The Boats of Cherbourg: The Navy That Stole Its Own Boats and Revolutionized Naval Warfare

Reviewed by Jeff Schultz

Abraham Rabinovich’s The Boats of Cherbourg: The Navy That Stole Its Own Boats and Revolutionized Naval Warfare takes the reader on a rollicking ride through an early Cold War techno-thriller which does not disappoint. A mixture of diplomacy, desperation, rank skullduggery, and above all clever statecraft; this timely nonfiction account sheds needed light on the dawn of the missile age as a beleaguered small country rose from fledgling nation to staunch regional power in a few decades. 

Rabinovich is an accomplished journalist, US Army veteran and historian with six books to his credit, including: The Yom Kippur War: The Epic Encounter that Transformed the Middle East (2004) and The Battle for Jerusalem (2017). He divides the book into three major sections: “The Concept,” “The Escape” and “The War.” Within these major sections are almost thirty short chapters. The book is further completed by a series of photographs and maps which cover key events, people and vessels. While there are no footnotes provided, there is an extensive bibliography of both English and Hebrew sources along with a list of abbreviations and/or technical terms and an index. He interviewed many key personnel in the story and was given unprecedented access by the Israeli authorities to write the story, even if officially they sought to suppress it.   

Thankfully, this unprecedented access resulted in a fascinating account which informs not only naval enthusiasts but casual observers as to how to conduct a secret, critical operation on a relative shoestring using guile and many other improvisational methods instead of massive expenditures or fancy technology to achieve landmark naval innovation.

In Section One: “The Concept,”  the story unfolds as the World War II-era destroyer INS Eliat (ex-British HMS Zealous) fell prey to Soviet-made SS-N-2 “Styx” anti-ship missiles fired by Egyptian Komar missile boats in 1967, a few months after the Six Day War ended. As the first ship sunk by missile attack in history, shock and confusion galvanized the Israelis to action before the nascent nation was overwhelmed by the Soviet missile-equipped Arab client states. It remains ironic that the warships the Israeli Navy needed would come from Germany, considering the bitter recent memory of the Holocaust which “was outweighed by the obligations of the present.” [63] The maverick Israeli design manifested into a modified steel-hulled version of Bremen’s Lϋrssen shipbuilders existing Jaguar-class torpedo boat, the Sa’ar 3 class. Due to unforeseen bureaucratic difficulties of direct sale to Israel, a French shipbuilder in Cherbourg, Constructions Mécaniques de Normandie (CMN), undertook the construction of the small, powerful vessels. Unfortunately, President Charles DeGaulle’s attempts to appease the Arab world led to the 1967 embargo at the most inopportune time for Israel, just before the Six Day War began.

In Section Two: “The Escape,” Rabinovich details the convoluted efforts undertaken to get the Israeli vedettes, as the locals called the patrol boats, out of France. The cover story employed called for selling the unarmed vessels to a Norwegian shell company as oil industry support vessels, a furtive way to bypass the embargo with least difficulty and get them back later. With DeGaulle’s retirement in 1969, his successor, Georges Pompidou, failed to end the embargo and improve relations, instead maintaining it as DeGaulle’s “heir.” [96] When the departure finally took place early on Christmas morning, the vedettes rumbling engines were lost amid the slumbering populace as the boats slipped out into what can only be termed a truly ridiculous situation, a powerful gale! The completely rash sortie of light craft amidst thirty-five-foot waves seems utterly foolhardy, almost the work of a bad Hollywood script. Thereafter, the quintet of unarmed warships refueled from merchant ships pressed into service as improvised tankers, such as the MV Lea and MV Netanya, spaced out across the Mediterranean. Their odyssey finally ended when they reached Haifa in a week’s time on New Year’s Day, 1970.

Meanwhile, the international press slowly caught on to the startling development and the French even considered air attacks but settled for aggressive surveillance in the wake of their governmental embarrassment amid the bold abscondment. As Rabinovich stated, “the situation was an extraordinary mixture of farce and political humiliation and required judicious handling” even while the majority of French public opinion “applauded” the Israelis. [193] It should be noted that development of an Israeli anti-ship missile, the “Luz,” was already long underway when the Eliat was sunk, but had much work remained to make it reliable, including the addition of an altimeter and radar, thanks to engineer Ori Even-Tov. Subsequently the “Luz” transformed into the later “Gabriel” missile which would equip the Sa’ar 3 boats to great effect in the 1973 fighting.

In Section Three: “War,” Rabinovich details the results of the arduous journey to fielding the French-built Sa’ar 3’s as they took part in the defense of their nation in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Significant in this section is the Battle of Latakia, Syria, where an Israeli naval force successfully sank multiple Syrian vessels without loss, gaining revenge for the shocking 1967 loss of the Eliat. The battle proved the improvised Israeli effort to develop countermeasures against the “Styx” missile, through a mix of World War II-era aluminum foil chaff and ECM (electronic counter-measures) groundbreaking tactics that confounded the incoming missiles and caused them to miss their targets. While the “Gabriel” had less than half the range of the “Styx,” it proved more effective when combined with the effective countermeasures and bellicose tactics developed by the Israelis.

Simultaneously, the United States and Soviet Union’s navies stood uneasily across from each other as their Israeli and Arab allies battled. Tensions rose quickly in the eastern Mediterranean almost to the level of a superpower confrontation, as the aircraft carrier-dependent U.S. Sixth Fleet faced the “Styx” missile-reliant Soviet Mediterranean Squadron. Thankfully, the two superpowers did not unleash World War III but astoundingly, by the end of the 1973 Yom Kippur hostilities, some 54 Soviet-made “Styx” missiles fired at Israeli warships scored no hits. An incredible achievement given the lack of aid to the Israeli defense industry, which went on to inform the American and French development of their respective anti-ship missiles such as “Exocet” and “Harpoon,” along with suitable countermeasures, at a time when the Soviets stood a clear advantage in anti-ship missile technology.

Abraham Rabinovich’s The Boats of Cherbourg: The Navy That Stole Its Own Boats and Revolutionized Naval Warfare paints a well-paced picture of the large and small aspects of the rapid Israeli shift from rising actor in the eastern Mediterranean to a powerful, well-equipped rival deserving respect in a few decades amid the larger Cold War showdown between the United States and Soviet Union. This robust nautical caper rewards readers with critical lessons about realpolitik, operating under extreme duress, developing new technology and innovative tactics while achieving unlikely success in the dire circumstances of modern warfare.

Jeff Schultz is an Associate Professor of History at Luzerne County Community College.

The Boats of Cherbourg: The Navy That Stole Its Own Boats and Revolutionized Naval Warfare (Abraham Rabinovich, Independently Published; Revised and Illustrated Edition, 2019)

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