By Smoky Simon
The Altalena had been an American landing-craft (landing ship tank), which had been in action in World War II. The Irgun Zvai Leumi (Irgun) had acquired this vessel, and had mobilized 930 soldiers (a battalion of Irgun supporters) which also included some Machalniks from the U.S., Europe, England, and Cuba, and the hold of the ship was packed with 5,000 new Lee-Enfield rifles, 4 million rounds of ammunition, 300 Bren machine guns, 150 Spandaus, 50 Bazookas, 5 caterpillar-tracked armoured vehicles, and hundreds of aerial bombs, etc. Monro Fein was the Captain of the Altalena, Eliyahu Lankin was the Military Commander, and Yechiel Kadishai was responsible for passenger supervision. It was originally intended that the ship would sail from Port de Boud in France to Israel before the Declaration of the State of Israel on 14th May, 1948, but the ship was only ready to sail in the second week of June. The first ten-day truce (cease-fire), imposed by the United Nations in the War of Independence took effect on 10th June, but the ship’s crew was not aware of the truce. The ship had already left France on 11th June, but because of the truce the Irgun high command sent a message, “Don’t send the boat and await instructions”, and on the following day another message was sent, “Keep away”, but the boat was already at sea, and communication between shore and ship was very poor. The Irgun in Israel reported to the Haganah which was part of the Provisional Government of Israel that the Altalena with 930 fighting men and a lot of equipment was on its way to Israel, but because of the truce the Irgun asked the Haganah whether the boat should come to Tel Aviv, or should be diverted. The Haganah, through Yisrael Galili, directed that the boat should come as quickly as possible, but should be re-directed to Kfar Vitkin to avoid U.N. observance as there was a UN embargo on arms to the Middle East. A message was then sent by the Irgun to the boat, “Full steam ahead to Kfar Vitkin”, and the ship arrived at Kfar Vitkin on 21st June. Whilst a number of the Irgun battalions had already been integrated into the IDF under a 1st June Agreement, this was not the case in Jerusalem. The position in Jerusalem was desperate. Due to the siege of Jerusalem by the Arabs, the Haganah, Irgun, and Lechi were all fighting under extremely difficult conditions as there was a most serious shortage of arms, food, and water in the Old City. The Irgun troops were fighting with Sten guns and 3 inch mortars against the Arab Legion which was commanded by British officers and equipped with heavy guns, tanks, etc. Jewish boys aged 10 and 12 were carrying guns and ammunition from one post to another. Many fighters had been killed and wounded, and finally the Old City was lost to the enemy. With this background, the Irgun in its negotiations with the Haganah insisted that 20% of the arms on the Altalena should be allocated to the Irgun Forces in Jerusalem to which Galili finally agreed, but the agreement collapsed when Galili reneged on the arrangement and announced that 20% of the equipment would go to the Haganah Forces in Jerusalem instead of to the Irgun. Begin also proposed that the remainder of the weapons should be transferred to the Israel Defense Forces including the newly-incorporated Irgun battalions within the IDF, but this proposal was also rejected by the Government, “who interpreted the proposal as a demand to reinforce an army within an army”. Because the Agreement with the Government had collapsed, the Haganah refused to help with the unloading of the military equipment, and hatched a conspiracy plot that the Irgun was intending an armed revolt against the Government which was absolutely false. How could there have been a revolt? There were no Irgun forces in the area as they had been integrated into the Army, and the soldiers on board the Altalena had been sent to an immigrant camp in Netanya to rest and to enlist in the Army. Stevedores which had been mobilized were unloading the equipment, but there were no trucks for transporting the equipment. Whilst the unloading was underway, the Haganah commander Dan Even who commanded the Alexandroni Brigade, suddenly gave the Irgun a “10-minute ultimatum to surrender and hand-over all the weapons to the Israel Government”.
At that point in time they had unloaded 2,000 rifles, two million rounds of ammunition, 3,000 “Fiat” shells, 200 Bren machine guns, and this equipment was indeed a decisive factor in the war against the Arab Forces. Menachem Begin rejected the ultimatum and decided that the ship should leave Kfar Vitkin and head for Tel Aviv, so that he could negotiate with the command staff of the Haganah. The weapons that had been unloaded were handed over to the local IDF Commander, and made a major contribution to the prosecution of the war. Before the boat left Kfar Vitkin, Menachem Begin gathered the remaining Irgun volunteers and the ship’s crew to explain the position and to say goodbye, when suddenly the Haganah attacked the assembled people with machine guns and mortars, and six men of the Irgun were killed. The ship left immediately for Tel Aviv and arrived at midnight. Begin had hoped to negotiate with the Government and to unload the remaining weapons peacefully. When dawn came, the shore area was surrounded by soldiers, and two armed corvettes surrounded the Altalena. Begin sent a message that the ship would neither open fire nor return fire. The Altalena was grounded opposite the Kaete Dan Hotel, 700 yards from the shore, and was totally immobilized. Ben Gurion ordered Yigael Yadin, Army Chief of Staff, to take the ship by force, and on 22nd June, as the Irgun men started to unload the equipment, the Army started firing, and issued a statement that if the unloading was discontinued the firing from the shore would stop, and a boat would be sent from Tel Aviv Port to evacuate the wounded. At that stage there was not even a doctor on board the Altalena, and the boat to evacuate the wounded never arrived. Then the shelling started, and the fear was that if a shell should land in the hold of the ship which contained a vast amount of explosives, there would be a catastrophic explosion. Because of this imminent danger the ship raised a white flag which was disregarded by the troops on the shore, and the firing continued at the unarmed survivors. Then, one of the shells penetrated the belly of the ship, and a fire broke out. The captain of the ship, Monro Fein, immediately flooded the hold because of the risk that if the vessel should explode all on board would have been killed, and there would have been much damage to property on the shore. Irgun boys from Tel Aviv rushed to the rescue and the wounded were evacuated on makeshift rafts and in small boats. These boys risked their lives knowing that the ship might explode at any moment. Begin left the ship only after the last of the wounded had been evacuated.
Naturally, all the remaining supplies of arms and ammunition were destroyed, and the Altalena became the grave of a number of brave men who had come to fight for the State of Israel. In all, sixteen Irgun fighters were killed and forty were injured. Six fighters were killed at Kfar Vitkin, and ten on the Tel Aviv beach, which included three Machalniks – two from Cuba, Daniel Levi and David Mitrani, and one Machalnik from France, Chai Michel Assouid.
Notwithstanding this monstrous provocation by the Provisional Government and the Haganah, Menachem Begin swore an oath that under no circumstances would the Irgun raise arms against fellow-Jews. “A war between brothers, NEVER”. Begin subsequently claimed that this was the most important decision of his life. In order to cover up its shameful actions, the Provisional Government became more Catholic than the Pope, by claiming “that the Irgun had disregarded the truce, and that under international law the Government was compelled to destroy the arms”. This was an outrageous lie as the Government knew that the ship with its 930 fighters and equipment was coming to help Israel in its desperate plight, and at a time when Israel was under a complete arms embargo.
Eighteen years later, on the eve of the Six-Day War in June 1967, after Ben-Gurion had retired from political activity and Levi Eshkol was Prime Minister, Menachem Begin was part of a delegation which visited Sde Boker to ask David Ben-Gurion to accept the premiership once again. Following that meeting Ben-Gurion stated, “that if he had known Begin at the time of the Altalena episode as he knew him now, the face of history would have been different”.
The Connection between the Altalena Affair and Machal Reference has already been made to the three Machalniks who were killed by Haganah fire on the stricken Altalena ship. Two other Machalniks, Nathaniel (Nat) Cashman from London was killed in July 1948 in the Battle of Malcha, and Joseph
Cohen from the U.S. was killed in July in the Battle of the Old City of Jerusalem.
It should also be mentioned that after the Altalena had run aground on the beach at Tel Aviv, the IAF was put on standby to attack the ship if necessary. Machal aircrews informed Aluf Aharon Remez, Chief of Air Force, that they would refuse to carry out such an order as they had not volunteered from abroad to fight against fellow-Jews, and that the Chief of Air Force had two options – either to court martial those who refused his order, or to discharge them from the service, and happily the standby order was promptly rescinded.
To add to the drama of this episode, the fateful mortar which was fired from the shore and which set the Altalena alight was fired by a South African Machalnik, Hillel (Billy) Daleski. Billy, an expert artillery man who had served with the South African Defense Forces in World War II, was commanded by Yitzhak Rabin who was in command of the Government troops, to fire at the Altalena. When Billy refused the order, he was threatened with a court martial and so he fired the mortar. Ironically, the Altalena episode took place at the very time that Billy’s father, Joe Daleski, was the current Vice-Chairman of the South African Revisionist Party - the Jabotinsky Movement which was closely connected to the Irgun Zvai Leumi. As Billy said in an interview many years later, “If only the Altalena episode could be expunged from my memory for all time”.
Sources. This article is based on the following authoratitive sources -
Professor Lapidot, Menachem Begin's "The Revolt", Eliahu Lankin's "To
Win the Promised Land", Shmuel Katz's "Days of Fire". It was also
reviewed by Yechiel Kadishai, Menachem Begin's Chief of Bureau..
Yechiel Kadishai was on the Altalena in charge of personnel.
Prepared by Smoky Simon