Friday, November 11, 2005

In Their Own Words #6: Eleven Stories For Veterans Day

Lieutenant Yitzhak Zoran, Israeli Navy, received a special commendation for bravery for his selfless and effective efforts to save crewmembers when the destroyer Eliat was hit by Egyptian Styx missiles in October 1967. The citation accompanying his medal for bravery reads in part: "... after the sinking of the Eliat, Lt. Zoran began to assemble survivors in the water into groups and help care for their wounds. He saw that survivors were widely scattered and he continued to swim in all directions to assist them in getting back to the relative safety of the life rafts. He put his own life jacket on a wounded crewmember and remained in the water without one for over six hours in terrible sea conditions. He continued to search for and assist other lone survivors who would not have made it on their own. He was finally recovered by a missile patrol boat, but only after making sure that all the others around him were safe. He saved many lives."

Yitzhak, known affectionately by his friends as "Tze Tze," is currently the managing director of Marathon Venture Capital Fund LTD in Israel and the past president of Elisra.

Forty-seven crewmembers of the destroyer Eliat paid the ultimate price when the enemy was underestimated and the COMINT system failed.

I happened to be on the bridge with the Captain and we both saw it go off. I thought that it was a harmless signaling rocket, but he knew better.

It was about 5:30 PM on a lazy Saturday afternoon in October 1967, about four months after the cease-fire agreement had stopped the shooting in the six-day war between Israel, Egypt, and other Arab nations. I was the electronics and electrical officer on the destroyer Eliat, on a routine patrol mission, 12 to 14 miles offshore in international waters off the coast of the Sinai Peninsula opposite Port Said, the Mediterranean entrance to the Suez Canal. Since the Egyptian navy had come away virtually unscathed in the war, we were there to prevent them from either re-supplying remaining forces in the Sinai or attempting an offshore bombardment of Israel.

The Eliat was a 25-year-old British WW II destroyer that had been taken out of mothballs and sold to Israel. One of a total three destroyers in our navy at the time, it displaced about 2,000 tons and carried a crew of about 150. As a 22-year-old navy lieutenant, this was my first assignment after getting my college degree in electrical engineering.

But back to that signaling rocket.

Visibility could not have been better. The Captain was pointing out the buildings in Port Said that we viewed through our binoculars when we saw the launch from the harbor. Earlier, he had witnessed test firings of our own Gabriel missiles, and so correctly decided that what we saw meant that a missile was headed our way. It turned out to be the first of four Styx radar-guided missiles launched at the Eliat . He immediately sounded the alarm, called for battle stations, and turned the ship in order to present the smallest target to the incoming missiles. In about a minute most of the crew were at their stations and I could hear the chatter of our machine guns firing at the inbound missiles. But it wasn't enough.

By the time I arrived at my battle station below decks at the electrical monitoring and distribution panels, both missiles had hit. The first, with its 200 pounds of high explosive warhead struck near the smokestack, about 30 feet away from where I was standing. By some miracle, I was unhurt - perhaps shielded by a bulkhead. I immediately saw that the lights were growing dim and realized that our motor-generators were hit and losing RPM. It was obvious that we were hurt badly.

All four generators were out, the ship was listing badly, and we were going down. The most horrifying realization was that no one else (except perhaps the Egyptians) knew of our predicament. Prior to the attack, we were under strict emission control. That meant we had not maintained radio contact with our Naval headquarters, or anyone else.

I had to get the word out. Before I could attempt to hook up the radios in the radio room to battery power, I had to find the radio operators who knew the codes needed to validate our distress calls. Back on deck, it took all my powers of persuasion to convince crewmembers to leave the comparative safety above-deck to return below in a sinking ship. They did, but to no avail. We got the radios working, but discovered that the antennas were gone, so no signal was getting out.

The good news was that someone remembered that we had a hand-held, battery operated radio used to communicate with Israeli land forces for training and special operations. It worked, and thus began the rescue operation about two hours after the first missile had hit. That was about the same time that the Eliat sank. The bad news was that the nearest Israeli vessel was four or five fast-steaming hours away.

The ships finally arrived about midnight. But our helicopters had gotten there earlier and airlifted the wounded from the water. Forty-seven men died that day, either killed in the initial blasts, or subsequently drowned. The hundred of us who survived were in the sea for many hours.

What went wrong? Did this tragedy have to happen?

A lot of thought went into answering these questions. Actually, we knew that the Egyptians had the SS-N-2 Styx missiles, but we didn't believe that these were either operational as yet, or that their forces knew how to use them.

Our operating procedures actually depended on both COMINT and ELINT to alert us to such dangers, but that time the systems broke down. For one thing, our COMINT operators (the ones who continually monitored radio traffic) were not aboard at the time. They had rotated ashore, and their replacements had yet to arrive. We later found out that our home based COMINT intercept operators had indeed monitored Egyptian radio traffic indicating an impending missile launch, but they (our INTEL assets) were not aware of any Israeli ships in the area that would be threatened, so no warning was issued.

We were equipped with a relatively capable and sophisticated ELINT system for its time, the tunable microwave APR-9 receiver of Korean War vintage. Using the system, we had seen an increased level of high PRF radar signals, which usually meant military rather than commercial applications, and increased activity. But the Styx was one of the first of the easy to employ fire-and-forget surface-to-surface missiles and its onboard targeting radar did not turn on until it was in mid-course to its target. That gave us less than a minute and a half to react. We probably had been painted by surveillance radars, but there were so many radars operating in the region of the Suez Canal, we were not aware of any particularly hostile ones. Unfortunately, I was there on the receiving end when the first radar-directed anti-ship missile was successfully employed in combat.

The event triggered a level of maximum awareness of the importance of EW in the Israeli Navy, and for me as well. For the next ten years, my sole preoccupation was to help us develop the EW systems we did not have when the Eliat went down; many of which are still in place today. As a result, our Navy was totally prepared for the Yom Kippur War. We now had missile patrol boats and we also had "smart" missiles. We also had the EW hardware and tactics that allowed us to win in every engagement where our much shorter range Gabriel missiles faced the Styx. We sunk over 10 enemy missile boats without sustaining a single hit.

April 2001


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