Rekhesh & The Arms Ships

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"Rekhesh" (translation: procurement) – the "code" name for obtaining arms, by any way or means, during the period of Israel’s struggle for independence –  was a critical top priority national goal. Attest to its importance is the fact that Ben-Gurion devoted a lot of his time to rekhesh issues, as reflected in his “War Diary”. The Rekhesh Unit of the Haganah, which transferred to the IDF upon the establishment of the state, was responsible for the rekhesh activities. The unit and the network of other entities and individuals that assisted it in “getting-the-job-done”, in Israel and especially abroad, are commonly referred to as the 'rekhesh organization' (“ma’arekhet ha’rekhesh” in Hebrew). The sum of their activities is referred to as “The Rekhesh Enterprise” (“Mif’al Ha’Rekhesh” in Hebrew; the word ‘mif’al’ typically stands for ‘factory’, but here it is used to designate the rekhesh as a national enterprise). The vast majority of the rekhesh was purchased abroad and transferred to Israel -- a fact that presented the rekhesh organization with a double challenge: the challenge of purchasing the arms and the challenge of transferring it to Israel; In many cases, the transfer of arms to Israel was by far more complex and complicated task than the task of purchasing the arms.

The main obstacles to rekhesh were British control of the country until the establishment of the state (both in the sense that the British did not allow the import of arms into the country and in the sense that international arms deals could only be legally signed between sovereign states), a weapons embargo imposed by the USA in mid-December 1947 on the export of weapons to the conflict region (the USA, for its huge and cheap stockpile of WW-II surplus weapons, was the natural candidate for armament for the Hgahah/IDF), and a UN arms embargo began on May 29, 1948, that both the United Kingdom and the USA acted vigorously to enforce worldwide. There was also the concern that the Arabs would try to sabotage, by political and/or military means, the procurement of arms and/or its transfer to Israel. For all these reasons, the rekhesh took place in utter secrecy, by smuggling arms out their countries of origin and/or bringing it into Israel by stealth and deception, using various means to camouflage the activities such as using straw companies, intermediating countries, concealed shipments, etc.

The scope of arms smuggling into the country during the post-WW-2 period until the outbreak of the War of Independence (end of Nov. 1947) was relatively small, compared to the massive smuggling during the war. Haganah members who were recruits in the British Army, from the Jewish Brigade and various transportation units that arrived in Italy in 1944, collected weapons for the organization in the battlefields. These weapons made their way to a central secret location named “Base A”, located in a large farm in the vicinity of the city of Magente, Italy. Weapons stolen from the British Army in Belgium during the dismantling of the Jewish Brigade also found their way through France to Base A. In Base A the weapons were concealed in cargo and shipped to Israel via merchant marine ships that frequented the ports of Haifa and Tel Aviv (it should be noted that Aliya Bet vessels were not used to transfer arms - the Haganah maintained a complete separation between clandestine immigration and rekhesh activities). During this period, Haganah members in the British Army also smuggled arms from the Western Desert to Israel (via land routes, except for a single sea shipment from Benghazi, Libya).

In parallel, the clandestine mission of the Haganah to the USA, established in late 1945, directed the rekhesh activities there with the help (finance and connections) of a secret organization called the "Sonneborn Institute" – a group of Jewish millionaires that Ben Gurion assembled during his visit to the USA in July of 1945. The emphasis in rekhesh activities in the USA in the years 1946-47 was on machinery and raw materials for IMI (Israel Military Industries, Ta’as in Hebrew). Thanks to this equipment, which was smuggled into Israel under the guise of textile production equipment, IMI was able to establish and expand its 12 factories that provided a significant amount of self-made weapons for the Haganah/IDF during the Independence War. Also during 1946-47, a number of former military ships were purchased in the USA; although originally intended for Aliyah Bet, after the establishment of the state the initial fleet of the Israeli Navy was based on them.

At the end of 1946, David Ben-Gurion took over the office of Defense in the Jewish Agency, and soon realized that the weapon arsenal in the hands of the Hagana would not suffice to stand against the armies of the neighboring Arab nations which were expected to invade once independence is declared. Even prior to the historic U.N. resolution of the 29th of November 1947, B.G. sent out three prominent leaders of the Hagana abroad: Yehuda Arazi, Ehud Avriel and Meir "Munya" Mardor, to procure and transport arms for the future State. Soon after the historic UN Resolution, The Procurement Enterprise picked up speed and volume, becoming the most crucial element for the survival of the Yishuv (the Jewish community in Eretz Israel/Palestine), in anticipation of an eventual end to the British Mandate and an all-out war with the neighboring Arab countries. The appointment in March 1948 of Shaul (Meirov) Avigur – who had managed Aliya Bet to that point – as head of arms procurement in Europe reflected the importance attributed to this activity.

The main obstacles facing arms procurement were the British control in Eretz Israel/Palestine until May 1948; the Embargo on military equipment and arms imposed by both the USA and British governments, on supplying arms to either of the fighting sides; and the arms Embargo imposed by the United Nations following the Declaration of the State of Israel. There was also a certain concern that arms transport en-route Israel would be intercepted by the Arabs, particularly by the Egyptian Navy. Arms procurement required carefully planned clandestine operation, smuggling it out of the country of origin and masking its real destination, using fictitious foreign firms and/or third party countries.

In mid-May 1948, the USA State Department, which viewed American interests in cooperating with Britain and the Arab world, managed to pull back the USA support for the 29 November 1947 UN resolution, replacing it with a call to a temporary UN trusteeship. “The weapons are on their way” – a declaration made by Ben-Gurion on the 12 May 1948 assembly of the ‘People-Council’ (Israel's Provisional Government, prior to the declaration of statehood), was no doubt the deciding factor due to which the Assembly voted to declare the State on the 15th, thus rejecting the heavy American pressure not to do so (once  declared, it was to President Trumann’s credit that he recognized the State of Israel within minutes after the declaration, ignoring the view of many in his own administration).

In the struggle for Independence, the state-to-be enjoyed the support of an important ally, the Soviet Union. The expression of this support was clearly evident from the surprisingly pro-Zionist speech by Andre Gromyko – the Soviet delegate to the UN – at the UN in mid-May 1947; its enthusiastic support of the 29 November 1947 UN resolution; its acceptance of a the immigration of Jews from the USSR and Eastern Europe to Eretz Israel, via Aliya Bet and in the huge wave of Aliya following the declaration of Statehood (most immigrants in this wave came from Eastern Europe, and their contribution in manpower to the IDF is considered a crucial factor in Israel’s victory of 1948; click here for details about GACHAL – the recruitment from abroad); and last but not least, their ‘Green Light’ of approval to the arms deals with Czechoslovakia, which saved the new State from a disastrous defeat (click here for the details). The USSR support was the result of several factors: a wish to disrupt British interests in the region; hope that the new-born State would be pro-Soviet, thus alienating the US from Israel (indeed, officials in the US government were certain that the arms deals with Czechoslovakia were hinged on agreements between Israel and the USSR); as well as generating income for the recuperation economies of the Eastern European countries.

The main source of the arms was Czechoslovakia, with Yugoslavia playing an essential role in facilitating their transfer to Israel, by allowing vessels and planes to use its port in Shibennik (today in Croatia), as well as two airports in its territory, as transport stations en-route. Other significant sources for illegal arms were Italy, France, Switzerland, Britain and the USA. The French also allowed, up to a certain point, the use of the Ajaccio airport (in Corsica).

Riffles and machine guns are loaded on the Maestralle in Shibennik port, Yoguslavia

Most of the funding for the arms deals came from donations by American Jews. In contrast to this support, the American government passed in early Dec. 1947 a Neutrality Act, prohibiting sale of any military equipment to any of the fighting sides in the Middle East, and started to strictly chase violators of the act within and outside the US. The US Government also applied significant pressure on other countries, not to break the UN Embargo. For example, in August 1948, Czechoslovakia had to stop, under heavy pressure from the US, all Israeli-bound activity at the ‘Etzion’ airbase in Zatec, Czechoslovakia (this airbase was a central base for Operation Balak – the air-lift of arms from Czechoslovakia to Israel – as well as an important junction in smuggling planes from all over the globe to Israel). Despite the Neutrality Act, smuggling of a great deal of military equipment from the US to Israel continued, and several operators were caught, prosecuted and punished (click here for details). Most of the arms and equipment for the Military Industry smuggled out of the US made its way to Israel camouflaged as innocent civilian cargo in commercial vessels (e.g., five Mustang planes, dismantled, were smuggled in crates declared to have carried combine tractors; two of them carried out military missions during the Independence War).

A well known story in the history of The Procurement Enterprise is that of 10 cargo planes, all but one C-46 Commandos, and three B-17 ("Flying Fortress") bombers, that were smuggled out of the USA and eventually reached Israel (more planes were acquired, but they failed to either leave the USA or reach Israel). The cargo planes, operating under the guise of LAPSA (Panama’s National Airline) airplanes until September of 1948, played a crucial role in the airlift of weapons from Czechoslovakia to Israel (Operation Balak), and later, in military cargo flights within Israel, they airlifted supplies to the besieged Negev area during Operation Avak (Dust) and carried out air bombardment missions in Operation Yoav to free Beer-Sheba and drive the Egyptian army out of the Negev.

The ships which carried the weapons to Israel and were owned by or leased to (directly or indirectly) the Procurement System, made over 50 voyages to Israel during the War for Independence, carrying over 35,000 tons of arms, including cannons, tanks and airplanes. The experience, infrastructure and connections established in Aliya Bet provided a solid base for developing the maritime infrastructure of The Procurement Enterprise. The ships were escorted on their voyages by Palyam sea-men and “Gideonim” (radio operators), veterans of Aliya Bet. By definition, they represented the interests of the cargo owners, and their key role was to assure the foreign ship captains would operate according to the directives of the Procurement System.

David Ben-Gurion assessed The Procurement Enterprise, in a radio broadcast in 1968, commemorating 20 years to the historic arrival of the ship Nora to Tel Aviv with weapons from Czechoslovakia:

"Without these arms we would have all been massacred".

Ben-Gurion played a central and personal role in managing The Procurement Enterprise, and his words well reflect the enterprise's general success. However, the Procurement System  has been criticized of several organizational snafus, the result of ego conflicts, which caused delays in arms reaching the fighters at the front. A reference to this criticism can be found in the article about the arms ship Nora; we have concluded that the ship could have arrived a month earlier than it actually did (click here the details).

While most of the arms cargo made its way by sea, transporting some of it by air had a crucial importance, due to time pressure and immediate need. Arms transported by air included what was air lifted from Czechoslovakia in Operation Balak, as well as numerous airplanes which made their way to Israel by flying on their own: the cargo planes and bombers which had been smuggled out of the USA, some of the Spitfires purchased in Czechoslovakia and flown to Israel in Operation Velveeta I & II, some of the 20 Norsman light cargo planes purchased in Germany, the planes that Emanuel Zur smuggled out of Britain (Dragon Rapid,  Miles Aerovan, Mosquito and Bristol Beaufighter bombers), and the Dakotas and other planes purchased by Boris Senior in South Africa.

The incredible contribution of MACHAL volunteers from the USA to the procurement of airplanes won a great deal of publicity. The part of MACHAL volunteers in the maritime transport of arms is less known; it is described here in the article: Smuggling Arms from USA and Mexico – the Story of Dromit (click here).

The story of The Procurement Enterprise wouldn't be complete without including in it the stories of The Pirate Operation, in which arms destined for the Arabs was seized on the high seas and subsequently put to use by the I.D.F. to fight the Arab forces during the War of Independence (click here for details), and the tragic story of The Altalena Affair.

Written by Tzvi Ben-tzur
English translation: Nava Goren & Tzvi Ben-tzur

The Arms Ships

באתר מפורסמים סיפורים אישיים רבים; אין למערכת האתר אפשרות לאמת את כל פרטיהם ולכן הכתוב בהם באחריות בלעדית של כותביהם.

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