On June 24, 1941, at the height of World War II, a German air force plane flew over Haifa, photographing the city below. The skies were clear, save for a single cloud that cast a shadow over the northern section of what is now known as Ben-Gurion Boulevard. At the port, the fuel tanks and 10 ships anchored in the wide bay were clearly visible. One ship lay on its side.
The German who analyzed the photographs identified the overturned ship as the S.S. Providence, a French passenger ship that frequently docked in Haifa and was seized by the British after France fell to the Germans. But he was mistaken; this was a sister ship, the S.S. Patria.
The sinking of the Patria is a bleak chapter in the collective memory of the Yishuv, the Jewish community in Mandatory Palestine. The British wanted to use the ship to deport hundreds of Jewish immigrants who came to Palestine illegally to Mauritius. In order to thwart the expulsion, the Haganah Underground – the pre-independence army of Palestine’s Jews – planted explosives in the ship’s hold, aiming to cause minor damage.
The blast was more powerful than planned, and the ship, with hundreds of people aboard, began to sink in the port. More than 200 Jewish immigrants – the exact number is unknown – perished in the disaster. Nearly a year later, at the time of the German reconnaissance flight, the ship was still visible in the waters of the bay. It would remain there until the end of the war.
The photography mission that captured the Patria was the longest and most complex sortie executed by the Nazis in the skies of pre-state Israel during the war. For 80 minutes, the Junkers plane flew over Palestine and Transjordan. It photographed Tel Aviv, the Jordan Valley, Tiberias and an airport near Amman. Near Lake Kinneret, the German decipherer marked the site of a seaplane landing strip south of Tiberias. On the way back, the pilot also photographed Haifa, where British anti-aircraft operators tried to hit the plane, which evaded them and returned to occupied Greece.
This was not the only wartime German sortie over Palestine. Two Israeli historians – Israel Prize laureate Prof. Benjamin Z. Kedar and aerial warfare scholar Daniel Uziel, uncovered a collection of hundreds of aerial photographs of Palestine taken by the Luftwaffe during World War II. Their study was recently published in the Hebrew-language journal Cathedra: For the History of Eretz Israel and Its Yishuv, as “Hitler’s Pilots Photograph Eretz Israel.”
The 286 photographs from 50 sorties were found in the U.S. National Archives – a fraction of over 1 million photographs taken by the Luftwaffe during the war. They were seized by the Allies and handed over to the CIA, which used them in intelligence analyses of areas under Soviet control during the Cold War. In the 1980s, they were declassified and transferred to the National Archives.
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It took years to locate the photos from Palestine. An American researcher was hired to pore through the archives. Some of the photographs were captioned or marked by German decipherers during the war; in many shots of Haifa, the German Colony neighborhood is circled, apparently to indicate it should be avoided during bombardments.
The British Army spotted most enemy planes in Mandatory Palestine airspace and used anti-aircraft fire or interceptors against them, but with one exception the German pilots managed to evade the British fire and return safely to their bases.
“In the skies over Britain, the British fighter planes achieved much better figures,” Uziel says. He theorizes that this failure was caused by a problem with the calibration of the aerial radar systems, which led to delays in spotting the German aircraft.
Kedar and Uziel’s research shows that at three points during the war, the Germans showed interest in what was happening in pre-state Israel, and used the Luftwaffe either to gather intelligence or to bombard it.
The first time was in June 1941. At the same time as they were preparing for the invasion of Russia, the Germans and Italians aided the Arab rebels in Iraq in their revolt against the British, with the aim of cutting the British off from vital oil fields in Iraq. Then, the Luftwaffe flew over Palestine and bombed targets there. They focused mainly on Haifa, which was considered an essential part of the British oil system, but struck Tel Aviv and Latrun as well. A few months earlier, Italian planes had bombarded Tel Aviv, killing more than 100 people and causing major damage.
The Luftwaffe flew over Palestine once again during part of the operations by Rommel’s Afrika Erwin Korps, which reached Egypt in 1942. At the time, many flights photographed the Gulf of Aqaba and the Sinai Peninsula, but others focused on Haifa and Nahariya. The third time was in September 1944 – much later in the war, when the German army was in retreat on all fronts.
About a year ago, the British National Archives published a huge collection of decoded messages produced by Enigma, the German encryption machine that was ultimately cracked by the British. There, Uziel and Kedar found hints as to the Nazi rationale for continuing the flights over Palestine, even when the Reich’s end was in sight.
Radio transmissions from the squadron command center in Athens show that the Germans had received a report that the Soviets wanted to transfer forces from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, and they wanted to investigate this. But Uziel does not rule out the possibility that the squadron commanders in Greece ordered these sorties in order to demonstrate that they were busy, for fear the commanders would decide to send them to the deadly Eastern Front.
Twice during the war, the Nazis considered using the information gathered in the aerial sorties to bomb cities in Palestine. In both cases, it was the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, who was livinng in Germany and had close ties with the SS, who pushed for the bombing.
The first time was in the summer of 1943 – Husseini proposed bombing Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in reprisal for the British and American bombardments of German cities. The Luftwaffe even prepared a detailed plan for a heavy bombardment of Tel Aviv, but for unknown reasons, it was rejected by the air force commander, Hermann Goering.
A few months later, the Mufti proposed that the Luftwaffe bomb a building where a gathering of leaders of the Yishuv was due to be held on the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration. German air force headquarters rejected the idea due to a shortage of intelligence, and suggested a symbolic bombing of the Jewish Agency building in Jerusalem instead. But this proposal was rejected by the air force’s intelligence branch, which cited, among other reasons, the sensitivity of bombing a holy city like Jerusalem.
Kedar says he remembers the date of the June 24 sortie because it is his wife Nurit’s birthday. Prof. Nurith Kenaan-Kedar, a prominent art historian, died six years ago. Kedar, himself a Holocaust survivor, says: “I always thought, and we talked about it a lot, about how I grew up in occupied Europe and how we survived by the skin of our teeth. I always thought that she was safe here, far from all that. And suddenly I see this aerial photograph of Tel Aviv, and she’s a 3-year-old girl, and circling above her is a plane with a swastika.”