After 76 Years, British Recognize Pre-state Israeli Militia Seamen as Their Own

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Palmach members at pilot training in Lod, 1947.
Palmach members at pilot training in Lod, 1947.Credit: Zoltan Kluger, GPO
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

The task facing Neri Arieli, a historian with the Israeli army’s unit that deals with the missing in action, was daunting. It took seven years of rooting through archives at home and abroad, with the help of other professionals and volunteers. In the end, the treasure was right under his nose, at the Zionist Archive in Jerusalem.

In May, Arieli was a guest at a special memorial service at Brookwood Military Center in Surrey. The research that he oversaw led the British to recognize, 76 years after the fact, the contribution to the British war effort of the 23 Palmach soldiers who went missing at sea in May 1941. Their names were added to a stone memorial to men and women who went missing on active service during World War II, and to an online database.

This late recognition, the correction of a “historic wrong” to Arieli, has symbolic and historical significance

Thousands visit the memorial and the website every day. The world will recognize the sacrifice of the Jewish soldiers of pre-state Palestine against the Nazis, alongside the free world,” Martin Sugarman of the Association of Jewish Ex-servicemen and Women told Haaretz. His contacts with British agencies played a major role in obtaining that recognition, which he says is important as part of fighting anti-Semitism and the lies that Jews did not fight in World War II.

To understand the delay in the British recognition, we must return to May 18, 1941, when 23 members of the Palmach, the special operations force of the Haganah underground militia, boarded a small British boat in Haifa. The motor launch carried 400 kilograms of explosives from the Haganah. Mission commander Zvi Spector, captain Katriel Yaffe and their 21 soldiers were accompanied by Maj. Sir Anthony Palmer of Britain’s Special Operations Executive.

Their mission was to blow up oil refineries in Tripoli, Lebanon, then under Vichy rule, in a bid to deny fuel to Wehrmacht planes and thwart Axis operations in the region. The plan was to plant the explosives and return home safely.

Operation Boatswain was the Palmach’s first operational mission as part of the cooperation between the British and the Jewish community in Mandatory Palestine during World War II. In Hebrew it came to be known as the “kaf-gimmel yordei hasira,” or 23 seamen. All 24, including Palmer, vanished before reaching their destination, possibly due to an explosion of unknown origin.

Training of 'Operation Boatswain', in the early 1940's.Credit: Beit Hapalmach

The SOE was a British special operations organization established in 1940 to fight the Axis powers through espionage, sabotage operations and aid to local resistance movement. Its nicknames included “Churchill’s Secret Army” and the “Baker Street Irregulars.”

Some of the 23 Palmach members did not complete induction before the mission, meaning there were no official records of their affiliation with the British military.

“They volunteered for the Haganah and were sent by it on an SOE mission. Formally, some of them were not considered soldiers,” says Prof. Dan Levanon, the son of Baruch Jacobson, who was one of the seamen.

This is how the discrimination began. Of the 24 men onboard, only Palmer’s name was on the memorial in Surrey or recorded in the British online database.

Seven years ago, an extensive investigation of this affair by the Defense Ministry ended with the conclusion that the fate of these men remained unknown. During the investigation, which was conducted by Arieli and Moshe Ami-Oz and Neri Arieli, many documents and testimonies were collected. These enabled Israel to request that the 23 be recognized as British soldiers.

Arieli approached the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. “We sent them proof that the operational orders for the operation were British, that the vessel was British with a British captain, and that the entire operation served the British war effort,” he says. But all this was not enough. “They wrote that all this was fine and well but that they needed information on the soldiers themselves, not on the mission,” Arieli says.

The search continued until the “rescuing document,” as he calls it, was found. This was an official British document from the 1940s which recognized the entitlement of the 23 seamen to pensions as British soldiers. “Ultimately, all that was needed was to follow the money,” says Arieli with a smile.

When he showed this document to the British they agreed to retroactively induct the 23. However, in order to do this Arieli was given another task.

Israel’s ambassador to Britain, Mark Regev, at the new monument in London this month. Credit: Yiftah Curiel

“They asked for a list including the names of their parents, the city of origin in Europe, age, etc. for each one of them.” This was seemingly a simple task but when it came to a group of 23 young combatants, mostly unknown and who died 76 years ago, some without any relatives, the task became very complicated.”

To his aid came some people from a nonprofit group devoted to fallen soldiers and a Defense Ministry unit assigned with commemorating soldiers. They embarked on a comprehensive search for the missing details. Thus, for the first time since they disappeared, the 23 seamen’s biographical details were filled in.

After these personal details were sent to Britain, the addition of their names to the memorial was given the green light. Last month, around the 76th anniversary of their disappearance, a ceremony was held, attended by Israel’s ambassador to Britain, Mark Regev, at which a plaque with their names was uncovered. These were added to the names of British soldiers whose burial place is unknown.

Separated in death

Gershon Amiram-Gan, a relative of Amiram Shochat, one of the 23 seamen, said at the ceremony that the earlier decision to exclude their names from the memorial was “a tragic mistake.” He added that “happily, they agreed that a mistake had been made and recognized that these people had participated in an official British mission, in which they served as British soldiers.” He summarized with these emotional words: “From this we can learn that it’s never too late to remember those who gave their lives for freedom.”

A monument of 'Operation Boatswain' in London. Credit: Gershon Gan

In Israel, the 23 are commemorated in several locations, including a memorial on Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl, a plaque along the Yarkon River in Tel Aviv and in street names in several cities. However, in Britain their names and story remain outside collective memory. Visitors to the site can expect an interesting lesson in history. The list of names etched on the memorial includes 24 people. Ostensibly, this is the way it should be since the mission included the British captain as well as the 23 Jewish fighters.

However, the 24th name is that of Fortunato Piki, not Palmer. At first this seems like a confounding error. Piki, like the 23, volunteered to help the British during World War II but did not survive.

Avishai Lyovich, a volunteer at the Palmach archives, found that Piki was an Italian who wanted to fight fascism during the war. In February 1941, when he was 45 years old, he was parachuted into Italy with missions such as blowing up bridges, roads, and intersections. He was caught by the Italians, tried as a traitor, and executed.

For the British, Piki and the 23 seamen are in the same category: foreign volunteers for the SOE, who fell in battle and whose place of burial is unknown. For this reason, apparently, they did not separate him from the others in the new list. However, the British did elect to separate Major Palmer from the 23. He is commemorated as a British officer on another plaque at the same memorial. The 23 men are labeled “volunteers.”

The difference in attitudes toward Palmer and the 23 was noted in the past by Israel’s Defense Ministry. In a report about the 23 it was written that “the problematic attitude of the British continued even after the operation failed and the 23 men disappeared. Their searches focused on the British officer who accompanied them, while neglecting his 23 companions to the mission.”

It was not just the British who distinguished between the 23 and the 24th victim. Last year, a plan to erect anew monument to the 23 seamen on the location from where they set out in Haifa was blocked at the last moment. The families objected to the municipality’s plan to write “24 seamen” on the commemorative plaque, demanding to leave the old and better-known “23 seamen.” Prof. Levanon explained this week; “You can’t change a legend that has been entrenched in the public mind for so many years.”

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