Israel feared Soviets sunk sub in 1968, papers reveals

Documents released by state archives on 45th anniversary of disaster detail confusion at highest levels following loss of Dakar

IDF chief Benny Gantz speaking in front of a picture of the Dakar at a memorial ceremony in in January. (photo credit: Yoav Ari Dudkevitch /Flash90)
IDF chief Benny Gantz speaking in front of a picture of the Dakar at a memorial ceremony in in January. (photo credit: Yoav Ari Dudkevitch /Flash90)

Israeli officials, frantic and befuddled by the sudden loss of a recently purchased submarine in 1968, feared the boat had been sunk by Soviet forces patrolling the Mediterranean, papers released on Sunday’s 45th anniversary of the disaster show.

The Dakar submarine was lost on January 25, 1968, and all 69 crew members aboard were killed. The remains of the sub were only found in 1999 in the deeps between the islands of Crete and Cyprus.

Sixteen documents cleared for publication last week by the state archives document the confusion in the minutes and days after the sub was lost, as officials attempted to grapple with the tragedy while carrying out search and rescue missions. The papers do not shed further light on the exact cause of the loss of the Dakar, which remains undetermined.

The papers include the minutes of a January 27, 1968, Cabinet meeting in which then-Navy head Shlomo Erell told the government that it was unlikely Egypt had sunk the ship, even though it had sent its last transmission from a position north of Alexandria. However, he said, he wasn’t sure why else it could have disappeared.

“There is the possibility that the sub was downed, without prior intent, by the Soviets,” he told the gathered ministers. “It’s possible they thought the sub was going to attack them, but this is just surmise.”

He added that he did not think it was likely the hands on board would be found alive.

A paper prepared by Erell weeks later listed three possible reasons for the disaster: technical or human error, an action by the Soviets, or a crash between the sub and another vessel in the water.

The papers also reveal that Israel turned to Turkey for permission to search along its southern coast, but was refused by Ankara, which said it would carry out the search itself.

Still, then-defense minister Moshe Dayan said the search was done on an “unprecedented, international scale.”

The international search mission was called off of January 30, but Israeli forces continued searching for four more days, only admitting the loss of the sub officially on February 4.

In the papers, Dayan explains to then-prime minister Levi Eshkol why he refused a request from the families of the crew to push off the death declaration and continue searching.

“I told the families that we can’t accept their request to push off the declaration,” he said. “This is not something at the discretion of the families representatives.”

The submarine was bought from the British and was to be sailed from Portsmouth via Gibraltar to Haifa for a welcoming ceremony on January 29. The submarine went underwater at the Straight of Gibraltar on January 15 and sent its last signal a minute after midnight on January 25.

In the 1990s, an Egyptian military official claimed he had been part of a team that sank the sub with depth charges.

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