“Operation Thief,” Israeli Intelligence’s first major coup, straddled the desperate months just before and after the State came into existence.
One of war’s most important principles is that a battle prepared for is a battle half won. Field Marshall Erwin Rommel learned this lesson in 5702/1942 when his superior troops were decimated at El Alamein, largely because Allied submarines and bombers sunk the majority of his supply ships en route.
As Israel braced for independence in 5708/1948, Jews and Arabs scrambled to have the upper hand on the day the anticipated war would erupt. In early February, 5708/1948, a Swissair four-propeller Douglas DC-4 Skymaster bounced down the bumpy runway of Tel Aviv’s primitive airport and hurtled off to Paris. Inside, two sworn enemies sat a few rows apart.
In the first class compartment was a Syrian officer, Captain Ahmad-Aziz Kerine, on his way to buy arms from Czechoslovakia. Behind him sat Ehud Avriel, representative of Rekhesh, the arms buying agency of the outlawed Haganah. He was traveling to Prague on a similar mission, to procure weaponry for the desperately under-equipped Jews.
Once in Europe, Avriel discovered that Kerine had made an arms purchase that radically upset the Jewish/Arab balance of power. Although Kerine’s purchase of 6,000 rifles and 8 million rounds of ammunition seems puny by modern standards, weighed against the fact that Israel’s grand total of rifles was 10,073, the Syrian’s acquisition was a major catastrophe.
In a desperate attempt to even the odds, the Haganah initiated what became known as “Operation Thief.” One way or another, the Jews were determined that the Syrian arms must never reach their destination. Time was of the essence. The rifles had already been loaded onto an ancient Italian liner, the SS Lino, and were en route to Syria.
The initial plan was to bomb the boat. Although the Jews had no access to bombers at the time, they planned to accomplish this mission by the simply rolling bombs onto the boat from a transport plane’s doorway. Veteran Jewish World War II pilots roared off from European airstrips and scoured the Mediterranean for three days, searching for a sign of the Italian liner without success. The SS Lino seemed to have been swallowed up by the waves. Where had it gone?
The enigma was solved on March 30, when it was discovered that the ship had been ordered back to a Yugoslavian port for some unknown reason. But the very next day, Rekhesh agents in Yugoslavia cabled Colonel Fouad Mardam, Quartermaster- General of the Syrian army an alert:
CRATE WITH FOODS FOR ISHMAELITES LEFT MORNING STOP NAME LINO STOP…DESTINATION BEIRUT STOP
The SS Lino was underway again and, once more, the Jewish pilots resumed their game of hide-and-seek. This time, however, a fierce storm prevented their success. The Haganah was on the verge of sending a yacht to sink the liner when they discovered that the SS Lino had returned to port again, this time because of engine trouble and the storm. The boat was now docked in Molfetta, Southern Italy.
A fierce electoral battle was raging in Italy at the time between the Christian Democrats and the Communists. A Haganah supporter phoned a Christian Democratic newspaper and “informed” a friend there that the Communists were docking arms. The Communists promptly insisted that the arms belonged to right-wing parties that wanted to take over the country by force. The alarmed government arrested the ship’s crew and towed the SS Lino to the military harbor of Bari.
BACK AT SQUARE ONE
However, the ship’s captain quickly proved that the whole thing was a mistake and it was more than likely that the ship would soon be released. In addition, rumors circulated that the British were pressuring Italy to release the ship. The Jews came up with a new plan – to blow up the ship in the harbor. A Palmach commander, Yosef Dror, and three comrades disguised a fiveton truck to look like a U.S. Army crop-spraying vehicle, hid explosives in a drum labeled DDT, and set off for Bari.
In Bari, Dror and his team patched together a primitive mine, consisting of TNT packed in the inner tube of a motorbike tire, inflated a rubber dinghy, and tried to row across the harbor towards the Syrians’ boat. Unfortunately, a British destroyer was docked nearby, splaying its searchlights over the water the whole night. When the Jews made a second attempt the next night, the activity aboard the destroyer was even greater. Suddenly, at 1:30 a.m., the destroyer pulled out of harbor and the SS Lino was a sitting duck.
Within minutes, Dror and his men slipped into the water, attached the mine and fled. At 4:00 a.m., there was a violent explosion, sinking the ship and its rifles beneath the waves in less than ten minutes. By then, the Jews were already on their way to Rome and no one had the faintest idea who was behind the sabotage.
Before long, however, the Syrian premier ordered a salvage operation.
“These weapons are vital for us,” he told him. “Yet by failing properly to notify the Italian government of their true ownership, they are at the bottom of Bari harbor, blown up by one or other of the political factions. I demand that the Italian government be now informed about our legal claims and also that they be lifted from the harbor and handed to us.”
Protected by a thick layer of grease, the rifles were none the worse for their subaquatic experience. Meanwhile, the State of Israel was declared on 5 Iyar. War broke out and keeping the guns out of Syrian hands was more urgent than ever. The warehouse holding the rifles was under heavy guard and the Jews would, once again, have to wait until they were en route to Syria.
To transport the guns, Mardam bought the SS Argiro, a 250-ton ex-Navy ship, for a million lira from the Menara Shipping Agency in Rome. Little did he know that the hotelier who had directed him to the company had been bribed by the Israelis. Nor was he aware that the Menara company had close ties with the Jewish underground ever since the days of illegal immigration to Palestine.
HIGH SEAS DRAMA
Just before setting sail from Rome, the ship’s captain reported that two of his crew members were ill and replaced them with Jewish agents. The SS Argiro arrived in Bari and embarked with its load of weapons on the morning of August 19. Mardam flew back to Syria, satisfied that his job was done. Out on the high seas, the SS Argiro developed engine problems and a fishing boat that “happened to be in the vicinity” volunteered to help. Two Israeli agents climbed aboard and, together with their two colleagues who were already on board, they seized control of the ship.
The agents radioed to Israel and, near Haifa, the SS Argiro was met by two small Israeli naval vessels. The men and weapons were transferred to the Israeli craft and the SS Argiro was sunk.
Back in Syria, Colonel Mardam was condemned to death for suspected complicity with the Israelis. To save his life, Israel revealed the whole plot to the Syrians via the French embassies in Tel Aviv and Damascus, and “Operation Thief” came to its conclusion without bloodshed.
Although “Operation Thief” helped alleviate the arms balance, a higher percentage of Jews died in the Independence War than in any other Israel-Arab conflict, partly because of the weapons disparity. The 6,373 Israelis killed comprised nearly one percent of the Jewish population in Eretz Yisroel which numbered only 650,000 at the time.