Acre Prison break

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Acre Prison

The Acre Prison break was an operation undertaken by the Irgun on May 4, 1947 in the British Mandate of Palestine, in which its men broke through the walls of Acre prison and freed 28 incarcerated Irgun and Lehi members.

Background[edit]

At the time of the British Mandate the citadel in the old city of Acre was used as a prison. In total, the prison contained 700 Arab prisoners and 90 Jewish prisoners, the latter mainly members of the Jewish underground groups Haganah, Lehi, and Irgun, who were captured by the British. One of those prisoners was Eitan Livni (father of Tzipi Livni), the Irgun operations officer.[1]

On April 19, 1947, four Irgun members, Dov Gruner, Yehiel Dresner, Mordechai Alkahi and Eliezer Kashani, who were captured by the British 6th Airborne Division, were hanged in Acre Prison to become the Irgun's first postwar 'martyrs'. At his trial, Dov Gruner declared the British Army and Administration to be 'criminal organizations'.

The Lehi and Irgun prisoners mulled an escape but concluded that would be impossible without outside assistance. They therefore contacted Irgun headquarters with a plan. Dov Cohen, AKA "Shimshon", was selected to lead the operation.

Prelude[edit]

Irgun men disguised as British soldiers.

The break-out was originally planned for April, but was eventually rescheduled for Sunday, May 4, 1947, at 4 p.m., the day the United Nations General Assembly convened to discuss the Palestine issue.

The logistic preparations were complicated: The Irgun purchased a truck, a jeep, two military pickup trucks and civilian vehicles, which were then disguised as British. British army uniforms were also acquired.[1] a stock of civil clothings was also arranged in order to help the escapees assimilate into the population.

Irgun reconnaissance efforts had discovered a weak spot in the citadel: the southern wall right above a Turkish bath. The Irgun had therefore smuggled TNT into the prison, which was then used to improvise 30 hand grenades and 2 bombs, each weighing one kilogram, to blast the prison walls open.

The Operation[edit]

The prison wall after the break.

On Sunday, May 4, 1947, the Irgun fighters arrived at Acre in a convoy consisting of a military truck, two military vans painted in British camouflage colors, two civilian vans, and a command jeep in the lead. Twenty fighters were dressed in British Engineering Corps uniforms, and three as Arabs. The operation commander, Dov Cohen, who was riding in the command jeep, was dressed as a decorated British captain. The truck pulled up to the prison's gate, while the two vans pulled into a nearby market. At 14:00 a military engineering unit of the Irgun, under the command of Dov Salomon and Yehuda Apiryon, went into action. Ladders were removed from one of the vehicles, and the men made their way to the nearby Turkish bath, disguised as telephone technicians and carrying TNT, ropes and other necessary incursion equipment. Meanwhile, other Irgun strike and escape teams spread around the prison, and five men in two blocking squads; a three-man squad consisting of Avshalom Haviv, Yaakov Weiss, and Meir Nakar, and a two-man squad consisting of Amnon Michaeli and Menachem Ostrowicz, laid mines along the routes leading to the site of the break-in. Meanwhile, the three fighters disguised as Arabs took positions north of Acre with a mortar, and when the operation began, fired shells into a nearby British Army camp. In addition, the command jeep briefly stopped at a gas station at the entrance to Acre, where the occupants laid anti-vehicle mines and set fire to the station.[1]

While the Irgun units were moving into position, the prisoners were putting the plan into effect inside. At 3:00 PM, the doors of the cells were opened for afternoon exercise. The prisoners who were not scheduled to escape went down to the courtyard to create a diversion, while the designated escapees remained in their cells. At 4:22 PM, explosives set by the engineering unit detonated, blowing a massive hole in one of the prison's walls. The first group of escapees quickly ran out of their cells towards the breach in the wall, and had to push through a crowd of Arab prisoners that had run out of their cells in panic. One escapee, Michael Ashbel, blew open the two gates of the corridor with explosive charges attached to the locks, clearing the way for prisoners to escape through the hole in the wall. The second group of escapees then went into action, creating an obstruction by igniting kerosene and oil. The ensuing fire blocked the escape route, preventing the guards from immediately reaching it. The third group threw grenades at guards positioned on the roof, causing them to flee.[1]

The first group of escapees and some of the strike force boarded the first van. The van and command jeep sped off and managed to exit Acre, but immediately south of the city, they were ambushed by British soldiers who had been bathing at a nearby beach, and were alerted by sounds of the commotion at Acre prison. In the fighting that ensued, nine Jewish fighters, including commander Dov Cohen and five of the escapees, were killed, and six were injured. The survivors were swiftly recaptured and returned to prison.[1][2] The remaining escapees and members of the strike force boarded the military truck and second van, and successfully escaped the city. One of the escapees, Haim Appelbaum from Lehi, was wounded during the retreat. He managed to board the second van and get away, but died soon afterward. The vehicles reached kibbutz Dalia, where the fighters and escapees abandoned their vehicles and weapons, walked to the town of Binyamina, and hid there for the rest of the day. The following morning, they were dispersed throughout Palestine to pre-designated hiding places.[1]

During the attack, the five men from the two blocking squads did not hear the bugle call that signaled them to withdraw and board the vehicles, and stayed at their posts. As a result, they were left behind while the rest of the fighters and escapees made off. Avshalom Haviv, Yaakov Weiss, and Meir Nakar were arrested after a protracted struggle with British soldiers. Amnon Michaeli and Menachem Ostrowicz were also discovered and captured.[1]

Overall, 28 Irgun and Lehi prisoners escaped, along with 214 Arab prisoners.

Aftermath[edit]

A monument along the Acre promenade commemorating the break.

The New York Herald Tribune wrote that the underground had carried out "an ambitious mission, their most challenging so far, in perfect fashion", while in the House of Commons, Oliver Stanley asked what action His Majesty's Government was planning to take "in light of the events at Acre prison which had reduced British prestige to a nadir."[1]

The Jewish Agency called the break "an irresponsible suicidal act", while Irgun commander Menachem Begin hailed it as an act of heroism.

Haviv, Weiss, and Nakar were sentenced to death.[3] Michaeli and Ostrowicz were spared the death penalty due to their being minors, and were given life sentences.

In response to the death sentences, the Irgun abducted two British sergeants, Clifford Martin and Mervyn Paice, and threatened to kill them should the British carry out the death sentences. When the British authorities did not relent and hanged the three, the Irgun killed the two sergeants and hanged their bodies from a tree in a eucalyptus grove near Netanya.[4]

The Acre Prison break, with other operations had a strong moral effect on the Yishuv and on the fight for foundation of Israel. It is considered to have seriously damaged British prestige and sped up to the foundation of the UNSCOP committee.[5]

The operation is marked by a monument on the Acre promenade.[3]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Lapidot, Yehuda. "The Acre Prison Break". Jewish Virtual Library. Retrieved 2008-01-15. 
  2. ^ Robinson, James. "Acre Jail Break". Archived from the original on 2 January 2008. Retrieved 2008-01-15. 
  3. ^ a b Aisenberg, Lydia (2006-06-08). "Heroism reflected in stone". Jerusalem Post. Retrieved 2008-01-15. 
  4. ^ "Kidnappings, Beatings, Murders and Hangings". Archived from the original on 29 January 2008. Retrieved 2008-01-15. 
  5. ^ UN Doc A/364 Add. 1 of 3 September 1947 See Annex 10 Letter; dated 17 June 1947 from relatives of the men sentenced to death by the Jerusalem Military Court on 16 Juno 1947