From 1951 to 1967 Egypt pursued a secret program to build military rockets that could have conceivably posed a threat to neighboring Israel. Because such an ambitious project required Western expertise, the Egyptian leader President Nasser hired West German scientists, many of them veterans of the Nazi rocket program at Peenemünde and elsewhere. These covert plans soon came to the attention of Israel’s legendary secret service, Mossad, and caused deep alarm in Tel Aviv. Would Israel fall under the shadow of long-range missiles held by a ruler who was sworn to destroy the Jewish state? Could the missiles be fitted with warheads filled with radiological, chemical, or even nuclear materials?
Israel responded by using threats, intimidation, and brutal assassination squads to deter the German scientists from working on Nasser’s behalf. Exactly half a century later, this book tells the gripping story of the mysterious arms dealers, Mossad assassins, scientific genii, and leading figures who all played their part in Operation Damocles.
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ISRAEL'S SECRET WAR AGAINST HITLER'S SCIENTISTS, 1915â?"1967
By ROGER HOWARD
Pegasus Books LLCCopyright © 2013 Roger Howard
All rights reserved.
Striking the Sword
During the bitterly cold night of February 12, 1963, three men sat huddled in their car, parked just off a main street, and waited patiently and silently for any sign of movement in the building opposite. They had started their vigil in the late afternoon, and each freezing minute of the long subsequent hours had been one of extreme discomfort as well as unrelenting tedium and considerable tension. But any minute now, they kept telling themselves, their elusive prey would finally break cover and they could spring into action.
All three men were specially trained to deal with such demanding situations, and highly experienced at doing so. For all were agents of the Israeli foreign intelligence service, Mossad, and each had been handpicked by the organization's European operations chief, Yitzhak Shamir, to undertake the most audacious and risky type of overseas operation—the assassination of a foreign national.
Their target was a forty-eight-year-old German scientist named Dr. Hans Kleinwachter. He had arrived back in West Germany from Egypt shortly before and was busy working at his laboratory in his hometown, Loerrach, close to the Swiss border. He expected to return to Egypt just weeks later, though he was blissfully unaware that others, who had been monitoring his movements for some months from afar, had different plans.
His chief adversary was the Mossad chief, Isser Harel, who had by this stage become personally obsessed with eliminating the German scientist. That night, though Harel was far away at his desk in Tel Aviv, he knew exactly what his agents were enduring as they waited for the precise moment to strike, and he was eagerly awaiting news of the operation. He had personally accompanied a team of assassins just a few nights earlier, also spending several hours in a stationary car, wrapped in a thick overcoat and a blanket alongside another of Shamir's trained killers, outside Kleinwachter's nearby home. That night had ended in disappointment when the German scientist had failed to appear; but now, at last, Harel thought Kleinwachter was finally in Mossad's sights.
Suddenly, around nine o'clock, there was a sign of movement as the building plunged into darkness and a figure headed toward the car. After hours of empty waiting, a carefully rehearsed action plan sprang into life.
Instead of following the car, the Mossad agents now headed off ahead of Kleinwachter, knowing exactly which route their prey would be taking to get home. They drove for a few miles and then, just a short distance from his house, they pulled up in a narrow lane and waited. In the distance they could see the front lights of the scientist's car, which was moving quite quickly, and just as he came around a corner, they pulled their vehicle in front and braked sharply, forcing him to make an emergency stop.
One of the agents coolly got out of the car and walked toward Kleinwachter, who was stunned and shocked by such drama. "Where is the home of Dr. Schenker?" the Israeli agent cried out. Without waiting for a response, he suddenly produced a gun with a silencer and opened fire. There was a crash as the bullet shattered the windshield and then got deflected and stuck in the scientist's thick woolen muffler. The assassin fired again but his weapon jammed, giving Kleinwachter time to reach for his own revolver, which he kept under the dashboard, as he tried to steady his shaking hands and return fire: a veteran of the Russian front during the Second World War, when he had served as a major in the German Army's Signal Corps, he had become well accustomed to difficult and stressful situations. But the would-be assassin was already running back to the waiting car, which sped off just seconds later. Kleinwachter had narrowly survived, even if from that moment on, he, like all the other scientists who were working on behalf of the Egyptians, could never relax again as long as they continued to involve themselves in a project that Mossad and the Israeli government so strongly disapproved of.
Back home, the shaken scientist was trying hard to calm his nerves when the phone rang. The caller, who spoke in French, did not give his name but had a simple and chilling message. "Those who feed on Jews," he stated curtly, "choke on them." The mysterious caller then hung up.
Kleinwachter immediately called the police, who later discovered the car abandoned just a few hundred yards from the scene of the attack. Inside, they discovered a passport in the name of the head of the Egyptian secret service, Ali Samir, which the assassins had left in a vain attempt to pin the blame on others. It was a quite unconvincing stratagem, though, because at the time of the attack Samir was in Cairo, where he was being interviewed by a West German journalist. No one who followed the case had any doubt about who was really behind it.
Months before, Harel had implemented a ruthless and daring plan to intimidate—or, if necessary, liquidate—a number of West German scientists who were deemed to have been instrumental in helping the Egyptian leader, Pres. Gamal Abdel Nasser, to develop long-range missiles that were capable of striking the Jewish state. If the missiles were fitted with ordinary explosives, then the repercussions for Israel's security would be serious enough, estimated some of the defense chiefs in Tel Aviv. But if the Egyptians used chemical, radiological, or even nuclear warheads, then the impact of the weapons of mass destruction (WMD) would of course be calamitous and conceivably even inflict a second Holocaust. By using brute force against Kleinwachter, the Mossad chief hoped to eliminate a key contributor to the missile program—the German scientist was a highly respected electronics expert—and also to deter some of the scientists who were either already in Egypt or else contemplating going there. This was the central motive of his campaign, code-named Operation Damocles, which he had initiated the previous summer. "There are people who are marked to die," as Harel had commented chillingly.
But the use of such brutal methods was not just a breach of West German domestic law and of international law. It also raised a difficult conundrum for Israel's policy makers. For even if, in Israel's preferred scenario, the use or threat of violence did succeed in undermining Nasser's military program, how could that outcome be balanced against the obvious downside of such an approach? If Mossad was caught carrying out the assassination, or even if it simply got the blame, then wouldn't Israel's relations with West Germany, and perhaps much of the wider Western world, be gravely imperiled? Israel was notoriously indifferent to international law and to the United Nations, but could it risk acquiring a reputation as a country that dispatched assassination or murder squads to eliminate its perceived enemies? Did it risk becoming labeled a terrorist state, or were its actions just a legitimate form of self-defense? Such a label would be damaging enough for any country but was particularly awkward for Israel in 1963, when the leadership in Tel Aviv was working hard to establish full diplomatic relations with West Germany and desperately needed its military and economic support.
Over the weeks that followed, the Israeli dilemma became unmistakably apparent. On the one hand, Dr. Kleinwachter admitted in an interview with an American journalist that he was "fearful" of another assassination attempt and for that reason was reluctant to move back to Egypt, where he could have made a more powerful contribution to the missile program. But on the other hand, he emphasized that he would not be bullied out of doing what he wanted to do and would therefore continue to work for the Egyptians. Just five weeks later, as relations between Bonn and Tel Aviv reached a new low point, Deputy Defense Minister Shimon Peres rushed back to Israel from Paris, urging his prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, not to do anything that could compromise an arms deal with the Germans that he had spent months brokering. Meanwhile, Peres's opposite number in Bonn, Franz Josef Strauss, was already hinting that a number of secret arms deals were at risk as a result of the events in Loerrach. The Kleinwachter assassination bid was just one contributing factor in the sudden collapse of German-Israeli relations, but the diplomatic crisis illustrated how much Israel had to lose if it forfeited the goodwill of the Bonn government.
Ultimately, resolving this conundrum all depended on just how serious a threat the Egyptian missile program actually posed to Israel. If the acquisition of long-range rockets really did represent a grave and imminent danger to the Jewish state, and there was no other sure and effective way of stopping the scientists from contributing, then such a heavy response was arguably what any citizen of any country would want and expect their government to undertake. The use of lethal force, in other words, is a last resort that is employed when there are no alternative options.
But if, on the other hand, Nasser's project was just not sophisticated enough, or its completion date too far off in the future, then it was hard to see what Israel had to gain by using such a ruthless approach. The price would certainly be high—because Israel's reputation would be tarnished—and the benefits very limited or perhaps even nonexistent. Those who were more inclined to think in terms of the moral dilemmas involved, rather than realpolitik, would also have responded that, even if it had not lost its reputation, Israel would have "lost its soul" by taking innocent life when it was not strictly necessary. "We hadn't come very far if we, as the chosen people, had to resort to assassination," mused one Israeli secret agent in his memoirs. "To do this was to align ourselves with Arab mentality."
Yet, on this central question, Israeli chiefs were divided. Harel and Israel's foreign minister, Golda Meir, felt sure that the threat to Israeli security was very grave. This was not just because over the preceding summer the Egyptian missiles had been test-fired in full view of the world's media, leaving no doubt that the program existed and was bearing fruit. It was because they claimed there was clear evidence that Nasser wanted to mass-produce the rockets, which he would only do if he wanted to use them for some military purpose, rather than just to show off to the Arab masses. This evidence, claimed the hard-liners, was a letter written on March 24, 1962, by one of the leading German scientists, Dr. Wolfgang Pilz, to the Egyptian director of the missile program. In the correspondence, Pilz made a request for a large sum of money—3.7 million Swiss francs—to buy spare parts for nine hundred rockets, including five hundred Type-2 missiles and four hundred Type-5. Harel had shown this letter to his prime minister the previous summer, when lobbying him to authorize Operation Damocles, and David Ben-Gurion had reluctantly agreed. Harel had already lost most of his family in one German holocaust and now, barely two decades later, it seemed to him that another could easily begin.
But, other Israeli intelligence and defense experts thought very differently. Meir Amit was the head of a rival organization, Military Intelligence, which was widely known by its Hebrew acronym, Aman, and held very different views from those of the Mossad chief. He felt that Pilz and anyone else in the program could write whatever they wanted, but the reality was that Egypt simply did not have the resources to develop a missile program on the scale Pilz's letter suggested. Even if it did, Amit continued, the rockets were militarily useless because they lacked the most fundamental asset—a reliable guidance and control system. A rocket could be launched into the skies, but it still had to land in exactly the right place if it was to have any value. Developing the guidance system was a hugely complex and demanding engineering task, and Israeli spies had overwhelming evidence that the Egyptians were nowhere near to accomplishing this feat.
"Perhaps we're being too complacent after all," commented Amit dryly as he read some of the more alarming reports about Nasser's plans. "Egypt doesn't only want to destroy Israel—it's about to take over the world." Pilz, he speculated, had written the letter in a bid just to get as much funding as he could from his bosses, knowing full well that there was no likelihood of so many missiles being built.
Amit was equally cool about the prospect of the Egyptians developing WMD. Even if, in a worst-case scenario, they were pursuing such a program, he argued, the superpowers would not let them complete it or use such weapons. For the consequences of Egyptian WMD would be so destabilizing in an oil-producing region that Russia and the United States would exert overwhelming political or even military pressure to stop them. Here was a huge difference of professional judgment as well as personal style. Harel was a great believer in the power of human instinct, intuition, and gut feeling, and saw the world in black-and-white terms of good and evil. Amit, on the other hand, was a top university graduate who had faith in hard rational analysis and raw facts, and who saw the world map as a much more complicated picture.
Then there was a separate question. Even if the Egyptians had developed the missiles on the scale, and with the accuracy, that Harel feared, was the Cairo regime so untrustworthy that Israel could in good conscience employ almost any means it deemed necessary, such as Operation Damocles? Once again, opinions were sharply divided. Harel and many other Israeli chiefs pointed to the virulently anti-Israeli statements that Nasser had at times been known to make, and to his sponsorship of the Palestinian "fedayeen" insurgents, who used their Egyptian bases to launch pinprick cross-border raids against Israel. They emphasized that, even if Nasser himself was not intent on destroying Israel, he could easily be swept along by the the Arab masses who were deeply inimical to the Jewish state: for example, in the event of another conflict or border clash between Israel and Egypt, could not Nasser easily be tempted to retaliate not by using land forces—any Arab army would have faced virtually certain destruction against Israeli forces—but missiles? And wasn't it the Arab countries, not Israel, that had started the 1948 war, when they had attacked the Jewish state just hours after it had won its independence from British rule?
But the Egyptians and the German scientists also had a counterargument, one that was perhaps shared by Israeli moderates like Moshe Sharett, the prime minister who opened dialogue with Nasser in 1955 and who argued against the use of force unless it was really necessary. There was no reason at all, as Kleinwachter told the American journalist, why Egypt could not pursue its own rocket program in the same way as any other country. The Egyptian leader was also bewildered by the Israeli uproar about his missile program and the foreign assistance it received, and was recorded by his close friend and confidant, Mohamed Heikal, as telling the U.S. ambassador, John S. Badeau, that if the Russians and Americans could have their German scientists, then why couldn't Egypt have theirs? In addition, continued his apologists, Nasser had never really shown any aggression toward Israel at all. They said he was only interested in defending his country against a state that, by its own admission, massively retaliated against tiny provocations and was intent on seizing more Arab territory to make room for its fast-growing immigrant population. It would simply not use such weapons unless it had to, because if it did, the retaliation by Israel, which possessed its own missiles and perhaps even nuclear warheads, would undoubtedly be so terrible.
Excerpted from OPERATION DAMOCLES by ROGER HOWARD. Copyright © 2013 Roger Howard. Excerpted by permission of Pegasus Books LLC.
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Table of Contents
- Cover Page
- CHAPTER ONE: Striking the Sword
- CHAPTER TWO: Building the Network
- CHAPTER THREE: Sharpening the Sword
- CHAPTER FOUR: Israel Prepares to Strike
- CHAPTER FIVE: Tensions Grow
- CHAPTER SIX: Killing Mustafa
- CHAPTER SEVEN: Egypt Under Attack
- CHAPTER EIGHT: The Frustrated Scientists
- CHAPTER NINE: “Wanted: Specialist Engineers”
- CHAPTER TEN: The Mossad Reaction
- CHAPTER ELEVEN: The Scientists Get to Work
- CHAPTER TWELVE: Mossad Watches the Egyptians
- CHAPTER THIRTEEN: The Egyptians Press Ahead
- CHAPTER FOURTEEN: Celebrations in Cairo
- CHAPTER FIFTEEN: “Little Isser” Raises the Alarm
- CHAPTER SIXTEEN: Operation Damocles
- CHAPTER SEVENTEEN: Damocles Continues
- CHAPTER EIGHTEEN: Hysteria in Israel
- CHAPTER NINETEEN: Mossad Fights On
- CHAPTER TWENTY: The Egyptians Fight Back
- CHAPTER TWENTY–ONE: The Scientists Pull Out
- Copyright Page