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The British Eastern Mediterranean Fleet

During the years 1946-1948 the British government acted to prevent the efforts of the survivors of the Holocaust to reach the Land of Israel. To this effect the British navy utilized the Eastern Mediterranean Fleet, headquartered in Malta.

Starting April 1946 the commander of the Mediterranean Fleet was Vice Admiral Sir Algernon Usborne Willis 2nd Sea Lord. Under his command was Cruiser Fleet 15 as well as Destroyer Fleet 3, 14 vessels in total.

From July 1946, as part of the efforts to stop Jewish immigration to the Land of Israel, 4-6 destroyers were permanently assigned to Haifa harbor. Boats belonging to the British Mandate police force also patrolled along the shores. These patrols were initially within 6-7 km from shore, between Jaffa and Lebanon, and later expanded to cover the shores between Gaza and Lebanon. The shoreline was divided into patrol segments, with each segment covered by two destroyers. An aerial force was also deployed to detect the clandestine immigration ships, reporting suspicious vessels for investigation by the destroyers.

Vice Admiral Sir Algernon Usborne Willis 2nd Sea Lord

Operation Igloo began in August 1946 to transfer the clandestine immigrants to detention camps in Cyprus. The naval forces in Haifa were augmented with four Liberty merchant ships carrying barred cages to make them floating prisons – detention and deportation ships. British military orders limited each ship to carrying up to 1500 immigrants. Except for the cages the ships bore no facilities for long-term stays. The Exodus immigrants who stayed on the ships for two months describe exceedingly terrible conditions on the ships. The immigrants lay on the steel floors of the cages, 800 to 1500 people in each cage. Men, women and children were caged together. In the hot days of July 1947 the immigrants stayed in the cages, dressed only in undergarments.

As the mass immigration continued, towards May 1947 when the Cyprus internment camps filled up, the British government decided on a new policy, at the active instigation of foreign secretary Bevin. This policy was called Refoulement, meaning the return of the immigrants to their ports of embarkation. This policy was executed once only, on the immigrants of the Exodus 1947.  The policy failed because the European countries refused to cooperate with the British, and because of the refusal of the Exodus immigrants to disembark from the detention ships at Port de Bouc, France, and at Gibraltar.

The overpowering of the clandestine immigration boats by the British navy was carried out without the use of firearms such as cannon, rifles or pistols, due to a mutual understanding of both the British and the Haganah that killing of immigrants and of British soldiers was to be avoided. The British navy therefore utilized commandos and marines, especially trained as forces to counteract “street demonstrations”.

The method of operation was as follows:
As soon as a Clandestine Immigration ship entered the territorial waters of the Land of Israel, two destroyers would ram it and forcibly attach themselves to the ship on both sides. At the same time, commando/marine forces would jump from the destroyers to the immigration ship, and overpower the bridge and the engine room. This ensured British control of the ship, which was then either towed or sailed by the British to Haifa. As time passed the clandestine immigrants started to resist and fight the boarding forces with cold weapons such as cans or even potatoes, but the boarders always overpowered the immigrants.

Operation Oasis (according to “Exodus – the True Story”. P. 296):
Operation Oasis was the code name for the forced disembarkation of the Exodus clandestine immigrants in Hamburg. The British then proceeded to use this code name for all activities in Germany pertaining to the Exodus deportees.

Operation Embarrass was one of the secret operations conducted by the British government against the clandestine immigration. On September 21 2010 Prof. Keith Jeffrey of Queen’s University, Belfast, published “MI6: The History of the Secret Intelligence Service, 1909-1949”. In this book Prof. Jeffrey denotes five cases where, as part of Operation Embarrass, the MI6 agents reported sabotaging the clandestine immigration ships in their European ports of departure, even sinking one ship. This was done to intimidate the immigrants and their leaders, and to break their spirits. These operations were executed under the name of a fictitious Arab organization, “Defenders of Arab Palestine”, which took credit for these actions. One clandestine immigration ship, the Stroma, was sunk, at the time presumably by a Russian submarine.  Of the 769 immigrants on board, only one survived. In his research of MI6 documents Prof. Keith Jeffrey was astonished to discover an MI6 plan to bomb the Exodus while it was carrying its 4500 clandestine immigrants. The rationale for this plan was “to intimidate and prevent, one must hurt greatly”. Fortunately, the British Foreign Office vetoed this recommendation.

Prof. Keith Jeffrey

The Chosen One:

The original painting is displayed in the Clandestine Immigration and Naval Museum, Haifa. The museum’s staff permitted us to photograph the painting and enter it into the “Legacy Site of the Exodus 1947 Clandestine Immigrants”.

The painting is “The Chosen One”, by the American painter Tom W. Freeman (1953-June 2015), drawn in watercolors.  The painting measures 57.6cm X 86.36 cm (23” X 34”).

Tom W. Freeman’s official internet site is . Additional paintings of this artist may be found on this site, located by Google, and at .

 The above painting shows the floodlit Exodus flanked by two British destroyers, after it was rammed by them at least once.

The painting demonstrates the battle methods developed by the British against the Clandestine Immigration ships. A pair of destroyers collides simultaneously with the floodlit immigration ship, attaching themselves on both sides, and then dispatch squads of Marines towards the bridge and the engine room to take over the ship. The picture shows the Exodus between the destroyers, before they collided and attached themselves to her sides.

British destroyer ramming a Clandestine Immigration ship

The light cruiser Ajax and the destroyers which participated in overpowering the Exodus



HMS Ajax 22 Light Cruiser



HMS Cardigan Bay F630

The Liberty type deportation and imprisonment ships

British naval vessels patrolling the Mediterranean during 1946-1948

HMS Mauritius
HMS Cicero_(F170)
Commanders participating in the blockade of the coasts of the Land of Israel
 under the British Mandate
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