For the first time in Israel, an underwater site has been designated as a historical site. The site in question is the Italian submarine Shira (Scire), sunk by the British in the Haifa Bay area during World War II. The designation of Shira as a historic site was initiated by Professor Ehud Galili from the University of Haifa, along with the Marine Mapping Division at the Israel Mapping Center (MPI) and the Council for the Preservation of Heritage Sites in Israel. This is the first step in a move aimed at the state's statutory recognition of this site and other sites who were part of the British defense system in the Haifa area following damage done to the site by ships arriving to Haifa.
However, despite the designation, the site still will not receive legal protection on behalf of the state, since it is only a marking on nautical maps and not a statutory approval. Shira, a submarine weighing about 680 tons, was launched in 1938 and took part in several attacks and raids against a series of British targets during World War II. The attack that stood out the most was the raid on the port of Alexandria in December 1941, in which she managed to sink a number of British vessels, including two battleships.
Following this raid, the British installed underwater detection systems in several other Mediterranean ports which were under their control, including the port of Haifa. The base of the system for locating submarines was in Stella Maris, and it included observation posts on the Carmel Ridge and Bustan HaGalil, to which the British connected cable systems and laid them on the seabed in in the shape of a loop.
The system picked up changes in the current created by large vessels that passed over it, and sent an alert to the shore. On August 10, 1942, this system identified Shira, which was sent by the Italian Navy headquarters to attack the port of Haifa. A combined British attack, which included the dropping of depth charges and cannon fire from the Stella Maris batteries, resulted in the sinking of the Italian submarine and the death of about 60 of its crew.
The place where Shira sank, about 30 meters below sea level, was known as early as 1950. The Israeli Navy reported it to the Italian Navy which returned 43 crew members for burial, but remains of bodies still remained In 1984. The site has protection under International maritime law, otherwise known as the Law of the Sea, but it still has no protection under the laws of the State of Israel, as it is not a natural reserve nor a protected antiquities site. In 2022, the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs contacted the authorities in Israel, requesting that steps be taken to ensure the preservation of the submarine, which is a significant historical and memorial site.
The need to protect Shira has much increased lately, due to construction in the new Gulf port and the expansion of its berthing areas. The main danger to the submarine created by the new situation in the port is the possibility that a potential anchor dropped by one of the ships will damage Shira and destroy it completely. In 2002, during a joint maneuver of the U.S. Navy and the Israeli Navy, heavy damage was caused to the hull of the submarine, which led to an official protest by Italy to the Israeli and U.S. governments.
Professor Ehud Galili from the University of Haifa, who led the move together with the Marine Mapping Division at the Israel Mapping Center, said: "We see the British defense system in Haifa - which includes observation posts, smokehouses and gun batteries on land, as well as the submarine site and the submarine cable systems in the sea – as a unique historical fabric that must be nurtured and preserved. Haifa, continue the initiative to preserve these sites and make them accessible to the public." Galili now hopes that the site, marked on maps, will soon receive the necessary recognition for its protection.
Yael Atkin, director of the Tel Aviv District of the Site Preservation Council, also commented on the decision. "There is no doubt that the preceding move is a landmark in a welcome nationwide process to promote the recognition of underwater sites and their remains as heritage sites, and statutory recognition of these sites by the state bodies. The challenge we face now, after the Shira precedent, will be the recognition of these remains by virtue of the fourth addendum to the planning law and construction – that is, those that will not only be marked on maps, but also legally protected by the state."