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The Boats of Cherbourg

The dramatic Christmas Eve, blockade-busting escapade that delivered game-changing French missile boats to Israel’s navy 50 years ago today

Abraham Rabinovich
December 24, 2019
Photo: AFP via Getty Images
View of three of five French missile boats bought by the Israeli government arriving in the port of Haifa on the night of Jan. 1, 1970. The Cherbourg Project was an Israeli military action in 1969 involving the escape of the five missile boats from the French port of Cherbourg that had been paid for by Israel but had not been delivered due to the French arms embargo in 1969.Photo: AFP via Getty Images
Photo: AFP via Getty Images
View of three of five French missile boats bought by the Israeli government arriving in the port of Haifa on the night of Jan. 1, 1970. The Cherbourg Project was an Israeli military action in 1969 involving the escape of the five missile boats from the French port of Cherbourg that had been paid for by Israel but had not been delivered due to the French arms embargo in 1969.Photo: AFP via Getty Images

The bridge of the Eilat was crowded as it always was toward sunset when the watch is doubled against surprises lurking in a world half drained of light, yet unprotected by darkness.

Through binoculars, Cmdr. Yitzhak Shoshan, the destroyer’s captain, could make out the tops of cranes in Port Said silhouetted against the horizon to the west. Around him, commands were being given laconically through intercoms with the exaggerated enunciation used for clarity in shipboard communication. His orders were to skirt the edge of Egyptian territorial water, 12 miles from Port Said, at the entrance to the Suez Canal. Ever since Israel’s spectacular victory in the Six-Day War four months before, the navy had been patrolling Sinai’s coasts, showing the flag. In approaching this close to the Suez Canal, the navy was not only showing the flag but ramming it down the Egyptians’ throat. It was highly unlikely that they would do anything about it, particularly since the Israeli vessels kept to international waters.

“Green rocket to starboard.”

The cry from the lookout jarred the end-of-day reverie. The glow in the sky turned orange-yellow and from the roiling smoke on the horizon a dark object emerged. It turned lazily, trailing smoke. Shoshan saw it swerve slightly toward him and knew instantly that he was looking at his nightmare. He had less than a minute to try to save his ship and the 200 men aboard her.

“Engines full ahead,” he ordered, keeping his binoculars fixed on the approaching missile. “Rudder hard left.” The helmsman put the wheel over in order to offer the narrowest silhouette to the missile homing on them and the gunnery officer began barking orders. But it was too late. A powerful explosion ripped through the ship just above the waterline. Three more would follow and the destroyer went down, the first ship ever sunk by surface-to-surface missiles. Forty-seven men were killed and 100 wounded.

The devastating attack by a Soviet-made missile boat in the Egyptian navy shocked Western navies, which were totally unprepared to deal with missile warfare. There was only one country in the world working on the problem. That country, as it happened, was Israel.


Seven years earlier, before Soviet missile boats were known of, the commander of the Israeli navy, Adm. Yohai Bin-Nun, summoned senior officers to a brainstorming session in naval headquarters atop Haifa’s Mount Carmel to discuss the navy’s future. There had been warnings that the navy might be downgraded to a coast guard if it could not adequately protect Israel’s sea lanes. The three old destroyers that made up the backbone of the fleet had complements of up to 250 men, too many for a tiny country with a limited capacity for absorbing casualties. All the ships were relics from the Second World War. The government would not invest in new ships, arguing that the next war would be decided by planes and tanks, not ships. What were the navy’s options for remaining relevant?

During two days of discussions, one striking proposal rose to the surface; to install missiles on small boats, giving them the punch of heavy cruisers. Small craft could not carry heavy guns because of their recoil but the boats could serve as platforms for missiles, which had no recoil. In addition, such boats would require only small crews and be relatively cheap to build.

The idea was dismissed as futuristic whimsy by most of the officers in the room, who pointed out that missile boats did not exist in any Western navy. But the idea would not go away. A year later, Bin-Nun asked his deputy, Shlomo Erell, to undertake a serious examination of the proposal. Deputy Defense Minister Shimon Peres, ever a supporter of innovation, gave the project his blessing. If it went forward, he said, “you’ll get the money.”

Two years before, Peres had traveled to Germany for an unofficial meeting with Defense Minister Franz Josef Strauss in the latter’s home in Bavaria. At the center of their five-hour discussion was the relationship between the Jewish state and the country that had murdered 6 million Jews less than two decades before. The emotional chasm between the two countries was as yet unbridged by diplomatic ties. Peres suggested that Germany would be acknowledging responsibility for its past if it furnished Israel with arms it needed for survival. Strauss shared that sentiment and said he would recommend implementation to his government. Discretion would be called for to avoid Arab ire. When German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and Israel’s David Ben-Gurion had their historic meeting in New York, the Israeli leader asked whether Adenauer supported Strauss’ pledge to Peres. Adenauer said he did. The next German budget would include a $60 million item for unspecified “aid in the form of equipment” over five years, without mention of the recipient. The entire amount was, in fact, earmarked for Israel. Following Bin-Nun’s conversation with Peres, the list would be adjusted to include six boats. (Six more would be added later.)

Erell, who succeeded Bin-Nun as navy commander, set up a team from the navy and Israel Aircraft Industry to translate the grand vision of a missile boat to tangible dimensions. The top-secret program was named Falling Leaves (Shalechet). It now had assured funding and it would soon have a missile. A maverick engineer, Ori Even-Tov, was lured away from Rafael, Israel’s leading defense industry, to lead development of a sea-to-sea missile, the Gabriel.

The team would eventually number several hundred persons divided into subgroups, each charged with a specific design aspect. What kind of engine would be powerful enough to provide 40 knots but small enough for this size boat? How many masts would be needed to accommodate the heavy electronic demands? What procedures would enable seamen in the midst of battle—not just technicians—to fire the missile effectively? There were no precedents to follow and no textbook answers.

The questions were endless and each solution brought with it more questions. What to do about mutual interference—electronic, noise, electromagnetic—among different systems packed close together in a small boat? How can the sensitive parts of a missile be protected from the corrosion of sea spray? How can missiles be launched without endangering gun crews nearby?

Team leaders met regularly to report on progress and thrash out differences. Sitting around a table at naval headquarters, each man became an advocate for his system. Search radar, which scanned the sea for enemy ships, and fire-control radar, which guided missiles onto target, vied with each other for higher position on the mast. Gun and torpedo tubes elbowed each other for space, sonar argued against being thrown overboard to save weight. There were some elements which had to be developed abroad because Israel lacked the know-how. Members of the Shalechet team were posted at plants in Europe to observe and learn. The project’s expanding scope would oblige the navy to triple the number of men passing through its officers’ course.

For many, the project would be the greatest adventure of their lives. A backward navy in a country with a limited industrial base had taken upon itself to shape a significant weapon system that no other Western country possessed. Officers who had sailed in nothing but antiquated castoffs found themselves plunging through uncharted waters at the frontier of naval technology.

The flow of information within Shalechet was constant—from everybody to everybody—and the pace manic. Workdays of 12-14 hours were common. For a period the team members worked every day of the year except for Yom Kippur, a pace not unconnected with employee divorces. Tests were constantly being set, reports presented, contracts for components signed, meetings scheduled. The pace would last for years, laced for all with moments of despair when it seemed mad to have undertaken an oversize enterprise that could end in farce, if not tragedy. But the fear of being overtaken by war barked at their heels. Looking about him, Adm. Erell would say that no major power had ever put as much energy into the design of a battleship.


A team of officers scouted foreign fleets in search of a vessel that could serve as a platform for the missile boat taking shape in the minds of the naval command. The officers settled unhesitatingly on Germany’s Jaguar torpedo boat, itself a descendant of the WWII Schnellboot (S-boat) which had harassed Allied vessels in the North Sea and English Channel. “This is a ship of war,” said the team leader in a message to Haifa.

Erell wanted more. He flew to Germany to ask the defense ministry to lengthen the boat, which was to be built in a German shipyard, by more than 2 meters to accommodate the numerous systems that Israel planned to install. When he had finished his list of changes, the senior official leaned forward and said bemusedly, “ja, ja, very interesting captain. But tell me, don’t you want a grand piano in this boat too?”

The Germans in the end agreed to Erell’s request, but before work could begin the Arab states learned of Germany’s intention and threatened to break off relations. Germany informed Israel that it could not go ahead with construction but would provide it with the funds and the upgraded boat plans to enable construction elsewhere. An alternative shipyard was soon found—in the French port of Cherbourg.

Twelve “patrol boats” were ordered, enough to deal with the Egyptian and Syrian fronts simultaneously. The first of these Saar (storm) class boats was launched in April 1967; others would follow at two- or three-month intervals. During the sea tests that followed launch, the boats would run down the coast of Normandy, past the D-Day beaches, which had particular resonance for the Israelis.

On the first day of 1969, the diplomatic corps in Paris lined up in the elegant reception hall of the Élysée Palace for the president’s traditional New Year’s reception. As the most veteran foreign diplomat, Walter Eytan, Israeli ambassador for the past eight years, stood next to the papal nuncio, who was always doyen of the diplomatic corps regardless of his length of stay.

The nuncio was the first to speak, delivering the good wishes of the diplomatic corps to President de Gaulle. Then de Gaulle stepped forward. In a cutting voice, he condemned “exaggerated, violent acts like those that were just committed by the regular army of a nation on the civilian airport of a peaceful country and traditional friend of France.” He did not name the nation that had carried out the attack but all eyes shifted to the man standing next to the nuncio. Some saw Eytan’s impassive countenance slightly flush.

Four days before, Israeli commandos had raided Beirut Airport, destroying 13 parked planes, in retribution for a Palestinian attack on an El Al passenger plane in Athens. No one was hurt. But with de Gaulle’s pro-Arab tilt becoming increasingly blatant, the fate of the Israeli boats being built in Cherbourg had become uncertain. He had already embargoed shipment of 50 Mirage warplanes to Israel but had not yet mentioned the unarmed boats in Cherbourg.

On the same day as the Élysée reception, the head of the Israeli naval mission in Cherbourg, Capt. Hadar Kimche, received a telephone call from Paris. The caller was Adm. (ret.) Mordecai (Mocca) Limon, a former commander of Israel’s navy who headed the Israeli military purchasing mission in France. “Things are getting warm here,” Limon said. From his political contacts, Limon had reason to suspect that de Gaullian wrath might now extend to Cherbourg.

Limon suggested that one of the two Saar boats tied up in Cherbourg harbor, Boats Six and Seven, depart that night for Haifa. Boat Six had completed its trials and was scheduled to sail after the weekend. (Boats One to Five had already reached Israel.) Boat Seven, recently launched, had not yet undergone any trials. Kimche departed aboard Boat Six that night, without taking formal leave of the French naval command in Cherbourg as protocol required. Kimche’s deputy, Cmdr. Moshe Tabak, who remained behind, had a busy two days tidying up the fallout from Kimche’s hasty departure and preparing sea tests for Boat Seven. On Friday night, after a frantic week, he could at last turn to that snug harbor in which the Jewish people have through history found solace in a stormy world—the Sabbath. Unlike most Friday nights, there were no guests for the Sabbath meal this time. His enjoyment of the family meal with his wife, Esther, and their infant son was heightened by the prospect of the night’s sleep that lay ahead.

He was still sleeping soundly at 8 the next morning when the phone rang. It was Limon. “Do you remember the vacation in Israel that you asked for?” he said. “Well, it’s been approved. I’d be interested in your leaving as soon as possible.” Tabak had not requested any vacation but groggy as he was he understood that Limon was signalling him to get away with Boat Seven this day. Limon had learned from a French official that a directive was being issued to all customs offices to block clearance of war materiel destined for Israel, apparently fallout from the unannounced departure of Boat Six. Limon was able to persuade a French official to have the message to the Cherbourg customs office misaddressed and sent late Friday to another office in Normandy from where it would not be rerouted to Cherbourg until Monday. Despite Tabak’s discomfort about misleading the French naval officers with whom he had warm relations and despite the fact that Boat Seven had had no running-in period, which could mean big problems en route, he mustered a crew and set off.

Although Limon was retired from the navy, he had assumed the pivotal role regarding the Cherbourg boats because of his standing within the Israeli defense establishment, his relations with the Israeli naval mission in Cherbourg and his extensive contacts with French officials. Although his post gave him diplomatic status, he was determined to do whatever had to be done, undiplomatic though it be, to get the last five boats to Israel. They were the answer to the dire threat posed by the Soviet missiles that sank the Eilat. The navy’s chief electronics officer, Capt. Herut Tsemach, had devised electronic systems aimed at jamming or diverting incoming missiles; they would be installed when the boats reached Israel and the Cherbourg platforms were converted to missile boats. The efficacy of his defensive moves, however, could not be tested until used against the Styx, which meant in actual war.

The French authorities did not prohibit construction of the last five boats; Israel had already given a down payment on them. The last boat was launched in mid-December 1969, and Limon set Christmas Eve for the getaway. Close to 100 Israeli navy crewmen were flown to Paris and made their way by train to Cherbourg in small groups. They were hidden below decks until departure. Shortly after midnight mass, the boats moved out in single file past the harbor breakwater into a raging storm. They arrived off Haifa a week later, a few hours before New Year’s Eve, but were kept at sea until darkness so as to downplay television coverage and avoid excess annoyance in Paris.

On the first night of the Yom Kippur War, a missile-boat squadron engaged with three Syrian missile boats off the port of Latakia in the first-ever missile-to-missile battle in history, homing missiles from both sides pursuing fast-moving targets. The Soviet Styx missile on the Syrian boats had twice the range of Israel’s Gabriel—45 kilometers versus 20—and the Syrians fired the opening volley while still well out of range of the Gabriel. This was the precise moment that the past decade of Israel’s missile-boat development had been preparing for.

The two Israeli boats in the lead fired chaff—aluminum strips intended to confuse the Styx radar—as they turned toward the Syrians and began to maneuver wildly to confuse the enemy radar further. One of the boats had not yet been fitted out for electronic warfare. On the other, the Reshef, the deceptor and jammer devised by Tsemach kicked in automatically–analyzing the Styx radar’s characteristics. It sent back signals to the Styx instantaneously on the same wavelength to blot out the Israeli boats’ image and create imaginary images in the distance; electronic ventriloquism played out by black boxes.

Tsemach had devised a mix of electronic elements in the hope that at least one of them would prove effective. Chaff was one backup but there were two others—the boats’ guns and the boats’ twists and turns at 40 knots. There had been some objections at headquarters to his turning the boats into “Christmas trees” with his space-consuming equipment but Tsemach had countered that they were needed to give the boats a reasonable chance of crossing the so-called “missile belt” and reaching Gabriel range.


From the bridge, balls of fire suddenly appeared on the horizon. The men were keenly aware that all four missiles fired at the Eilat had hit. Their lives now hung on the accuracy of Tsemach’s educated guess about the Styx radar. It took two minutes for the missiles to complete their flight. In Haifa, the navy command following events on the flotilla radio heard it go silent. Then the voice of the commander: “They missed.” The normally reserved Tsemach, who was present, let out an Indian whoop. Cupping the top of his head with one hand, he spun himself around the room as if he were a top.

Meanwhile, the Israeli boats reached Gabriel range and opened fire on the two closest Syrian boats. They disappeared from the radar screen and the commander asked. “where are they?”

“Sunk,” said an officer.

The commander of the third Syrian missile boat, with no missiles left, beached the vessel on the shore before the Israelis closed in, permitting him and his men to escape.

From the fourth day of the war, the Arab fleets did not leave harbor. They had no EW protection and were as vulnerable as the Eilat had been. The sea passage to Haifa remained open during the war to more than 100 freighters bearing vital cargo. No Israeli boat was hit despite 54 Styx missiles fired at them. At least eight Arab warships had been sunk, including six missile boats.

It had begun with the wisp of an idea hesitantly floated at a staff meeting in naval headquarters. The idea had force—enough to overcome resistance within the navy itself, the instincts of the General Staff, the technological state-of-the-art, the indifference of Western navies to the notion of missile boats, and the French embargo. It was a force distilled through a small group of men charged with Israel’s sea defenses. They had perceived a threat, devised a solution, moved to implement it, and let nothing stand in their way.


Adapted from the revised paperback edition of The Boats of Cherbourg, by permission of the author.

Abraham Rabinovich is the author of, among other titles,The Yom Kippur War, The Boats of Cherbourg, and The Battle for Jerusalem.