A couple of hours out to sea from Tel Aviv, on a hot Mediterranean night in the 1980’s, I carefully picked my way towards the armoured personnel carrier secured on the afterdeck. My job was to remove a HiFi and a 12-bottle box of spirits hidden beneath the troop seating section of the vehicle
The items had been placed there by a friend serving with the United Nations in the Lebanon (UNIFIL). It was my task to take them to my cabin and deliver them to certain persons on my return to Ireland. On gaining access to the vehicle, which was being returned to Ireland for repair, I was dismayed to find that someone had the bright idea of storing a large number of engine parts, also for repair, around the seating area. After a number of sweaty hours I finally managed to extract the HiFi and by literally tearing the cardboard box to pieces, the 12 bottles of spirits.
This kind of petty smuggling was common on the regular trips that the Irish navy made to Israel to re-supply the troops in Lebanon during the 80’s and 90’s. Customs always met the ship on return to the naval base at Haulbowline, made a cursory check of selected areas much as they do at civilian ports and airports and that was that. This time, however, it was different.
Waiting on the quay wall to meet us was a large team of very determined looking customs officers with full equipment, including cutting gear. To my astonishment, they discovered and removed crate after crate of spirits from every nook and cranny of the armoured car and was even more astonished when they cut open the fuel tank and it too was full to the ‘gills’ with spirits. Obviously, and without the knowledge of the crew, someone in the Lebanon had gone to a great deal of trouble to organise this smuggling operation.
The naval authorities were, as you can imagine, not too happy with this huge embarrassment to the good name of the Navy. It ‘became known’ that I had taken some items from the vehicle and I was brought before the Captain. There wasn’t much he could do really as everybody had a few bottles secreted away in their cabins, including officers. So, I was told to either slip the bottles over the side or drink them on board, but under no circumstances were they to be brought ashore.
I donated some of them to the NCOs mess and gave away the rest. A week later I got a phone call from the person who ‘owned’ the haul, but to this day he doesn’t believe that I didn’t keep the drink for myself.
The big question was – who squealed to customs? The general consensus was that somebody, angered by being excluded, made a quick phone call. There was little sympathy for those who lost out as it was believed officers, who had become too greedy, were the organisers of the operation.