Season 2, Episode 32
There’s nothing like a dramatic prison break to fire up your team, demonstrate your skills, embarrass the other guys, and get a Hollywood movie made about you. And anyway the Irgun was not about to let their guys languish in a British prison, not when the Yishuv was making a final push to get the British out of Palestine. So in May, 1947, the Irgun carried out one of their craziest operations yet, against the British prison fortress in Akko.
The Jewish resistance movement was working. In response to the King David Hotel bombing in July, 1946, the British cracked down hard on the Jewish community in Palestine. They imposed increasingly harsh restrictions on the Yishuv (the Jewish community in Palestine), which just led to more resentment and more support for the resistance, despite ordinary Jews’ hatred for the Lehi and the Irgun’s terrorism.
The British were exhausted by the Jewish insurgency, and in February, 1947, Britain announced that they were turning the whole Palestine conundrum over to the United Nations. The British no longer had the appetite to either keep the Mandate indefinitely, or to figure out who would get what when it ends. In the meantime, though, the British were still in charge and still had to maintain order amidst a population that desperately wanted them gone.
Meanwhile, inside the British prison fortress in Akko, four Irgun fighters who had been captured by the British were hanged on April 16, 1947, among them a young fighter named Dov Gruner. The Irgun decided to bust the remaining Jewish prisoners out of the nearly-impregnable fortress, but the only way to do that would be to coordinate an inside sabotage with an outside attack. Eitan Livni, arrested in Operation Agatha/Black Sabbath, was tasked with organizing the break-out from the inside, and Dov Cohen, an Irgun leader, was chosen to head up the outside force.
Dressed in stolen British uniforms and stolen British army trucks, the attack began from the outside on May 4, 1947, when Dov Cohen and his team set up their explosives in broad daylight and breached the wall. Inside, Eitan Livni led his group through the prison, blasting open doors with explosives they had smuggled in. They left total chaos in their wake. In addition to the 41 escaped Jewish prisoners, 214 Arab prisoners — including some serious terrorists who had attacked Jews — also got out, forcing the British to spread their forces even thinner in pursuit.
A few minutes after the breakout, Dov Cohen and his group, carrying several escaped prisoners in their convoy, chanced upon a group of British soldiers relaxing by the beach. A fierce gun battle ensued, Dov was struck down and killed, and the British recaptured the escapees. Meanwhile, the British were in hot pursuit of Eitan Livni and his team, who managed to just barely get away after hiding at a nearby kibbutz and hiking out ten miles overnight.
By the end of the operation, 27 of the 41 escaped Jewish prisoners made it. Six were killed and eight captured. Of the Irgun attack force, three were killed and five captured; one British soldier was killed. The New York Times hailed it as one of the biggest jail breaks in history, Menachem Begin deemed it heroic, the Jewish Agency condemned it, the Yishuv loved it, and even the British acknowledged how bad it made them look.
And so the British found themselves, as usual, between a rock and a hard place. They were getting out of Palestine, although they didn’t know when, and leaving its fate to the rest of the world to determine. But in the meantime they still had to maintain law and order, run the place, fight against the Jewish insurgency, and now, also, prevent the Arabs and the Jews from fighting each other again. Because back in the picture is Haj Amin al-Husseini. Having returned to Egypt after being absent during the war, he was again recognized by the British as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian Arabs, and vowed to fight violently against any partition scheme that would give the Jews land.
General Sir Evelyn Barker: anti-Semitic commander of the British forces in Palestine. He banned his soldiers from engaging with any Jewish businesses or having any social interactions with Jews. He intended to, as he put it, “punish the Jews in a way the race dislikes, by striking at their pockets and showing our contempt of them.”
Dov Gruner: smuggled into Palestine illegally in 1940 on a Haganah ship as part of the Aliyah Bet operation, Dov joined the British Army after his release from a British detention camp and fought in Europe. He returned to Palestine in 1946 and joined the Irgun. Captured while trying to steal weapons from a British police station, he refused to recognize the legitimacy of the British court (as an illegal occupying power) and was sentenced to death. He and three others were executed in April, 1947.
Eitan Livni: Revisionist Zionist high-ranking Irgun commander, Livni participated in numerous sabotage operations, including the Night of the Trains. Arrested by the British, he was sentenced to term in the Akko prison, where he later organized the escape from the inside. He served as a centrist politician in Israel during the 1970s and 80s, and is the father of current Israeli politician Tzipi Livni.
Dov Cohen: Polish Jew who made his way to Palestine to fight with the Irgun during the Arab Revolt of 1936-1939. He joined the British Army during the war, earned recognition as a capable soldier, but later discovered that his entire family had been murdered during the Holocaust. He joined the Irgun in 1945 to fight the very same army he had just been serving with. He led the attack on the Akko prison but was killed in a firefight with British soldiers a few minutes later.
Haj Amin al-Husseini: longtime leader of the Palestinian Arabs, and the chief instigator of Arab violence against the Jews. Having allied with Hitler during the war, he briefly escaped afterwards to Switzerland. Captured by the French, he escaped and snuck into Egypt. With his power base still intact in Palestine, and the British again recognizing him as the chief representative of the Arabs there, he began organizing protests against the Zionists and promised violence if the United Nations should act favorably towards the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
THE BIG IDEAS
The Jews had learned from the Arabs that violence against the British would cause the British to cave. The insurgency had exhausted the British. It was incredibly expensive, unpopular, deadly, distracting, harmed British pride and national morale. Plus the British were faced with the same impasse that had existed since the 1930s: the Jews refused to compromise on attaining a homeland in Palestine, and the Arabs refused to compromise on ever allowing that to happen. After a long period of quiet the Arabs also began to ramp up violence. Mostly they attacked their own in a struggle for power, but they also begun small-scale attacks on the British and the Jews. It was pretty clear that the British Mandate had no future.
Looking to take the fight more directly to the British, and to impact British public opinion against the Mandate, the Irgun and the Lehi didn’t limit their attacks to British targets in Palestine. The Irgun bombed the British Embassy in Rome in 1946, and the Lehi mailed bombs to government officials in London (all of which were intercepted). London was terrified and the Royal Family given extra security. Still, both organizations remained small. The Irgun had only a couple thousand fighters, and the Lehi only a few hundred. They had little impact outside their Palestine operations.
The prison at Akko was originally built as a fortress by the Crusaders in the 12th century. Five hundred years later the British used it as a prison. Their first Jewish prisoner was Vladimir Jabotinsky.
The prison has only been sacked twice in history: by King Richard the Lionheart in 1193, and by the Irgun in 1947 (Napoleon had tried and failed).
To coordinate the inside-and-outside halves of the prison break, the Irgun developed several clever systems to pass along information and explosives. In one, the rabbi who oversaw the preparation of kosher food tucked messages inside slabs of meat, since the non-Jewish British and Arab guards weren’t permitted to touch the food.
The prison break was depicted in the 1960 movie Exodus, starring Paul Newman.
© Jason Harris 2019