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An inside job: How a UK engineer helped the Irgun break into Acre prison in 1947

Newly reported details reveal that Peres Etkes, who designed the British Mandate penitentiary, passed building plans to Zionist militia and helped stage legendary jailbreak

Two men look over debris beneath shattered windows of Acre Prison, north of Haifa, British-Mandate Palestine, May 6, 1947, which was blasted open two days earlier by members of an underground Jewish militia. (AP Photo)
Two men look over debris beneath shattered windows of Acre Prison, north of Haifa, British-Mandate Palestine, May 6, 1947, which was blasted open two days earlier by members of an underground Jewish militia. (AP Photo)

A major pre-state prison break operation by a Zionist militia that freed 250 inmates from a British jail has been exposed as an inside job, according to a report Sunday that cited the family members of the Jewish architect and engineer who built the prison.

According to The Guardian, the Zionist architect, Peres Etkes, handed the entire building plans of the prison in Acre to the Irgun paramilitary group, enabling the legendary 1947 storming, which is seen as a major event that weakened the British Mandate and led to the creation of Israel.

The Irgun operation at the Acre prison, built on the ruins of a 12th century crusader fortress, was well-planned. Fighters seized adjacent Turkish baths and managed to blow a hole in the wall, while others threw a grenade in another part of the prison as a diversion. At least one attacker was disguised as a British engineer.

During the operation, 16 people were killed, including 7 Irgun members. The freed prisoners were both Arab and Jewish, including 27 incarcerated members of the Irgun and the Lehi militias.

Until now, it wasn’t known what brought about the success of the highly sophisticated operation.

Etkes was a Russian-American Jew employed by the British forces, whose real mission, according to the report, was to help establish a future Jewish state.

His niece Aliza Margulis was quoted as saying the architect told her the secret in the 1950s. He told her he had shared the plans “because the prison was like a fortress, and unless they had the map, there was no way to get out.”

It was unclear from the story why the details were only being published now.

The graves of seven Irgun fighters killed in a 1947 prison break, at Moshav Shavei Zion (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Gil Margulis, Aliza’s son and Etkes’s great-nephew, said: “I was reading the history and people keep saying, ‘How did they do it? How did it happen?’ Sometimes you need a little insider information. Well, they had a lot of insider information – they had the exact plans. They actually had the plans of the whole prison from the guy who made it.”

Gil Margulis said he has recently been researching Etkes’s life, 50 years after his death. He said he found his memoir, although it ends before the Acre prison break.

But the memoir does include Etkes recounting how in 1921 he used his connections to take weapons from the British-run Jaffa armory and “lent” them to Jewish fighters in Tel Aviv during Arab riots, according to the report. Etkes was revealed as the culprit and punished at the time by being reassigned to the barren north.

Gil Margulis said Etkes had no qualms about working for both sides: “It wasn’t an anti-British thing. I think the interesting thing is that, for a period, the empire and the Zionist movement were kind of walking in the same direction with different goals. For him, building the country was a big thing, and he was able to do that with the empire putting resources in.”

He said Etkes didn’t come forward with the story during his life to avoid unwanted attention.

“For the rest of his life, he had a nice British pension,” he said. “I think he said that he didn’t want to jeopardize that for a little news credit. It’s not mentioned anywhere for that very reason.”

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