The number of unusual – many would argue miraculous – incidents associated with Israel’s founding is remarkable. Among the most incredible of these is the story of Israel’s air force. Israel essentially had no air force on May 14, 1948 – the day it formally came into being – but a mere two weeks later, a handful of planes built at a former Nazi air base in Czechoslovakia halted two separate Arab invasions of the fledgling Jewish state.
This fascinating history is outlined in the new book Angels in the Sky: How a Band of Volunteer Airmen Saved the New State of Israel (W.W. Norton & Company) by Robert Gandt. An award-winning author of more than a dozen books, Gandt is a former Navy pilot and the leader of the Mavericks Aerobatic Formation Team.
The Jewish Press: Your book is titled “Angels in the Sky.” Who were these angels?
Gandt: These were men, almost all of them World War II veterans, who went to Israel in 1948 when the newly founded country was overrun by invading Arab armies. They weren’t all Jewish. About a third of them were not. But together, these men – fighter pilots, bomber pilots, transport pilots, radio men, bombardiers, navigators – formed the nucleus of a tiny little air force that ultimately saved Israel.
Where did these men come from?
The greatest number came from the United States. A significant number came from Canada. Per capita, the largest contingent was from South Africa. And then there were some from France, several from Britain, and a scattering from half-a-dozen other countries, including Russia, Poland, and India.
You write that the number of local Israeli pilots was so small that the language of Israel’s air force was originally English, not Hebrew.
That’s correct. Of the fighter and bomber pilots, I think there were only two Israelis – Ezer Weizman, who later became the president of Israel, and a hero named Modi Alon, who was the first commander of the elite fighter squadron.
It’s interesting that even the “angel of death” logo of Israel’s first fighter squadron was conceived by foreign volunteers – two Californian Jews.
Yes, that emblem was designed by Bob Vickman and Stan Andrews, both of whom dropped out of art school in California to go to Israel. They were later killed in the war. That emblem is still on the nose of every plane in Israel’s 101st squadron today.
What motivated all these foreign pilots and airmen to fight for Israel?
A great number of them had family members who had been lost in the Holocaust, so they saw this as a holy cause – preventing a second Holocaust. Others were zealous Zionists. And some of them just missed the adrenaline rush of combat. You have to remember: These were all young men in their 20s, most of them were single, and almost all of them were World War II veterans. For a number of them, World War II had been the peak experience of their life. And here suddenly was a new and worthy adventure they could risk their lives for.
All these men come to Israel and the first planes they fly are Czech versions of Nazi fighter planes – which is more than a tad ironic considering that the Nazis had just finished murdering six million Jews three years earlier.
David Ben-Gurion searched far and wide for appropriate fighter aircraft but was unable to get them from the United States, Britain, or South Africa [because of an arms embargo imposed by these countries]. The only place he could find them was in Czechoslovakia.
Czechoslovakia had built Messerschmitt fighters for the Nazis during World War II, and they were still producing versions of this Messerschmitt which they were willing to sell to Israel. They were inferior planes, but that was all that was available, so Israel bought them. The field in Czechoslovakia where [Israel’s] pilots trained was a former Luftwaffe fighter base, so all the equipment they used was left over from World War II: Nazi flight suits, goggles, parachutes, etc.
What made these planes inferior?
They were very difficult to land and take off. Israel lost far more airplanes in accidents than they did in combat. The pilots hated them. They lost at least two airplanes because they shot off their own propellers with machine guns that were supposed to fire between the propeller blades but weren’t properly synchronized.
Despite all the plane’s deficiencies, you write that it single-handedly stopped Egypt from conquering Tel Aviv two weeks after Israel’s founding. That’s quite an achievement.
By May 29, 1948, two Egyptian armored columns were within 20 miles of Tel Aviv, and word came to the fighter pilots: “Either strike immediately or the Arabs will be in Tel Aviv the next day, and the war will be over.” This wasn’t supposed to be their first strike, but off they went – four Messerschmitts is all they could get in the air – and they attacked this Arab column of about 10,000 troops.
Their machine guns jammed and they only dropped a few measly bombs, but they completely terrified the Egyptian army. The Egyptians had no idea Israel had an air force, and they went into a panic and hunkered down. Those four little ineffective fighters literally saved the country that evening.
And the next day these planes stopped another invasion from the east.
Yes, a Transjordanian-Iraqi force was marching westward across the northern part of Israel, and nobody could stop them. Of the four Messerschmitt planes, one had been destroyed and another had been badly damaged, so Israel only had two left. They flew these two planes and stopped the Arab advance.
Were two planes able to cause that much damage?
It was a psychological victory more than a material victory. The Arabs at that point had been told the war would be over in two weeks and that the Israelis had nothing to stop them. But all of a sudden they see these modern fighters attacking them, and that completely destroyed their incentive.
Were these Messerschmitt planes the same ones that bombed Amman, the capital of Jordan, a week later?
No, those were light planes – “family planes” – led by a Beechcraft Bonanza, but it was all Israel could put together for a bombing raid at that point. So they loaded up these little airplanes with bombs and dropped them on Amman. These guys basically flew over their target, looked down, and, using their best guess, opened the door and chucked the bombs out. The raid hardly had any physical effect, but it totally terrified the Jordanians.
Chucking bombs out the door of a plane isn’t how a normal air force bombs targets, is it?
No, not since probably World War I was air warfare conducted this way. But the Israelis were geniuses at making the best of what they had.
It’s pretty remarkable that with its measly air force, Israel was able to bomb not just the capital of Jordan but the capital of Egypt too.
That was sort of an afterthought. Israel had just smuggled B-17s out of the United States and needed to fly them into Israel [from the air field it was using in Czechoslovakia]. Somebody pointed out that Cairo wasn’t that far out of the way, so they diverted one of the airplanes and targeted King Farouk’s palace. They missed, but they caused a lot of damage and scared a lot of people in Cairo. It sent a huge seismic shock wave through the enemy.
One of the more interesting stories in your book concerns Israel’s acquisition of four Bristol Beaufighter attack planes in late July 1948. Can you tell it?
An Israeli agent named Emmanuel Zur – who was actually on the wanted list in England – had located Bristol Beaufighters in Great Britain, which, like the United States, had a bunch of war surplus airplanes. But of course there was no way they could fly them out of the country or even buy them because as soon as the British would find out they were headed to Israel, that would be the end of it.
So this guy Zur formed a movie company, had a script written, hired a cast and cameramen, and declared that they were making a movie with these Beaufighters. At a field in southern England they filmed an emotional scene where the pilots kissed their girls goodbye and then took off. They were supposed to circle around and come zooming back across the field, but instead they kept flying south and south until they disappeared. Nobody knew where they went until the next day when it was discovered that they had arrived in Israel.
How many planes did Israel have by the end of the war?
I don’t have a specific number. I know they had only one or two still flyable Messerschmitts by war’s end. They also had more than a dozen Spitfire fighters and two Mustang fighters that had been smuggled in from the United States. And they had three, I think, Boeing Flying Fortress bombers, and then an assortment of fighter bombers, mosquitoes and Beaufighters. Altogether, maybe 30 airplanes.
For comparison’s sake, how many planes in its air force would a country like the United States have had at this time?
There’s no comparison. At that time the United States had thousands and thousands of war planes. What Israel had was also a fraction of what its enemies had. Egypt, for example, had at least four or five times as many war planes as Israel. And beyond that, the British Royal Air Force had a huge complement of airplanes of their own stationed around Israel, which they kept threatening to use against Israel. The Jordanians, Syrians, Iraqis, and Lebanese were all equipped with British war planes. They all had air forces larger than Israel’s.
How then did Israel win the war in the sky?
Because its 150 airmen were seasoned World War II veterans – among them were some of the best pilots in the world – and the Arabs had nothing like that. The Arabs had superior airplanes and more airplanes, but they were outmaneuvered in the sky. Israel’s fighter pilots shot down 24 hostile airplanes in air-to-air combat during the war without losing one.
That says a lot for the skill of the Israeli pilots, but it also says something about the skill of the Arab pilots. None of them were war veterans. Being a pilot in Egypt’s air force meant that you were probably the son of a wealthy family. It had nothing to do with your skill or motivation as a fighter pilot.
Judging from your last name, you’re not Jewish. Most people who write books about Israel are. What inspired you to write about the beginnings of Israel’s air force?
Well, I’m a historian. I’ve written 15 books on military history and military adventure fiction, and I was between projects. I turned down a couple of proposals from publishers because I just didn’t feel passionate about them. And then I was introduced to this movie producer who was developing a movie called “Angels in the Sky,” and I met his father, Mitchell Flynn, who was a leading character in the story. Mitchell Flynn just passed away last month at age 94, but he had flown the Messerschmitt and was a big hero in Israel’s War of Independence. When I heard this story, I knew in an instant that this was the greatest untold war history I’d ever heard and I had to write about it.