Late in June 1948, a cargo ship bobbed heavily in the waters off the nascent state of Israel. Loaded with soldiers and munitions, the former U.S. Navy vessel was destined for infamy as the cause of near civil war between two Jewish armies vying for control of Israel.
That night in June, Altalena’s skipper navigated to the approved rendezvous point 30 kilometers north of Tel Aviv, to a cove named Kfar Vitkin. At his side was Abraham Stavsky, a veteran of more than a dozen clandestine Mediterranean crossings that had eluded the British-imposed blockade against refugees who were fleeing ruined lives in Europe for a new start in Palestine.
Purchased in Brooklyn, N.Y., for $75,000 by screenwriter Ben Hecht and novelist Louis Bromfield, the old ship was renamed Altalena in tribute to Vladimir Jabotinsky, a Zionist leader who had often used that nom de plume. A radical and fighter, Jabotinsky believed that the reborn Jewish state should be accompanied by blood, fire and bullets. Jabotinsky had died of natural causes in New York City, an exile from the country he sought to create. He left behind, however, a child of his teachings in the form of the Irgun Zvai Leumi (national military organization), led by Menachem Begin. Britain, the mandate ruler, was the Irgun’s enemy, and its members bombed theaters, attacked prisons to free jailed comrades and took British soldiers hostage to forestall executions of other prisoners facing death sentences. Like its Arab counterparts, the terrorist organization spawned an even more violent splinter group— known as the Stern Gang after its leader, Abraham Stern.
On May 14, 1948, the British mandate over Palestine expired, the Jews established the state of Israel and immediate warfare broke out between the new nation and all the surrounding Arab states. The Stern Gang and its followers were soon engaged in a desperate fight for survival alongside another, more formal army, the Haganah, the military arm of left-wing leaders of the Jewish Agency that had dealt with the British.
At that point there were 45,000 soldiers in the Haganah. Ben-Gurion was the nation’s political leader. Faced with the Arabs, who had sworn to “drive the Jews into the sea,” Ben-Gurion formed a single defense force, comprising units of the Haganah and Irgun.
In Jerusalem’s Old City, 200 Haganah soldiers and fewer than 100 Irgun men and women, with a few rifles, some Sten submachine guns and not much ammunition, were trying to hold out against Jordan’s elite Arab Legion. Altalena, loaded with rifles and ammunition, thousands of bombs and hand grenades, machine guns, 150 anti-aircraft guns and five tanks, would be a lifesaver for the Old City’s struggling defenders. All it needed was to dock and be unloaded.
Altalena had been purchased by the Irgun; the volunteers aboard it were slated to become Irgun fighters; and when it put into Port-de-Bouc, France, in April 1948, it was slated to load munitions purchased by agents in the Irgun’s Paris-based European headquarters. If all went according to schedule, the ship could reach Tel Aviv and an Irgun-controlled dock by May 15, the day after the mandate expired.
From the beginning, however, the plans went awry. Hundreds of European arms dealers had passed through the apartment that served as the Irgun’s Paris headquarters. Five telephones rang continuously, and in every corner of every room deals were being made in a variety of languages. Arms could be had, for a price, but the Irgun had been swindled before. Guns had been inspected, deposits made, only to have the promised shipment delayed then cancelled and the deposit disappear.
Short on funds, the Irgun could not afford mistakes, and dealing with the characters that abounded in post-1945 Paris was an undertaking fraught with danger. One of the most perplexing problems encountered was that most of the arms being sold were located outside France, and the Irgun didn’t have the wherewithal to transport them. Then arms from a different source emerged as a possibility. The European resistance had buried munitions to sell. Sympathetic to the Irgun as fellow resistance fighters, those veterans were glad to make a deal, and supplies for the ship began to pour in.
Meanwhile, fighter pilots, navigators and radio operators arrived from Canada and the United States. Many were World War II veterans turned professional soldiers who left once they realized they would not be paid the huge salaries they demanded. Others, some of them idealists and adventurers, boarded Altalena. A contingent of Belgians, many of them under 18, volunteered for service with the Irgun. The adult leaders turned away the minors and tried to dissuade the older youths— this wasn’t an overnight adventure or some grand game played with guns. Nevertheless, 35 boys and girls equipped with rucksacks, canteens and accoutrements associated more with boy scouts than mercenary armies jumped the border and took a train to Paris. They traveled under a group visa obtained by an underground operative schooled in the means of transporting refugees from one European city to another.
Muslim longshoremen at Port-de-Bouc, learning of Altalena’s cargo and destination, went on strike in sympathy with their co-religionists in Palestine. Under growing pressure from the government to get underway and out of France, the Irgun operatives and their more than 900 recruits loaded the ship. On June 11, more than a month later than scheduled, Altalena steamed out to sea under the command of an American captain, Munro Fine.
It was bad timing for everyone. The United Nations had imposed a cease-fire on the belligerents and banned reinforcements to either side. In Israel Menachem Begin telegraphed the Paris headquarters to delay the ship’s departure, but his message reached Port-de-Bouc too late. Seeking an accommodation with Ben-Gurion’s forces, Begin offered a deal: One-fifth of the weapons would go to the Irgun fighting in Jerusalem, two-fifths to Irgun units in the Israel Defense Force (IDF) and the remainder to Palmach and Haganah brigades. After some wrangling and negotiations—and after Captain Fine had been told to steer to the cove 30 kilometers north of Tel Aviv—the Israeli government gave Begin its decision: no deal. The ship kept coming, however, while Irgun-terrorists-turned-Israeli-soldiers were dying and the battle for Jerusalem was being lost for want of sorely needed rifles and ammunition.
On the night of June 21, Altalena dropped anchor off Kfar Vitkin. On the beach, Irgun members were waiting in force. No matter what the cease-fire agreement said, they were determined to unload the ship. Two Palmach soldiers in a boat arrived and offered aid. Sympathizers from the nearby seaside resort town of Netanya swarmed down from the cliffs and onto the beach to help carry off the cargo. First came most of the 900 volunteers, who were hustled off to an army camp the moment they arrived. Then, throughout the night, the guns were unloaded and brought ashore.
By sunrise, more than one-third of the lighter cargo had been moved from the ship’s hold onto the beach—and then came the first hint of trouble. On the cliffs and on the beach, two Haganah regiments, complete with tanks and artillery, surrounded the Irgun, while at sea three Israeli corvettes stood waiting for orders. The Haganah officer in charge, Moshe Dayan, gave Begin 10 minutes to surrender. Protesting that he needed more time, Begin drove to Netanya to consult with government leaders. Meanwhile, the Irgun were held at bay on the beach and Altalena bobbed in the quiet sea, awaiting word of its fate, while a U.N. observation plane circled overhead and recorded this obvious violation of the cease-fire.
According to most authorities, the Israeli government was concerned about several aspects of the Irgun operation. First was its agreement to the cease-fire and the effect that violating it would have on world opinion. Second, Ben-Gurion was worried by what appeared to be a challenge to his authority by the terrorist group. If the Irgun was allowed to do as it pleased, he is quoted as saying, “We will have two countries—and two armies.” He refused to allow that breach in the authority of the newly formed state of Israel to occur.
Unable to reach an accord with Ben-Gurion, Begin returned to the beach and conferred with his officers. As evening descended, hours after Dayan’s surrender ultimatum had expired, the Palmach attacked. Immediately Begin fled in a rowboat to Altalena, under fire from the warships on the horizon. Captain Fine, braving the salvos striking the water, maneuvered his larger vessel to shield Begin until he could board. On the beach, two Haganah men were killed and six wounded before the Irgun gunmen were overrun and forced to surrender.
Altalena coursed southward, toward Tel Aviv. There, 100 meters from shore and within sight of journalists and U.N. officials on the terrace of the Keta Dan Hotel, the ship ran aground. On shore, sympathizers swarmed the beach, and Irgun units deserted the IDF to aid their comrades. According to rumors, the Irgun intended to offload the cargo and use its new arms to set up an independent state and directly challenge the Jewish Agency and Ben-Gurion’s authority. To thwart them, Ben-Gurion called an emergency meeting of his government and wrung from it the authority to take over the ship and stop the Irgun using whatever force was necessary. The order was issued: “Arrest Begin…and sink the ship.”
At Tel Aviv, under the eyes of the world’s press corps and the U.N. observers, the Palmach and Irgun faced off. Machine gun and rifle fire filled the air. The corvettes opened fire on Altalena. Whenever Begin was spotted on the bridge, the firing increased. Yigal Allon, the Palmach commander, brought up a cannon.
From the grounded ship, Begin appealed for a launch to carry off the wounded. Altalena’s boat had been too badly damaged during the attack. Allon refused. Soon Captain Fine tried to surrender, but a cannon shell hit the ship as the white flag was being raised. Seconds later another shell slammed the ship broadside, and it burst into flames. Irgun partisans on shore hurried in small pleasure craft taken from the beach to help whoever remained aboard to evacuate Altalena. Begin and Fine were among the last few to escape, the ship blowing up at their backs as they reached safety. With them, mortally wounded, was Abraham Stavsky, the veteran smuggler—this would be his last arms run.
At the German Templers’ colony of Sarona on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, Ben-Gurion met with his cabinet while Irgun and Palmach soldiers battled on the beach. Irgun units with the army outside Jerusalem deserted. They swarmed westward to Tel Aviv to aid their comrades in arms. Civil war amid Israel’s war for independence appeared imminent.
By the evening of June 22, a cease-fire had been arranged between the belligerents. The Palmach agreed to pull out, leaving the Irgun forces on the beach. Both sides had suffered casualties. Of the 14 dead, two were Cuban volunteers who had boarded Altalena just hours before it left France and had to beg Stavsky to let them join his expedition. Victorious now, Ben-Gurion sought to destroy what seemed to be an opposing army in his midst. Irgun army deserters were rounded up and placed under arrest, and remaining Irgun units within the IDF were disbanded, the men dispersed among other army regiments.
Menachem Begin, escaping to the hinterland, reached his clandestine radio station and announced to his fighters that civil war must be averted. He would not fight back and demanded an end to the fratricide. Instead he called for Irgun soldiers to leave the IDF and assemble in Jerusalem, where they would continue the fight for the Old City.
Meanwhile, Altalena’s flaming hulk sank, its arms, tanks and anti-aircraft guns spilling into the sea. Its demise remains a bitter reminder of a time when a new nation under external threat faced the internal challenge of a state within a state—and when two Jewish armies, loosely united against a common enemy, fought one another.
Originally published in the December 2006 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.