The Destroyer's Last Secret

Just hours before the Israel Navy destroyer Eilat was sunk by Egyptian missiles in October 1967, Military Intelligence picked up reports indicating Egypt's intention to carry out a maritime attack. Why didn't the reports reach Yitzhak Shoshan, the commander of the Eilat, in time to save his ship and his men?

Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman
Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman

This is the last battle of Commander (res.) Yitzhak Shoshan. Shoshan, whose rank is the equivalent of a lieutenant colonel in the ground forces, was the commanding officer on the Israel Navy destroyer Eilat when it was sunk off the coast of Port Said, Egypt, in October 1967. Almost 38 years later, he has still not left the trauma behind. The anguish of the bereaved families continue to oppress his conscience. A relentless inner voice urges him repeatedly not to give up: to keep on investigating until the truth is revealed. Twelve years ago, he published a book, "The Last Battle of the Destroyer Eilat," but still the wound refuses to heal. Now, at the age of 75, he has decided to make public the last and greatest secret remaining from the affair: the story of the intelligence failure that preceded the sinking, and the ongoing efforts of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), to this day, to hide the secret.

Shoshan was wounded in the attack, in which 47 of the destroyer's men were killed and about 100 wounded. In the years since then he tried to expose the intelligence blunder, but encountered impassable obstacles. A few years ago, when he obtained concrete evidence, he pondered the matter long and hard and finally decided not to make it public, for fear of the impact on the bereaved families.

"I didn't want the families to understand that the tragedy could have been averted. I was afraid that they would feel their sons had died in vain," he says angrily. Now, however, with only one bereaved father still alive, he has decided to act. "I believe with all my heart that if the intelligence information that was in the hands of Military Intelligence before the attack had been transmitted to me, the disaster could have been prevented," he says.

Shoshan imputes responsibility for the blunder to the IDF's central listening unit, which is under the responsibility of Military Intelligence (MI) and is known today as Unit 8200, though at the time it was called Unit 515; and to David Leviatan, who was then an officer with the rank of captain in the unit. A few years ago, Shoshan tracked Leviatan down and tried to talk to him. Leviatan refused, saying he did not have the authorization of the director of MI to talk about the episode. Leviatan told Haaretz the same thing last week: "I am unable to talk about subjects which at the time were top secret, because I signed a confidentiality declaration," he said in his initial reaction. "I will do so only if I receive a written directive from the director of MI."

Haaretz, through the IDF Spokesperson's Office, asked the director of MI, Major General Aharon Farkash Ze'evi, a former commander of Unit 8200 himself, to permit the perusal of documents related to the sinking of the Eilat and to state that he has no objections to Leviatan talking about the case and making clear his position. The request was turned down.

The Eilat was a British-made destroyer. It was built in 1942 and launched in 1944, and took part in battles during World War II when it escorted supply convoys in the arctic. In 1955 the British government agreed to sell Israel, secretly, two destroyers of the same class. One was the Eilat, the other, Yaffo (Jaffa). The price of each was 35,000 pounds. The destroyers were overhauled and adapted for Israeli use in British shipyards and were placed in operational service in the Israel Navy. Shortly after the Eilat reached Haifa port, the destroyer saw action in the Sinai campaign, in the battle to capture the Egyptian destroyer Ibrahim al-Awal, whose name was afterward changed to Haifa. Eilat's logbook also recorded a 1959 voyage to Cyprus to assist victims of an earthquake there and take part in the shooting of the film "Exodus," starring Paul Newman.

In the 1967 Six-Day War, the Israel Navy, under the command of Rear Admiral Shlomo Erel, was meager in the extreme; it failed in every mission assigned to it. Fighters of the Naval Commando (Shayetet 13) and other naval forces sent to attack three ports in Syria failed to execute their missions. Another naval command force succeeded in infiltrating the harbor of Port Said but was unable to locate its designated targets. Yet another raid by the Naval Commando unit, this time in the harbor of Alexandria, ended in abject failure, with six of the commandos taken prisoner. The navy's only achievement in the war - and it, too, was a dubious one - was when a force of three torpedo boats under the command of Avraham (Cheeta) Botzer, the navy's deputy commander, sailed from Eilat via the Straits of Tiran and seized control of Sharm el-Sheikh, in southern Sinai, without a battle. After the conquest of Sinai in the war, with hundreds of kilometers of additional shoreline under Israeli control, the navy's missions were expanded. However, it had few vessels at its disposal: three submarines, three destroyers and three torpedo boats.

The Eilat was assigned to patrol opposite the shores of Northern Sinai, along a route that began at the port of Ashdod, continued opposite El Arish and ended at Port Said at the entrance to the Suez Canal. "The mission," Shoshan says, "was totally superfluous. It was intended to demonstrate presence, to show who was the boss." Shlomo Erel, a longtime opponent of Shoshan, believes the mission was important, being intended, among other goals, to block penetrations by Egyptian vessels into the area controlled by Israel and to prevent infiltrations by Egyptian intelligence personnel and smugglers.

In the `Bathtub Corps'

Shoshan was born Yitzhak Blatt in 1930 in Belgium to parents of Polish origin. Together with his parents, he survived the Holocaust. His parents joined the anti-fascist underground and he was sent to a boarding school for children of prisoners in Belgium. After the war he joined the Zionist youth movement Gordonia and in 1946 sailed for Palestine on a ship carrying illegal immigrants that was intercepted by the Royal Navy. He was released after a month's detention at Atlit camp and joined the group that founded Kibbutz Ramat David, afterward moving to a labor group in Hadera. He volunteered for the naval unit of the Palmach (pre-state commandos) and then became one of the first to join the fledgling Israel Navy, graduating from its second officers' course. In 1950 he was sent, along with forty other soldiers, to study at the French naval academy. It was then that his name was Hebraicized to Shoshan ("lily"), by an escort officer who did not bother asking for his consent.

After returning from France, in 1953, Yitzhak Shoshan served for 13 years in command, staff and training posts in the navy. His expertise lay in "DNC" - detection, navigation and communication - and in 1961 he was appointed head of the DNC section in the navy. In this period the Soviet Union sold Egypt rapid missile boats of the Kumar and Ossa class, equipped with Styx missiles, which had a range of 40 kilometers. The navy planned to acquire missile boats of its own, hoping they would be based on the German Jaguar class and built in German shipyards. (However, when the plan was reported in the international media, Germany retracted its agreement. Israel was forced to order the boats from France, which afterward also refused to hand them over, and they were smuggled to Israel in 1968 in the so-called "Cherbourg boats operation.")

In the meantime, in order to reduce the quality gap in the maritime sector, the navy sought solutions in the sphere of electronic warfare and tried to develop electronic means of obstruction that would deflect enemy missiles from their course. Responsibility for developing the methods was assigned to the DNC section, and thus Shoshan met Captain Tzemach Herut, an electronics engineer, who was loaned to the team that was developing the Gabriel sea-to-sea missile.

Shoshan and Herut, who would later be awarded several prizes for his contribution to Israeli security, tried to interest the navy and the General Staff in ideas for the development of electronic warfare measures. They proposed the development of an illumination rocket that would be launched from the vessel and spread chaff in the air to attract the missile. Thus, instead of homing in on the boat, the enemy missile would pursue the rocket. Shoshan drew the idea from a professional journal which described how the Allies had used similar measures in World War II. However, the two were unable to persuade their superiors to proceed with the idea. The small, under-equipped navy and the General Staff viewed them as dreamers. It was not until some years later that two systems of electronic warfare, called Amnon and Avshalom (Absalom) were developed, which contributed greatly to the navy's success in sinking Syrian and Egyptian missile boats in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

The only success enjoyed by Shoshan and Herut at that time was the development of a system known as Bat Kol, a receiver designed to identify radar emissions of enemy vessels and missiles and to provide information and data about their direction. This system was installed in the Eilat.

In July of 1966, Shoshan was appointed commanding officer of the Eilat, which had a crew of between 150 and 200. In the Six-Day War the destroyer patrolled the Israeli coastline, from Rosh Hanikra in the north to Bat Yam in the center. Shoshan described his sense of frustration in his book: "The navy has been in existence for 19 years, 19 years in which we readied ourselves for the test - and when it comes we do nothing." The general contempt for the navy's perceived impotence was summed up in the derogatory term "Bathtub Corps," which was often heard in the IDF and among the public.

The Egyptians seek revenge

The navy was eager to enhance its image, share in the glory of victory and be part of the euphoria that seized the country after the Six-Day War. A month after the war, at about midnight on July 11, 1967, during a patrol off the coast of Northern Sinai, the Eilat (along with two torpedo boats) was involved in a serious and controversial incident. The Israeli force identified an Egyptian naval force that was cruising in international waters and sank two Egyptian torpedo boats. There were no survivors. With this act, Israel violated the cease-fire. Shoshan says in his book that toward the end of June, Rear Admiral Erel had issued two different mission orders. The written order stated innocently that the Eilat and two torpedo boats were to patrol along the boundary of the sovereign waters near Port Said. But in an oral briefing, Erel had given an order to destroy every vessel found near the port city.

In his book, and in an interview with Haaretz, Shoshan states that Erel made it clear that "the purpose of the operation was to raise the morale of the navy's sailors and officers." According to Shoshan, "From the way the order was given, it appears to have been a private initiative of the navy commander." Shlomo Erel says in reaction that he issued "no order to destroy vessels. On the contrary, the order was to break off contact. Shoshan was simply gung-ho." At the same time, Erel admitted in a 1998 book he published, "Even though the event raised the spirit of the navy - a feeling that also affected me to some extent - I had mixed feelings. It was an easy victory which, like the victory over the destroyer `Ibrahim al-Awal' in the Sinai War, did not justify excessive boasting."

Immediately after the incident, Erel sent Shoshan a congratulatory cable. "Good work," he wrote. When the Eilat returned to Ashdod, Erel asked Shoshan to describe the event in a press conference as though it occurred on a "routine patrol" and to hide the fact that it had been an ambush planned to the last detail. The chief of staff, Yitzhak Rabin, was surprised at the incident, while the defense minister, Moshe Dayan, asked no questions but requested only that his congratulations be conveyed to the victorious force. Despite the many puzzling aspects of the event, the different versions and the contradictory orders, neither the navy nor the General Staff established commissions to investigate it.

The incident off the Northern Sinai coast - with its preparations, contradictory orders and absence of a proper debriefing or drawing of lessons - was an omen. It should have been clear to every sensible person that the Egyptians would seek revenge. But the feeling of achievement heightened complacency in the navy. The navy's command level, displaying conceptual atrophy, ordered its large, ponderous destroyers to continue patrolling along the coast, instead of assigning the mission to the small, agile torpedo boats.

Cables? What cables?

On Saturday, October 12, 1967, the Eilat, on routine patrol, was ambushed by Egyptian missile boats. The day before the destroyer left port, Shoshan was told by the deputy commander of the navy, Avraham Botzer, that according to intelligence reports the Egyptians had discovered the patrols and knew about the presence of the Israeli destroyer "under their noses" at the edge of their territorial waters. At 7 P.M., Shoshan wrote in his book, "visibility was still excellent. The houses of Port Said could be clearly seen on the horizon. We stood there, gazing at the sea, wanting to absorb the beauty and calm of the scene, when suddenly there was a report of a rocket from the direction of Port Said." The observer on the deck of the Eilat apparently did not understand what he was looking at. It was not a rocket, it was a Styx missile, the first of four that slammed into the destroyer. The Eilat's gunners managed to fire at it, but it was too late. "I stood there transfixed, watching the missile," Shoshan wrote.

Of the 200 crew members and cadets aboard, 47 were killed and 100 wounded, including Shoshan. Some of the victims died because the rescue operation mounted by the navy and the air force was so slow. The casualties were evacuated to Soroka Medical Center in Be'er Sheva.

Two examining officers were appointed to investigate the disaster. The navy's internal investigation, led by Commander Hadar Kimhi (afterward the commander-in-chief of the navy), who was appointed by Erel, was intended to examine the functioning of the Bat Kol radar detection system and its activation by the crew. According to Erel, the investigation found, on the basis of testimonies by the system's operators on the destroyer, that signals were discovered "which should have acted as an alert. But Shoshan took no interest in the system."

Shoshan, in contrast, says that Kimhi noted explicitly in the report that he had absolutely no understanding of electronics. "It was a sloppily written report, and I learned from the navy's history branch that Kimhi did not even talk to two of the three operators." Nor was Shoshan himself interrogated by Kimhi. "If he had questioned me," Shoshan says, "I would have told him that during every hour of the patrol we received and recorded dozens of different radar emissions. I personally spent many hours in the Bat Kol chamber in an attempt to identify, with the help of the intelligence identification booklet, the type of radar in question and the type of vessel on which the radar was installed."

Shoshan learned about the existence of the report 20 years late, after its contents were leaked to Haaretz in 1987. Erel reveals that in the second half of the 1980s, when he was comptroller of the defense establishment, he conveyed the original report to the chief of staff, Lieutenant General Dan Shomron. "I told him that I didn't want the report to go down into the grave with me without anyone knowing about it."

It was also from an old newspaper clipping that Shoshan learned about the second - and more important - report. Not until the end of 1968, after Botzer had succeeded Erel as commander-in-chief of the navy, did he allow Shoshan to read the report compiled by Major General Haim Bar-Lev, the deputy chief of staff. Shoshan believes that Bar-Lev's report is also superficial. He himself was not asked to testify. Bar-Lev made do with a brief visit to his bedside in the hospital, when Shoshan was in a daze from the morphine he was being given to ease the pain caused by a fractured spine.

The interesting part of Bar-Lev's report is about the serious intelligence blunder. The IDF, and especially MI, continue to try to hide that failure to this day. That is apparently why the director of MI and the Information Security Department (formerly Field Security) refuse to allow Haaretz to see the report and accompanying documents. That is also the consideration behind their refusal to allow former MI officers, notably David Leviatan, to be interviewed for this article.

Shoshan says that as early as the day after the attack, when he was hospitalized in the Orthopedic Department at Soroka, he felt that something was being kept from him. "I awoke to the sound of the military boots of a number of people," he relates. "I stretched my head and saw three figures standing by my bed." One of them was Major General Yeshayahu Gavish, the chief of Southern Command. "`Tell me,' he said, `didn't you get the two cables that were picked up yesterday from Port Said?' What cables, I asked, surprised." When they saw the look of amazement on the face of the commanding officer of the Eilat, Gavish and his escorts realized they had said something they should have kept to themselves. An embarrassing silence ensued, and they immediately changed the subject.

Seven bits of information

Since then Shoshan has waged a battle to uncover the essence of the intelligence foul-up. He was helped by Tzemach Herut, who suggested that he meet with Yoel Ben Porat, who at the time of the Eilat incident was head of Deciphering Intelligence in Unit 515 and was commander of the unit in the Yom Kippur War. Unit 515 was a small outfit compared to the large and prestigious Unit 8200 of today. It had two main sections: Sigint (signal intelligence), which tried to pick up messages of enemy armies, and Deciphering Intelligence, whose personnel had the task of trying to understand what was being said in the messages. If they failed, the message was sent for more thorough deciphering. Shoshan was assisted in his investigation by a number of soldiers in Unit 515 whose conscience bothered them. A few years ago, one of them waited for him in the cemetery after the memorial ceremony for those who died in the Eilat incident. He told Shoshan, "It is an open secret in the unit that there was great negligence - vital intelligence information that was picked up was not transmitted to the navy."

Later on, Shoshan received two telephone calls from soldiers who told him more or less the same version. Shoshan added one piece of information to the next and the result now makes it possible for him to grasp the dimensions of the blunder. His inquiry, together with an inquiry carried out by Haaretz, turns up the following picture:

On the day the destroyer was sunk, MI succeeded in acquiring two pieces of information that in retrospect indicated clearly that the Egyptians intended to carry out a maritime operation against Israel. One report disclosed that a state of alert had been declared in the artillery units on the Egyptian coast near Port Said, while the other indicated that an Egyptian helicopter had discovered the Eilat. However, the two most important items arrived between two and three hours before the missiles were launched. One was an order stating that firing from the harbor of Port Said was prohibited, but that authorization existed for firing outside the port. The second item was a directive declaring a high alert in all the Egyptian naval forces in the Port Said sector.

In his inquiry, Bar-Lev discovered that there was a breakdown of communications between Unit 515 and Department Yam-4, naval intelligence. The personnel from Unit 515 told the Bar-Lev commission that the secure teleprinter that connected them to naval intelligence had broken down and therefore they could not transmit the information. However, they insisted that they had made the information known by telephone to the duty officer of naval intelligence. The latter claimed that the information did not reach him. Bar-Lev was unable to decide between the two versions. As a compromise and way out, he stated that he could not say for certain, but that he had been impressed by the credibility of the naval officer and therefore he recommended that that the MI officers be placed on disciplinary trial for not ascertaining that the information in fact reached its destination.

Rashomon in Unit 515

The officer who faced a disciplinary hearing was David Leviatan.

Born in 1944 and raised in Ramat Gan, Leviatan acquired his knowledge of Arabic at home and expanded it by taking the Middle Eastern track in high school. Prof. Itamar Rabinovich, a former ambassador to the United States and current president of Tel Aviv University, was in Leviatan's graduating class. In 1963, Leviatan was drafted in the officer candidate academic studies program and sent to the Middle Eastern Studies Department of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In addition to Rabinovich, who served in the research division of MI, another schoolmate and army mate was Brigadier General (res.) Ephraim Lapid, who like Leviatan was an Intelligence Network officer. Lapid subsequently served as chief of Sigint, head of the collection department in MI, IDF spokesperson and commander of Army Radio.

At the time of the Eilat sinking, Lapid was head of the reporting section at Unit 515. He, too, like Leviatan, refused to comment on the intelligence failure. His section at the time consisted of five officers in compulsory service whose task was to transmit the information that was picked up and deciphered by the unit to the "consumers" - IDF units and the other intelligence agencies (the Mossad, Shin Bet and Nativ). The reporting unit was known as "Shofar" ("trumpet") in the unit. Because of the small number of officers in Shofar, the section was beefed up with professional officers from other departments in the unit. Thus it happened that on Saturday, October 12, 1967, Captain Leviatan was the duty officer in Shofar.

There are several accounts of what happened to the information, and there is no way of deciding which is correct. "It's a kind of Rashomon," says a former officer in the unit. One version, the one that was given to Bar-Lev, is that the Shofar personnel transmitted the information to Navy intelligence in a telephone conversation. Navy intelligence maintains that it did not receive any such information. Shoshan heard from his sources in Unit 515 that Leviatan spent part of the time in his room on the base and not in the office where the cables piled up.

Shlomo Erel, the navy's commander at the time, heard that the information was not transmitted because the responsible officers in Unit 515 "went to eat." Another version, which is based on interviews conducted by Haaretz with former officers in the unit, is that the cable with the information simply fell on the floor and Leviatan didn't know of its existence. Yet another explanation, which is also being talked about in Unit 515, is that the message that was intercepted was transmitted in Egyptian code and it had been deciphered badly, so that it was impossible to send a written cable to naval intelligence - the information had to be conveyed in the famous telephone call, which may or may not have taken place.

Be that as it may, Leviatan was hauled before a disciplinary court and given a reprimand, along with several other officers who were deemed to have been negligent in other matters, not necessarily related to the Eilat episode. "One day," Shlomo Erel related, "after a meeting of the General Staff, the director of MI, Ahrele [Aharon] Yariv, came over to me with a document and told me in the corridor, `The table is clean.'"

What did he mean?

"He explained to me that officers in MI had been put on trial."

Didn't you ask for more details?

"No. There was a different atmosphere in those days. I was not even aware that they were looking for people scapegoats. And I myself did not want to look for people to blame, either. As navy commander in the Six-Day War and afterward, I really had to hold onto the navy tooth and nail for it to continue to exist."

People who knew Leviatan say he was considered a good officer. "He was just unlucky," says an officer who served with him. "There was no problem of receiving the report or in understanding it, as sometimes happens with intelligence information. The report simply slipped off the table. But there are mitigating circumstances. After the war, there was a general sense of euphoria in the IDF. The navy was not part of the IDF's priorities. It was considered a junior, unimportant corps. The unit didn't even know that the Eilat was patrolling close to the Egyptian coast."

Shortly after Bar-Lev submitted his recommendation, Leviatan left the army. In 1971 he joined Tel Aviv University. He was a section head in the personnel department, became head of the department in 1974, and in 1981 was appointed director general of the university. He left a few years later for private business, in which he works as an economic consultant. "The Eilat affair speeded up his resignation from the IDF," says an acquaintance, "and I know that he has been tormented by it ever since, and that he took it very hard."

After his initial refusal to comment, David Leviatan changed his mind and agreed to explain his position in brief: "I personally transmitted the report to navy intelligence and I also recorded it in the activity log. In my opinion there was no intelligence failure."

Why were you tried, then?

"I was not tried in connection with reporting the information but in another connection relating to the subject of the Eilat, which I don't want to talk about. In general it can be said that there were a few guys, including me, who had to take the rap."

What do you mean?

"The Bar-Lev report, which by the way I have not read - and anyway, Bar-Lev did not take testimony from me - stated that someone had to be punished. That is what I mean."

Avraham Botzer sums up: "There was a series of hitches, including an intelligence botch. But above all, the ship should not have been where it was. Everyone - the General Staff, which ordered the patrol, and the entire senior command of the navy, myself included - could have objected and got the order retracted."

Because of nonsense

Yitzhak Shoshan says he feels a certain sense of relief now, after disclosing the last secret that oppressed him, and that he still hopes to see the full truth made public during his lifetime. "I would like the officer himself to speak the truth. But I have no expectations from him. After all, he refused to talk to me. My expectations are directed at people of conscience who know what happened. Let them tell the truth. Forty-seven fighters were killed. Because of folly. There was a great deal of folly. But the intelligence failure was the greatest folly of all. What still eats me up is the fact that in the IDF there is an entire unit that knows the truth and is keeping silent. That silence attests to a worrisome norm. Only when the whole truth is revealed will I feel true relief."



Automatic approval of subscriber comments.

Subscribe today and save 40%

Already signed up? LOG IN


United Arab List chairman Mansour Abbas in the Knesset on Monday.

Arab Voters Will Decide if Israel's Far-right Wins Power

A young Zeschke during down time, while serving with the Wehrmacht in Scandinavia.

How a Spanish Beach Town Became a Haven for Nazis

Ayelet Shaked.

What's Ayelet Shaked's Next Move?

נתניהו עם כיפה שחורה על הראש נשען בשתי ידיו על הכותל

Israel Is Heading for Its Most 'Jewish' Election Ever

An El Al jet sits on the tarmac at John C. Munro International Airport in Hamilton, Thursday, in 2003.

El Al to Stop Flying to Toronto, Warsaw and Brussels

FILE PHOTO: A Star of David hangs from a fence outside the dormant landmark Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill neighborhood in 2021.

American Judaism Is in Decline. That's Great News for American Jews