Haifa Scraps Memorial for Palmach WWII Mission Amid Row Over British Officer's Inclusion

Families of 23 pre-state Jewish soldiers who died in Operation Boatswain objected to municipality’s inclusion of their British ‘chaperone’ on proposed plaque.

The Palmach ship’s captain, Katriel Yaffe (R), in 1941.
Palmach archive

A disagreement between the Haifa municipality and the families of 23 Jewish soldiers who died in an unsuccessful mission during World War II has resulted in the cancelation of a plan to commemorate them at the port from which they set sail on their last voyage 75 years ago.

Operation Boatswain is known in Hebrew as “the 23 who went down with the ship” ("Yordei Hasira"). But the municipality wanted the sign commemorating the operation to say “the 24 who went down with the ship,” so as to honor not just the 23 members of the pre-state Palmach militia who died, but also the British officer who accompanied them.

The families objected vehemently, accusing the municipality of trying to rewrite history and of undermining the memory of their loved ones. But the city said it wasn’t willing “to compromise on historical truth.”

On May 18, 1941, a Palmach ship set off from Haifa on a mission to sabotage an oil refinery in Tripoli, Lebanon. This was the first mission in which the British, who ruled pre-state Israel, cooperated with a local Jewish militia in an effort to fight a common enemy – neighboring Arab forces that they feared would ally with Nazi Germany.

The plan was to arrive secretly, booby-trap the refinery and return. But the refinery wasn’t blown up and the commandos never returned. To this day, what went wrong remains a mystery.

The 23 Palmach members have been commemorated in a ship name, street names and monuments throughout the country. But a few months ago, in honor of the upcoming 75th anniversary of the mission, the families proposed putting up a plaque in their memory at the spot from which they set sail, near Haifa’s power plant.

“It could have been a beautiful, symbolic, wonderful event, in which the families themselves would get together for the first time,” said Dr. Dan Yaffe, son of the ship’s captain, Katriel Yaffe.

The Haifa municipality agreed to the proposal. But after several months of discussion, the families were shocked to discover that the municipality planned to call the incident “the 24 who went down with the ship,” and that it had upgraded the British officer, Maj. Anthony Frederick Mark Palmer, from “accompanying” the Palmach men to “commanding” them.

The municipality cited an official 2008 study by the Defense Ministry which called the incident “the 24 who went down with the ship” rather than “the 23.” Yehuda Ben-Tzur – a former member of the Palmach’s naval wing, the Palyam, who has been active in efforts to commemorate the Palyam – also supported the city’s decision.

“Why hide the Englishman?” he asked Haaretz three years ago. “At the time, we wanted to say this was our work, a blue-and-white job, but the truth is otherwise.”

Palmach soldiers train for Operation Boatswain.
Palmach archive

Dr. Yaffe, however, disagrees. Writing 24 instead of 23, he said, would “falsify the historical truth. It’s a lie. It’s incorrect.”

Yaffe, a mathematician, never knew his father. The younger Yaffe was born in September 1941, four months after the ship went down.

“I’m very, very, very hurt” by the city’s behavior, he said. “It’s impossible to overstate the hurt. This is simply a slap in the face and spitting in the face of the 23 families.”

Prof. Dan Levanon, a former chief scientist in the Agriculture Ministry whose father, Baruch Yaakovson, was also one of the 23, agreed with Yaffe.

“I’m definitely disappointed,” he said. “They’re taking a very puzzling approach and preferring ostensibly ‘innovative research’ to a myth that has existed for 75 years now in the Israeli public’s consciousness. It’s not serious, it’s inconceivable and it’s confusing to start talking about 24 instead of 23. If you tell people ‘the 24 who went down with the ship,’ nobody will understand what you’re talking about.”

Dr. Mordecai Naor, an expert in Israeli history, also sided with the families. “I don’t understand the municipality’s insistence,” he said. “Changing 23 to 24 is a big mistake, and even nonsense ... In my view, we mustn’t retreat from important values. A nation must preserve its myths, and the 23 have long since become a myth ... We must preserve the legacy of the 23 as it was, and as it should continue.”

In a letter to Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav, Naor wrote, “You shouldn’t replace 23 with 24 and you shouldn’t crown Palmer as the operation’s commander. All these years, for three generations, the historical and public discourse has included the concept of the 23 who went down with the ship, and there’s no logic in ‘correcting history’ retroactively.”

Moreover, he asked, will all the streets named after the 23 – in Tel Aviv, Ramat Gan, Givatayim and elsewhere – have to change their names as well? “And what about the naval school in Acre named after the 23?” he demanded.

He has yet to receive a reply from the city.

Dr. Eldad Harouvi, director of the Palmach Archive, has investigated the matter thoroughly and concurs with the families that Palmer merely accompanied the mission rather than commanding it. That is Naor’s conclusion as well.

“In all the sources I’ve found, he’s defined as ‘accompanying,’” Naor said. “The Haifa municipality has decided to appoint him the commander even though he hasn’t been that for the last 74 years. I don’t understand this insistence or why they’re suddenly dumping on the families like this. The force’s commander was Zvi Spector ... and the captain was Katriel Yaffe. That’s been accepted ever since 1941.”

In negotiations with the families, the municipality finally proposed omitting the number altogether and merely writing “those who went down with the ship.” Five of the families responded that if it did, they would boycott the ceremony. In the end, the city dropped the whole idea of putting up a plaque.

Prof. Yossi Ben-Artzi, who chairs the municipality’s committee on street names and historical plaques, said he was upset by what he termed the effort by a few families, “who claim to represent all the families, to impose wording dictated by themselves.” In a letter he sent to the mayor a week ago, he argued that his committee’s proposed wording of the plaque was “balanced – considerate of the families’ feelings but historically accurate.”

“The names committee isn’t willing to accept dictates or to compromise on historical truth on the plaques it approves,” the letter continued. “Moreover, there’s no reason to put up a plaque that will stir up anger, strife and unnecessary fights.”

“I hope the day will come when we’ll be able to put up a historical plaque that honors the memory of all those who went down with the ship,” Ben-Artzi’s letter concluded.