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.
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.