1956: The Sinai Campaign
Increasing Arab militance provided the background for
the 1956 Sinai Campaign.
A massive arms deal with Czechoslovakia threatened to flood Egypt with
new Soviet equipment. Fedayeen
(terrorists) struck Israeli civilian targets. Egypt escalated the tension
by preventing Israeli shipping from using the Red Sea port of Eilat.
Israel was allied with France and England, which had decided
to take action after Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal. French
Mystere fighter squadrons were deployed at both Ramat David and
Lod air force bases. A French F-84 squadron was ordered to
neutralize Egypt's long-range threat by destroying the IL-28
bombers based at Luxor. Shortly before the war, Israel had
strengthened itself by purchasing Ouragan and Mystere fighters.
The war plan called for Israel to race across the Sinai while the
British and French forces took control of the Canal.
Propeller-driven Mustangs opened the campaign by cutting
Egyptian telephone wires, which hampered Egypt's communications
in the Sinai. Soon afterwards, a formation of 16 Dakotas dropped
paratroopers to secure the Mitla Pass, preventing the flow of
reinforcements to the front. The IAF struck Egyptian convoys and
took part in the land battles by giving close support along the
front. Modern fighters and ancient war horses, such as the B-17
and Harvard, took part in the bombing. IAF fighters also
acquitted themselves well in dogfights, downing seven enemy
planes with no losses.
Of special interest were the achievements of light planes.
Piper pilots played an active role in communications relay,
rescue and observation missions. In one incident, 2 Migs attacked
a defenseless Piper. The pilot, Captain Binyamin Kahana, led them
on a chase which distracted them from a nearby Israeli ground
force. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Valor. Several
other Piper pilots were decorated for acts of bravery. The Air
Force also distinguished itself by helping to capture an Egyptian
destroyer which had been shelling Haifa. In all, the IAF lost 15
planes during the conflict. However, it emerged from the war as a
central pillar of Israel's military strength.
Operation Steamroller: Dropping
Near the Mitla Pass (October 29, 1956)
Two daring missions opened the 1956 Sinai Campaign. In the
first, four World War II vintage Mustangs disrupted Egyptian
communications in the Sinai by severing telephone wires with
specially mounted cutting cables. After the cables broke off, the
pilots continued to cut the wires with their wings and
propellers! The mission created confusion and helped mask an even
riskier operation: dropping a full battalion of paratroopers into
the heart of Sinai. The objective was to block the eastern
entrance to the Mitla Pass. This would cut off the major route of
possible Egyptian reinforcement in central Sinai.
At 1500 hours, sixteen Dakotas rumbled off the runway at Tel
Nof. On board were 495 paratroopers from the 890th Battalion
commanded by Major Rafael Eitan (destined to become the IDF
Chief-of- Staff). The formation maintained radio silence and
varied its altitude down to 100 feet in order to avoid detection.
The slow moving transports would have made easy targets for
Egyptian Mig-15s, based only a few minutes away from the
drop-zone. Critical escort duty was shared by several IAF
squadrons flying Meteors and Ouragans. They patrolled alongside
the Dakotas. Mysteres prevented enemy fighters from taking off
from the nearby Sinai airfield. As added insurance, two Meteors
flew a decoy route far away.
Major Ya'acov Aviyashar commanded the armada from the lead
Dakota. His motto was: reach the jump-point at all
costs. Yet such a sacrifice was not required. The navigator
hit the green light at 16:57, just before dark, and
within two minutes the troops were all airborne. They reached
their objective near the entrance to the Mitla Pass after a
two-hour march and immediately prepared an emergency landing
strip and a drop-zone. During the night, additional forces with
artillery, jeeps and supplies were dropped by a Dakota and 4
Nords. Despite its success, this operation marked the last time
an IDF paratroop battalion actually jumped in combat.
The Attack on the Ibrahim Al
Awal (October 10, 1956)
Very early on the third morning of the Sinai Campaign, the
Egyptian destroyer Ibrahim al Awal sailed into Haifa Bay from
Port Said. The warship's four-inch guns shattered the pre-dawn
silence, firing 220 rounds at the port and the nearby oil
refinery. The shelling began at 3:30 a.m. but lasted only a few
minutes. A French warship anchored in the harbor quickly returned
fire, but the Ibrahim at Awal was able to slip away under the
cover of darkness. She sailed northwest towards a group of
neutral American ships. At 3:56, two Israeli naval ships, the
Eilat and Yafo, began searching for the Egyptian intruder, which
was well hidden among the American ships.
At 5:00 a.m. a Dakota pinpointed the enemy ship and the sea
battle began in earnest. After taking a few hits, the Ibrahim al
Awal began running towards Beirut. At 6:38 the IAF entered the
fight. Two Ouragans, flown by Captain Yaakov Agassi and Lt. David
Kishon, rocketed and strafed the ship. They knocked out her
electrical system, disabled her steering capability and put the
munitions elevators out of operation. The warship had no fight
left in her. At 7:10, Israeli sailors boarded the destroyer. The
Ibrahim al Awal was towed back to Haifa, where it was repaired,
and later entered the Israel Navy as the I.N.S. Haifa.
Source: Israel Defense Forces.