Was It British Incompetence That Sealed The Fate of the Palmach Raid?

The first operation of the newly formed Israeli commando force called the Palmach, ended in mystery on May 18, 1941. A unit of 23 Israeli soldiers with a British officer commanding them, left in the early morning hours from Haifa to attack an oil refinery in Tripoli under the control of Vichy French military but never returned. Reportedly, no word was ever received and no evidence was found as to their fate.

However, according to archivist Edward Horne, the high powered launch borrowed from Palistinian police against their will normally carried a crew of only 4 or 5, with supplies to sustain them for perhaps 3 days patrolling the waters to the south along the coast toward Egypt. On this day, in addition to 24 men, the launch had a heavy load of weapons, explosives and supplies, and Horne suggests the boat had little chance of surviving the relatively heavy choppy waters off the coast of Levantine. This is also the argument put forth by Israeli rear admiral Nir Maor.

Yet, Historian Aryeh Yitzchaki has repeatedly tried to inform authorities of a report from an agent in Tripoli, which the Palmach and the British were already aware of by June of 1941. The agent was a man named Yosef Kostika who assisted in planning the operation, and he found the bodies of the Israeli commandos scattered on the beach. According to him, there was a transfer to other boats, and an explosion occurred, so large that none survived the event, The Jewish Chronicle reports.

Nir Arieli, a former commander has said the operation was full of mistakes in planning and should never has been attempted. Military scholar Dr Moshe Amioz indicates the raid was pointless, saying that the refinery as their target no longer received oil from Iraq, the British having closed the pipeline after the war began.

After the failure of the mission with all lives lost, all were hailed as heros and memorialized. It appears that Israeli naval authorities want to keep the mystery as it stands, and that they died as heros, rather than as the result of mistakes in planning or the handling of explosives. Would they not still be regarded as heros, however, if the report of agent Kostika were confirmed?  Former Palmach commanders have told Yitzchaki, “We don’t talk about it, and we don’t destroy myths”. He reported his findings to the media in 2000, but the Israeli Defense Ministry will not confirm them.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE