Citadel of Acre - the site of the former prison
Citadel of Acre - the site of the former prison ISTOCK

The family of a British civil servant has revealed the secret behind one of the most well-known incidents in the history of Palestine during the British Mandate period – the storming of the Acre prison in 1947 by Irgun fighters.

Gil Margulis, the great-nephew of the engineer who designed the upgrade to the fortress that was originally built by the Crusaders around nine hundred years ago, revealed to TheGuardian this week that his great-uncle, Peres Etkes, leaked the plans of the fortress to the Irgun. “They had the plans of the whole prison from the guy who made it,” he explains. “They had a lot of insider information – they had the exact plans.”

Etkes was a Russian Jew and US citizen and in 1947 he was working for the British forces in what was then Palestine. Unknown to the British, Etkes was also an ardent Zionist whose most fervent dream was to see a Jewish state established in the ancient Jewish homeland. When the opportunity arose to do something concrete toward this goal, Etkes seized it. He later told his niece that he had revealed the plans of the Acre prison to the Irgun “because the prison was like a fortress, and unless they had the map, there was no way to get out.”

Indeed, the Irgun had already surveilled the site, and had reached the conclusion that unless the prisoners knew how to reach the south wall of the prison, any plan to rescue them was doomed to failure. Now, supplied with the map of the prison, the Irgun formulated a plan and appointed a team to carry it out.

At the time there were 163 Jews being held in the Acre prison (60 from the Irgun, 22 from Lehi, five from Haganah, and the rest felons). According to Yehuda Lapidot’s The Irgun: A ShortHistory, the organization decided that only 41 could be freed, as it was too difficult to find hiding places for so many men. They managed to smuggle explosives inside, hidden in pots of jam, and on Sunday, May 4, 1947, they set out in a convoy of vehicles, disguised as British soldiers.

At 4:22 that afternoon, a huge explosion blasted through the south wall of the prison. Those prisoners chosen to escape put their plans into action, fleeing in separate groups. Many were captured, but 27 did succeed in making a getaway – 20 from the Irgun and seven from Lehi. Nine fighters were killed in battle with the British, and five of the attacking fighters were captured. Three were sentenced to death, as they had been captured while armed; the other two were sentenced to life imprisonment.

Although the unanimous conclusion, expressed by a British MP in the House of Commons, was that “the events at Acre prison … reduced British prestige to a nadir,” Margulis insists that his uncle’s actions weren’t “an anti-British thing … For him, building the country was a big thing, and he was simply able to do that with the empire putting resources in” – albeit unwittingly, of course.

All the same, Etkes never sought to take any credit for his deeds. After all, “for the rest of his life, he had a nice British pension,” Margulis points out. “I think he said that he didn’t want to jeopardize that for a little news credit. It’s not mentioned anywhere for that very reason.”