Summer 1947: The ship LST 138 of the American Navy is purchased by a branch of the Irgun in North America. The ship’s name is changed to Altalena. The name, which means seesaw in Italian, is the penname of Ze’ev Jabotinsky.
Miniature Model of the "Altalena" by EST
Winter 1947: The ship is packed with close to one thousand immigrants and combatants (some of them Holocaust survivors), crew members, and tons of military equipment.
11 June 1948: After a nearly month-long delay the Altalena sets sail from France to the shores of Israel. This delay seals its fate, since the ship sails after the signing of an agreement earlier in the month to incorporate the Irgun into the IDF.
The United Nations Security Council, which throughout the entire period of the war had been engaged in the question of Palestine, stepped up its efforts to bring the fighting to an end, and instead of releasing a non-binding declaration, issued an order demanding that both sides agree to retreat, and that sanctions would be applied to the side that refused.
On 10 June 1948 both sides agreed to the terms of the ceasefire devised by the UN-appointed mediator Count Folke Bernadotte. The ceasefire, which took effect the next day, lasted four weeks.
Headline published in the newspaper Davar, 25 June 1948
15 June 1948: Irgun’s commander in Israel, Menachem Begin, meets with the representatives of the Israeli government to inform them that the ship had sailed from the port in Paris against his orders. Begin is insistent that a fifth of the arms on board the ship be transferred to independent Irgun units in Jerusalem and the rest to the IDF (with preference to Irgun units integrated into the IDF). David Ben-Gurion approves the transfer of some of the arms to Irgun units in the capitol, but commands the rest of the weapons to be transferred immediately and without any preconditions to the IDF. Differences of opinion and suspicion are rife on both sides.
20 June 1948: While the Altalena is docked at Kfar Vitkin and the crew starts to unload the cargo, a heated meeting is underway in the government cabinet regarding unfolding events. The government’s decision is: “To give the (IDF) headquarters the authority to launch a counter-attack, provided they coordinate enough manpower by the appointed time. The commander must try to control the situation without use of force, but if his command is not obeyed, then with the use of force.”
“Were it not for the policy of restraint, a terrible civil war would have broken out in the midst of the besieged homeland,” poster in The Jabotinsky Institute Collection
21 June 1948: The Alexandroni brigade surrounds Kfar Vitkin. The commanding officer sends an ultimatum to Menachem Begin – to handover the ship with all of its contents to the IDF. They are given ten minutes to respond.
With no response to the ultimatum, there is an exchange of fire in which two Irgun fighters and two IDF soldiers are killed. Menachem Begin boards the Altalena and it retreats to the shores of Tel Aviv.
Excerpt from an article published in Al Hamishmar on 24 June 1948
22 June 1948: Ground forces under the command of Yigal Yadin are sent to overpower the Altalena. Heavy fire is exchanged between Irgun forces on the ship and IDF forces on the shore. Fearing the outbreak of a civil war Begin calls on Irgun fighters not to return fire.
The artillery gunner who receives the order to open fire on the ship refuses to do so claiming that he would rather be tried and even executed, than fire upon fellow Jews. The second gunner hesitates to fire but eventually is convinced and fires on the ship. During the exchange ten Irgun fighters and one IDF soldier are killed.
The Altalena burning after being shelled, from the GPO Archive