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The debut of the Israeli Air Force

May 29, 1948

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The Israel Air Force (IAF) has a glorious history, including the lightning strike that opened the Six Day War, the destruction of the Iraqi nuclear reactor, and numerous air battles. The beginnings of this force were quite modest and very hasty. Until the British concluded the Palestine mandate and left on May 15, 1948, of course it was impossible to import any arms that could not be hidden. However, the Haganah had acquired a number of civilian aircraft such as piper cubs and Austers that were ostensibly for agricultural use or for training civilian pilots, but could be used for reconnaissance, dropping supplies and primitive "bombing."

When the British left Palestine, a new phase opened in the Israel War of Independence. It was now possible to bring in arms, despite an international arms boycott of the countries involved in the fighting. It was more than possible. It was desperately necessary to import arms. The Egyptians, Syrians, Jordanians, Iraqis and Lebanese had invaded Israel. The Syrians and Egyptians had air forces. The Egyptians used their air force to bomb Tel Aviv, as well as to back up attacks on settlements such as Nirim and Yad Mordechai. Israel had no way to counter these attacks or to prevent Egyptian reconnaissance. 

The only country that would openly supply arms to Israel was Czechoslovakia. From an improvised air base in Zatec, C-46 transport planes airlifted arms to Israel. The first airplanes sent were Czech (AVIA S199) versions of the German Messerschmitt Bf 109G14 fighter. Avia had started producing Messerschmitt Bf 109Gs right after the war, calling them Avia S-99. But the Daimler-Benz DB 605 engines to be used in the aircraft were destroyed during a warehouse fire. The S-199 continued to use the Bf 109G airframe, but an alternative engine was used: the Junkers Jumo 211 and the  outsize propeller that had been used in the Heinkel He 111 bomber.

This resulted in a very poor aircraft.  The Jumo-211 engine was heavy and sluggish compared to the DB 605. The propeller was made for a larger and heavier aircraft, and created too much torque. Landings and take-offs were extremely hazardous. Czech pilots nicknamed this aircraft "the mule."

As if that was not enough, the gunnery synchronization gear did not always synchronize. A propeller driven aircraft machine gun was supposed to shoot through the propeller blades using an ingenious synchronization mechanism. The Avia S199 machine guns occasionally shot at the propeller blades, so that a few Israeli pilots found they had shot off their own propellers. Below are two views of the Avia S199.

IAF AVIA S199 IAF AVIA S199

About 23 of these death traps were sold to Israel. Initially, Israel was quite desperate for arms, and not very particular about what it could get. One pilot is said to have remarked, "she tried to kill us on every take off and landing." Nonetheless, Israeli pilots scored numerous kills of other aircraft with these "mules," including the superior Spitfires of the enemy. By the end of the war of Independence however, most of these aircraft were not in service, and the Czechs had agreed to supply Spitfires instead.

Czechoslovakia is landlocked, and could not trans-ship the planes through other countries that respected the arms embargo. To transport them to Israel, they were disassembled and stuffed into C-46 transport aircraft in several installments, to be reassembled in Israel. The first ones arrived on May 20, five days after the declaration of the state.

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IAF 101
Squadron logo

IAF pilots included some Israeli veterans of World War II like Ezer Weizmann and many volunteer pilots, Jewish and non-Jewish, from the United States, Canada, the UK and South Africa. Israel's first air squadron was hastily formed from these volunteer  MACHAL  pilots, and optimistically named the 101 air squadron.

By May 29,1948  the Egyptian army had taken Kibbutz Yad Mordechai after desperate fighting and was advancing toward Yavneh on the road to Tel Aviv. Four hastily assembled AVIA S199 were sent to bomb and strafe the advancing Egyptian armor. The fact of the attack itself, the fact that Israel had any aircraft at all, was sufficiently impressive to cause the Egyptians to halt and decide to change their strategy. The bridge at which they were stopped is called "Gesher Ad Halom" - "until here bridge." However, objectively, the attack was not a great success. The Egyptians had anti-aircraft guns and used them. They didn't inflict much much, but neither did the Israelis. Two of the aircraft - half of Israel's "air force" were hit and crashed, and one of the pilots was killed. Here is an account of the attack, and of the first pilot to die in the war, from the book, South Africa's 800, Ra'anana. South African Zionist Federation, 2003: 

Eddie Cohen died in the historic engagement of May 29, fourteen days after the invasion, when an Egyptian column of 500 vehicles and the full establishment of an entire brigade reached Isdud (Ashdod), some 30 kilometers south of Tel Aviv. The morale of the Egyptians was high and the Egyptian press and people were celebrating: first Gaza, then Majdal (Ashkelon), then Beersheba and now onward and inward. By Egyptian calculations, Israel's ill-equipped armies and settlements would fall swiftly. The major obstacle to the advance on Tel Aviv, kibbutz Yad Mordechai, had been removed and the Egyptians were now in a position to link up with forces landed from ships at Majdal.

The original plan with four just-arrived and re-assembled Messerschmitts had been to strike at El Arish in order to destroy Egyptian planes on the ground, but the importunities of Shimon Avidan, commander of Israel's Givati Brigade responsible for the southern front, prevailed. The plan was changed to that of strafing the Egyptian column at Isdud. The nightmare that haunted the Israelis was the possible breakthrough of the Egyptians into the Ramle area to link up with the Arab Legion's forces at Latrun. This would have cut the Jewish forces into two.

The pilots chosen for the Messerschmitts' attack were Eddie Cohen, Modi Alon, Ezer Weizman and Lou Lenart, an American. Over the target at seven p.m., they strafed both the Egyptian column and vehicles with machine gun fire and 20 mm guns. The Egyptians, though surprised, replied with accurate anti-aircraft fire.

Eddie Cohen was flying wing to Ezer Weizman who, in the heat of the battle, had a fleeting glimpse of Cohen's Messerschmitt losing height and going down.

The rest is wrapped in mystery. Cohen's plane was found by Boris Senior near Kastina months later. After hostilities, the then Chief Army chaplain, Rabbi Shlomo Goren, in exchanges with the Egyptians of the remains of fallen men, was able to identify those of Eddie Cohen. His mother flew from Johannesburg for his re-interment on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem.

In the battle in which he fell, the Messerschmitt of the American, Lenart, was also hit but Lenart managed to make an emergency landing at Ekron, coming through safely but with his plane badly damaged. As Lorch said, "a heavy price was paid for the maiden operation of Israel's fighter squadron."

The sortie in which Eddie Cohen died, finds its place in every book written on the War of Liberation. The attack came as a shock to the Egyptian commanders who had believed Israel was without air defences. Combined with the blasting of the Isdud bridge by Israeli sappers, Israeli artillery attacks and relentless harassment by mobile units of the Givati Brigade, the air attack halted the advance. The Egyptians were not to be in Tel Aviv in forty eight hours as their Press had boasted. They fell on the defensive and Tel Aviv receded from their grasp. Months later they pulled out. Eddie Cohen who had exchanged his comfortable life in Johannesburg for a hut at kibbutz Ma'ayan Baruch, has his niche in the annals of the war.

The memorial literature on him presents a young man in search of himself and his identity. Close to him was Colin Hack who wrote:

From the day Eddie Cohen joined us at Ma'ayan Baruch, he was obviously troubled, restless and uncertain as to his purpose, though too proud to reveal the fact. He was soft-spoken, patrician, well-mannered, though easily aroused to express himself contemptuously of people or things he despised. He had great difficulty in adapting himself to the kibbutz. "Experts" he would say, "everybody is an expert". But his conflict was really not so much with the kibbutz as with life itself. He had been used to wealth and had received everything he wanted. He had difficulty in coming down to earth and in adjusting himself to productive living.

He suffered from insomnia. We shared a room and he often told me that after I had fallen asleep he had gone on smoking and thinking. In those first months at the kibbutz, there were no openings for skilled work and Eddie found the hard, unskilled work almost unbearable. He complained of an obscure back complaint which the doctors had been unable to diagnose.  Later, when he became a devoted worker in the vegetable garden, he found to his delight and surprise that his back no longer troubled him.

He told me how he had lived in Johannesburg: parties, meetings of political eccentrics, the boredom of his office job in his father's business. His parents were very assimilated, Eddie even more so. His friends thought him crazy when he gave up everything to come to Aretz (the Land). But he had become disgusted with the emptiness, the meaninglessness and the unproductiveness of his life.

All these conflicts became sharper in the kibbutz because here he was deprived of the consolation he had found in good food, smart clothes, good cigarettes and music. He waited longingly for his large, electric gramophone to arrive from South Africa. He described it to me lovingly and often spoke about his records: We did not have a radio in our room but next door someone had and often, lying in bed, we would hear this chaver turning from station to station and Eddie would protest whenever he interrupted a broadcast of classical music. "Some guys don't deserve radios", he would say.

He started reading philosophy and confessed that if he could believe in God, he would find life easier, but philosophy merely deepened the confusion in him.

And then one day he came back from Tel Aviv with about a dozen books on archeology and the history of Palestine and, as he showed me these books, he was like a prospector who had struck oil after years of failure. His eyes glowed, his outlook brightened. Palestine became for him the geographic and cultural center of the world. The landscapes around the kibbutz took on a new significance for him, as did the kibbutz itself, the chaverim and the work. He would imagine how the Hula Valley must have looked 2,000 years ago with the villages of the time and the wars of the Jews. He wanted to go exploring around and up the ruins across the Syrian border. From then on he was alert in the fields for pre-historic stone tools, a few of which we had already found. The past, the present, the future of Palestine became the religion he had been seeking. It seemed he had found his place in the kibbutz at last... he worked well and conscientiously. Everyone remarked on the change in him. He even progressed in Hebrew. He took a critical interest in the weekly meetings.

 When the fighting broke out, Eddie was one of the first to be mobilized. On the few occasions he came back on leave, he did not talk much about his job. He was critical, though of the way things were being organized. The last time he came home on leave I asked him what he was going to do after the war. He doubted whether he would stay at the kibbutz. He gave me the impression he was finding his job as a pilot sufficiently interesting to make him want to stay on as a civilian pilot. He felt the importance of his work in the war and realized the importance it would have after the war. In that dark period when the future of the country was so uncertain and most people had stopped thinking about private plans for the future, Eddie was already thinking of being a pilot in the service of the State, an implicit confession of faith in a Jewish victory.

He was not a heroic type; he did not fight with enthusiasm. I imagine him a reliable pilot - not a fighter pilot... I can't remember him saying anything in praise of our Army or in deprecation of the Arabs. He was quite unsuited to his role as a soldier of the air. He was contemplative, calm, scholarly, never daring, never reckless or adventurous.

Eddie was liked and widely respected. He had depths full of light and shade, not easily probed, and though not many people understood these depths, I think most people felt that Eddie, perhaps because of his problems, perhaps despite them, stood out from the crowd and in some way was exceptional.

This, then, was the man who was to be the first casualty of the first fighter squadron of the reborn Jewish State - an alienated young Jew from South Africa at last finding himself.
 

 


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