Israel Smuggles Sa’ar Class Missile Boats Out of Cherbourg

December 24, 1969

In the early 1960s, the Israeli navy concluded that their WWII-era vessels needed updating to compete with their more advanced enemies.  Accordingly, in the mid 1960’s, Israel commissioned a series of Sa’ar 3 war boats to be built in the French port of Cherbourg by the ship builder Felix Amiot.

Since the late 1940s, relations between Israel and France, under the leadership of President Charles de Gaulle, were very cordial and cooperative.  In the 1960s, France was Israel’s main supplier of military equipment, including the Mirage Fighter Jet, which made up most of Israel’s air force. Israeli naval engineers even traveled to France to work with Felix Amiot’s team to help complete the order.  However, this golden age of relations between the two countries changed dramatically with a French arms embargo on the Middle East following the June 1967 War.

De Gaulle stopped the shipment of the naval boats to Israel.  Its navy in dire need of rebuilding after the war, Israel planned the “Cherbourg Project,” an operation to recover the five remaining Israeli war ships built in Cherbourg.  Israeli teams were sent to France to work in local shipyards and the Mossad established a “front” shipping company to buy the remaining boats.  Leaving France on December 24, 1969, all five ships arrived at the Kishon port in Haifa on December 31.  A diplomatic falling out with France resulted from the operation, leading Israel to court the United States as an ally and source of military supplies.

Photo Credit: The Cherbourg boats docked in Haifa on December 31, 1969