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Israel Air Force: Overseas Volunteers in the War of Independence

by Eddy Kaplansky

The fledgling Israel Air Force (IAF) of 1948 was unique in the annals of modern history in that it was born in battle, and that most of its aircrew and technical personnel were overseas volunteers -- Machal -- rather than Israeli. The reason for this unprecedented anomaly, the Israelis a minority in their own Air Force, was that Britain, ruler of Palestine prior to May 15, 1948, did not accept Palestinian Jews for RAF aircrew training until 1943 - almost four years into World War II, and then only grudgingly. As a result, fewer than 25 had qualified as RAF pilots by the time the war ended, and only a few had acquired other aircrew trades.

There were overseas volunteers involved, albeit not many, as early as November 1947, when the Haganah set up its Sherut Avir (Air Service). Their numbers had increased considerably by May 15, 1948, when the State of Israel was proclaimed and Sherut Avir became the IAF.

Most of the IAF's fliers over the entire War of Independence period, some 70 percent, were overseas volunteers from 15 different countries. They served with distinction as pilots, navigators, radio operators, bombardiers, air gunners, aerial photographers, and bomb-chuckers, without rank or uniform. Of the 205 WW2 pilots in the IAF over the same period, 181 were Machal.

An early volunteer was Harry "Freddy" Fredkens, an ex-RAF WWII pilot from Britain, who was sent to England on Ben-Gurion's instructions to acquire aircrafts. He soon managed to purchase a number of training airplanes, and by the end of 1947 was planning how to get them out of England without revealing their true destination. Fredken's accomplishments in the months that followed included the purchase of the Norseman light transport planes, which from August to December 1948 provided a vital air link between isolated Sdom and the rest of Israel.

Another was Jack Freedman from Britain, who covertly provided important assistance to the Hagana's Air Service while a member of the Royal Air Force (RAF) stationed in Palestine. On February 20,1948, he deserted from the RAF, and formally joined Sherut Avir as Yakov "Freddy" Ish-Shalom. Having served in the RAF since 1937, he brought with him a wealth of experience in all aspects of airplane mechanics and flight-engineering. His expertise was soon put to use in making flyable most of the 20 ex-RAF Auster light observation airplanes that were acquired in scrap condition. He went on to create and supervise the team that built the IAF's first Spitfire from scrapped ones abandoned when the RAF fighter squadrons withdrew from Palestine. Perhaps his most lasting contribution to the Israel Air Force was the knowledge he passed on to the young Israeli mechanics under his wing, many of whom went on to assume key positions of command.

There was also Boris Senior, an ex-South African Air Force WWII pilot, who came to Palestine in December 1947 to offer his services. He was soon sent to South Africa with a mandate to recruit air and ground personnel, and to acquire airplanes for the budding IAF. Senior's numerous achievements included the purchase of DC-3 medium transports and other airplanes, and setting up a "dummy" airline to facilitate the ferrying of those airplanes to Israel; a "dummy" which soon went on to become the official mail carrier between Tel Aviv and Johannesburg. After ferrying to Israel one of the airplanes he bought, it was he who test flew the IAF's first Spitfire, the one that Ish-Shalom built. During the War of Independence, Senior served for a time as a fighter pilot with 101 Squadron, and at various times held key command positions at IAF Headquarters in the Operations Wing and in Training Command.

In faraway USA, aeronautical engineer and licensed pilot Al Schwimmer left his job as a TWA flight-engineer in November 1947 to assume responsibility for buying airplanes and recruiting airmen in the USA. With the support of Hagana agent Yehuda Arazi, he acquired a number of C-46s and other heavy transport planes, which were then covertly ferried to an IAF base in Czechoslovakia via very unconventional routes. He then played a key role in organizing the IAF's Air Transport Command (ATC), and its critically-important air bridge from Czechoslovakia to Israel. For a time he was O/C of the IAF's Engineering and Maintenance Wing. After the War he founded Bedek, the forerunner of Israel Aviation Industries, where he was managing director for many years.

The air bridge from Czechoslovakia, known as Operation Balak, was one of the IAF's most important achievements in the War of Independence. It brought the first fighter airplanes and other sorely-needed equipment to the beleaguered Jewish State. ATC's air and ground personnel were almost exclusively Machal with considerable WWII experience. It was thanks both to the Czech-built fighter airplanes which ATC brought to Israel, and to the skills of the Israeli and Machal pilots who flew them, that on May 29, 1948, the IAF was able to stop the Egyptain army in its advance to Tel Aviv.

Throughout the War the commanding officers of 69, 103 and 106 Squadrons, as well as 35 Flight, were Machal. So was the CO of 101 Squadron for most of the War. At the headquarters level, many leading figures in Operations, training Command, Maintenance and Engineering, and Photo Intelligence were Machal. So were the Radar specialists of 505 Squadron, and most of the technical personnel in the Air Force. Not surprisingly, the working language of the IAF at the operational level was then English.

The training of Israeli pilots in Israel and abroad, both during the war and immediately after, saw the almost exclusive involvement of Machal as instructors and commanders. A special flying course for Israelis studying at the time in the USA was set up in the Spring of 1948 at Bakersfield,California, by a dedicated "offshore" volunteer named Elynor Rudnick. At the course in Urbe, Italy, the chief flying instructor was a South African and all other instructors were from the USA. Two Machal pilots from the USA,were sent from Israel to Czechoslovakia to supervise the advanced flying courses given by the Czech Air Force in 1948 for Israeli pilots. An American, Harold "Pappy" Greene, headed the pilot-training program in Israel during most of the War. All his flying instructors were Machal -- from the USA, South Africa and France. The special course that converted graduate Israeli pilots to Spitfire-qualified fighter pilots was headed by American fighter pilot Rudy Augarten, who had earlier been with the IAF's 101 Squadron.

Of the 33 IAF fliers killed or missing during the War of Independence, 19 were Machal. Eight were from the USA, six from Canada, three from Britain and two from South Africa. Among them were the first two fatalities of the Israel Air Force, pilot William Gerson and flight-engineer Glenn King, both from the USA, who were killed on April 21,1948, when their overloaded Israel-bound C-46 crashed on take-off at Mexico City airport. Six of the seven IAF fliers who had the misfortune of becoming prisoners of war in Egypt, were Machal. Three were from the USA, and one each was from Britain, Holland and South Africa. It is generally accepted that without Machal the nascent IAF would not have been able to fly its heavy bombers and transport planes, nor could it have wrested control of the skies from the enemy air forces. It may well be, therefore, that the participation of Machal in the IAF is what tipped the scales in Israel's favor in the War of Independence, whose outcome often hung precariously in the balance. In the words of Major General Herzle Bodinger, commander of the IAF from1992 to 1996, The non-Israeli aircrews played a decisive role, both in achieving Air Force objectives and in laying its organizational foundation. The legacy of their special contribution accompanies us to this day.

Source: Aliyah Bet and Machal Virtual Museum