“The first encounter with Acre Prison was terrifying. With your hands and feet shackled, you get off the truck next to a deep moat that reminds you of images of medieval castles that you may have seen in the movies. A fortress wall of seemingly infinite height towers before you. A narrow bridge leads to an opening in the wall. This is the bridge to a place that none has ever escaped from…”
Mendel Malatzky, Irgun prisoner, 1947
The fortress was built by the Bedouin sheikh Daher el Omar in the mid 18th century on the ruins of the Crusader citadel and was further fortified by al Jazzar. Under the British mandate, the fortress served as a jail, where Jewish underground fighters were imprisoned and where 8 Irgun members went to their death on the gallows. Acre was the most secure prison in the country.
Despite this, the Irgun looked for a way to enable their escape. The break came when an Arab inmate mentioned that he had heard women’s voices while working in the oil storeroom (in the south wing of the prison). This was reported to Eitan Livni (father of Tzipi Livni), the most senior Irgun prisoner, who deduced that the south wall of the prison bordered on a street or alley of Old Akko. The information was conveyed to the Irgun general headquarters where they concocted a plan to exploit this weakness for a break-in.
The logistic preparations were complicated: the Irgun had to purchase a truck, a jeep, two military pickup trucks and make them look like British army vehicles, British army uniforms were acquired and the men were given “English” haircuts. They set out in the convoy of vehicles for Akko to get into position, the two military vans entered the market, while the 3 ton military truck waited at the gate.
The jailbreak was planned for May 4th, 1947 when prisoners would be exercising in the yard to occupy the guards and the cells would be open, the same day the United Nations General Assembly convened to discuss the Palestine issue.
A military engineering unit of the Irgun made its way to the hamam, the Turkish bath house, and pretending to be telephone technicians used ladders to climb onto the roof with the explosives and placed them against the window bars. At 4:22pm there was a loud explosion that blew off the windows and made a hole in the southern wall.
Forty-one prisoners ran from their cells and using explosives that had been smuggled into the prison blew off the iron gates closing the corridors to reach the place of the break-in. From there they went out onto the roof of the hamam and into the alleyways of Old Akko.
Some jumped into the van, others ran through the streets of the market to the Land Gate where the truck was waiting.
Of 41 escapees (30 Irgun, 11 Lehi), 27 inmates succeeded in escaping (20 Irgun,7 Lehi), 6 escapees and 3 fighters were killed and 8, some of them injured were caught and returned to jail; also arrested were five of the attackers. The Arab prisoners took advantage of the commotion and 182 of them escaped.
The action was described by foreign journalists as “the greatest jail break in history.” The New York Herald Tribune wrote that the underground had carried out “an ambitious mission, their most challenging so far, in perfect fashion”, while in the House of Commons, Oliver Stanley asked what action His Majesty’s Government was planning to take “in light of the events at Acre prison which had reduced British prestige to a nadir”.
Three out of the five men captured (Avshalom Haviv, Meir Nakar and Yaakov Weiss) were sentenced to death and died on the gallows in the Acre prison. In retaliation, the Irgun kidnapped two British sergeants, Clifford Martin and Mervyn Paice. When the British did not relent and executed the Irgun men, the Irgun hanged the two sergeants.
Today the Acre Prison is a museum where you can walk through the different cells, offices and workshops of the prison and through a series of dramatic videos experience what it was like. The tour ends at the room with the gallows.
From the prison you can visit the hamam and and learn about the tradition of the Turkish bath and some history of Akko. There is much to see and I’d be happy to take you exploring Akko.
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