The Birth of the Israeli Navy

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On 17th March 1948 an order was issued proclaiming the establishment of the “Naval Service” – the naval fighting force of the State of Israel which was still in the process of creation. The order declared that this force was to be based first and foremost upon the naval force of the Palmach (namely the Palyam) and that the whole unit was to be transferred from the general staff of the Palmach to the general staff of the army. This order met with many difficulties in its realization, not the least of which was the fact that more than half of the Palyam’s manpower was directed to the Battle of Jerusalem, within the framework of “Operation Nachshon”. This was at the same time that mobilization of seamen for service in the navy began. Once “Operation Nachshon” was over, and after the fighters became free to join, the Palyamniks comprised the majority of the newly-established navy’s recruits. The [Haifa] Port Company -- a special company of the Palmach's 4th Battalion, commanded by the Palyamnik Yochai Ben-Nun, that was established at the end of 1947 to protect the Jewish interests in the port and the port's civilian Jewish workers from Arab attacks  --  participated in the battle to free Haifa and when that was over, on 23rd April 1948, its men joined as well to form the navy’s Haifa Naval Base.

When the State came officially into being, the Naval Service received its first combat ships from the “shadow fleet” - the Aliya Bet vessels that were confiscated by the British and tied up in the port of Haifa along the wave breaker. The first three vessels that were converted to use in the navy were the icebreaker “A-16”, formerly Aliya Bet ship “The Jewish State”, and the two sister corvettes “K-18” and “K-20”, formally Aliya Bet ships “Wedgwood” and “Hagana” respectively.

Two small units whose roots were in the Palyam’s Ha’Chulya (the unit that specialized in underwater sabotage operations) were also added to the navy – underwater sabotage under the command of Yossale Dror, and the explosive speedboats unit (deployment of boats loaded with explosives; the boat operator had to direct it at the enemy ship and jump off at the last minute to save himself) under the command of Yochai Ben-Nun. These units were united into one on January 1st, 1950, and became the famous “Shayetet 13” - the Israeli Naval Commando (Navy Seals; the number '13' is traced to the Palyamniks' tradition to drink a glass on the 13th of each month).

During the War of Independence the Naval Service succeeded in removing the threat of the Egyptian Navy from the shores of the country and even in sinking the Egyptian flagship by explosive speedboats. Towards the end of 1948 the Naval Service was renamed The Israeli Navy, and instead of it being directly responsible to the Ministry of Defense, the Commander of the Israeli Navy became responsible to the Chief of Staff of the IDF (Tzahal). During the first 25 years of the navy’s existence, five of its commanders were Palyam veterans.

Special mention should be made of the special place of the professional sailors of the MACHAL (acronym for ‘volunteers from the Diaspora’) who volunteered and joined the navy when it was in the process of organization and contributed a great deal from their knowledge and experience. Foremost among these men was Paul Shulman (Shaul Ben-Tzvi), the first Commander of the Navy.

Written by Tzvi Ben-tzur

from the shadow fleet to the Israeli Navy
From the "shadow fleet" to the Israeli Navy

The explosive speedboats
The explosive speedboats
From The Palyam To The Israeli Navy

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