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" Standby to Board "

The Royal Navy In Palestine Waters

In the later Months of 1945 came an influx of refugees from central Europe organised by the Zionist Movement. Their aim was to create a Jewish State in the promised land.

Small Craft started to land illegal immigrants on the coast at night and the Royal Navy was asked to intercept them and bring them into Haifa, the Only Port on the Palestine Coast which could handle ships of any size. In the Years that followed up to 1948 Sailors of the Royal Navy dealt with numerous illegal ships carrying Immigrants. In the early stages only primitive coastal craft were encountered, but soon larger vessels arrived, all of them overcrowded and in poor and dangerous condition. But by the August of 1947 six large vessels had been arrested within two weeks, and accommodation in the camps ashore was at such a critical level that fresh arrivals were switched to Ministry of War transport ships and re-routed to Cyprus under escort.

HMS Rowena intercepts Jewish shipThis change of policy meant that illegal vessels would no longer stop when challenged. The use of ships weapons would have led to heavy casualties and warships now had to get alongside to transfer boarding parties. Immigrant vessels often would maneuver violently to avoid being boarded, a practice which could easily have led to a serious collision.

Boarding parties were often opposed by crowds armed with clubs, iron bars, and other implements that could and were used as weapons and since the  crews of the illegal vessels often sabotaged their engines in order to claim that they had not entered territorial waters willingly, they often had to be taken in tow when they were in imminent danger of running aground. The minesweeper H.M.S. Providence and H.M.S. Chevron, a C-Class destroyer, also rescued over 800 survivors from a illegal immigrant vessel which sank off a Greek Island. Once the order away boarders was given in some cases the boarding parties would have to fight their way to the bridge to gain control of the ship.

President WarfieldThe best known incident was when the former SS President Warfield (alias Exodus 1947) attempted to bring in 4.500 would be immigrants in the July of 1947, she was intercepted by a force that included the Cruiser H.M.S.  Ajax. The destroyers had a very difficult time putting boarders on board and were badly damaged, after two hours of fighting the boarding parties finally gained control of the ship and steamed the vessel into Haifa. One crewman and two immigrants died from their injuries and two boarders seriously injured. The courage, determination and restraint of the boarding parties were crucial to the success of these missions. Once the vessel was under control they invariably behaved in a friendly and helpful manner towards the immigrants. Service in the Patrol was recognized by the award of the Naval General Service Medal. From start to finish 49 illegal immigrant vessels were arrested by the RN and some 66.000 people detained.

James Robinson

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