What the Royal Navy could teach Israel: The original blockade runners

What the IDF could learn from the Royal Navy

Between August 1945 and May 15, 1948, 60 ships, carrying a total of 52,574 passengers, attempted to break the blockade the British imposed along the coast of Palestine to prevent Jewish immigration.

Few managed to accomplish their mission. Forty-seven of the immigrant transports (78.4% ) were intercepted by British Royal Navy warships, as a result of which 49,620 (94.6% ) of the would-be immigrants were either imprisoned in detention camps in Atlit or Cyprus or returned to Europe.

Most of the immigrant ships intercepted by the Royal Navy put up only nominal resistance. That is hardly surprising given that many of the passengers (who included a large percentage of women and children ) were Holocaust survivors; especially after a long and exhausting journey, they had neither the physical nor psychological resources for a fight.

Nevertheless, 27 vessels did resist capture by British boarding parties, 13 of them violently. Some of the "battles" that ensued ended within a few minutes, but others lasted much longer. Most famously, it took five separate parties of Royal Marines almost two hours to gain control over the bridge and engine-rooms of the Exodus on July 18, 1947.

Even so, casualties were minimal. Only two Royal Navy ships were damaged by collisions at sea, and no immigrant carrier was sunk. More important, few lives were lost. All told, seven British servicemen died during boarding operations (most by drowning after being thrown overboard by the passengers ).

Proportionately, Jewish fatalities were even less. Over 21,000 passengers were carried by the immigrant transports on which struggles against British boarding parties took place. Just six immigrants were killed and only a few dozen more sustained injuries requiring hospitalization.

Post-operation reports preserved in the Admiralty archives in London provide three explanations for those results.

First, the British authorities appreciated the importance of intelligence information, especially about the size, crews and human cargoes of the vessels that the navy would have to block. Accordingly, British embassy officials in Europe, accompanied by officers of the Criminal Investigation Department, scoured potential ports of embarkation in search of suspicious activity.

Likewise, Haganah cells were infiltrated and in at least two cases undercover British agents placed on board immigrant transports. Once at sea, the vessels were subjected to surveillance by the Royal Air Force, whose planes reported even minor adjustments of course to the naval ships lying in wait.

A second criterion of success was seamanship. The British use of maritime force was sophisticated rather than crude. No Royal Naval officers ever suggested blasting immigrant ships out of the water, and only rarely (the Exodus was an exception ) did they request permission to disregard the British Attorney General's veto on action beyond the three-mile limit of Palestine's territorial waters. Instead, captains invariably sought to gain the advantage by drawing on their vast naval experience. One commonly successful maneuver was to place their ships sideways directly in the path of the oncoming immigrant vessel. Another - known as the "sandwich" - was to synchronize an approach against the target by a pair of British vessels, which thus trapped the immigrant transport in an inescapable (and psychologically frightening ) vise.

But third, and perhaps most significant of all, was respect. The Royal Navy never underestimated its adversaries. Commanders appreciated that boarding operations in particular could be tricky, and prepared for them meticulously.

The archives reveal that as early as September 1946 crews received "proper training in the art usually known as street fighting." Subsequently, such courses were expanded at the Royal Marine Training Center at Ghajn Tuffieha in Malta, where troops practiced seizing control over a ship, even in the face of violent opposition, without firing a shot.

Indeed, firearms were carried only by officers (partly to reduce the risk that they would be grabbed by immigrants during boarding operations ) and employed on just five occasions.

But the British achievements were only tactical ones. At the political and strategic levels, which are the ones that really count, Britain was defeated.

Although successful, the blockade did not salvage the Mandate; neither did it save the British government from accusations of inhumanity.

The lessons are obvious. Operational success must never be taken for granted and can only be achieved by persistent efforts to improve combat performance. By the same token, however, tactical victories are no guarantee of strategic triumph. The latter depends on the formulation of sound and realistic policies.

Stuart Cohen teaches political studies at Bar-Ilan University and is a senior research fellow at the BESA Center for Strategic Studies.