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The Birth of the Israeli Navy *

Training in Sdot Yam - חלת הכלל

Imagine, just how does a new born state create a navy? Well, the Birth of the Israeli Navy begins with the foundation of naval academies, creation of a Jewish merchant marine, volunteering to the Royal Navy, and execution of clandestine naval activities under the Mandate.

Betar Naval Academy

The Birth of the Israeli Navy begins with the founding of the Betar Naval Academy, a Jewish naval training school established in Civitavecchia, Italy, in 1934 by the Revisionist Zionist movement under the direction of Ze’ev Jabotinsky. Cadets from Europe, Palestine and South Africa and produced some of the future commanders of the Israeli Navy. In September 1937, the training ship Sarah I visited Haifa and Tel Aviv as part of a Mediterranean tour. The Academy closed in 1938, just after the fourth course was completed. Nearly 200 Jewish cadets completed the 4 courses.

Marine High School

In 1938, encouraged by the Jewish Agency, Dr. Shlomo Bardin founded the Marine High School in Bosmat, the Technion’s Junior Technical College in Haifa. Eighty of graduates of the marine officers course which was held in the Marine School near the Technion joined the Palyam.

The Jewish Merchant Marine

The Jewish merchant marine was operated the SS Tel-Aviv and cargo ships such as Atid.

SS_TEL_AVIV_SHIP – רשות הציבור-נחלת הכלל)


Palyam was set up in April 1945 as the Palmach’s tenth company (Pluga Yud) which originated from the Palmach’s Naval Platoon. 

The Palmach was the elite fighting force of the Haganah, the underground army of the Yishuv (Jewish community) during the period of the British Mandate for Palestine. whose training was undertaken at the maritime school.

The majority of their activities were related to the escorting of clandestine ships of Aliyah Bet, from August 1945 to May 1948, immigration ships (66 of them in all) bringing Jewish refugees from Europe by boat. Aliyah Bet brought the Jewish refugess despite the British White Paper of 1939 limiting Jewish immigration into Mandate Palestine.

Palyam members took part in commando actions against Royal Navy deportation ships.

Approximately seventy Palyamniks escorted close to 70,000 immigrants and the arms ships that brought vital arms. On the eve of the 1948 Israeli War of Independence, Palyam consisted of approximately four hundred marines.

Ship Commanders Course at Kibbutz Sdot Yam

Sdot Yam was established in 1936, in the region, just north of Haifa. It was ostensibly based on fishing, but was in reality a base for the Palyam. Headquarters of Palyam was located in kibbutz Sdot Yam. Seventy graduates of the ship commanders course at kibbutz Sdot Yam joined the Palyam marines.

Training in Sdot Yam 1944
Training in Sdot Yam 1944 – נחלת הכלל

In 1940 the kibbutz was moved to its present location south of Caesarea.

Palyam memorial Caesaria Photo: י.ש.
Palyam memorial Caesaria
Photo: י.ש.

Haganah Volunteers in the Royal Navy

In 1942, eleven hundred Haganah volunteers joined the Royal Navy. Twelve of them were officers by the nomination agreement of the Jewish Agency with the Royal Navy. A few reached sea service and combat service. Two of them served with the Fleet Air Arm (FAA) responsible for the operation of naval aircraft, one of whom was Edmond Wilhelm Brillant (a Polish-born Israeli naval architect, Hagana member, among the founding fathers of the Israeli navy and was notable for assisting the Israeli Merchant Marine in several major projects including the nations’ first passenger liner, SS Shalom) The other was Zvi Avidror, chairman of the British Royal Navy veterans organization in Israel. Avidror was a British Royal Navy veteran, served in the Royal Air Force during World War II, and later joined the IAF).

From the Estate of Edmond Wilhelm Brillant, Naval Architect ,Hagana Member, Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve Officer from Hagana, IDF Navy Officer and among the IDF Navy Founders
From the Estate of Edmond Wilhelm Brillant, Naval Architect ,Hagana Member, Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve Officer from Hagana, IDF Navy Officer and among the IDF Navy Founders

The “Shadow Fleet”

When the State came officially into being, the Naval Service received its first combat ships from the “Shadow Fleet” – the Aliya Bet vessels that were confiscated by the British and tied up in the port of Haifa along the wave breaker.

Former Royal Navy volunteers started work on the former Aliyah Bet ships. These ships were refurbished by a newly formed naval repair facility with the assistance of two private shipbuilding and repair companies.

The first three vessels that were converted to use in the navy were the icebreaker “A-16”, formerly Aliya Bet ship “The Jewish State”, and the two sister corvettes “K-18” and “K-20”, formally Aliya Bet ships“Wedgwood” and “Hagana” respectively.

Josiah Wedgwood was a member of the British Parliament, who was a stalwart supporter of the Zionist cause, who openly urged Jews to disobey the infamous “White Paper”, limiting Jewish immigration to Palestine. Wedgwood was of the British nobility and was a Colonel in the British Army. This vessel, named after him following his death in 1946, began its nautical career as a corvette in the Canadian Navy during WW II, where it accompanied convoys of ships across the North Atlantic, u

These were to become the Navy’s first ships and saw service in the 1948 Israeli War of Independence.  In October 1948, a submarine chaser was purchased from the United States

The Haifa Port Company

A special company of the Palmach’s 4th Battalion, commanded by the Palyamnik Yochai Ben-Nun, that was established at the end of 1947 to protect the Jewish interests in the port and the port’s civilian Jewish workers from Arab attacks.

Yohai Ben-Nun, Hero of Israel, founder of the Shayetet 13, and sixth commander of the Israeli Navy
Yohai Ben-Nun, Hero of Israel, founder of the Shayetet 13, and sixth commander of the Israeli Navy – נחלת הכלל

An underwater sabotage unit and an explosive speedboats unit were united into one on January 1st, 1950, under the command of Yochai Ben-Nun and became the famous “Shayetet 13” – the Israeli Naval Commando (The number ’13’ is traced to the Palyamniks’ tradition to drink a glass on the 13th of each month).

The Naval Service to Israeli Navy

On March 17, 1948, the Naval Service (the precursor of the Israeli Navy) was formed, and the Palyam were ordered to join.The order declared that the whole unit was to be transferred from the general staff of the Palmach to the general staff of the army. Many of the Palyam members formed the core personnel and command of the Naval Service. In fact, most ship commanders during the first years of the Navy, and up to 1975, most of the Navy’s commander-in-chiefs, were Palyam veterans.

Jewish volunteers from the United States Navy and Royal Navy

Jewish volunteers from the United States Navy and Royal Navy came to strengthen the new Naval Service. These, however, were often discriminated against and their experience wasted by a navy command that was based on veterans of the Palmach. This resulted in odd situations where unskilled officers from the Palyam were in command of far more experienced naval officers.


“Ruthie” is one of the most popular songs of the Palyam – the Palmach’s Naval Platoon. The lyrics of this song were written by Haim Hefer based on a Russian folk melody – Вот мчится тройка  (so common for Israeli songs). The young sailor is singing about his love, Ruthie, on the shore. His friends join in the song – because all of them have a “Ruthie” back home. During the British Mandate period “Ruthie” was a popular name.

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