Tuvia Book
Author, educator, Tour-Guide, artist

The IAF at 75: Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines

"On a Wing and a Prayer"  One of the early IAF planes.  Photo (c) T. Book, 2023
"On a Wing and a Prayer" One of the early IAF planes. Photo (c) T. Book, 2023

As we celebrate 75 years of the Israeli Air Force (IAF) it is difficult to comprehend how modest were the beginnings of the much vaunted IAF.  Back in1948 almost all of the men in Israel’s nascent Air Force were volunteers who came from abroad and their experiences in Israel were life altering.   It almost beggars belief how under-equipped and isolated the Israelis were, how desperately they needed planes and pilots and how critical the actions of these young volunteer pilots were for the country’s survival.

“On a Wing and a Prayer” One of the early IAF planes, a Spitfire. Photo (c) T. Book, 2023

They were part of a group known by the acronym Machal (volunteers from outside the land). They had expertise gained from combat in WWII that very few in Israel had. Psychologically their presence had a massive positive impact on the native Sabras, who realized that they were not alone. This is in direct contrast to the Shoah, when the Jews of Europe had felt very much isolated. There were 3,500 volunteers in Machal in 1948. 180 served in the air force (pilots and ground crew).

One of the best-known anecdotes from this desperate period deals with the first combat mission of the IAF. It consisted of four Czechoslovakian Messerschmitts that had been hastily reassembled in hangers in Israel and, without even having time to test them properly, flown in a desperate attempt to halt the Egyptian advance. As one of the pilots laconically observed:

Our flight clothing had Luftwaffe wings on which I took off. Jewish boys flying in Nazi planes with Nazi uniforms. The irony of it did not escape any of us…Part of my family, my grandmother and cousins, ended up in Auschwitz. I felt that the remnants had a right to life…

Shimon Avidan the Brigade commander of Givati desperately appealed for air support. He said, “if you don’t stop them (the Egyptians) now, they will be in Tel Aviv in the morning.”

The pilots, an American volunteer, Lou Lenart,  one South African, Eddie Cohen and two Israelis, Moddy Alon and Ezer Weitzman, (who later become the head of the IAF and later still the President of Israel) flew over the massive Egyptian convoy, who were startled at the sight of fighter planes emblazoned with the Star of David. Their intelligence had reported that the Jews didn’t have planes. Yet here were these same non-existent planes strafing and bombing them! The Egyptian convoy halted in panic just outside Ashdod at “Gesher Ad Halom,” barely twenty miles from their objective of Tel Aviv, and never advanced any further. An intercepted Egyptian military cable stated: “We are being heavily attacked by enemy aircraft and are scattering.”

Tragically the plane of Eddie Cohen crashed or was shot down. Even though the IAF lost a quarter of its planes on its maiden combat sortie it was, the single most important battle in the whole IAF. They stopped the Egyptians cold.  This was to set the tone for the future: achieving the mission despite personal sacrifice.

Decades later these magnificent Machal volunteers, now in the twilight of their lives, still recall with deep emotion these momentous events in the history of the Jewish people.  As Lou Lenart recalled:

I was born to be here at that moment of history.  It was the greatest moment in my life. It was beshert…I saw Jewish refugees coming in bending down in order to kiss the ground. I knew then and there that this was the reason I had come.

About the Author
Dr. Tuvia Book was born in London and raised in both the UK and South Africa. After making Aliya at the age of 17 and studying in Yeshiva he volunteered for the IDF, where he served in an elite combat unit. Upon his discharge he completed his BA at Bar-Ilan University, as well as certification in graphic design. He then served as the Information Officer at the Israeli Consulate of Philadelphia, while earning a graduate degree in Jewish Studies. Upon his return to Israel, Dr. Book graduated from a course of study with the Israeli Ministry of Tourism, and is a licensed tour guide. Tuvia has been working in the field of Jewish Education, both formal and informal, for many years. He has guided and taught Jewish students and educators from around the English-speaking world for some of Israel’s premier educational institutions and programs. Tuvia has been guiding groups for Birthright Israel since its inception and, in addition, has lectured throughout North America, Australia, Europe and South Africa. Tuvia served as a Shaliach (emissary) for the Jewish Agency for Israel as the Director of Israel and Zionist Education at the Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York (Jewish Education Project). He was a lecturer/educational guide at the Alexander Muss Institute for Israel Education (AMIIE) in Israel for a decade. Tuvia has lectured at both Bar Ilan University and Hebrew University. He was a Senior Editor and Teaching Fellow at the Tikvah Fund. He is a research associate at the Hudson Institute. Tuvia is the author and illustrator the internationally acclaimed Israel education curriculum; "For the Sake of Zion; A Curriculum of Israel Studies" (Fifth edition, Koren 2017), and "Moral Dilemmas of the Modern Israeli Soldier" (Rama, 2011) and has a doctorate in Israel Education. His latest book, "Jewish Journeys, The Second Temple Period to the Bar Kokhba Revolt – 536 BCE-136 CE," was published by Koren this year. To order:
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