The Truth About the Altalena
EDITOR'S NOTE—Below we publish the address by Menachem Begin delivered over the broadcasting station, "The Voice of Freedom," in Tel Aviv, on the night of Tuesday, June 22nd; while the ship "Altalena" was still burning. Tons of thousands in Tel Aviv crowded round loud-speakers to listen to the broadcast, which will surely go down as one of the most moving in the history of the Jewish struggle for independence. The simple words which held their attention for over two full hours have lifted the veil which the official bodies have tried and are trying to draw over the incident, and revealed the truth in all its nakedness, greatness and tragedy.
Brothers and Sisters, Listen: I have come to relate to you to-night one of the most terrible chapters that have happened in the history of our nation and perhaps the history of all other nations on this earth. A terrible chapter, but also one of the most courageous chapters ever written by the few who were face to face with deathly danger.
EQUIPMENT FOR A WHOLE BRIGADE
Before I tell you of what took place on board ship and at Kfar Vitkin, I shall deal with the facts concerning the bringing of the arms, concerning its distribution and concerning those developments which brought about the tragic end of this beautiful ship bringing sufficient equipment to arm a full brigade. We, the men of Irgun Zvai Leumi, have in the last few months made supreme efforts to bring reinforcements to our Hebrew fighters, to give the Jewish soldier those arms which he lacked at the beginning of the attacks by the Arabs and British. It was not easy to obtain these arms. We have no millions. We do not collect millions. We have no Ministries. We achieved it with our ten fingers. We collected penny for penny. And about two weeks ago we completed loading the equipment for 6,000 men on the ship, "Altalena" – that beautiful ship which we named after our great teacher and father, Vladimir Jabotinsky.
What superb equipment was loaded on this boat! What quantities and kinds of arms!
5,500 rifles, 300 Bren-guns, 50 Spandau machine-guns, 4 million bullets, 10 thousand anti-aircraft bombs, 50 Fiat anti-tank rifles, 10,000 rifle grenades, etc., etc.
JEWS FROM ALL OVER THE WORLD SLAVED TO BRING THESE ARMS TO ISRAEL!
With our teeth, with our nails, with our very blood we purchased these for our Hebrew fighters. What did our brothers in the Golan not do to purchase this equipment and to bring it to Eretz Israel!
Jews from America, from Cuba, from the various European countries—good Jews, simple, ordinary folk, sailors and soldiers sacrificed all they had for this holy aim: to bring arms for the soldiers of Jewry.
This beautiful ship had a tonnage of 5,500. Its captain was a young American Jew who had for a period of three years himself served on a boat of this type against the Nazi-German enemy, the exterminators of our nation. This captain is still young, but very experienced in sailing ships as well as in battle. It was he who during the most critical hours of the evil attack, stood by us; it was he who toiled and laboured for months on end until he succeeded in bringing the boat to the shores of our country. It was he who succeeded in breaking the blockade.
THE PROVISIONAL GOVERNMENT WAS INFORMED
Before we brought the ship we informed the Provisional Government. Our responsibility was great. There was a truce in existence. We knew that the truce was nothing else but the achievement of the British enemy, but the official leadership fell into the trap and agreed to a cease-fire on land, sea and air, and consented to the supervision by U.N.O.
And we were afraid lest the enemy would be given an excuse to announce the end of the truce in order to renew his attacks on our positions.
Out of an appreciation of our responsibilities we found it necessary to bring to the notice of the Israeli Government everything connected with this boat, of what it contained, and what we intended to do with it.
Discussions commenced between us concerning the place where the ship would anchor and concerning the attribution of its arms.
The Provisional Government most certainly knew that the ship "Altalena" was about to reach the shores of the country, and it agreed to it.
It is this provisional Government which demanded of us that the arms should be brought to the shores of the country. It is this Government that asked us not to consider the blockage of Bernadotte. And all the discussions centred only on how to bring the ship and how to distribute the arms.
WE PLACED THE ARMS AT THE DISPOSAL OF THE GOVERNMENT
We told them: We place these arms at the disposal of the Government. We have undertaken to obey its laws, and we stand by our undertakings! We began to incorporate our battalions into the Army. We have no ulterior motives and we have no ulterior ambitions. We did not ask one penny for all this. And when they suggested to us to negotiate about the financial angle we said: "There is no financial angle. We do not trade in arms. We are fighters." We did not ask one penny for all these arms, even though their value ran into millions of dollars.
They were astonished when we refused to take money from them.
When I told their Chief of Staff that we do not demand one penny he replied in amazement: "So? Truly?" He could not understand this. This man, whom I have respected to his day: the man with whom I sat together in the Tenuat HaMeri three years ago, and with whom I negotiated about a joint war against the British. I respected him even though he was at the head of the Haganah, which handed over our best fighters to the British Intelligence. He told me that he was not responsible for what had occurred and that he had not wanted those things to take place, and I believed him. I respected him. And I stretched out a hand of friendship to him after all that they had done to us.
OUR DEMAND: A PART OF THE EQUIPMENT FOR JERUSALEM
And there were negotiations only about the distribution of the arms. We told them: the whole country is one front. But Jerusalem is the most important of all fronts. And we asked that a portion of the arms should be handed over to our fighters in Jerusalem—those who with their bodies, and because of their preparedness of sacrifice, saved perhaps the whole city at the decisive battle of Ramat Rachel, when they stood alone during a period of thirty hours, without pause, against tanks and armoured cars of the enemy.
We did not manage to equip our men in Jerusalem with the arms which they needed. Accoutrement sufficient to equip fifteen hundred men was destroyed during our years of war against the British. Most of these arms were handed over to the British by the agents of Ben Gurion. Our best sons and our best arms were we sacrificed in this long war. And therefore we did not manage to bring to our men in Jerusalem the necessary arms. We did not have the arms, because we did not have the money to buy the arms. Do you remember, brothers, when we appealed to you for support for the Iron Fund? They called on you to boycott this Fund. They interfered in our collections—in Eretz Israel as well as outside.
Nevertheless, without money, without ammunition factories, not less than two thousand of our troops were stationed in Jerusalem and took part in the most difficult battles. I simply fear to reveal to you what the position of our troops was on that fateful May 14th—the eve of the general attack launched by the enemy. In spite of it our troops were the ones who conquered the Generali Building, the Anglo-Palestine Bank building, the Italian Hospital, the Russian Square. They were the ones who in their first attack conquered Sheik Jarrah. And they would have pressed that attack towards the Old City, and might, together with the soldiers of Lechi, have conquered it, had not the High Command over Jerusalem given the order for withdrawal. For we had an agreement with the Haganah, and we carry out agreements—and so our Commanding Officer had to halt the advance.
OUR SOLDEIRS WERE LEFT IN THE LURCH AT MISHMAR HAYARDEN AND YEHUDIA
Our fighters in Jerusalem participated on all fronts. They were almost without arms. In that very Sheik Jarrah our soldiers faced enemy tanks and armoured cars without arms. They cried for help. But this did not come. They were left in the lurch in the same way as a section of our soldiers who defended Mishmar HaYarden were left in the lurch. One day we shall relate this chapter of Mishmar HaYarden—they were that small band of heroes who could not get reinforcements from the many battalions stationed in the Galil—because the Officer Commanding these battalions belonged to the Hashomer Hatsair, which hates us with a blind hatred. They were left in the lurch even though they defended Mishmar HaYarden, the most strategic point in the whole of Upper Galilee—and so Mishmar HaYarden fell! In Yehudia, too, our men were abandoned – that very Yehudia which we conquered with our blood. Our men were not relieved in Yehudia during all those weeks and there again a few dozen faced the tanks and armoured cars. They appealed for help but did not receive it.
And this Yehudia—the strategic point in the defense of Petach Tikvah—fell into the hands of the enemy.
SIX COMPLETE BATTALIONS OF ETZEL FOR THE ARMY OF ISRAEL
In Jerusalem our soldiers were without arms and were left in lurch. We therefore decided to put an end to this state of affairs and to transfer our best arms to Jerusalem to equip those fighters who cleared the capital from the Nazo-British contamination. We decided to arm our soldiers, who during six months stood shoulder to shoulder with the Haganah in the Old City without even being supplied with food by them. Therefore we said: A definite percentage of these arms must be earmarked for Jerusalem. And they said: There must be discussions about this. We replied: No! Twenty per cent. of these arms will go to Jerusalem. And so it was agreed upon. This was definitely agreed upon.
There remained the problem of the 80 per cent. of the arms. We told them: We are bringing in six battalions, into the battle units, into the medical units, we are adding women to the ranks – and our women are eager fighters! Over five thousand men we gave to the Army. Five thousand over and above the two thousand in Jerusalem, over and above the thousands in the Diaspora.
And we told them: We have brought more arms than we need for our battalions—battalions which are an indivisible part of the Hebrew Army, battalions whose soldiers were prepared to take the oath of loyalty to the Israeli Army and to the Israeli Government. We told them: We shall give our battalions these arms with your knowledge, in your presence. Our soldiers will be under the order of you brigadiers. We have no ambitions of our own.
AND IN SPITE OF ALL WE ACCEPTED THE DISCIPLINE OF BEN GURION
And you know, my brothers, we have experienced black days and dark nights. Our fighters were beaten, tortured, handed over to the Intelligence. And your leadership even helped to bring our men to the gallows. But in spite of it all we sent our men to the Israeli Army. I personally was compelled to work for weeks on end in order to root out the bitterness that there was in their hearts, to tell our fighters that there is no other way, that we are all in danger, that the enemy is at the gate and that the enemy does not distinguish between an Irgunite, a Sternist or a man of the Haganah. I told them that the time for unity had come, the time for a joint war.
And my comrades could not understand how it was possible for them to be sent to fight under the orders of Ben Gurion. How? Under the orders of that very man who three years before spoke from the platform of the Histadruth—desecrated the platform of the Histadruth – and asked the Hebrew worker, the heroic Palmach soldier to hand over Hebrew soldiers to the British C.I.D.
For after all to this very day, dozens, hundreds of those that were handed over, are still languishing under the British. Hundreds of our men still carry scars—the result of that order which Ben Gurion gave to beat and torture our men.
But in spite of it I faced the thousands of our soldier and demanded from them not to remember all that. I spoke to them during whole days and nights. I convinced them. Brother, I said, enter the Israeli Army. Go to the assembly centres. And they went. They suffered discriminations upon discriminations. Nevertheless they continued to volunteer. They continued to fight shoulder to shoulder with the men of the Haganah—in Ashdod, in Ramleh, in the North and in the South, in the Sharon. In few days' time our soldiers were due to leave for the Galil, and we said to the men of the Haganah "Do you see, in spite of all, our youth is prepared to forget and forgive. For us there exist no side issues. We have only one aim. Some of the precious arms must go to our soldiers. The balance we shall give you.
But they said: No. We demand all the arms for ourselves. And they added: Should we so desire we shall arm your battalions and if not we shall arm other battalions.
Our soldiers dreamt for years on end about such arms. What didn't they do, what didn’t they sacrifice for every rifle, for every gun? Do you remember Akir? Do you remember the arms-train at Benyamina? All our arms were paid for with our blood, with the blood of our best sons. And lo and behold! At last liberating arms arrive—new and modern. How can we [missing word, T.W.] equip our soldiers with these arms? Shall we not see to it that our men shall receive preference? Our men are free men. They listen to our voice because our voice is the voice of their conscience, is the echo of their innermost desires. But if we should betray them—they will revolt against us. Here there was definite danger. We could not go too far. We could not give up our demands in the national interest as a whole—which demands fighting unity of all soldiers.
We suggested the supervision of the Government over the arms. Our suggestion: You will supervise the unloading and control of the arms.
And therefore we could not agree to this demand. Discussions proceeded for two more days. We made it clear over and over again that we had no special motive in making this demand. And we suggested to them: you will be there at the time of the unloading. You will supervise the unloading. Together with you we shall bring the arms to the arsenals. A double-guard will be placed over these arsenals—ours and yours. And the command over this double-guard will be in your hands. And they [missing word, T.W.]: No! These arms we demand only for ourselves. Only for ourselves. And we informed them that we could not agree to this demand.
And when the discussions had [missing word, T.W.] the Chief of Staff informed us that they would not help us in the unloading of the arms. Not a single additional word was added. Only this he said: they will not help us.
Naturally, this announcement did not impress us overmuch, although it was most surprising. Imagine: [missing word, T.W.] hundreds of tons of arms arrive. At the same time there is honourable Count Bernadotte who will most certainly want to [missing word, T.W.] out about this ship. And the government, after all, is interested in these arms. And lo and behold! Because of a division of opinion [missing word, T.W.] details this Government does not want to help in its unloading. Well, after all, we have already accomplished greater thing than this. After all, it was our boys who carried out the storming of Acre. Our boys took Jaffa. We were the men who fought during a period of [missing word, T.W.] against a 100,000 British troops and emerged victorious.
Therefore we repaired to Kfar Vatkin, near the jetty, to the place where it had been decided the ship would anchor, and where the arms would be unloaded.
THE BOAT WAS DELAYED AND WE SENT IT BACK TO SEA
The ship was due to arrive three days before. Due to an error there was a delay, and instead of arriving at night, it only arrived at the appointed place at the break of dawn.
Out of a realisation of our responsibilities we decided to send the ship back to sea. We did not want to provide the enemy with an excuse. We were afraid lest the ship be spotted by the British aero-planes of Count Bernadotte.
How difficult and fateful was this decision. Eight hundred men with [missing word, T.W.] equipment were sent back to sea, to an area where British ships were on the prowl. But we took into consideration the other danger and therefore decided to send back to sea the men who for so many years dreamt about their first contact with the Homeland. And among [missing word, T.W.] 800 their Commander, Benyamin, who had been Mefaqed of the Jerusalem district and who had been handed over directly by the Jewish Agency to the British Intelligence. He was exiled to [missing word, T.W.] and the Sudan, escaped from the detention camp, and for a whole year he was hiding in Abyssinia. Thereafter he went by tanker for hundreds of miles on end across tropical Africa. We succeeded in bringing him to Europe and he was appointed the Commander of the Irgun Zvai Leumi in Europe. All his knowledge, his energy and the [missing word, T.W.] of his heart were devoted to this supreme effort of acquiring the arms and getting these to our country. In the end he succeeded in completing this task and as the commander he himself boarded the ship. How happy was this man! He forgave them all. He did not remember the evil done to him. And this officer Benyamin, as he was about to alight at Kfar Vitkin, hailed us already from afar with a hearty "Shalom," but we were compelled to give him the order: Back! Back to sea, not to endanger the truce. Slowly the gangplank is drawn up, the men wave with their hands, the captain hoists anchor.
LORD GOD OF ISRAEL! GUARD THEM ON THE HIGH SEAS!
We passed an anxious day. And we prayed: "Lord God of Israel, guard them on the High Seas!"
Perhaps the prayer helped. And after a day of waiting in anxiety the ship reached the jetty. Dusk fell. Night came. The ship dropped anchor. The huge landing platform is lowered and the hold of the ship is visible from afar. How many Brens! How many rifles! How many round of ammunition! We board the ship and our men begin to unload. Hurry, hurry! The night is short!
They did not help us.
MEN FROM THE PALMACH AND THE HAPOEL ASSISTED US
But some men from the Palmach, a seafaring section of the Hapoel—15 youths, said to us: We are at your disposal. And they brought with them their boat and helped us take the men off.
But their boat got damaged and they could no longer help us. They remained for some time and then returned. We had at our disposal only the motor boat, which the captain named "V.P."
We could not bring the ship right up to the jetty. It mounted a sandbank, but our men worked without pause and without rest. Without food or water. Box after box unloaded. Hurry! Lest the planes of the enemy shall come and observe us! But our results were poor. In the course of the night we managed to unload only a small portion of the hundreds of tons. Dawn broke.
TWO ISRAELI ARMED VESSELS APPROACH US
In the meantime two armed vessels approached us. When we first saw them on the horizon, we were not certain that they were Jewish. We were afraid lest they were Egyptian. But perhaps they were only merchant vessels? Only when it was fully daylight did we know for certain: they were Hebrew armed vessels. They approached our ship and closed in upon her. We knew! The retreat to the sea was closed. We had to continue unloading. And so we carried on during the morning hours. Along the improvised sand road constructed by our engineers, heavy lorries made their way, and on these we succeeded in loading a portion of the unloaded arms.
Suddenly information reaches us: the roads are blocked. The main roads are impassable. Our men went out to remove the road blocks. They were successful only to a sm00000all extent, for further on the main road was blocked by a Jewish tractor—around which were dozens of Hebrew soldiers who threatened to open fire if we should try to break through.
Not long after that a messenger arrived bringing a letter.
THE ULTIMATUM: TEN MINUTES
The letter was destroyed by fire—together with the ship "Altalena"—but I remember the contents, and certainly the one who wrote the letter also remembers. The author was Major Dan Epstein, known as Alexanderoni.
And this man wrote me the following: "I have received an order to requisition the arms under your control to be placed at the disposal of the nation. You are to obey this order immediately. Bear in mind (he wrote this letter to me in a personal capacity) that you are surrounded on all sides by fully-armed and equipped Israeli troops. The order is to use all means in my hands to carry out the instruction. And if you will not obey the order—all the responsibility will rest on you. And I, Dan Epstein, known as Alexanderoni, give you, the Mefaqed of the Irgun Zvai Leumi, ten minutes to fulfill this ultimatum. Ten minutes."
I could not reply to this ultimatum in ten minutes and I asked the messenger to inform Mr. Epstein that I wanted to speak to him.
THE SHIP IS DISCOVERED BY THE UNITED NATIONS
Several hours passed. Our men continued to unload. In the meantime a plane appeared and circled over the ship—a white plane with the words "U.N.O." on it. We knew then: the ship had been discovered.
Had they come to our aid we would have succeeded together to unload the cargo within eight hours. We would have brought the arms to the bases. And the ship would have returned.
OFFICERS OF BERNADOTTE VISIT US
And now she was discovered. We could no longer retreat. We continued to unload. In the meantime two representatives of the United Nations arrived—one French and one American. They wanted to know what the ship contained. We met them in the middle of the road, and I asked Jacob Meridor to inform them that we very much respected the United Nations, but that we could not for the present take them to the place where the ship was anchored.
They understood. They gave the military salute. We returned the salute, and they went home, we went back to the ship. To unload. To unload quickly. Dozens went down with sun-stroke. The men worked without food and water. Our men dropped on their feet but did not give in.
THE ATTACK BEGAN WITH ALL KINDS OF ARMS
And suddenly, towards evening, the attack began. From all sides and with all kinds of arms. Bullets whizzed past from every direction. Heavy arms were brought into the battle. Rifle-grenades were used against us: grenades of two and three-inch calibre. And there on the shore was already piled arms and tens of thousands of bullets. There were explosives. Every shell which would have landed there would have destroyed our boys. And if a shell had penetrated the hold of the ship where there were concentrated tens of tons of explosives the ship would have exploded with everything on board.