Among Israel’s many achievements that we can celebrate on our 64th birthday, we can take pride in our internationally recognized, unique radar equipment, and on Independence Day, it is fascinating to look back on its humble beginnings.
Today we have highly advanced systems that detect and track ballistic missiles and rockets in real time as well as space-borne radar systems. Our systems employ complex algorithms to analyze signals and data in real time and cutting edge technologies like synthetic apertures to achieve exceptionally fine spatial resolution.
But in 1948 there were no local personnel at all with radar experience as the British had barred Palestinian Jews from working on this equipment, which was then highly classified. Consequently Machal volunteers from abroad with radar experience were especially valued.
The first radar unit, named 505 squadron, was established under the aegis of the nascent Israel Air force by a few early Machal volunteers with WW2 radar experience. They came from South Africa,USA,Canada and Britain and the unit was commanded by American radar expert, Moshe Ettenburg (Eitan). His second in command was Charles Braudo, originally from South Africa.
The first crude radar station constructed by the Machal volunteers was installed at kibbutz Glil Yam which was rural in those days. Today Glil Yam is almost in the centre of Herzliya. Canadian Morry Smith was in charge of the station.
Smith used to exaggerate by saying the equipment was so primitive that at times one operator would stand outside watching the skyline so that she could tell the operator who was watching the screen, where to turn the antenna if she spotted an Egyptian plane approaching.
Aaron Bukspan, a radar technician on the primitive Barak station, tells of an amusing incident. A technician crossed the wires connecting the rotating antenna with the result that the operators were puzzled by echoes of ships in the Judean Hills.
Meanwhile another small team of 505 Machalniks were given the use of a laboratory at the Weizmann Institute where they constructed a second radar from bits and pieces of equipment recovered from RAF airborne junk. As the mechanical workshop was not available in daytime, the radar men worked 12 to 14 hours daily in two consecutive shifts, by day in the electronic workshop and after a brief break for a meal, at night in the mechanical workshop where they constructed a large antenna array.
The “Heath-Robinson” equipment was transported to Haifa and installed adjacent to the French Convent. For lack of a suitable electric motor, a contraption comprising bicycle pedals, sprockets and a chain, was created by Eli Isserow, enabling the antenna to be rotated by hand.
Meanwhile a training school for operators was established in Haifa by Jack Segal and the first radar technician-training course was conducted at Sarona (now the Kirya) by Reuben Joffe.
By the time the Haifa station was successfully installed,Israelhad gained control of the former British army base at Sarafand (now Tsrifim) and 505 squadron was allocated premises there. The next project was to construct a mobile radar station using a converted microwave radar of the type used on small US boats, which had been acquired on the open market in the USA as obsolete war stores disposal junk and less than ideal for ground based operation.
The radar was installed in an ex-British army trailer and the power supply was an ingeniously adapted lawn mower motor. The station, code named “Gefen”, was completed and put into operation within a matter of weeks
The makeshift hastily constructed equipment adapted from scrapped components, none of it originally designed for ground controlled aircraft interception, worked surprisingly well. Two international incidents are worthy of mention. During October-early November 1948 an intruding reconnaissance aircraft repeatedly flew very high over Israel (taking photo, as we later learned) but our fighter planes could not reach above14,000 feet. On November 2, the intruder was detected by our radar at 13:20h as recorded in the log book. It was shot down by an American non-Jewish Machal pilot, Wayne Peake, burst into flames and fell into the sea. Ezer Weizman (later to become President of Israel) jumped into an Auster, flew out to the coast to locate the pilot if he had survived, but could spot only one piece of wreckage. Identification was impossible.
The identity of the plane became known nine weeks later when Winston Churchill demanded to know from PM Clement Attlee why he had kept the British public ignorant of the downing of a RAF Mosquito aircraft in November.
The second international incident occurred on January 7, 1949 whenIsrael’s makeshift radar detected intruders, resulting in the shooting down of five planes that were later identified as British Royal Air Force aircraft. The London Observer attributed the disaster to the “pathological anti-Israel obsession” of Ernest Bevin,Britain’s Foreign Minister, which “makes him persist in his blundering errors…”
Although we have come a long way since 1948, little has changed in misinformation about Israel. Reflecting current misreporting about our little country, Yoav Gelber in his book “Palestine 1948” wrote that British animosity towards Israel reached new heights and British journalist spread the word that the RAF had shot down three Israeli Spitfires flown by Russian pilots.
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Editor’s note: This article was adapted from a more detailed story published on the Machal web site.