By David Lev,

Mordechai Limon, who was one of the pioneers and first commander of the Israel Navy, passed away over the Jewish Sabbath at age 85. Limon, who immigrated to Israel in 1932 from Poland, was at the nexus of two of the most important naval episodes in the course of Israel’s history: The smuggling of immigrants from British detention camps in Cyprus after the Holocaust, and the retrieval from France of five warships that Israel had bought and paid for, but which French President Charles de Gaulle sought not to deliver to Israel.

During World War II, Limon joined the Haganah (predecessor to Israel Defense Forces), where he subsequently helped establish the organization’s naval unit, and conducted training courses for young soldiers. He decided he needed more experience at sea, and joined the British Merchant Marine and sailed the world. At the end of the war, he returned to the Middle East, disembarking at Alexandria. After his return to Mandatory Palestine, Limon commanded several ships smuggling in stateless Jews from detention camps in Cyrus. Altogether, Limon successfully brought 5,000 Jews to the Land of Israel before the establishment of the State.

During the War of Independence, Limon commanded several vessels, and, among other battles, participated in the Helino Incident, in which a Czech ship filled with weapons bound for Egypt was confiscated. In 1950, Limon was named Commander of the newly established Israel Navy, with the rank of general – at age 26, the youngest officer in the IDF’s history to be promoted to that rank.

In 1954, Limon left the Navy and studied business administration in the United States. He returned to Israel and began working in a number of capacities for the Defense Ministry, and in 1962 was chosen to head Israel’s procurement office in Paris, then the most important source for Israel of foreign-manufactured weapons. Limon was able to put together many important weapons deals for the IDF in that post and built up excellent working relations with French government and military officials.

In 1965, Israel negotiated the manufacture and purchase of advanced missile boats at a ship foundry in Cherbourg, France. In the wake of the 1967 Six Day War, French President Charles de Gaulle placed an embargo on Israeli arms purchases from France – including the Cherbourg boats, for which Israel had already paid. The ships, some of which were ready to sail and already manned by Israeli crews, were forced to remain anchored in Cherbourg.

In order to redeem the ships, Limon and other Israeli officials clandestinely established a Norwegian company, which “purchased” the ships from Israel, with the sale approved by French authorities. The Norwegian company was ostensibly to use the ships for oil exploration in the North Sea, but Israeli officials began preparing them for the long journey to Israel, equipping them with spare fuel. At the same time, Israeli sailors, posing as Norwegian staff, began manning the ships. On December 24, 1969, as residents of Cherbourg were celebrating Christmas, the ships left port, arriving in Israel on December 31.

The French, meanwhile, became aware of what happened only after the ships left port, and in retaliation booted Limon out of the country. When he returned to Israel in 1970, he was greeted by the top brass of the IDF and the Defense Ministry, and hailed as a hero for his role in rescuing the ships.

Limon subsequently retired from official life, and became a private businessman.

Speaking Saturday night, President Shimon Peres mourned Limon, saying that his contributions to the State “were as deep and important as they were quiet. He knew how to handle crises, such as in the Cherbourg Affair. The nation has an obligation to salute the man, his personality, his actions, and his contributions.”

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.