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Israel Navy's First Warship  E-mail

The Former U.S. Coast Guard Cutter "Northland"

by Eddy Kaplansky

Northland

A few days after 2nd October 1947, when the British Royal Navy captured the Haganah ship “Jewish State” [Medinat Hayehudim] with her cargo of 2,664 Holocaust survivors, she was mothballed and secured to the breakwater in Haifa port. Moored near her were about 45 other Aliyah Bet ships, also captured as they tried to land Jewish refugees on the shores of Palestine in violation of Britain’s 1945 Emergency Regulations for Palestine. Until a few hours prior to her capture, she had been the “Northland,” the name given to her by the U.S. Coast Guard at her launching in 1927.

Some seven months later, in late April 1948, the nascent Israel Navy began preparing the former “Northland” and two other ex-Aliyah Bet ships, “Wedgwood” and “Haganah,” for military service. These two participated in

WW II as Royal Canadian Navy corvettes named “Beauharnois” and “Norsyd” respectively.

Being in better condition, and idle for less time that the corvettes, the “Northland” was the first to sail again. She left Haifa port on 21st May 1948 while the British were still there, and sailed to Tel Aviv to be armed. Commanding her on that historic occasion was Yosef Almog, and Abie Miretsky (later Miron) served as chief engineer. Both had served on the same ship in her Aliyah Bet days.

During the brief voyage to Tel Aviv, she became the Israel Navy Ship “Eilat A-16.” The wooden superstructure built on “Northland’s” aft deck about 10 months earlier in Bayonne, France, was no longer there. Its purpose had been to maximize her passenger carrying capacity.

While anchored off Tel Aviv, the “Eilat” received four Czech-made Besa machine guns, two Oerlikon Hispano-Suiza 20mm anti-aircraft guns and several Sten submachine guns. Thus armed, she began patrolling the new State of Israel’s lengthy coastline.

On June 4th she encountered three Egyptian Navy ships as they started shelling Tel Aviv. The trio consisted of a corvette, a converted freighter and a landing ship whose desk was crowded with Egyptian soldiers. The corvette opened fire and scored a few hits on the “Eilat,” but caused no casualties and only minimal damage. Finding herself outnumbered and outgunned, the “Eilat” called for air support.

An hour or so later, two single-engine Israel Air Force “bombers” appeared on the scene: a Beechcraft Bonanza with under-wing bomb racks, and a Fairchild F-24 carrying in its cabin a box of small bombs to be heaved out of the airplane manually. One of the bombs dropped by the Bonanza was seen to hit an enemy ship, but it caused little apparent damage. As the Fairchild began its attack, it was shot down by enemy anti-aircraft fire. Its pilot, David Shprinzak, and pilot Matityahu Sukenik, “bomb chucker” in the ill-fated mission, were killed.

The Egyptian ships abruptly broke off and headed for home, with the news that Israel now had a navy. It was soon learned that the Egyptians had intended to land an infantry unit south of Tel Aviv to establish a beachhead, which the main Egyptian army force, only about 25 miles away, would try to use for landing.

A few days after the sea battle, the Israel Navy's first , the former “Wedgwood,” sailed out of Haifa port to begin her Israel Navy career as “Hashomer K-18.” On July 1st, the day after the British departed, she and the “Eilat” re-entered Haifa port. Each had a 65mm cannon bolted to her deck. The “Eilat” sailed a few days later, with a full crew of 89 officers and men, after its main mast was taken down.

While lying at anchor off Tel Aviv on July 9th, the “Eilat” was strafed by an attacking Egyptian Spitfire whose guns killed Leif Nils Elwing, a non-Jewish volunteer from Sweden, and injured six other crew members. Thus it was that the Israel Navy suffered its first loss of life in combat.

On July 16th the “Eilat” and the “Hashomer” shelled enemy positions at Tira, south of Haifa, a combined operation that succeeded in re-opening the Haifa-Tel Aviv highway. Deadly gunfire from those positions, situated on a rise dominating the all-important road, had kept it closed for many weeks.

During the next two days, the “Eilat” and the “Hashomer” shelled Tzur (Tyre), in Lebanon, where a unit of Fawzi el Kaukji’s “Liberation Army” was then located. This was the last time ever that the “Eilat” fired her guns in anger.

The ex-Aliyah Bet ship “Haganah” was too late to participate in those actions; the ship had very recently joined the Israel Navy bearing the same name, with the addition of the designation A-20.

In late December 1948, the “Eilat” had an air-sea rescue role in “Operation Velvetta 1,” in which 11 Spitfires purchased from Czechoslovakia were ferried to Israel. The final leg of the operation entailed a non-stop five-and-a-half hour flight from Yugoslavia, an unprecedented feat for a Spitfire. Since most of the planned flight path was over the sea, and beyond gliding distance from land, the “Eilat” took up a position a few hundred miles into the Mediterranean on the Spitfires’ planned route, and stood ready to pluck from the sea any hapless pilot forced down by a possible emergency. Luckily, the Spitfires reached Israel without mishap – just in time to take part in the last aerial dogfights of the War of Independence.

Through the early 1950s, the “Eilat” served as a training ship for would-be naval officers, seamen and engine-room crew. In 1955 she became the mother ship of the Israel Navy’s fleet of motor torpedo boats. During the same year she was renamed “Matzpen” [compass], but retained the designation A-16. At the same time, the name “Eilat” was conferred on one of two destroyers purchased from Britain.

During the Sinai campaign of 1956, the former “Northland” acted as the supply ship of the torpedo boats which carried out various coast guard and intelligence-gathering assignments.

In her final years in the Israel Navy, the “Matzpen” spent much time tied up in Haifa port, sailing only to supply her torpedo boats, and at times for lengthy training voyages that carried her far into the Mediterranean.

In February 1962, the “Matzpen” was decommissioned and sold to a scrap firm in Italy for $50,000. It was exactly the same amount Weston Trading Co., fronting, for the Haganah, had paid to acquire her from the U.S. Maritime Commission some 15 years earlier.

Thus ended the three-phase illustrious career of a proud ship that was launched on May 7th 1927 at Newport News, Virginia, as the USCGC “Northland” (WPG-49).

Several items that were integral parts of the “Northland” throughout her three lives are on permanent exhibit at the Israel Navy and Clandestine Immigration Museum in Haifa. There one can see her original wheel, the transmitter-receive radio of WW II vintage, one of her lifeboats, and the spare propeller that seemed permanently lashed to her aft deck.

The above article is based on the recollections of retired Sgan Aluf [equivalent to USN Commander] Yosef Almog, in a discussion the author had with Abie Miron prior to his untimely death some years ago, and on literature about the Israel Navy and Clandestine Immigration Museum.

 

Link to British Intelligence Report on Arrival of the “Northland”

Source: American Veterans of Israel Newsletter, Fall 2003