The Sinking of the INS EILAT: 50th Anniversary of the First Surface to Surface Engagement with ASCM’s

The following is an extract of a larger work I am preparing on fifty years of ASCM combat use and hopefully will be available in the coming year. – SJS

Forces – Israel. The INS EILAT (K40) was originally commissioned in 1944 as the HMS ZEALOUS, a Z-class destroyer that saw extensive action as convoy escort on the Murmansk run. After the war, the ZEALOUS was one of two destroyers sold to the Israelis in 1955, along with two to the Egyptians. Renamed after the Israeli port city on the Red Sea, the EILAT was slightly smaller than a typical Oliver Hazard Perry-class (FFG-7) with a length of 362 feet, and a 35-foot beam, displacing 2,530 tons; EILAT was equipped with torpedoes, 4.5 inch and 40 mm guns. During the 1956 Suez Crisis, the EILAT led the chase and capture of an Egyptian destroyer that had shelled Haifa (which prize the Israelis immediately put into service as the INS HAIFA). In July 1967, the EILAT along with two MTBs encountered two Egyptian torpedo boats during one of her patrols off the northern Sinai shore. Giving chase, EILAT eventually sank both boats with the loss of all hands – but the chase took them into Egyptian waters. While celebrated in Israel, it was roundly condemned in Egypt, which began planning a suitable response.   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Forces – Egypt. In the wake of the losses from the 1956 Suez Crisis, Egypt sought a different path to countering the Israeli Navy. The Project 183R KOMAR (Russian: Mosquito) was a derivation of the Project 183 MTB with roots in WWII and combined the MTB’s speed (38 kts) with the range and lethality of the P-20 Termit (21nm) for a lethal punch against larger targets. The net result was a force of small, fast missile boats that could punch well above their class against larger, heavier and presumably more capable ships, like the destroyers that were the showcase of the Israeli navy. The Komar’s had survived the Six Day war and staging out of Port Said on the Mediterranean, would provide the basis for the Egyptian retaliatory action against the EILAT. (U) The Engagement. By 21 October 1967, the EILAT had been underway for 10 days off the northern Sinai coast. With a crew of 197, down from the typical 245, it was viewed as just another routine patrol. Unbeknownst to the crew, as the EILAT reached the western most point on her patrol, just off Port Said, they had been tracked for most of the day – first by an Egyptian helicopter that morning, and then continuously by shore radar stations for the rest of the day. EILAT was equipped with ESM – the Bat Kol system, but it was such a manually intensive system that to use it required significant operator knowledge and practice to effectively employ just in peacetime operations1 . One of the biggest issues was the need to manually correlate signals information with published manuals to ascertain threats. Indicative of the degree of effort and knowledge required, the captain of the EILAT noted in an article published in 20082 that he spent considerable time himself on the set trying to understand the threat environment.

Late in the afternoon of 21 October, as EILAT reached her western-most turning point, the weather was exceptionally clear, seas and wind calm. In fact, the skyline of Port Said was clearly visible to the crew of the EILAT as they prepared to turn back to the east. At this same time, two Komar PTGs were underway from the inner harbor, bound for a point abreast the breakwater. Using the information fed from the shore facilities over the course of the day plus knowledge gained over weeks of observing the Israeli’s unchanging patrol patterns, the Egyptian crews almost immediately acquired EILAT on their MR-331 Rangout radars. Fire control solutions were completed and two P-20 Termit missiles were launched, one from each Komar. At 1716L the lookouts on EILAT reported a flare and smoke from the mouth of the harbor at Port Said. Initially mistaking the report as a rocket launch to the beach3 and an alert was not sounded, but in short order that changed. Battle stations were called away and evasive maneuvering ordered. The first missile was spotted and appeared that it might miss well behind until at six miles when it suddenly turned inbound, headed directly for the ship. Air defense fire was ineffective and the missile struck the stern of the EILAT. At 1728L a distress call was sent and shortly afterwards the second missile struck amidships. Unable to maneuver, listing and on fire the crew tried in vain to fight fires and flooding. This went on for two hours until at 1945L when a third missile struck, igniting the magazines and triggering a series of explosions. The decision was made to abandon ship and 15 minutes after the third hit, EILAT sank. A fourth missile struck the water where the EILAT had previously been, spraying survivors with shrapnel and burning fuel. Rescue forces arrived on the scene well over two hours after the initial distress call. The Egyptians did not interfere with the rescue and recovery efforts. Of the 199 onboard, 47 were KIA and another 100 WIA and 16 MIA. The next day Israeli forces struck Egyptian oil production and storage facilities in and around Port Said, destroying over 80 percent in the attacks.

The sinking of the EILAT was the first engagement and sinking of a warship by another using ASCMs – and it certainly ignited attention around the globe, especially with other navies. It demonstrated to the world that small coastal navy patrol boats equipped with missiles had the firepower to destroy a capital ship. The IDF conducted two investigations into the sinking, one of which remains classified today. However, information from the first investigation plus memoirs published since the sinking offer the following observations.

  • Intelligence Failures. There is reporting that Israeli military intelligence was aware of Egyptian plans to conduct some kind of attack. Communications intercepts pointed to some kind of Egyptian action. The report of the helicopter spotting EILAT and a general alert declared along the Egyptian coastline was intercepted early on the 21st. More important though, were two later reports that alerted artillery units in the Port Said area and a fourth intercept that specifically forbade launching of missiles from the harbor area but gave clearance outside the harbor by the breakwater. None of these reports reached EILAT.
  • Operational Complacency. By the time of EILAT’s 11 October patrol, the Egyptians (and their Soviet advisers) were well aware of the presence and operational patterns of the Israeli navy. Israeli navy leaders opted to continue to use the large destroyers for presence patrols near the Egyptian coastline and well within sight of Port Said because of the visual signal it sent, rather than consider the tactical utility gained from smaller craft operating that close to shore. The operational and command climate onboard EILAT to a degree mirrored this operational complacency with no variation in patrol patterns and a decision to leave a large number of the crew ashore. Training and equipment deficiencies exposed in the July engagement with Egyptian torpedo boats were evidently left open. Among these were threat recognition, tactical awareness and difficulty with the ammo for the main battery guns, forcing the ship to close range and engage and sink the torpedo boats with 40mm.
  • ESM. As noted, though installed, the Bat Kol was a manpower intensive piece of gear that offered questionable tactical awareness of threats and threat platforms. The CO, who spent a considerable part of his career in the EW field and was a principle in the development of the Bat Kol, himself was frequently frustrated in trying to apply information from the equipment to the dense EW environment around the ship. There is no indication the Bat Kol was either manned or information from it used to assess the threat to EILAT during the day on the 21st, much less during the missile engagement. That the Egyptians operated all their equipment with no consideration for the possibility of counter-detection by the Israelis speaks volumes about the level of understanding about counter-targeting and EW at this time in both navies.
  • Engagement and Countermeasures. Conditions were ideal for the shooters – and the defenders, from weather to targeting information that enabled the engagement. There were no countermeasures expended by the EILAT, as none were onboard save gunfire that was initiated too late and with no radar direction to do any good. This included the puzzling lack of any form of chaff rockets, for it wasn’t as if this was a new concept to the Israelis. Indeed, one of their destroyers had used it as a means of seduction to draw attention away from an operation during the Six Day War. Even still, with the evasive maneuvering the first missile almost missed – the sudden turn at 6nm indicates the onboard seeker acquired the EILAT, but even if that had missed, the strike by the second missile was the mortal blow as it rendered the ship without power and caused massive damage amidships. The third missile administered the coup d’grace. The large HE warhead combined with reserved fuel after a less than maximum range shot contributed to the extensive damage suffered by EILAT.

Clearly the existence of the missile boats and their payload was known to Israel, but given the recent experience with the Egyptian military, the feasibility of the threat to significantly damage Israeli forces was downplayed. Whether the COMINT intercepts earlier on the 21st would have changed EILAT’s posture remains unanswered given this acknowledgement of Egyptian capabilities as represented by the continuation of the patrols. The sinking did have a profound impact on the Israeli Navy in that it accelerated procurement of small, fast missile-equipped boats armed with an indigenously designed missile, and re-doubled effort in electronic countermeasures. Egypt’s success prompted many nations to re-examine their approach to configuration of their navies and many undertook to add ASCMs arming smaller ships to their inventory. The fruits of this effort would be seen four years later, but in another region altogether as India and Pakistan came to blows in the Indo-Pakistani War of December 1971.

 


1On this patrol, the lead operator of the Bat Kol had been left on the beach to attend a two-week school during this at sea period.

2Melman, Yossi. “The Destroyer’s Last Mission,” Haaretz (online) http://www.haaretz.com/the-destroyer-s-last-secret-1.152605

3The so-called “War of Attrition” was low order conflict after the Six Day War in 1967, focused between Egyptian and Israeli forces in and around the vicinity of the Suez Canal. Consisting of artillery and mortar exchanges at the unit level, it was generally low order combat and likely factored into the initial assessment of the Komar launches by the EILAT’s crew. (Source: Mommsen, Klaus. 60 Years Israel Navy, Bonn: Bernard & Gaefe. (2009 German edition, 2011, English)