History Lesson: The Boats of Cherbourg
People are familiar with "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg". Not many know or can recall the story of the missile boats of Cherbourg. In its mixture of intrigue, political decisions, armament agreements and Israeli resourceful initiative, the story represents the great complexity of being Israel and defending Israel, in a world which fawns upon Arabs and is in thrall to Arab oil.
By late afternoon, about 20 Israeli sailors were aboard each of the five boats. But a storm had arisen and a strong wind was blowing. These were bad conditions for any ship, but even more so for the missile boats, which were not designed for such conditions. But there was no choice. They had to sail that night.
As the engines started up around 9 p.m., seats reserved for 70 Israelis at the local restaurant we mentioned above remained unfilled, and the meals uneaten.
French Intelligence had noticed the many unwarranted coincidences in the previous few weeks, but either they or their superiors decided not to take action against the Israelis. At some point on the night of December 24/25, 1969, the five missile boats engined their way out of the harbor into the English Channel.
Two men came to watch the last boats leave Cherbourg. One was Mordecai Limon. The other was Felix Amiot, the French supervisor of the construction of the ships at Cherbourg. He had concealed it, but he had known about the Israeli operation from the beginning.
Amiot was not the only one who participated in this “conspiracy of silence.” In a “dockside cafe, the barman remarked to customers huddled over their glasses of red wine: ‘I see the Norwegians have left for Alaska.’ His audience roared with laughter.”
On December 26 local and then international news picked up wind of the story. The French government soon knew what had happened and were furious again. But with the boats on the high seas already, they recognized there was little they could do. Nevertheless, the French Foreign Minister, Maurice Schumann, did summon two Israeli diplomats to his office in the Quai D’Orsay. He had just returned from a tour of Algeria “where he had promised friendly relations and large supplies of armaments in return for Arab oil.” And then the Israelis took the Cherbourg boats. Schumann was sure that the Arabs would see it as French collusion in the matter, and he felt humiliated. He warned the Israeli diplomats that if the boats did show up in Israel, “the consequences will be very grave indeed…”
The Israeli government did not accept direct responsibility at first. The boats did receive attention on the high seas however, as the sailors aboard viewed a myriad of French Mirages flying overhead. Later they encountered American and even Soviet ships. But the boats motored on to Israel unimpeded. As the ships approached the shores of Israel, an escort of Israeli fighter planes accompanied them.
They were safe then, and they were received with public jubilation when they arrived in Israel.
There were repercussions in France. Mordecai Limon, who had lived in France for seven years, was asked to leave. Two French generals were dismissed from their posts for their part in approving the sale of the missile boats to the fictitious Norwegian/Panamanian firm. Felix Amiot was blamed for his part in the affair, but he vigorously defended himself. “Security is not my problem. My job was to build ships. I got along very well with the Israelis, but as far as I know that is not a crime.”
The citizens of Cherbourg continued to keep quiet about the whole affair. And their silence - which the French government was well aware of - was a boon to Israel, for without it she may never have gotten the boats of Cherbourg.