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The route of the boats from Cherbourg to Israel

The Boats of Cherbourg was an Israeli military operation which took place on 24 December 1969, and involved the escape of five Sa'ar 3 class missile boats from the French port of Cherbourg. The boats had been paid for by the Israeli government but had not been delivered due to the French arms embargo in 1969. The whole operation was planned by the Israeli Navy, and was codenamed "Operation Noa", after the daughter of Captain Binyamin (Bini) Telem.[1]


The Israeli naval command had reached the conclusion by the early 1960s that their old Second World War-era destroyers, frigates and corvettes were obsolete and new ships and vessels were needed. A survey was undertaken and the German shipyard of Lürssen was recommended. The shipyard was asked to design a new generation of small missile boat platforms and to modify the suggested wooden Jaguar-class torpedo boats according to Israeli Navy requirements. Due to Arab League pressure on the German government, this plan was not continued and a new builder was sought. The Israeli Navy survey recommended that the Cherbourg-based Félix Amiot would build the boats, based upon the German designs and plans. The boats and engines were German-designed, and constructed by the French. The project received the codename "Fall" (Autumn).

Crews were sent to France in early 1965. The technical team was headed by Commander Haim Schachal.[2] The administrative and operational side was headed by then-Captain Binyamin (Bini) Telem, who later became the Israeli Navy's commander in chief during the Yom Kippur war.

This was during the "Golden Age" of relations between Israel and France. After the Six-Day War, relations began to worsen. The French president — Charles de Gaulle — stopped the export of weapons to Israel. In 1968, Israeli paratroopers commanded by then-Colonel Raphael Eitan (who later became IDF chief of staff), carried out a raid on Beirut airport during operations against the Palestine Liberation Organization. As a result, President de Gaulle ordered a full arms embargo on Israel, even for weapons that were ordered and paid by contract.

With his moratorium declaration, President de Gaulle cancelled the export license for the boats to Israel. However, he was afraid to cancel the working licenses of the shipyards due to riots sparked by recession and unemployment that had started in Paris. De Gaulle did not want to escalate the situation by adding additional unemployment and feared public opinion and the spread of the riots throughout France.

The resignation of de Gaulle and the election of Georges Pompidou to be the president of France inspired hope amongst the Israelis. The Israeli government assumed that Pompidou would lift the embargo, but Pompidou maintained it.

While the French government ordered an arms embargo on Israel, construction of the boats continued according to the original plan; and while the Israeli naval mission was in Cherbourg, controlling the project, Israeli crews were aboard the completed boats and the whole project was fully paid for by Israel.

The build-up of the Egyptian Navy with Soviet assistance during the early days of the War of Attrition and into the mid-1960s, and their procurement of new missile boats such as the Osa and Komar-classes, had changed the balance of power in the Mediterranean theatre in favour of Arab navies and away from the Israeli Navy. There was by now an urgent need for a new generation of vessels for the Israeli Navy. Israel had been developing seaborne surface-to-surface missiles, but the new vessels they would be launched from were now being built at Cherbourg. Their delivery to the Navy was considered a high priority by the Israeli Navy.

The loss of the destroyer INS Eilat during an attack by Komar-class missile boats[3] in October 1967[4] and the accidental loss of the submarine INS Dakar in 1968, as well as the general aging of the Israeli fleet, brought naval planners to the conclusion that the boats had to be taken from France by deception.

The operation


The plan to take the boats was formulated by retired Rear Admiral Mordechai 'Mokka' Limon, formerly the Israeli Navy's commander in chief, who was the head of the Israel Defense Forces mission in Paris. Limon's affiliation with the Rothschild family provided him with important connections in France with the French government, and more widely in Europe as well.

During that period, several events worked in favor of the Israelis. In 1967, the seventh boat of the 12 boats ordered, INS Mivtach (Reliance), was completed and launched. A telecom from Israeli Navy command informed the Israelis in Cherbourg that the embargo was expected to escalate, and the boats would have to sail immediately to Haifa during sea trials, ignoring the French protocols for leaving port. This angered the French, and they ordered the Israeli Navy and the other boats to leave the French harbour, and dock instead at the commercial port, which was unguarded.

The boats were transferred to a front company called Starboat, registered in Panama. This company was a Norwegian company for oil drills. The front company was Limon's idea, aided by his connections with Milla Brenner, a retired naval officer with a rank of commander and the owner of the Israel-based "Maritime Fruit Carriers", a company which operated cargo ships transporting fruit. Milla Brenner knew the Norwegian businessman Martin Siem, who was able to provide assistance. The front company people were Mossad members led by Benyamin Vered, one of the highest ranking commanders of Mossad.

The front company feigned interest in the boats as potential survey ships for searching for oil, and declared that the boats' specifications met their needs. To add to the deception Limon pretended to have "tough negotiations" with Starboat. The terms agreed were that the boats would be transferred to Starboat and would be crewed by members of the Israeli Navy due to their experience with the boats. The boats were sold and transferred legally by the government of Israel to the front company with the approval of Michel Debré, the French minister of defence. This was the first part of the deception.

The next stage of the operation was to build a day-to-day routine with the aim of ultimately misleading the French at Cherbourg. The Israelis maintained a routine of short voyages, heading north into the Atlantic. Prior to the operation, the Israeli crews were reinforced. Israeli officers, ratings and sailors began to arrive in groups of two at different destinations throughout Europe as tourists, and then travelled to Cherbourg. It was feared that sending them all to Cherbourg at once would alert French intelligence. They were ordered to keep moving between hotels, and not to stay in any one hotel for more than one night. The crews traveled on Israeli passports so that in the event they were caught, they could not be charged with passport fraud. By December 23, all crews had arrived, and were scattered around the city.[5]

To sustain an eight-day voyage at sea, the group's supply officer bought fresh and dry supplies from local grocery stores. To prevent arousing suspicion, the supplies were purchased in small quantities each time.[5]

Prior to the escape, the boats had to be fuelled with large amount of diesel. Loading this fuel in one fill would have alerted observers to the fact that a long voyage was planned. Commander Rinat, the head of operations, instead ordered the boats to be gradually fuelled using a small 5-ton tank truck. A quarter of a million litres of fuel was smuggled in drums and hidden belowdecks.[5] By 24 December, the boats had been fully fuelled and stored.

Since sudden engine noise during the night of the escape would alert the French, the operation's commander, Captain Hadar Kimhi, ordered the boats' engines to be regularly started at nights, causing the inhabitants of Cherbourg to become accustomed to the noise. The local police visited the boats in response to inhabitants' complaints, and received the explanations that the electrical supply from the shore was not enough to warm the boats during the cold days of December. The boats received an authorization from the electrical company and police to operate their engines at night. The noise was loud with 20 Maybach main engines running.

Manifold filter distributing five outlets to fuel five missile boats, installed in MV Lea

Fueling system of MV Lea

Meanwhile, the ZIM navigation company Europe Lines were approached to help in providing fuel, once the boats had left Cherbourg. Assistance was provided by Edmond Wilhelm Brillant, a retired navy officer and a naval architect. He designated MV Lea[6] to provide fuel at Gibraltar and MV Natanya as a backup in the Bay of Biscay (both general cargo ships that were available at that time). The main difficulty at this stage of the plan was the conversion of MV Lea into a fuelling ship. This was solved by conversion of the ballast tank in the ship's bow into a fuel tank. The pump system was converted to operate as both a fire fighting and fuelling pump. Special high pressure hoses were used and a fuelling drill was developed prior sailing to the rendezvous point near Gibraltar. According to international maritime regulations, MV Lea could not sail since safety regulations banned ships from carrying fuel in the bow as fuel vapour may cause an explosion. This issue was solved by Brillant with the aid of Kirstine shipyards and a Lloyd's Register surveyor. The overall conversion and drill took 12 hours. Other Zim divisions provided the Dan, a Ro-Ro ship sister of MV Nili[7] which would provide fuel near Lampedusa. Captain of MV Dan was Yosef Dror, a retired Navy officer (Commander) and a Navy Seal.[8] In this case, tanker trailers were loaded in the ship's garage. These Zim ships sailed with additional crew made up of members of the Israeli Navy.


The boats were to escape on Christmas Eve. The Israelis feared that the boats could sink while sailing through the Bay of Biscay in severe winter conditions. The group had a meteorologist assigned to them, who monitored all British, French and Spanish weather forecasts. Despite a forecast predicting rain from the south-west, the crews were ordered to sail out at 20:30. By 19:30, all crews were aboard. There was a force 9 storm on the night of the escape, and after the weather worsened, the departure time was extended to 22:30, but the escape was again delayed by worsening weather. Captain Hadar Kimhi received urgent coded messages from Israel ordering him to set sail despite the weather, but he decided to wait. At midnight, the meteorologist picked up a BBC report indicating that the storm would die down in two hours. At 2:30 am, the boats left Cherbourg and headed slowly out to sea.[5]

The French were initially unaware that the Israeli boats had left port, and their absence was initially noticed by a reporter who visited the port and saw that all the boats were missing. He immediately reported it to the BBC almost 12 hours after the escape and so the French learned of the event from the BBC. The disappearance of the boats into a powerful gale was widely covered by the international media, and television crews in hired aircraft flew towards Norway, the boats' ostensible destination, and over the Mediterranean.[citation needed] As the boats passed Gibraltar, the British monitoring station flashed a signal, asking the boats to identify themselves. The boats gave no reply, and a Lloyd's helicopter circling over them detected no flags or identity numbers. The British then flashed the signal "bon voyage", and the Israelis took it as a signal that the British understood who they were. The boats were finally spotted by television crews as they travelled fast towards Israel, hugging the coast of North Africa.[9]

French Defence Minister Michel Debré ordered an air strike to sink the boats. The French Chief of Staff refused to obey and replied he would resign rather than obey the order. The order was countermanded by Prime Minister Jacques Chaban-Delmas, who prevented any further escalation. Although the French government was furious, it realized that there was little that could be done, since the boats were already on the high seas when the ruse was uncovered. French Foreign Minister Maurice Schumann warned that if the boats appeared in Israel, "the consequences will be very grave indeed".

MV Netanya, one of the ships assigned to support the boats

During fuelling by MV Lea at Gibraltar, one of the Israeli navy crew members mistakenly allowed water into the fuel tanks of INS Hetz (Arrow). It was not initially known whether the water was seawater, if it was it could not be drained and may damage the engines. Commander Rinat asked the crew to taste the fuel and to indicate if it was salty or not. Having determined that it was not seawater, the tanks were drained. The Israeli boats sailed a total of 3,145 nmi (5,825 km; 3,619 mi), beginning in the English Channel, and arriving at the Kishon Shipyard port[10] in Haifa bay on 31 December. When the boats approached the Israeli coast, they were given an escort of Israeli Air Force aircraft. The boats were met with public jubilation when they arrived in Israel.

The Navy's commander in chief during the operation was Rear-Admiral Avraham Botzer (Cheetah). The commanding officer of the operation was Captain Hadar Kimhi (later Commodore commander of Haifa Navy-Base and Naval Attaché in Britain during the 1973 Yom Kippur War), with Commander Ezra Kedm Krishinski, nicknamed Karish (Shark) as his deputy (later on Commodore and commander of the Red Sea theatre). The boats were:

  • INS Sufa (Storm), skipper Lt. Ronna Arie
  • INS Ga'ash (Volcano), skipper Lt. Gil Koren
  • INS Herev (Sword), skipper Lt. Commander Gadi Ben Zeev
  • INS Hanit (Spear), skipper Lt. Commander Haim Shaked
  • INS Hetz (Arrow), skipper Commander Moshe Tabak

Two young officers in the operation, Tal and Michael — Ram, went on to become commanders in chief of the navy.[citation needed]

The boats' names while being operated by the oil drilling company were Starboat 1,2,3,4 and 5. The boats joined the already acquired INS Sa'ar to form the Sa'ar 3-class missile boats.

International repercussions

The French government expelled Mordechai Limon from France. It was said that the French president stated "I do not like tea with Lemon and Mokka coffee". Generals Louis Bonte and Bernard Gazelles were suspended by the government. The Cherbourg affair, together with Mossad's theft of the plans for the Mirage 3, which were used as a baseline for the design of IAI Kfir by Israel Aerospace Industries, ended a period of French-Israeli cooperation.[citation needed] Instead Israel turned to American supplies of weapons and support. The Israeli Air Force began to be equipped by American aircraft, while the United States Navy started to train the Israeli Navy's high command and increased the level of naval cooperation.

According to British intelligence writer Gordon Thomas, following the affair, Mossad agents were watched "as closely as any terrorist" when they were deployed to France to track down and kill Middle Eastern terrorists. Many times, terrorists would escape after being tipped off by a pro-Arab French intelligence officer.[5]

Missile boat flotilla

The boats taken from Cherbourg were still unarmed platforms on their arrival in Israel. They were brought into the navy and armed with Gabriel missiles and ECM and EW systems produced by MABAT and RFAEL.[11] Their commissioning into the Israeli Navy was overseen by Commodore Yehoshua Lahav Schneidemesser, a Haganah member who had volunteered with the Royal Navy during the Second World War, and who was at the time the division head of Navy – Equipment and Platforms.

The flotilla's working up was overseen by Captain Hadar Kimhi, who was later promoted to Commodore commanding the Naval base of Haifa. New concepts of sea missile warfare was developed by the navy and new ECM/EW techniques were developed with the leadership of Captain Herut Zemach[12] who was awarded the Israel Defense Prize for his efforts, creating a new generation of missile boats. Later, new Israeli Sa'ar boats were developed and built in Haifa Shipyards under the leadership of Haim Schachal, the chief engineer of the Israel Shipyards.[13] Two of the boats were launched a few months before the Yom Kippur War, INS Reshef (Flash) and INS Keshet (Bow), Sa'ar 4 class missile boats. For his leadership, Schachal was awarded the Israel Defence Prize. The Israeli Navy went on to win the sea battles with the Egyptian and Syrian navies with zero casualties and losses. The Israeli Navy became a pioneer in modern naval missile warfare, resulting in their successes in the Yom Kippur War in 1973.

See also

Videos and recordings


Retrofits for Noa Operation

This page uses Creative Commons Licensed content from Wikipedia (view authors).

search_str=%F8%E5%E8%F9%E9%EC%E3 Moshe Levi The Escape of the Boats of Cherbourg Intreviews with Hadar Kimhi, Binyamin Telem and Rinat Arie Magazin 1 Feb 2007 in Hebrew]