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 Paratroopers 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.
Sources: Israel Defense Forces