At the time it was the worst disaster in IDF history: The submarine Dakar had been transferred to Israel's Navy, and during its maiden voyage in January 1968, through the Strait of Gibraltar, the vessel disappeared and never reached its destination at the port of Haifa. Sixty-nine soldiers lost their lives. The submarine was finally found in late 1999.
On Sunday, the state archive published documents on the tragedy, which left the country in mourning and pondering the ship's fate. All the documents came from the state archive collection, and include Foreign Ministry telegrams on the Dakar's disappearance, the subsequent searches, and cabinet protocols revealed for the first time.
The government delayed its announcement that the soldiers had perished for a month. The soldiers' families pushed the government to continue searching for the vessel until definitive proof of its disappearance could be found, but Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan determined that with all due respect to the families' pain, the news could not be withheld any longer.
"If anyone seriously thinks about attempting this type of search, it is not something we are capable of," Eshkol told his ministers at the time.
The cabinet ministers rose to their feet and Eshkol said: "What we feared has come to pass. Our last hopes are sunk to the depths along with the Dakar. We are gathered in sorrow to confirm: The Dakar and its entire crew — are gone. We are sure in our hearts that our dear sailors did everything that was in their power to do, and we have done until now everything we could do."
One of the documents approved for publication is the protocol from the cabinet meeting during which the ministers received initial reports from the Navy's commander. The ministers tried understanding whether the submarine had been sunk by the Egyptians, and tried to decipher messages allegedly from the Dakar, which turned out to be forged or mistaken, and debated whether it should be considered that the crew was abducted by the Russians.
One of the ministers, Aryeh Ben-Eliezer, asked: "We are in a state of war and the Eilat was recently sunk [the INS Eilat was sunk off the Egyptian coast in October 1967]. How are we to understand the contact directive of once every eight hours? Why wasn't an order issued to make contact every one or two hours? How are we to understand sending the submarine, which is new to us, without escort? Why were training maneuvers necessary on its first voyage back to the homeland's shores, as opposed to starting them only after the submarine made it home?"
Navy commander Maj. Gen. Shlomo Arel answered him: "The submarine was in good condition. It was capable of diving, operating, doing anything. It was combat ready. Diving for a submarine is a regular action, like flying is for a plane. In difficult conditions it's preferable for the submarine to dive and not float on the surface. Contact with a submarine is usually once every 12 hours. In this case contact was once every eight hours because it was the first voyage."
Arel also rejected the possibility that the vessel had been attacked at sea. He revealed that the Egyptian and Russian navies were not active at the time the Dakar went missing. The Egyptian government announced, of its own volition, that its naval forces had nothing to do with the Dakar's disappearance.
Israel's search was assisted by American, British, Greek and NATO forces. Israel asked Turkey to allow a search in its territorial waters. Turkey denied the request but offered to conduct the search itself, without Israelis but under Israeli guidance. Israel believed that the Turkish denial was related to the deployment of its own forces near Cyprus, which the Turks wanted to keep a secret.
Along with the traditional searches, the Dakar's disappearance also produced several unrealistic and otherwise unworldly attempts to find it. In one instance, the Israeli consul at the Hague passed a message to the Defense Ministry, in which the Hague police recommended employing the services of a Dutch "clairvoyant" specializing in finding missing submarines. The fortune teller claimed to have located the Dakar west of Cyprus, lying on its side on the sea floor after being hit by a torpedo. The Prime Minister's Office also received many letters from abroad speculating about the ship's and crew's fates.
About a year after the Dakar sank, one of its emergency buoys washed onto the Gaza shore. The IDF spokesman issued a statement saying that finding the buoy proved that the Dakar had sunk at sea but that it was impossible to determine the reason. An examination of the buoy determined that the Dakar had strayed off course considerably, and sank some 30 to 60 miles off the Egyptian coast.
This conclusion, which contradicted the conclusions provided by the Navy in its report, was later found to be mistaken. The examination of the buoy and where it was found led to fruitless searches for the Dakar along the Egyptian coast and in the Aegean Sea.
On May 28, 1999, more than 30 years after the Dakar went missing, its remains were found by Nauticus, an American corporation with experience in conducting underwater searches. The ship's remains were found on the sea floor some 3 kilometers (1.86 miles) below the surface along the planned route to Haifa some 485 kilometers (around 300 miles) from its destination.
Finding the Dakar at that location proved beyond all doubt that it did not deviate from its course, as had been argued, and that there was no cause to question the decisions made by the ship's commander, Ya'acov Ra'anan, or his officer crew.
According to a CNN report from 1999, an examination of the wreckage showed that the Dakar sank after "colliding with a large ship." Regardless, many questions over the disappearance are still open to this day.