Navy chief's April Fool sails close to the wind

Sailors aboard three Israeli missile ships were on the verge of weighing anchor for a 10-day exercise abroad only to find out the entire operation was the Israeli naval chief's idea of an April Fool's prank.

The joke quickly backfired on navy commander Vice-Admiral Ram Rotenberg, whose ill-conceived orders spurred sailors into all-night preparations to sail for the Italian coast from Haifa the following morning, only to provoke fury when they discovered that there was in fact no exercise at all.

The commander assembled naval officers from three ships late on Saturday night, informing them that they were to take part in an 11th-hour joint exercise off the Naples coast with the Italian and US navies, but requested that the information be confined to senior ranks.

Unfortunately for the commander, news of the orders spread to lower ranks, prompting fevered preparations for the exercise. Besides plotting a course, they rigged and fuelled the ships, and several of the sailors informed their parents that they would be away for more than a week, and requested additional funds and food.

When they found out the next day that the entire exercise was a hoax, the sailors and their parents failed to see the funny side.

"Some of the parents were already en route to bring additional equipment and food for the soldiers and others had transferred cash into their accounts in case they would need funds in Italy," one parent told Israel's Ynet news site. "The naval commander has nothing better to do than to carry out pranks?"

The Israel Defence Forces said yesterday that the joke was "inappropriate" but stressed that it did not affect the navy's operational readiness.