I don’t remember this piece of important history, but it’s worth celebrating.
Today in 1969, in one of the great military espionage tales of the 20th century, French officials discover that the berths that had been holding five embargoed Israeli missile boats are empty. The absence of any announcement about the embargo’s termination prompted media inquiries, which failed to elicit convincing explanations. “Where are they?” asked a banner headline in a local newspaper.
“The boats were indeed on the run. Battered by towering waves as they crossed the Bay of Biscay, they dropped anchor in a Portuguese cove alongside an Israeli freighter fitted out as a refueling ship, one of several support vessels deployed along the 5,150-km. escape route. When the boats entered the Mediterranean, British maritime monitors on Gibraltar signaled “What ship?” A Lloyd’s helicopter circled the silent vessels but saw no identity numbers or flags.
The British monitors, guessing the boats’ destination from the media reports, flashed “bon voyage” in salute to Nelsonian flair. Stung by Israel’s audacity, French defense minister Michel Debre called for the air force to interdict the vessels which had been spotted off the North African coast racing east. French Prime minister Jacques Chaban-Delmas refused. Near Crete, IAF Phantoms roared low overhead protectively and waggled their wings. The boats would sail into Haifa harbor on New Year’s Eve, 1970, to cheers for a bravado display of high-stakes hutzpa.
For Israel’s navy, however, the flight from Cherbourg was no lighthearted caper but a matter of life or death – its own. These missile boats were part of decade long development project designed to give Israel a naval capability that would help the Jewish state meet the nautical threat posed by its Arab neighbors who were being supplied by their Soviet and East Bloc patrons.