. The Styxes exploded in the sea, their half-ton charges sending up geysers. The Egyptians kept coming, firing two more salvos in the next ten minutes. At 18 miles distance, they turned back. The pursuit was on.
“We’re going to close to ten miles before firing,” Barkai said to his captains. “Anybody who fires longer I will dismiss on the spot.” He divided the targets among his commanders. After 25 minutes, a boat on the northern wing reported herself within range. She fired and hit. An Egyptian boat in the center was hit moments later. A third, running close to the shore, was hit by a Gabriel but did not sink, having settled on a sandbank. The fourth Egyptian boat escaped back to Alexandria when the Israeli vessel pursuing her developed engine trouble.
The Arab missile boats did not venture out to sea again, limiting themselves to sniping from their harbor mouths. The Soviet-made boats had no electronic defenses and were sitting ducks once the Israelis were able to thwart the Styx.
Israel’s quick victory at sea enabled more than 100 freighters to reach Haifa with much needed supplies during the three-week war. There were no Israeli casualties. Naval warfare had a new face.
The Saars continued to attack Syrian ports almost every night and destroy oil tank farms along the coast. They dueled with Syrian boats firing from behind foreign freighters in their harbors. Gabriels inadvertently sank three such freighters, one of them Russian.
Shlomo Erell, who had made it all happen, joined the flotilla during one of its final sorties. The retired admiral was captivated by the way Barkai and his captains—one of whom was Errel’s son, Udi—coordinated their movements as the boats slalomed between plumes thrown up by missiles and shore batteries. From the port of Tartus, he saw four Styxes appear in the sky like a formation of planes. The bright lights looked as if they were heading straight for his boat. Erell was petrified, but if the others on the bridge were they didn’t show it. “They’re beginning to turn,” the bridge officer said. To Erell, they still seemed heading straight between his eyes but after a few seconds he could see them beginning to succumb to the tug of the phantom decoys.
The complex systems crammed into the small boats had passed the ultimate test better than he could have imagined. Recalling his meeting in the German defense ministry ten years before, Erell smiled to himself and thought, “They’ve even put in the grand piano.”
This article is adapted from the author’s eBook The Boats of Cherbourg: The Navy That Stole Its Own Boats and Revolutionized Naval Warfare, which is a revised and expanded version of his previous work The Boats of Cherbourg: The Secret Israeli Operation That Revolutionized Naval Warfare (Naval Institute Press, 1988). The books are based primarily on more than 100 interviews conducted by the author. He can be reached at [email protected]. Additional sources of information for this article include:
RADM Zeev Almog, Israeli Navy, “Israel’s Naval Theatre,” Israel Defense Forces Journal (Spring 1986).
Herbert Coleman, “Gabriel Outmatches Soviet Styx,” Aviation Week, 10 December 1973)
RADM Erell Shlomo, Israeli Navy, “Israel Saar FPBs Pass Combat Test in Yom Kippur War,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, (September 1974) .
CAPT Peleg Lapid, Israeli Navy Ret., “Electronics in the Israeli navy,” Israel Defense Forces Journal, December 1984.
“Mideast War Spurs Missile R&D Effort,” Aviation Week, 31 December 1973.
RADM Binyamin Rahav, Israeli Navy, “Strategic and Naval Policy,” Jerusalem Post, 19 October 1987.