On the night of May 18, 1941, the Ari Hayam, carrying the 23 young Jews and Major Palmer, cast off from Haifa -- and was never seen again

75 years later, Britain recognizes 23 lost at sea in Palmach’s Operation Boatswain

The very first mission of the pre-state Israeli fighting force, coordinated with London against Vichy France, saw a devastating failure — and an open-ended story for families of those missing in action

A practice run for the 23 members of the Ari Hayam, or Sea Lion. (Courtesy)
A practice run for the 23 members of the Ari Hayam, or Sea Lion. (Courtesy)

LONDON — Seventy-five years after a group of young Jewish men disappeared without trace in the waters between Haifa and Lebanon, their names have been commemorated in a British military cemetery.

The memorial at Brookwood’s Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery in Surrey, south-west England, has been achieved thanks to the dogged determination of the British archivist and historian, Martin Sugarman.

The story of Operation Boatswain is well known in Israel but is barely heard of in Britain. It was the first major operation of the Palmach in 1941 but its tragic outcome cast a serious shadow and was, initially, not discussed publicly for fear of its effect on morale in the Palmach, the elite fighting force of the pre-state Haganah army.

The Jews of the Yishuv had never cooperated formally before with the British military authorities, but in early 1941 representatives of the Mandate began, via the Jewish Agency, to discuss the possibility of a joint operation against Vichy France forces in Lebanon and Syria.

It was decided to make the first target an oil refinery belonging to the Vichy regime in Tripoli, Lebanon. The idea was sabotage, pure and simple.

A British officer, Major Anthony Palmer, was sent from Cairo where he was working with the SOE, or Special Operations Executive.

The memorial at Brookwood’s Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery in Surrey, south-west England. (Courtesy)
The memorial at Brookwood’s Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery in Surrey, south-west England. (Courtesy)

“The Palmach asked for volunteers, and 23 men came forward,” says Sugarman.

The men began training at the RAF air base, Ramat David, built by the British and still in use today by the Israel Defense Forces.

There were successful practice runs out of Caesarea, and, finally, ready for the mission, they set out.

The intention was to leave from Haifa and for the men to make their way up the Lebanon coastline to Tripoli. Three of the Palmach volunteers were supposed to remain on board, while the rest, taking with them the explosives they had placed on the boat, mounted a commando raid against the oil refinery.

For reasons still not fully explained, instead of using the boat they had taken in training, the squad went to the Palestine Police, who were ordered to give up one of their best launches, the Sea Lion, or Ari Hayam.

On the night of May 18, 1941, the Ari Hayam, carrying the 23 young Jews and Major Palmer, cast off from Haifa — and was never seen again.

As Sugarman explains, over the years there has been a variety of theories as to what happened to the crew of the Ari Hayam, but for almost 75 years the IDF has listed them as “missing in action.”

British archivist and historian, Martin Sugarman, who fought for recognition of the 23 Palmach warriors lost at sea on a mission against the Vichy regime in 1941. (Courtesy)
British archivist and historian, Martin Sugarman, who fought for recognition of the 23 Palmach warriors lost at sea on a mission against the Vichy regime in 1941. (Courtesy)

“There are five main theories as to what happened,” Sugarman says. “The boat could have been sunk by an enemy submarine, but there was no evidence of enemy boats in the waters that night. The second theory is that the boat, which usually only carried a crew of four, was too heavy with 24 men and equipment, and it simply sank beneath the weight.”

It was suggested that the boat sank in a storm, because the weather was said to have been bad that night. And then there are two theories relating to bodies from a wreck, and to potential survivors.

The first, says Sugarman, is that the boat foundered, bodies were washed ashore and then buried by local Arabs. The second theory says that some of the 23 did actually survive, swam ashore where they were greeted by Anzac (Australian and New Zealand) troops and told to turn south. Again, unspecified “local Arabs” feature in this story, with the claim that they set on and killed the survivors.

A memorial column in Tel Aviv for the 23 Palmach members and British officer who went missing in action aboard the Sea Lion. (Wikimedia Commons/Ori~)
A memorial column in Tel Aviv for the 23 Palmach members and British officer who went missing in action aboard the Sea Lion. (Wikimedia Commons/Ori~)

Israel, without success, searched the sea-bed off the Haifa coastline, renewing such attempts over the years as technology became more sophisticated. In 1982 Israel’s Colonel Shlomo Elkanah ran an advertisement in the Lebanese French-language newspaper, L’Orient-Le Jour. It read: “In May 1941, the boat of Major Lord [sic] Anthony Palmer, an English officer and his 23 seamen was found by Vichy forces. Anyone with knowledge of this matter is asked to contact the following telephone number.”

The colonel himself had set up an office in Beirut to try to fathom the fate of the 23, but again to no avail.

In Israel, the story of the 23 is memorialized in Tel Aviv and on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, and in many streets throughout the country. Major Anthony Palmer has a separate plaque in his name in Surrey, but Sugarman found his solo memorial “unjust” to the memory of the other men, and in 2005 began looking through British, French and Italian archives for more information.

To some extent he reached a dead end. But in 2014 Colonel Nir Ereli of the IDF MiA archives convened a meeting of the families of the 23, and told them that the IDF, too, had reached the end of the road. They were closing the files, he said.

Sugarman decided to have one more try at getting the British to recognize the sacrifice of the 23 young Jews. He wrote to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, outlining the details of the case, and sending as many back-up documents as he could lay his hands on, showing that the men had volunteered to take part in this dangerous mission, to help the British and Allied forces.

To his great surprise the Commission responded within weeks and now a memorial has been unveiled at the Brookwood cemetery. Of course, there is a mistake in the list of names — the inclusion of a mysterious “Picchi, F,” a man who had nothing to do with the 23 young Jews. In fact, says Sugarman, he was an Italian working with the SOE who also went missing in action and rather than give him a separate memorial, the Commission included his name with the Palmach volunteers.

Now Sugarman hopes that the Israeli embassy will hold a ceremony at Brookwood to mark the sacrifice of the young men who died on the Ari Hayam. At least, he thinks they died there.

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