The Israeli rocket scare of 1963

[Cross-posted at Airminded.]

I learned something new from an article in the March 2013 issue of History Today:

Exactly half a century ago, in the spring of 1963, Israel was suddenly gripped by a curious mass panic. Sensational newspaper reports and radio announcements claimed that the country was threatened by enemy ‘atom bombs’, ‘fatal microbes’, ‘poison gases’, ‘death rays’ and a ‘cobalt warhead’ that could ‘scatter radioactive particles over large areas’. Within hours, opinion in the entire country had been ignited. Parliamentary debates, everyday conversations, even songs and poems were all preoccupied obsessively with the same theme — that Israel was confronted by the imminent threat of another Holocaust, less than two decades after the first.

The source of this supposedly dire foreign menace was not Iran, nor the Soviet Union, although superpower tension at this stage in the Cold War was certainly intense. The perceived threat instead emanated from Egypt, which over the past decade had been led by the supremely charismatic and populist military officer, 44-year-old President Gamal Abdul [sic] Nasser.

Several months before, in the early hours of July 21st, 1962 Nasser had stunned the world by successfully test-firing a number of rockets. Specially-invited contingents of foreign journalists and cameramen had been driven to a remote spot deep in the Egyptian desert, not far from the central Cairo-Alexandria highway. They watched as a massive explosion shook the ground and a white missile lifted itself from a camouflaged position, a short distance in front of them. As one American correspondent wrote: ‘It pierced a long, white cloud and later, in plain view, slowly arched to the north towards the Mediterranean.’ Over the next few hours three more launches were carried out in quick succession before the journalists returned home, amid scenes of jubilation from ecstatic crowds. The Egyptian public had heard the news when a special announcement, broadcast on a national public holiday, announced on government radio that Egypt had ‘entered the missile age’.

Given my interests, this sounds like something I need to know more about; and as chance would have it, the author of the article, Roger Howard, has a book due out later this year which may provide more details (Operation Damocles: Israel’s Secret War Against Hitler’s Scientists, 1951-1967). According to Howard’s article, the real reason for the scare was not so much the Egyptian rocket programme itself, but the involvement of many German scientists who had worked for the Nazis in the Second World War, such as the aerospace (and his expertise did span both air and space) engineer Eugen Sänger. In fact, Howard argues that it was to deflect attention from the recent exposure of Operation Damocles, the intimidation of Nasser’s German scientists, that Mossad director Isser Harel briefed the Israeli press with a wholly exaggerated account of Egypt’s offensive capabilities. As Howard shows, and as cooler heads argued at the time, the targeting problem had not been solved, meaning the chance of a rocket hitting anything important was remote, as 1967 proved. Nor did Egypt even have a WMD programme at this time, rockets aside. The scare subsided; Harel was discredited and soon resigned.

While I don’t (and can’t) dispute Howard’s account, from my perspective I wonder if the fear of new technological perils might have played as important a role as the spectre of Nazi-Egyptian collaboration. There are parallels to be drawn forwards and backwards in time, in Israel and elsewhere. Israeli fears about nuclear weapons and missile threats from its neighbours resurfaced in 1981, 1990-1, the 2000s, and today. Only six months before the Israeli rocket scare, the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. All those lurid weapons mentioned in the Israeli press in 1963 — fatal microbes, poison gases, death rays, atom bombs, even cobalt warheads — had been staples of scaremongers in other countries for years, in most cases decades. In Britain, similar press panics over the danger of air attack took place in 1913, 1922, 1935 and 1938. It would be strange if Israel in 1963 was immune to such fears.

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