Egyptian Spitfire downed in Tel Aviv 1948
The Israeli Air Force has it's origins in the Haganah, the military arm of the Jewish Agency. In 1940, Palmach ground units where established to help defend Palestine from possible invasion by Axis forces. Later, with an Allied victory expected soon, Haganah set-up a Palmach Flying Platoon in 1945. Eight members of Palmach were taught to fly by the local Jewish Agency owned flying school, 'Aviron'.
The Flying Platoon borrowed a varied collection of civil registered light aircraft to supply and communicate with Haganah forces in the south of Palestine. On 10 November 1947, the decision was made to establish a regular military air arm, called the Sherut Avir (Air Service). All Jewish pilots in the country were urged to enlist - many being experienced WW2 veterans. All available aircraft were impressed into service - a total of 9 light aircraft. On 27 December 1947 an official inauguration ceremony was held for the Sherut Avir, following the transfer of most of it's aircraft to Sde Dov, near Tel Aviv. It's main tasks were to be liaison, transport, convoy escort and reconnaissance. To assist in this mission many rough airstrips were rapidly constructed close to isolated settlements.
Between December 1947 and May 1948, Jewish agents in the USA, Europe and elsewhere acquired various war-surplus aircraft for delivery to the Sherut Avir. Subtefuge was required to avoid a newly imposed arms embargo and several aircraft failed to reach their intended destination. Many Jewish and non-Jewish aircrew around the world also volunteered to fly for the new air arm. In early May 1948, the first group of Jewish pilots commenced training in Czechoslovakia on the Avia S 199 fighter, following a secret arms agreement between the Czechoslovak government and the Jewish Agency.
The War of Independence
Upon the proclamation of the State of Israel, late on 14 May 1948, the newly formed Israeli Defence Force (IDF) prepared to resist an imminent invasion by neighbouring Arab states. The Sherut Avir was also renamed the Chel Ha'Avir (The Air Force) at this time.
With only light aircraft and transports available, the Chel Ha'Avir was unable to intercept Arab air raids and instead concentrated on supporting IDF ground forces fighting the Arab invasion.
On 16 May 1948, the first transport aircraft carrying weapons and equipment from Czechoslovakia arrived. It departed the next morning, the first of over one hundred such shuttle flights. For the Chel Ha'Avir, the most important cargo of the airlift comprised eleven Avia S 199 fighters and the trained pilots to fly them. The first fighter arrived on the night of 20/21 May and, following rapid assembly, four examples carried out the Chel Ha'Avir's first fighter operation on 29 May 1948. The S 199 scored it's first kill on 3 June 1948, against an Egyptian Dakota attempting to bomb Tel Aviv.
With the arrival of an UN negotiated Truce on 11 June 1948, the Chel Ha'Avir took the opportunity to reorganise and train. Aircraft continued to be arrive from overseas sources. On 9 July 1948, Israeli forces commenced an offensive in the North and East, aimed at driving back Arab forces. The IDF was now much stronger and better equipped, but gains were not as great as expected and a new Truce was arranged for the 19 July 1948.
On 12 August 1948, the airlift from Czechoslovakia was halted due to political pressure, and the Chel Ha'Avir transport aircraft returned home. Subsequently, an operation to ferry-out to Israel fifty ex-Czechoslovak Spitfires in several batches commenced on 24 September 1948. A new Israeli offensive began on 15 October 1948, with the object of pushing Egyptian forces from the besieged Negev region. This required major bombing raids and attack missions from the Chel Ha'Avir, and forced a significant retreat by the Egyptians. Success allowed the Israelis to move North and capture the Galilee area.
On 22 December 1948, a further Israeli offensive was aimed at Egyptian forces in the Negev area. Chel Ha'Avir aircraft again spearheaded the attack. This time the Egyptians were driven out of the Negev and back into the Sinai, with the Chel Ha'Avir dominating the skies. Following international protests the IDF withdrew to the Egyptian-Israeli frontier, and blockaded the Egyptian occupied Gaza strip. On 7 January 1949 a ceasefire came into effect, followed by the signing of an armistice on 24 February 1949. Similar agreements were reached with the other neighbouring countries.
1948: The War of Independence
The Sherut Avir (Air Service) was organized under the aegis of the Haganah two weeks before the U.N. vote for partition in November 1947. Starting with fewer than a dozen light airplanes, most of them borrowed from “Aviron,” the Jewish airline, Sherut Avir barely made a ripple in the swirling current of events. It did succeed, however, in accomplishing a number of missions: it maintained contact with besieged settlements, accompanied convoys and occasionally helped to beat back attacks. More importantly, it laid the foundation on which a real force could be built.
As independence — and the Arab invasion — drew near, an effort was made to acquire “real” aircraft and find the men to fly them. Dummy companies were set up on several continents to buy a wide variety of planes through incredible means. At the same time, a call went out which attracted a most unusual cadre of seasoned World War II pilots: Jews and Gentiles, idealists and adventurers, volunteers and mercenaries. Together, they created an Air Force with a unique flavor.
On May 14, 1948, Israel became a reality. The next day, Arab forces invaded by land and bombed Israeli cities by air at will. Against this desperate backdrop, the First Fighter Squadron was formed. On its two initial missions, it stopped an Egyptian advance and put an end to the bombing of Tel Aviv. Additional aircraft soon began to arrive. Spitfires and Mustangs provided real muscle. Harvards dive-bombed. A few B-17's arrived via Czechoslovakia, bombing Egypt on their way to Israel. The IAF then brought the war to Arab cities. Gaza, El-Arish, Cairo, Amman and Damascus were now within reach.
When the southern settlements of the Negev were cut off, a makeshift airstrip was readied near Kibbutz Dorot, and Operation Avak (Dust) was born. The IAF helped regain control of the Negev in Operation Yoav. During Operation Horev, IAF pilots shot down five RAF planes in two dogfights on January 7, 1949. In all, 15 Egyptian and two Syrian planes were downed during the War of Independence. Yet the glory of aerial combat did not come cheaply: 31 fliers gave their lives during the war.* Most fell from ground-fire, some to the dangers of flying machines of questionable airworthiness. Yet the bottom line was that Israel's skies were now secure ... and would remain so.
The First IAF Fighter Mission:
Stopping and Egyptian Column Near Ashdod (May 29, 1948)
With little to defend itself in May '48, Israel hurriedly purchased a number of second rate Czech-made Messerschmitts. The planes were taken apart, transported to Israel at night, and secretly reassembled at Ekron (later to become Tel Nof Air Force Base). The first pilots hoped to employ this force against the main Egyptian air threat based at El Arish.
Yet fate had other plans for them. An Egyptian column of some 500 vehicles was making its way up the Coastal Road towards Tel Aviv. The column halted briefly at a bombed-out bridge near Ashdod. Barely 20 miles separated the enemy from its objective. With no alternative, the first four fully assembled planes were pressed into action. Lou Lenart, an experienced American volunteer, was selected to lead the historic mission. He was joined by Moddy Alon, Ezer Weizman and Eddie Cohen.
Each plane swooped down on the enemy with two 70-kg bombs. They continued to strafe the column despite heavy ground fire. Unfortunately, the Messerschmitts' untested 20 mm cannons and machine guns jammed quickly and the few rounds that they fired didn't inflict much damage. But the psychological effect was enormous. The surprised Egyptians scattered for cover in the face of a bona fide aerial attack. By the time they regrouped, they had lost the offensive.
Israel's outnumbered Givati forces seized the opportunity to launch a counterattack and stopped the advance in its tracks. The bombed-out bridge later became known as Gesher Ad Halom (Until Here). The price of success was high: Eddie Cohen, a South African-born pilot, was killed when his Messerschmitt crashed and burned. As a result, the First Fighter Squadron lost one-fourth of its aircraft and one-fifth of its pilots on its maiden combat sortie. This was to set the tone for the future: achieving the mission despite personal sacrifice.
The First Aerial Victory (June 3, 1948)
The significance of the IAF's first successful engagement went far beyond the glory of shooting down an enemy plane. In the first days of Israel's independence, it was the Arabs who enjoyed complete freedom in Israeli skies. Egyptian Dakota transports were used as bombers and attacked Tel Aviv with impunity. Moddy Alon, commander of the First Fighter Squadron, decided to put an end to this intolerable situation.
As the air raid sirens went off, Tel Aviv residents were surprised to see a small, dark spot rapidly approaching the heavy bombers. Moddy fired his Messerschmitt's guns at the first Dakota above the main streets of the city. The enemy plane lost altitude and crashed in the dunes south of the modern suburb of Bat Yam. Moddy then pursued and caught the second Dakota. After taking a few well-aimed rounds, the second aircraft was seen diving down towards the coast west of Rehovot, a large black cloud signaling its crash. In Tel Aviv there was dancing in the streets. Grateful residents filled Moddy's hotel room with flowers, champagne and chocolates: gifts to the pilot who saved the city.
*Eddy Kaplansky, an IAF pilot during the war notes that there were two additional IAF casualties. Glenn King and Bill Gerson were killed on April 21, 1948 when their heavily overloaded C-46 crashed on take-off at Mexico City airport while bound for Israel with a military cargo. Kaplansky says these two Americans were actually the IAF's first casualties
Flying an Avia S-199 (Czech-built version of the Me-109) for the Israeli's 101st Fighter Squadron, American Volunteer Rudy Augarten was patrolling between Majdal (Near Gaza) and Beersheba on 16 October 1948. As he cruised just below 10,000 feet, he spotted a pair of Egyptian Spitfires a few thousand feet below, heading in the opposite direction. A quick wingover and shallow dive put him behind the unsuspecting pilot of the rearmost Spitfire. Closing in, he fired short burst, scoring hits on the Egyptian fighter, Pouring smoke, the Spitfire went down to crash near a coastal sand dune.
Rudy Augarten went on to score three more victories in the Arab-Israeli War. Adding the two Me-109s he shot down while flying P-47s with the 976 fighter Group in World War II. He became one of the six Americans to achieve ace.
Israeli Air Force (IAF), making up nearly a quarter of its personnel, to the point that English overtook Hebrew as the most common operational IAF service language.
A few hours before the final cease-fire on 7 January 1949, a flight of four British RAF Spitfires bypassed the southern Israeli border on a reconnaissance flight. They were attacked by a pair of Israeli Air Force Spitfires, resulting in three of the British planes shot down. The Israeli Spitfires were flown by Mahal volunteers "Slick" Goodlin (USA) and John McElroy (Canada). Both were former US Army Air Forces and Royal Canadian Air Force pilots, veterans of World War II.
Covert and overt cargo flights flown by Mahal air crews transported weapons and supplies to Palestine from Europe, and thousands of Jewish refugees from Arab countries. During the Egyptian Army siege on the Negev region in 1948, Machal pilots airlifted thousands of tons of supplies to communities behind enemy lines, usually by night landings of large cargo planes and converted airliners on makeshift, unpaved sand runways, hand lit by oil lamps. The national Israeli airline El Al was partially founded by Machal veterans.
industrial action" by its Machal personnel over pay conditions. The division was re-established with Israeli personnel.