Sa'ar 5 class missile сorvettes of the Israeli Navy

On December 24, 1969, Israeli commandos liberated five cutting-edge missile boats out of the port of Cherbourg. Israel had paid for the boats, which weren’t delivered due to a French arms embargo.


In late 1961, officers at Israeli naval headquarters were brainstorming for ideas on how to reconstitute the navy as a fighting force. The current fleet was a collection of World War II castoffs, and the defense budget was limited, focusing on the air force.

Missile boats did not exist yet anywhere in the world. Supported by Israel’s military industries, the navy began an intense development project that would continue for a decade.

A team of officers visited navies in Europe and the US in search of a fast and sturdy patrol boat suitable as a platform for missiles.  It found what it was looking in Germany, and an order was placed with a Cherbourg shipyard to construct 12 of these “patrol boats”, as they were termed. They would be converted to missile boats, an extremely complex and innovative process, only after their arrival in Israel.

Mordechai Limon

Admiral (ret.) Mordecai Limon (Wikipedia

Seven of the boats built in Cherbourg had already sailed for Israel when French President Charles de Gaulle imposed an embargo on the sale of French military equipment to the Middle East, an act aimed mainly at Israel. The head of the Israeli Defense Ministry procurement mission in Paris, Admiral (ret.) Mordecai (Mocca) Limon, was determined to get the remaining five boats out despite the Israeli government’s reluctance to get into a diplomatic tangle with France. Limon was a former commander of the Israeli navy.  Employing an elaborate ruse, and with the secret support of mid-level French officials sympathetic to Israel, he prepared the boats’ breakout.

Meeting with a prominent Norwegian oilman, a wartime resistance fighter sympathetic to Israel, he obtained his agreement to set up a dummy company in Oslo to which the five remaining boats could be fictitiously sold. Fearful that the dubious legality of the deal would become known when examined closely, Limon decided that the boats would be extracted secretly on Christmas Eve 1969, when alertness of harbor security would be minimal. In the days before, Israeli sailors were flown in small groups to Paris in civilian clothes and made their way to Cherbourg by train to flesh out the skeleton crews already there. The new arrivals were hidden below decks.

Israel staked out a 3,000-kilometer escape route, with commercial freighters posted in the Bay of Biscay and along the Mediterranean Sea as backups. Some of the ships were specially fitted out to refuel the runaway boats, others were positioned for rescue operations should the small craft encounter difficulties.

israeli navy history

A 2013 kindle edition of the 1997 book is also available. (Amazon)

The commander of the boats in Cherbourg, Capt. Hadar Kimche, planned to cast off as Cherbourg’s residents were having their Christmas dinner. But a storm churning up the English Channel had turned into a Force 9 gale, sending even sizeable freighters scurrying for harbor.

Finally, at 2 a.m., the BBC reported the wind shifting from west to northwest, which would put the wind at their back. Kimche ordered his captains to cast off. Limon descended to the pier and watched the boats slowly pull out in line.

The boats moved through towering seas and at times lost each other, but all joined up off the coast of Portugal. Because of Christmas, their departure was noticed only two days later by a local journalist. Some television crews flew out over the Mediterranean in search of the fleeing boats. Others flew north, thinking they might be on the way to Norway.  The false leads planted by Limon also mentioned Alaska and Panama as possible destinations. The furious French defense minister proposed at a cabinet meeting that the Air Force “interdict” them, but Prime Minister Pompidou calmed him down. As the five vessels passed Gibraltar, the British naval post atop the rock signaled, “What ship?” Kimche did not respond, but the British signaled “bon voyage.” The boats linked up with refueling vessels in hidden coves. As they reached Crete, a flight of Israeli Phantom Jets roared low overhead.

The Israeli navy then began the arduous process of fitting out the 12 vessels as missile boats and devising an operational system and tactics for what would become a totally new kind of naval warfare.

From: Jewish Virtual Library
(Source – Abraham Rabinovich, The Boats of Cherbourg: The Navy that Stole its Own Boats & Revolutionalized Naval Warfare, Naval Institute Press, 1997)

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