Israel 1948: The Lino Affair and Operation Pirate

 

Back when the Israeli Palestinian conflict was still the Arab Israeli conflict, Arab states sought weapons to kill off any possibility that Zionism could succeed. The Jews in retaliation did everything they could to prevent that from happening.

The most crucial moment of that history were the months leading up to the Jews declaring independence in 1948 and the several weeks of fighting after that time in which Israel was literally struggling to take each national breath.

In March of 1948 two months before the British were to leave Palestine on May 14th, and the Jews not backing down from their goals, even with threats of annihilation coming from the Arab world, both sides engaged in arming themselves for the inevitable coming war.

Haganna operatives learned from some friendly Czechs that the Czech government had sold a large cache of weapons to the Syrians.

The massive quantity of weapons roughly equaling the entire present arms storage of the Haganna consisted of 10,000 rifles, eight million bullets, hand grenades, and explosives to last for a very long war. The Syrians engaged an Italian ship, The Lino, to carry the weapons from Czechoslovakia to Syria at the end of March of that year.

Some Jewish sources say that the Czech weapons, even though purchased by the Syrians were destined to go to the Arab Liberation Army (ALA), the forerunner of the Palestinians today. This is completely believable since we know from history that it was the Syrians, who took it upon themselves to form and arm the ALA before the war started.

No matter who they were intended for, they were going to some enemy of the future Jewish state. The Jews only knew they somehow had to stop that shipment. Already at a disadvantage militarily, a cache like this could further alter the balance of power in favor of the Arab states.

A first attempt to bomb the ship with a C-46 transport plane dropping a twenty-five kilogram  bomb out of the back of the plane failed because the plane couldn’t find the ship on the open sea. Interesting how primitive Israeli intelligence at the time was unable to obtain a nautical course for The Lino.

Missing that opportunity it appeared the ship would make its voyage without incident, the Jews would have to find another way. A stroke of luck, while in route, the ship developed engine trouble and had to return to port for repairs in Italy.

Haganna had very good relations with the Italians, and was able to use that friendship to their advantage. They had the ship moved to the port of Bari, a much easier place for the Haganna to work some kind of an operation to get rid of those weapons. After docking in Bari, the Jews felt now, they had a good chance of blowing up the ship right in the harbor.

An American volunteer, Steve Schwartz who actually commanded the C-46 in its failed attempt was asked to find out if the ship actually had the weapons on board before they take the risk of setting charges to it. Schwartz, in Italy at the time, accepted the task without hesitation.

Again, an early failure of Israeli intelligence. They launched the C-46 operation without first getting those necessary verifications and only now in what was the second chance at success thought it to be a good idea. A young country just starting out and fighting for its very existence had to practice on the job training.

They did learn fast however.

A day after the ship dry docked, Schwartz was having a beer in a café near the port in Bari. He offered an American cigarette to the stranger sitting next to him.  It turns out the stranger was actually a port official. Schwartz, a former radio officer in the USAF during World War II asked if he could see the radio room on The Lino, feigning a curiosity about what it looked like. American cigarettes were in high demand after WWII, Schwartz slid the whole rest of the pack toward the Italian’s way.

Getting on the ship, Schwartz was definitely able to confirm to his Haganna colleagues that the weapons were on board. With some Italian help the Jews sent a frog man team into the water to set a charge big enough to sink the vessel. It blew a good size hole and down to the bottom of the harbor it went with all the weapons that would have been used to kill Jews.

But, the story doesn’t end there.

Sometime in June, two months later, under the watchful eye of Israeli agents the Syrians sent a team to Italy to see what they might be able to salvage out of The Lino. During this time war was raging in the now new State of Israel and things were not going well those first few weeks after the war started. Whatever the Syrians could salvage, Israeli agents were determined to make sure that they never reached their destination. They planned a more daring operation than blowing up The Lino and sinking it with all its contents on board.

They dubbed this “Operation Pirate.”

Salvaging the usable weaponry, the Syrians needed to hire another ship to haul it back to the Middle East. Unbeknownst to them, the Mossad orchestrated through their Italian contacts for the Syrians to secure The Argiro.  Two of the crew on The Argiro were Israeli agents.

When the ship passed into international waters, the two Israeli agents, who were engineers, stopped the ship in the water, making up a problem to the captain that had to be fixed before continuing. A fishing boat with two more Israeli agents, dressed in Syrian uniforms, came aboard and announced to the ship’s captain that there was some danger of the ship being attacked. Their job they explained was to stay on board for the remainder of the voyage and keep communication lines open with Syrian officials in Damascus.

The Israelis had essentially hijacked a Syrian arms ship and taken it over in both engineering and communication without the captain or the crew knowing about it, at least there is no evidence that they knew.

The faux Syrians, maintained their communication with a recently purchased Israeli yacht with one dozen armed Israelis. The Yacht taking its directions from The Argiro  maneuvered through the sea lanes to catch the ship a few miles into international waters off the Mediterranean coast. .

At the point of convergence, the Israelis came aboard and easily took over the ship as the crew was in no position to resist, even if they wanted to. The Argiro pulled into Haifa harbor at the end of June with 80% of the original cache of weapons.

They all went to Israel and the Syrians paid for it.

I’m sure there were a few beers toasted over that one.

 

 

 

1 Comment

  • Winston

    January 2, 2015

    Genesis 12:3