How Israel’s cool-hand naval commandos stole five missile boats from a French shipyard—on Christmas Eve.
When France imposed an arms embargo on Israel on the eve of the June 1967 Six-Day War, it marked an end to the Franco-Israeli romance that had begun the prior decade. France had been Israel’s primary source of arms since the mid-1950s, supplying the Jewish state with fighter and transport aircraft, tanks and other crucial war materiel. Following a December 1968 Israeli strike on aircraft at Beirut International Airport, in retaliation for a Palestinian terror attack, France tightened its embargo.
Among the most important weapon systems affected by the restrictions were the last five of a dozen Saar 3–class missile boats under construction at the Cherbourg naval shipyard in northwest France. The fast and agile vessels were the Israeli navy’s first purpose-built vessels; until then it had made do with a motley fleet. The October 1967 sinking of the Israeli destroyer INS Eilat by an Egyptian missile boat only confirmed Israel’s need for similar fast-attack craft.
By 1968 contractors had completed and delivered seven of the Cherbourg boats. But France prohibited release of the remaining five, even though Israel had already paid for them. With France reneging on the deal, Israeli forces hatched a plan to spirit the boats away from Cherbourg and sail them to Israel.
Thirty-year-old Israeli missile boat captain Lt. Cmdr. Chaim Shaked was among those chosen to pull off the heist and negotiate the tricky passage around France, through the Strait of Gibraltar and across the Mediterranean —a journey of 3,000 nautical miles on vessels in various stages of completion.
To legally circumvent the embargo, Israel orchestrated the sale of the boats to a front Norwegian shipping company. Thus work on the boats continued at the Cherbourg shipyard under the supervision of Israelis masquerading as Norwegian sailors.
In preparation for the daring operation, the onsite Israelis established a routine of powering up the boats’ engines at all times of the day and night and heading out on short sea trials. They also stocked the boats with provisions, purchasing small amounts each time to avoid arousing suspicion. Meanwhile, Shaked, four other skippers and their crews—dozens of men in all —slipped into Cherbourg.
The Israelis executed their plan on Christmas Eve 1969. While Cherbourg indulged in holiday festivities, the Israeli crews—all navy men in civilian clothes —boarded the boats, started the engines and motored the five 150-foot warships away into winter seas. By then accustomed to the engine noise, townspeople paid scant attention to their departure.
When news of the boats’ flight broke the day after Christmas, it made headlines worldwide. Realizing it had been duped, the French government professed anger and embarrassment; yet although its maritime surveillance aircraft located the boats and trailed them, they did not interfere. The Israeli crews were having a difficult enough time. The boat Shaked commanded—later named INS Herev (“Sword”)—had no navigation or communication equipment. Shaked had to closely follow his counterparts’ boats, at times having only the lights of the boat before him to rely on. En route the unarmed boats managed two underway refuelings from ships from Israel’s Zim shipping line and later altered course to avoid possible interception by Egyptian ships or aircraft.
After seven days at sea, all five arrived safely in Israel to widespread jubilation, though Shaked’s wife apparently had mixed feelings on his return. “When I told her I was going to France,” he recounted, “she gave me a list of perfumes to bring back for her. When I showed up with a boat and no perfume, she was not particularly happy!”
Shaked had earlier commanded the first of the Cherbourg boats to arrive in Israel and went on to lead a squadron of four missile boats. He later commanded the 24-vessel missile boat flotilla and retired as a rear admiral after a 30-year naval career.
Outfitted with 76mm guns and Israeli-made Gabriel sea-skimming missiles, all 12 Cherbourg boats served with distinction during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, during which Israeli missile boats racked up a 19–0 score against the Egyptian and Syrian navies, including the destruction of 10 enemy missile boats. The Israeli vessels also attacked enemy ports and coastal installations, proving the value of the audacious Cherbourg operation.
For further reading, Gary Rashba recommends: The Boats of Cherbourg, by Abraham Rabinovich.
Originally published in the September 2009 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.