Attempts to get Jews into Palestine, despite the White Paper, did not begin with the end of WWII. But once the war was over and the full horror of what the Jews had undergone was revealed, efforts to smuggle Jews into Palestine gained significant traction. Nothing would bring more publicity and sympathy to the cause than the voyage of the illegal ship Exodus 1947.
David Ben-Gurion had tasked the Haganah with the mission of landing tens of thousands of illegal immigrants into Palestine by any possible means. To this end, Haganah agents were in the United States scouring for retired or ready-to-scrap ships to be used in breaking the British blockade. Although they had been dealing with small boats, they now set their sights higher and wider.
In 1947, quite by accident (as these matters are often labeled), the Haganah agents stumbled across the dilapidated hulk of a steamship, the President Warfield, named after its original owner Solomon Davies Warfield (the uncle of the Duchess of Windsor). Christened in 1928, the boat was drafted into battle, as were many civilian ships, in the Lend-Lease program to bring supplies to the Allies fighting the Nazis.
To prepare her for active duty, the Warfield’s once elegant interiors were gutted, obliterating any trace that she was once a luxury liner. The Warfield was also plated for better protection and painted drab navy and grey.
Her deployment was adventuresome, as the convoy that she was part of was attacked by the dreaded German U-boats as she traversed the North Atlantic. Many ships in the convoy were torpedoed and sank, but the Warfield managed to escape catastrophe when a torpedo just missed her hull by less than 50 feet.
The Warfield docked in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and was later stationed in South West England where she was converted into a barracks ship. The Warfield ended up playing a key role in the D-Day invasion, serving as a station and accommodations ship off the shores of Normandy. Once again, she managed to avert attack, this time from the Luftwaffe, as she was anchored at Omaha Beach.
After the war, the Warfield dog-paddled back to Chesapeake Bay where her owners decided that her sailing days were over. The once proud ship was sold to a naval scrapyard in Virginia for $8,028.
It was then, in late 1946, that agents for the Haganah heard about the ship and were convinced that they could convert her into a perfect blockade-runner for their clandestine operation. On November 4, 1946, the Weston Trading Company, a front for the Haganah, offered $50,000 to redeem the Warfield from scrap. (The economics of this deal are beyond me, but my extensive research yielded no explanation.)
The rusting, rotting ship required a complete overhaul. A volunteer crew, consisting primarily of American Jews with a Navy background, tackled the job, while attempting to keep their work unbeknownst to the eyes and ears of the British. The recruits were astounded as to how the ship seemed to lack everything from lights to heat to life-preservers; all that it had was rats.
A betting man would have been hesitant to wager if the Warfield could make it across the Atlantic. Yet the group of idealistic recruits set off on February 25, 1947 under Haganah Captain Ike Aronowicz. But 75 miles out, a mighty storm nearly sank the ship, causing it to hobble back to Norfolk for repairs. Whatever cover the ship had, it was now blown, and when the Warfield was fully repaired four weeks later, the British shadowed the ship across the Atlantic.
British Foreign Minister Bevin had made battling illegal Jewish immigration to Palestine his personal crusade. When he learned about the Warfield and its capacity to carry thousands of passengers, he ordered that the ship must be stopped no matter what.
If ever there was an uneven matchup, this would be it. The Royal Navy and the hardly seaworthy Warfield played cat and mouse across the Atlantic. The British saw to it that the Haganah ship was denied the ability to refuel in the Azores. This obstacle was rendered a technicality when sailors, in the stealth of the night, stole enough fuel to get them to Genoa.
The Warfield docked in Italy, and clandestinely fitted a ship that was designed to hold no more than 500 to house thousands. Shelves were made one on top of the other to accommodate sleeping, and defenses were made to prevent the British from boarding the boat, including connecting a fire hose to the boiler so that intruders could be sprayed with hot oil.
Elsewhere, the Haganah began to gather Jews from the closest DP camps in Germany and Poland to rendezvous with a boat that the Haganah will rename the Exodus 1947, arguably the most brilliant and evocative name ever awarded to a ship, and as correspondent Ruth Gruber justly entitled her book, The Ship That Launched A Nation.
The boat arrived at the small French port of Sète near Montpellier on July 9, 1947. That very evening a race against time ensued as a caravan of Haganah trucks transported 4,554 immigrants to the docks: 1,600 men, 1,282 women, 1,017 teenagers and 655 children. The crew loaded the refugees as quickly as possible, hoping to depart for Palestine before they were stopped.
Author’s note: I was aided in writing this article by the History’s Mysteries documentary Exodus: Desperate Voyage.