|The Pans, Perils of Passage, and Paul Shulman|
Part II – From Sabotage to Success
The British were putting increased diplomatic pressure on Italy not to cooperate with the Mossad. Yet an increasing number of vessels jammed with refugees continued to depart from small Italian ports and fishing villages including La Spezia, Molfetta, and Bari. The Royal Navy's so-called Palestine Patrol, now backed up by long-range patrol planes, routinely spotted and intercepted the refugee-carrying vessels before they could reach the shores of Palestine. The immigrants were transferred to British prison ships and sent to internment camps in Cyprus. The Aliyah Bet vessels were interned in Haifa harbor in a backwater nicknamed "Rotten Row."
To circumvent British interference, the Mossad planned to sail the two "Pan" ships to Costanza, a port and industrial complex on the Black Sea. There the ships could be converted into refugee carriers, safe from the Royal Navy, which had neither diplomatic nor military rights with the Communist-controlled Romanian government, and were denied right-of-passage through the Turkish-controlled Bosporus Straits. All the Palestine Patrol could do was steam around in circles in the Mediterranean, waiting for the ships to make their dash to Palestine. British Intelligence knew the true mission of the two "Pan" ships. London viewed the possibility of their success with dread, for even if neither ship reached Palestine, their human "cargo" of up to 15,000 refugees would overwhelm British internment camps in Cyprus.
"Pan York" offloaded its cargo in Morocco and proceeded directly to Costanza. "Pan Crescent" developed engine trouble and headed for a ship-repair facility in Venice, Italy. The vessel arrived in August 1947. Paul Shulman was dispatched from the Mossad's Italian operations headquarters near Milan to Venice to oversee repairs to the ship.
In Venice the Mossad's Italian chief, the redoubtable Ada Sereni, was unable to find a commercial repair yard to undertake repairs to the "Pan Crescent:" no shipyard was willing to incur the wrath of the British. Instead, Sereni persuaded the owner of a private boat yard to do the job, on a cost-plus basis – cost-plus much more! The 4,570-ton "Pan Crescent" barely cleared bottom of the channel leading to the boat yard, which was located on the Venetian island of Sacco Fisola. That was not the Mossad's only problem. The boat yard shared the waterway with a British naval station whose personnel took great interest in the vessel.
Among those with an interest in the ship was Commander Crabbe, the "famous" (or infamous) Lieutenant Commander Lionel Kenneth Philip Crabbe, RNVR, OBE, St.G. Crabbe achieved renown in World War II as Great Britain's foremost underwater saboteur. In 1946 he was posted to Palestine to clear mines in Haifa harbor. Now, in 1947, he was assigned as the Royal Navy's principal diver for Northern Italy, in charge of clearing the Venice lagoon of World War II mines laid by the Germans.
American Machalnik Charles Weiss made the Atlantic crossing with the "Pan Crescent." In Venice he served as a security guard, but security was lax. So lax, in fact, that an Italian ship worker had apparently been bribed to place a mine inside the ship's hold. Very early on the morning of September 3rd , 1947, a huge explosion shook the neighborhood. The former banana carrier settled into the muck.
"Esplosione su un peroscafo in cantiere alla guidecca" screamed the headline in Gazettino di Venezia. It was the kind of sabotage that immediately caused tongues to wag and fingers to point. The news account, quoting 'official' (that is, British) sources, accused "Palestine Arabs" for the sabotage. The Mossad accused the British of being behind the explosion. Whatever, or whoever, the Mossad now had one vessel that was not about to take anyone anywhere.
The Mossad hastily convened a meeting to assess damage and determine what to do. Ada Sereni and her "naval aide" Paul Shulman, declared that the vessel was not worth saving. Mossad leader Yehuda Arazi thought differently, and in characteristically blunt terms declared, "The ship will be refloated. The ship will sail. The mission will go on."
Emergency repairs temporarily sealed the hole and the hull was pumped dry. Sereni now employed all her charm with her Italians friends in high places, and was able to get the "Pan Crescent" into dry dock. The British Legation in Venice, in a panic to keep "Pan Crescent" from sailing, demanded that Panama, under whose flag the ship was registered, rescind its papers. The Panamanian consul replied that because the vessel had broken no international maritime laws, Panama had no reason to lift its certificate. But then, a physical problem also arose: once repairs were completed, how could the freighter make it into open waters as long as a certain British warship was anchored in the way?
Sereni is said to have persuaded an Italian admiral to host an elaborate party for the ship's officers. While good Italian wine flowed for the British officers until the early hours of the morning, water flowed into the dry dock. "Pan Crescent" cast off lines and made her escape to open waters on October 25th. She reached Costanza one week later. There, Romanian yard workers installed upwards of 7,500 sleeping shelves, reconfigured the ventilation system, installed latrines, cooking and food storage equipment, and made her ready to take on immigrants.
The newly installed Communist government in Romania was making the Pans' presence in Costanza untenable. So after the ships had been reconfigured they steamed to Burgas, a Bulgarian port on the Black Sea, and made ready to take on their passengers. For months the Haganah organization known as Bricha had been organizing convoys of refugees from all over Eastern Europe. They flowed by train and truck to staging areas and then, finally, to the ships for boarding. Ultimately, more than 11,000 men, women, and children embarked for the voyage across the Mediterranean to Palestine.
The idea of two very large ships carrying thousands of potential immigrants to Eretz Israel seem like a monumental, powerful, "in-your-face" political challenge to Britain's highly restrictive immigration policies. Yet, at the date of the ships' sailing approached, Ben-Gurion's ambivalence increased. His intelligence operatives informed him that the United States opposed the sailing. Secretary of State George Marshall was fearful that among the thousands of refugees would be hundreds of Communist agents who would advance the aims of the Soviet Union in the Middle East. At the last minute Ben-Gurion decided to call off the sailings. He did not want the ships to face an armed encounter with British warships. He did not want to risk a possible repeat of the "Exodus 47" debacle earlier that year.
Cablegrams and telephone calls flew between Tel Aviv, Milan, Paris and the New York headquarters of the Jewish Agency for Palestine. Paul Shulman is said to have sent a cablegram, on his own, to Moshe Shertok (later Sharett), head of the Agency's political department: maybe it would be possible to have the crews of the two ships stage a mutiny, Shulman suggested. That way, the Mossad could claim that it was not responsible. Shulman, still nominal head of F.B. Shipping, also faced the threat of a different sort of revolt: the Italian ship captains and crews demanded double pay for the short voyage in the likely event the vessels would be intercepted before reaching Palestine.
In fact, the ships were. But their captains had radioed to the British warships that there would be no armed resistance. They would allow themselves to be escorted to Cyprus. At the eleventh hour, Ben-Gurion was pressured by Mossad leaders to endorse the sailings. On December 26th, 1947, the two ships sailed from Burgas on the afternoon tide. On deck thousands of hopeful, soon-to-be-immigrants sang "Hatikvah." The ships passed through the Bosporus Straits and the Dardanelles and entered the Mediterranean Sea, where they met the British Naval escorts. In all, seventeen British warships accompanied the vessels to Cyprus. Finally, Ben-Gurion sent a radio message to the ships; they would adopt Hebrew names: "Pan Crescent" would be known as "Atzmaut" (Independence), "Pan York" would be called "Kibbutz Galuyot" (In-gathering of Exiles). But in a fit of pique, perhaps, Ben-Gurion, would not let the ships call themselves "Haganah Ships."
Source: American Veterans of Israel Newsletter: Winter 2007 (written by J. Wandres)